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.


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

The WHEREs We’re From

Spring. A time of new beginnings. A time to take nourishment from our roots to our winter-resting branches and grow a little taller–no matter how old we are.

And for this purpose–to give you an idea of the soil you grow in–I’ve posted a link to the Where I’m From template permanently in the sidebar. This “meme” is still circulating to good effect out there in the online world. And closer to home, even wife Ann sat down and wrote her own version for her reunion. Here’s mine.

Let me emphasize that my only role in this is to make available two things I didn’t have any part of creating: 1) the original poem by George Ella Lyon (which you can find via a link on the template page) and 2) the poem template with blanks and prompts that guide you to create your own version of George Ella’s original. I am simply the messenger.

I will see George Ella again this summer at Hindman at the Writers Workshop, and tell her once more how popular and poignant her work has been.

If you haven’t sat still long enough to ponder what you’d put in the blanks of the template, what are you waiting for? Finished, it will be a gift to your family. And to yourself. Trust me, it’s worth the time.

Giving Nature Back: To Our Children, Ourselves

…Abby had found the broken remnants of a tailless kite, and entertained herself (and us) for a delightful hour under the blue prairie sky.

That afternoon I witnessed in a most striking way the contrast between the old-fashioned play of children actively entertaining their bodies and imaginations in the out-of-doors, and the modern, physically-passive, over-stimulating kinds of “recreation” that happen to kids almost exclusively indoors and may involve use of the thumb muscles alone.

“I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are” explained one urban fifth grader.

Read More (quick-loading Scribd pdf). This is an early draft, editorial comments welcomed and appreciated.