by pieces of moments
I’m a Yankee. Hard core. My ancestors lived for hundreds of years out in New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont before heading out West to what we now know as the Midwest. One of my relatives was a well known abolitionist and Congressman who knew and worked with John Brown and worked extensively with the Underground Railroad. So, the South has always been largely unknown and completely unconnected to me (other than my relatives fought against its way of life). There is something about it that was always shrouded in mystery to me and therefore, frankly, scared me a bit. Irrational, I know, but true, and people have all kinds of irrational phobias, right? Meymot has a deathly serious phobia of large whales*, Aeijtzsche harbors a phone phobia – I have a phobia about the South. This land of lore, former land of slavery, strange accents, famed hospitality, Hatfields and McCoys, and thick forest backwoods is so vastly removed from anything I know – compact urban jungles (or vast treeless prairies if you count areas of my home state). The last couple of days here in North Carolina’s Transylvania County have been slowly turning my head around from irrational fear to curious intrigue. I can tell you exactly when my head turned, too: when my feet stood on the rocks in the middle of a shallow creek as I snapped pictures of a waterfall on our way toward the Blue Ridge Parkway. I stood there looking up at the waterfall, the sheer rock topped with a thick blanket of green plants and trees surrounding me as I got dusted wet with the spray from the falls and thought how enchanting it would be to be able to go there and think day in and day out. The feeling was further solidified when we actually reached the Blue Ridge Parkway and I looked out from an altitude of 4,700 feet with the Blue Ridge Mountains all around. The sun had just set and the world was drenched in my favorite shade of post-sunset blue as the evening haze settled all around the foothills. Looking up, the crescent moon provided some of the only light left in the ever dimming sky. A full chorus of birds, insects, frogs, and who knows what other creatures got louder and louder as the sky got darker and darker. We drove a little further and accidentally stumbled upon the famed Cold Mountain, which inspired the namesake book (and subsequent Hollywood movie). There was something about seeing the actual mountain in front of me and imagining Inman risking his life to cross the Carolinas in order to see it and his true love, Ada, again that kinda got me. It sounds way cheesy, but to connect the place with the people, their stories, history, and tie to the heavy losses that real families suffered during the Civil War made me think of the South in human terms, grand real human drama, rather than the stereotypes that had built up into a phobia in my mind. Maybe what they say about abolishing your phobias through direct confrontation is right, after all.
Being there amongst the subset range of the Appalachian Mountains also really helped me put my recent experience listening to the fiddle, bluegrass, and old-time Southern gospel music at Mark O’Connor’s String Conference in a new, more appropriate context. I have always enjoyed these music styles, but in the way someone appreciates something still rather out of context. Listening to that music with surfer dudes, palm trees, and the Pacific Ocean waves beaconing to me was not the proper backdrop. But to be here near Appalachia, drinking sweet tea, eating okra and fried catfish on a porch looking at the mountains? Now that’s contextual. So I’m getting it now, slowly. I don’t know that I will ever love the South, but at least I’m not afraid of it as much as I was 48 hours ago, so that’s progress.
Additionally, this whole thing has reminded me of how much I wanted to really learn shape note, or “sacred harp”, singing a few years back while I was at NEC. I adore the pure, straight tones and simple open lines that sound like simple stripped calico. I was so serious about it that a friend and I scoured the NEC library for a sacred harp singing book – and actually found a couple. We never got together to try it, however, due to lack of time, so it remains on my ‘to do’ list.
Tomorrow I’m going back North to the land of Paul Revere, but with a different perspective, and when I hear someone speaking their praises about something, or somewhere, in the South, I will know they ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.
Pictures to come…
*as well as spiders and vampires…speaking of Transylvania…