Judy Bonds was a mentor, friend, neighbor, and fellow soldier. I’ve worked with community activists all over the world, and I know I’ll never meet another person like her. Her death leaves a tremendous hole in my universe.
As a mentor, it was Judy who let me know without any doubt that as a long time forest campaigner, I could no longer ignore mountain top removal, which had been responsible for the destruction of over a million acres of Appalachian native forests, and unlike in the case of logging, the trees, or indeed much of anything, would never grow back, and that over a thousand miles of streams were buried beneath the toxic spoils, and that the sludge dams posed a threat to the drinking water of a third of the US population. Wheee. And this was just during our introduction!
We were at Blanton Forest in Eastern Kentucky for the National Forest Protection Alliance annual convention, and she was there to recruit. “You’ll never understand this issue Mike”, Judy said, “unless you see it for yourself”. Sensing she was right, it wasn’t long before Lloyd Clayton and I took the drive from Birmingham, Alabama to visit Judy and find out what was going on. There we met Ed and Debbie Wiley, Bo Webb and Vernon Haltom for the first time. Soon I would meet Maria Gunnoe, Larry Gibson and a host of others who had committed their lives to saving the mountains and the communities where their ancestors were born, and where they were buried. These Appalachians were hands down the scrappiest group of treehuggers I’d ever seen.
This was to be the beginning of a long journey, even though I did not know it at the time, taking me to Rock Creek, where Judy, Ed, Debbie and Bo would be my neighbors. Judy’s house was a mere stone’s throw away. She would come by regularly with covered dishes, an Appalachian tradition, (always bring the dish back with something in it!) or some cuttings of native plants or vegetables from her garden. “You need to get this yard cleaned up” she’d say, “We got to be good neighbors.”
I last visited Judy just before Christmas. We had baked her some brownies, and brought them over in a bright red cookie tin. She said the first order of business was her medical condition, which she described in detail, saying finally that this was probably her last Christmas. Then she insisted we sample from the many sweets arrayed on her dining room table. Her daughter Lisa was there and they reminisced about the time a Massey Coal Company wife had assaulted her in the parking lot of a Wendy’s in Beckeley. A ruckus ensued, and a bystander suggested Lisa go help her mother. Lisa replied that it didn’t look like her Momma needed any help. And she didn’t! There were deep belly laughs all around. There was nobody tougher than Judy.
The rest of our visit was filled with holler gossip, a local past-time, and which I have found to be of no little use. Here, the backyard fence is still the internet. Even with the internet, news still travels up and down the river by word of mouth faster than it does by the transportation of binary electrons, and usually with much more nuance and accuracy.
Ed Wiley was in our living room when Debbie called and gave us the news that Judy had been taken to the hospital. Within a few hours Lisa called and let us know that Judy passed away at 6:30. It became very quiet but the silence was eventually broken when Ed said that Judy would not want to see us moping around. Indeed, her last words to me were to never give up the fight, and as usual, she was looking me straight in the eyes. “Promise” I said. We opened a can of beer. Hell yes!
Mentor, friend, ally, neighbor; these are the relationships that make life worth living. Camaraderie, above all things, can make the few strong against the many, and in the fight for nature, it can achieve the impossible. It is what makes life worth living. While there is a hole in the sky now, it is not filled with emptiness. Judy’s spirit is still here, and she continues to inspire us to keep going. I can still see her, standing on the porch with her shotgun and her dogs, a symbol of defiance against all odds, even a warrior goddess from some Celtic opera. I can hear her saying, “Don’t worry Mike, I got yer back!”