tom van buren pruitt
Thinking lately about David Lynch's film, THE STRAIGHT STORY, the tale of a retired truck driver who had lost his driver's license due to drinking and driving. He hadn't seen his brother in 10 years---they'd fallen out drunk. Brother lived 2 states over. It's legal to drive a riding mower without a license, so he rigged a trailer to pull behind the mower that would carry his tent, sleeping bag and food. He set out on the highway staying close to the side of the road. In one town his machine gave out and a man at a hardware store gave him a new one. After quite a long ride, he arrives at brother's house, an old house in the country that hadn't been painted since it was new a long time ago. Brother was sitting on a chair or swing, Harry Dean Stanton, and the old boy with the mower sat in another chair on the porch. They sat in silence for a long time, end of movie.
In my first 14 years in the mountains, I knew brothers, Tom Pruitt, who lived up the road to the west a third of a mile, and Millard who lived in Glade Valley, about a 20 minute drive. Tom lived at the homeplace. Millard, an old-time religion preacher, lived close to his church, Laurel Glenn Regular Baptist. There came a time I thought I'd take Millard, who was a shut-in with heart issues, lived in a recliner, preferring it to a hospital bed, to see his brother Tom, my neighbor. I knew they hadn't seen each other in several years. We went in the house and they sat in silence for an hour. They just sat. It was like presence was good enough. A few years later I took Tom to visit Millard. Again, for an hour they sat in silence. I was fairly well aware of country ways then, but that one took me by surprise. When I saw Lynch's film, which was true to life all the way along, I remembered Tom and Millard without words. I respect it for something I didn't understand. They understood.
I'd come from the city where people talk to beat the band. Tom and Millard were of the country. When you think about it, farming was solitary work. Mama at the house with the garden, kids and cooking had as solitary a life as her husband out in the field working the horses, repairing the fences, all of it alone work except at harvest time and wood gathering time when neighbors worked together. No radio. Singing hymns while working. Even working with others, there wasn't much talking. The old-time mountain people were not talkers. They were workers. They didn't have the gift of gab. They committed thinking in abundance. They thought things through. Now, with everybody carrying a cell phone in a pocket, not very many people today think things through. Some do, of course, but it's not as common as it used to be. In this time we're in, we keep ourselves distracted by noise all through the day. Driving, we have radio and satellite radio. At home an infinity of distractions keeps our attention fractured at all times. People now interrupt two people talking like it's a duty. You see two people in conversation, you MUST, absolutely must, interrupt them. It is American as apple pie, baseball and sex-drugs-n-rocknroll. Interrupting so American it's patriotic.
This matter of silence tells a great deal about the differences between mountain country people and the city people taking up in the mountains. They all watch television. The older mountain people are not ones to talk. They've worked all their lives alone. Silence and solitude gives a man time to think about whatever he needs to think about. About all the mountain people I've known are comfortable with silence. That is changing, has already changed, as the younger mountain people are the same as city people, the same influences, the same access to pop whatever you want, the same dread of silence. Some weeks ago I heard a band with a city-minded woman playing the bass. She talked between songs like there wasn't enough time to get it all said. About 2/3 of the way through the show, an older woman, up in her70s, spoke up from the audience and said, "Did your mother ever tell you to shut up?" When I heard that, I thought, there it is. One values jabber and the other does not. Different generations, different ways of thinking, very different experience. She said it laughing, no intent to be insulting. Sometimes enough is enough.
When I was new to these mountains, working outdoors alone, alone at home. It took several winters before I learned how to get through winters. I took up drawing and painting to get through the winters. I came here for solitude and couldn't handle it. I jumped in the deep end too soon, maybe. It took awhile to prefer silence to noise distraction, radio in my case. By now I've learned it fairly well. I like to be alone. I like to be without radio on or any music. I like NPR radio and music too. Mostly I have silence in the house. Caterpillar prefers silence too. Out here in the mountain there are subtle sounds everywhere; woodpeckers, chickadees, towhees, crickets, tree frogs, katydids. Every season has its own sounds, the sounds of silence. In summer I like the door open and windows to let the sounds from outside come into the house.