Keepers: The Missing Intro

A few years back, I was asked to write the introduction as the final work came together for the author and artist who crafted “Keepers of the Tradition.”

The intro was granted 1400 words initially, and lives below; the final printing space allowed only 800 at a very late date, so what you read in the beautiful coffee-table hardcopy leaves out much of this. I just happened upon it in the dusty archives of digital keystrokes, and thought I’d share, or at least have it saved here for my own revisiting.

_______________________________

“Call me Granny. Everybody does” she said. And I learned about her growing up, her wide travels as far as Lynchburg once upon a time. She told me about her family and it turned out, not surprisingly in the small pond world of Floyd that I knew a couple of them.

As a physical therapist visiting this patient in her own home, I was able to learn who Granny was beyond her diagnosis and symptoms—to know what made her a unique person unlike any other I had ever treated. I learned about her love for quilting, for making apple butter, for caring for the sick elderly among her close neighbors in a way long abandoned in larger, faster-moving urban places. In time I’d come to understand her role as matriarch of a Floyd County community of kin that for a century or more had called this place home—this place I had only discovered in 1997, and would never leave.

“Here. Take you home some apples I canned to your wife. And God bless you, I’ll see you when you come next week. I’ll do what you told me to do. I got to get back with it.”

I remember suggesting that it would be helpful, next visit, if she would be wearing a pair of slacks for the sake of modesty, to make the hip exercises more convenient as we worked on the bed, or more often on the ancient sofa a few feet from a over-toasty wood stove. “Why honey, I never owned a pair of pants in my life” I heard more than once from the many “grannies” I visited over the years. And I would leave that settled place the beneficiary of the care of patient for therapist, and not just the mason jar of apples.

I learned over the years that, when you settle at ease in the unique personal habitat of even the most unlovely and unlikely individual, their “who-ness” emerges in ways not possible in a conversation with a patient at hospital bedside, or while chatting with a new acquiantance over lunch at Applebees.

Michael and Leslie, the principals of this work, have done just that—sat at table, walked in pastures, tarried in the workshops in unhurried conversation with each of their twelve “subjects” in just such a way—listening and observing, taking in more than giving out. The inner person of each portrait emerges. I’ll warn you, however, that you’ll learn just enough to want to know more of the story, because each account is just the tiniest part of a much richer whole. Scratch the surface and each of us bleeds a story if there are ears to listen. In this case, there was also an artist to paint that story for us.

Perhaps this authentic at-home expression of the person within goes deepest when they are encouraged, as these twelve were, to share their genuine motives, hopes and passions for their calling, a life purpose so much more and far beyond a mere job. Not many of these “keepers” are for-profit. More often than not, they give away more than they sell, ambassadors and not merchants.

In fact, you’ll find something of a pattern here from which the wandering among you might take encouragement. Several of these folks you’ll meet in this book have only come to embrace their true passion later in life after their “working life” had come to a natural end. Late-won freedom from vocation, they will tell you, allowed them to indulge in a true avocation–that thing they’ve always or suddenly out-of-the-blue become called to do when the space opened up to it. It was a call they could not hear when the regular paycheck insisted so loudly.

Still others of these dozen were diverted in mid-career from what they thought they’d do forever, pulled by something new and unexpected—a whiskey distillery or a remade non-traditional country church or the making of hand-crafted musical instruments. Those lives took a surprising turn to follow a fully-novel path on fresh terrain on their life map. Make note of this fact, those of you who feel certain you are destined for other not-yet-visible ports than the one your ship seems to sail towards just now. It can most certainly happen! I know a thing or two about this myself!

With regards to your expectations as you turn to the opening pages of this lovely book: the language of these interviews is not heavily “Photoshopped” or reworked to make them less than authentic. The final edits are not the product of a strong guiding hand in the shaping of their ultimate last-draft form. There is a real-ness—more like an overhead conversation with a good friend and not that of a sudden snapshot followed by structured conversation with a stranger with a microphone in his or her face.

Somehow Michael and Leslie have managed to capture what is real from these genuine characters, in words and in pigment. And you even get to hear a dozen voices. I highly recommend you do listen to the provided clips of voices, which like the eyes, give you a deeper connection to the soul inside.

The unifying theme herein is of passionate relationships—to tools, to folkways, to places, to skills and crafts—a compilation of connections to objects that are not mere things: an old leather harness, a slightly out-of-tune piano, a shelf of dried medicinal herbs, a millstone maker’s chisel. It is a gathered tale of people using their hands and hearts in unique ways in the present to embed the ways of the past in the WHERE of their lives. Underneath it all, this is a book that paints a picture of deep roots in place.

Wallace Stegner once said that “Space is not place until it has found its poet.” And to that, I would add “its farmer and gospel singer, herbalist and horse logger, its miner and music-maker, wood-worker, quilter, its moonshiner and its preacher. These people, as each of them will tell you, grow deeply planted in the ground they inhabit by choice. While they sustain and are sustained by their varied traditions, they are also valued place-makers—from Rugby and McCoy, Copper Hill and Meadows of Dan, Prices Fork, Pilot and Floyd. Wendell Berry would suggest that these people know WHO they are because they have a strong sense of WHERE they are. Now their stories are the stories of these hills and hollers forever.

Tradition is the thread of story, know-how, wisdom, skill or creative genius that binds the future to the past, for the good. Appalachian traditions say “this is who we were because of where we are; this is how we lived our lives, how we created a place worth living from whatever we had at hand—a block of buhrstone and a falling creek, patches of old blankets, a stand of ginseng, block of maple or oak planks from our own woods. This is how we made our way in this world and got along.” Tradition is legacy of riches that cannot be written into the language of a will.

I know that we may think of them as quaint and anachronistic, but I wonder: Will traditions (especially the trades and skills of the old ways) come back into the lights of center stage as communities of the chaotic future retool and relocalize? Will they then be able to get up and do what needs to be done with resources at hand and in the caring and skilled hands of neighbors who have kept the traditions alive? Time will tell. It just might be that in this telling of tradition keepers present, we seed the future.

Voices, language, faces, personalities and passions: it is the richness of character and story that keeps us turning the pages of any book we come to admire and read more than once. And this attraction draws us in all the more so when those faces and voices belong to our neighbors. You just may come face to face in the grocery store with one or more of these twelve folks now that you know them. They will not be vague strangers but friends. And it just might be that you will see the unexplored potential in those eyes of true strangers you meet by chance, to know for certain that there is a story behind the eyes of that unmet little old lady. You can call her Granny.

BlueWater Dream of the Great Below

I awoke with a start. I had fallen asleep slumped against my favorite leaning poplar a ten-minute walk from the house. I was most certainly not exactly there now. I had nodded off on a warm summer afternoon, but now I was immersed in a cool but pleasant darkness, and more floating than lying against anything at all.

The half-familiar smell of being in a cave — or the dank, moist, earthy and energizing smell of a rainstorm — was intense; it came from every side of me, though I truly could not have told you — or cared at that moment — which way was up. My eyes waited for a glimmer. Maybe I’d slept into darkness under a passing shower. I was just groggy. Right?

I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I confess some discomfort in not knowing: if I was dead; or in a coma maybe; or had I been transported across a divide into a place so utterly unfamiliar that I might never regain my bearings? Maybe I had gone mad.

I tried to stand, and somehow in the pitch-darkness had the sense that I became vertical, but I recall the odd sense of nothing under my feet — no pressure against my soles, no feeling of gravity whatsoever on my joints. Where ever I was, I was buoyant, weightless, a feather floating in… in what, I could not tell.

Read more of this at medium.com

Urban Legend Anonymous Patron of the Arts

copy and use rights granted

Not surprisingly, I came to discover that there is no one by that name with a PO box in that small Blue Ridge mountain town whose name and zipcode appeared on the envelope.

The namesake of the purported sender was never seen again, nor the cool million he left the plane with, though some reports say some of it was found in an eroded riverbank decades later.

So the crisp, uncirculated 20s in the envelope might have been part of that loot, I thought, as I read the two sides of the interior of the card last week.

No mention was made of books or note cards to purchase–just 10 bills tucked in, with the final explanation that he and his wife also had disagreements about the thermostat–as in Solomon’s Sheets in Slow Road Home:

“Go buy yourself some new sheets.”

So thank you very much, Mr. Cooper, I am not surprised that, with your suitcase full of money you could go anywhere in the world, but you ended up just there, in that peaceful, rural mountain hideout.

That you are a supporter of starving artists I think speaks well for your sensibilities, in spite of your law-breaking, authority-flaunting past.

And let me just offer, lest I am tempted to resort to Google Ads, that anyone else who wants to sustain a wordsmith by underwriting the yearly subscription  for sundry app services and software purchases towards book #3, crisp bills are accepted. Also paypal transfers to my regular email you probably already have. Heck, I’m a new believer in the Good Fairy!

PS: the bills, crisp and never-before-used, were issued in 2009, and so NOT a part of the missing fortune from the 1970s that parachuted into obscurity.

PSS: I truly am awed and speechless by your gift, Mr. Cooper, and will be accountable to use it wisely towards whatever words I left to share that are worth the paper they are printed on. No promises, but I might just have enough brain cells left to get the job done. And those old hybrid sheets have, just now matter of fact, come apart at the seams.

Reprise: Of Memories and Hopes and Golden Dreams

Once upon a time, there was a strange farmer of Erehwon. He gathered his curiosities, his precious things–momentary objects that held his attention and delight–and hoped others might wander down his lonesome road and share his fascination with the ordinary.

Click to enlarge

They came at random, sometimes rather sizable crowds of them, and a few exclaimed and were delighted, and some returned often and regularly. Some where changed by having seen up close the myriad works of nature and light, of clouds, of storms and seasons that the farmer set before them.

He laid these things out expectantly-mere things, some onlookers imagined–but each was a story, and each story was a memory and a meaning to the foolish man.

And so, over the years, when fewer came, and then none, it was not the same of a morning. He still wandered among his amazements but he did not often gather them, and of those, he almost never laid them out for others to see. For there were so few that he felt alone, and his stories and meanings for him only. Life was good, but it was diminished, because he still remembered the gifts he once gave, so appreciated and approved, once upon a time. He thought of the friends he had made, whose names he could barely now remember.

And yet, now and then even today,  some pattern in tree bark or glint off moving waters or bird call or memory of the smell of earth will urge him to lay out his boards again along the creek road. And has done so this morning.

He had come upon a wonderful village of threaded webs, separate but close, isolated but connected by the thinnest of dew-beaded tightropes. In the wet grass, as he so often did, he imagined. He saw in these tattered webs tight aggregates of neurons, each synapsing cluster a concept, a siloed understanding, an aggregate idea or realization. He so often searched for those almost invisible threads that, discovered, would make him shout AHA! in the thrill of creative connection.

It was the possibility of sharing creative connection between disparate things on his roadside bench that woke him up each morning, expectant and hopeful of the alchemy of object and language, searching among his curios to find what he called the “so what” in everyday things like spider webs and blossoms and one more picture of a familiar light-and-shadow turn of his road or creek.

And so life goes on, the buzz of conversation barely audible to him in some distant tavern in an altogether different kind of stopping place for travelers along the loud and hurried webs of surface travel and talk.

Winter is coming. It is the time for the old farmer to draw the curtains on the chaos and confusion beyond Middle Earth and to go back over all his  klediments and commonplace jottings and scraps of wonder, revisiting like old friends the emulsions of light and memory he has stored and saved, stories unspoken.

He lives on. And with what is left of his bones and his wits, he will weave what he might from the webs of wonder his eyes and his ears and his heart have laid out for him, even so, on his slow road. And we shall see what lies around the bend.

Strange Farmer of Erewhon— a blogger’s Allegory from the early years of Fragments (original version 2005.)

Feather Go Home

Go to medium.com to see more images for this post.

We don’t know what goes on in their minds when they are with us, but only the smiles and memories they leave in our own hearts and memories when they are gone.

We did not even know her name in 2014 when we first insisted that the white dog go back down the road to the new neighbor’s house where she belonged. Surely her family doesn’t want her wandering too far from home, we reasoned, what with their small boys who would miss the dog if she was gone for long.

I lobbed bits of gravel from the road in her direction in mock threat. “Go home!” I’d tell her, and she’d slink back east, a few tenths of a mile, to where we knew she belonged. We thought this was the right thing to do, especially as the times she did get close enough to the house, our dog, Gandy, would set upon the would-be visitor with bristling bluster and harmless aggression, not willing to share either territory or affections with an interloper.

We went so far as to call her owners once, early on, to let them know where their dog was, lest they worry, like we would worry if she was our dog, gone. They did come to pick her up that time, and we learned her name was Feather. She was also a rescue dog like Gandy; she was the same age and almost the same weight as our dog. But the two dogs did not have a speaking relationship. Yet.

Later that year, we’d see her (you could not miss the long-haired almost-white Labradoodle at the shadows at the edge of the pasture) just watching from a distance as we made our routine walk-abouts down the New Road and back to the house. Gradually, she’d leave the cover of the woods and slink sheepishly towards us near the end of our walk, her approach greeted by Gandy’s challenge and some mild rough-housing. I’d pick up a rock (or maybe throw a pretend rock her way) and say “go home” and she would go.

But after a few months of insistence, Feather and Gandy came to an agreement. By that time, we’d realized Feather’s whereabouts might be lost in the list of concerns of the young couple with full-time jobs and two small children. And Feather had figured out the retired folks with that other dog in the neighborhood who were all outside every day made for a pretty nice day camp. And so we saw her often. Then we saw her every day. And many nights. We did not own her, but she seemed to have decided that she owned us.

And yet, early in that growing relationship and before Feather finally realized which side her bread was buttered on, she was bad to set off on an adventure to find human (and maybe other four-legged) companionship. Feather, it turned out, was the most needy dog ever to be in the company of humans and driven to be touched by hands. And so when nobody was home down the road, she took a road trip.

Her time and distance record were four days and five miles from home. We were frantic during her uncertain absence. It ended well. Another time we saw her picture on Facebook when she had been taken in by some folks we knew about four miles up the mountain, rescued from a bad outcome on a very busy road. We fetched her home in the car.

In those early days, she followed many a bicycle rider out of the valley, certain they had come to sit with and adore her in the cool shade. They didn’t sit, so she just kept running behind them. When this happened on our watch, we jumped in the car and caught up with her, and brought her “home.”

Finally, after some months of routine day camp here, she understood that her needs for adoration could be more than met just up the road from where she technically belonged; plus she really relished the romps, the boxwood chase and the roughhousing with Gandy — eventually to the point that they turned what used to be the yard into a muddy wrestling ring. We lowered our standards of yard care and increased our tolerance for mulch on the hardwood floors, and life was good.

She was a creature of habit, governed by regularity and predictability. We new for certain that it would not be long on any given dawn before her ghostly white form would appear, ambling in no particular hurry, up the road, then up the driveway, and at last to the porch. If we failed to see her arrive we’d be startled (but not surprised) to find her standing with her nose pressed against the back door when we opened it for firewood. She’d enter, greet all, and go to her Feather bed — not far from but not in the same room as Gandy’s cushier loveseat in front of the woodstove.

Predictably, should we be away from the house for a few hours, upon our return, Feather would appear out from under the lilac bush to greet us, always searching with some urgency to find a stick or a piece of gravel or a leaf. In her world it was bad manners to have nothing to offer in exchange for a two-handed head snuzzle. She might even get a brushing if the offering was carefully selected and convincingly presented.

And just as predictably, at the end of the day (on those days when she was required back down the road) the one of us that drew the short straw got the distasteful task of coaxing her out the back door, telling her how happy we were to have shared the day with her, and finally the tough love command: “Feather, go home.”

We never figured out how she learned to obey this directive, but she always did, even though she visible wilted when she heard it. Down the walkway, round the front of the house between the Forsythias and to the road she’d go. One of us — usually Ann — would watch from upstairs to be sure she didn’t double back and hide until dark and show up again just at bedtime. The next morning, she’d punch the clock and another day of romping, wrestling and serious napping would begin.

In my private recollections and journal but not here, I will enumerate a long list of very particular behaviors and attitudes and already-fading memories of Feather — a character in my life that I never want to forget. It is both a kindness and a tragedy that the wounds of such a loss do become less painful with time, but words can give the faint solace of a kind of immortality.

We are grateful to have had so many hands-on moments with our unofficially-adopted grand-dog, to have had so many smiles over so many miles with the two good friends; to have had so many sweet encounters with a creature that we always knew would likely go before we would — though not certainly at our ages, pushing seven dog years now.

We never took her for granted, nor do we the days we have left with Gandy — who has not yet given up on the notion that a white form will appear out of the morning gloom. I don’t think she’ll ever quit watching and hoping. Those two dogs were quite a team. We make a point now not to say F’s name out loud so Gandy will hear it and rush to the window expectantly, with her tail wagging.

The blessing was that the decline in Feather’s regular, predictable habits was a quick and painless goodbye. We’d noticed for some time that she was losing weight, but it made no apparent difference to her ability to reach the top of any ridge with amazing speed and endurance, even during her last week. But when she could not keep food on her stomach, she visibly faded. The vet diagnosed her condition as kidney failure. Monday January 23rd was her last day. And Feather went home.

Just Fragments of the Whole

Hello all. Or some. It’s been far more quiet here than at any time since the summer of 2002. You might have noticed, or not. Obviously, I don’t put much thought to public writing of late—not for a long time, and especially over the past six months, taking a slide toward voicelessness since November.

The blog has lost its role as a two-way can-on-a-string between one cloistered writer-photographer and the Other World. I’ve lamented this far too often in recent years as the disconnect grows wider and wider.

This web presence, for years, was ME. As faithfully as possible, I poured myself into a daily narrative, “in words and pixels” more or less shamelessly onto this page. For years, that was a rewarding effort—and no small one, to be sure.

I think back to the thousands of hours of my life transformed into the little essays and photo-vignettes, many of which went on to become published news columns or found their way into my books. I think back to all the people I’ve met because of our common language and sense of the common good.

There was great satisfaction and joy in that sharing and those new acquaintances. I felt utterly free to speak my heart and my mind and knew I would find resonance in that other world beyond the bounds of this tiny ridge-rimmed watershed.

But over that course of time and since the precipice of shattered focus since November, it has become impossible for me to connect with the ME that draws story from nature with gratitude, celebration, wonder and the urge and need to spread that good word.

Maybe this is not a permanent suppression of the core of connection with the telling of the simple life in Floyd County. I would be less concerned about outliving this funk if I were as young as I was when Fragments began, fourteen years ago.

But in this moment, I still need to write—no less than I have since being afflicted by the Muse of the Written Word in June of 2002. I just know, after some recent effort to do so,  that I can’t write from my Happy Place, and I can’t write to an empty room that blogging has become.

And yet, I must write; and if the old energies of discovery and awe and wonder are beyond reach in these dark times, perhaps indignation and outrage will serve to power the poor insulted and aggrieved Muse. Bless her, she stands to take quite a groping in the near term, from sea to shining sea.

The book I was half-way into sits idle. I just can’t get there from here. I almost thought there for a while I’d have it ready to go by a year from now. Nope. I can’t do the interior work required to get those kinds of words to the page.

So I’m researching and potentially, in the future, writing about some local environmental issues that impact us here on Goose Creek and in Floyd County and ultimately across the planet. That writing has to do with our local Virginia forests being strip-mined for European biofuels-powered electricity generation. It is a microcosmic symptom of our larger broken story.

And on this topic, maybe, something here at some future date.