Appalachia’s Patron Saint
By Jason Howard
This is the third installment of our tribute to the life and work of community activist and outspoken mountain mama, Judy Bonds, who passed away a year ago this week. Here, friend and brother in the fight to end the Mountaintop Removal form of strip mining, Jason Howard, shares his memories and his thoughts on Judy’s legacy.
I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on her—not in some holler deep in West Virginia, her native state, but in Manhattan, of all places. It was May 2007, and I was there to document the Appalachian Coalfield Delegation to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development for the book that became Something’s Rising. Judy, of course, was part of the delegation, urging the commission to embrace renewable energy and draw attention to mountaintop removal mining.
The first event I was to cover was a press conference outside the U.N. By the time I got off the subway, I was late. I broke into a jog when I finally reached Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, running through the narrow park as my messenger bag flapped against my side. Around the halfway point, an amplified voice nearly stopped me in my tracks, one brimming with gravel and authority that bounced off the surrounding skyscrapers.
“….The problem is not unique to Appalachia…We stand in solidarity with communities around the world where fossil fuels are being extracted and homelands are being destroyed for energy….”
When I finally made it to the press conference, there she stood—a petite, salt-and-pepper haired woman stabbing the air with her right index finger. I was transfixed. Later that evening, at a rally at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, she stole the show from Robert Kennedy, Jr. and we were finally introduced.
The following year, I traveled to Whitesville, West Virginia, with Silas House to interview her for our joint book Something’s Rising. But over the years it always seemed that we were destined to meet in cities, at meetings and rallies and conferences—at Powershift in Washington, D.C., at I Love Mountains Day in Frankfort, Kentucky, at Music Saves Mountains in Nashville. And it was always the same—so good to see you, brother—accompanied by a tight bear hug.
The old saying goes that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. But luckily, I don’t think that ever applied to Judy. The environmental movement knew her value while she was still with us. We knew that she was a remarkable force. We knew when she approached a speaker’s podium what was about to happen. We knew that she would be speaking truth to power until the very end. And that’s exactly what happened.
In Appalachia, we have our own set of saints. Canonized over the years by unspoken collective agreement, they are people who have embodied what it means to love the mountains. People like Mother Jones, John L. Lewis, Florence Reece, Aunt Molly Jackson. These are the people we turn to when the going gets tough. It somehow gives us strength to see Mother Jones’s weary, determined face, or to hear Aunt Molly’s ragged voice all these years later.
Judy is now part of that number, the patron saint of the anti-mountaintop removal movement. Her name and legacy are invoked in the halls of Congress and the hollers of Appalachia. On concert stages and in planning meetings, on blogs and in civil disobedience.
What would Judy do? What would she say to us? are increasingly common questions among environmental activists. My response is always the same, for she gave us the answer. “We have to keep working, keep fighting,” she told me once in an interview.
And so we shall.
Jason Howard is the coauthor of Something’s Rising and the forthcoming One of Us: Americana Music in Kentucky and Beyond, which will be published in 2012. His features and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Sojourners, No Depression and Paste; and his commentary has been featured on NPR.
Photo by Marcy Hayden.