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Q&A with Jay Leutze

08/20/12 by Salisbury Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: This Q&A by Chris Verner appeared in the August 19, 2012, issue of the Salisbury Post.

Spend a few minutes talking with author and conservationist Jay Leutze about his life’s journey and the word “longing” may slip into the conversation a few times.

Longing for tranquility and solitude. Longing for the peace and clarity that comes from simple living. But most of all, longing to perpetuate and enjoy the mountain landscapes he calls home.

A graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school, Leutze found himself more inclined to the boonies than to the bar. In 1990, he moved to a family cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he had spent childhood summers.

He intended to write, to fish, to enjoy the landscape he holds sacred — and he did that for several years. Then he found himself drawn into a dramatic battle when his mountain neighbors enlisted him to help stop a mining company’s plans to blast apart Belview Mountain, a 4,400-foot landmark that towered over the local community and lay adjacent to the Appalachian Trail. The battle became the basis for Leutze’s book, “Stand Up That Mountain,” which has drawn praise for the pungent storytelling as well as the inspirational narrative of a community taking on powerful corporate interests (See review on book page). He’ll talk about the book at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Catawba College’s Center for the Environment. The Salisbury-based Land Trust for Central North Carolina is co-sponsoring the event.

Long before the book’s publication, Leutze was known for his conservation advocacy and defense of the region’s natural resources. He’s a trustee for the Southern Appalachian Highland Conservancy and has worked extensively with North Carolina land trusts and their conservation partners. Last fall, he received the land trusts’ annual Stanback Volunteer Conservationist award, which highlights advocacy in protecting land and water.

Although the highlands of Avery County may inspire Leutze’s strongest longings, he has a special affection for the Piedmont’s Uwharrie Mountains.

“It has been a real honor for me working with Jason Walser (executive director) and the LandTrust for Central North Carolina and Congressman Howard Coble on federal funding for projects in the Uwharries,” Leutze said. “That is such an important and in some ways forgotten corner of the state, which means there are still opportunities to do great conservation work there.”

Leutze recently talked with the Post about his book and his love of nature. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What will your Catawba presentation focus on?

A: In my talk, I want to introduce the audience to people in a slightly different part of the state. The foothills and the mountains are not that far apart, but it’s always a world apart when you travel into another landscape and into another community. Using voices and language, the spoken word, I want, in as real a way as possible, to introduce people to Ashley and Ollie and Curly and Freddy, the people who stood up and fought for their own homes and their own sense of place and quiet and that which is sacred to them.

I often say to people that I had driven by Ashley and Ollie’s house for years. I know all of their extended family but I didn’t know them before the case started. Because of this event, I was thrust into their living room, and I was thrust into their lives and now I can’t imagine my life without them in it. I sort of flow in and out of their house and in and out of their lives now.

I’m fascinated by these moments in our lives that remake our reality. And if you’re willing to, these moments can really change the course of your life in ways that are kind of wonderous.

Q: You’d intended to live the quiet life of a writer and outdoorsman, and did so for some time, but that has changed since the book’s publication, hasn’t it?

A: It’s a very strange journey, it really is. That is what I was looking for, but I guess I have always had sort of a multiple personality disorder. I was pretty much of a social animal growing up and in college. But when I fell in love with writing, I discovered that I needed some solitude to do it or I never finished projects. I was drawn so strongly to the mountains.

I travel a lot, and I’m prone to homesickness, but I was never homesick for Chapel Hill. I was always homesick for the mountains. Even though Chapel Hill was my primary residence, I had spent my summers in the mountains. … I think part of it is the mountains, and part of it is summer. Loving those summers in the mountains, I longed to have that in my life as much as I could.

Q: That love of the mountains really resonates through your writing.

A: It is an important part of the book. One of the things I mentioned was the longing for summertime and for the mountains, but a part of all that is also the longing for simplicity, and that’s certainly one of the things I connected with. The way my mountain neighbors were living seemed simple. It seemed devoid of unnecessary clutter, right down to growing your own food. I think all of us are longing for a way of life that is more like our childhood summers.

We had a wonderful garden when I was a kid, grew corn and beans and potatoes, and we spent a lot of time working in the garden. It was sort of a throwback to an earlier age, and I still have this longing to get back to that.

The irony, as you pointed out, is that I spend a lot of time in my car running around doing conservation projects and raising money for conservation and doing publicity for the book. But I feel like it’s all an investment so that I can get those times when I can be quiet.

Q: When the events of the book first started, did you have any inkling where this would take you?

A: In a way, yes, because we’ve all read enough and seen enough movies that we have these triggers in us that say, ‘I’m living in a book. I’m living in part of the arc of a story.’ We are storytelling creatures. I think some people — and I’ve certainly had this since I was a child — are attuned to our own lives as part of a narrative. Not long after meeting Ashley and Ollie, I had the instinct that, my goodness, you could not make these people up. Ollie is a genius, and very few people in the larger world know that. That seemed to me like something worth addressing. I wanted to share these people and their intelligence and their creativity, and the way to do that is through telling stories.

And as I told stories about these people and this case to reporters, to lawyers, to conservation organizations and ultimately to judges, that’s what this case was about — it was about telling stories to people who would never experience firsthand what the impacts were going to be on lives and on the experience of using the Appalachian Trail.

I had to use words to tell the story to convince people what was right and what was wrong in what was going on. People are hungry for stories like this because it inspires them.

Q: Has this experience affected your views on environmental activism, government regulation and such?

A: In a way, it was heartening that there are so many good people working in our state on crafting reasonable regulations that don’t hinder private property rights and respect the property rights that we all have in our public treasures. I ran into earnest, sincere, hardworking people at every level of the regulatory apparatus. And I ran into legislators who want to do the right thing, who treasure North Carolina and who treasure our special places and don’t want to have any role in something as egregious as the permitting of the condominiums on top of Sugar Mountain. That’s just one example, but it has been such a signature failure in vision and it’s so visible and such a useful analogy. There are so many people who don’t ever want to go down that road again and have their name attached to something that counts as a mark on the landscape that sort of shames us all.

I do a lot of work now in the N.C. General Assembly, and with state and federal agencies, and I continue to be impressed with the desire to protect our critical resources. Politics and political posturing sometimes gets in the way of that, but North Carolina continues to be sort of an island of rational thinking.

Q: So even with cutbacks in public funding and what some consider an anti-regulatory environment, you are not discouraged?

A: I see large, longterm trends. I think there is a lot of mischief going on right now in terms of environmental regulation. But the larger trends are that we are a rapidly growing state, and people will not put up with degradation of their own water supply, and people will no longer put up with days that are so smoggy it’s unhealthy for their grandparents to go outside.

So while you see some push and pull on regulation, we’ve pretty much decided as a state and as a country that there are places that are sacrosanct. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to continue to fight for them all the time, but the outcome tends to be on a part of the scale that is within reasonable boundaries.

… Of course, the current funding levels are in no way adequate to meet the needs of a state projected to grow by a number equivalent to the entire state of South Carolina moving into our state over the next 20 years.

We have got to grow up and get serious and protect enough places for recreation, and protect our drinking water supply.

The best and cheapest way to do that is by protecting land and the headwaters of our streams, protecting those natural filters. We have a very thoughtful way of doing that through the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, our Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, our Natural Heritage Trust Fund, but we’ve got to invest the money now or else we’re going to pay a lot more fixing water that we let get impaired.

Q: You’ve worked for many years in conservation through the land trust model. What about the land trust philosophy attracts you?

A: The land trust model is such a realistic response to landowners’ own desire to protect the places that they love. The typical call comes to us from a family farmer who has had farmland in their family for generations and now they’re afraid they may lose the family land or they’re not sure what their descendants will do with the land. The conservation land-trust model addresses that by finding a way to compensate the landowner and creating incentives for helping us protect the places where food can be grown in the future and protecting clean water for future generations.

Q: What’s next for you? Any other projects under way?

A: I’m working on a nonfiction project right now. I also have spent some years hammering away at fiction, and I have a couple of novels that now, hopefully, I can pull back out of the drawer and reread them. I started them before the mining case, and the mining case sort of took over my life for a while. But I’m excited to go back and read those two novels and see if they have anything going for them, or if I will be using them to salvage for parts.

Q: Sounds like you intend to continue writing and living in the mountains.

A: I do. I have no intention of going anywhere else. Although I poke my head out from under the canopy more often than I used to, I always run back to the mountains.

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