By LARRY CALLOWAY
I read slow when I get emotionally involved in a book, and “Stand Up That Mountain” by Jay Erskine Leutze was slow reading for me. Released by Scribner’s in June, it has not yet been mentioned in the major reviews and that’s a goddam New York shame. But — what’d I expect? — it’s about mountain people.
Not your Everest climbers and that sort of high achievers with money. It’s the true story of a legal fight to save a mountain in North Carolina near the Appalachian Trail from becoming a gravel pit. Mountain people? Appalachian Trail? Environmental law? Naww, the reviewers have heard all that before (or think they have).
I never would have known about the book except for an alert librarian in a mountain town, Telluride, CO. (Yes, I know. We’re talking two different kinds of mountain people here. More on that later.) She put the book in the centre of a display rack of recommended new acquisitions. I went home to my own little mountain town and bought it on Kindle.
Three reasons this book took my heart away to those fertile mountains not half as high as mine here in Crestone:
- It’s good. Leutze is an artful writer and his story is personal. You can scan through it to find out who wins, but writing this careful justifies careful reading.
- It’s true — about a case that involves all the forces and characters in current American battles over conservation of wild lands.
- With a light touch, he does what I seldom accomplished in years as a state capitol reporter in New Mexico (a state similar to North Carolina in provincial corruption and legal idiocies): he makes a complex legal dispute exciting as it makes its way to the appellate courts.
- He gives a voice to the people of the Appalachian Mountains, lets them speak in their own poetic idiom. They are my father’s people (see the post that follows this). My grandfather and grandmother both were at least the third generation of Calloways in the mountains around Mars Hill, NC, about 50 miles down the present U.S. 19E from the main setting of this story.
Environmentalists — and I don’t think Leutze uses this word — have adopted a cliche-ridden institutional style that matches their opponents’ news releases. Both sides are boring us into indifference. (As with reviewers who’ve heard it all before.) Leutze is authentic and original. He lived this story, is the protagonist here. We know how he felt.
But Leutze writes a fresh and fearless prose. In despair at one point he thinks the cause is lost “because the legal terrain and the cultural terrain favors business over nature, the tangible, the measurable, over the experiential. . . . Leaving a place alone? Letting it be because it is lovely, natural, or simply because it functions in a coherent and perfect way? There is no market for that. No profit to show, no quarterly result to report.”
But he balances his own eloquence with dialog that comes from growing up with the Mountain idiom: “rurent” for ruined, “tar” for tire, “hits” for it’s. The “stand up” in the title is Mountain for “stand up for” or “stand behind.” Ollie, the self described “mountain girl” who is a central character, reacts to his use of a Latin legal term by saying, “Why don’t you people use regular words?” there is no doubt he agrees with her.
After Luetze graduated from North Carolina Law School, he chose nature over business, moving to a cabin in the woods in the mountains of Avery County near the Tennessee border. His life of walking and fishing, planting and foraging, was peaceful until the blasting began. His education became his weapon.
He is a new kind of mountain man, the sort you will find in Telluride, a small town with an assessed valuation equal to that of some cities. The new library where “Stand Up That Mountain” was promoted is, like the high school, a new stone structure that most cities would not afford. There were miners in Telluride 40 years ago, but they are long gone and the main mine has been “reclaimed” and its tailings subdivided. The community is so fiercely dedicated to conservation (and so wealthy) that it raised some $53 million to buy off a developer who had big plans for the pastures that border the last condominiums on the valley floor.
I wondered if Telluride might be the model for the future of the Appalachians of western North Carolina, once they are conserved.
By LARRY CALLOWAY (2006)
When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.