mt-topby Paul Corbit Brown

Imagine visiting a museum of art. Now imagine the curator invites you to peer through a microscope to examine the intricacies of an ancient tapestry. You quickly discover that the scene depicted in this artifact is actually composed of thousands upon thousands of threads. As you examine it more closely, you see that even a single color is made of thousands of threads, all imbuing a unique purpose within the context of the larger image. In awe, you realize that each thread adds color, shape, lines, texture, and contrast; and you admire their individual yet crucial roles, one inextricably woven into the next, to create the complete picture.

Now imagine you are viewing the tapestry in its entirety from across the room. The image of the tapestry becomes more complete. It is less defined by the individual threads and more about the synergy of the whole. This is a metaphor for nature. Each species, from the simplest bacteria to the most complex organisms, is a sacred thread in the tapestry we call Life on Earth.

When folks come to the heart of West Virginia to visit Kayford Mountain, I ask them to recognize the incredible biodiversity that exists here and to think of it like that tapestry. Even the top soil, the sustenance for most of these forms of life, is alive with the microscopic threads. Nature thrives on balance and harmony. Each living organism serves a sacred purpose much larger than itself. As humans we have come to believe that we are separate and apart from nature. We have forgotten that we are no more or no less sacred than the other threads in this fabric of life. We live mindlessly, tugging and pulling at the other threads with no regard for how that affects the unity of the tapestry.

mt removal pollutes water
Thousands of residents in communities situated near mountaintop removal sites have had their water sources polluted by the mining process. Maria Lambert shows two jars of the water from her kitchen faucet. As a result, she was forced to carry countless jugs of water from elsewhere in order for her family to have safe water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

There are few places where the effects of this careless behavior are more visible than in Mountaintop Removal (MTR) coal mining. The thought of taking the top off of something seems simple and innocent enough—we take the top off of a can of beans for dinner, we take the top off a soft drink, we take our tops off at the beach, but taking the top off of a mountain is like taking the head off of a human being. It is a fatal and irreversible act. It is certain death for the mountain and the life that once called that mountain “home.”

Mountains are more than just large piles of stones with trees growing on top. Mountains are living entities. They are the birthplaces of rivers and the nurseries of countless species of life that are part of nature’s desire to be whole. Every week the explosives detonated in the mountains of West Virginia equal the force of the hydrogen bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In the process our air, water, and soil are being polluted. Once you take the top off of a mountain, it has to go somewhere. The “overburden” is pushed into the surrounding valleys, clogging and poisoning more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwaters with heavy metals and other industrial waste. For more than 30 years, humans have unleashed this destruction on the second most bio-diverse ecosystem on the planet— this is a dismantling that cannot be rewoven. Peer reviewed studies show that the damages to West Virginia’s waters as a result of MTR are “pervasive and irreversible.” Further studies show that people living in the communities around MTR are dramatically more likely to suffer from heart, stomach, liver, and lung disease as well as an array of cancers and birth defects. In fact, the life span of people living in these communities is shorter (by 18 years) than people in any other demographic in the United States.

Keeper of the Mountains Foundation works globally to educate and inspire people to end this practice. Larry Gibson, the founder of our organization, was able to save a small part of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. These fifty acres now sit as a green island surrounded by an ocean of thousands of acres of utter desolation wrought by the hubris of human greed and consumption. Each year, hundreds of students visit Kayford Mountain to witness the violent destruction of our once verdant home. In tears, they sit on the edge looking down on what remains of this mountain. An ecosystem that was previously composed of thousands of distinct species of life per acre is now a wasteland sparsely populated by broken rocks, poisoned water, and less than a dozen non-native plants.

When students ask, “What can I possibly do,” we remind them that coal is not mined for sport. Coal is mined for profit. Our wanton consumption fuels the demand for coal and its by-products. The most important step we can take is to dramatically reduce our consumption of electricity, plastics, and any single-use/disposable items. As our dear friend, John Stock, says, “We should work diligently to practice conservation rather than reclamation.” Our Earth is a finite resource. We would do well to see our collective behavior as less a matter of destroying the planet and more a matter that our overconsumption is destroying the life support system for our species. I believe the Earth will go on. The real question is will we be with her, or will we be another thread that has been plucked from the sacred tapestry of life on this planet? Each species, each organism is its own sacred thread. A single thread is weak, but many fibers make the rope. Together, we are stronger.

Paul Corbit Brown is the President and Chair of the Keeper of the Mountains Foundation.

Keeper of the Mountains Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit. If you are interested in learning more about our work, please visit our website at

“We are the Keepers of the Mountains. Love them or Leave them. Just don’t destroy them.” Larry Gibson 1946-2012