Why review a 38 year old book? When I spotted this book, I remembered the name Harry Caudill because of his book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. I read that book after reading a chapter about Harry Caudill in a book of essays by Wendell Berry called What Are People For?
Now, I've been an admirer of Wendell Berry for years, and enjoy his writing - and his thoughts - immensely. Like Berry, Caudill (1922-1990) was a person who willingly tied his life to a place - the Kentucky Cumberlands - and he spent his life living and working in that place, and protecting what he found valuable in it. What he found valuable, it turns out, was the landscape, the people, and the culture that the two - put together - formed.
Published in 1971, My Land is Dying is a detailing of the history the exploitation of the Cumberlands' resources - first the virgin forest that blanketed the region, later the coal, and always the people. He details how the collusion of state government with business interests first disenfranchised, then impoverished, and finally drove from the land the vast majority of the inhabitants of the land. Caudill knows what he's talking about; he was a lawyer, and a good one. But he defended the defenseless, and saw time & again how victories at the local level would be reversed by higher level courts in the capital of Frankfort. His narrative of this slow, inexorable death is accompanied by pictures that show the devastation, and he spends time talking about people. Not in the abstract, but real folks with real names, like the widow Ollie Combs, who was arrested on her own land when she delayed miners by laying down in front of bulldozers.
Written 38 years ago, this book's message should be read more urgently today, both because the stakes are higher, and the truths that it speaks are undiminished: "No nation was ever more abundantly endowed with natural beauty than ours. Yet it is clear from this continuing record that no nation has been more heedless of its legacy. And no chapter of that record is uglier or more threatening than the chapter that continues to be written by the mining interests, whether below or on the surface of the land."
This book may be old, but it deserves to be widely read.