Photos and Front Porch Musing from Floyd County Virginia
Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.
I looked up from the kitchen window about 10 minutes before we were to depart for a hike and pot-luck across the county.
WhatDaWhat! There not thirty feet away was a cluster of bittersweet (you never find just ONE Oriental Bittersweet vine because hundreds of seeds have fallen from the plant the year before, and many new sprouts also strangle the host tree and twine around others of their kind as well.
I reached for the loppers, since cutting the sapling at the base was the only remedy. And yet, this is no remedy.
I drug the whole mess down to my truck, and there it will stay until our next bonfire Weiner roast. To discard it in any other manner only spreads Medusa’s head in other seas.
And so what if one small group of vines does not drop seed this year? The cut vines still remain–to big to pull out of the ground. And within a hundred yards are a hundred other vines, climbing up the white pines in the powerline right-of-way.
I know this. And yet to do nothing with invasives coming right to the edge of the yard and in my face was a challenge I could not ignore.
And yet, in a hundred years, the flora of this place will be dominated by plant species from other continents. And maybe people born then will accept Stilt Grass, Multiflora Rose, and Oriental Bittersweet and admire them for their positive qualities, not knowing what would have grown in those places during their great great grandparent’s age.
And maybe 75 stories, essays and sylvan ramblings does not make a book. That is the judgment, I think, in the minds and profit-making needs of perhaps most publishers of books.
They are used to (and see their readers as being willing to pay for) books where Part A leads to Part B leads to…and there is a kind of start to finish nature to the book. That is not so for my existing books nor for the one I kind of hope to be published.
Several publishers I’ve gotten initially excited about “publish titles related to the practicalities, politics and processes of sustainability.” My book is neither fish nor fowl in this menu.
But the non-sequential reader format has actually been kind of a strong point for Slow Road and What We Hold, and many readers have told me that they like the fact that the book can be picked up and opened to any page to read that one short piece (they will be a bit longer in book #3).
On the other hand, you would not be completely able to read the future book backwards, since there is some memoirist material that starts with Finding Floyd, and then has several installments interspersed throughout.
The other possible deal killer is that the book does not fall into a clear subgenre of narrative non-fiction. Slow Road Home was shelved as a “travel book” because it was “about place.” And so finding “‘comparable titles” in a book proposal is made more difficult.
I won’t bore you with other grumblings as question the time and effort of find a “real” publisher and reconsider self-publication one final time. Much has changed in that field since 2009 when What We Hold In Our Hands was delivered off the truck from Edwards Brothers.
Meanwhile, some seeds are being disbursed at least. I did have one bit of the new book reach reader-eyes, including yours, if you wish, in a lit-mag called The Write Launch.
We were walking down our pasture loop yesterday, and for some reason, I remembered when we first walked this path in 1999, we often saw flying squirrels that would drive the dog-of-the-day crazy. Not any more. It’s been years since we saw the last one.
And ruffed grouse: We’d hear their low-frequency drumming in the woods almost every time we went down the valley, some times of the year.
Red squirrels: Mountain Boomers, they’re called. I’d see them from the back porch, three or four at a time, chasing each other or the gray squirrels they seem to have a natural loathing for.
Whippoorwills: we heard them without fail every spring for the first ten years we lived here. Nope. None for the past decade.
Fortunately, these species are not gone completely and forever. They are only missing from our local landscape by my observations, and maybe all these kinds of macro-vertebrate animal have come to where you live and you see them regularly. I hope so. But I have little reason to think that’s the case.
It would be hard to tease out exactly why the range of some animals changes from year to year. But looking at global numbers of plant and animals species and populations, the news is not good. And it is not just local range retractions but large-scale ecosystem declines of entire webs of inter-related plants, animals, fungi and microbes taking place with increasing frequency and breadth across all biomes.
Two hundred species go extinct every day, the latest studies project.
Imagine: today, the Eastern Chipmunk. Thursday, the robin. Friday the raven. Saturday, the Monarch Butterflies. Sunday the silver maple.
These are conspicuous, named and familiar creatures we’d miss if they weren’t there. We’d be alarmed if we could actually see extinction, like so many lights across the globe that wink out suddenly. The very last one of its kind dies, and that is the end of the genetic line forever. We can’t see those lights going out, but be assured it is happening. And this Sixth Great Extinction is not new and it is not something we can blame on natural cycles.
The increasing number of humans on the Earth; the voracious appetites we have for stuff and the enormous footprint we leave in our wake of resource consumption; and now the extra heat our carbon era has left in the atmosphere—all of this disturbance of natural checks and balances is rapidly leading to a planet unlike the one experienced by living things, maybe not EVER, but certainly over the 200k years of hominid presence or the 10k years of proto-civilization.
Every living organism on every continent and in every biome is being challenged by the changes Homo sapiens has created. And our arrogance has us thinking we will be just be about our business of doing what is best for our own kin, corporation or country. And in the end, it will be self-absorbed indifference and willful ignorance that will do us in.
Extirpated. Eradicated. Extinct. As species disappear, we are burning the precious books–the last and only existing copies–from the Library of Life. Few of the species whose way of life has brought this about seem bothered by this emergency. Humankind may yet be a self-terminating species, but it will not be because we did not see it coming.
Our son-in-law is a prosperous, young, thinking Republican. He laments the mentality of his hunting and fishing buddies (Joe Flounder in our discussion) who blames current restrictions on flounder fishing on the whims of environmentalists. They are indignant over any rules that restrict their total freedom to keep everything they catch on their three-day weekend fishing trip.
He challenged me to confront with my writing such contrarians directly and make them see the light. If only it was that easy. I penned a lengthy reply to his email this morning, and have included it here, since it speaks to the current work on the book and the voice and values it hopes to share with readers. Heck, you might be one of them!
❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦ ❦
To be sure, we as a nation and planet are on the precipice of a crisis that is complex and centuries in the making. In its coarsest features seen through my 50-year thirty-thousand foot view of things, it is a divide of values that drives the two camps to very different conclusions about who deserves what and why.
Again, in my view, we suffer the consequences of broken relationships with nature, place and community (human and other.) Perhaps the most stark distinction is that one side sees humankind’s ecology and economy as one web of relationships, the other as two distinct and separate circles on a Venn diagram, if you will.
The Enlightenment, scientific revolution, then the industrial revolution moved the movers and shakers to understand that man was separate from nature, holding dominion over it (according to one mis-reading of Genesis) and turning it to our purposes alone. Thus the ECONOMY became an engine to generate profit and stuff, with Earth’s matter, space and living substance (ECOLOGY) the fodder for the machine. The growth model of economics has been very good for many stockholders, CEOs and politicians, and as we have known now for a half-century, increasingly bad for the health of the planet that sustains us.
So with that broad sweep of
understanding, my presuppositions about Joe Flounder’s world view (of which he
is not the least be aware or interested) is that there is a wide, deep and
well-entrenched gulf to cross to reach Joe and his pals who think ME-HERE-NOW
while those on the other side of the divide prioritize THEM-THERE-THEN. Why are
we here? What is our purpose?
Is a well-lived life one that serves
the planet and the common good or one that serves self in the here and now?
(Almost every major religion and ethical systems comes down on the side
opposite the SELFISH side.) Which story gets us where we all want to be–living
in a world that works, where prosperity is measured in more than dollars, where
people show respect for all others and honor and steward the natural
systems–the ecology–of a “living” planet for authentic and
So I do not write about climate
change as such, though of course I mention it in some places. Book 3, like the
others, is not about facts so much as it is about healing broken relationships.
Joe F will not change his mind based on new facts. But if he can be made to
feel and give voice to what is missing and what is essential in his life, he
might actually find that he can be outdoors without a stick in his hand after
The golf club, fishing pole and
shotgun are all “real guy” authenticators, because anybody outdoors
just taking it in is surely a fag or intellectual (god forbid!) But what most
guys really want, I think, is to be OUT THERE because there is a goodness about
being in the world not made by hands, as john Muir called wilderness. They
acknowledge that, but our distorted understanding of manliness makes them
uncomfortable if they don’t carry the authenticating stick (and besides, this
reinforced stereotype is really good for the GDP.)
So Book 3 (One Place Understood:
Field Notes from a Personal Ecology) consists of personal writing (essays,
natural history, nature advocacy, lucid daydreams and reflections) that arise
from my attempt to better know who I am by where I am. And this means a
sharpening and intentional use of the senses. It means living with perpetual
curiosity about the ordinary in our living spaces–the soil, air, water, human
history and the passing of time through place.) It means seeing ourselves as
part, not the whole, of a functioning world we did not make but are quickly
damaging beyond repair for human generations.
A personal ecology (my terminology
as I define it in the book) in its grandest sweep is a nurturing by which every
future person learns to see themselves fully within the circle of nature and
the web of the Whole Ecology of Earth. One place understood helps us know all
places better, Eudora Welty said. And when we have this kind of wisdom and
vision, priorities realign within the human economy so that we make right
choices about our consumption and behaviors in light of its impact on the
common good, and especially the good of forests and coral reefs and oceans and
There is a phrase among writers that
you should “show not tell.” So again for the third and last time (if
this thing actually gets between covers) I show what my relationships (ecology)
mean within my slice of time and space. And perhaps if Joe Flounder’s wife or
grand-daughter happen upon the book and are touched in some way by it, they
will have the words (or model the changed understandings) to influence our good
ol’ boy so he stops tossing beer cans in the bay. Hell, he never even thought
about “the commons” before!
A wider audience: that’s a tough
nut. While working sporadically to get all the pieces completed and ordered,
I’m wading through how to write a book proposal, how to pitch to a publisher,
etc. I may end of self-publishing, and that too will require a lot of research
since those options have changed so much since book 2 in 2009. I am not bored.
And so it goes. SustainFloyd
struggles every year with how to reach Joe Farmer in Floyd–firmly entrenched
in the Tea Party mentality and damned if they’ll be seen with those
pointy-headed tree huggers.Damned buncha socialists!
We have a new project a few of us
talked about last night–a Community Chestnut-planting effort–that hopes to
find stories and willing hands across the political-intellectual-values divide.
We’ll see how it goes.
Yes, it does sound like a medieval incantation of doom. This is one for you from Nature’s Book of Bad Dreams.
have among us a fungus that infects periodic cicadas in a most bizarre and
ghoulishly effective way. So if you find said insect with its back half white,
it is a flying salt-shaker of death to others of its kind. It will not turn you
into anything more or less than what you have been. OTOH…
pustule is a teeming mass of fungal spores, that, when germinated in the
tissues of a passing cicada, turn it into a living zombie, roaming the world
for weeks with its hind-most parts replaced by the fungus that has eaten it
alive. Note that the fungus, too, has periodicity so to be timed to
“bloom” along with the emergence of its meal and meal ticket.
zombification, the chances of spores finding other victims are increased by the
fact that chemicals are released by the spores (including a couple of known
human hallucinogens, but you’d have to eat a bucket full of insects to get a,
er, buzz.) These drugs induce male cicadas to produce sounds typical of females
to lure in other males not yet infected. And also infected males respond by
seeking out calls of both sexes, thereby increasing the odds of contact and