SPECIAL SECTION: WRITERS FROM ECHOES ACROSS THE BLUE RIDGE
Imbued with the Spirit: A Review of Echoes Across the Blue Ridge
Echoes Across the Blue Ridge (Winding Path 2010)
Edited by Nancy Simpson
238 pages, $16
What makes the Appalachian Mountains so special? Certainly one distinctive quality is age. Where else can you see stone so old it crumbles, trees left alone to grow as big around as houses, houses bent on one knee but still lived in, and traditions as old as . . . well, as old as the hills?
Things, even people, are allowed to grow old here without someone knocking them down in the name of progress or shuffling them off to a nursing home. And that’s how the real magic of the place happens, because, in one respect, nothing dies here — not really. Sure, physical presence may come and go, but the essential character of things is retained in stories, poems, songs, artifacts, traditions, and, most of all, memory.
The word “haunted” has a negative connotation in most places, but one can hardly read about the southern Appalachians without that word or a synonym being, if not named, then at least implied. Robert Morgan uses it in his Introduction to Echoes Across the Blue Ridge: “The deep valleys seem haunted by the natives who once lived there.” Kay Byer uses it in a comment quoted by Nancy Simpson in her “Note from the Editor:” “our most haunting artifacts.” The first poem, “Beyond the Clearing” by James Cox, certainly suggests it by referring to “a place sublime / where spirits sing invisibly.” And the first two stories, “Rendezvous” by Charlotte Wolf and “The Third Floor Bedroom” by Lana Hendershott, are, to some degree about the sensation of being haunted. And despite the usual expectation that non-fiction wouldn’t involve such fanciful ideas as spirits and haunting, even the first essay, “The Oldest Answer” by Steven Harvey quotes Bettie Sellers saying, “My bent was to espouse the unseen that’s in the woods at night.” To which, Harvey adds, “It is the need to fill all this haunted otherness with something human.”
All of this repetition of the word “haunting” or the sense of being haunted reminds the reader that the implication of the word is in fact not limited to an unpleasant habitual visitation but rather to a persistent presence of spirit, a presence that may be desired, embraced, just as I, a flatlander, have been haunted by images of Cade’s Cove, Caesars Head, Graveyard Fields, and the Devil’s Courthouse since visiting them as a child and returning to them as often as I can manage. This usually pleasant but sometimes unsettling lingering of spirit is closer to the type of haunting the writers in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge have discovered in these mountains and expressed in these pages.
Not that every piece in this anthology deals with the past or memory or spirit. Some of the selections deal with other reasons people are attracted to these mountains. Ellen Andrews comments on the beauty and sense of community in the mountains in “Homing:” “We are connected not by school uniforms / but by a raging lust for these purple mountains.” And in poems like Gene Hirsch’s “Where It Comes From,” we see even more closely the intimate relationship between the human and the natural: “Love / sprouts from lichen, / in the shade, by the lily pond . . . / in the thicket / of a chapter of floating / leaves / beneath the silky / hairs of a willow.”
Even the descriptions of nature are, however, frequently haunting, as in Janice Townley Moore’s “Photos from Another State,” where she describes the sound of a creek as “lyrics from the unseen.” Similarly, Jennifer McGaha’s reverie in “Looking Glass” is punctuated by images from the past: “You see your great-grandmother, her long, gray hair pinned in a bun, stooping over the quilting loom by the black wood stove in her cabin, and you see her strolling in her garden, her brown, crinkled hands pulling a green bean fresh from the vine.” And Susan Lefler’s harrowing story “The Spirit Tree” tells of one little girl’s attempt to use the spirits of nature and tradition to fend off the hazards of her mother’s emotional disorder.
Whether spirits of joy or grief, familiarity or strangeness, there is no doubt that the southern Appalachians are possessed by a presence that transcends the physical and temporal. In the same way, the poems, stories, and essays in Echoes Across the Blue Ridge are possessed by the various spirits of these mountains, leaving us standing, in the words of Janet Sloane Benway’s poem “Sugarloaf Mountain,” “in awe, / even in the face of sorrow.”