The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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Grim has been a professional forester most of his life. He is now in an impossible job with all kinds of political repercussions. According to David Stevens, who has done an extensive study of strip mining for the Courier-Journal , “Grim is about as tough as he could be in that job and still keep the job.” Grim also talks with impressive passion. “If there isn’t an answer to strip mining,” he says, his voice rising, “then I’ll be the first to say stop it. Coal isn’t a renewable resource. It’s a one-shot deal. This land is here for us for use during our own lifetime, and we need to leave it in better condition than when we first arrived.” And then he adds, “What we need is time, time to experiment.” To which Harry Caudill says, “Oh, I suppose they will be experimenting all over these poor benighted hills for years and years to come.”

About the worst Grim and those in his camp have to say about Caudill is that he gets “overemotional,” a term one hears used frequently against conservationists. Others say Caudill is a little sloppy with facts. Even Anne Caudill allows that “research has never been our line.” But Loyal Jones, who is the executive director of the Council of the Southern Mountains at Berca, Kentucky, and who knows Appalachia and its problems about as well as anyone, says, “To criticize Harry Caudill on accuracy is about like saying that Thomas Wolfe’s portrait of his mother was not precisely accurate. Harry speaks to sway people and to get at a kind of truth that is beyond facts and figures.”

Not surprisingly, it is the coal operators who have the strongest language for Caudill, whom they see as a self-serving spouter of high-blown pieties and slander. In an article in the Eagle , Bethell reported that one man said of Caudill, “When he gets up in the morning, he stands in front of the mirror and smiles at himself and wonders who he’s going to slander today. It must be a nice life.” And when a Life writer, David Nevin, was gathering material for a strip-mining story two years ago, one operator told him, “I went to college with Harry Caudill. He was a sonofabitch then and he’s a sonofabitch now.” When Nevin related this to Caudill afterward, Caudill smiled and answered softly, “Strip mining has become a very big business.”

It is not uncommon for some coal operators to suggest that Caudill, or anyone else who speaks out against them, is somehow in league with the Communists. But this seems in keeping with other public pronouncements made by some of the industry’s leaders in other parts of the country. For example, at a convention of the American Mining Congress in Pittsburgh last spring, James D. Reilly, vice president of the giant Consolidation Coal Company (which is owned by the Continental Oil Company), said that conservationists who demand that strip miners do a better job of restoring what they tear up are “stupid idiots, socialists, and Commies who don’t know what they’re talking about. I think it is our bounden duty to knock them down and subject them to the ridicule they deserve.”

One of Caudill’s staunchest allies is the Mountain Eagle . Tom Bethell, a Bostonian and a former editor with the Houghton Mifflin Company, has been working on the Eagle for the past two years. He came to Whitesburg largely as a result of reading Caudill’s first book, and along with Tom Gish, the paper’s soft-spoken, energetic editor, has been doing some exceedingly tough, crusading coverage of eastern Kentucky’s many problems. Scarcely a week goes by that Gish and Bethell are not after the strip miners in one way or other, often by running an open letter or article by Harry Caudill. “Although we do all our own editorials on the subject,” Gish says, “a lot of people say Harry really wrote them.” As a result, all the traditional devices for “bringing pressure to bear” have been used on the little paper: advertising has been withheld by local tradesmen who sell products or services to the coal companies, and open support has been given to the opposition paper, The Community Press , published at nearby Cromona. At one point emotions got so strong that an arsonist was reportedly hired to burn down the cabin Bethell was living in, and three antipoverty workers (Appalachian Volunteers) who had been sympathetic with the antistrip-mine faction were arrested on sedition charges and put in jail. Although tempers have quieted down since, it is still easy to sense the hatreds that exist over the whole issue. One afternoon last summer, when I was taking a photograph of Gish and Bethell in front of the paper’s office on Main Street, a burly strip-mine operator who happened to be standing nearby got so infuriated over what I was doing that he did what he could to ruin the picture, standing directly in the way and shouting in my face, “We don’t want any more of you goddamn outsiders coming around here giving this county a bad name.” The idea that strip mining itself might give the county a bad name, or that most strip miners are themselves “outsiders,” had apparently not entered his mind.