This past Memorial Day weekend, Richie and I visited the Acorn Inn in the Blue Ridge Mountains. While Richie rode his bicycle with friends each day, I loaded Buddy and easel into the car, heading out to paint.
Driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Shenandoah National Forest’s Skyline Drive, I marveled at the clear gradations of blue in the mountains. The Blue Ridge Mountains are old—three hundred million years old—and they once looked like those young upstarts, the Rockies (only one hundred million years old) before time wore them down to their roots. They fold into one another like a mussed up bedspread and for me they are just as cozy. I’m usually a more wide-open sky kind of person, but these mountains seem to hold one protectively, in an embrace.
On my drive, I visited Humpback Rocks mountain farm, a living history site of a typical mountain farm of the 19th (and probably 20th) century. Nestled into the hollow were the one-room chinked log cabin, the log shed and springhouse, the hopper for lye, the pig pen; each building without decoration or extraneous frill, only the spare necessity. I wondered why it all seemed so right. Instead of looking like poverty of the most meagerly sort; it looked instead whole and undivided.
Then I realized that the spare farm fed the body while the natural beauty of the mountain and the crafts its resources inspired, fed the soul.
I own a book titled “Mountain Homespun” by Frances Louisa Goodrich published in 1931. Goodrich had journeyed into the mountains to find its weavers and spinners. She visited with these people at their mountain farms, much like, I am guessing, the one at Humpback rocks, and wrote down their words. Here’s Aunt Liza, ‘upwards in sixty’ talking about the farm in the mountains where she has lived for over forty years: “…it puts feeling on to a body to see the moonshine falling on yon mountain…I don’t know, either, but what I like it here full as well along about daylight, when I’m up soon of a morning and the sky ferninst is all the color of them roses yonder. Here lately there’s been the prettiest kind of a big star, seems like it sorter hates to go out of sight a sun-up.”
Yes, it was a hard living, and a living in poverty by our standards of economic development, but it was also, I think, a rich living by the bigger standard of satisfaction.
“I’m a rarin’ to draw it in and see how the spots come out. Shucks, ain’t it grand, the things they is to do and to find out about.” Granny Jude on receiving a new pattern to weave, from “Mountain Homespun.”
I almost passed this post over to Buddy the Adventure Maltese, because I attended a writers’ and illustrators’ conference all last weekend and today I go to Boston to physically graduate—march up that podium and take that diploma. But then, looking out the window at the mist rising off the pond, sipping my morning tea, listening to the bird song, I realized I did have something to say after all.
The natural world sustains me. Each small universe of flower, bird, and water life nourishes me in a vital way. It recalls to my mind a phrase I read in “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen; “. . . the peace and healing of the night sky. . .” and I remember how reading that resonated.
When I got home from the three days of indoors imposed by the conference, I walked around my gardens, looking closely. I greeted each new daffodil and the emerging arugula. I said hi to the tiny growth of peony and the buds of the quince. I greeted them as friends.
I came to this relationship as a child. When I felt wounded by life I would go into the woods and sit down on the ground. As I sat in stillness, my eyes tracing the line of a leaf or twig, a change came over me. Trying to describe the sensation visually, I would say that the pearl of my soul, cracked and gapped by life, would rise out of my body and flow into the natural world–a world filled with the same pearl essence. This essence flowed around and through my soul, filling it and making it whole. Once whole, my soul would slide back to its place inside of me and I would shake my head a tiny bit, coming to myself. It didn’t seem odd; I thought everyone did this.
The natural world has sustained me; still sustains me, and I’m grateful that as a child, I was not overprotected from it. Reading “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv, about nature deficit disorder, I wonder the cost of separating today’s children from the very thing that nurtures them. We are part of the natural world, whether we accept it or not. And to separate ourselves from its healing capability is to refuse a gift that is our birthright.