I took the title from Aaron Copland because his suite captures the very essence of my feelings about Appalachia at this time of year. Springtime arrives late, growing very slowly like the music until a major arpeggio bursts out of an allegro storm, like gods thundering around our West Virginia home, which squats timidly in a crook between dark mountains. Later the music becomes tender again like the forest which, after long, melancholy winter months, now clothes itself in a fresh green mantle. I love it.
For a long time, I thought the composer had the same images as were in my mind, and I was a touch disappointed when I read that the suite is a musical picture of a spring wedding in Pennsylvania. I got over it. I realized it didn’t really matter if an abstraction has been inspired by something completely different, provided it means something to you. If you click this link, perhaps the music will carry you to somewhere special.
Last week I took a trip along the Appalachian mountain chain through four states. The season was a full two to three weeks behind the coastal plain of Virginia where we live most of the time. The roads were empty apart from an occasional truck parked in a country road, which in the fall is a sure sign that there’s a deer hunter in the woods. But now is the time when local folk gather ramps, black cohosh and, if they are really lucky, ginseng. I was not introduced to ramps (wild leeks) as a child, finding the odor as disagreeable as those uninitiated to Marmite (see my Post March 23, 2013), but mountain folk celebrate the arrival of spring with a ramp festival.
When touring the region, there is always an abandoned homestead just around a bend in the road. Each harbors a story that will never be told about residents whom we will never know, yet each stirs my imagination. How proud the man who carried his wife across the threshold when the home was newly timbered, how jolly the voices of children playing in the garden, how happy when the children’s children arrived to help milk the cow and pull ramps in the woods. No doubt there were hard times too during the grip of long winters, or when corn and potato crops failed, or the eldest son left for the mines in McDowell County, and the youngest was called up for war. They never wrote down their stories, and now the stone crosses in Mingo can never tell us.
To a tidy mind, ruined houses ought to be cleared instead of left for nature to take its course. But real estate is cheap, and children who grew up in the hollers now find life in the cities easier, trading a better standard of living for rustic beauty, leaving the family home that pawpaw wanted them to inherit. In another generation, many of the old homes still standing now will be horizontal and barely visible as one drives past. When a lively home dies, it slips away gracefully. First the windows fall out to welcome the birds, next the creepers gain a stranglehold, a proud roof caves in, and finally wood is turned to mulch. Often all that remains is a chimney stack standing up like a lonely monument where it had warmed a family long ago. Although their history is buried with them, we try to photograph every empty home we see before it is too late. Perhaps these photographs accumulating on the hard drive of my computer will eventually be gathered into a book, and maybe that book will even be seasoned with poetry by an elderly country lady with memories.
I imagine a young couple hiking up our Middle Mountain to pause on a grassy knoll. There’s a long abandoned home there built of cedar sidings and a green metal roof. When the frame rotted out, the roof collapsed into a bowed heap. They muse how long it had been empty and wonder who had lived there in such different times back in the early 21st Century. Standing with his back to the ruin, the young man frames his wife against the mountain scenery with his camera – click. They continue to the mountain ridge by scrambling over boulders and clinging to trees to haul themselves up the gradient.
He had been standing on the time capsule I buried in a jar in front of where the door once stood, but he never looked down. Had they found it, they would have learned who had lived and loved there, about the dog that watched for wild turkeys, the friend who built their home, and the Old Time band that played to a small party to celebrate its opening. They might also have imagined the owner sitting in solitude on the deck with a pencil and paper on his lap, gazing into the forest. But they couldn’t have guessed that his mind was often cast back to imagine the others who preceded him there – a Shawnee hunting party, loggers carrying a long saw, and a pioneer family seeking a level patch to farm. His pencil scrawl becomes ever more illegible on the paper moldering in the jar, still undisturbed as unimagined new centuries roll by.
Next Post: Bob Edwards R.I.P.