Appalachian ghosts

If I had to choose one word to describe the Appalachian region, it would be haunted. The mountains are full of ghosts. Gone are most of the Indians, their languages and oral literatures with them – unique and irreplaceable ways of looking at the world. Gone from the east are the bison and the wolves, except for a tiny pack of inbred red wolves in North Carolina. Gone forever are the heath hen, the ivory-billed woodpecker and the passenger pigeon, a single flock of which could once darken the sky for three days with its passage. The mighty American chestnut, source of the strongest timber and some of the best wildlife food in the mountains, has disappeared except for the runty sprouts that live ten or twenty years before succumbing to the blight.

Gone is the great eastern forest, and most of the soil with it. People tend to think of a forest chiefly as a conglomeration of trees, but that’s not the half of it. The few remaining tracts of eastern old growth are qualitatively different from the surrounding woods, most noticeably in the depth of the humus, which teems with fungal and microbial life two thirds of which probably belongs on the endangered species list – not that anyone has ever bothered to study and classify it. Only in the last couple of decades have ecologists begun to appreciate the extent to which trees depend upon their fungal associates to perform such basic tasks as nutrient and water uptake. Some of these fungi only produce fruiting bodies underground, depending on animals such red-backed voles and northern flying squirrels to disperse their spores. What happens when one corner of this three-legged stool is removed?

Erosion following repeated clearcutting and associated fires removed 11,000 years’ worth of accumulated humus on many steep mountain slopes. Now, non-native, invasive earthworms are rapidly colonizing soils throughout the eastern forest, preventing the formation of new humus and changing the soil chemistry in the process. The Southern Appalachians contain the most biodiverse temperate forest in the world. They are, for example, a major center of terrestrial salamander endemicity; absent a humus layer, it’s difficult to believe that very many of these forest floor denizens will survive.

Another familiar and cherished measure of Appalachian biodiversity is the wealth of spring ephemeral wildflowers, slow-growing perennials whose very names are magic: ginseng, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Solomon’s seal, wild sarsaparilla, wake robin, may apple, foam-flower, spotted mandarin, trailing arbutus, yellow lady’s-slipper, goldenseal . . . These plants are rapidly becoming scarce throughout their ranges, threatened by a seemingly endless litany of threats: acid rain from coal burning power plants; an overabundance of deer; competition with invasive plants better adapted to an earthworm-infested soil; clearcutting; suburban and exurban sprawl; the conversion of hundreds of thousands of acres of rich, moist, mixed-species forests into red pine plantations; and – most horrifying of all – mountaintop removal, a new, more extreme form of strip mining in which vast portions of mountainous West Virginia and Kentucky are being turned into rolling, grassy uplands drained by dead streams and unlikely to support true forests ever again.

The violence of the frontier never really subsided. It merely grew less personal, more institutionalized. While the people who lived here before Europeans came were not exactly peaceful, the idea of conquest was largely unknown to them. Intertribal wars, where children of the enemy were kidnapped and raised as full members of the tribe to replace slain warriors, resembled the low-intensity ground fires the Indians set every few years to promote the growth of deer browse plants and blackberry thickets. The Indians aimed at a rough equilibrium between opposing forces rather than the subjugation or obliteration of a hated foe.

The concept of a nature apart from humanity has no real equivalent in indigenous worldviews. But the essential dignity and integrity of non-human beings – their self-willed quality, their wildness – was respected. Greater-than-human realities were revered, including everything that we understand by the word wilderness and then some. It’s all very well to say that our thinking has “advanced” to the point where – perhaps – a bare majority of American citizens might have some appreciation for these perspectives. But until the underlying social and economic structures change, all the sympathetic understanding in the world won’t do much good. The very people who claim to care the most about nature are the ones building new homes on lots gouged out of the forest. The conquest continues.

STORIES AT EVENING
(A Suburban Mother Tells Stories to Her Son)
by Louise McNeill

My great great grandpa Jethro walked
The wild savannas deep in grass;
He saw the herds of buffalo
File westward through the mountain pass.

Great grandpa William in his time
Remembered pigeons wild and gray
Whose thousand wings beat out the sun
The morning that they flew away.

My grandpa Frederick could recall
The wild trout flashing in their school;
He set his stick of dynamite
And scooped a hundred from the pool.

My father, Douglas, saw the trees.
Across this bare, eroded land,
He saw the tulip tree and ash,
The spruce and hemlock – virgin stand.

And I myself at morning saw
The chestnut on the ridge – its living green –
The blue-fringed gentian . . .

Listen now, my son –
Stories at evening – wonders I have seen;
And as we sit, look sharp and well remember –
Your son may hear the strangest tale of all:
How little rabbits hopped across our garden,
How grass grew by the wall,
And there, one night, when you were six or seven,
You heard a bobwhite call.

(Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991)

Since McNeill wrote that poem, in the late 1960s or early 70s, populations of northern bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus) have declined throughout its range. In all my 38 years, I have never heard a bobwhite call.

*

Thus, the ghost stories we love to scare each other with this time of year point to darker realities, for me. Of course, the Appalachian region abounds with stories of witches, haints and other uncanny beings. I say “uncanny” rather than “supernatural” because some, such as the fabled white stag or Will o’ the Wisp, have a basis in reality.

When my brothers and I were young, we used to go trick-or-treating over to our only neighbor’s house largely for the legends and lies Margaret was all too willing to feed our young imaginations with. One she told might be called . . .

The Headless Hunter

Way back in the late 19th century, two teenage boys were hunting deer on the end of the ridge above the railroad tracks. When darkness came on, they started down the knife-edge toward their homes in Upper Tyrone Forge. Only one boy carried a carbide lamp, but the other walked confidently in front, shotgun slung over his shoulder. When he tripped over a root in the darkness, his gun discharged, blowing the other boy’s head off. For ever after, until the last house along the crossing was abandoned in the 1960s, folks in Upper Tyrone Forge said they could look up at the mountain on dark nights in late October and see a light moving through the woods where the dead hunter was still looking for his head.

For another of Margaret’s “Legends of Plummer’s Hollow,” I’m indebted to the superior memory of my brother Steve:

The Phantom Fallen Woman

One summer in the early years of the 20th century, George Plummer brought a mysterious young woman home from Pittsburgh with him, and informed the family of tenant farmers living in what we now call the Guest House that she would be staying in the main house for the rest of the summer. They thought it peculiar that she almost never showed herself outside during daylight hours, spending all her time in the dark, upstairs bedroom at the north end of the house. It seemed that she had musical training of some sort. Mr. Plummer – by this time, a wealthy man – bought a small church organ at auction and installed it there for her, and the tenants told Margaret’s mother that they often heard her playing the organ and singing concert music in a fine soprano voice.

Late in the summer, the reason for her visit leaked out: she was unmarried and with child, and as a friend of the family, it was said, she had been invited to spend her period of confinement in the welcome solitude of Plummer’s Hollow, far from wagging tongues. She gave birth to a child at the end of the summer and returned to Pittsburgh, where she died shortly thereafter. (My brother says Margaret was fuzzy on the details: how she died, and whether the baby lived.)

In the years following her death, a number of families living in the tenant house reported hearing the sound of an organ coming from that upstairs room, though oddly this never happened during the summer, when people were living there, only in the long months when the house was shuttered up. As late as 1970, someone walking across the back slope claimed she heard the unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice singing a very strange-sounding song with words she couldn’t make out. She was frightened out of her wits and fled down the hill as fast as she could run.

With the arrival of the Bonta family in 1971, as my brother put it in an e-mail, “the unquiet spirit of the fallen woman seems to have found peace.” We have never seen or heard anything uncanny here in all our years of occupancy.

Well, almost nothing. Living in the aforementioned Guest House – also once thought to harbor a ghost – I have grown accustomed to a huge range of noises that might spook a visitor. The house was built in stages in a rather haphazard fashion, which resulted in an unusual number of crawl spaces above, below and between sections. I’ve gotten used to scraping, sliding, chewing, and tapping noises, things that go bump and things that chatter their teeth, things that wail and whimper and moan. I generally ascribe the uncannier noises to either raccoons or porcupines; the others could be anything from mice to woodchucks, bats, flying squirrels or one of three species of snakes that I know share the house with me. When it gets really cold in January, the plank walls can pop audibly as they contract. And once in a rare while, I do hear a sound I simply can’t place. Sometimes, the hair rises on the back of the neck despite my best efforts to laugh it off.

I guess we’re a lot less fearful about living way out in a lonely, northeast-facing hollow than a lot of folks might be. One of my cousins from suburban New Jersey won’t spend the night in our guest bedroom because, she says, she finds the silence itself unnatural and unsettling. To us, living with an interstate right over the ridge to the west and a noisy quarry to the east, it’s never quiet enough. We mourn the fact that generations of fearful white folks with guns have left us such a tamed and diminished land. This mountain probably hasn’t had any rattlesnakes in a hundred years. Until the late 1980s, black bears were a rare sight. One of the last wolves in Pennsylvania was shot on this very mountain back in the 1870s or 80s. Coon hunters still scare themselves with tales of coyotes following them and their dogs through the woods at night, their howls growing nearer and nearer . . .

Our own hunter friends are pretty commonsense folks, but they never mind telling a good story on themselves. One of them, Jeff, once told me about an incident that befell him early one morning, well before daylight. He had parked at the bottom and was climbing the side of the hollow, heading for his tree stand, when he heard something rustling close behind him in the dry leaves. As soon as he stopped, the noise stopped. He started up the hill again and there it was, following just as close. He walked faster, but whatever it was kept right up. “Finally I was just running, you know, but I got out of breath and had to stop. That’s when I noticed there was a long strap hanging out of the back pocket of my coat!”

His brother Troy told a more spooky, but still believable, tale about a time when he was still-hunting for turkey, leaning up against a tree over in Margaret’s Woods, dressed all in camouflage. Suddenly he heard a loud voice: “You can’t hide!” He looked all around, but nobody was there. Then he heard it again. “You can’t hide!” It was coming from right overhead! He looked up into the branches of the tree, and there was a crow staring back at him. It cawed as if it were laughing at him, then flew away.

Troy is not a man given to wild flights of imagination. “I ran back to the truck,” he told us, “and when Paula come down, she seen right away something wasn’t right.” “He was white as a sheet!” his wife confirmed, adding that she made him tell the tale a number of times before she finally believed him. They both seemed relieved when my dad described a talking crow he had seen as a kid. “It’s probably someone’s pet that escaped,” he said – and thus another potentially supernatural story was brought to earth.

*

Margaret’s house has stood empty for over a decade now. We were able to buy the property when the lumberman was done with it, and we maintain trails and a parking lot for our hunter friends over there. Kids from the valley have snuck up and gone through the place at least once; Dad and I boarded up the windows and doors to try and prevent liability in case of an accident. Even before that, it was depressing to go in there, with the moldy flotsam from two generations of lonely and impoverished mountain people scattered all around. Margaret was, in life, a paranoid and suspicious person with a great local reputation for shooting first and asking questions later. According to a now-deceased hunter friend of her brother’s, some prostitution went on in the house back during the Depression. (I’m paraphrasing; the exact words were, “They used to run a cathouse up there, you know!”) But for all that, as far as I know, no unquiet spirits have been seen or heard there in the thirteen years since Margaret died.

LEAVINGS

1.

Over the years we bought it piece by piece,
this hollow that still bears the name
of its 19th-century homesteader on the topo maps.
Lawyers framed the title transfers in proper terms
& the county courthouse took note,
whiting out the now-redundant property lines
on its own maps that admit no extraneous detail:
no creeks or contours that might signal a watershed,
no shading (say) to plot the alternation
of field & “unimproved woodlot,”
the land parceled out in jagged shards.

But for all that our deeds were driven
by our love for the uncut forest, who are we
to put our name down here as if
it were some magic seed that could set
root overnight? It’ll take us years
to grow out of our wariness,
skulking like feral cats around Margaret’s place.

2.

Twenty years ago, in the flush of first purchase,
in between battles with blizzard, flood & drought
my father followed every lead
through a century of local newspaper files & tax records,
unearthed the barest of clues to the hollow’s history:
Margaret’s artist mother must’ve
married a ne’er-do-well, for she had
half her land lumbered in 1901 to pay
back taxes, & sold the other half for a song
to settle a grocery bill, her own
uncle Jacob calling the tune.

The scarred land healed. By the 1970s
the third-growth woods gave ample cover
to the shadiest of dealings,
bore witness to a separate truth – soon enough
to be violated in turn. While each
of the two elderly cousins – arrogant
nouveau riche and “poor white trash” –
ravaged by alcoholism, however genteel –
strung up for us the other’s skeleton
in a common closet of lies.

3.

One hot June morning I amble over,
shovel in hand. You never know,
treasures of dubious lineage keep turning up.
Like its late occupant the place still holds
a few cards close.

Below the house the huge
catalpa tree’s in bloom, littering the driveway
with pale monkey-faced blossoms,
& the other catalpa up by the outhouse
harbors in its dense shade a weed-free iris bed
& a mob of sweet william gone native
with multihued abandon. At 96 degrees Fahrenheit
the cumulative scent from the yard becomes
an almost visible miasma.

I nose about the grounds, sizing up
the ancient fruit trees:
Keifer pear, a thicket of plum,
Concord grape on a stalwart trellis,
a half-dead quince
& the sprout-clogged branches that already droop
with this year’s apple crop:
Baldwin. Pippin. Winesap. Smokehouse.
The mottled trunks of these last survivors
from an orchard abandoned in the ’40s
could exhaust an artist’s palette.

The house has proved less hardy.
Two winters of heavy snows & a rampant wisteria
have conspired against both porches,
& the whole back half of the house
meanders on a collapsed foundation,
senile with rot.

4.

Fifteen feet away I come to a stop.
Memories of Margaret’s ghost stories
from childhood Halloweens
are summoned up by a multiphonic hum
and an odor overpoweringly sweet.
I look up: honeybees beard the attic gables
crowding the cracks like subway commuters at rush hour.
These are, no doubt, distant descendants
of the bees Margaret kept for decades
in boxes above the orchard – my pets,
she used to laugh. I press my ear
against the faded clapboard
to listen to the roar: no seashell’s
echo of my own bloodsurf, but the actual
pulse of the house, murmuring
like an industrial loom from
the gentle fricative welding of warp to weft.

I step back to watch the bees.
After a while I start to see a pattern
in their lines of flight, spokes
of a spinning wheel drawing in nectar
from every blossoming corner of the yard.
The hive couldn’t have found a fortress
more impregnable to marauding bears
than these catacombed walls.
From every crevice their coffers overflow
& Margaret’s house weeps honey
the way a tree leaks sap.

5.

Groggy from the heat, awash in sweat
I resume my walk, if only for
the illusion of a breeze. A pool of shade
beckons from behind the tumbledown shed
where the steel-ribbed frame of a chaise lounge
flowers orange with rust.

I weave through the trees above the spring,
leap the low mound with its stray runners
of barbed wire marking the old line
& plunge into the field, a cloud of pollen
from the brome as I swing my shovel,
clean blade catching the sun.

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2 Comments


  1. I’m looking for some information on the Vinegar Ridge Haint. Do you know anything about this?

    Reply

  2. No, I’ve never heard of it, but it sounds intriguing! Thanks for stopping by.

    Reply

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