- Daymon Morgan bought his Appalachian mountain top property on Lower Bad Creek Road in Leslie County, Kentucky after returning from his stint in the Army following World War Two. As a child, he collected herbs and hunted in the very same area. The only sound the inhabitants of Lower Bad Creek could hear in the days before the advent of mountain top removal was that of melodious birds and the rapid percussion of raindrops falling upon a thick and never ending leafy awning of trees and plants.
In time, coal companies bought nearly all the properties surrounding Daymon’s spread including his sister’s adjacent land. Bad blood remained following his sister’s perfidy. With the surface mining came dreary moonscapes and so-called reclamation areas soon covered with newly planted fauna such as lespedeza cubeata. The great trees that arose from the clear cutting roughly one hundred years before were all gone as if the Oncler, yet again, reckoned with the Lorax. This time there were no stumps allowing the forest to reemerge on its own accord; the top soil was totally gone too. Some trees were sold for timber, but most were bulldozed into valleys. Coal roads crisscrossed the boundaries of Daymon’s land.
On my way to Daymon’s place, I found signs warning visitors about pending detonations, surveillance cameras and roads forbidden to public access even though they are officially public domain (locals use the roads just the same). The coal roads are drab gray pummeled rock, punctuated with potholes from the onslaught of massive coal trucks. The precipice to Daymon’s property reveals no more than a sliver of wooded paradise that he calls Huckleberry Ridge. The coal companies refer to the area at-large as Thunder Ridge.
Daymon defies the tired stereotype of the provincial Appalachian mountain man. Yes, he eats squirrel but also drinks almond milk. He knows the local herbs and their medicinal value which has obviously served his vibrant longevity. Daymon is the thoughtful defender against King Coal‘s destruction of the remaining vestiges of Nature and the Appalachian way of life. His struggle has extended beyond his own property to that of all Kentucky. In recent memory, he has been president of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and traveled the world as a representative of this formidable grassroots organization.
Now in his 80’s, he still musters youthful defiance. He tells visitors who tour his forest, that there is no price for his land. The coal company sees the termination of the glorious landscape as no more than collateral damage in a regional war for energy and ultimately profit.
Upon entering coal country, one senses a battle being waged by the coal companies and their agents in the State government and lobbies against the forces who oppose mtr. Billboards advertising pro-coal rallies line Route 80. Associations are made between coal and American patriotic values. Bumper stickers and license plates publicize support for the “friends of coal” moniker. Some down home gas station marquees warn “opponents” of coal to reconsider stopping by. The “I love Mountains” supporters are hardly to be seen, perhaps wary of the consequences of run-ins with their more demonstrative pro-coal neighbors. Their wish to preserve the beautiful land and way of life is ironically perceived as anti- American.
Perhaps the most peculiar oddity is how supporters of coal see themselves: oppressed by outsiders, liberals and the EPA. Truth be told, big coal means big money and political influence in Kentucky. They call the shots for now. The so-called independent Rand Paul kowtowed to the coal industry during his campaign for the Senate downplaying his preference for nuclear power over coal.
At the close of the tour of Huckleberry Ridge, Daymon eases back from battle. He proudly shows his hybrid deep red “Butcher” corn to all that visit. Daymon developed this corn which is recognized far and wide. A fortunate guest might take a couple of ears home.
Whenever I leave Daymon’s company, I cannot help but feel this may be the last time I see him. His wife passed away some months ago. He is a struggling remnant of the few who intrinsically understand or recall the meaning of the good life in the Appalachia mountains. A dying breed.
Appalachia is broken. Tap water is often an orangish hue laden with chemical deposits from the coal excavation process. Its society is ravaged by meth, chronically poor education and economy. The coal bosses give little in return to ameliorate the struggles facing the people of east Kentucky. A younger generation is further handicapped by surgically altered landscapes which no longer replicates bio diversity or its former majesty. New physical realities force the residents to rethink their sense of place and identity in the denuded environment.
I suspect all that may remain in the not too distant future will be collections of Folkways recordings of mountain music and dog-eared copies of poetry and prose by the Appalachian master, James Still.
On the road home from Daymon’s place, I buy gas at the Daniel Boone Plaza shopping center in Hazard, Kentucky. It boasts a fairly new Walmart Super Center. Hazard has finally arrived. The Plaza is located on a flat parcel of land that is out of place within the hilly contours of this region. I am not surprised to find that my vehicle is now squarely situated where a densely wooded mountain, full of life, once stood.
Addendum: Daymon Morgan passed away December 11, 2014