Again, I have not been writing lately. My grandmother, who raised me, died a few days after my birthday at the end of the year and this past week I attended her wake and funeral.
On the way home to Boston from Brooklyn after the funeral, I heard on the radio some sad and distressing news: another wise and strong grandmother by the name of Judy Bonds, also passed away.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the name, Judy Bonds was the premiere activist who worked against the atrocious mountain-top removal practices that are ravaging the Appalachian region and its people.
Mountain-top removal, also known as MTR, is an insidious method of coal mining which works exactly as the name suggests. Quite literally, the tops of mountains are blown off with high-powered dynamite. This not only leaves the once-lovely landscape a scarred and pockmarked ghost of its former self, but causes boulders to fly (one even went through a home a few years back, killing a young boy), and sludge and silt to fill up the neighboring valleys and streams, and coal dust to hang in the air like a haze. Obviously, this kills much of the resident wildlife.
Judy Bonds, a humble working-class woman from West Virginia and daughter of a coal miner, rose into the spotlight of a well-revered environmental activist due to her vigilant love and devotion as a grandmother.
Time and again, she referred to an incident involving her grandson as the catalyzing moment that sparked her personal revolution. In particular, she witnessed her grandson standing ankle-deep in the river by their house that was blackened with the sludge of MTR debris. He held a hadful of dead fish up to her and asked what happened to them. Bonds proclaimed that in that moment she had to fight for the land for the sake of her grandchildren and other generations who she felt were entitled to clean water and air.
Judy Bonds died of 58 of cancer. It should not be lost on us what disease she died of--cancer is rampant in Appalachia, as is Crohn's disease, ephysema, bronchitis and other ailments triggered by the ubiquity of smog and overexposure to methylmercury (inherent in coal).
Bonds went from being an unknown volunteer for the anti-MTR non-profit, Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), to its eventual executive director. In 2003, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. After paying for some basic healthcare for her family, she donated the bulk of the prize's winning to CRMW. Essentially, Bonds is largely responsible from catapulting the issue of MTR onto the register of the national public.
I met Bonds in 2007, when I was in graduate school at the University of Vermont. We were planning our Focus the Nation event, a national event that colleges around the country partake in that focuses on environmental issues, particularly climate change. When our original plan for a keynote speaker fell through, I contacted Coal River Mountain Watch to inquire about Bonds. Without hesitation Bonds herself got back to me, showing her interest. I had to fight the planning committee to convince them that she was the best speaker, and that MTR/coal mining has direct relevance to climate change (after all, we can't avert catastrophio climate change while still dependent on coal).
Bonds was a great success as a speaker. The large hall was packed with students and the citizens of Burlington, to the point where people were standing in the aisles. Bonds pulled no punches; she wasn't delicate and made no excuses for the industry. She let us know how bad it is in Appalachia, and what we needed to do. She did something that also is very rare: she apologized to us, to the younger generations, on behalf of hers, for the problem of climate change that we are inheriting.
After the speech and the Q & A session, she hugged me when we met for the first time in person. Later on, I authored an article on the event and Bonds for E Magazine. Since then, I kept in touch with Bonds for some time, as we continued to correspond by e-mail about the issue of coal mining/MTR. She was always quick to respond to my e-mails, and put me in touch with other people. As a journalist and activist, I will tell you it is also quite rare to have someone of such prestige be so responsive and eager as Bonds was.
I am sad to say that in the past year or so, my correspondence with Bonds waned, especially after I completed graduate school. I am especially sad to say, I didn't know she was sick. If she was while I was in touch with her, she never let on.
Bonds was a strong woman. I am a bit aprehensive as to if someone will be able to carry her torch on this front. I will tell you, though, that the issue of MTR has never faded in my mind as one on the forefront of societal wrongs we need to correct.
MTR continues today. Please, in memory of Judy, put your voice into this fight, protest against Massey and other coal companies that practice MTR, and consider donating to Coal River Mountain Watch.
As Bonds herself liked to quote of an old Hopi tribe saying: “You are the one that you’ve been waiting for.”
For both Bonds and her memory, and for our own futures, let's carry her torch.
For more on Judy Bonds and her death: