The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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But Caudill believes that something also has to be done to enlist the interest and energies of the great corporations. In his view the nation’s industrial centers are being fuelled by Appalachia, with coal and with low-paid workers, and Appalachia is getting little in return. “I don’t think the men at the top of those enormous corporations are wicked men. But you know there’s not a one of them that has ever been down here to see things with his own eyes, to see what is going on here. Not a one! And yet, the decisions they make have everything to do with how we live here. So we just can’t help but think they have no interest in people, or in the land. They’re just interested in coal and profits.”

Indeed, Caudill sees a prevailing lack of interest in Appalachia on the part of the great power centers, despite all that he and others have had to say on the subject, and he points out that neither Udall nor the current Secretary of the Interior, Walter Hickel, has been to eastern Kentucky. “The millionaires and the celebrated politicians like to come to the Kentucky Derby, of course, and they always make a great big show of that, but just try to get them to come over here!”

What Caudill keeps calling for, in most of what he writes and says, is the development of an objective understanding of the Appalachian land. “This is always thought of as a bleak, poor, brokendown, God-forsaken place here. But the truth is, this mountain island has tremendous natural resources, not the least of which is its people, and if we can make changes in the ways the land is utilized, then we can become the premier part of the United States. We have plenty of green country, an abundance of water, a superb climate, minerals, strategic location, extraordinary beauty. And as the shortage of open land in this nation grows more and more serious, all this magnificent country is going to have a value far surpassing anything like coal. And we just can’t afford to sit back and watch all that be destroyed so a few people can get rich now. One of these days the dear old federal government is going to have to come in and spend billions of dollars just to repair the damage that’s already been done. And guess who will have the machines and the workmen to do the job? The same coal operators who made the mess in the first place will be hired to fix it back, and the taxpayers will bear the costs.”

But beyond that, Caudill believes that the essential, desperate need is for a whole new land ethic. “Unless we change our attitudes toward the good earth of this planet, I doubt that life will last a great deal longer. Look-how short a time it took us to destroy Lake Erie. And there is absolutely no evidence that the human race is learning the dire need for restoration. If you read history, you see that this has happened many times before on a smaller scale.”

“Just imagine this,” he says. “If those three men who went to the moon had started to befoul their spacecraft, if they had begun to tear it apart and fill it with all manner of filth, we would say they had gone mad. But here we are on this planet, this huge space ship, befouling it, ripping it asunder, and nobody seems to say very much about that. Nobody seems to care.”

Such talk has a profound impact on all who hear it in Whitesburg, no less than it does before a Senate committee, or when Caudill is writing for national publications. One such article, in the Audubon magazine, did much, for example, to generate interest in saving Kentucky’s spectacular Red River Gorge from a dam to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers. The campaigning against the dam was led chiefly by the Louisville Courier-Journal and later received national publicity when Justice William O. Douglas arrived to lead a hike through the area in jeopardy. The gorge was saved (see pages 110 and 111).

And for every person who is against Harry Caudill, there appear to be a dozen or more who arc all for him. “He is the one man who can speak for every one of those people who know instinctively that strip mining is wrong and that it is the ruination of their homeland,” says Wendell Berry, while another Kentucky writer, Mrs. Siller Brown, a coal miner’s widow who does a regular column in the Eagle about things her neighbors tell her over the phone, says flatly, “Harry Caudill is a good man.”

When I asked Caudill why he stays on in Letcher County, he smiled at his wife, then told a story about one of his favorite characters, Old Claib Jones. Claib took part in numerous mountain feuds after the Civil War, killed twenty men (it is estimated), later repented his sins, and lived to a ripe old age. But at one point, during the “Holbrook and Underwood War,” Claib and five other men were pinned down in a cabin, surrounded by a large Underwood force and some policemen who had been called in to help finish Claib off. The attack began before dawn and kept up until midmorning, when suddenly the shooting stopped and Alvis Underwood’s wife was sent in to ask Claib to surrender. It is at this point in the story that Harry Caudill’s eyes begin to light up. “So you know the message Claib sent back? ‘No,’ Claib said. He said, ‘We want to fight on a while longer anyway.’ Now wasn’t that wonderful? And I guess that’s the way Anne and I feel: we want to fight on a while longer anyway.”