A Mountaintop Experience

image copyright Fred First

I can’t even imagine, but we should all try to, and sometimes I do.

I am standing on the front porch in the early morning with my coffee. The sun is just painting enough light behind the ridgetops to make rise and fall of their silhouette into the rim of this chalice-valley that holds our lives.

With a sudden, sickening slap against my feet in the near-light, the yard, the house, the entire watershed of Goose Creek shocks as smoke and dust rise from what had been forest along the skyline. And when the cloud of pulverized earth settles, the trees are gone. The familiar contours like the lines of loved one’s face, have disappeared forever.

Then, a massive machine rises above the ragged horizon. It pushes what is left of our mountaintop through what is left of our forest in to what used to be Nameless Creek, into my Fortress of Solitude where the three poplars converge, where I wanted my ashes placed; where our sitting bench has been, next to the little island covered in asters where the white waters will be no more. This image of an early morning spider web was taken at just this place of my nightmare.

A bad dream. Mountaintop Removal is a bad dream that is a new reality every day for someone, for some family, for some community somewhere in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee or Virginia. And unless we force ourselves to look at it in all its ugliness, unless we come to see our own complicity by our very silence and by our consumption without regard for the costs, there will be no end to it.

Some of you who are from or have a heart for the southern Appalachian mountains are surely aware of the costs of “cheap coal”. Most of you who read this here are genuinely uninformed, and there’s a reason for that. Until recently, the people most affected have not had sufficient voice to lift this issue above and against the powerful forces that want it invisible in the national media; that want vast stretches of remote, sparcely-settled, pristine watershed, forested plant and animal habitat and the physical context of mountain people’s lives to be seen as nothing but “overburden”. There has been an political policy of silence at the highest levels.

This must stop. We must be a part of the end of mountaintop removal for coal extraction.

Please take a few minutes and watch this short video from ilovemountains.com that just begins to tell the story. Do you love mountains? Then take 8 minutes to learn what’s at stake.

From Downtown Mayberry RFD

image copyright Fred First

Yesterday, I took a pleasant solo drive from Goose Creek over to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Now that the leaf-peepers have no leaves to peep, I had the long, high road to myself for 35 miles, all the way to Fancy Gap. And for the first time in thirty years, I wound down the mountain the old way–on Route 52–to the bottom of the Appalachian Escarpment, to the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the piedmont of North Carolina. My destination: Mt. Airy, a town that reared and now prospers on Andy Griffith. It’s almost too much as you walk along Main Street. Opie this, Aunt Bee that, and of course, Floyd’s Barber Shop. Small wonder the whistled theme music wasn’t piped out onto the streets at every corner. But altogether, a nice unwalmarted downtown still flourishes.

Promptly at noon, Traveler Trish arrived at the Snappy Lunch–a local diner of some reputation, but as small as Aunt Bee’s kitchen and we’d have to wait for one of the three booths. So we ended up down the street instead at the Blue Plate Diner (if I’m remembering right) and they were very accommodating. Later, we walked the sidewalks through the older homes near town and chatted, catching up on a year’s worth of accumulated water under our bridges. She’s been around the world. I’ve been around Goose Creek.

But we’ll do that again, Mt. Airy being about half way between us. Trish was one of the first to find Fragments, sense a resonance of fellow-feeling with a would-be writer and offer to get together to chat about writing, about goal setting, discipline and about getting your book’s essence down onto the back of a business card–one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever been given!

A writer by background and temperament, Trish left that behind to form and promote WorldsTouch, and just returned from many months putting feet on her intentions to make some small, remote corner of the world a better place. And she’s not done yet, only home to save up enough to go back to India, Nepal, who knows where she’ll travel and do this good work next.

It was a great pleasure to hand her a book across the table in the diner in Mt. Airy yesterday. I never would have imagined four years ago when we met that we’d have to be careful not to get frenchfries grease on the cover of my book in the middle of Mayberry.

Pictured: The distinctive silhouette of Pilot Mountain (aka Mt. Pilot–the bigger town not far from Mayberry) as seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway.

And let me add: Slow Road Home is now available at PAGES BOOKSTORE on Main Street in downtown Mt. Airy. Now there’s both a destination AND a purpose for a Saturday afternoon drive. You’re welcome.

Yet Another Barn Picture

image copyright Fred First
I look at the exotic images from far away places taken on great adventures by photographers who post their works now so easily on the web for all to see. There are breathtaking panoramas in mind-numbingly beautiful light; local people in bright dress engaged in unguessable celebration or worship; and amazing animals in lush rainforest or stark desert places I cannot imagine.

Then I look at my monthly photo-archives of very ordinary local insects, pasture flowers, fall leaves, and always: the barn. It is certainly the most photographed structure in all of Floyd County, and almost all of those images are mine. But that’s okay, and by intention.

Almost five years ago I heard the story of a New York City photographer who became disabled to the extent that he was not able to leave his room. His room, fortunately, was on the fourth floor of an apartment building that bordered Central Park. But his passion for capturing the everyday scenes of his life didn’t end. He continued his career for several years, growing where he was planted, taking thousands of images from his window–of people passing by on the sidewalks below, of snowfalls on treetops in the park, of light reflected from the windows of the building across the way, even of pigeons on his windowsill. That story of immersion in the close-at-hand resonated with me that winter.

And six months later an empty page of time opened in my life when I left my profession not knowing what would come next; and I remembered this story. Even if I don’t leave the house every day and see no other people but the mailman on his rounds, I told myself, there is a world of color and form here in this valley–easily enough to keep my camera and eye, mind and heart filled with good images to contemplate and to share.

And prominent among those images, the barn. It is an illusory symbol of permanence here. The house is much changed since we first saw it in 1999, with a new front porch, new windows, foundation, a paint job, and now the Annex. The house has been “improved” and it shows to anyone who knew the house in its earlier incarnation.

But the barn would have looked just the way it does now at the time my grandmother was born. And this old structure hewn from logs cut on these hillsides puts the human lives lived here into the beauty of the natural landscape in a way that I find comforting, and visually satisfying–to draw the eye to its unnatural straight lines in contrast to the pleasant curve and chaos of nature.

This Time Last Year

image copyright Fred First

“I can’t remember what I was doing this time last week, let alone this time last year” Ann often confesses when I slip into one of my time-traveling reveries. The past is the foundation for today, and every day is the anniversary of another brick and mortar time worth building into the present. The weblog certainly helps in this time travel, but all you have to do is pay attention to your senses to reconnect with last year this time, or the year before, or three decades ago.

Last November 05 shares with today the very same seasonal smell of wood smoke and dry leaves. It bears the identical feel of the cool air on my neck in this morning-drafty old house, the same insect noises or bird calls just out the door–or silence but for the creek’s babble on this frosty morning. The stage is the same, the players, props and plots have, of course, changed, as life goes on.

Last year when the leaves smelled and crunched underfoot just so and on a day after the moon rose over the east ridge in the very same notch where it did last night, I was hanging out with Jonathan. A talented freelance photographer, this kind and intelligent young man had contacted me in the spring (via a google search on Floyd) about a photo project he wanted to do in the county and pitch to a major magazine. I learned a lot from him, including how many tools of the trade it takes to be prepared for every photo-opportunity.

The day this photo was taken, he was here at the house when the lighting on the barn drew his eye and camera’s lens, as it had mine so many times before. He pulled out not only his 7 foot tripod from the back of his van, but also an aluminum stepladder to take advantage of the higher perspective that gave a composition not obtainable any other way. (Note: the metal ash bucket is not one of Jonathan’s tools.)

I coveted his study Domke camera bag. I’ve had mine almost a year now. He said I should be using a polarizing filter more; now, I do. And he had this really fine pistol-grip camera head for a tripod that would position with the legs straddled out almost their full length for a very wide base of support–a capability that was useful when he and I were trying to get sunset images from the top of Buffalo Mountain in a 35 mph wind that would have blown over a lesser support. Mine won’t extend to 7 feet, but I have the camera head now and a great Manfrotto tripod that’s certainly good enough for an amateur. I’ve had it more than a week and haven’t had a chance to use it yet.

Maybe I’ll test it out today. The sky promises to pink up a bit here just before dawn; frost is heavy on the barn roof I can see just now. Might be I’ll come inside when I’m done, have another cup of coffee, and bring to light an image–yet another image of the barn and pasture–that I’ll look back on fondly on November 05, 2007. And the years and anniversaries just keep coming.

Update: Sunrise image captured! Will post tomorrow, right here–a new-site FFF exclusive!

One Less Squirrel

A gray fox squirrel, a pretty thing seen so close, bore the same markings as the common gray squirrel but with a whiter vent and half again as large. This one sported the characteristic tail longer than the body, it’s unmoving spiny shaft conspicuous, wet now with saliva. The pasture grass had concealed the animal as it harvested walnuts from the tree just up the bank from the creek. But the same grass made it hard to see an approaching predator, and then once pursued, impossible to run at full speed to safety.

I don’t think Tsuga set out to kill, only to play. But he plays rough with creatures in fur, though he’s not once growled or snapped at us. I’ve never seen him happier than with his new playmate hanging out both sides of his grinning mouth. Yes, I think dogs do smile. I wish I’d taken his picture with his tropy.

Ann asked me while the dog was distracted across the creek to please go pick up the carcass and dispose of it. I carried the customary grocery bag prepared to evert it over the warm, wet remains, still to my fingers alive-seeming through the thin plastic. There was nothing for the bag but the gray tip of a tail.