Harry Caudill: Appalachian Environmentalist

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That combination could buy every voter in the country if necessary, and most people couldn't care less. People, for the most part, don't care anything about the land. We're a people without any land ethic whatever.


How many Americans care about the land? If we really cared we would insist, for instance, that every acre of Iowa which is our breadbasket-go under a cover crop each fall. When Iowa fails, this country is going to starve. Yet, when I was out in Iowa two weeks ago, I talked to a county agent. And he said that nearly all the farmers out there have quit cover-cropping.

Back in FDR's time and Henry Wallace's time, the government paid farmers to cover-crop,and talked them into it and urged them to do it and cover-cropping became the order of the day. Now the soil just lies bare all winter and washes away.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that Iowa is losing one percent of its fertility every year and the American people don't care. Who on any campus asks, "Who's taking care of the soil of Iowa?" Nobody. Yet without the land, everything fails. When Iowa has lost its fertility, who will feed us? Who will feed India and China? Who will feed the world?

What pressure is there in this country for land preservation? In Germany, for example, dumping mine waste out on the land is a felony. All the waste goes back in the worked-out mine in Germany and that's been the law since 1865. West Virginia, on the other hand, has 15,000 acres covered with coal waste. East Kentucky has another 7,000. .

PLOWBOY: Mr. Caudill, one last question: It's been 12 years since you wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands and many things have changed during that period. How would you rewrite the book today?

CAUDILL: About all I would change is the last part. I would put a great deal more emphasis on the need to restore-insofar as restoration is humanly-possible-the landscape we're tearing up. Because I've come to realize that no matter what ups and downs the market may take, we're not going to stop digging until all the coal is taken out of the earth.

We're going to plunder every last lump of coal and, once it's all gone, the human race is still going to be here. Continually increasing in numbers-unfortunately-always needing to eat, always needing clothing, always looking to the earth for everything it consumes.

So I would now advocate much more strenuous efforts to fix the earth back insofar as it can be fixed, because I have a deep sympathy anti pity for the people not yet born who are going to have to live on the land that we're tearing up. I would devote more lines, I think, to trying to persuade the American people to have a little more affection for their unborn posterity.

We take very lightly what we do to the land, but those who come after us will take our actions quite seriously. Because they'll have to live on the land we leave to them. They'll have to get their food from it. They'll have to fix it back or starve. And, by that time, much of the earth they'll wish they could depend on will be gone forever. Gone down the Mississippi.

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