we fuel our lives on the soul of Appalachia
while bodies count the cost
a person a wildflower a mountain their streams
we say we will
keep warm be fed be clothed
as they choke on the waste of ages
and we do
light cathedrals of competition to gather before our gods
on the team that loses no matter who wins
i wasn’t paying attention, what was his number
the one who touched down?
he was quick on his feet
strong too with courage and endurance
maybe he will be the one who turns on the crowd
the game is all wrong we are changing the rules he will say so proud
and his words will fall
just moments before the lights go out
because Appalachia is finished
yes, he looks big enough to champion people
who are like mountains
and they the most of them will have been sacrificed
candles will be lit in honor of Maria
tears will stream down this giant’s face like her pure water
burning his throat as he reads the words she spoke
when everyone was talking and no one was listening
if any one out there really cares… i am dying with this bad air.
can we really end this and quit flapping about it?
if we can’t, say so and let me die in what peace i do have.
and real peace she does have
the peace of a wildflower a mountain and their streams
and true freedom she does know
the freedom of dying alive
because she will not be moved
life is so simple and so grand. like a mountain blanketed with flowers, a person is inestimable - irreplaceable is the stream. death is a natural form of sacrifice – by nature, everything dies but love. one who attaches only to love is free of greed. i wonder as i watch Appalachia go under from this distance, is it just that not enough people know? and what is it they need to know? is it as simple as knowing that whole mountains and whole people are gone and going fast? or is it as grand as knowing what it means to be like a mountain – to be a whole person like Maria?
This poem is in honor of my friend Maria Gunnoe, who is a whole woman in the truest sense. Maria is a lifelong Cherokee Native resident of West Virginia and a full-time organizer for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Her family’s ancestral home, where she currently resides, has sustained repeated flood damage caused by runoff from a nearby valley fill and mountaintop removal operation.
Maria and I met in the late 1990?s after she became active in community organizing around the impacts of wanton waste. She opened her home and heart to me and I walked the wreckage with her. I then retreated from everything on some tangent to find myself. When I surfaced for a moment in 2004, Maria shared with me a letter from a lawyer stating that the people of West Virginia just need to move and “get a life”. I cannot know the wisdom in my own process of waking up, which took much longer than we have now for society to get real. I can only hope that Extinction Witness helps catalyze the reality check so many are working toward and that the poems shed some light on what is truly harmful within us.
Maria is huge. Her advocacy has led to the closure of mines in the region and stricter regulations for the industry. She is the recipient of the 2005 West Virginia Environmental Council’s Environmental Courage Award, the 2006 Joe Calloway Award for Civic Courage, the 2007 David vs. Goliath Award presented by Rainforest Action Network, and the 2009 Goldman Environmental Prize.
As a result of Maria’s advocacy, mine managers point to Maria as an enemy of mine workers and their jobs, and have encouraged acts of harassment. Maria has received numerous verbal threats on her life. Her children suffer PTSD from the flooding and are frequently harassed at school. “Wanted” posters of Maria have appeared in local convenience stores and her daughter’s dog was shot dead. Despite these obstacles, Maria continues to stand for the mountain way of life and the people that the way has created.
The poem is inspired by Maria’s recent comment in a Facebook thread:
“Sometimes I personally can’t help but feel used and exploited while the mountains around my home are blown up and my water is polluted for 70 % of the coal that goes into the coal fired power plants across the country. WHY can’t we end Mountain Top Removal? IT IS KILLING US!! There is so much overwhelming evidence of this fact yet even the ones that are supposed to care DON’T. www.acheact.org Lets END MTR in Appalachia and show everyone across the country that WE CAN end tar sands and we can end fracking and WE WILL transition to a new clean renewable energy world. LETS ALL STOP pussy footing around. This is our kids’ future. If any one out there really cares… I am dying with this bad air. Can we really end this and quit flapping about it? If we can’t, say so and let me die in what peace i do have.” Maria Gunnoe, November 2013
and i’ve not read Laurence and am curious now that i’ve found his book just what he has to say about why intelligent beings perpetuate harms…
“But what is the way forward? I know what it isn’t. It’s not, as we once believed, plenty to eat and a home with all the modern conveniences. It’s not a 2,000-mile-long wall to keep Mexicans out or more accurate weapons to kill them. It’s not a better low-fat meal or a faster computer speed. It’s not a deodorant, a car, a soft drink, a skin cream. The way forward is found on a path through the wilderness of the head and heart—reason and emotion. Thinking, knowing, understanding.”
- Laurence Gonzales, Everyday Survival: Why smart people do stupid things