Plagued by insomnia, I got up around 6:00 one morning last week and went out to sit on my deck so I could watch the fog rise in my garden. In the dim light, I saw two young foxes playing in the freshly plowed dirt. They reminded me of kittens as they tumbled, wrestled and rolled in mock combat. Then, a plank in my deck creaked under my foot and they froze. They stared at me for an instant and then vanished, melting into the fog and undergrowth.
For a moment, I felt very privileged … even honored, you could say.
Last year, while I was visiting a friend on the ridge behind Wal-mart, I came on a flock of wild turkeys who were standing quietly in a large grassy field. As they moved slowly across the field finally vanishing into the woods, I noted that in the background, I could see clouds of dust, and I dimly hear the grind and thunder of bulldozers that were altering the shape of land along
#107, converting meadows and farmland into acres of concrete. I asked my friend about the turkeys “They have no place to go,” she said. “This ridge is completely surrounded by development.”
Recently, another friend of mine told me that he had been vainly searching for “the smoke hole” in the Tuckaseigee community. “It used to be a kind of tourist attraction forty years ago.” He wondered if perhaps it had been bulldozed out of existence and that troubled him.
“You know, it was sacred to the Cherokees who believed that the smoke rising from the hole had curative powers.” They said that the smoke came from an underground townhouse belonging to the Nunnehi, the immortal ones who are “protective spirits” of the Cherokees.” He went on to note that in the old Cherokee myths, hunters who stood near the smoke hole in winter when the warm air melted the snow for a distance of five feet around the hole – those hunters claimed that heard drum beats and distant laughter.
“So, to stand there was to stand on the boundary of two different worlds – the temporal and the immortal.” Finally, he said, “I don’t think you can destroy places like that without paying for it.”
Just across the road, my neighbor has erected a huge sign that announces the sale of 34 acres of land. Who will buy it? What will they do with it? How will it affect my life? Two years from now, will I recognize the ridgeline of the woods across the road, or will it be transformed into condos, summer homes and convenience stores? Will the smell of honeysuckle and the trill of birds be replaced with the aroma of charred meat and the din of traffic?
Sitting on my deck, watching the shift of light from night to day, I have the definite feeling that we are all – foxes, wild turkeys and my neighbors – standing on the boundary between two worlds…. And we are facing eviction. Where will we go?
I've been thinking about creating this blog for several years, but each time I typed a sentence I became self-conscious and deleted it. What could I possibly say here that hasn't been said by someone else? Not only that, but it has often been said with grace, beauty and conviction. Well, maybe that is my purpose ... or part of it anyway. I believe I need to pay tribute to all of the folks in Appalachia who have defined this region with integrity and authenticity. I am talking about the novelists, musicians, poets and essayists who create images, characters and sounds that resonate in my heart. Maybe I can render a valuable service by inscribing their names and commenting on their creations. That is one of my objectives, anyway. One other thing. If my language sounds pretentious and/or pompous, bear with me. I think I'll eventually get over it.
Growing up in an isolated cove, I became dependent on radio, comic books and the Ritz Theater. Like most kids of my generation, I sat transfixed in front of the old Silvertone each afternoon, listing to the Lone Ranger, Sargent Preston of the Royal Mounties and Jack Strong, the all-American boy. I collected Captain Marvel Comics, Superman, the Green Lantern and
Plastic Man. At night, I listened to Suspense, Inner Sanctum, the Shadow and Escape! Each Saturday, I sat in the front row of the Ritz, watching heroes like "Wild Bill" Elliott, Sunset Carson, Whip Wilson and Lash LaRue.
In time, I would graduate to E. C. Comics (Tales of the Crypt, the Vault of Terror, Two-Fisted Tales, etc.) and a steady diet of film noir "B" movies with Robert Mitchum, James Cagney,
Allan Ladd, Jane Russell, Barbara Stanwyck. In time, the comics lost their charm - especially after Dr. Frederick Wertham managed to halt publication of my beloved E. C.s. I was reading
Lassie, Come Home; My Friend, Flicka; Bob, Son of Battle. But the dogs and horses eventually gave way to stuff like I, the Jury; God's Little Acre; and a steamy little novel called Alabam that was passed around in my 9th grade study hall.
All of this was typical for a kid that grew up in the 40's and 50's, regardless of where he lived.
However, there was a difference in Appalachia. At the same time I was ordering my "secret decoder ring" and collecting Captain Marvel Comics, I was listening to my great-grandmother tell stories, hoeing corn, milking cows and acquiring the dialect and traditions of a "southern highlander." In time, I would learn that I was irrevocably "different" from my counterparts in Chicago or New York. When I ventured out of Rhodes Cove to attend Western Carolina Teacher's College in 1953 (seven miles away), my grandmother told me to be forewarned. "When you meet people from other places," she said, "you are going to find yourself weighed and found wanting."
She was right, of course. My instructor in Speech 101 told me that my mountain dialect caused him to "shudder," and he gave me phonics tapes which were supposed to render my "lazy "i's" and "e's" acceptable. Later, when I taught in schools out of my region, my lapses into my
"natural mountain speech" caused my fellow teachers to become distant and reserved. As a consequence, I learned to mentally "edit" my speech before I said anything. My conversation was no longer spontaneous since I "reviewed" my comments before I said anything.
There have been a number of times in my life when I encountered others who had learned to do the same thing I was doing. "It is like you have to learn proper English as a second language," one teacher told me. "I've learned to speak one language at work and another one when I am home." The poet, Jim Wayne Miller told me once that he thought he took a college degree in German because he could speak in class without being self-conscious. "No one could tell that I was Appalachian," he said.