From Huckleberry Ridge to Thunder Ridge

  1. 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

 

 

 

 

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Shaiya Baer

Vanderbilt University

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