Saturday, January 28, 2012

Guest Blog: The Mountains

Rusty again...

Crow has been busy - new goats, new baby bunnies, new school semester for the kids, and all the attendant changes and patterns and schedules and teenagers not saying what they are doing and not doing what they are saying... but she loves it.  On the other hand, I have been waiting for a new post.  So tonight, after a fairly lazy day (long afternoon nap) and a meal of breaded venison steaks (delicious, but absolutely NOT Crow's favorite), country green beans (Blue Lake beans cooked soft in the leftovers of Virginia cured ham trimmings and onion), and some macaroni and cheese (special request by Sophia), I cracked open a can of beer and sat down.

"Do you want your computer?" she asked and so I accepted.  She has her own, it just so happens that she left it on the floor beside the bed one night and then stepped on it the next morning, so the LCD screen is cracked.  I set it up on her desk with a wireless keyboard and external LCD, but its just not good enough for her anymore.  She needs mine, every time I set it down.

Various Incisions Across the Plateau
"Can you help me take some hay up the hill for the goats?" she asks  - "OK" I say and put down my laptop and take hay up the hill in my little pickup, and we count baby rabbits, and we trash talk the angry geese, and we hug Izzy, and we make the injured tom turkey gobble, and somehow, on the way back into the house, I find myself puttering, doing this or that, and I walk back to the living room to finish whatever nonsense I was browsing online, and there she is, Crow, with my laptop.  It happens nearly every time...

When we first met I had no plans of ever leaving the mountains.  When I say the mountains, I am talking about the Appalachian Mountains, which are not really mountains so much as they are the old fuzzy and rounded ridges left as part of an ancient incised plateau.  But to me they were mountains.

Where the Intermittent becomes Perennial
As soon as I was old enough to wander the woods alone, I did.  By my sixth birthday I was a regular traveler, leaving the old clapboard house we lived in, on a land lease, and making my down a hillside, through brushy regrowth of hillside pasture, to a small spring-fed stream that harbored bight red salamanders and raucous springtime frogs.  Over time, I followed the stream further and further to the perennial reaches, where darters and creek chubs overwintered is icy pools.  I went up the adjacent slopes, on some days, especially early in Sping when the wildflowers and spicy herbs covered the forest floor, and the canopy of the forest was hardly more than a whisper of tight, green buds beneath their brown overwintering scales.

Young black cohosh, squirrel corn, anenome minimas, under sleeping Tulip Poplars.
If you climbed to the top, in the Spring, you could see the green and yellow dots where the most ambitious of the poplar trees had broken bud, accompanied by a handful of witch-hazel and silver bells in the bottomlands.

Bottomlands were not an area unto themselves, so much as they were a feeling.  If you slid-hopped your way to the bottom of a particular slope, where you met the stream or the stream-in-formation, then you were in the bottomlands.  Two steps, sometimes as many as ten or eleven, across, and suddenly you were no longer in the bottomlands but headed upslope again.  Such was the incision.  You could sit in the bottomlands, where the paw-paws and hackberry trees held the hillside from slipping into the stream, and if you looked up you could not see the top of either ridge.  The hillsides shot up and away from you, rounded and full and covered in trees waking from a long winter nap.  Near the bottom were Hemlocks, small striped-needle relatives of the balsam fir, with moose maples and mountain maples and sugar maples and red maples and sometimes silver maples all mixed in.  Tulip poplars, the fastest growers, sent out their mittened leaves the earliest.  In March you were lucky to see one leaf breaking bud; by the end of April some of them were larger than your hand.  In the bottomlands the feeling was isolation and freedom, a fresh place of privacy and discovery where you were held close in the cleavage of the mountains like a small child, and allowed to explore Great and Unknown mysteries while resting safely against the soft curves of the Earth.

If you had the perseverance to climb either slope to the top, your rewards were physical, visual, and spiritual.  Slopes average 40%, so going from bottom to top meant using both hands and feet, although cliffs were not common.  Even when stopping the climb to catch your breath, you exert yourself to stop from sliding back down in the deep leaf litter, or hold onto a musclewood or laurel shrub to stay upright.  Always, at the top, the ability to stand upright and balance, unassisted, with your head free of branches and brambles, high in the sky - that is a physical comfort.  The air is a bit thinner, elevational changes are not dramatic but a climb from 1500ft to 2000ft above sea level to well over 3500ft above sea level is not uncommon.  From there you can see the moisture rise up from the bottomlands, hollows, and valleys, and collect at the daily inversion layers.  As a child, it was like watching God awken the earth in the mornings.  As and adult, it is like watching God remind you that the details --  like ghosts --  are the things that are important.  The present and the mundane, the intangible and the fleeting, the inaudible ticks and tocks of the way you count time in your head.  You can watch, from this location, until it is done.  Or you can watch, fom this location, and it will All Stop.  It all depends on what you need when you get here, and that depends on where you have been and how you got there.  And there are no secret formulas or answers, only the reliable mechanism with a heart that beats for your happiness and a complimentary sky that guarantees you, at any time, from any perspective, of Freedom...

So, you understand, in some small way, why I call them Mountains.  It is a place that I grew in, a place that I left for Florida and Crow, and a place that, one evening, from our bougainvillea-shaded patio in Florida, Crow and I briefly left one day in September to stand in, landing on a mountain airstrip and leading a wedding party to the falls of Meig's Creek, to stand in front of those that held us close, and that we held close, and to say to each other and all those present, that we knew we were intended to spend our time on earth together.  Because we chose it, and because it was destiny.  As our old Souls guided our lives, and as we became more attuned to listening, it was a simple and magical reality.

No gators in the mountains, although I learned to love them.
The 'new' bottomlands - shrubby marshes.  This buttonbuh,
 Cephalanthus occidentalis, was an old friend.  I cherished
 those connections to the past.
Years later, as we sat on another patio, beneath a bougainvillea I had planted a few weeks before Sophia was born, I once again invoked those Mountains.  We are going back I said.  She agreed, quietly.  We had always had a dream of going back.  There was little there in the way of economy and opportunity, there was little there in the way of the things you normally associate with a comfortable life.  But there was something there calling us.  Crow had a box, one of those huge seafaring luggage chests, solid black with snaps and buckles.  It was her Mountain Box.  On the best of days, in Florida, I could review the contents and additions with her and laugh at the magical possibility of going back.  On the worst of days, my heart went blacker than the black of the chest itself at the thought of saving a box of  various linens and folk art from Appalachia while I was fighting with all my physical and mental strength to continue in my government position as a Project Scientist, monitoring and restoring forests that were flat and steamy, bottomlands that had no trees or cool water.  I grew to love and appreciate it, over time, but it was not my Mountains.  A co-worker gave me an antique postcard of a mountain switchback that I knew so well, and I thumbtacked it to my corkboard and cried.  And cried.  I needed to go.

I moved back in April of 2008, living out of a motel on US Route 460 whilst Crow readied our Florida bundalow for its debut in the crashing housing market.  I woke up my first day of work to an ice storm; the bottomland trees coated in a thick rime and the higher elevation trees holding a thick blanket of ice and wet snow frozen to their branches and north-facing trunks.  I breathed deep in the icy air as the sun came up, and the corner of my nostrils caught a faint whiff of destiny.  I was charged from toe to head with an energy and a realization that cannot but put to words, other than to say I was Home.
View from Bolt 'Mountain'

It wasn't long until the house sold, and Crow was able to bring Sophia and the rest of our belongings up to the rental house I had secured.

The roads were not laid out in blocks, and the garden was only starting to grow.  I saw her pause, I saw her wonder, I saw her compare the view of the mountains to the seething and barely alive heap of garbage that was the overwintered city below us.

As spring came on full, we developed a tradition of going to a small local diner late on Sunday mornings for breakfast - she would have blueberry pancakes and bacon and eggs, and I would have sausage and biscuits and sausage gravy and eggs and more sausage and fresh coffee.  We would read the local paper and wonder what the future held - Me, at home and at ease, loving each day at work in my old Home, and Crow, uprooted and venturing, trying to make sense of this different place, trying to understand what exactly was her place here.

She pointed to an ad for a farmhouse and a couple of acres, off the Bluestone River.  "Have you looked at this one?" she asked.  "You don't want to live there" I assured her, and told the reasons why.  There were no restaurants closer than 20 or 30 minutes drive.  The 'towns' on the map had been replaced by poverty and decay, and the streets were empty except for the occasional staggering pillhead, I told her.  And if you are far enough from the paved road, you can completely forget about a police response to an emergency call.  You would have to learn how to shoot a gun, for your own safety, I told her, and you would be alone.

Those are all things I said to my wife, a slender, dark-skinned girl who handed me the world, on a regular basis, and slipped to me her broken dreams in the dark of night so I could hold her close and glue back the pieces I could recognize.  But the person that heard those things, that day, was not her.  It was Crow, the old soul that had felt her toes in the soil of the tomato patch behind the rental house, it was Crow, who had shoveled snow from our rental porch and painted a giant Star on our front door.  It was Crow, who had pushed me to get in the old Saturn Wagon and drive her out Black Oak Road, to the place I knew she would hate.

We rounded a bend in the road and I said, that is it up ahead.  She was transfixed.  She jumped out and read the realtor's sign - "Let call her, now!" she said, and we did.  Three hundred dollars US (all I had to spare) secured the purchase contract until the arrangements could be made.  And in April 2009, we moved in.

The house is beautiful, the work is neverending; this wallpaper seems
 to have beenapplied with staples over  base of rough sawn
 lumber and coal dust.
Tonight, after dinner, I wanted another beer.  I drove along SR71, following that same Bluestone River as it further incised the Plateau.  I caught the corner store/gas station as it was closing, and bought a few beers and some chocolate to bring home.  As I drove back along the river, my old truck kept pace with the current, lazily laying into the turns and relying only on gravity for the drops and riffles.  I cracked the window and lit a cigarette, following a road in the bottomlands, sensing, in the night, the shoulders of the earth hovering to my side.  A beagle's hollow call welcomed me as I turned off of Black Oak onto our drive, and she jumped at my lap as I climbed out of the truck.  The sky was crisp and clear, and Orion was over my left shoulder.  A wind blew woodsmoke off the ridge, and the goats called from their stalls.  A silence hung in the air, a peacefulness that spoke of centuries of rounding of the plateau, of countless nights like this.  And, like a freshly unwrapped present, I pulled the door of our farmhouse open and walked into the yellow glow of the kitchen light.

The kids were on their way to bed.  Crow was reading about goats and ducks.  My beer was cold, and my beagle had followed me in, pressing her head against my hand.  I sat down and wrote this.