Night Comes To The Cumberlands

In college, I took a class on the political science of Appalachia. Required reading for the course was Harry M. Caudill’s “Night Comes To The Cumberlands.” First published in 1962, it’s a raw look at this impoverished area. I come from Appalachian Ohio and once worked in tourism, an industry attempting to rebrand the region as a destination for beauty and traditional arts. The tourism folks of Appalachia are working hard to ditch the images of poverty that most Americans associate with the area.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these folks wouldn’t care much for Mr. Caudill’s book.

My father has worked in the timber industry for his entire life as did his father before him and his grandfather. It’s prevalent in my neck of the woods and I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for timber. In fact, I might not have made it to college to read this book if not for my hard working father and his work in timber.

Perhaps that’s why this particular passage not only caught my eye but has very much been a part of me since my 21 year old self encountered it all those years ago. I love nature and the personification of the tree is something I will carry for the rest of my days. I hope you are as moved by it as I was the first time I read it.

“Huge cuts were made on the trunk with the keen, long-handled axes. Generally two men faced each other on opposite sides of the huge column and swung their double-bitted axes in a measured tempo which filled the air with flying chips and caused the assaulted giant to lean in the direction of their cut. When approximately one third of the trunk had been chopped away, the axes were laid aside and a long cross-cut saw was laid to the opposite side. For an hour or two the droning teeth gnawed their way into the vitals of the centuries-old titan. Suddenly, when the unsevered wood was only inches thick, the dying monster swayed and crashed to the earth.  Its descent was terrific, its ancient branches tearing a mighty swath through lesser timber on the hillside below. The mountains and valleys echoed and re-echoed the thunder of its fall. Wild creatures fled the area in fright; then, a moment later, the thunder was replaced by a curious stillness as though the forest and all its creatures had paused to mourn the passing of one of its patriarchs.”