Last weekend, we fell in love with the Appalachians again.
The cabin was built in the 1840s. Our friends, an older couple named Paul and Lara, live there. Lara is a storyteller, folklorist, and knower of the natural: birds, animals, plants, trees, and how to make everything out of them. How to build a hearth out of river rocks, how to milk sheep, how to heal ailments with herbs. Paul is a teacher, woodworker, and alternative energy expert. He rigs up electric cars, teaches middle school kids how to make wood crafts, and builds just about anything. Together, they run the Coweeta Heritage Center on their property.
These people have more projects going than can be imagined. They have interns and volunteers to assist sometimes, but it is often just the two of them, and they are not spring chickens. The land is strewn with partly born ideas: a gutted van, a camper, lumber carefully milled from felled trees and stacked under tin roofing with cement blocks. A fish pond, a small waterfall. A clay oven now riddled with holes from mud-loving insects. The barn where the sheep used to be. (Have you ever tried to milk a sheep? It’s hard.) Lara tends the goats and makes goat’s-milk cheese, buttermilk, butter, and milk. She works in the small permaculture garden she has begun. As she does, she thinks of stories.
So it was time to visit. Saturday morning, we dragged the poor, low-riding Mazda 3 an hour and a half out of the city and up the alarmingly rutted Coweeta Gap Road, into a narrow valley with a stream running through it, to their 52-acre plot of hilly land.
The rigors of the Trail, the fresh memory of the majesty of the West, and our rough start in Asheville had erected a barrier between us and the Appalachian mountains we’d loved so long. They were my first mountains. I interned for a summer at the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia during college, and the hazy Blue Ridge rose from the western horizon. They were maternal, mysterious, ancient, abundant. They provided orientation, perspective, grounding, and a reminder that the earth is a moving, shifting creature. I loved them immediately.
Thus, it had been unsettling to find myself disenchanted. But here at last was an opening, between two narrow ridges, through which to begin to love them again.
As we had hoped, Paul and Lara had set out projects: J. would help Paul build a sauna behind one of the cabins, and I would paint a small case fridge for them to sell their cabbages and mustard greens at market. After a few hours of work in the chill afternoon, we went down the hill to the cabin for dinner. One skinny-necked guinea screeched ceaselessly at our approach, while the flock of hens calmly clucked out of our way.
As we sat around the table in the tiny, hearth-heated room, Lara put out cornbread from a cast-iron skillet, a bowl of butter beans, roast turkey, and fruit salad. Rusks and rinds were strewn upon the wooden floor, crumbs on the table, and a thick layer of history on each wooden chair. The kitchen table legs stood in teacups. Tapestries, woven wicker baskets, and tools hung on the walls. Every corner was packed with books, jars, and dust. The cabin’s interior is as enveloping as the womb of the Appalachian Mountains themselves. It is a one-room museum of the people who come from these mountains.
After dinner, Paul poured us mugs of pocahickra: hickory nut milk, flavored with both nuts and shells. It is a brown milk that, served warm with a spoon of maple syrup, smells and tastes wonderful. Perhaps the proof of its countryness is that no spelling of its name elicits results from Google. However, I am reading the excellent book 1491 by Thomas Mann, and it had just mentioned hickory milk, as part of a thesis that the Indians had strategically planted chestnut and hickory all along the East, in natural, life-giving orchards, far from the stereotype of savages in untouched wilderness. Mann’s first cup of the milk was as pleasurable as mine. His was served by St. EOM, an eccentric artist from rural Georgia who claimed Creek ancestry. (J. and I once visited St. EOM’s rambling, strange estate, Pasaquan, as a day trip from Koinonia Farm. The saint died years ago, but his compulsive mosaics remain. You can also find a roomful of it at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.)
As we talked, Paul showed us the ingenious but simple pattern for making a wooden spoon. J. ran his hands over it, satisfied. He had wondered how those spoons were made ever since our first visit, five years before. We had volunteered for ten days, and afterward, Paul presented us with a cooking spoon made of cherry that we treasured and used for years. This time he gave us an ash.
After saying goodnight, J. and I climbed the hill to the visitors’ cabin. No computer, no internet, no cell phone reception. While these are useful tools, we were satisfied gazing at the fire and peeping into a few of the hundreds of books on botany, construction, and the like. When it was time to sleep, we unrolled the futon by the hearth, and J. loaded the fire so hot that there was no need to feed it overnight. It rumbled and blazed and, citified as I am, I kept thinking I heard a log roll out onto the floor, or smelt smoke pouring through some vent to asphyxiate us. But we slept.
In the morning it was goats’-buttermilk pancakes with blueberries that had been picked nearby and then frozen. When you stay in a place so long, you know where to find the hickory nuts (the tree behind the library), yellow raspberries (an open field of brambles near town), and everything else (the woods, usually). For tea, Paul set out dried herbs, a strainer, and a pot of boiling water. Choose your elixir: will it be chamomile flowers, spearmint leaves, clover flowers, whole cloves, or even catnip?
Then it was back to work. J. was in paradise. Working on an off-grid construction project outdoors in the woods gladdened his soul. They got out the ol’ post-hole diggers to sink four big posts upon which they built a platform for the sauna. They did have power, and power tools, but the power flowed from the creek, not from electric lines. A long wooden track, built by Paul, diverts a bit of the water temporarily, where it runs downhill and spins a little wheel, which fills batteries. So they have such luxuries as hot water and lights and tools, without a power bill. What a gift, a stream on one’s land.
After I finished painting the fridge and listening to NPR on the scratchy radio, I put on my running clothes and headed up the mountain. It entailed big, confidence-boosting jumps over several not inconsequential streams that ran right across the road. The sunlight through the bare trees evoked the season we started our hike: generous, brilliant in the winter air, soon-to-set. I knew the Appalachian Trail ran along the nearest ridge, which looked so close but was too far to reach on a jaunt. I pined for the magical line, even though I never need to hike the whole thing again.
Lara’s grandparents had made their homeplace not far away, one valley over, but high on the hillside–they could not afford the flatter land below. She told me how to find their homestead next time–I was just one turn away. Next time I’ll find it.
So we will be back. For many reasons. But especially because something somewhat like this is part of our dream, no matter where we find it.
P.S. Based on the comments left on my last post, I ought to make two quick notes:
1. I did not actually visit the Isle of Man.
2. I am doing fine. My intention was to show the rise from (certain shallow) depths. I’m not staying down there. I’m lucky, and I’m also not built for that. Thanks to everyone for the kind and heartfelt words!