Writing the Mountains

I have been described as a Southern writer, and though I am proud to be associated with the South and the southern Appalachians and Blue Ridge Mountains, the real focus of my poetry and much of my fiction has been on one particular place, not even a county, just a community, part of the Green River valley in Western North Carolina. And really not even the whole community, but about a square mile of land on the banks of Green River bought by my great-great-grandfather Daniel Pace in 1840.

My connection with this piece of earth where I lived the first sixteen years of my life is so close that in a way I have never left it. As a child I ran in its pastures, fished in its streams, explored its thickets and gullies, sweated in its fields, climbed the trees and ridges, gathered its chinquapins and blackberries. I was terrified by rattlesnakes and black widow spiders, by flash floods and lightning storms. In the almost forty years since I left, I have continued to live there in the imagination, in the geography and landscape of language, the geometry of poetry.

I was raised among storytellers. My dad’s formal education had stopped at the sixth grade, but he was a great reader and a gifted talker and storyteller. My grandfather was a tireless teller of tales who had attended school only a few months in the 1880s, though he also had done a good deal of reading on his own. In the summer evenings, before television, we often sat on the porch after supper. As crickets sparked their notes in the grass, and later katydids set up their mating roar in the woods beyond the yard, my grandpa told ghost stories, stories of panthers that climbed down chimneys, of giant rattlesnakes that got into attics, stories of people who had died a long time ago. There were stories of children marked in the womb because the mother had stared into the eyes of a snake or mad dog. As darkness gradually enveloped us, we children listened in thrall, as grandpa told about Cold Friday when the world was frozen and the sun never came up, about the Confederate times when children left alone in remote cabins were robbed and tortured by bushwhackers, about the skeleton of a bride who had disappeared on her wedding night, found in a trunk in the attic eighty years later.

Paradoxically, the more we study a place, the longer we know a place, the more mysterious it becomes. The more we respond to experience, the more we discover there is to respond to. When I began writing in my late teens, like everyone else, I had no idea what I wanted to write about. My favorite writer was Tolstoy, whom I had discovered at the Henderson County bookmobile, but his subjects were the Napoleonic wars and high society in Tsarist Moscow. By comparison, I had no subject at all. I knew a little about history, but nothing at all about high society, except what I had read. Besides the small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains, my only home had been the university campus. And I had spent more time thinking about how to escape the small farm than in going back to it. I wanted to be a writer the way Baudelaire was a writer in Paris or Pasternak in Moscow.

Imagine my surprise as I began to write story after story and poem after poem, at engineering school at NC State, to find myself returning again and again to the work of a small mountain farm, to the intimate landscape along Green River, to the church and brusharbor where I had attended Pentecostal services. Had I escaped those things only to return to them in my imagination? To live there again through language? Imagine my even greater surprise at the enthusiasm my teacher and fellow students showed for the writing. When I brought a story about my great-grandmother to Guy Owen’s writing class, he announced that the story had made him weep. I looked at my shoes, and I looked out the window, and I pretended I didn’t care. But the fact was I was filled with a satisfaction I had hardly dreamed about before: seeing the effect of my writing on a reader.

I found I did not choose subjects; they chose me. And for the next fifteen years I wrote hundreds of poems and dozens of stories where I tried to communicate the mystery and fear, the terror and resentment, the harshness and futility, the contradictions and cruelties, as well as the loyalties and kinships and beauties, of the world I had grown up in. I was never interested in portraying a pastoral world, a simpler world, but in dramatizing the complexities of the seemingly plain, the sharpness of the everyday, the cruelties of the conventional, the isolation of the rural. I wanted to show the thresholds of the theatrical in the ordinary.

As I continued to write, I found myself returning again and again to the poetry and poetics of work. I who had longed to escape the hard labor of pole-bean farming and pulp wood cutting, of house painting and carpentry and masonry, explored and relived those efforts again and again in language. I fell in love with work through words. I looked again and again at the details and discipline of work, at the drama of digging and hoeing, sawing and chopping, I had performed as a boy. The catharsis of work in the hot Southern sun, became the central experience in much of my writing. I came to see that work was a purifying ritual, and the baptism of sweat a sacrament in the quest for meaning. The meaning of life on the small farm was its hard work. The most significant gift of labor was the ritual of labor itself.

From the time I was very young, I was fascinated by the presence of Indians in and on the ground where I lived and worked. Arrowheads and pieces of pottery turned up in the fields where we plowed and hoed. A flood washing away sandy loam by the river exposed the charred sticks of an ancient campfire. The river and waterfalls and ridges had had Cherokee names. And before the Cherokees the Catawbas had been there. And before the Catawbas, the Woodland tribes. A scree of chipped quartz on a mountainside above the river showed where there had once been an arrowhead workshop. Graves on the pasture hill were said to be Indian graves. The knowledge of herbs passed down from the first settlers was known to come from medicine men: snakeroot and tincture of lobelia for rattlesnake bite, foxglove for the heart, ginseng for old age, pennyroyal tea for fevers. And for my dad and Uncle William, the treasure of the wilderness was not the metals and gem stones that could be dug there, but the fur of mink and muskrat, fox and raccoon, as the Indians had taught the first settlers. The very ground was haunted by the Cherokees.

It was almost two years after coming to Cornell in 1971 before I really began to write again. The shock of living out of the South for the first time, of teaching full-time, of leaving the isolation of the mountains for a community where everyone I knew was a writer or literary scholar, took my voice away. If everyone else was writing, there was no need for me to add to the surplus. When I did begin to write again, it was in a new voice, more conversational, more narrative, more formal, sometimes even discursive. And oddly enough, I discovered that I still wanted to write about the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I expected to write about Cornell, about my life in the Finger Lakes, about English departments, but kept postponing those projects until I had done more preliminary work about the farm where I had grown up, about erosion and the geology of mountains, about family stories and ghost stories. The more I walked among the red pines and battlement-like gorges of Treman Park, in awe of the drama of that landscape, the more I wrote about Green River, about the speech of the Southern highlands. Cornell gave me a perspective from which to see and explore the world I had grown up in. The more I resolved to write about the North the more I could only write about the South. And the more I wrote about family history and folklore, the more I discovered there was to write. The more I resisted those subjects, the more they claimed and possessed me. The poetry of the Blue Ridge stuck to me like an infection I could not shake off. I could only cool my fever by writing more and more.