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.

Ten years ago very little strip mining had even been tried in Kentucky. Ten years before that there was virtually none at all. But now the bulldozers, the scoops, the diesel shovels, the mammoth coal augers are churning away day and night. In steady procession gigantic Mack trucks creep off the mountains, their brakes crying against the weight of upwards of twenty-five tons of coal each. When they roar through Whitesburg, the ground trembles along Main Street. Of the one hundred million tons of coal being mined annually in the state of Kentucky, half comes from strip mines, and in the next few years that percentage is certain to increase. Moreover, much of the strip mining is done on land owned by corporations located outside Kentucky, and the major customer for the coal is the Tennessee Valley Authority, long considered a classic example of an enlightened user of land.

Most of the strip mining is carried on by small, independent “operators,” as they are called, local men and men from out of state who have the forty thousand dollars to lease the necessary equipment. Nearly all such operators are also lessees of the big coal-land companies. Many of these companies are faceless, little-known entities, but others are such well-known giants as Occidental Petroleum, National Steel, U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and International Harvester, all of which are based outside Kentucky and all of which own, or own other companies that own, vast tracts of the state’s mineral resources. The big corporations, then, rarely do the actual strip mining themselves (and their public relations offices stress this quite emphatically); that part of the process is left to the local operators. Thus it has been for some time. The result is that mountain people, rightly or not, believe the hidden hand of absentee corporations is behind virtually every move by the strip miners. Mountaineers have an old festering hatred of big corporations and big-city money; and increasingly among some of the young there is the more modern attitude that the “system” is rotten and ought to be destroyed.

Yet the fact remains that strip mining happens to be the quickest, easiest, and cheapest method that has been devised thus far to get coal; and, for the operator at least, it is an exceedingly profitable business. So not just in Kentucky but in a dozen other states strip mining continues at a brutal pace.∗ The only reliable figures available on surface mining are from the U.S. Department of the Interior and are, unfortunately, five years out of date; but as of January 1, 1965, an estimated 3.2 million acres—more than the total acreage of the state of Connecticut—had been “disturbed” by surface mining. About 41 per cent of this was attributable to strip mining for coal. In Kentucky 119,200 acres had been strip mined, 192,000 acres in West Virginia, 212,800 acres in Ohio, and in Pennsylvania an incredible 302,400 acres. Since nearly all such acreage was mined before any kind of reclamation laws had been put into effect, at least two thirds of the land was totally ruined, despite the government’s use of the mild term “disturbed.”

Further, with the nation’s need for fossil fuels increasing steadily, and with innumerable new electrical power plants buying and burning even the lowest quality coal, there seems every likelihood that things will get worse. Where once coal was a seasonal commodity, it is now in demand all year round, due in good part to the electrical power required for air conditioning. “We can sell anything that’s black,” says one operator. In the northern corner of Letcher County, for example, the Beth-Elkhorn coal company, which has its headquarters in Pennsylvania and is owned by Bethlehem Steel, has announced plans to tear up a thousand acres of choice woodland to “recover” some seven million tons of coal. According to statements made by one company official, the strip mine cuts on the land will run a total distance of somewhere between 120 and 150 miles. (Numerous Kentuckians find a kind of gallows humor in the fact that Bethlehem is currently running a costly advertising campaign—a series of what are called “conscience ads in the trade to tell the American public how much it is doing; in behalf of the environment.) The biggest independent operator in Perry County, Bill Sturgill, boss of a number of strip-mining companies, now has a fifteen-year contract to supply T.V.A. with two million tons of strip-mined coal peryear, all of it for just one power plant.

For Harry Caudill the seriousness of all this goes beyond the pitiful ugliness, or the bitter irony that those who live with the ravaged land get virtually no share of the coal or the money made from it. The ecological consequences of even one small strip mine are extraordinarily varied, complex, and damaging.

In eastern Kentucky, where the mountains are as steep as any in Appalachia, strip mines arc contoured around the mountainsides like gigantic snakes. The cuts are L-shaped, with the “highwall” (the vertical side) exposing raw rock to heights of thirty to fifty feet. (In many cases these immense manmade cliffs completely isolate entire mountaintops.) The coal is stripped from the flat shelf, or “bench,” of the cut, and since there is no convenient place to pile the “overburden” (the topsoil, rock, and clay that cover the coal seam), it simply gets shoved over the brow of the bench, smashing or smothering every tree, or anything else, that happens to stand below. (“Spoil bank” is the strip miner’s term for the huge heap that builds up.) As a result, about three acres of mountain are “disturbed” for every acre actually mined. Then roads are needed to get at the coal, and building them tears up another eight acres or so for every mile. And since there are generally two or three seams at different elevations, little of the average mountainside is spared.

Using the conventional equipment, a crew of seven can keep a strip mine advancing along the face of a Kentucky mountain at a rate of about one hundred yards a week. With the coal market what it is, most cuts are worked by two twelve-hour shifts. At dark the big headlights go on, the violence continues.

But the real shattering of the ecology of a mountain begins after the strip miners have come and gone, and the resulting troubles continue for years at a cost no one studying the problem is as yet able to estimate. Even before the rains hit them, the spoil banks begin to move. Full of churned-up slate and mangled trees, spoil banks are highly unstable affairs and slowly succumb to the pull of gravity with a dry, sliding sound one can actually hear. Then, when the inevitable mountain storms strike, rushing water slices into them like a knife. Frequently, like the giant slag heap at Aberfan, in Wales, a spoil bank will let go altogether and thunder down on whatever lies below, which in several instances has been somebody’s house. Landslides will block streams and highways, and in the words of a government report, “economic and esthetic values [are] seriously impaired.” But apart from spoil bank damage, even ordinary erosion will cause extraordinary damage in no time. Water races off the mountain loaded with silt, gravel, and the deadly sulphuric acid that drains out of exposed coal or its overlying strata. Creeks that a boy could leap over only a few years ago are now as broad as two-lane roads, blasted out in a way reminiscent of the hydraulic mines of the Old West. Other creeks are so clogged with sludge that they have to be cleaned out two or three times a year at considerable cost to the state. (Studies indicate that the annual sediment yield from strip-mined lands in Kentucky is as much as one thousand times that of undisturbed mountain areas.)

Slimy with mustard-colored coal silt and poisoned by mine acid, thousands of Kentucky creeks and streams are quite literally “dead”; nothing lives in them; the putrid water is good for nothing, and it stains and poisons just about anything it comes in contact with.

Farms a hundred miles or more from the mountains are flooded every spring by rivers thick with silt from such tributaries. On the Kentucky River, for example, on the other side of the state, annual floods have been part of its cycle for as long as anyone can recall. But fifty years ago the spring floods were rejuvenating. Like the Nile, the Kentucky bestowed on every acre it touched a fine, thin layer of silt rich with organic matter, very fertile and very welcome. Now, because of bad farming, logging, and strip mining on the upland slopes, the same river leaves a fine, thin film of yellow clay that hardens to the consistency of concrete and is, as one farmer says, about as fertile.

Less obvious but equally serious are the profound scars left on the spirits of the mountain people, who see their country, one of the most beautiful regions in America, being dismembered before their very eyes. Farms that have been in the same families for generations are made worthless in a day or two. Fine timber is destroyed as though it had no value. Public roads, long believed to be the salvation of so-called backward sections, are ruined by the immense coal trucks. Some roads built only a few years ago look fifty years old. Surrounded by such ugly abuse of the land, many people become ever more slovenly. Abandoned strip pits are used as dumping grounds for garbage and wrecked cars. Spoil heaps catch fire (often from burning rubbish) and smoulder for months, even years, casting an evil-looking, vile-smelling haze over the landscape.

As might be expected, the people who suffer most from such tragic by-products of strip mining are the poorest, least educated, least articulate, and least able to comprehend why, exactly, things are happening as they are, or what, if anything, can possibly be done about it. More than any other one man, Harry Caudill speaks for them.

In 1965 he helped found the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, the region’s first serious effort to organize public protest. He also deserves a major part of the credit for Kentucky’s various strip-mining laws, which he fought for long and hard back at a time when taking such stands in eastern Kentucky was a lonely and dangerous business. (In 1954, when the state’s first attempt at a strip-mining law was up before the legislature in Frankfort, Caudill was the only representative from eastern Kentucky to vote for it.) The latest law, passed in 1966, is said to be the best in the country, but Caudill himself now thinks it is nowhere near tough enough. He is highly skeptical about how well it is being enforced and likes to quote a friend who says it is a little like legalizing rape, so long as the rapist first agrees to restore his victim to her original condition. Caudill also emphasizes that nothing whatever is being done about the land that was strip-mined prior to 1966, which means about 100,000 acres.

The law has been revised and improved some since 1966. Among other things it prohibits strip mining on slopes steeper than twenty-eight degrees; it requires that the operator grade back spoil banks to about the slope of the mountain and seed the mined area before moving on; and it empowers the Division of Reclamation in Frankfort to suspend an operator’s permit or fine him one thousand dollars for each day that he fails to abide by these and other regulations.

A colorful brochure issued by the state and signed by Governor Louie B. Nunn shows strip-mine benches in Letcher and adjoining counties where fruit trees have been planted and appear to be surviving, where a nitrogen-building green cover, a legume known as Sericea lespedeza , grows waist deep, and where a highwall has been so effectively back-graded and replanted as to be unnoticeable. Such places do indeed exist in eastern Kentucky and are indicative of what can be done. But they are very few and far between and are greatly outnumbered by places where reclamation has failed. As the reclamation people themselves readily admit, many strip mines, and particularly those along Kentucky’s so-called “hot” scams (in which the acid content is extremely high), cannot be restored no matter what is done to them, short of trucking in new topsoil, which no operator is about to try and which might not work anyway. Even where the conditions are ideal for the prescribed reseeding program (a solution of seed, water, and fertilizer is sprayed over the exposed spoil), there is, as one reclamation official says, no hiding a strip mine.

But the cosmetics aside, still less progress has been made in checking erosion and acid drainage, or in preventing spoil-bank slides. Small dams have been thrown up to catch silt, but nearly all have proved pathetically ineffective. And though the chief reclamation objective—to get a quick green cover down—is the best solution to the over-all erosion problem, only a small percentage of the cover ever amounts to anything, or at least in time enough to do the job. A walk along most “reclaimed” mines is a discouraging experience. Where tiny trees have been planted, twenty are dead stubs for every one that is green. To judge by the stony, water-gullied clay all about, the heaps of rock, and the pools of foul water, the future for that one green survivor will be most precarious indeed. About the best some of the reclamation people can say in defense of their efforts to date is that things are being handled better than they were.

The handsome brochure, on the other hand, closes by stating, “Land is being restored to a desirable contour, water pollution is being minimized, successful planting of affected areas is being accomplished, and the strip-mining industry is enjoying a far better public image.” To find anyone in eastern Kentucky (other than a strip miner) who would agree with such claims would be extremely difficult. The kind of reclaimed mines pictured in the brochure are known by critics of the program as “Grim’s Garden Spots,” after Elmore Grim, director of the reclamation program; the severest critics, including Caudill, say that the objective of a better image for strip miners is really what the program is all about. When talking in private, Caudill takes a terribly fatalistic view of the future in store for Kentucky, or any portion of the American land beneath which coal can be found. Indeed, he takes a dark view of the drift of American life in general and what, if anything, can be done about it.

Others, however, point to him as a superb example of just how much one man can do, and for all his private moments of despair, he “sallies forth,” as he would say, all the same, a sort of Kentucky-style combination of John Muir, Mark Twain, and Don Quixote who does battle in his own particular way, on his own terms, and is hands down the most eloquent and effective voice for conservation in all Appalachia.

Like most mountaineers, Caudill tends to be independent, obstinate, and at heart a fighter. Though he is a member of such conservation organizations as the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, he never presents himself as, say, “a Sierra Club man.” He prefers to be his own man. Often he has no other choice, for the “conservation issues” he gets involved with in Kentucky are seldom disputed in quite the way they would be in other parts of the country. As he remarks, “It should be remembered that we have in this section a decided inclination to settle our differences with dynamite.”

Caudill makes his living as an attorney in Whitesburg (population 1,800). His offices are on the ground floor of the Daniel Boone Hotel on Main Street. He is forty-seven years old, married, and the father of three children, one of whom, another James Caudill, has already made his own mark in the community by being the first boy from Letcher County ever to go to Harvard University.

Caudill himself is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and received his law degree there. He is president of the Letcher County Bar Association, a former state legislator (three terms), a Democrat with grandfathers who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War (which side a family was on is still the chief determining factor in political allegiance). He is a tall, spare, bookish, long-legged man who dresses neatly, talks with a deep, musical mountain accent, walks with a limp caused by a German bullet in Italy, and goes about with a rather long look on his long face except when he is telling stories. Other than his time at college and the war years, he has spent his whole life in Letcher County (“dear old Letcherous County,” he calls it), and he has no intention of living anywhere else. His father, Cro Carr Caudill, was a coal miner who lost an arm in a mining accident and later was elected clerk of the court in Whitesburg. “Cro Caudill? Sure I remember him,” says one elderly mountaineer. “He only had the one arm, but he’d give you a good big hug with it—especially when he was lookin’ for a vote.”

Young Harry spent much of his boyhood in and about the courthouse listening to stories told by the “eminent citizens who congregated there.” He became known in time for his own talent with a story, and so was plainly marked as a young man of promise. The high importance placed on the art of story-telling in eastern Kentucky Caudill explains with a story (naturally) about an old friend, Judge L. Hayes, who never had a regular Christian name, just the letter “L,” and who used to say, “’Bout all we have got to do down here is chew ’baccer, drink liquor, and tell lies.”

Caudill has collected stories of his mountain country for as long as he can remember, and he tells them magnificently in the rolling, rhetorical style of Kentucky’s old-time country lawyers. Many of his stories come from “old characters” he has “hunted up” through the mountains. (“You know, those old people just love to talk,” he says, upon winding up a little yarn that he may have taken fifteen minutes or more to tell.) And many were included in his first book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands , widely recognized as one of the finest studies of Appalachia and its history ever written. Published in 1963, well before any wars on poverty had been declared, it had a profound effect on the longstanding, popular impression of life in “hillbilly” country, and particularly on official Washington during the Kennedy administration. (Stewart Udall, then Secretary of the Interior, compared it to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath as a call to the American conscience.) And it was not too long after the book appeared that visitors from Washington and New York—reporters, magazine photographers, government officials, representatives of the large foundations—began showing up in Whitesburg to meet Caudill and set off on what his wife, Anne, calls “Harry’s horror tours.” Some were astonished to discover that whenever Caudill began to talk it was in the same cadences as the book, as though he were speaking from a prepared script. But the reverse was the case: Caudill had dictated the entire book. “He had been out walking in the woods one afternoon,” his wife says, “and when he came in he told me he had been thinking about where all these people [in and around Whitesburgj came from originally and about what had happened to their country; so I began taking down what he was saying, and when we were finished we had just this big pile of typed pages, no chapters or anything, and we weren’t at all sure anyone would want to publish it.”

His one other book, Dark Hills to Westward , was published earlier this year. Part fiction, part history, it is a spine-chilling tale about a young woman named Jennie Wiley, who was carried off by Indians in 1789, saw her children murdered, and later made an epic escape through the Kentucky mountains. But there are still other stories, full of hilarious episodes and characters, and it is these he tells with the greatest zest, sometimes slapping his knee with one big hand, and at the finish tilting back his head and muttering, “Oh my, oh my!”

Caudill’s stories nearly all deal with the same themes—the harsh, uncertain life of the mountaineer from pioneer times to the present, the special kind of courage engendered by such a life, and the very special variety of politician that Kentucky has home-grown over the years. And all the stories, in one way or another, are related to the land. For it would be hard for Caudill, or almost anyone from his section of Kentucky, for that matter, to imagine the course of human affairs being carried on apart from or irrespective of rivers, creeks, draws, mountains, hollows, bottom lands, and everything that grows or lives in, on, or near them, or that may lie buried beneath them. And it is this kind of vision, this attitude toward the place where he lives, that gives Caudill’s kind of conservation a special significance. He is not simply dedicated to saving scenery. For him the scenic wonders, the ecology, the people and their stories, are all part of the land and in total represent a heritage only a vandal would degrade or destroy. And this is perhaps the chief reason why he finds the desecration of his own small section of the continent such an unconscionable and unacceptable outrage.

Caudill’s part of Kentucky is neither the gracious bluegrass-and-blooded-horses Kentucky of legend nor the bustling, modern, industrial Kentucky that much of the state’s western half is fast becoming. He lives in the other Kentucky, set in the rugged Cumberland uplands to the east, where steep, wrinkled mountains, lush in spring and summer, extravagantly colorful in the fall, bleak as can be in winter, cover some ten thousand square miles and are sliced into a bewildering tangle of narrow, twisting valleys that shelter something like half a million people and what appear to be at least ten thousand hulks of abandoned automobiles. “The old cars from Cincinnati and Dayton all come down here to die,” one man told me.

Until the latter part of the nineteenth century it was country that had changed little since pioneer times. Then timber buyers began arriving with what seemed very fancy offers for the immense stands of trees, most of them hardwoods, to be found almost anywhere they looked.

“The eyes of the ‘furrin’ timber hunters must have popped with amazement,” Caudill writes in Night Comes to the Cumberlands . “The great poplars and white oaks grew, for the most part, near the base of the hills and in the coves, while the lesser oaks and chestnuts predominated on the sharper points and near the hilltops. Countless walnuts dotted the forest, thousands of them without blemish and a yard or more in diameter. The Goliaths were the superb, pencil-straight poplars, some of them towering one hundred and seventy-five feet and achieving a diameter of seven or eight feet.” There were also enormous hickories, maples, beeches, ashes, black gums, pines, and hemlocks, an abundance and variety of trees such as could be found in few places on earth by then. The buyer was offering cash money in amounts seldom dreamed of in the mountains; the seller usually thought he was getting the better of the bargain. In most cases the going price was fifty to seventy-five cents a tree, and from about 1870 on, thousands of mountaineers were kept busy bringing down the trees. By the 1930’s about all the virgin timber was gone, and another supreme natural treasure had been destroyed.

Today the hardwoods are only beginning to come back, and in all Kentucky there is but one sizable stand of virgin woodland, some 550 acres in Letcher County known as Lilly’s Wood. The late Lilly Cornell, former owner of the property, loved trees and turned down every offer from the timber buyers. (Along Line Fork Creek he is remembered as “the most peculiar man you ever saw … carried his money in an old Buffalo tobacco bag and dressed all raggedy.”) For the past few years, it has appeared that Lilly’s Wood, too, was headed for the sawmill. But Caudill and others, including the Louisville Courier-Journal , put on such a concerted drive to rescue the trees that the slate, with the help of the U.S. Bureau of Outdoor Recreation and the Nature Conservancy, finally slepped in and bought the property. The last remnanl of the immense foresl that once covered the whole of eastern Kentucky has been saved (see the photograph and caption on pages 112 and 113).

But the destruction of Kentucky’s trees was a minor tragedy beside what happened after the railroads came in and made it possible to take coal out. Coal was known to exist in the mountains by the earliest white explorers. Christopher Gist reported finding “fine coal” in 1751. But it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the railroads began penetrating the Kentucky highlands and thereby put an end to the way of life that had existed so long undisturbed.

Even by the turn of the century Whitesburg, for example, had no telegraph, no telephone, no connection with the rest of the world but a narrow road twenty miles over the mountains. But with the arrival of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Lexinglon became a “daylighl ride” from Whilesburg. A Selh Thomas clock was installed in the courthouse cupola and set to standard time, and things began to change rapidly in Whilesburg. As a little history of the town written at the time proudly slates, “The Romance of these hills—heart of these noble old Mountains should be Dig, Dig, Dig—The Open Door—The Open Sesame, To Old Midas’ Minis. Here all one has to do is to tickle the sides of Old Mount with a pick and an avalanche of’gold’ rushes down.”

The buying up of such treasures began about 1885, when into Kentucky, close on the heels of the timber buyers, came the mineral buyers, affable, storytelling agents representing northern bankers and businessmen. Their primary purpose was to purchase not land but the rights to whatever minerals (coal, primarily) lay beneath it. The mineral buyers found the pickings even better than had the timber buyers. With the greatest of ease they managed to get thousands of mountain landowners to put their “X” to the so-called broad-form deed.

This now infamous legal document not only gave the coal companies title to whatever “mineral and metallic substances” might lie beneath the soil, but it authorized the grantees to do whatever was “convenient or necessary” to extract those same substances. And to insure against any further troubles with the owner of the property, there was a final clause absolving the coal company of all liability for any damages resulting from its mining operations. The price generally paid for such rights was fifty cents an acre. On the average, over the years, an acre would yield a minimum of five thousand tons of coal, worth about twenty thousand dollars today. But the really tragic consequences of all this would not be felt for another generation or more. No one back then had any reason to imagine anything like strip mining.

By 1912 or so “the railroads had been built, and, as Caudill has written, the vast, backward Cumberland Plateau was tied inseparably to “the colossal industrial complex centering in Pittsburgh, and a dynamic new phase in the region’s history had begun.” The coal companies put up houses for the help; doctors, teachers, coal miners, and their bosses began moving in. The coal began rolling out in endless carloads. A ten-hour day in the mines was routine; men died of “black damp” (methane gas), cave-ins, explosions; or, like Caudill’s father and his older brother, they were crippled for life. Still, wages were good by standards of the day, extraordinary by Kentucky standards, and nobody complained much until the Depression struck. Then followed years of suffering in the coal towns. The dole and the first chronic despair made themselves known in the mountains, and as Caudill likes to remind people, it was then, too, that the mountaineer, traditionally clean in his personal habits, began making garbage dumps of his streams, many of which had already been ruined by silt and sulphuric acid draining out of the mines.

With the Depression also came John L. Lewis and his United Mine Workers, a massive W.P.A. program, and in time, the war. Coal became a cash crop again and stayed that way until 1947 and 1948, when coal production hit its peak in Appalachia. Then came the 1950’s, automation, some of the hardest times ever known in the mountains, and the start of one of the most important migrations in American history. Between 1950 and 1960 something in the neighborhood of one and a quarter million people left the mountains to find work in the cities; they were soon to be a large part of what would be labelled “the urban poor.”

It was also at this time that strip mining began. If anyone opposed it, out came the old mineral deeds. A man would one day be informed that the bulldozers were going to rip through part of his property, and there was not a thing he could do to stop it. His father or grandfather or someone had once put his mark to a broad-form deed. Such cases were taken to court soon enough, but the courts decided in favor of the coal companies.

The issue was litigated anew in 1968 in the Kentucky Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, with the judgment going again in favor of the coal industry. Until then the strip mining proceeded unchecked, quickly becoming an intensely emotional, dangerous issue, with no shortage of abusive language on either side. And with feelings mounting, the bulldozers soon became targets for more than just invective. Snipers began firing from nearby wooded hills—sometimes using armor-piercing bullets. (“Where those bullets hit the steel,” Caudill says, “it looks just like somebody dragged his fingers across the butter.”) Operators and sheriffs began returning the fire, and at least one man, Tom Fuson of Pineville, was killed. Then, one night in the fall of 1968, a watchman for the Round Mountain Coal Company in Cowfork was captured by four unidentified men who proceeded to blow up (with the company’s own store of explosives) nearly $750,000 worth of equipment. Among the items destroyed were a bulldozer (a No. 9 “dozer,” as it is called, which is the biggest model made by Caterpillar), a truck, a jeep, a coal auger, three rubber-tired high-lifts, three generators, and a giant diesel shovel. Other operators have had equipment destroyed that was valued as high as $90,000. In one such after-dark strike a dozer was blown completely in two, a feat that left a lasting impression on everyone who saw it, since such work, it is said in tones of great respect, could have been handled only by an expert. To date there have been no arrests, and it seems unlikely that there will be any, even though nobody expects the dynamiting to stop.

“And just suppose we did make an arrest,” a state police detective told Tom Bethell, a reporter for the Mountain Eagle . “Try getting a Knott County jury to convict the guy. They never would.”

With so much going against them, why, one might well wonder, do the strip miners keep gouging away? The answer, aside from money, is that there are several significant attractions to strip mining that must not be overlooked or underestimated if one is to understand the problem.

For one thing, with strip mining it is possible to work with much bigger equipment than with ordinary underground mining. Put in its simplest terms, this means that fewer men can mine more coal faster. A strip miner can produce about thirty tons a day, or more than twice the output of the miner underground; and in an auger mine, where huge boring machines with steel bits sometimes seven feet in diameter are used, production is greater still.

Strip mining is also considerably safer. Men do get killed in strip mines—from falling rock or overturned equipment—but the risks involved on the job are nowhere near as serious as in a conventional mine. There are no slate falls to contend with; no deadly gas; no silicosis or “black lung” caused by inhaling coal dust. Nor is there any of the psychological fear of going underground.

But perhaps the most important appeal of the whole business of strip mining is that it is so simple. One need not even be a miner to run a strip mine (a fact the “true” coal miners are quick to emphasize). An ability to handle heavy earthmoving equipment is about the only expertise required. With the proper machinery—bulldozers, chiefly—the operator simply scrapes off the topsoil, then the subsoil (which generally includes a lot of rock and requires blasting) until he strikes the coal seam. He then scoops up the coal and dumps it into trucks, which take it to a coal tipple. There the coal is transferred to railroad cars, which in turn haul it out of the mountains.

And added to all that, the strip miners still have the law on their side. In June of 19683 broad-form deed was contested before the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and the court upheld the deed. The case involved LeRoy Martin and his wife, who owned a ten-acre parcel of land in Knott County, the mineral rights for which were held by the Kentucky River Coal Corporation under a broad-form deed. It was a historic test case. No other state in the union still honored broad-form deeds for strip mining. The decision was a tremendous blow for the small landowners, for conservationists, and for Harry Caudill, who was the Martins’ counsel.

Caudill, however, hopes to contest the broad-form deed again. He would like to take it to a federal court; all that is needed, he says, is a client who is willing, and financially able, to stick with the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. In the meantime, court fights of other kinds continue.

There is, for example, the illustrative case of Vernon Barnett. Seven years ago Barnett bought a house on an acre of ground on Yellow Creek in Knott County. He had spent thirty-six years in the mines, lived always in a company house, knew nothing but mining, and was now disabled by black lung. But for once he had a place of his own. In the time since, however, the mountainside behind his house has been strip-mined, and now a huge spoil bank hangs over his head like a volcano. At one point two men from the mine came down to advise him, “unofficially” they said, not to sleep in any room facing the mountainside. There was no telling what might let go and come crashing through his windows.

After one rainstorm the water surged through the creek beside his house with such fury that it moved a giant boulder some sixty feet. Then his own water supply began to give out. Now only a trickle comes out of his kitchen faucet. “Not enough even to do dishes,” his wife says. When Barnett went to see the operator, he was told that the coal company would “make good” on any damages caused. But as Barnett says, “When you are trying to go to sleep at night and you know that spoil bank is hanging up there, you don’t think much about who will be paying for ‘damages.’ You think about getting buried alive.” Friends have urged him to move out. Barnett has decided to take his case to court and has asked Caudill to represent him. He says he “can trust Harry,” as do numerous others who have tried to fight the strip miners.

As one might suspect, however, Caudill is not universally popular in eastern Kentucky. The state reclamation people give him ample credit for getting the law on the books in the first place. “He served his purpose,” says Elmore Grim, the tall, businesslike director of the program. But Grim and those who work for him suggest that Caudill gets the operators so furious that it sometimes seems they make trouble just out of spite.

Grim’s firm conviction is that the best way to make progress is to work with the operators, to get them to “see the light,” as he puts it. His inspectors are now looking over every strip mine in Kentucky at least once every two weeks, he claims. He has closed down several for failure to conform to the law, but, as he admits, he has still to enforce it to the hilt. “Why, we’ve got enough law on the books now to shut down every strip in this state,” Grim says. “That is, if we were to nitpick. But we can’t do that. We’ve got to find out how these things can best be handled, reasonably and intelligently. Hell, I could be a dictator. But the federal government doesn’t even know what to do. Take acid mine drainage. Nobody knows what to do. Stop it up on one side of a mountain and it will start coming out the other side, where the streams are good. Plug it? The plug will blow, and what a mess that is. There’s probably an answer to it. I don’t know the answer. This isn’t like geology or agronomy, where you can go and look up the answer in a library. We’re writing the book as we go along.”

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.

Still, to a large degree his feelings are understandable, since Letcher County has been the subject of numerous articles and television shows, including one by the B.B.C., and a film for the Houston Hemisfair (during the making of which the leader of the film crew was shot and killed by an elderly local man who did not want his property photographed for such purposes). Why so much attention has been focused on Letcher County—when there are dozens of other places in Appalachia where the same or similar problems are just as dramatically on display is readily explained: Harry Caudill. His own magazine articles and books have been read in New York and Washington by those who make editorial decisions, and from what they read it appears that in Whitesburg there is a unique man, someone who can talk intelligently about the problems, someone who belongs there and should therefore know whereof he speaks; and so to Whitesburg they go. In July, when C.B.S. was looking for places to show what America was up to as the first men landed on the moon, one of the places picked was Whitesburg, because Bernard Birnbaum, a C.B.S. producer, had read Caudill’sbook, later met Caudill and listened to him talk, and had been immensely impressed. (The program, tentatively entitled “A Day in the Life of the United States,” will probably be shown sometime this month or next.)

In the minds of some people in Whitesburg, including many of the business people, drawing such attention is a grave mistake. A coal operator like Bill Sturgill, a thickset man who generally wears sunglasses and who has known Caudill since college days, says he simply cannot understand why Caudill behaves as he does. When Caudill was campaigning for strip-mine legislation it was Sturgill, as much as anyone, who led the attack against him, claiming that if the law were passed it would immediately put every strip miner out of business. He stressed how good strip mining is for the local economy. His 287 employees were earning anywhere from $7,500 to $12,000 a year, he claimed. He was making annual purchases from some 104 different companies and individuals amounting to more than six million dollars. Then he bored in on his adversary. “It is still a matter of record,” he wrote in a letter to the Courier-Journal , “that Mr. Caudill does not support the economy or provide job opportunity, but rather has made much personal gain from advertising world-wide the ills and misfortunes of his friends and neighbors.”

For Sturgill and other operators the idea that there may be something fundamentally wrong with strip mining seems almost impossible to grasp. As they see it, they are helping to serve the nation’s energy needs; they are making dollars move in their communities; they are making what seems to them otherwise valueless land pay. Coal is now Kentucky’s number-one cash crop, and they take pride in helping to make that possible.

Wendell Berry is convinced that such men are blinded by the jargon of free enterprise—”as if,” he says, “the freedom of free enterprise implied freedom from moral responsibility.” Loyal Jones believes that the problem rests on the pernicious notion that people and the land are there to be exploited, used up, and consumed, and that the roots of such beliefs can be traced to frontier times. Harry Caudill believes strip mining is symbolic of something perhaps still more serious. “I think it tells us more than anything except war about the darker side of our nature. I remember coming home from the war on a hospital ship and worrying about that. I began to think that perhaps that darker side would prevail. This devastation of the earth is a manifestation of that tragic, base side, the side that in the Bible is represented by Satan and his works.”

Caudill’s own conviction is that strip mining ought to be the subject of a national policy, that federal laws should be enacted as soon as possible and strictly enforced. (“The current Kentucky law and the way it is being handled is a little like attacking a crocodile with a cornstalk,” he says.) He would like to see strip mining outlawed anywhere that the slope of a mountainside exceeds twenty degrees. He also wants strip mining to be authorized only where total reclamation can be carried on promptly and effectively. The system he wants put into operation is one used in several European countries, where, he emphasizes, they do a superior job of restoration. In England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, among other places, the topsoil is carefully put aside and the subsoil and rock kept separate. Once the coal has been removed, rock, subsoil, and topsoil all go back in their original order, the layers being compacted during the process. “There’s no reason why we can’t do that if they do,” he says.

The way to pay for this, Caudill believes, is to raise the price of coal. “The way it is now, coal is undercutting the price of other fuels at a hidden cost to tremendous stretches of the American land. And,” he adds, “the same thing is going to happen to Canada. The Japanese are going to get cheap Canadian coal in colossal amounts, while Canada gets the ruined land.”

Caudill would also like to see massive amounts of money spent on reclaiming “orphan mines,” abandoned strip mines that represent most of the land destroyed to date—“enough,” he points out, “to make a swath a mile wide extending from Times Square to the Golden Gate and back again almost to the Nevada border.” More than likely the money would have to come from the federal government. At Grim’s suggestion there is now serious talk about getting the T.V.A. to provide funds out of the fifty million dollars or so that the Authority turns back to the federal treasury each year.

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.”