The Roots of Memory

Near the end of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, the title character muses on the nature of remembering and history and the passage of time:

I am an old man now and oftentimes I whisper to myself. I have heard myself whispering things that I didn’t know I had ever thought. “Forty years” or “Fifty years” or “Sixty years,” I hear myself whispering. My life lengthens. History grows shorter. I remember old men who remembered the Civil War. I have in my mind word-of-mouth memories more than a hundred years old. It is only twenty hundred years since the birth of Christ. Fifteen or twenty memories such as mine would reach all the way back to the halo-light in the manger at Bethlehem. So few rememberers could sit down together in a small room. They could loaf together in the old poolroom up in Port William and talk all of a Saturday night of war and rumors of war.

I whisper over to myself the way of loss, the names of the dead. One by one, we lose our loved ones, our friends, our powers of work and pleasure, our landmarks, the days of our allotted time. one by one, the way we lose them, they return to us and are treasured up in our hearts. Grief affirms them, preserves them, sets the cots. Finally a man stands up alone, scoured and charred like a burnt tree, having lost everything and (at the cost only of its loss) found everything, and is ready to go. Now I am ready.

Finishing a re-read of the novel last week, this quote spells out clearly why I liked the book more now than when I first read it years ago.

Berry’s words have been a part of my life since a friend introduced me to him in 2002, but I’ve always been more fond of his essays, polemics, and poetry than his fiction. Like many novelists, his stories are first and foremost outworkings of his core ideas. Whatever the scope of their narratives, they always circle back to unpacking some thesis or other—in Berry’s case, concepts of community (membership), care for the land (stewardship), and living within limits (simplicity). The philosophy-narration in his works is done with varying degrees of craft, such that someone familiar with Berry’s larger body of work might simply prefer to read him lay out the ideas in question more plainly in his nonfiction.

Jayber Crow is by most any standards a good novel, though—round and readable. Its exploration of the inner life of one man, his wrestling with questions of faith and hope and unrequited love give it a texture that transcends any untoward preachiness. As the quote above illustrates, it is a work of remembering, of setting a human being within a web of knowing and being known. Even where it makes overt gestures toward the themes of the decline of rural American life in the wake of the economic, social, and technological upheavals of the 20th century, these facts are so relevant to understanding our present place in the world that it feels crucial to the story.

Part of why the book resonated more this time around is because the world it records is even further away from the experience of most Americans now. When I read it first, my grandfather, born in 1924, was still living on his family land outside a small Georgia town where he’d been born. His sister, born in 1918, and her husband, born in 1914, still had their wits about them, telling stories of the Great Depression, working with the CCC, and life before cars and television. Their stories of farming, and making ends meet by hook and by crook, and the deep and wide knowing of a place and all who dwelt within it were still part of my life and experience .

That whole generation of my family is gone now. If my children and theirs are to hear those stories, warts and all, it’s up to me and others who have heard and remembered to keep a certain understanding of the world within their imagining. Berry’s achievement with Jayber Crow is the setting into print of the sound, sight, scent, and savor of the place that formed him and where he lives still (though with the cloaking veneer of fiction). The stories he conveys are likely based in things he grew up witnessing or hearing about, and the memory of his particular web of knowing is preserved for us all.

Knowing and remembering entail loss and grief, as Berry has Jayber tell us. You cannot grieve what you never knew. You cannot lament what you have never felt. The art of love is the art of memory and imagination—sifting through the debris of death to see what glistens. May we have the courage to remember people, places, and things as they truly were; may we discipline ourselves to call to mind that which was good and has been lost so that it may be restored; may we receive the grace to imagine a world as it might be so that we can live as though it is already.

Image: Oak and Limestone, Meigs County, Tenn., January 2021.

Into the Woods: Allegheny Front

In 2012, my wife and I spent our anniversary exploring a corner of the Eastern U.S. that we’d never visited before. We found it so delightful that we hoped to return soon. A few years (and a couple of kids) later we were able to return this month with the whole family to Tucker County, West Virginia.

I’m sure this place is beautiful in other seasons, but having only ever visited in October, I can confirm that it is positively magical then. The quality and quantity of fall foliage is blinding—thick forests of maple, birch, and aspen punctuated with the deep green of spruces and firs, or open plains of knee-high blueberry bushes, each outstretched leaf turned to a crimson candle in the setting sunlight.

This time around, because we had a toddler with us, the hiking was limited in both speed and distance, but we still spent plenty of time outside. A few of our favorite spots are listed below.

Canaan Valley State Park and National Wildlife Refuge

This is where we landed when we first visited the area, and we were still taken by it this year. Canaan Valley is a geological curiosity, a nearly perfectly flat depression (give-or-take, 8 miles long by 3 miles wide) on top of a high plateau. Given this, the valley floor is still over 3,000 feet above sea level, which, coupled with its location at nearly 40° north latitude creates a biome more akin to Minnesota than the Mid-Atlantic. Its flat topography lends itself to swampy terrain, with numerous ponds, sphagnum bogs, and tall-grass wetlands lining the meandering headwaters of the Blackwater River.

The state park has a fine network of trails (and cabins and a nice hotel, to boot) along the river and into the hills on the west side of the valley. In the southeast corner of the valley, the park also operates a small ski resort with a respectable 1,000 ft. vertical drop and an average of 200+ inches of natural snow each winter. If you’re there in October, you can ride the chairlift (which we did) to look at the leaves and enjoy great views of the valley.

Much of the remainder of the valley, apart from one other privately owned ski resort and scattered houses and farms, is occupied by a national wildlife refuge, preserving the boggy wetlands for migrating waterfowl. There is an excellent boardwalk for birdwatching in the heart of the refuge, circling through a fir forest, meadows of cotton grass and swampy tangles of wild spiraea. Quiet gravel roads snake through the refuge into Monongahela National Forest, with opportunities for hiking, wild cranberry picking, camping, or just country driving.

Blackwater Falls State Park
If you follow the Blackwater River to the northwestern end of the valley, it drops over a lovely 50′ waterfall and then dives into a canyon on its way down to the Monongahela River basin. The spectacle of fall foliage in the canyon rivals any show I’ve ever seen anywhere (and, seeing as our anniversary is in October, we’ve witnessed peak fall color in quite a few parts of the country over the years). You just want to sit and soak it in for hours.

We didn’t do any real hiking here this time around, though there are plenty of trails. The kids found some trees to climb and made leaf piles to jump in and throw at one another, and we enjoyed the (rather crowded) walk down to the falls.

Dolly Sods Wilderness and Bear Rocks Preserve
The thing that drew us to WV in the first place was Dolly Sods, which I’d read about on other hiking blogs—a place of mystery (including unexploded WWII training bombs!) above the clouds, a vast plain where the virgin forest was clearcut and fires seared the soil so that the trees may never return fully. Whatever the origins, the current state of the place is sheer, inexpressible beauty.

We only had a fleeting moment to visit this time (due to a sewage issue that forced us out of our AirBNB and cut the trip short, another story altogether—par for the course on our family vacations!), but happened to be there near sunset. All I can say is that the pictures speak for themselves. For someplace so close to civilization (ca. 2.5 hours from Washington, D.C.), it is as otherworldly as any spot this side of the Rockies. There are dozens of miles of trails zigzagging the wilderness, some of which we hiked last time, but we took a toddler-paced, restful amble this time.

Seneca Rocks
The only spot we hit on this trip that we didn’t last time was Seneca Rocks, a tourist photo-op standby and rock climbing Mecca. We managed to hike to the observation platform (a steep trail gaining 600+ feet in 1.3 miles) with the whole family, and then the older two girls coaxed me up to the knife-edge ridge for a better view and a dose of adrenaline. Well worth the visit.

We’ll be back again sometime, I’m sure. I’ll leave you with one obligatory New River Gorge Bridge shot to invite you to try it out as well. This is a state hard hit by centuries of environmental destruction and decades of economic devastation (it’s the only state in the U.S. with fewer people than it had in 1950), but there is a wealth of beauty and sparks of resilient community around the state. We’ve grown to love it, and hope others will, too.

Unmapped

“Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”
—Wallace Stegner

You were floating by fast when I caught you,
Gave you a place to anchor and watched you
Begin to call your home into being.
All you needed for it you brought with you,
So I left you to it, and before I knew it,
We were cemented together here,
Securely as the roots of the mountains.

I wonder where you came from and
Where you might have gone without me.
I wonder what great ships you could
Have beached somewhere else, though who knows
What our children’s children might see
Come to pass right here, in this place
Where we’ve been set, accreting life.

A little carbon and calcium
Is all it takes to move heaven and earth
Around ourselves and find a niche that works,
Amid vast, acidifying oceans.
But of all the polyps in all the reefs
In all the world, just this spot was prepared
For your unmapped geography of hope.

Image: Crystalline Iceplant, Santa Barbara County, Calif., June 2019.

The Art of Home

I’ve always enjoyed drawing. As a kid it was a way to recreate the machined elegance of Spitfires, Mustangs, and other warplanes. I never quite mastered landscapes; people were right out.

Later, I took up photography with my dad’s Minolta XD 5, and haven’t let up on that hobby, though it loses some charm when we all have a fine lens in our pockets.

More recently though, my wife (who has always enjoyed painting and all things crafty) has become quite the watercolor aficionado. She’s really quite good, and she’s gotten the rest of the family into it, too.

The impetus for this turn has been the co-op school our older two girls attend (and where Rachel tutors part-time) which draws on Charlotte Mason’s educational ideas, including observational learning from nature. As such, each student is encouraged to keep a nature journal where they can paint or draw the things they spot in the world around them. We’ve adopted this habit as a family, and I’ve been amazed at what I’ve found in taking up the brush.

It starts off simply enough, it’s just drawing with paint, right? Except that’s not it at all. Learning to work in a medium to its strengths takes practice.

The milky paint acts like the water it is, seeking its level, finding the crevices in the paper like micro-arroyos, absorbing in to fade and spread colors. If you mix it thick enough to stay put, all of its liveliness shuts down, leaving you with flat, smeared lines.

To represent what you see, you have to paint what you don’t, laying down layers of color, slowly fading from light to dark to get things just right. The brush has to be held like a scalpel, the pressure, angle, and part of the tip with which you first touch the paper is going to set your course for good or ill. And once you’ve done something you don’t like, trying to fix it will only make it worse.

Watercolor has been a humbling learning curve for all of us, but perhaps for me—self-assured and overconfident as ever—most of all. You have to come prepared to shift along with it. The art takes you where it wants to go, and if you resist, it pushes you out of the picture.

During this time of pandemic and shutdown and quarantine, we’ve found some bursts of creativity. For me, that’s taken its usual poetic turn, but the watercolor has brought life, too. Because we’re stuck at home, we’ve looked closer at the world close at hand, watching and waiting as the magic of spring and the circles of life unfold in our 1/4 acre yard. We’ve been forced to slow down and open our eyes.

The past several weeks have been more of the old normal for me—working too hard on projects for my job and writing papers and studying to wrap up another semester at seminary. But I’m ready to stick a pin in all that and start to paint again.

Is it coping? Perhaps, but it is also exploring. Learning to know a place deeply enough to see it as it is. Pain, beauty, joy, anxiety, and anger swirl about in every breath these days, and we wait, brush in hand for what may happen next.