Remembering the Old Home Place
My old home places were all in the mountains. My childhood was spent in the Southern Tier of New York State, in the rolling hill-region called the Allegheny Plateau. I grew up in a gaunt farmhouse that housed a treasure - a home library of oddly assorted volumes. Narrow books of Poe and Longfellow, volumes of Stevenson, Emerson, Shakespeare. During the summers I ran happily wild on our seven acres, but in the winter I read, and can see how those books influenced my later writing – stories in which the homely and comforting were permeated by the strange and troubling.
I can see the books in that dim room, among the old furniture and stored clothing.
Thomas Hardy – Tess of the d’Urbervilles, with the dairylands so like my own home region, but overlying ancient and bloody history.
Gene Stratton’s A Girl of the Limberlost, with a solitary teenager lured by the swamp and its exotic creatures, learning also about poverty and madness and violence.
Hawthorne’s gloomy House of the Seven Gables, where “the very timbers were oozy, as with the moisture of a heart.”
Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which fired my young imagination.
Later, SF and fantasy brought new landscapes - Ray Bradbury’s tragic Mars, the jungle world of Rima in Green Mansions, Tolkein’s alien but familiar Middle-Earth, Ursula K. LeGuin’s harsh world of Winter.
This selection is from Huckleberry Finn, which along with other books in a complete edition of the works of Mark Twain books introduced me to landscapes from the Mississippi River to the Middle East.
It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale under-side of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest -- fst! it was as bright as glory, and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling, down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs -- where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know.
I realized how deeply some of this writing had sunk in – only to rise in new form in my writing - in a storm scene from Blood Clay:
She loved storms but this kind scared her, out of sorts, out of season. Evening was coming on and the winds should be quieting, not whipping the tops of old trees back and forth. Back in Ohio, they’d be watching the TV, the reassurance of the Doppler radar showing yellow and orange, the blinking red centers of swirling winds. The older folks didn’t trust such displays, but turned their black-and-white TVs all the way to black, and watched for the white bands of interference that screamed tornado and sent them to the cellars.
Hail or hard rain hammered on the tin roof. The driveway sizzled with the drops.
Tracy went back to the sofa, feet curled under her, the essays piled left and right as she read them and assigned grades. Though the wind whined in the attic and lightning shuttered across the wall, she refused to go to the basement and huddle.
How vulnerable you are in the country. The lack of streetlights and close neighbors, no one to count on but yourself. Her grandmother shouting up the stairs, “Come run water, Tracy Ann. Storm coming.” And the band of clouds rolling across the cornfields, her grandmother yanking screens out of windows and slamming them shut, and she would be running water in the bathtub and standing on tiptoes to reach the faucets in the kitchen sink and fill pots and kettles.
The old home place for me was not a house or rooms full of furniture, but the world outside – the woods I roamed and waters I fished. All around my old home place – with its garden, swamp, stream and a small woods - were working farms and the remains of farms, where people had worked and then disappeared. There was sense of loss, of things that have gone away, that rises through my earlier novels and through Blood Clay, where the land that Tracey claims is haunted by the history of settlement and war and the disappearance of traditional ways. The failed farms of my youth had been taken over by the state as game lands, and I gathered fruit on them, and was lured by the cellarholes and dumps. Here are some lines from a new poem that remembers:
From The Harvest
Across the road from our bleak farmless farmhouse
was the socket of another: a tumble of cellar-stones
under an orchard of apples, pears, and plums.
We shook fruit down and picked it up from summer til snow,
gifts from those householders – faltered, fizzled, ruined, dead –
the trees they had planted outlasting their other works…
When I left home, it was to a new rural homeplace in the central Appalachians, where I homesteaded a hill farm in North Central West Virginia. Like my childhood home, it was a place of layered imagination – the farm we built on the former pig farm, before that a settlement, virgin forest, the hunting grounds of Indian tribes. Those abandoned farm roads and sagging line fences, and the mine cracks opening into the deep underground, became another home place that shows up everywhere in my poetry and fiction.
Finally, I’ve come home, to a home I knew before I came here. I remember long ago finding Our Southern Highlanders and being entranced with the description of these great lonely mountains I wouldn’t come to see for decades.
From almost any summit in Carolina one looks out upon a sea of flowing curves and dome-shaped eminences undulating, with no great disparity of height, unto the horizon. … Every ridge is separated from its sisters by deep and narrow ravines. Not one of the thousand water courses shows a glint of its dashing stream, save where some faroff river may reveal, through a gap in the mountain, one single shimmering curve. In all this vast prospect, a keen eye, knowing where to look, may detect an occasional farmer's clearing, but to the stranger there is only mountain and forest, mountain and forest, as far as the eye can reach. ... Characteristic, too, is the dreamy blue haze, like that of Indian summer intensified, that ever hovers over the mountains, unless they be swathed in cloud, or, for a few minutes, after a sharp rain-storm has cleared the atmosphere...The foreground of such a landscape, in summer, is warm, soft, dreamy, caressing, habitable; beyond it are gentle and luring solitudes; the remote ranges are inexpressibly lonesome, isolated and mysterious; but everywhere the green forest mantle bespeaks a vital present.
So I find myself now in the midst of those mountains, carrying images of other places like keepsakes in a sack, or tote, or poke, as our language may shape it. The low green hills of Cattaraugus County, dotted with Holsteins. The steeper hills of West Virginia, rocky streams and blackberry lanes and laurel hells, and under all the tunneled dark like the caves of Tom Sawyer. And most recently, the gentle Piedmont rising toward these fabled mountains that Horace Kephart loved and saved from the axe. Images blur and merge, like mountains at a distance, or those daguerrotypes of my Civil War ancestors, grave and beguiling, that can only be seen when they are viewed aslant.