Knowing Our Place
I have places where all my stories begin.
One is a log cabin in a deep, wooded hollow at the end of Walker Mountain. This stoic little log house leans noticeably uphill, just as half the tobacco barns do in this rural part of southern Appalachia, where even gravity seems to have fled for better work in the city. Our cabin was built of chestnut logs in the late 1930s, when the American chestnut blight ran roughshod through every forest from Maine to Alabama, felling mammoth trees more extravagantly than the crosscut saw. Those of us who'll never get to see the spreading crown of an American chestnut have come to understand this blight as one of the great natural tragedies in our continent's history. But the pragmatic homesteaders who lived in this hollow at that time simply looked up and saw a godsend. They harnessed their mule and dragged the fallen soldiers down off the mountain to build their home.
Now it's mine. Between May and August, my family and I happily settle our lives inside its knobby, listing walls. We pace the floorboards of its porch while rain pummels the tin roof and slides off the steeply pitched eaves in a limpid sheet. I love this rain; my soul hankers for it. Through a curtain of it I watch the tulip poplars grow. When it stops, I listen to the woodblock concerto of dripping leaves and the first indignant Carolina wrens reclaiming their damp territories. Then come the wood thrushes, heartbreakers, with their minor-keyed harmonies as resonant as poetry. A narrow beam of sun files between the steep mountains, and butterflies traverse this column of light, from top to bottom to top again, like fish in a tall aquarium. My daughters hazard the damp grass to go hunt box turtles and crayfish, or climb into the barn loft to inhale the scent of decades-old tobacco. That particular dusty sweetness, among all other odors that exist, invokes the most reliable nostalgia for my own childhood; I'm slightly envious and have half a mind to run after the girls with my own stick for poking into crawdad holes. But mostly I am glad to watch them claim my own best secrets for themselves.
On a given day I may walk the half mile down our hollow to the mailbox, hail our neighbors, and exchange a farmer's evaluation of the weather (terrible; it truly is always either too wet or too dry in these marginal tobacco bottoms). I'll hear news of a house mysteriously put up for sale, a dog on the loose, or a memorable yard sale. My neighbors use the diphthong-rich vowels of the hill accent that was my own first language. My great-grandfather grew up in the next valley over from this one, but I didn't even know that I had returned to my ancestral home when I first came to visit. After I met, fell in love with, and married the man who was working this land, and agreed to share his home as he also shares mine in a distant place, I learned that I have close relatives buried all through these hollows. Unaccustomed as I am to encountering others with my unusual surname, I was startled to hear neighbors in this valley say, "Why, used to be you couldn't hardly walk around here without stepping on a Kingsolver." Something I can never explain, or even fully understand, pulled me back here.
Now I am mostly known around these parts by whichever of my relatives the older people still remember (one of them, my grandfather's uncle, was a physician who, in the early 1900s, attended nearly every birth in this county requiring a doctor's presence). Or else I'm known as the gal married to that young fella that fixed up the old Smyth cabin. We are suspected of being hard up (the cabin is quite small and rustic for a family of four) or a little deranged; neither alternative prevents our being sociably and heartily welcomed. I am nowhere more at home than here, among spare economies and extravagant yard sales glinting with jewel-toned canning jars.
But even so, I love to keep to our hollow. Hard up or deranged I may be, but I know my place, and sometimes I go for days with no worldly exchanges beyond my walk to the mailbox and a regular evening visit on our favorite neighbor's porch swing. Otherwise I'm content to listen for the communiques of pileated woodpeckers, who stay hidden deep in the woods but hammer elaborately back and forth on their hollow trees like the talking drummers of Africa. Sometimes I stand on the porch and just stare, transfixed, at a mountainside that offers up more shades of green than a dictionary has words. Or else I step out with a hand trowel to tend the few relics of Mrs. Smyth's garden that have survived her: a June apple, a straggling, etiolated choir of August lilies nearly shaded out by the encroaching woods, and one heroic wisteria that has climbed hundreds of feet into the trees. I try to imagine the life of this woman who grew corn on a steeper slope than most people would be willing to climb on foot, and who still, at day's end, needed to plant her August lilies.
I take walks in the woods, I hang out our laundry, I read stories to my younger child, I hike down the hollow to a sunnier spot where I look after the garden that feeds us. And most of all, I write. I work in a rocking chair on the porch, or at a small blue desk facing the window. I write a good deal by hand, on paper, which I somehow can't ever forget is made from the macerated hearts of fallen trees.
The rest of the year, from school's opening day in autumn till its joyful release in May, I work at a computer on a broad oak desk by a different window, where the view is very different but also remarkable. In this house, which my predecessors constructed not from trees (which are scarce in the desert Southwest) but of sunbaked mud (which is not), we nestle into what's called in this region a bosque that is, a narrow riparian woodland stitched like a green ribbon through the pink and tan quilt of the Arizona desert. The dominant trees are mesquite and cottonwood, with their contrasting personalities: the former swarthy with a Napoleonic stature and confidence, the latter tall and apprehensive, trembling at the first rumor of wind. Along with Mexican elder, buttonwillow, and bamboo, the mesquites and cottonwoods grow densely along a creek, creating a shady green glen that is stretched long and thin. Picture the rich Nile valley crossing the Saharan sands, and you will understand the fecundity of this place. Picture the air hose connecting a diver's lips to the oxygen tank, and you will begin to grasp the urgency. A riparian woodland, if it remains unbroken, provides a corridor through which a horde of fierce or delicate creatures may prowl, flutter, swim, or hop from the mountains down through the desert and back again. Many that follow this path willow flycatchers, Apache trout can live nowhere else on earth. An ill-placed dam, well, ranch, or subdivision could permanently end the existence of their kind.
I tread lightly here, with my heart in my throat, like a kid who's stumbled onto the great forbidden presence (maybe sex, maybe an orchestra rehearsal) of a more mature world. If I breathe, they'll know I'm here. From the window of my study I bear witness to a small, tunnelish clearing in the woods, shaded by overarching mesquite boughs and carpeted with wildflowers. Looming over this intimate foreground are mountains whose purple crowns rise to an altitude of nine thousand feet above the Tucson basin. In midwinter they often wear snow on their heads. In fall and early spring, blue-gray storms draw up into their canyons, throwing parts of the strange topography into high relief. Nearer at hand, deer and jackrabbits and javelina halt briefly to browse my clearing, then amble on up the corridor of forest. On insomniac nights I huddle in the small glow of my desk lamp, sometimes pausing the clicking of my keys to listen for great horned owls out there in the dark, or the ghostly, spine-chilling rasp of a barn owl on the hunt. By day, vermilion flycatchers and western tanagers flash their reds and yellows in the top of my tall window, snagging my attention whenever they dance into the part of my eyesight where color vision begins. A roadrunner drops from a tree to the windowsill, dashes across the window's full length, drops to the ground, and moves on, every single day, running this course as smoothly as a toy train on a track. White-winged doves feed and fledge their broods outside just inches from my desk, oblivious to my labors, preoccupied with their own.
One day not long ago I had to pull myself out of my writerly trance, having become aware of a presence over my left shoulder. I turned my head slowly to meet the gaze of an adolescent bobcat at my window. Whether he meant to be the first to read the story on my computer screen or was lured in by his own reflection in the quirky afternoon light, I can't say. I can tell you, though, that I looked straight into bronze-colored bobcat eyes and held my breath, for longer than I knew I could. After two moments (his and mine) that were surely not equal for a predator must often pass hours without an eyeblink, while a human can grow restless inside ten seconds we broke eye contact. He turned and minced away languidly, tail end flicking, for all the world a cat. I presume that he returned to the routine conjectures and risks and remembered scents that make up his bobcat-life, and I returned to mine, mostly. But some part of my brain drifted after him for the rest of the day, stalking the taste of dove, examining a predator's patience from the inside.
It's a grand distraction, this window of mine. "Beauty and grace are performed," writes Annie Dillard, "whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there." I agree, and tend to work where the light is good. This window is the world opening onto me. I find I don't look out so much as it pours in.
What I mean to say is, I have come to depend on these places where I live and work. I've grown accustomed to looking up from the page and letting my eyes relax on a landscape upon which no human artifact intrudes. No steel, pavement, or streetlights, no architecture lovely or otherwise, no works of public art or private enterprise no hominid agenda. I consider myself lucky beyond words to be able to go to work every morning with something like a wilderness at my elbow. In the way of so-called worldly things, I can't seem to muster a desire for cellular phones or cable TV or to drive anything flashier than a dirt-colored sedan older than the combined ages of my children. My tastes are much more extreme: I want wood-thrush poetry. I want mountains.
It would not be quite right to say I have these things. The places where I write aren't actually mine. In some file drawer we do have mortgages and deeds, pieces of paper (made of dead trees mostly pine, I should think), which satisfy me in the same way that the wren yammering his territorial song from my rain gutter has satisfied himself that all is right in his world. I have my ostensible claim, but the truth is, these places own me: They hold my history, my passions, and my capacity for honest work. I find I do my best thinking when I am looking out over a clean plank of planet earth. Evidently I need this starting point the world as it appeared before people bent it to their myriad plans from which to begin dreaming up my own myriad, imaginary hominid agendas.
And that is exactly what I do: I create imagined lives. I write about people, mostly, and the things they contrive to do for, against, or with one another. I write about the likes of liberty, equality, and world peace, on an extremely domestic scale. I don't necessarily write about wilderness in general or about these two places that I happen to love in particular. Several summers ago on the cabin porch, surrounded by summertime yard sales and tobacco auctions, I wrote about Africa, for heaven's sake. I wrote long and hard and well until I ended each day panting and exhilarated, like a marathon runner. I wrote about a faraway place that I once knew well, long ago, and I have visited more recently on research trips, and whose history and particulars I read about in books until I dreamed in the language of elephants. I didn't need to be in Africa as I wrote that book; I needed only to be someplace where I could think straight, remember, and properly invent. I needed the blessed emptiness of mind that comes from birdsong and dripping trees. I needed to sleep at night in a square box made of chestnut trees who died of natural causes.
It is widely rumored, and also true, that I wrote my first novel in a closet. Before I get all rapturous and carried away here, I had better admit to that. The house was tiny, I was up late at night typing while another person slept, and there just wasn't any other place for me to go but that closet. The circumstances were extreme. And if I have to if the Furies should take my freedom or my sight I'll go back to writing in the dark. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, writers will go to stupefying lengths to get the infernal roar of words out of their skulls and onto paper. Probably I've already tempted fate by announcing that I need to look upon wilderness in order to write. (I can hear those Furies sharpening their knives now, clucking, Which shall it be, dearie? Penury or cataracts?) Let me back up and say that I am breathless with gratitude for the collisions of choice and luck that have resulted in my being able to work under the full-on gaze of mountains and animate beauty. It's a privilege to live any part of one's life in proximity to nature. It is a privilege, apparently, even to know that nature is out there at all. In the summer of 1996 human habitation on earth made a subtle, uncelebrated passage from being mostly rural to being mostly urban. More than half of all humans now live in cities. The natural habitat of our species, then, officially, is steel, pavement, streetlights, architecture, and enterprise the hominid agenda.
With all due respect for the wondrous ways people have invented to amuse themselves and one another on paved surfaces, I find that this exodus from the land makes me unspeakably sad. I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant's way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in. I think of the astonished neighbor children who huddled around my husband in his tiny backyard garden, in the city where he lived years ago, clapping their hands to their mouths in pure dismay at seeing him pull carrots from the ground. (Ever the thoughtful teacher, he explained about fruits and roots and asked, "What other foods do you think might grow in the ground?" They knit their brows, conferred, and offered brightly, "Spaghetti?") I wonder what it will mean for people to forget that food, like rain, is not a product but a process. I wonder how they will imagine the infinite when they have never seen how the stars fill a dark night sky. I wonder how I can explain why a wood-thrush song makes my chest hurt to a populace for whom wood is a construction material and thrush is a tongue disease.
What we lose in our great human exodus from the land is a rooted sense, as deep and intangible as religious faith, of why we need to hold on to the wild and beautiful places that once surrounded us. We seem to succumb so easily to the prevailing human tendency to pave such places over, build subdivisions upon them, and name them The Willows, or Peregrine's Roost, or Elk Meadows, after whatever it was that got killed there. Apparently it's hard for us humans to doubt, even for a minute, that this program of plunking down our edifices at regular intervals over the entire landmass of planet earth is overall a good idea. To attempt to slow or change the program is a tall order.
Barry Lopez writes that if we hope to succeed in the endeavor of protecting natures other than our own, "it will require that we reimagine our lives.... It will require of many of us a humanity we've not yet mustered, and a grace we were not aware we desired until we had tasted it."
And yet no endeavor could be more crucial at this moment. Protecting the land that once provided us with our genesis may turn out to be the only real story there is for us. The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we may pick up (including this one, ultimately, though recycled) is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives. What you hold in your hands right now, beneath these words, is consecrated air and time and sunlight and, first of all, a place. Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it's here that matters, it is place. Whether we understand where we are or don't, that is the story: To be here or not to be. Storytelling is as old as our need to remember where the water is, where the best food grows, where we find our courage for the hunt. It's as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have. Our greatest and smallest explanations for ourselves grow from place, as surely as carrots grow in the dirt. I'm presuming to tell you something that I could not prove rationally but instead feel as a religious faith. I can't believe otherwise.
A world is looking over my shoulder as I write these words; my censors are bobcats and mountains. I have a place from which to tell my stories. So do you, I expect. We sing the song of our home because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wiser or safer than its habitat and its food chain. Among the greatest of all gifts is to know our place.
Oh, how can I say this: People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about our economic status or our running day calendar. Wildness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.
"Letter to My Mother" excerpted from SMALL WONDER. Copyright 2002 by Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved. Used by permission.