In the series “The Land We Come From”, we ask writers to reflect on the environment in which they grew up and how it shaped their lives. Here, author Ron Rash describes his grandmother’s summer on the farm in the Appalachian Mountains in the southern United States, where his family lived for more than 250 years.
Abandoned homestead in Appalachia
Everything used to be like this,
Tin rust and wood rot, buzzing
Rising soft-legged wasp
It’s like a whirlpool of dust under the hot light.
A cherry tree in front
Buckle in the fruit, harvest
Through the yellow jacket and the starlings,
Wind, rain and sun.
The family of my mother and father have lived in the Southern Appalachian Mountains since the mid-1700s. Their impact on the land is obvious. I have seen their fields and pastures, their homesteads, barns and wooden sheds. Decades after the farm was abandoned, I can still see the furrows that their plows used to plow in the soil. And how does this piece of land, high in mountains and deep in the ocean, affect my ancestors, and how does it affect me now? This complicated question is what I tried to answer in several of my novels. By creating characters with long-term family ties to Appalachia, I explored how these mountains shaped their sense of existence and sometimes their destiny.
The scenery is like life. This sentence has always plagued the character Leonard Shuler in my novel “The World Made Straight” (The World Made Straight). He is obsessed with the geological theory that the Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountains in the world. For Leonard, the landscape evokes “a feeling of being enclosed, human limitations.” He believes that the looming vastness of the mountains, their sense of eternity juxtaposed with the impermanence of human life, made him and his family alive. A kind of fatal fatalism is that life cannot be changed by one’s own actions. This kind of fatalism convinced Leonard that the joy of life is fleeting and its troubles are constant. In a key early scene, Leonard remembered his grandfather showing early symptoms of a heart attack and accepted his fate, and later died in his field after he refused to seek medical care.
What I describe in the novel is a sensibility that I have witnessed in my own family. As a child and teenager, I spent most of the summer on my grandmother’s farm. If there is a blue sky all day, she will assure me that tomorrow will undoubtedly rain. If there is a bumper harvest, some misfortune will soon appear—a horse is lame, and a barn is burned—to offset the good luck. I will listen to her with amusement and irritation. Sometimes I want to ask her if anything good will happen to her, just enjoy it without considering future calculations.
Perhaps one explanation is that mountain people who need access to water traditionally live not close to mountain peaks, but in valleys and bays, where sunlight is scarce and shadows are longer. “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” which also exacerbates depression, will definitely affect those who live in mountainous areas. I also know that my grandmother lived a hard life. She gave birth to eight children. Her husband died young, and for decades she raised her youngest child alone while maintaining the farm. However, my grandmother was not a bitter woman. She is capable of having great love and kindness. The summer when I was with her, when she and I were often alone, it was still the happiest time of my childhood and adolescence.
Alas, I have realized some aspects of my grandmother’s pessimism. When luck comes, there are always shadows on the periphery. I remember when a football team that I wanted to win performed surprisingly frustrated. Even if my team is sure to win, I also feel that I will pay for such good luck in some way in the future. I have used several behavioral techniques to combat this tendency, especially mindfulness, but it seems to be deeply rooted and cannot be completely eliminated. This is part of my legacy.
Nonetheless, there is a more positive aspect of my family’s connection with these mountains-the Appalachian Mountains are a protective, almost womb-like presence. In my novel Serena, Rachel Harmon believes that the mountains shelter her, “like big hands, hard and gentle hands around you, protecting and comforting, just like her Like the imaginary hand of God”. In the latter part of the novel, Rachel must escape from her farm in western North Carolina to survive. Once exiled, she will suffer a great sense of loss. When she saw the vast grasslands of the Midwestern United States, Rachel wondered how anyone could live in such an uncovered place: “How can you not feel that everything, even your own heart, is exposed?”
Hiraeth is Welsh and expresses how Rachel feels. The two syllables of this word not only contain a strong attachment to a certain place, but also a strong desire to return if you leave it. This word makes me very happy, partly because the Rush clan came to the United States from Wales, and many Appalachian families faced economic displacement in the early and mid-20th century. My grandfather left the mountains of North Carolina to work in a textile factory in front of the mountains of South Carolina. He got married, and soon he and his wife had their only child, my father.
Nevertheless, my grandfather’s family is still so that he moved his family back to the highlands many times, until the higher wages in the factory forced them to return to the cotton spinning mills in the lowlands. Family reunions, weddings, holidays and funerals also summon him back. Home can never be the place where he was born.
His final return was after his death. Like all his brothers and sisters, he was buried in the same mountain tomb as his parents and grandparents. This is a beautiful and peaceful place away from any busy roads or towns. Usually the only sound is the wind on the nearby trees. When I walked there and stood in a long row of tombstones, each raised stone was carved with a rash, I was always deeply moved. As an old woman in Appalachia once said: “There can be no home without mountains.”
When my father died, relatives took straw mats and shovels to dig his grave. This is a beautiful ceremony, the last love and affection. This winter afternoon, when I write these words, I can look out the window and see the mountains around me rising. The closer the brown and vivid, the farther the blue and hazy. They are intimidating and comforting. When the time is up, I will be cremated, but my ashes will be scattered in the same mountain cemetery where my father is now. The mountain will endure forever.