Sinking Valley

The accent falls on the first syllable: Sí¬nking Valley. A place of caves and sinkholes, streams that appear & disappear. Remarkable also for what it lacks: no state highway runs through it. Some farms date back over 200 years, to the first Scotch-Irish settlers. Spring plowing turns up arrowheads a thousand years older than that. Or so the Sinking Valley kids on the school bus used to tell me. You walk barefoot through the fields after a rain, they said, & feel for the points.

Our stop was the first of the afternoon, so I never learned which farms the other kids went home to. Our mountain forms the northwest – and lowest – end of the long, V-shaped ridge that surrounds the valley on three sides. We get all the same weather, but these wooded sandstone hills hold water like a sponge. In the valley, rain percolates quickly down through the soil & disappears. The porous bedrock can break the blade of a bulldozer.

A natural stone arch – the remains of a collapsed cave – gives its name to the nearby Arch Spring Presbyterian Church. This is the way all churches should be: surrounded by generations of their dead.

The afternoon sun isn’t right for photographing gravestones, most of which are the old-fashioned, upright kind, resolutely facing the east. Some of the graves from the 19th Century have both headstones and footstones, the latter a third the height of the former, & carrying only the initials of the deceased. I’m reminded of the words of an old Scotch-Irish ballad:

Oh dig my grave both wide & deep,
Place marble stones at my head & feet,
O’er my grave, a turtle dove –
Let the world know that I died for love.

A sobering number of stones memorialize the deaths of infants & children. Some lie flat like quilts under little carved lambs. The sign hanging from the cast-iron gate expresses a sentiment not often heard these days, even in sermons: That Which Is So Universal As Death Must Be A Blessing. The operating assumption seems to be that the universe is essentially benign. It’s not hard to picture the skeletons stretched out under the sod as if for a final operation, the slow drip from God’s own rain dissolving what once had been bones, lime into lime.

we climbed down
to the birthplace of water

wild ginger

roots stretched into crevasses

limestoned voices

inaudible over
the gasp & suck
a scum of flotsam in the gullet

we crouched in the sun
blood-colored flowers

whitewater curling back
& back we prayed
for a rain of calcium

another sky opened
impossibly high & thin

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