They call it Stormy Monday

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Six-thirty a.m. at the Super 8. I shut off the air conditioner – blessed maker of white noise – and slide the window open. Rain falls on hundreds of acres of pavement to no purpose. I sip my coffee, prop my feet up as if I were back home on my own front porch.

Four men stand talking and moving their arms in the parking lot below, gesturing toward the GP station, the Shoney’s, the Wal-Mart Supercenter – maybe even toward the hills. I can hear every word, but understand nothing. Can my Spanish really be that rusty?

I call my linguist brother over to the window. “That’s not Spanish. It’s some Eastern European language, I think.” After a few minutes, they arrive at some decision, get into their pick-ups and drive away.

I listen to the semis going by on the wet highway – shhhhhhhUSHHhhhhh. Something triggers a car alarm in the distance, a plaintive beeping that goes on and on without stopping.


Ten-thirty in the small reception area at Scotty’s Discount Tire and Muffler in downtown Summersville, West Virginia (population 3,900). I return from a walk with my umbrella in the on-again, off-again drizzle and find my brother reading a history of India as he waits for news about the car. A small, white-haired lady in the next seat over is singing about Jesus.

As I stand gaping in the doorway, a middle-aged woman walks over, leans down and asks the other woman if she’ll be coming for supper that night. “Just nod your head if the answer is ‘yes,’ mother,” she says. The singing woman nods, then goes on slowly nodding, keeping time to one gospel hymn after another: jubilant words in a voice as sad and quiet as the rain.


Twelve-thirty at Fran’s Restaurant, catty-corner from the courthouse, waiting for lunch at a table facing the street. We can just make out the sign for another body shop, which appears to be closed – Rusty Auto. “Too bad they’re not open – that seems like the place for us,” I joke.

Steve swats at a persistent fly and misses. “Clap your hands in the air above him – that always works,” I say. “Oh, I know. But I prefer to catch them,” he says, “Like this – ” and as the fly makes its next pass low over the flat monotony of imitation wood, his hand darts in from behind and scoops it up. “So the question now is, how to get rid of it?” he asks rhetorically, and proceeds to demonstrate, dashing the fly against the table so it lies there, stunned, waiting for the hand’s deliberate descent.

Blogging from the ninth circle

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

In case anyone is wondering where the hell I’ve been: my brother and I are stranded in Summersville, WV with a broken-down car. I came down last Saturday for a cousin’s wedding in Beckley and I’ve been here ever since, with no access to the Internet until now, eating junk food and watching many bad movies. Virtually every mechanic in a five-mile radius has examined my brother’s 1990 Olds, replacing a number of parts, but it still won’t run. Short of getting a local Pentecostal preacher to drive the demons out of it, we have explored every option. It looks very much as if we will have to ditch it and rent a car to get us back home (we’re well off the Greyhound route).

Staying on the strip (first at a Super 8, then at a Hampton Inn), I’ve been forced to think about this most ubiquitous of American landscapes…

Strip. Lay down your overburden, bare your black seam of heat where the shovels can reach it. Let rains tease your acids from the rock.

Strip, stripe of concrete between gas stations & inconvenience stores, chain restaurants, big box stores, motels, each marooned on its own island of tarmac. We are all strangers here, even the natives.

Strip: supposedly comic, unmoving pictures starring the same faces, day after day. We grimace at the punchlines: Neighborhood Grill and Bar, says the Applebee’s sign. Oh, do let’s take a stroll ’round the Village Square!

Stripped of wheels, we navigate the strip on foot, automatic jaywalkers. The smell of fryer grease mingles with exhaust. Under one streetlight, we step carefully around the corpses of three starlings. We could be anywhere. This might as well be home.

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holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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The problem with stories is that they never tell the whole truth. For every god you invite to the feast, there’s a demon that needs to be driven out of the kitchen. I am reading a love story, a book about a woman with multiple personality syndrome and the therapist who treats her, and I’m thinking: this is how we should try to love the land, honoring each strand of myth. Wilderness might be the core personality, but there’s always a small piece of garden, too, beholden to its stern angel with flaming sword. After the wildfire, seeds dormant for a hundred years can have their brief day in the sun: blackberries, fireweed, fire cherries. A tree near timberline abandons its assault on the sky and goes crawling on multiple bellies, out of the wind. A plant or animal set down in a new land, freed of its former constraints, can be fruitful and multiply beyond all reason. Or one can find a sudden dearth of fossils, for example in the very stratum where my house sits: a story line cut short by some unimaginable horizon.

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How to make one journey out of so many roads and trails, hikes cut short by thunderstorms or insufficient daylight? How to get past the chasms, the time lost in suspensions of disbelief? We climb as high as the land lets us, taking in as much as we can in a single glance. We fantasize about a sudden plunge, overtaking our shadows, following green rivers to their source. Charley Patton is singing on the car stereo, his hoarse voice deliberately slurring the words:

I see a river rollin’ like a log
I wade up Green River, rollin’ like a log
I wade up Green River, Lord, rollin’ like a log

Through the pops and hisses on the old recording we can barely make out the guitar’s crisp weave of voices, a three-minute fraction of a song that might’ve lasted half an hour live. On another track, Patton talks back to himself as the guitar plays all sides of a single chord: oh, that spoonful! Unspoken after the first line, the ——– hangs just out of reach. The next day, before we leave, we’ll stop along the road where the birthwort sends its runners into the oaks, and I’ll use a walking stick to knock down one of the fluted, green pods. It will take pride of place in the well in front of the gearshift, rolling like a log on the long ride home.

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Traveler’s joy

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

More notes from last week’s trip to West Virginia.

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Below the pulloff for the roadside view, the vine called traveler’s joy sprawls over the rocks.

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A wood lily rocks gently in the wind, doors thrown open to all six points of the compass.

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Yellow birch: the straight & narrow path is never dull.

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Ground beetles take the place of dinosaurs in a forest within the forest where flowering plants are still a distant rumor.

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Rank & deadly, false hellebore raises a green panicle above leaves already half-dead, turning color for no one.

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On the summit where we found snow in late October, fireweed blooms against the spruce.

Two ways at once

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Last week my friend L. & I spent some time in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest – our third visit in less than a year.

We take our umbrellas walking, slower & slower.

I hear springs gurgling under the rocks. Small, dark pools appear among the rhododendrons. In one, a red maple leaf floats, already orange with autumn; the surface of another is covered with hemlock needles – tiny green rafts going nowhere.

We overtake a snail traveling in the same direction, gliding along under its spiral backpack.

Rain rarely reaches us unmediated by trees. The sun can come out long before rain has finished dripping from the leaves. As slowly as I walk, my glasses still fog up every time I stop.

The already wet trail grows wetter. One rock hisses under my boot.

We stop for lunch – instant ramen – and a spot of tea. I set my tin cup in the creek to cool, keeping watch to make sure the rhododendrons don’t drop a blossom in it.

With thunder rumbling in the distance, we dangle bare feet in the water. I watch a pair of crayfish battling a few feet away. The loser scuttles over & gives my ankle several exploratory taps.

I watch water flowing around a large rock, its translucent body a net of shadows as it folds back against itself. After ten minutes or so, I think I might understand something fundamental about water, its impetus to condense, to fall, to plumb the depths. But then I glance just a few feet to the left & am completely flummoxed by a large drift of foam. I had forgotten about tannins. The water is never just one thing, I think.

The storm breaks. Tree trunks become rivers flowing in two directions at once, outside & in.

On the way back, I stop to eye a large hemlock with limbs like reverse mouths for the sun. The tree reveals itself as a condensation of need, or needs. (Who knows if all aspirations can be reduced to a single breath?) Things turn inside out before my astonished gaze. With each footstep, I realize, we are helping to hold down an insurgent earth.

What I am calling need might be a kind of thirst or hunger, but it seems risky to try & grasp it through analogy with human desires, which are so wrapped up in surfaces. The non-human world seems much more rooted & constrained by custom. And what these others lose in flexibility they gain in the directness of their access to what we call the divine. For them, there is no gap whatsoever between spirit & matter.

A torrent of thoughts under my umbrella: Every element of Creation seeks redemption from its uncreatedness, its just-so-ness; death & decomposition represent only a temporary setback. Life is continual recomposition.

The life force, for lack of a better term, consists not merely of need but the energetic field surrounding it, which helps forge connections between beings. To feel those connections deeply is intoxicating – or, more accurately, leads to something like a contact high.

Spirituality is almost beside the point, considering that the body is already a temple and the digestive system is the most perfect altar imaginable. From the belly’s faithful service we can learn the art of letting go, a kind of sympathetic magic aimed at getting other things to let go of us. However hungry it may be, the panther knows better than to try & sever the jugular of a mountain stream.

Done scribbling, I glance up from my pocket notebook. An open space under the hemlocks is illuminated by a single, fist-sized clump of rhododendron blossoms. “What are you writing?” L. asks. “Oh, silly stuff,” I answer truthfully.

A half-mile farther, another open grove shimmers with the endlessly supple song of a winter wren. A second thunderstorm rumbles in the distance. The sky grows dark.

An hour later, we’re back at camp. I’ve carried my folding camp chair over to a house of boulders, where I sit admiring the arrangement of space & the spill of light where it opens to the sky. The boulders are green with moss, & each is capped with a dozen or more large, leathery ears of rock tripe. The resident hermit thrush draws near, playing his crystal flute. For several long moments I feel confirmed in whatever it is I’ve been trying all afternoon to intuit. Then a fly buzzes through without even slowing down – zoom. It is the most thorough & devastating refutation I can imagine.

And if you think the world is recalcitrant now, I say to myself, wait until you’re in your 80s.

I go looking for my hiking partner & find her sitting under another rock shelter, spying on the forest road below. I return to camp & start on supper. Later, she tells me that when a pickup truck finally did drive by, she couldn’t look.

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Mountain state (2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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the song of the winter wren goes spiraling
into the treetops down cliff under ferndrip ledge
follows the loop of a fox grape vine
& lodges in the bend of birthwort’s
pipe-shaped flower

it twines across the altar of my concentration
electric now with offerings
every part of worry anxiety hope

& tunneling through a weave of rhododendron
the trail goes straight, gently undulating
like the narrow-gauge rail bed it once was
carrying out trees in short sections
from what somehow managed to remain wild
high bowl of a remote mountain watershed
& freed from any need to watch our feet
we scarcely notice how much we have climbed
how much we have left behind

I glide as through a gallery, hungry for visions
saunter as if along a city sidewalk
each tulip tree and oak another body
to measure against my own
each of us a stranger only to ourselves
the slick fictions we grow year by year
in rings around the so-called heartwood
where sap long since ceased to flow

I see myself held in an eye of wood
I am implicated in a ripple of grain laid bare
when the bark dropped off

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but the plant people if you want
to call them that are far more timid than we are
we look at them carefully out of
the corner of an eye & pretend
only to care about identification
as if membership in a tribe or species
tells us anything beyond what name to use
when talking behind their backs
what they really have to say I think has
something to do with how to hold our ground

even the most active beings can make me feel
less like a discoverer than the discovered
is this for example the same tiger swallowtail
weaving drunkenly above the water
for the last three miles
every time I catch a glimpse of the creek?

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the trail wanders past an old cellarhole with a new
display of plastic flowers that spell “Mom”
& a garden site gone wild with mountain mint
we stuff our pockets with the fragrant leaves

we pause at a spring where mossy stones sleep
like small green bears
I pull out my camera & my friend bares her teeth

here’s a veery, descending call
like a flute inside a bottle as
my friend puts it
or perhaps two flutes played by a single flautist

we cook lunch among the boulders on the creek
& afterwards go browsing for lichen patterns
my friend seeing endpapers for hand-made books

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I spend a short century in a smiling contest
with the mossy head of a demiurge of stone
rising from the water, lines of bubbles
swimming slowly through its patch of sun
rich baritone voice in a language I feel
I can almost understand
& all around it the creek in shadow

& I am whispering encantado,
like a child
slowly plucking the spokes of a daisy
cantar is still the commonest
verb for “sing” in Spanish so
to be encantado really means to be caught
in a web of song I muse
focusing one at a time on each
voice in the watery chorus

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on the walk back we find a redrock shelf
at the edge of the creek pitted with potholes
some empty, others cupping moon-shaped pieces
of sky & a few mosquito larvae
wriggling back & forth in what
doubtless only looks like ecstasy

I can say anything, I think, arrogant
in my power to make little worlds from words
but anything I can say falls short of this world
its liquid laughter pure from the beginning
free of the salt of tears

just before leaving we stop at a spring with a waterfall
& a black PVC viaduct strung on a cable
gravity water for someone whose dog barks
from the other side of the creek
we fill all our bottles
& thrust cupped hands into the flow

surely water clear as glass should let us
see into some kind of future
or at least as far as the mountain’s stone heart
but it’s my own arteries I see
throbbing in my wrists
I lower my face to the would-be window & drink

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the next day on the flat-topped Allegheny Front
I study the cousinship of peak & bog
the same plants so often growing on both
& here the two kinds of places merge into one
when I piss at the edge of a dry boulder field
I hear the splash of water into water

Dolly Sods is still beautiful still teeming with life
despite its horrific usage by arrogant humans
who saw nothing but timber, pasturage
& a bombing range during World War II
natural extremity makes it at once more vulnerable
& more likely to resist the tendency of the badly used
to become ugly common & mean

& I know nothing, I think, suddenly ashamed
of my inability to look beyond wounds to
the grace & power of the wounded
which includes virtually every part of this land
which has been your land and my land for far too long
& needs to be its own land again

an interpretive sign explains how
wind-tortured red spruce trees grow branches
only on the leeward side for decades until
other spruce grow in around them & then
they knot their roots together among the rocks
gather stillness & the spongy beginnings
of new humus between their trunks
make a place too moist for lightning
to strike a spark & then all together
they rise up

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on the drive home the edge of my concentration
grows blunt as a butter knife
which is to say I lose my temper
& my ordinarily kind companion loses hers
& we ride in silence for a while
discoveries made in a mountain state
must not be transferable
I think glumly
everything we found remains behind

but the truth turns out to be otherwise
because unbeknownst to us
three craneflies got into the car at the last stop
before our long descent
& we can’t get rid of them
rolling down the window at the strategic moment
only blows them into the back of the car
& though for a while we think they’re gone
eventually they reappear
dancing in front of the windshield on flimsy wings
their long legs dangling & we give up
& laugh & let them ride & by the time
we get back I’ve forgotten all about them

I carry my gear into the house unpack & sit out
on my front porch watching the fireflies blink
under a second-quarter moon
until my eyes won’t stay open any longer

where state lines fall is an accident of history
& come to think of it I have yet
to leave the mountains
we will keep on returning whichever way we travel
the mountain state is still there & so are we

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Mountain state (1)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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High in the mountains
one hayfield remains uncut.
A doe’s ear twitches.

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Bed of the Dry Fork
scored for tic-tac-toe: water fills all
the squares with zero.

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Camp at the woods’ edge.
Morning sun brings rhododendrons
into your tent.

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Steep banks, big boulders,
pools – everything but otters
in Otter Creek.

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At Dolly Sods
when the wind slows down, it’s delicious:
wild azaleas.

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When they cut the forest,
the soil burned off. Bleeding hearts
bloom among the rocks.

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On two different hikes
I looked at lichens & left
the map in my pack.

Visit the Monongahela National Forest webpage for more information about some of the places referenced here, including Dolly Sods Wilderness (history here) and Otter Creek Wilderness. For a previous Via Negativa post on West Virginia, see Almost heaven.

“Alone in the world”: hill country women

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I wrote the following poem back in 1992. My mother included it on the dedication page of her book Appalachian Autumn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), a synoptic nature book that included a description of the clearcut logging of a 100-acre portion of Plummer’s Hollow that had once belonged to the McHugh family.

in memoriam Margaret McHugh

When her mind went they took her away
from the house in the hollow where she’d lived
forty years in combat readiness
with her dog & her shotgun, a color TV
& her dead brother’s artificial legs standing
guard at the top of the stairs.

Her ancestors’ land had been sold out from under her
& clear-cut by the absentee owner
who couldn’t be bothered with a mother’s deathbed
commandment half a century old:
Don’t let anyone lumber the mountain again.
She’ll never survive a third cutting
& neither will you.


From the other end of Appalachia, in northern Georgia, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Anna Howard, 93 at the time (1973, or a few years before: this was included in Foxfire 2, edited by Eliot Wigginton and published by Anchor/Doubleday). For all you city people, “locust” refers to a very hard wood, black or yellow locust, often used for fence posts because of its resistance to rot. The oldest portion of my house, built right after the Civil War, rests on a sill of locust instead of a rock foundation. The bark is still intact.


God can put it on your heart or mine anything he wants you t’do, and I know he can. He has mine. Pray about things you don’t know what t’do about. It’ll come to you just as plain.

And I try t’be all th’same alike. I don’t talk about people. I don’t say no harm about nobody and all they do. It says in th’Bible t’do unto others as we wish t’be done by, and I feel that way about that. And I feel like if you’re in earnest and got faith in th’Lord and ask him for anything, he’ll put it right in your mind. . . .

Kindness and love is th’main thing. Now that’s my advice. It’s good to know you got a friend. It’s love. Just like I made [a friend] out of you. I see people that their looks and their ways just a’gives t’you, and you love ’em. And th’next time you see’em, you love’em better.

I’ve not had too much of a happy time since my old man died. And after my children left, I just felt alone in th’world. And when all my people died – everyone that passes on out, I just feel like I’m further and further away. Yes, sir.

So now I knit socks a lot. I just love t’do that. If I ain’t got anybody t’talk to me, now I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers. If I’m able t’hold my head up, I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers t’employ my mind. . . .

I’ve been made fun of for bein’ old-fashioned, but it don’t matter t’me a bit in th’world. If anyone tries to run over me, they’ll find they’ve run up against a stake that won’t budge ’cause it’s made out a’locust! I’ve always done th’work of a man. God’s been good t’me. He’s given me strength.


My grandmother was a far less god-fearing woman. She grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania: still very much in the Appalachians, but culturally closer to New England than Appalachia. This portion of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Connecticut in the 18th century; my grandmother’s people were among those settlers.

Although Grandma was a very reticent person, she was always kind toward us kids, teaching us how to draw and helping with other craft projects. She was fairly intellectual, and much more adventuresome and open-minded than her husband, my grandpa. A four-month sojourn in Peru with my parents a few years before her death may have been the high point of her life. I wrote the following poem in her voice shortly after her death; it may or may not accurately represent her view of life. I felt justified in taking the liberty because, of all my immediate relatives, she is the one I most take after – with a little bit of my other grandmother’s more acerbic personality thrown in.

in memoriam Margaret Ide Bonta

I spent my tomboy girlhood on horses
rambling through orchards & the molehills
we fancied mountains, just south
of the glacier’s plow line. My brothers
taught me all the arcana of knots & hitches
I call to mind now, tied to an oxygen tank,
the transparent umbilicus bridled to my nostrils.

The man I married grew up in town
& loved the country for its range of practical puzzles.
But for my part, I preferred the ocean’s
implausible clues: polished stones & glass & wood
on a beach asymptotic to the hyperbole of waves,
tidepool anemones like stars collapsing, turning inward,
conch & clamshell pressing their ears to the sand.

All the men of my family were hardheaded Methodists
for whom speech was more vital than prayer.
But I always found piety jarring–the minister’s
baited candy. Like the scent of a bear in the barn
one day as I rode my favorite Clydesdale in,
standing barefoot on his back like a circus performer,
reins in one hand. When that massive
draft horse shied he sent me flying, really flying,
ponytailed hair & calico skirts ballooning.

My sister & I were like that: we smoked,
we drank a little, we rode along behind
on our brothers’ motorcycles. But when
it came time to marry, we did. Hank & I settled
in calm suburban waters, had three sons–
if I’d had a daughter, I wouldn’t have known
what to do! And when he retired, we bought
a small house on the ocean, ‘way down south–
a house built on sand, true,
but protected by seawalls from the storm surge

until these last couple years when everything
got me at once, & the songs my mother
sang to me in the crib
suddenly after all this time pop into my head.
It’s as if you were to find a bottle, say,
on the high tide’s windrow–& the message inside
were written in your own hand,
in childish shaky letters.
I just lie here humming & wondering where I’ve been.

I’m in pain, of course, but it’s not so bad
that they have to take me out back & shoot me
just yet! The main thing is, my mind’s still clear,
neither too fast nor too slow. Makes me think
of my favorite Robert Burns song, do you know it?
“Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

Well, we don’t need to sing the whole thing now.
There’ll be plenty of time later, when I’m gone.


The folklorist James York Glimm has written two books on central and north-central Pennsylvania; the following selection is from his second, Snakebite: Lives and Legends of Central Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991). Glimm writes, “Storytelling has sometimes been assumed to be a man’s province, but I have found that women informants have at least as much to say and can tell stories just as well. . . . As a younger man I was more interested in the frontier hunting and fishing stories that men like to tell. Women don’t tell many hunting yarns, but they tell other kinds of stories that give a detailed and personal picture of the world they lived in years ago.” One of the exceptions to this rule was 82-year-old Catherine Voce, who reminisced happily about living in a cabin ‘way up on a mountainside in the 30s, growing most of their own food and hunting deer with her husband. This is the conclusion of her interview with Glimm.


If I were young again and had wings to fly, I’d fly back up on the mountain above Rock Run and live in our cabin. When you’re young and in love, it makes all the difference. All I heard were the birds, a distant cowbell, and sometimes the S. and N.Y. whistle when the wind was right. I was in love and I was happy.

That’s enough talk. Let’s go outside and stretch a bit. I’ll show you my garden. Maybe I can get that other woodchuck that’s been eating me out of house and home. Hand me that four-ten over there, and watch out, ’cause it’s loaded.

Now, here’s where Mr. Coon comes for his cat food every night. I ought to shoot him, but I can’t. He’s so big. Sits here outside the screen door and licks his paws and goes, “Mmm yum, yum, yum.” Lately he gets here early, or Mr. Possum will beat him out. Quarter to nine. Now this is my sweet apple tree. The porcupines love sweet apples. Two years ago I killed so many I stopped counting. Maybe seventeen. They come off the mountain and wake me up at night with their weird sounds. Did you ever hear them? It’s a “Wee-wee-yum-yum-yee-yee-mum-mum” noise, like that, and I don’t like it. So I get up in the night with my .410 and my flashlight and shoot them. One night I got six. I buried them behind the barn in the soft soil. No, I don’t like porcupines. Come on. Keep low and quiet and maybe we can get a shot at Mr. Woodchuck.

It’s so overgrown around my garden, I can’t keep up. There are currants, asparagus, potatoes, garlic, and tomatoes. Now, look inside that pen. Just look at that lettuce. Oh! He’s eating me out of house and home. I put boards up and he goes right under – look at that. Watch out – I’ve got a muskrat trap over there. One way or another, I’ll get him. That? Oh, that’s just a black snake. Leave him. He’s OK. Here, take some garlic home with you.


Finally, a selection of Appalachian women’s voices wouldn’t be complete without the West Virginia poet Louise McNeill (1911-1993). In the last years of her life she and editor Maggie Anderson collaborated on a volume of new and selected poems, Hill Daughter, published by (who else?) the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991.

Anderson notes in her introduction that “The work of many writers from the southern Appalachian Mountains is a record of painful journeyings, away from what Kentucky poet James Still has called ‘the earth loved more than any other earth,’ off to the bright promise and the brighter economies of the cities. Louise McNeill’s life and work reflect those journeyings. The ‘paradox,’ as she has named it, is, in part, that the very opportunities that call mountain writers away from home also cut them off from the deepest sources of the writing itself, from its original impulses in a beloved place and people.”

McNeill’s poems are, in a word, devastating.

by Louise McNeill

I am the trajectory and flight –
The archer, arrow, and the bow –
The swift parabola of light –
And I the rising and the flow,
The falling feather of the cock,
The point, propulsion, and the flood
Of blackbirds twanging from the nock,
And I the target and the blood.


by Louise McNeill

Walk through the fern but do not tear the root.
Rest on the stump but count no ring of age.
In rotting wood see neither hint nor sign,
Nor translate from the oak leaf’s fallen page
One mystic line.

Look at the wheat field, see it blade and straw,
But neither bread nor sealed-in germ nor shadowy reaper –
Leave the close ground its anonymity,
Such knowledge to the blind mole and the worm –
The gray night-creeper.

Leave the enigma to the close-lipped dark;
Beyond your fenced-in land do not inquire –
For things there be best hidden:
Light that only the blind should see –
And over the hills in that far country
Truth bare, forbidden.

Almost heaven

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The bi-weekly Ecotone topic is Energy of Place. “What the hell am I gonna write about that?” I thought. But a weekend jaunt in West Virginia gave me plenty of material, as it turned out.

It was a cold, windy night. I had a knit cap pulled down over my ears, but several times an hour I was awoken by especially strong gusts that made my jerry-rigged tent fly flap violently, like a large bird trying to gain altitude. I dreamt not of flying, but of walking through endless, enclosed spaces where some sort of conference was in progress. I also dreamt that all the other tents but our two had blown away, and we woke to find ourselves alone in the campground.


I get up at 5:30, brew coffee in my tent, get bundled up and sit outside to drink it, gazing at the stars. At ten after six there’s still no sound from the other tent. I’d better start walking if I want to stay warm. It can’t be more than a mile and a half to the trailhead at Seneca Rocks.

The highway passes a couple of small farms with yard lights. I wonder briefly if people who install yard lights are more likely to vote Republican? I’m heading northeast, more-or-less, which means that Venus is a little to the right of straight ahead and the big dipper a little to the left. Just after I pass the last farmhouse, a meteor streaks through the bowl of the big dipper. Fire in the hole!

I cross the acres of empty parking lot and reach the bridge over the North Fork at 6:45. All but the brightest stars have faded, and the jagged outline of the huge stone fin known as Seneca Rocks looms above the trees. I decide to follow the trail a little ways into the woods, pausing at a bench that affords a good view of the Rocks through thinning foliage.

At 7:05, ravens start calling from the vicinity of the Rocks – I presume they must have a nest somewhere on the ridgetop. Their first cries are high, like the wails of lost children. It’s now light enough to distinguish yellow from green in the trees around the bench.

The wind up on the ridgetop must be terrific – the pine tree growing out of the cleft in the middle of the Rocks is dancing wildly against the lightening sky. Now the ravens are calling hoo HAH, hoo HAH.

7:10. The red from the red maple trees is now visible, along with dark patterns on the cliffs – patterns that will, I know, soon resolve themselves into ragged files of table mountain pine trees, growing from cracks and small ledges. It amazes me that these trees can grow without any soil, other than what they bring with them. If anything ever killed all the pines, I wonder, would Seneca Rocks get more than a small fraction of the visitors they attract now?

It occurs to me that this bench was situated solely for the long-range view; the foreground view of trees and boulders is more impressive a little farther along, I recall from the day before, and decide to walk on.

I pause to admire the fur of miniature shelf fungi on the north side of a monstrous dead tulip poplar beside the trail. Just as I look up, a raven circles through the window of sky above the bare limbs. It lets out a series of ruarks – the sound ravens make when they’re enjoying themselves, surfing in a high wind.

Small cumulous clouds are sailing rapidly across the otherwise clear sky. From my perspective, each cloud disappears behind Seneca Rocks, as if dropping into a toothy maw. At 7:30, the sunrise turns them pink. The first sunlight glows along the crest of the Allegheny Front.

7:40. I’m back on the bridge with its unobstructed view of the Rocks. Now all the clouds’ bellies are golden, and I notice that each has a backspin. That is, they’re rolling on their axes as if to travel west, but the wind pulls them rapidly to the east. Yellow sycamore leaves ride the wind above the river. Since this is the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac, I think, I could spit in the water and it would get to Washington.

At 7:45 a blue jay calls; at 7:50 I hear a flock of white-throated sparrows in the thickets along the river. It’s time to head back.


By 11:30 we’re at the parking lot at Spruce Knob, at 4,863 feet the highest point in West Virginia. We might have gotten here sooner, but kept stopping to admire the snow. When it rained yesterday afternoon at Seneca Rocks, some two inches of snow fell above 3,500 feet. It’s especially striking against the orange and yellow leaves of sugar maples, but here on the crest of the Front and on the rolling plateau beyond, most of the trees have already lost their leaves.

The short trail around the summit is called Whispering Spruce Trail, after the almost-krummolz forest of wind-buffeted red spruce. But today, the spruce aren’t whispering so much as roaring. We have a hard time standing upright in the strongest gusts.

On the southwestern end of the summit, we look down across open talus toward the brown, Novemberish hills for a few minutes, then retreat to a large grove of spruce where the wind immediately dies and yesterday’s snow, sheltered from direct sunlight, still lies deep. The contrast between the fury without and the stillness within points toward something deeper than words.

We find a seat overlooking North Fork Mountain and the other ridges of the folded Appalchians, still a mix of green and orange and yellow. On the northeastern end of the summit, the Forest Service has tastefully situated picnic tables among the trees and patches of open rock. Each table is invisible from the others, and each is spread with its own serving of snow.

A small tower gives an unobstructed view in all directions, but after a few minutes I climb back down, find a nice, sunny spot out of the wind and take a brief nap. A., wearing a wind-proof parka and lined pants, enjoys the experience of being rocked and buffeted by the wind far more than I do in my quilted shirt and jeans. But I understand the attraction. One can get almost drunk on a wind this strong. Between the wind, the snow cover and the strong sunlight, the overall effect is mind-altering – especially for minds still attuned to the look and feel of mid-October. Theories of aesthetics err, I believe, when they ignore the connection between the experience of beauty and the experience of power from outside or beyond the self. That connection, and the joy that accompanies it, is one experience denied to the powerful themselves, I think. But I could be wrong.


This part of West Virginia is exactly like central Pennsylvania, only more so. The same geological formations cap the ridges, but they’re much harder farther south as a result of being more tightly compressed during the main Appalachian orogeny, 210 million years ago. Thus, the Tuscarora quartzite that forms talus slopes of smallish boulders along the crests of mountains in central PA, such as the one I happen to live on, can produce spectacular fins in West Virginia, most famously at Seneca Rocks. In other words, some of the mountains in the Mountain State have so much attitude, they actually sport mohawks!

We take a roundabout route home, driving first northward on the Allegheny Plateau, past Canaan Valley and the town of Davis. A line of giant wind turbines looms over the horizon like the invaders from War of the Worlds. Their triquetra-shaped blades are spinning merrily, though a bit more slowly than I would’ve expected. I think about the conservationists I know who are contesting plans to situate wind turbines along nearly every ridgeline in the area, posing unknown hazards to migrating birds and bats. Now, seeing a large wind farm for the first time, I want to cry: Hand me my lance, Sancho! But the things do have a bit of grace.

We follow a long, lonely road to the east. “INDUSTRIAL PARK – FOR LEASE” says a sign just outside Davis. There’s nothing there but trees and little wetlands. But after a few miles, we begin passing active and abandoned coal strip mines. Just west of the Allegheny Front, we are startled by a high wall along the highway that turns out to be the breast of a dam for a large reservoir. Smoke billows from smokestacks in what we presume to be the power plant.

There’s just enough daylight remaining for one last swing through the ridge-and-valley section before heading home on U.S. Route 220 – as it happens, the same highway we returned from the Adirondacks on two and a half months before. If we had had more time, a longer hike would’ve been nice, but it’s enough just to drive in a place where virtually every bend of the road discloses another stunning view: a rocky gorge filled with long-legged rhododendrons, sunlight glinting off foaming water. An unpainted house flanked by apple trees and a clothesline flapping with brightly-colored scraps of laundry – or are they prayer flags, transplanted from Tibet? A high, steep pasture with a white horse grazing halfway up it, and a black horse immediately below. One faces north, one south. Both raise their heads to watch as the car speeds by.