Slow Road Home: A Year Old Today

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April 26, 2006, and there they were at last.

Ann and I watched as the delivery truck lowered the burden at the back door, just as it began to rain. Then there it sat: a plastic-swaddled pallet of 28 cardboard boxes, 48 books per box: my books, finally born, real and shrink-wrapped in threes. Very quickly the first case was opened and a few books spread out on the table in front of me.

And in that first hour, I knew both the beaming joy of a new parent and the utter terror of someone who has just realized he may have bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

I do not exaggerate the ambivalence or the extent to which, on that first day, I was not quite sure what I had done. Or why. Or of what to do next. But mostly, that moment brought relief. I had never seen more than a half-dozen proof pages of the book before April 26. In this leap of faith, this was the very first time I held the completed cover-to-cover book in my hands, and I could almost weep I was so relieved. They didn’t look cheap, didn’t feel slick-quick or second-rate like some of the earlier “author subsidized” books you see around. But now what?

In that first hour on a rainy April afternoon, I began getting books ready to mail to those of you who had more confidence in me than I had in myself. Dozens had sent PalPal orders and checks even before the book reached final draft! On April 27, I carried three heaping boxes of books to the post office with satisfaction and a sense of completion, finally having accomplished a goal that for almost three years I suspected was nothing more than a fantasy, a self-deceit, a pipe dream.

But more than ever, I was naked before the world now, exposed and public. To have invested so much time and so many dollars in this project would let the world know that in my opinion, there was something here worth the effort. The book seemed a kind of boast and I was both embarrassed and proud.

Was this what they meant by “vanity press”? Was Slow Road Home the ugly baby only a father could love? I had bared my soul in some of the passages now between the covers of this book, made myself vulnerable in ways I had not felt with the free-and-easy weblog and its forgiving and tolerant audience of readers who just blew off the many times at bat I struck out as a new writer.

April 26, 2007, and that slow road still goes on.

Yesterday, I received word that Forever Resorts (in Arizona) is interested in the book for distribution at their facilities along the parkway. This includes the store at Crabtree Meadows, but most importantly, Mabry Mill here in Floyd County. The Park Service will carry it at other concessions like Peaks of Otter and Rocky Knob Visitors Center (also here in Floyd County.)

Some few of you will appreciate how formidable is the task of getting a self-published book “out there”. This is beginning to happen, and it has taken a full year.

Why does this matter to me? It certainly isn’t about the money. I could add one day a week in the clinic and double my year’s income from the book.

I think it’s the fact that, when the memoir does find resonance in a receptive and appreciative reader, there is the satisfaction that my message and story has been heard. Something at the gut level has been shared:

Slow down. Open your senses. Appreciate the ordinary. Suck the marrow out of life, as Mr. Thoreau encouraged us to do. Tell your story. Say YES To the beautiful parts of this world just outside your door. Care.

Thanks to all who have shared this journey with me, some few since the very beginning, and also at anniversary this week: Fragments from Floyd is five years old! And here we go!

Earth Day 2007: How Many More?

The first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, marked for me the dawn of environmental consciousness, and I was so hopeful.

In southern Alabama, the channelization of streams by the Army Corps of Engineers and clear-cutting of southern forests by the mammoth forest products companies were the issues at the top of the local environmental agenda of the day. As a young zoology grad student, the issues seemed large but surmountable in the spring of 1970. Fixing them would just take time.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was the founder of Earth Day. It took him almost a decade to find a way to lift the declining state of the planet’s health into the political radar; most of his political colleagues would have none of it. But in the late sixties, the youth of those times took up the banner, because they came to see their futures as much impacted by the environmental fate of the Earth as by the political fate of Southeast Asia.

Only a few years had passed since Rachel Carson first sounded the alarm that yes, we could foul our own nest, and had already done so. Our air and water were making us sick, as well as bringing about the decline of many of the animal species with which we share the planet. That the products of man’s industry and commerce had accumulated to such a degree as to alter the balance of nature was a new and startling alarm, but not so many were listening back then.

Flash forward: Earth Day, April 22, 2007.

I won’t bother giving you the numbers that measure thirty seven years of world-wide population growth; energy and resource use per capita; the number of extinct species and disappearing habitats; and the rise in atmospheric greenhouse gases and elevated air and sea temperatures.

Suffice it to say that the planet-wide problems we face today fall far higher on the scale of urgency than anything looming just ahead of us on that first Earth Day less than forty years ago. The specter of a rapidly warming planet overshadows every lesser concern we might have. And some still aren’t listening.

Working to protect particular species and habitats or air and water quality in our cities becomes moot-like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The ship must stay afloat. This Earth Day, we acknowledge that it can sink. And we don’t have so much time.

I’ll be bold and assume that thirty seven years of planet-watching earns me one stand in the bully pulpit. From this one citizen’s perspective, four things must happen. Making the rubber meet the road is quite another matter, and these are complex issues we must be talking about in Floyd’s meeting places, churches, and organizations.

1. We must take individual responsibility for being carefully conscious of our family and community “environmental footprint” and reduce it. This will require over the coming decades that we restructure our households, municipalities and economies of goods and services on a more local and self-sufficient scale. Floyd can be exemplary in this transition, and many are already moving in this direction. Have you visited the Sustainable Living Education Center at the Jacksonville Center lately?

2. We must insist that efficiency and conservation by industry and commerce play a much stronger role than they have thus far in CO2 abatement. Energy produced by 600 new coal-burning plants already planned for could be saved (and that much CO2 avoided) by changes in air-conditioning and improved building insulation efficiency alone. What are we waiting for?

3. We must not become complacent by thinking that our individual conservation or lifestyle changes alone will fully solve the larger problem. Let’s insist that international governments-especially including our own and starting now-shift away from carbon-based industry, commerce and transportation. Simply using less of the same toxin will still, over time, poison the planet-and this, particularly as China and India grow to match the US as per capita energy consumers.

4. We must find a just way to prevent those who produce the least greenhouse gases from suffering the most. And governments would do well to be proactive-in places like Bangladesh, for instance-to reduce the unprecedented refugee crisis likely when tens of millions lack water once provided by Himalayan glaciers. We must channel our national budgets towards a new kind of defense that includes mitigation of climate change impact here and abroad, even while we drastically reduce production of greenhouse gases.

No matter what we do in the short run, climate change impacts on humanity are likely to be large in the coming century, even here in remote Floyd County. Coping with this unprecedented degree of change will require a whole new way of thinking about our relationship with the planet and each other. Let’s renew our commitment to these goals this Earth Day, and move quickly toward an Earth Decade.

And while I’m hoping, perhaps we could come to see THIS ISSUE as the common enemy, not other nations with whom we share this shrinking planet. We’re all of us on the very same boat. © Fred First / April 2007

In Search of Wildness

Emily Dickinson was right to see that a prairie consists of only one flower and a bee. When my world was small, a quarter acre vacant wooded lot was enough to make a wilderness.

I grew up in the limits of a sprawling Alabama city, but I was happiest when I imagined I was surrounded by ‘wilderness’. In the leafy chaos of empty lots and wooded neighborhood margins I was a pioneer. Playing cowboys and Indians in a tiny fraction of an acre of woods, I could imagine that I was in undisturbed ‘native land’, and belonged there as a native myself.

As I grew older, I needed more of the nutrient of wildness than my little neighborhood woods could give. I went to summer camp and my backyard forest was magnified a thousand fold. Living at camp for a week, smelling of creek water and pine straw with a hundred other free-ranging feral children,I felt more connected to the larger life of the world than I would have after an entire summer of immersion in chlorine-smelling swimming pools or organized, sanitized sports.

I fished to find wilderness. Fishing possessed its own sense of isolation and otherness and was its own alien country fit for a young explorer. Mostly I fished alone walking the shoreline; more often than not, I’d find myself distracted by a little side creek or a rock bluff along the lake and I would forget fishing entirely. It was not the fish I was after, after all.

Like many of my friends, I followed my father onto the golf courses that spread into the countryside ahead of the expanding city. Our dads went there looking for something–to find tranquility and be near the land perhaps by chasing behind a little white ball. I’d wander off the manicured fairways into the rough turning logs for salamanders. And I decided that for me, just being out there was the point.

It is not easy these days for city children to know the joys of secret woods. Most of the tiny wilderness sanctuaries of my childhood are paved over now. Locked behind guardhouses of gated communities, they’ve become uninviting and forbidden domesticated places. Even the margins and edges from youth were not far enough away to provide reliable wildness. Maybe knowing this has made me long for remoter places when looking for our true home, a place for roots in our later years.

Now, far beyond the edges of a town so small that there are no spreading suburbs, we have found those roots. A vast forest surrounds me, and creeks flow full of bright fish and sunlight. I have tranquility by the sky-full here, and few neighbors to disturb in my rambling walks.

This little valley may be the place I knew I would belong to long ago in that half-acre woods. And I have to wonder if I did not start moving to Floyd County while picking berries with small hands– beyond my suburban yard in a secret patch of woods where natives lived.

This is a repost from Fragments (or elsewhere) from years ago. It just seemed fitting, what with all the reading and thinking lately about childrens’ exposure (or lack thereof) to the natural world.

Spring

Yesterday, March 28: the first day of Spring on Goose Creek.

The measure: not day length or temperature; not the blooming of Coltsfoot (come far too early this year) or pinking of the buds at the tips of trees along Nameless Creek when the sun rises earlier and earlier each day. The first day of Spring is marked by our first meal on the front porch.

This year, it was Ann–the irresistible force: Let’s eat outside! And I– the immovable object: it’s too cool yet, and everything is likely wet from the hard rains we’ve had (though they seemed to have passed by, the air cooler, the sky clearing a bit to the north though thunder still rumbled.)

It was pretty cool for sitting, but the meal of chicken casserole (the chicken we canned ourselves last fall) held in bowls in our laps warmed us even while the winds followed the storm south, down beyond the end of the pasture, out over the Blue Ridge, surging like a wave, spilling down into the piedmont and beyond. Behind the wave, a neon strobe of pink flashed in the near-dark, thunder coming later with each flash. There: the smell of lightning.

And listen: how very Appalachian the thunder. Remember: in South Dakota, the storm that passed over us, crashing it’s way toward the badlands? The thunder, for being so very close and loud, was flat, monotone, two dimensional–a sheet of sound dropped down hard against prairie that lay open to the horizon in every direction.

CLAP! And we held to our warm bowls, listening. Mountain Thunder in stereo, hi-fi, reverb and not mere percussion. Antiphonal thunder kettle drums answered by two or more pairs of tympanis back on Lick Ridge, set at fifths; and tonal heavy hammers, against steel out beyond Free State. Sound sent, sent back, modulated, amplified, and moving away. The pink-orange spilled down the great escarpment toward Carolina as Goose Creek rose clear and cold, to its own water music, and appreciative and silent, we took our empty bowls inside.

Sharing Some Good News

A few of you reading this have been following this dog and pony show since the early days (five years ago almost to the day). Suffice it to say that when this epic began, the destination was far from certain. In late March, 2002, the handwriting was on the wall, and it bode ill for my professional future.

I knew I would not continue to dig the same hole deeper. Just where I would plant my spade, and what treasure I would find there in the next excavation into the future, I did not know. But I had the strong and abiding notion there was treasure just outside my door, through my window that looks across at our barn and field. But what was it?

The blog started that month, and the mantra “write every day, write from the heart, write what you know” became the first thing in my mind when I awoke every morning.

And four years later, this week of this month last year, the manuscript for Slow Road Home was in the hands of Edwards Brothers, Inc. Soon, 1000 books would arrive on my doorstep.

And yesterday, five years from the inception of Fragments from Floyd, I learned that Slow Road Home – a Blue Ridge Book of Days will be acquired for distribution in all the Blue Ridge Parkway gift shops and book stores along the 469 mile length of the National Park.

The “reach” of the book is extended many-fold by this means of dispersal, and will find a population of readers to whom I very much wanted to speak. This news, for me, is a major encouragement and reassurance. And so, I wanted to let you know just where the slow road has carried us, you and me, here at the five year mark into the unknown.

And what chapter will unfold by this time NEXT early spring?

Hard frost last night. Sky is pinking up. The reflection of the woodstove flames dance orange against the windowpane, framing an utter calm, cold landscape beyond the glass. The barn roof is white, the butterfly bush outside my window limp with ice crystals fringing every curled and faded leaf.

How womblike-the warmth of the stove, the familiar touch of chair and desk, this old flannel shirt I wear as if it were my birth skin. I love this place, so constant, so fully known and at hand. This place: this room, this house, this valley, these mountains, this time in our lives. Especially now, as winter creeps closer and the days grow short, I appreciate the roof overhead, the full stacks of firewood, the canning in the basement and slow moments like this to see our blessings, the ordinary that we too often take for granted.

We can’t know what’s coming around the bend in the road. But it has been a very nice road, that’s for sure.
from the last page of
Slow Road Home ~ a Blue Ridge Book of Days