In Memoriam: Carol Judy, Appalachian Warrior & Healer
In September 2016, I traveled to Eagan, Tennessee, to the Woodland Community Land Trust to interview Carol Judy, a pillar of learning and activism in the Clearfork Valley, who touched the lives of thousands over decades. It was a trip I had made many times, having known Carol since 2011. As we laughed our way through this interview, with the light and sounds of Appalachia pouring through the open windows, I never imagined it would be the last time I would be able to sit and have such a conversation with this great and grounded thinker. Carol became ill at the end of the year. In the caring hands of many friends from the community, Carol passed in February. This interview and blog are my tribute, one of the many that have been offered, to the life and vision of this Appalachian warrior and healer.
Knowledge can be gleaned from books and from study, but the most powerful and original knowledge emerges through experience, from action, interaction and observation. In academia and education, we rely too much on secondhand knowledge, on reading the research papers of others and on textbooks for our students. Our references are too frequently journal articles and abstract concepts, not real places, examples and projects that we ourselves have participated in or created.
Existing most days in this environment, when one encounters a source of deep wisdom borne out of experience and intimate connection with place, it is like drinking from a mountain spring that trickles cold and clear out of the rock, in contrast to processed water long stifled in a plastic bottle.
Speaking with Carol Judy was metaphorically, and often literally, a trip to that spring. There is no one way to describe Carol. The more I knew her the less I could I could offer a specific definition of her role and ways of thinking. As a young woman she had traveled the country with her husband, making their living as itinerant farm workers. That time shaped in her a great appreciation of land and nature, and left her with an open-hearted love of people regardless of their status or education.
She later settled in Appalachia, in the Clearfork Valley, an expanse of coal country bisected longways by the Kentucky-Tennessee border. She became a daily student of the mountains, of the plants, animals and ecological systems there. As her connection to the land grew, Carol became a noted root-digger and herbal healer, and was often interviewed by “incomers”—visitors to the valley—about her knowledge of plants and their various capacities for the treatment of ailments. Clearfork is and remains an active mining area and Carol’s devotion to the mountains made her an activist against the environmental destruction that came with open caste mining, better known as mountaintop removal.
She was committed to community and served variously as staff, board member and volunteer at the Clearfork Community Institute, the valley’s community development engine. Locally Carol was most beloved as mentor for young people in a community with few opportunities for them but “getting out.” For those who stayed, she helped them to see the mountains as an inheritance and a wonder rather than as a trap. She did the same for many student visitors from universities near and far who expected to take away from Appalachia a vision of environmental destruction but who often left instead with an understanding of the mountains that echoed deeply inside of them with a hopefulness that outweighed and outlasted the sights of coal tips, overburden and slurry ponds.
Carol played all of these roles in Clearfork and more. She was systems thinker and generalist who wasn’t bothered with having a title or a set profession. She served the mountains and her community and did so with great love and careful attention to place and people. Appalachian mountain forest was her compass and analytical framework for all systems and interactions, be they human or with other ecological zones like the sea: “It’s just a woods in the water. The whole world is woods to me.”
Her understanding of the mountains, their ecosystems and, indeed, even their chronosystems, was so embedded in her everyday thought and language that even the sharpest of minds would find themselves outpaced by the scale and depth of her insights, articulated with such simplicity that the thought and the impact were often disassociated, like a sonic boom where the sight of a plane doesn’t foreshadow what comes a few moments later. And so it was when the substance of Carol’s ideas caught up with the words themselves. “These mountains are just slow moving land waves,” she would often say. “If you see like the mountains, it’s just rising and falling.” She challenged people to think over longer timeframes than most had ever considered: “If you’re not thinking in 500 year cycles, you’re not thinking.”
Carol tirelessly fought for the mountains, for their own sake and for the benefits they provided to her community and the communities all along the eastern US, aware that mountains create a substantial portion of the world’s potable water. “If you don’t have good water, you don’t have a good life,” Carol told me in September. We discussed how the world needed a paradigm shift from seeing the mountains as the periphery of life to the core since so much of the air and water upon which cities depend is created there.
Given her ability to think across eons of time effortlessly, Carol’s ultimate concerns weren’t for the mountains themselves. Of her environmental work she told me, “Quite frankly it’s about saving humanity, not saving the mountains. Mountains have the time to heal themselves.” She knew the work of change would be slow and intergenerational. “We didn’t get here in one lifetime, so the fixes aren’t going to get here in one lifetime. It’s an ongoing restoration.”
Nonetheless, she held on to hope with an optimism rooted in the eternal solidity of the mountains. She cultivated the young people of the valley to go out and learn about the world and to come back to rebuild their struggling mountain communities. She charged incomers to go back and do the same in their contexts. Working together across bioregions, race and nationality, she believed large-scale change remained possible: “Our liberations have to be bound up together. We sure as hell jump-started the destruction of the earth, why can’t we jump-start its healing?”
Carol, thank you. And know that we continue your work, tirelessly and unfailingly, like the mountain waves of Appalachia.
Felix is the founder and director of Empyrean Research. Based in Tennessee, he travels widely with his work for Empyrean.
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