From the introduction to "Glimpses from a Blue Ridge Memoir." The opening slide is a silhouettte of a city-scape (Boston from our hotel room back in November.) It bears this muted text: All who wander are not lost. --JRR Tolkein.
Where are you from, a new acquaintance will ask.
It has always been easier to tell people where I live or have lived than to tell them were I am from. Unlike this generation's grand parents who likely died in the same county where they were born, I have followed careers wherever they might carry me, far from where I was born; and "home" has pretty much been synonymous with our current mailing address. There has never been a family homeplace for me to go back to. How would I ever know when and where to settle down, to make roots for my children's children, to bond with a particular place for good?
It's odd how and when they happen--those flashes of insight when the heavens open and light floods into our own personal darkness. When I had my revelation of belonging, it was though the words of Sharyn McCrumb, speaking at the Presbyterian Church in the tiny community of Floyd. I wondered if others felt the tremors I felt that night.
McCrumb described the serpentine rock under the Appalachian chain, the core that binds the great backbone together. I perked up my ears: It begins just south of my home town in Alabama, she told us. From there, it stretches north underneath Floyd and all the way to Ireland. The image of this long unbroken line of history and stone conjured in my mind a map, and on it, I could see them in a perfect line: all of the towns I had chosen for homes in our wanderings.
I guess it had just never occurred to me before that moment: In all of my seeming rootlessness, I have never lived far from the southern mountains. In my epiphany that night, I saw that I never could. The mountains held a gravity I could not escape; I had always been an Appalachian. The Appalachians were my core, and I was a native son. And I saw, too, that I would be more akin to those who claim this calling than to those who by chance alone were born where I was born.
But what kind of allegiance does a native son owe to ridges and valleys? How much of who I am is because of where I've been called to live? Would I have become the same person had I been born on Midwestern prairie or Arctic tundra? How am I --how are we-- shaped by the geometry and pulsing life and the history of these hills and this forest?
It became clear to me that building an intimate relationship with place would require a daily immersion in the particulars of wind and snow, of sunlight and storm. It would come out of the moods and faces of ridge and creek and meadow through every season. And it would take time.
But just then, I had time. I had resigned my job in health care one day-- almost three years ago now-- not knowing what would come next, only certain that digging deeper in that same hole would find me no treasure. It was time to dig in a new place.
In the beginning I was at a loss to know how to spend empty time at home alone. I was plagued by two mountainous questions of identity: Where was I, exactly, at fifty-three, and unemployed? AND who was I now that I couldn't say what it was that I did for a living? I needed a new destination, and to get there, I would need a map to put firm ground under my feet for the uncharted months ahead.
This is what I decided: to put features on my map, I would search for them near home, in the things I'd overlooked when home was only a place to spend the nights between workdays. Through the lenses of my camera, and with an open and expectant heart, I would archive the days and seasons. And every day I would write-without hope and without despair--to keep a log of the journey. These words and images will show you some of the landmarks from my travels close to home.
I'm happy to be able to to take you where I've walked these past months. Let me show you the place I am learning to live. This will only be a sampler. We'll make a few fleeting stops on this field trip to a very small part of the Appalachians; but it is the part that I know the best, and it is where I belong: a remote creek valley not far from here as the crow flies.
Contrary to what I was told, our local paper says the Appalachian Studies Association conference at Radford University this weekend is open to the public. I wish I could do two runs of my little piece (10:15 Room C143 Peters Hall): once to the handful of strangers who might wander in; a second time for friends and Fragments faithful. I'll find a way to get it to disk or the web by early summer if anyone is interested. I'll be open to ideas of HOW best to do this.