There are days, weeks even, when the only way I can muddle through is to wrap all of it up and push it aside. In short, I feel beat. Helpless, even. The part of me who wants to change the world rails against the part of me that knows I can’t actually change the Big Picture Things that desperately need it: I can’t save the red wolf, or halt the seas from rising, any more than I can prevent the lowly but numerous wooly adelgids from sucking the life out of all the hemlock trees in western North Carolina, until they too disappear.
It was amid this puddle of dark thinking that I began reading Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail. Originally I picked this book up because it’s an environmental story of regional interest to me — I live but a few counties southwest of the mountains where the story unfolds. But from the first page, Leutze’s writing sang and I knew this was a very special piece of work to be savored and studied.
Stand Up That Mountain is a true story, but it’s written as if it were a novel. It has a set of heroes who pit themselves David-and-Goliath fashion against a good-ole-boy villain and his minions to rescue their town from surefire environmental destruction. But Leutze doesn’t let any of his characters fall prey to trope or caricature: they are all complicated, real, flawed people who he portrays in all their strengths, frailties, quirks, and commonalities.
At the broadest level, Stand Up That Mountain is a narrative of how a small band of neighbors halted the Putnam Gravel Mine from operating in their community in Avery County in far western North Carolina. The mine was adjacent to some of their properties and it offended not only their sense of quietude and their mountain views, but also their sense of community and ecological place. None of the adjacent property owners who were uninvolved with the mine were given advance notice that it would be opening. It just sprang up one day, like a giant tumor in the forest. At 151 acres, it was supposed to become the largest surface mine in the state.
Lack of notice to neighboring landowners becomes the crux of the legal argument against the Putnam Mine, along with the fact that it was sited in close visual proximity to the Appalachian Trail, which is supposed to have its viewshed protected to give hikers an unbroken visual and auditory wilderness experience. In addition to running a rock crusher which would have ground large chunks of rock into gravel, a gravel mine in this area would have dismantled a mountainside piece by piece until nothing was left but a gaping hole in the ground hundreds of feet deep. And throughout its hundred years of operation, it would be seen and heard from the trail itself.
In telling this part of the story, Leutze cleverly weaves technical aspects of the legal fight against the Putnam Mine into a narrative rich in real-life characters and a wild Southern Appalachian mountain setting. At times the story seems to progress blow-by-blow as his court case lurches through the state’s legal system. But this uneven, herky-jerky series of triumphs and disappointments is not a literary device — this is what actually happened. And in documenting the highs and lows, Leutze manages to make a fairly convoluted legal story into a tale worthy of being mistaken for the most indulgently enjoyable crime novel.
But I also found this book to go deeper than simply presenting the story of the mine being challenged and ultimately halted. It’s a story about using the law to fight the twin establishments of government and industry, and to stand up for the little people in life, yes; but it’s also a story about perseverance in the face of long political odds, and it’s a deeply moving study of southern Appalachian lifestyles and mountain culture.
From a literary perspective, one of the things that first struck me about Leutze’s book was his use of dialogue. He uses people’s accents and freely quotes their colorful turns of phrase. “At all” is “a’tall,” “yellow” is “yaller,” ” a hundred” is “hunnert,” and “I’m getting nowhere” becomes “I’m killed.” But in documenting his character’s speech patterns, Leutze is not codifying their socioeconomic or educational status. Rather, he’s revealing their way of life in a refreshingly honest and respectful way. He lets readers know that his family stems from mountain folk, and though he himself begins as an outsider in his community, he clearly has a sense of reverence and fascination for the people who live there. Readers get a sense of these colorful mountain dwellers being geographically and culturally differentiated from the comparatively more cosmopolitan and connected Piedmont where the state capital is located (and to where Leutze frequently traveled for the court case). But Leutze elevates and amplifies their marginalized voices — voices that people in power do not always want to hear.
As a writer, I couldn’t help but wonder if Leutze’s extensive dialogue was drawn from notes taken while talking to his sources, audio-recordings during interviews, or remembered conversations. While he attended many of the court hearings, and worked extensively with the lawyers involved in the case, it’s also possible he used court records and transcripts to obtain direct quotes for these sections. Regardless, the final effect feels both deeply literary and highly accurate — complementary elements that I prize.
Overall, this is a wonderful book. It scores high in literary appeal, details a remarkable legal fight over natural resources management, and paints an endearing portrait of mountain culture in western North Carolina. I recommend it, no matter where you live.
Although I still struggle with a sense of helplessness in the environmental fights I care about; this book did give me a renewed sense of faith that sometimes — sometimes — the good fight is won.