The land we came from: The Southern Appalachian Mountains

What impact did this land of high mountains and deep coves have on my ancestors, and what does it now have on me?

The writer's great-grandparents and their family [Photo courtesy of Ron Rash]

In this series “The land we came from”, we asked writers to reflect on the environment they grew up in and how it has shaped their lives. Here, author Ron Rash describes summers on his grandmother’s farm in the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the United States, where his family has lived for more than 250 years.

Abandoned Homestead in Appalachia

All that once was is this,

tin-rust and wood-rot, the hum

of limp-legged wasps that ascend

like mote-swirls in the heatlight.

Out front a cherry tree

buckles in fruit, harvested        

by yellowjackets and starlings,

the wind, the rain, and the sun.

My mother’s and my father’s families 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 and barns and woodsheds. Decades after farms have been abandoned, I can still see the furrows where their ploughs once furrowed the soil. Yet what impact did this land of high mountains and deep coves have on my ancestors, and what does it now have on me? This complex question is one I’ve attempted to answer in several of my novels. By creating characters with a lengthy familial connection to Appalachia, I have explored how these mountains have shaped their sense of being, even at times their destinies.

Landscape as destiny. This phrase haunts the character Leonard Shuler in my novel, The World Made Straight. He is obsessed with the geological theory that the Appalachians are the oldest mountains in the world. For Leonard, the landscape evokes “a sense of being closed in, of human limitation.” He believes that the mountains’ looming vastness, their sense of permanence juxtaposed against the impermanence of human life, has infected him and his family with a crippling fatalism that life cannot be altered by one’s own actions. Such fatalism leads Leonard to a belief that life’s pleasures are fleeting, its troubles constant. In a crucial early scene, Leonard remembers his grandfather displaying the early symptoms of a heart attack and, resigned to his fate, later dying in his field after he’s refused to seek medical care.

What I describe in the novel is a sensibility I have witnessed in my own family. As a child and an adolescent, I spent much of my summer on my maternal grandmother’s farm. If a day was all blue skies, she would assure me that tomorrow would doubtless bring rain. If an excellent harvest occurred, some misfortune – a horse going lame, a barn burning down – would soon arise to counter the good fortune. I would listen to her with both amusement and exasperation. Sometimes I wanted to ask her if anything good might happen and simply be enjoyed without dwelling on some future reckoning.

Perhaps one explanation is that mountain people, needing access to water sources, have traditionally lived not near peaks but in valleys and coves, where sunlight is sparser, shadows lengthier. The same “seasonal affective disorder” that can exacerbate depression surely affects those inhabiting mountain communities. I also know that my grandmother lived a hard life. She bore eight children. Her husband died young and for decades she raised her youngest children alone while also maintaining the farm. Yet my grandmother was not a bitter woman. She was capable of great love and kindness. My summers with her, when she and I were often alone for days, remain the happiest times of my childhood and adolescence.

The writer’s grandparents and his mother on their farm [Photo courtesy of Ron Rash]

Alas, I have recognised aspects of my grandmother’s pessimism in myself. When good fortune comes, there is always a shadow on the periphery. I remember when a football team I wanted to win did so in an astonishing upset. Even as my team’s victory was assured, I sensed that I would somehow pay a price for such good fortune later. I have adopted several behavioural techniques to combat this tendency, particularly mindfulness, and yet it seems too deeply imbedded to extinguish completely, a part of my heritage.

Nevertheless, there is also a more positive aspect to my family’s connection to these mountains – a sense of the Appalachians as a protective, almost womblike presence. In my novel, Serena, Rachel Harmon believes the mountains shelter her “as if huge hands, hard but gentle hands that cupped around you, protecting and comforting, the way she imagined God’s hands would be”. Late in the novel, Rachel must flee her western North Carolina farm to survive. Once exiled, she suffers an immense sense of loss. When she sees the wide prairies of the American Midwest, Rachel wonders how anyone could live in such an unsheltered landscape: “How could you not feel that everything, even your own heart, was laid bare?”

Hiraeth is a Welsh term for what Rachel feels. The word’s two syllables encompass not only an intense attachment to a place but also an intense yearning to return if it is left. The term pleases me, in part because the Rash clan came to the United States from Wales, and because many Appalachian families in the early and mid-20th century faced economic displacement. My paternal grandfather left the North Carolina mountains to work in the piedmont textiles mills of South Carolina. He married and soon after he and his wife had their only child, my father.

Nevertheless, my grandfather’s hiraeth was such that several times he moved his family back to the highlands until the mill’s better wages forced the family’s return to the Lowcountry’s cotton mills. There were family reunions, weddings, holidays, and funerals that summoned him back also. Home could never be elsewhere than the place he had been born.

His final return was after his death. As with all of his siblings, he is buried in the same mountain cemetery as his parents and grandparents. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, far from any busy road or town. Often the only sound is the wind in the nearby trees, and I am always profoundly moved when I go there and stand amid the long row of gravestones with Rash carved in each raised piece of stone. As an old Appalachian woman once said, “Home cannot be where the mountains are not.”

When my father died, relatives took mattocks and shovels and dug his grave. It was a beautiful ritual, a last act of love and kinship. This winter afternoon as I write these words, I can look out my window and see the mountains rising around me. The closer ones are brown and stark, the more distant ones blue and hazy. They are daunting and comforting. When my time comes, I will be cremated, but my ashes will be scattered in the same mountain graveyard where my father now lies. The mountains will endure.

Source: Al Jazeera