Daymon Morgan, defender of Kentucky's mountains


Like more than 3 million Appalachians between 1940 and 1970, Daymon Morgan migrated from the mountains to earn a living.

When he hung up his welder's gear for the last time and retired from the Chrysler Corp. in Dayton, Ohio, he returned to his own little Eden in Leslie County.

And before long the world came to him.

When Mr. Morgan died Dec. 11 at age 88, the environmental justice movement lost one of its most compelling voices.

People from all over journeyed to walk through his woods as the overall-clad Mr. Morgan explained the medicinal and nutritional uses of the verdant plant life, until reaching the edge of his property where the view gave way to ridges flattened and scarred by surface mining for coal.

Mr. Morgan, who served as chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in 1990-91 and received the Berea College Service Award in 2010, was a plainspoken farmer and forester, who counted what he called "the true cost of coal" in lost drinking water, timber, wildlife habitat and plant species.

He figures prominently in many articles, books and documentaries, including one by radio journalist Bob Edwards.

Mr. Morgan's way of life, his intimate knowledge and tender care of the woods, fields and streams stand as a living rebuke to the destruction of land and water that surrounded him. He re-established American chestnut trees on his hills, grew much of the food he fed his guests and cultivated an heirloom corn called Kentucky Butcher that is available on seed exchanges.

A World War II veteran of the Army Air Force in the Pacific, Mr. Morgan defended his land against a coal company's claim based on a 1904 deed that had been signed with an X. Mr. Morgan discovered that the previous owner had been a schoolteacher and merchant who would never have signed a legal document with an X.

Mr. Morgan traveled the state to campaign for the constitutional amendment that overturned broad-form deeds and considered the 1988 victory a great accomplishment.

He was laid to rest with military rites in a family cemetery Tuesday to the sound of heavy equipment from a nearby surface mine — his work well done, yet unfinished.