I am so proud to have my work included in Mountains Piled Upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene.
Available from West Virginia University Press, Mountains Piled upon Mountains features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Moving beyond the tradition of transcendental nature writing, much of the work collected here engages current issues facing the region and the planet (such as hydraulic fracturing, water contamination, mountaintop removal, and deforestation), and provides readers with insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change.
This book includes a mix of new and recent creative work by established and emerging authors. The contributors write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, invite parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina, and often emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations. In the pages of Mountains Piled upon Mountains are celebration, mourning, confusion, loneliness, admiration, and other emotions and experiences rooted in place but transcending Appalachia’s boundaries.
The collection includes my essay, “Shaken Foundations.” An excerpt from this essay was included in the fall issue of “Mountain State Sierran,” the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Shaken Foundations” has also been used in college composition classes as an example of a fact-driven narrative.
(Published in the May 2017 issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine.)
Oh, how I enjoy the sounds of spring. After months of winter silence that was interrupted only by the rumble of traffic or the caw of crows, the cacophony of spring is truly a celebration of song. First, of course, the spring peepers started. Spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) are tan or brown with a dark cross that roughly forms an X on their back (thus the Latin name crucifer, meaning cross-bearer).
I cannot see the frogs, much less their x, without my glasses on, but no one can miss their insistent peeps. Just a few at first, those who awaken too early, the ones who are subdued by the early spring nights that dipped below freezing. Then, as evening temperatures warmed, more and more join the spring call, until their voices are beyond counting, beyond the individual, morphed into an amphibious chorus that lasts all night long. Here, beside the lake, the peepers get so loud they could keep you up at night. For me though, the sound is so soothing, they help me fall right to sleep.
Then, the ducks return. Wood Ducks, Mallards, Bufflehead, Coots, Mergansers. They have little to say during the day, too busy diving and dipping and puttering about. But when they gather on the lake around dusk, zip-lining from the sky to the darkening water’s surface, their coos are comforting, yearning, soulful, and serene. Once they return, I begin timing my days so I can wander out onto the back porch at dusk, just to eavesdrop on their conversations and enjoy. Languishing calls in the darkness from one feathered family member to another, coddling calls that seem like sounds of settling, of ruffling off the trials of the day.
German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, “A birdsong can even, for a moment, make the whole world into a sky within us, because we feel that the bird does not distinguish between its heart and the world’s.” On the porch glider in the dark, listening to the quibbling ducks, I feel I am a part of their conversation, unable to distinguish between their hearts, the world’s, and my own.
The Canada Geese calls are different. Their honks are loud, caustic, annoying. They argue and fight with great frequency, especially when they gather on the water at night. They WILL keep you awake at night, fussing and shouting at each other. Chattering. By the time the matriarch of the flock sets her nest on the island, the bull frogs are out of hibernation and add their bass barking to the blend of the spring music. Their voices push from their throats against the water into the sunlight of the day, into the stillness of the night. Pushing, throbbing, again and again, seeking their mates for the season. Next, the turkeys start mating in the fields, their sporadic gobbles echoing through the valley intermittently throughout the day.
And as if these sounds weren’t enough, come May, the spring birdsong truly flourishes. We are in a prime location-near water, in the fields, but not far from the edge of the woods. I celebrate the return of each spring bird as thought my friends: the robin, the bluebirds, the red-winged blackbirds. The woodpeckers (red-headed and red-bellied), the American Bittern, the Belted Kingfisher. Shrike, nuthatches, killdeer, titmice.
I sat down one afternoon to simply listen to the song of the catbird, and am always listening for the seldom-heard call of the Bob White or the Whippoorwill. Rumi, Persian poet and Sufi master, once wrote, “Birdsong brings relief to my longing. I am just as ecstatic as they are, but with nothing to say.” For me I feel I have too much to say, but cannot find the words. Birds don’t need words; they have their songs.
The birdsong at my friend’s house in the forest is made up of different songs. The towhee, the vireo, the thrush. She learned the birds and their songs as she grew up here in West Virginia, and she knows them well. I have my grandfather’s binoculars, a field guide to birds, the lessons she has taught me, and I try to spy the singers in order to match them in my book. Slowly I learn the birds who tweet, those who warble, those who chit, those who sing.
The last to arrive are the ones who hum, the hummingbirds who come to dive into my iris and spring lilies. They rest briefly in the sassafras tree, shimmering green and aquamarine. As long as I have flowers blooming in my gardens continuously all summer, I have no need to put out a feeder. The hummingbirds visit all season long.
Autumn, I think, is West Virginia’s most beautiful time of year visually, but Spring is the most lovely, musically.
Buzzing will come and carry us through summer. The buzzing of wood boring bees, determined to hollow out the beams of our back porch roof. The buzzing of flies, of gnats, of mowers and weed-eaters. The buzzing of fans, air conditioners, the rumbling of tractors and tillers, the rip-roaring of ATVs. But, for now the world is filled with song, glorious music, from brisk mornings into the earthy night. I lie in the lounge chair on the porch in the evenings and just listen, remembering to be still, to be grateful, to breathe.
A chickadee in the forsythia bush outside the window. Red cardinals flitting through the dark background of the side-yard pine tree. Snow fell earlier this week, but the ground was far too warm for any of it to accumulate. The temperature drop was enough to freeze the tips of the tulips that had emerged far too early though.
Without snow, mountain winters are brown. Hillsides strewn with dead, brown leaves, dark-brown tree trunks, beige fields, and muddy driveways. We have entered the womb of winter, and it is soft and soggy.
Twice a week, I work twelve hour days. I leave the house in the dark morning, and return in the dark of night. In winter, we can put in far more hours than the sun. I crave the sunlight, but these days those rays aren’t strong enough to warm the skin, and the frigid draft in the house today will simply be a light breeze come spring.
I am trying to teach myself an appreciation of this season, these winters without snow. I don’t remember hating winter so much in my youth, but there was snow then, more consistently and more in accumulation. Winter was a season that varied yes, one that whitened with regularity, then slowly melted over several weeks. None of this “here today, gone tomorrow” disposable snow. Snow that doesn’t linger, doesn’t stay a while.
I hear birdsong, in January, and though it is a blessing and a rare winter treat to hear something different than the cawing of the black winter crows, it is a song I know I truly should not be hearing.
I put out sugar water and wheat flour for our honey bees earlier this week in response to their search for pollenous food in a month when there is none.
There’s something about the dog days of summer that makes me nostalgic.
I was working in the garden this afternoon, hoeing onions in the heat of the day, sticky and sweaty with flies and bugs dining on my flesh.
Doesn’t sound beautiful or nostalgic at all does it?
But at one moment, I stood straight, and lifted my face into a soft breeze that felt so familiar, so calming. It brought me into the moment, into the present, for one instant, made me a part of the mountains and valley around me.
I was aware. Aware of something unmentionable, indescribable. Aware of three gobblers crossing the far field, of doe and fawns drinking from the lake, of a chicken hawk soaring through the sky.
For that moment, we were connected. We were nature in our natural environment. And everything felt, as it should be.Â There was no politics, no economic depression, no struggle of small business or worry for loved ones far away. There was only the moment. There was only now.
Something instinctual stirred within me. Something ancient and indefinite, something that made me breathe deeply in, and breathe deeply out, letting stress and strain and struggle escape my body to float away on the breeze as it rustled leaves and branches further up the valley.
When the breeze had passed, I found myself standing, eyes closed, face towards the sky, feeling as though hours had passed in seconds.
That is natural beauty. That is West Virginia.
And that is one of the main reasons I love living here.