We sat in trees at the edge of a mine site for 9 days in the middle of the Appalachian winter in West Virginia on Coal River Mountain. It was a divinely fun and empowering experience that I highly recommend to anyone who is physically able and properly trained.
We stopped blasting for 9 days within sight of the Brushy Fork toxic coal waste impoundment that holds over 7 billion gallons of black sludge above the Coal River Valley. Massey Coal says that if the impoundment’s dam fails it will kill approximately 998 people in that valley, and Massey impoundments have failed in the past.
We hauled our gear in at night without flashlights, hiking for miles up the mountain that was quite foggy throughout the night. Then we rested for a bit. Then I climbed a beautiful tall oak tree with stirrups made of climbing rope attached to a climbing harness I was wearing, which I kept on for 9 days straight. I had to break a few branches off the tree on the way up, and I kissed that tree several times during the whole set up process. After getting as high as I wanted, I anchored a climb line to the trunk above me and hauled the platform up after my direct support person below attached it to the rope. I anchored the platform to the trunk after hauling that heavy thing up. Then I hauled the rest of my gear up as direct support attached it to the rope. I don’t remember how many loads I hauled up, but if felt like a lot. I attached each load of gear to the tree or the platform. Next I lay my exhausted body on that platform gently swaying in the pre-dawn light and looked up at the craggly bare branches above me against the divine blank gray sky and felt like I was on the border of heaven and earth. The sunrise was beautiful. Once the light gave us a much wider view of our surroundings I could see the beautiful forest on one side of us and the mining on the other side with giant machines, holes dug for explosives, the toxic lake of waste in the distance, and the life-giving soil ripped away. It felt like being on the border of heaven and hell.
Two direct support people stayed below us for any additional support they might be able to provide. It wasn’t long before the police came up and arrested them and left us with the Massey workers and security guards. The first thing they threatened us with was chainsaws. One guy hollered, “Cut ‘em down.” Then they cut some trunks of fallen trees below us and cut a few small trees down. Later they brought an excavator with a big scoop on it and knocked some trees down near us with it. They eventually used it to pull a cherry picker up near us but they never tried to get us down with the cherry picker.
That evening they started blasting sirens and air horns at us, which continued practically nonstop for the next several days. They built a 10-foot tall chain link fence around us with a big opening so they could drive vehicles in and out of it. They ordered pizza and tried to tempt us down with that. They grilled steaks below us and when Amber and I told them we are vegetarians they said they had popcorn too. They threatened to send bounty hunters after us if we skipped out on our bond agreements and didn’t show up for our court dates later. They threatened to charge us with federal felonies of interfering with interstate commerce. They filed for a temporary restraining order and tried to get us to come down for a court hearing on it. They told us we weren’t stopping any blasting even though we could see recently dug blast holes near us. They told us the weather would keep getting worse.
The wind was a lot scarier than anything the guards did. Studies have shown that this mountain has great potential for harnessing wind for electricity, which will be destroyed if mountaintop removal is allowed to greatly reduce the height of the mountain. It was very windy the majority of the time we were up there, and I worried that the tree might break. The longer I was there though, the safer I felt. Laying inside my zero degree sleeping bag on the platform with a tarp in a pyramid shape around me and the wind swaying me around often felt like being in a womb. I felt so protected by the tree and the earth. I was sacrificing many things by being there and the experience was so fun and empowering that I gained much more than I lost.
The most annoying thing the guards did was the constant blasting of sirens and air horns. I had ear plugs, but a lot of sound got through them. I am a light sleeper and the noise along with the wind and general intensity of the situation meant I got very little sleep. I practice meditation and contemplation and yoga. One of the eight branches of yoga is pratyahara, which means withdrawal of the senses. In the past I had mainly experienced this with my sense of sight while sitting in meditation, but here I experienced it with my sense of sound. There were moments when the sound would completely drop out of my awareness. Unfortunately, as soon as I became conscious of the fact that the sound was gone, it would return. The noise was kind of rhythmic and I was sometimes able to get into a meditative state and perceive it as divine sound. The sound was mainly annoying in that it prevented more sleep and made communication via radio, cell phone and yelling to the other tree sitters difficult.
We set up the sit on a Thursday. I fasted on Sunday, a divine day. I prayed that all living beings will be freed from suffering and find their way to God, and that we will stop mountaintop removal without preventing any workers from being able to feed their families, and that the Brushy Fork dam will not break. I broke the fast with some divine dark chocolate.
During the sit I read a book by Jerry Mander called In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations. I thought this would be fitting since we were in a place where sacred life is being taken. Before reading this book I was not aware of how many Indian nations throughout the world are still struggling to survive. I also used to think that they didn’t have a concept of land ownership when in reality they had and have a very collective concept of land ownership that conflicts with colonialism’s more individualistic concept of land ownership. This results in situations where people are told they are trespassing on land that their people have lived on for thousands of years by people who think ownership is determined by pieces of paper. The people living around Coal River Mountain have more of a right to ownership than out of state corporations.
When I came down I was very dizzy and disoriented while first walking on solid ground for the first time in over a week. We spent three days in jail before getting bailed out. As much as jail sucks, it can be a very empowering experience. All the prisoners I talked to about what I did were very supportive, though some probably thought I was crazy. They don’t like seeing the land destroyed either. One of them was very knowledgeable about wildlife and hates seeing beautiful habitat destroyed.
Thank you everyone who helped pull off this action and supported it. Thank you everyone who will pull off actions in the future that put a direct stop to atrocities that are killing communities. Hopefully you are one of those people. You don’t even have to risk arrest. There are lots of support roles than just about anyone can do. We meant to set up traverse lines between the trees so we could visit each other and share supplies during the sit, but ran out of time before the sun came up. Hopefully in the near future we can build an Ewok village.
I will be traveling in March, April and May doing presentations about what mountaintop removal coal mining is, the problems it causes, the many ways people are working to abolish it, and ways others can get involved. If you are at all interested in setting up a presentation at your school or in your community please contact me at email@example.com.
Please come to the Mountain Justice Spring Break from March 12-20 in southwest Virginia. You can register now at mjsb.org. Please come to the Mountain Justice Summer Camp from May 27-June 6 in eastern Kentucky. You will be able to register when camp gets closer at mountainjustice.org. Please check out the direct action campaign in West Virginia at climategroundzero.org.