Appalachian landscape of balled-up muscular tension, rugged and ragged little Baptist cemeteries carved out of overgrown hillsides, little crooked church steeples poking through the canopies playing peek-a-boo with the whirling birds and cloud overhead.
When I moved to North Carolina, I didn’t know it had mountains. I was lured by pretty girls and the promise of a place that wasn’t New Jersey, to be free of the adolescent loneliness and trappings of rural Americana that doesn’t appeal to the restless young mind. (“How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris, Reuben?”)
I landed at little Warren Wilson College, half commune, half academic playground for the wealthy, the idealistic, the nihilist, and those lucky enough to stumble into a scholarship.
What I found was a landscape echoing in upheaval long-ago resigned to crumbling chaos. That’s the trick of the Appalachians, their allure and their danger – the endless tangle of pines and kudzu juxtaposed with some of the rarest flowers and ferns in the world. Biodiversity and isolated, homogenous cultures, clean water and a world constantly moving in rapid little increments against the slower, ponderous motion of mountains with the memory of millenia.
For ten years I clung as tightly as the winding roads carved into the hillsides to “our mother the mountain”, clawing along the ridgelines with the beasts of this hardscrabble place, watching it yield to modernity in its stubborn way — a mixture of reluctance and boosterism. Even the ancient Appalachians are no match for the great beast Progress, who blasts its railroads and highways alike into tendons of the valley and hauls off our mother’s gray hairs in skid-steer buckets and freight trains.
Thomas Wolfe, recalcitrant patron saint and pariah of Asheville, sensed this tension:
“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into the nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”
He bemoaned his native city’s fervor for its own dissolution, as do all good messiahs, and promptly died a bitter death, a man shunned from his hometown during life, subsequently canonized, his name and not-so-fictitious ruminations adorning the very blasé modernity he reproached.
Asheville, you great city of never quite becoming! You little engine that almost could; cauldron of expectations built upon shattered dreams of generations before. Reflection of the mountains that tumble down around you, never satisfied with your lot, too impetuous to shoulder the eons it takes to achieve immortality. Oh, city built on Cherokee bones and bones older still; city of strangers seeking something–anything–familiar. Nestled in your great womb of river and mountain. Never settled, but always settling….
We poured from the mountains in a babbling river of cars stretched upon asphalt rivers, creek beds at our sides smoothed out and losing their gumption in the slow draws of the deep south swelter. Appalachia’s stark beauty tapered off into the languorous foothills of South Carolina and lonesome Georgia pines, sleeping the gooey sleep of sick children in cotton fields and cornstalks.
We are spit from the tides of I-85 into the great cesspool of Atlanta, swirling millions of metal fish amid tides of traffic and commerce. Sherman burned this city to the ground over a century and a half ago and opened the antebellum pine cones to the great beast Progress too.
Contrast to the doomed city that bore its cousin-name, Atlanta rose from the depths to form myriad new heads, its decadent lust spilling out in haphazard suburbs and miles of indiscriminate roads. There is something consuming and awful about it all, a hive of indifference to what crawls through its catacombs.
South past Macon and further still, to foreign lands of Cairo and Araby, the land sits like a scorpion upon the sleeper’s chest — biding its time. I tell Charise that South Georgia is a landscape inundated with emotion, the past dripping from its boughs like Spanish moss on its oaks. Time slows and stops; the hum of insects competes with the sonorous siren call of passing cars. It does not question so much as it observes, half flighted heaven and half reptilian hell, letting its birds and bullfrogs speak its dirges and hymns.
No longer hemmed in and hurried by mountain hollow and cliff, the waters steep in tea colored trickles, plodding towards endless skylines, weaving their way through stands of pitch pines and laying beneath a humid blanket of fog each morning. A rancid soup of creation.
Thomasville, Georgia, was once the repose of the gentry: a land of grand plantations built on a suffering; a crawfish boil of flesh and humanity. The last stop on a rail line that brought presidents and Kennedys; a tucked-away Camelot and tale of two cities. American medieval with Gothic accents.
It is here where my Aunt Lorraine spends her Autumn years. 95 years old, second oldest of six children birthed in midwestern industry and scarred by the Depression’s great hunger. Always the iconoclast, Lorraine has spent a life playfully scorning the status quo – she drinks and smokes. When she was 18, she ran off and joined the army, one of these renegade suffragettes who formed the Women’s’ Auxiliary Army Corps during the second World War, ferrying the great birds of war across America’s uneasy evening skies. Her service earned her a Congressional Medal of recognition; notorious for suspect sense of direction and proclivity for clumsiness, Lorraine says it’s a wonder she never crashed.
Stationed on the west coast, she met a Cajun named Reyem Sherman, married him, and moved down to New Orleans. For the next 52 years she found a city to match her lust for life, in all its shades of terrible celebration, until Katrina came and washed out the life she’d built.
Lorraine is quick with a joke, easy-going and welcoming to those who wash up on her doorstep, whether it be the stray child, the yearning artist, or a hungry cat. Her joyous nature belies what can only be described as a deep fatalism that lays just below her inquisitive face. Her unboundless love of life’s technicolor evening gown is borne upon a dressmaker’s dummy of death: At 13, she watched her mother die of a blood clot no country doctor had the skill, or time, to treat; her adolescence was spent warring with her father’s stern pride, while Lorraine the almost child tried her best to raise four younger siblings.
In a landscape of poverty, misogyny and Indiana dirt farms, she nurtured the nascent artistic talents of her younger brothers, tilling the fertile soil of what would become their life’s work. A skilled artist all her own, Lorraine’s home is decorated in the oils of her own vision and a plethora of admiring students’ valiant efforts. She is a self-taught piano player, a lover of dancing and late night conversations.
In the atmosphere of 1950s post-war America, she suffocated under the auspices of the dutiful housewife until, no longer take it, she committed herself to a mental hospital. Afterwards — and to her Catholic husband’s chagrin — she helped other women unleash themselves from the facade of domesticity, taking black and white students alike in a time when African-Americans could not use the same bathrooms as whites.
Several years after WWII ended, her older brother and confidant, Burleigh Jr., died in a plane crash. In 1992, Reyam died of complications following a stroke. The new century brought a second wave of death to her doorstep. Her younger brother Rex (my grandfather’s twin) died in 2004; the year after, Hurricane Katrina tried to wash Lorraine and the rest of New Orleans from the face of the earth.
By a darkly humorous twist of fate and a fortuitous run-in with a lawn mower, Lorraine found herself confined to a VA hospital bed just hours before the storm hit. Her natural lack of gracefulness had saved her life, but Lorraine lost her house, untold numbers of paintings, letter and photos, most of her beloved pets, and her youngest son, Scott. In the chaotic aftermath of the storm, our family searched frantically for any word of Scott or Lorraine. We found Lorraine in a hospital in Lafayette. We found Scott underneath a tarp in a gas station parking lot, his old dog refusing to let anyone get near him.
Such a cataclysmic upending of a half-century’s worth of life would have done most people in. Lorraine, however, is not most people. Since her son’s death, she has lost two more brothers (my grandfather included), several more animals, a grand nephew, the ability to drive and move around with the ease she was accustomed to.
Yet Lorraine remains. She still gathers strays at her little house in Thomasville, where she holds court in her gazebo by the lake each evening with a cocktail or a beer, sprinkled with salt.
The powerful play goes on; the mountain clays, deep south sands and bayou silts still bequeath life and swallow it in equal measure. Lorraine still rises each morning with the cries of hungry cats, shaking loose a near-century of memory amid the scrambled dance steps of life from her head to feed those who come asking for respite and a story.