Monday, June 3, 2013

Spine of Appalachia

I've been on small farms in the foothills of Maine.  I've been on small farms in the foothills of Tennessee. The barns have the same wood, the same horse collars and oxbows and yokes hang from the beams in the barn.  The morning fog lays low to the hay until the sun rises and burns it off.  Practical farmhouses sit in places close to their barns, so milking isn't a distant walk.  Clotheslines are mandatory.

 It is possible to awake in both places, to the music of songbirds at dawn, with cold night air coming through an open window and streaming over your cheek, with the crisp smell of line dried linens and blankets.  The sleep of a clean conscience comes for free in exchange work contribution on this farm.  Guaranteed.

Barn swallows dance over your head as you plow, mow, or rake, or windrow, be they Tennessee swallows or those of Maine the agile birds fly the same twisted daredevil loops. They know when fieldwork is about, and appear when the tractor is started, or when the horses are brought out. So well the farmers have their swallows trained, almost as though they can be taken for granted.

The same mountains are in the distance, a summer gray green, that disappears in blue layers to the edge of sight.  The ridge's shape is the same like "kicked carpet" (I wish I could remember who said that) that stretches over 1000 miles through the hardwood forests of Appalachia. Deep and green, and alive these woods restore and feed the spirits of those whom have learned to stop and be silent.

The clay fields of the south give way to the glacier erratics and till soil of the north, where the boulders heave themselves skyward, birthing their massive smooth backs up through the soil with each winter freeze.  The farmers are given gifts to be found with the plow, and stone boats earn their keep.  No history of grandfathers has plowed any of these fields clean.  One reads Mending Wall and knows what it means.

The same practical, solid nature persists in these people, up and down the spine of Appalachia.  It is a way of doing, a way of going, being efficient, knowing how to work.  These things are valued, and the old folks pine for these traits and mourn their loss in the youth who have walked down off the mountain and gone into town, never to return.  Who will cut my hay, and stack it in the barn?  The corn is coming in, and the sweet corn picked in the morning cool is the best.  I have cooking and sewing and knitting to teach, I am the fifth generation in a line of women to know these can this die with me?  A uniform is worn.  From Tennessee to Maine there are work clothes, plaid shirts, practical boots;  not the cheap ones, but the good ones that cost more and last for years.  Aprons and skirts for the women. Clotheslines are hung with great dignity.  The unmentionables to the inside lines, or the lines facing away from the road.  Stains, tatters and rips drip dry in the bathroom over the tub, not fit for a public display of home keeping.  Food has few ingredients, and strangers at their tables never go hungry. Soapy dishwater is dumped out on the rose bush. Mason jars line heavy shelves and make a patchwork of color. 

Springs bubble water, sacred water, out of rock hillsides and give rise to streams, and brooks and rivers. Water blesses these farms both windward and lee, and rain comes to Maine and Tennessee.  The hillsides are swathed in smoky clouds, evidence of ample moisture, what do you wish to grow, they ask.  Travel 1000 miles and you will still be home.