History is a plow behind a blind mule that never stops pulling. We can put a hand to the plow and try to guide it, or we can get out of the way. Some of us walk the rows and sow seeds. Whatever choice we make, sooner or later we all grow weary of our labors and give the reins to someone else. Everything we cultivate, and everything we harvest will be turned under to nourish the next crop, just as we were once nourished.
Last night it was 46 degrees. Perfect sleeping weather. Today I stood in our garden, warmed by the sun while a sprinkle of rain played counterpoint to the heat. Not a single gnat or mosquito violated my airspace. We have tomato blossoms, and future sandwiches are ripening on the vine. November is just two weeks away but turnip and mustard greens are growing faster than I can pick them. Not all climate change is all bad, all the time.
Yet somewhere today, and not very far away, there is someone still without power, or without a home or a business to go to because of the recent hurricanes. The “gallinippers,” mosquitoes several times the size of what we have here, are plaguing eastern North Carolina and south Georgia where the storms passed. Parts of North Dakota have already had 17 inches of snow. Wildfires continue in the west where almost a million acres have burned so far this year. We count our blessings living here.
Here is where the early days of fall bring my favorite weather of the year, the kind of weather that makes memories and polishes them with the deep blue skies and crystalline air of the season. Sometimes there is a whisper of sadness in the wind. Some of the very best memories, hiking and hunting with my dad, the old stories by the fireplace with our grandparents, my mom’s butternut squash pie and the approach of the holidays, were harvested this time of year.
The oxen are slow, but the earth is patient. Weather is fickle but the earth has it’s own wisdom, and though the grass is still green and the tomatoes red, the flowers of September are drying up and dropping to the ground in the ongoing cycle of birth, death and renewal. It reminds me of the impermanence of all things, and the loved ones who have gone on ahead to the undiscovered country. There is a chill in the air that hints of the season to come.
There is another sound in the wind this fall, and it’s not one we’re ever eager to hear. In the distance, the growl of bulldozers followed by hammers driving nails heralds the surrender of more mountain habitat to the inexorable pressure of a growing population. There is some consolation in knowing that we’re taking better care of our mountains now than we did in the past.
A friend once told me that a developer is a person who wants to build a house in the woods. An environmentalist is a person who already has one. There is some truth in that. Many of us who made it here safely want to close the gate behind us. It might be selfish, but it’s honest. If you’re new here, please understand that some of us have been around long enough to remember unbroken ridge lines and dark skies at night. It’s nothing personal. It’s just hard to see the mountains scraped flat and washing into the creek in a land where it takes ten thousand years to grow an inch of topsoil.
Harder still for those who remember the communities that once took root in these valleys and coves, communities of faith and shared hardships and common interests. People knew who their neighbors were, how they were related and the quality of their characters. Some families still living here can trace their ancestors back to the first European settlers who came here 200 years ago.
Echoes of those communities still exist, but the houses in the woods and on the ridge lines are not often pioneers looking to build a new life. More often they shelter a type of refugee looking for a place to live out the rest of their days in a place that isn’t as hot, or as crime ridden or congested as the place they came from. If I were hot, or scared or crowded, I would want to come here too.
Once a youthful pioneer spirit took hold of these hills and looked forward to the future, grew families, built communities and put down roots here. Now, many of us sit behind locked gates and look out our picture windows at the windows across the valley, reflecting on our own bygone days. Many others don’t have time to sit, making our livings on and over the land but rarely having time to touch it, and every year another layer of concrete and asphalt puts it farther out of reach.
I know. The lifestyle nurtured by these mountains disappeared from more than just our own beloved valleys. It has departed from most of the nation. We traded our communities for interstate highways; extended families for Facebook chats; strength for comfort, and free thought for some kind of proprietary form of political correctness. We gambled freedom on security and lost some of both.
Maybe we’re only guilty of shortsightedness and lack of imagination, occasionally leavened by greed. Maybe we were just plain human. It’s hard to look very far ahead when your shoulder is to the wheel. A bulldozer may sound like death to some, but to others it sounds like paid bills and food on the table. To some it sounds like a new beginning.
We feel a sadness, but we do not despair. We have young people living here who will discover new frontiers, and old people looking as much to the future as they do the past. But when whispers of the past are carried down the mountain by an autumn breeze, I wish I could share with young and old alike, especially our newcomers, what these mountains looked like before they were scarred; what the night sky looked like before the stars were washed out by floodlights; what it felt like to kneel over a bubbling spring deep in the forest and drink your fill with no fear of contamination. I wish they could hear the singing on a Sunday evening, or feel the satisfaction of a group of neighbors raising up a barn or cutting hay together.
Some have brought with them just such memories from valleys far away, and they share values that we hold dear. Some newcomers are better stewards of our mountains than many who were born here. Many years from now, our descendants will look back on here and now with longing, and grieve the loss of what, we cannot imagine. Many lifetimes ago, someone who made the arrowhead I hold in my hand looked to the future with hope. If I could see his mountain, how different would it appear from what I remember, and how alien would my grandfather’s mountain seem to him.