John Cleveland, our recently-hired Sierra Club activist working on mountain top removal and coal-fired power plant issues, died on September 22nd, while he was working on his 200 acre property near Blackey in Letcher County. He was killed by a falling tree.
John grew up on a farm near Frankfort and graduated from UK. He married and settled down in Letcher County over two decades ago. Ever since he has been working passionate for the people, creatures and land of eastern Kentucky. Some years ago, he conducted almost single-handedly a fact gathering effort that resulted in several county officials being sent to jail. He worked for a time as an organizer for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth struggling against the unreasonable and unlawful actions of gas, oil, and coal companies.
Teresa McHugh, his supervisor in the Sierra Club, remembers John in a way any of you who met him will appreciate:
"John was warm and gentle, and at the same time tough, passionate and committed to the core. He was a natural storyteller, whose humor, insight and gift for description could bridge gaps of culture and experience. When we interviewed John for the position of Coal Organizer in Eastern Kentucky he said that he was really excited to see our job opening. He explained that two decades of fighting coal and gas companies in Kentucky had made him unemployable by any entity but an organization like the Sierra Club."
I first met John on April 1st of this year at the community center in Grapevine, near Fishtrap Lake. A handful of Sierra Club people had gathered there, including Club lawyers from San Francisco and Vermont, to talk with local people about the problems local mining operations were creating. It was John?s first day of work and the first chance any of us would have to meet him. But John didnt introduce himself. Instead, he let Aaron, our lawyer from San Francisco, start the meeting. When Aaron got to the point of mentioning that our new organizer John Cleveland, was supposed to be there, John sort of pulled his sleeve and grinned a mischievous little grin.
I had the wonderful opportunity of spending ten or twelve days this summer with John scouting mountain top removal and contour mining sites for which Corps of Engineers 404 water permits had been sought. In the September issue of this newsletter, I mentioned all the fun I had had on these outings and the pleasure I experienced being introduced to various plants and animals. It was John who named the Luna moth for me. It was John who identified the Indigo Buntings call and followed it to a tiny little bird in a distant tree. It was John who pointed out two wild turkeys and a large flock of doodles, as he called the baby turkeys.
I spent enough time with John to really feel both his noble dedication to the task of opposing wrong and his very keep kindness. We scaled a steep and hugged mountain face to try to get a sense of where one mining project was going to be. We hiked for five hours, part of it semi-lost in a huge potential area slated, if the mining company has its way, to include ten valley fills. This was shortly before my hip replacement. John helped me up the mountain and found an easier way down. When we were lost, he was sure that all we had to do was manage to get down the face of the mountain and we would come out where we wanted to be. But we took an extra hour to backtrack so that I wouldnt risk hurting my hip. It was with remarkable gentleness and naturalness that he leaned over to retie my boot once because I could not bend over far enough to do it.
Johns love for critters reminded of St Francis. The reason John knew the call of the Indigo Bunting so well was because he had once spent some weeks trying to nurse one back to health. He told me about how people in his neck of the woods often try to run over black snakes when they see one on the road. As a response, John used to carry a bag in his car. Whenever he saw a black snake on the road, he would stop, capture the snake in his bag, take it home, and let it loose on his land, where it would be safe.
It seemed as if John knew at least a quarter of the people in Appalachian Kentucky. When I went to Louisa, south of Ashland, to spend two days scouting a mining site with him, he connected with a legendary KFTC activist he had known for years. When we drove through a strip mining operation near Fishtrap Lake, a fellow driving a water truck for the mining company recognized him. They had coached little league baseball teams against each other when John son was small.
John was 55 when he died. Besides all of his activist work, he did a weekly pop music show every Wednesday night for a local radio station. And he was a devoted soccer referee for high school and college games through a large swath of southeast Kentucky. He asked me to loan him some Yoga DVDs, so that he could work through the tendonitis problem he had had recently in one knee. He needed to use little granny magnifying glasses to read maps; when he lost the cheap pair he was using on one mine scouting expedition, I had to read the map for hima watered-down version of the halt leading the blind.
John had dyslexia. He told me that when he went to U.K., he really had trouble reading the books. He described himself as much more of an intuitive than an analytic. But he was a smart man and he compensated. He could be analytic when he needed to be. And he had absolutely amazing skills of perception that seemed to be somehow attached to disinclination for linear thinking. It seemed as if he could see and hear everythingall the smallest details. That made a wonderful tutor in the woods.
John spoke often of his wife, Artie Ann Bates, one of the few psychiatrists in their part of Kentucky. His devotion to her shown through whenever he mentioned her. We all share in her and his Johns son Davids grief.
I dont think it an exaggeration to say that the example set by John Cleveland will be a resource for the area he loved. The rest of us are going to work harder to pick up the slack, but we will be strengthened by having known that someone like John existed.