Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Story Keepers

How about the concept of a landscape as a story keeper? Could it be that a patch of earth holds on to its history like a scrapbook of happenings- an old stone chimney here, reminding of a family who once settled; a dry streambed there, hinting of an abundance of water, that for whatever reason, moved elsewhere; a mountain, whispering of deep shifting plates of earth and the slowness of change? The terrain in any given place is rich with tales from long ago and the recent past; certainly among these tellers of tales are the human inhabitants, who freely offer their versions of the goings on- warped by nature with bias and tunnel vision, but vastly informative and endlessly interesting nonetheless.

The mountains are great story keepers. Up each hollow and over every ridge lies another hidden place. Everything is hidden in the mountains. You just literally can't gain any visual prospect unless you are right up on a place. If you want to check a place out, you go to it. There's no way around it. And when you get there, the nearest person you find is almost always full of stories, yours for the hearing if you make time to listen. Then you can join the ranks of the story keepers.

Up one of these mountain hollows, which would be considered the Middle of Nowhere by a large percentage of the American public, lives a man we will call Frank. Frank inhabits 25 acres of mountain farmland, on a farm that really knows how to keep its stories. The main portion of the farm is a relatively large clearing, farmed and lived upon, and the clearing is framed in by 2 wooded hills. At the base of one of the hills flowes a cold creek and on the other side of the clearing is the driveway. In the clearing proper are the following: a house in the middle of things, several greenhouses and sheds, piles of rocks, compost bins, 2 acres of somewhat grown up farm fields, and lots of what-nots. On the edge of the clearing, near the bottom are two old houses, one of which is literally setting over top of the creek, which may or may not have been re-routed as part of its 20th century story. (This detail is told by neighbors, old rememberers, and by the odd flow of underground water into the irrigation pond, which is another feature of the clearing.)

In some ways, Frank's farm is typical of the small mountain farm. It shares many of the same features. However, once you are there and start listening to the stories of both terrain and man, you realize that, like every other small mountain farm, it is indeed quite unique. For starters, the size of the flat part is more than ample, a trait not shared by most mountain homesteads. Then there are the rocks- lots of them. Lots. That's another noteworthy characteristic-more rocks than the troubles of Job, but no snakes... Then there are the people involved in the stories of this place. A most eclectic and quality lot of them emerges from the stories that are told here.

Take Frank. He's a farmer of organic of vegetables, flowers and herbs. He is a carpenter, an inventor, a writer, an uncle, and (a mostly recently acquired title), a factory plant 3rd shift worker. And he at present is part of the Story Keeping Committee of this little plot of mountain terrain which currently goes by the name Let it Grow. For the past fifteen years Frank has been toiling with this plot of earth, offering his time, sweat, money, passion and ideology to this place in exchange for lettuce, baby squash, lavender, gladiolus and such to provide to the fair ladies and gentlemen of Asheville. Very recently he took a job at a plastics plant in Marshall for the steady income it promises and delivers. The farm is in the process of being re-defined by Frank, which is a new experience for Frank but an age-old one for the farm.

In the late 1960s, Let it Grow went by the name Spring Creek Tomato Company, whose sign still marks the entrance to the place; it's big and red and shaped like a tomato and reads: Spring Creek Tomato Company. This was during (yet another) big push for farmers to grow anything other than tobacco, and tomatoes were the big thing. Several tomato pack houses were established in various communities of Madison County, one of which was up Spring Creek where Let it Grow is now. Two women, Dolly and Grace, bought the place in the late 1960s and by about 1970 the place was up and running. According to one-of-a-kind neighbor Sam, (who would watch the whole thing with the eye he didn't lose on an English airfield in WWII after some Germans hijacked an English plane and then used it to attack the airfield where Sam was working as a bomb loader), there would be a line of trucks a half mile long on packing day of farmers with their tomatoes waiting their turn to get a cut of the market price for their tomatoes. The tomatoes were sorted, packed, loaded and trucked to Atlanta by people who worked for Dolly and Grace, the owners who, according to local lore, made pretty decent bank on the entire operation during its fifteen or so years (until the mid 1980s). This was before the day of the world wide web, when a man could easily check on the market prices of tomatoes in Atlanta. The two old houses still standing on the edge of the clearing housed the packers and loaders who came to work during tomato season. The whole thing was such a hoot that Sam and his wife would ride over and set up their lawn chairs to watch the goings on. (The fine people of Madison County love to watch. Their eyes are keen for the noticing of details and the nuances of happenings.)

(I heard tell once of an old man who lived up Spring Creek who new how to read the weather in the old timey way. Once, in the middle of July, he went outside and warned everyone there was coming a freeze. He told all the tomato farmers to pick their crop, ripe or not, because come the next day, there would be no crop left. Most people didn't listen to him, but my buddy Clifford did. Clifford went out and harvested all the tomatoes he could that day. Sure enough, that night a cold front moved in and brought hail the size of golf balls. All tomatoes which had been left in the field were destroyed by the freak storm. Imagine if we were a culture that could still listen to the stories of the wind and the sky.)

Before Dolly and Grace, the place was owned by old man Dave Ledford and his family. His family owned it back to the early 1800s, and they farmed tobacco and cattle there. The farming of tobacco is a story widely told by old barns all over this county. There are 11,000 people in Madison County, and 22,000 barns. Many of these are tobacco barns, designed for the hanging and curing of the bounty of mule-plowed and family worked bottoms and mountainsides.


Older stories are told here too. The does who amble up the wooded hill toward the ridge only to turn around and run back down tell us that the fence is hot. The warm late February breeze and the lingering daylight long past 5:00 tell us that the earth is still turning.The absense of human development on Spring Creek Mountain on the other side of the creek implies the steady persistence of wildness. There are sections of forest in the Spring Creek gorge that are so steep they have never been cut. Virgin forest. Imagine the stories kept there.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Being a non-Facebook-user, I realize that I have made myself a bit of an anomoly in this modern age. I am someone who likes to keep in touch and be connected to loved ones. I will not use this blog post as a platform to outline my reasons for choosing not to employ the most number one, widespread modern tool for being in touch (maybe later, if you're lucky). Suffice it to say, in spite of the availibility of daily images and tidbits from loved ones' mundane lives, I prefer what has very quickly become an old-fashioned way of being. Visiting face to face. Allowing real time to lapse between those visits. The shock and impact of the passing of time, witnessing change and evolution in increments that I feel my psyche can assimilate. I already find it to be shock enough for the system to get into a car (or, god forbid, a plane) and travel at about at least 20 times my natural pace through time and space to transport myself into another world for a spell, plopping myself into someone else's life, into another culture, another climate...

I so deeply cherish my long-term relationships with loved ones, particularly my small posse of friends who have been made like sisters, through time, shared joy and grief, the witnessing of each others lives. Through sacred pacts and marked commitments. The deepening of these relationships occurs in real time, over years, like the deepening of the self toward its own truth. Sometimes the deepening is bold and rushing, like a raging mountain stream during a flash flood, the cold water cutting dramatic grooves in a ravine. Sometimes the deepening is more subtle, like the slow, invisible growth of oak roots, creeping deeper into the cool dark hidden zones of the earth which sustains the fruiting above, the years of abundance and the years of scarcity.

Julie and I made ourselves blood sisters years ago in the youth of our lady-hood, a ritual among many in our comings of age. Those days were spent walking in the rain, worshipping the purity of the magnolia blossoms, frolicking amongst the fireflies, hunting out pockets of wild places in suburban Charlotte and memorizing them with the bottoms of our bare feet, teaching each other lullabies that we would someday sing to our children. With our sacrificed drops of blood, we made silent promises to each other and to ourselves.

Now, all these moons later, I look at Julie's twin daughter and son, and I am startled awake to realize I am beholding the fruits of so much silent deepening. I see Julie to the nth power looking back at me when her daughter watches me with the same intent that her mother has so many times. I am overwhelmed by the unfolding of a life. I watch Julie, swollen with the life blood of another fruit, laugh with her children. I listen to her sing those well-practiced lullabies and feel her teaching the wonders of the fireflies. I remember all that has led to this moment. This is real time.

Me, Julie, Forest, Lily and invisible little sister

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Heavy on the Hoisting

Well. I got another vehicle stuck in the mud the other day. This time it was my Dad's F150. I was trying to do a fancy manuever and drive it around and behind the house in the pouring rain through the mud so that I could easily unload groceries and such. Went ahead and got it stuck the same exact place I got my Subaru stuck about 2 weeks ago.  Truck cockeyed, back tire deep in the mud and very close to the edge of a slippery drop off bank and a stack of firewood. I swallowed my pride and called up Neighbor Greg, Professional Hoister,  again and Todd because I had a feeling it would be helpful to have the use of Todd's big Dodge truck AND Greg's hoisting gear. Jeez. Talk about feeling sheepish. Who wants to call the neighbors on a cold wet morning and get hoisted out- again?
Well true to form, the gentlemen delivered, employing a series of strageties from their diverse bags of tricks to get the job done.

worse than it looks here

tying the trust sailor's hitch

1. First we tried the old 300 foot heavy duty rope looped through the front of the truck and then through a caribeaner attached to a tree up on the hill and fed down below to the towing truck (Todd's old Dodge). A piece of nylon webbing was tied around the tree on the hill and the the caribeaner was secured to that. The F150 being the chunky beast it is, incidentally caused the nylon webbing to snap and the caribeaner went shooting through the air at a high speed in the direction of one standing Greg. Luckily he didn't get hit and killed, and we moved on to plan b.

2. Todd pulled out his chains and a come along. He chained the rear end of the truck to the come along, which was attached to one of the foundation posts of the deck of the house. We dug out the mud from around the stuck tire and went for it. The idea was for me to make the tires spin while Todd quickly and vigorously cranked the come along, with the intention of sliding the back tires of the truck over and across the mud to even the vehicle and allow for easy backing up and out of there. It was a process. Greg would yell "OK- Spin em!" and Todd would crank hard. Then Todd would yell, "OK stop!" and he would crank to catch up. Then we would dig the mud out a little and repeat the process. After about 5 or 6 go-rounds, the truck was un-stuck!

digging out the tire with a hoe

a man and his chains

These guys just keep the good times coming. This process of hoisting me out (again) took a good while, and let me tell you. The conversation was good, the jokes were flowing, and yes, we found a way to talk about oysters throughout. Thanks, gentlemen, for a delighful morning of mud, ropes and chains.