I wrote the following piece back in 2010 just as winter was wrapping up, but the recession was still hitting our region hard. This op-ed essay took on a life of its own, handed around workshops by Erin Stalcup out at Warren Wilson College, and even finding mention in Mars Hill Universitiy professor Kathryn Newfont's prizewinning study "Blue Ridge Commons."
Four years later, it's sad how little has changed.
A long hard winter is finally over if you simply count the days of the calendar, but hard times haven't ended in our country.
I was reminded of that when I took to the woods recently. With the first Sunday warming into the '50s in between our seemingly endless snowstorms in January and February, my Golden Lab, Pearl, was eager to get out, and I'd been feeling the cabin fever, trapped indoors far too long.
Climbing the Daniel Ridge Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, Pearl and I made steady time through the mud, then higher up into the melting snow. Continuing up the adjoining trail to Farlow Gap, the drifts got deeper and I stopped to strap on some gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots.
Pearl and I weren't alone. I could see a series of footprints pointing out the trail underfoot.
We soon found him coming down the trail, a man in a thin coat with a green canvas sack on his back. He had
on boots, but his jeans were soaked to the knees. In broken English, he asked if Pearl was friendly.
My Lab has no bite, just all bark, and she was licking at his hand by this time.
"Seen any galax?" he coughed, evidently sick with a cold.
"Seems like you got the wrong season," I said.
All around us, the ridges were draped with white. Galax was out there, but it was anyone's guess where under
eight inches of snow.
We parted, and about a mile up toward the Art Loeb Trail, I came across his partner, another Hispanic man with soaked jeans and an empty sack. "Your partner's just ahead," I pointed back down the trail.
Both men seemed a little scared of my dog, but even more rattled by the unfamiliar woods they found themselves in. I had to wonder what deeper anxiety drove them up the mountain that day, perhaps fears about a family going a little hungry or without warm clothes or paying the bill to keep the lights on in a little mobile home in a trailer park.
That was the last we saw of them that day.
I don't know if those two men had a permit to pick galax, which is now required in the National Forest. I don't know nor really mind if they had legal papers to be in our country. All I know is they seemed desperate enough to hike miles through the snowdrifts for a few plants that would pay only pennies per leaf, if they could find them.
Later, I called up Jeanine Davis at the North Carolina Horticultural Research Station in Fletcher, the area's premier expert on most every herb growing wild in our mountains. The payoff isn't that much, she confirmed.
Galax, an evergreen perennial used as decoration by florists, only fetches about a few pennies per leaf on the wholesale market. Some dealers may pay as much as $1.85 for 25 leaves, Davis said.
But Davis sees more and more folks are taking to the woods, trying to scrounge a few dollars. "They're underpaid or unemployed, so they're going back to old traditions. The only problem is where people are pulling up the whole plant, instead of just picking the leaves. They're causing a lot of damage," Davis said.
Those old traditions and the desperation that sometimes drives them came up again for me, reading Ron Rash's story collection, "Burning Bright." In one story titled "Hard Times," set in the Great Depression, Rash spins a tale about a mountain family gathering galax to keep food on the table. The story's main character catches one of the starving children stealing eggs from his henhouse. How he catches her provides
the hook and sharp horror of Rash's story.
In the end, the man lays himself down to a restless sleep. "He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was."
The calendar may have turned to spring, but the hard winter of our American discontent and the effects of the Great Recession aren't past for many folks. When I think of the Great Depression, I automatically see Walker Evans' searing portraits of Alabama sharecroppers, their worn faces showing the toil of poverty, of hard times.
In the Great Recession, I'll carry the portrait of two galax gatherers, poorly clothed against the snow, coming back down empty−handed.
James Dickey, author and actor
Faulkner was talking of the South of course when he wrote “the past is not dead, it’s not even past.” Hell, the dead don’t stay buried in these parts, not even if you try to drown them.
I was reminded of that the other night, flicking through the HD hinterlands of TV cable when I came across John Boormann’s 1972 thriller “Deliverance.” Even if you never saw the Burt Reynolds-Jon Voight movie, you’ve heard the iconic soundtrack music, “Dueling Banjos” originally written by Arthur Smith (though he had to sue to get his name recognized, but that’s a whole ‘nother tale.)
Poet turned novelist James Dickey did no favors to Appalachian natives in his bestseller with its depiction of “the Country of Nine-Fingered Men,” a dark land of sadistic hillbillies eager to sodomize Atlanta suburbanites out for a weekend adventure. Dickey tapped into a deep distrust and terror of residents living in the shadows of mountains. The Other is the toothless man living in the holler with an outhouse and a still up on the ridge. Decades after that movie was filmed in Rabun County, Ga., and over in Sylva, N.C. you still see the bumper stickers “Paddle faster, I hear banjo music.”
But the scene that lingered for me showed graves being dug up on the banks of the river slowly flooding to form a reservoir to power Atlanta’s urban sprawl. That scene was actually filmed, not in Georgia, but in South Carolina at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church cemetery which now lies 130 feet beneath Lake Jocasse.
We’ve been relocating cemeteries forever in these parts. Folks over in Swain County still grow furious over the “Road to Nowhere” promised by the government, but which never materialized after Lake Fontana flooded their small towns and family farms in the 1940s. The story was repeated across the Southern Appalachians where the TVA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built hundreds of dams, dislocating plenty of families and often covered the graves of their ancestors with waters much more than five fathoms deep.
So it comes as no surprise how often floods and forgotten graves show up in Southern fiction. The theme runs like a dark current through the reigning Appalachian master Ron Rash’s work, from his first novel, “One foot in Eden” and “Saints by the River” also based around Lake Jocasse in South Carolina, and in his current novel, “The Cove” where a TVA surveyor goes missing in a haunted holler slated for a lake.
Those lakes were built to provide electricity to growing cities and their suburbs whether in Charlotte or Greenville, S.C., or down to Atlanta, but the progress of rural electrification or air conditioning never comes without its own cost when we drown the last wilderness and pieces of our past.
An image of a relocated cemetery haunted my imagination and inspired me to write my novel “The Half-Life of Home,” I saw in my mind’s eye a picture of men digging up a graveyard, coffins swinging up into the air in an artificial resurrection.
The thirst for electricity, for suburban power was the culprit here, but not in hydroelectric dam, but in a nuclear repository. Since dams sprang up across the South, we’ve also added the strange cones and domes of nuclear plants across the region, with their irradiating wastes with deadly half-lives spanning millennia.
A remote cove in my neck of the woods actually came under consideration in the late 1980s as a potential radioactive reservation where East Coast’s stores of spent nuclear rods could be buried for ten thousand years. As a cub reporter I covered those heated public meetings where I heard a white-haired native warn that the region had already seen two forced migrations: the Trail of Tears and the TVA removals. The feds would be chasing other folks off their homesteads in the name once again of national progress.
Fortunately, that mad scientist-hatched idea died. We still have nuclear waste to contend with, but at least we’re not burying it in my backyard. Yet the seed was planted in my imagination. Men in moon suits digging up generations of graves. What if… what if?
Jesus said let the dead bury the dead, but it seems like the Southern writer’s morbid duty or at least his inclination is to keep pawing away at what’s been covered over, conveniently forgotten. We can’t let the bones rest, the skeletons in the closet. We are always like Hamlet hopping down in the hole, eyeing Yorick’s skull raised in our palm for the audience’s appreciation.
And in that sense, Faulkner was right. We breathe life into the past, put flesh on fossils, when we blow away the dirt of the grave or dive deep into the dark waters covering the beds of lakes and forgotten farms. Literature is too often about seemingly unbearable loss, but writing is a way of making sure nothing is ever forgotten.
Novelist, journalist, aficionado of all things Appalachian.