The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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Afar as anyone knows, the first white man to settle in Letcher County, Kentucky, was a North Carolinian by the name of James Caudill, who came over the Pine Mountain in 1792, raised a cabin near the headwaters of the Kentucky River, and became, as a state historical marker near the site now proclaims, “progenitor of a large, widespread mountain family.”

Immense changes have come to eastern Kentucky in the time since, but in Letcher County, and particularly in Whitesburg, the county seat, Caudills still abound. Their names figure regularly in the columns of Whitesburg’s weekly Mountain Eagle (“It Screams!”) and take up most of one page in the phone book; they own lumberyards, run for judge, mine coal, win scholarships, get killed on the highways, get married (to one another, on occasion), bear and rear more of their line; and if they happen to be born with more than ordinary ability or ambition, chances are excellent that they will one day pack up and leave Letcher County, thereby carrying the Caudill blood ever farther afield. The reasons so many leave are plain enough for anyone to see: poverty of the kind that has become synonymous with the word Appalachia, inadequate education, few jobs, and the grim prospect that the one thing left of any real value or beauty—the land—is being rapidly ripped to shreds by what is euphemistically known as surface mining.

But there is one very able and talented Caudill a great-great-great-grandson of the original James—who has not only elected to stay on in Letcher County but has for the past fifteen years or so been fighting to save what remains of that Cumberland Mountains domain of his forebears and to bring to national attention the plight of the people who live there. He is Harry Monroe Caudill ( KAW -dle, it is pronounced), a Whitesburg man. He has taken on the strip miners, the loggers, the government dam builders, politicians, bureaucrats, the T.V.A., and several major U.S. corporations. He has written books, newspaper and magazine articles, and countless letters. He has spent hour upon hour of his own time attending local meetings, arguing before judges, appearing on television, lobbying in Washington, guiding interested visitors from “the outside” on tours of his home country, all in a single-minded and deeply felt one-man campaign to stop what he sees as the senseless mutilation of the place he knows and loves better than any other.

Testifying before a Senate committee last year, Caudill expressed the view that there are two great crises in America. One is a crisis of people, white and black, who are impoverished and embittered and who, in their frustration and hatred, threaten to burn everything down. The other is of the American land. And as he is quick to point out, in his part of America the two crises exist side by side and are directly related to one another.

Wendell Berry, a Kentucky author and poet and a great admirer of Caudill, says, “Harry’s interest in conservation really begins with people. He doesn’t think of conservation, or any issue, as an abstraction, the way so many do. He sees his country being destroyed every day and he sees what that does to human beings. The other thing about Harry, maybe the most important thing, is that he lives with the evil he is fighting, and that makes him a rather unique kind of crusader. He doesn’t have to read about environmental troubles in the newspapers, he just looks up at the hillsides.”

The troubles Caudill sees are gaping yellow wounds slashed sideways along the steep wooded slopes of the mountains that crowd around Whitesburg. One such cut can be seen from Caudill’s own back yard. About half a mile up the mountainside, it is an old cut, a relatively small one, and like numerous others to be seen from the roads that wind through eastern Kentucky, it does not look terribly bad from below. The trees cover much of it half the year. It might be something as commonplace as a highway cut, unless you know better. But up on the strip mines themselves the view is very different. There is a place, for example, known as Pigeon Roost, near Hazard, a town in neighboring Perry County. There the land looks as if it might have been the set for All Quiet on the Western Front , only worse. The devastation covers hundreds of acres, all of them wild and unspoiled only a few years back. Huge gashes have been ripped out of the mountainsides and lie raw and exposed, with no green cover. To judge by the vast unrelieved stretches of yellow clay, baked iron-hard by the sun and speckled with greasy dark splotches where poisonous acid has seeped through, nothing will ever grow there again.

From the edge of the cut, enormous eroded slides of still more clay, rock, and debris spill down the mountain slope, and out of these protrude the blackened remains of great trees that have been knocked askew by the enormous weight of the slides. It is as though the entire landscape, as far as the eye can see, had gone through a hideous convulsion or been ravaged by some crazed monster. But then far below, a mile or more, in a trough of untouched green, sits a cabin with a few wrecked cars scattered about it like toys; and because the strip miners have long since gone, there is total quiet except for the sound of radio music and, now and then, a faint voice or two. Someone lives down there, you realize.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, where I lived near strip mining much of my life, but I have never seen anything like the strip mining in eastern Kentucky. It is beyond belief, and sickening.