An environmental saga and a mountain story
By Brent Martin
It is a rare event these days to come across a work of non-fiction dealing with any environmental issue that does not leave one with feelings of despair and loss. Author Jay Leutze, however, has given us a tale of how one little corner of Appalachia, when galvanized to stand up for their homes and natural resources, persevered in the face of despair and overwhelming odds, and won. But Stand Up That Mountain is more than just the story of how the Dog Town community in Avery County, N.C., hung in there for years to ultimately defeat the Putnam rock quarry, it is also a blow by blow account of Leutze’s development as a conservationist — now one of North Carolina’s most valuable and treasured — who had moved to his old family home on Yellow Mountain in the Roan Highlands to withdraw from some such distractions in order to follow his passion to become a writer.
Little did he know that after leaving law school and a promising career to withdraw to the North Carolina Mountains, that fate would find him working 24 hours a day to defend the home and community in which he had sought refuge. Nor did he know that, as the events unfolded, this would be his writing destiny. Leutze’s dream of an experiment in simple living was crushed by the arrival of developer Paul Brown to nearby Belview mountain, and his idyllic existence was transformed into a hell of daily toil spent campaigning, organizing, and fighting Brown in the courts. The following paragraph speaks to the gravity of the situation as it began to build and settle deep within his bones:
“As that spring wound on, as the trees kept falling, a punishing reality was born in me: if Paul Brown succeeded in his effort to take down Belview Mountain, I would have no choice but to leave the mountain and the house I had spent my childhood summers in, the house I had turned into my homeplace. How could I write, how could I possibly concentrate with the white-hot anxiety building in me, taking its toll as the mountain came down in phases detailed in the mining permit? How much of the mountain would disappear through the jaws of the primary crusher, get hauled away over the term of the lease? Over my lifetime? I knew, or I suspected I knew, that my perfect state of fury — as satisfying as it felt sometimes — would ruin me.”
Yet while Leutze’s internal fury and commitment to stopping Brown is the driving force behind Stand Up That Mountain and what makes it such a gripping tale, his relationship with his multi-generational neighbors and the tenderness and humor with which they are portrayed is just as central to the drama as any of the intrigue thrust upon him from various shady characters. The story of his neighbor and friend, mountain woman Ollie Ve Cook Cox, is a thread that runs through the entire book, a vein of gold that ties the taut narrative together and builds the story with such heartfelt dialogue that it alone is worth reading the book for. The Cox family story is rich with its own drama and intrigue, full of personal heartaches and illnesses, and the hardships one mountain family must endure, both economically and socially, in the stark face of money and power. The sensitivity with which Leutze presents this to the reader is worth noting. Here is an example of Jay attempting to get Ollie to speak at a local hearing on the mine:
“That judge that’s going to hear our case hangs everybody that sits in that chair. And now you’ve got me in his sights. You’re a damn troublemaker.”
“All you have to do is answer the questions,” I reassured. “You’re not on trial. You’re a witness.”
“Huh! That’s easy for you to say. It’s not your neck laid on the blocks.”
“It’s not going to be like that. It’s just a chance for us to tell our side of the story. Remember, we’re suing them. Nobody’s neck is on any block.”
Ollie was unconvinced. Her brushes with the law had not been as tidy as that. Now she was aggravated anew. “Why is it me going up there anyway? You’re the one who got this thing all stirred up.”
“Making stuff up is not the way to go Ollie. You and Ashley were giving Paul hell long before you met me,” I needled her.
“I don’t even know what to say. When I get nervous, I might say anything. You want me to use them ten-letter lawyer words you’re always using?”
“I want you to talk like you always do.”
Ashley couldn’t resist: “God help us.”
Ollie was nibbling her fingernail. “Maybe I’ll be struck dumb,” she threatened.
“No, that’s your brother,” I said. “You were born smart.”
“Damn, I will get you for this, my Little Buddy.”
Anyone interested in and committed to defending these mountains should read Stand Up That Mountain for the inspiration, but it stands on its own for its graceful, humorous, and endearing portrayal of some of the most interesting mountain characters living here today. The characters make the story, making the defeat of Putnam Mine more than just a hard won environmental victory for the Southern Environmental Law Center, The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the State of North Carolina. Together, these characters and this victory represent what the ancient Romans called the Genius Loci – the guardian spirit and distinctive character of a place. Leutze has called forth this spirit in Stand Up That Mountain, and for this he will be remembered.