The cold is moving in. This year I must find some fleece-lined indoor slip-on boots to wear in the house on the cold floor. And some heavy socks. This floor is so frigid in winter I want to stay in bed all the time or sit with feet up. I don't mind, however. Humans have lived with cold floors in winter as long as we've had houses. I don't care to spoil myself to central heat, air conditioning and the other luxuries. I like living with the elements, like living in a house that is not air tight. I like to feel summer and feel winter and all the weather in between. I like intimate association with the weather the same as with the world of the living, such endangered species as trees, rhododendron, ferns, running water, the animals that come out at night. I like having them around. I like it that coyotes and bears roam freely around my house. The only marauder I have is a coon that is throwing the roof off the birdfeeder in the night to eat leftover sunflower seeds. It's easy enough to replace the roof in the morning. Three possums lived under the house for awhile, until coyotes ate them. Hawks get the birds that come to the birdfeeder. They can't maneuver in among the trees; they wait outside the trees for birds flying out of the tree zone. I dreamed a few nights ago of a big pileated woodpecker pecking on the side of a dead tree, the standing trunk all that was left, the bird clinging to the trunk like they do, that red hammer-head digging for snacks.
One summer afternoon some years ago I was in the woods across the road, standing on a moss-covered rock beside the creek that runs to the waterfalls. I heard yip-yip-yip-yip, looked in the direction of the sound and saw a pileated woodpecker flying between the trees straight at me with another one close behind it. Both flew about two or three feet above my head, both yipping, like two jets flying through the trees. It was a thrilling experience. Another year in winter I was walking on the old back road along a ridge that dropped off rather steep on both sides. A crow flying low in the trees flew up over the ridge just a foot or two above my head. I heard the sound of wings and thought of the old hymn, Come Angel Band. Once, driving down my road from Air Bellows Gap Road , a crow flew a couple feet above the hood of my Toyota pickup, about where a hood ornament would be. It flew there looking back at me on either side as it flew. It went about a tenth of a mile with me. Twice I've had a redtail hawk do the same in the same stretch of road. The hawk, too, would turn its head sideways and look at me. I don't know if they were telling me they recognize me and my truck as a friendly who doesn't use a smoke-pole, or having a look at the human inside the moving shell. I've had this affection for the living beings I share my world with as long as I remember. My grandmother taught me appreciation for the world of the beings that can't talk. She taught me to transplant flowers so they don't die. She was the best teacher of my childhood.
I've come to see that this forested mountain I live on, and the culture of the mountain people, as well as the house, all come from the places I found comfort in childhood. A large acreage of woods was beyond the back yard, giving me a great area to play Indian in. The woods were my playground where the tension I carried from home relaxed. It was a safe zone where I was not being punished or berated. My grandmother lived in a room over the garage. She was my comfort in that she knew what I was going through and she allowed me to spend as much time with her as allowed. We worked jigsaw puzzles, listened to Grand Ole Opry, and talked about whatever came up. She always had a male canary singer. She borrowed a hen from a neighbor and her beautiful yellow singer produced little ones. She gave me one of the babies, which I kept until it eventually died of old age. She taught me to love canary song. She taught me how to catch a bird in a cage without hurting its wings. When I was new in the mountains I noticed everybody talked country talk like she did, using words like aint, them and other colloquialisms my parents corrected me for using. They didn't like grandma. Grandma was my lifeline. None of her kids liked her. I heard from different sources that she was a difficult woman not many people liked. She was the one I loved in the family. She was my mother hen. We kept a family of Cochin bantie chickens, a half dozen, started with a hen and rooster. They were black with feathers on their feet. She was particular about her chickens like she was with canaries. The four chicks became my pets.
I did not learn until I'd been in the mountains about thirty years that her mother and dad went to Kansas from East Kentucky, Pulaski County. It explained why mountain culture was so comfortable to me at the beginning, because familiar. It was my culture as I picked it up from grandmother, who was the same as a mountain woman, though she lived in Kansas. I've heard that two of her brothers were fiddlers. She played a guitar. And I learned her husband, my grandpa who died seven years before I was born, came from East Tennessee, Bledsoe County. Both places are in the Cumberland Plateau. I now live among the woods that were my childhood refuge and grandmother's culture. It's the world I live in. Also, my house used to be the Air Bellows School, where they held revival meetings in the evenings during summer. In the house I have school, another refuge in childhood. I loved going to school, hated going home. It was so very good to be someplace where the teachers that also served as guardians were affectionate in their attention. They were sensible, never flew off into an egomaniacal fit. They were intelligent, even rational. They were the guardians of my world that was safe. Punishment was not the purpose. The schoolhouse is the other part of my world that came from the places I went to for shelter from the storm of undiagnosed mental illness. To a great degree the church was important in childhood for refuge. The preacher was a man I could respect, a man who read books and studied the Bible deeply. The church was a comfort zone. Daddy was on good behavior in church.
I had no idea what lay ahead in 1976 when I settled the plan to move to the mountains and work manual labor on a cattle farm. It was the same for me as throwing a dart at a map. I stepped into the future with no idea where I was, except on a map. I'd never heard of anything around here. All I knew was Blue Ridge Mountains, gravel road, lots of woods, lots of meadow, a couple of cemeteries, some old homeplaces, remains of family farms. It seemed to somebody who had never been out of a city, but on the road between cities, like the edge of the universe, land's end, the boonies to the max. That was all I knew. Of course, I'd heard of Appalachian poverty by way of photographers Walker Evans and Doris Ullman, who made Appalachian poverty beautiful. I never saw any of that Appalachian poverty. I saw old farming people. The poverty pictures come from coal mining regions, and there's no coal mining here. We have plenty who have gone to West Virginia or Kentucky to work .in the mines and retired back home. The hands of every coal miner I have shaken are hard as stone. The old time hillbilly farmers had hands of stone too. No matter what the man's character, a man with hands of stone I respect for all the really hard work in those hands. In a way, they intimidate me, because I have some insight into their commitment to a lifetime of hard labor every day, getting drunk on weekends. It's what you do until you die. I could not live a routine that goes on without end, never anything different or new, no curiosity, bent to the plow, a human mule paid the same as slave wages, not quite enough to get by on.
When my parachute put me down in a remote spot I'd never heard of, it seemed random in the doing. It seemed like chance and circumstance, like letting go and floating free to see where I land. In that time of the life, I was paying close attention to chance, playing with chance, even attempting to flow with chance and see what happens. I let go and gave chance the rein to see where it might go. I'd made nothing of my life using mind. Thought I'd give not-mind a chance. I wrote mind off as a failure---my mind, anyway. Been through a lot of school, read a lot of really good books, known some interesting people, and still didn't know anything. I continued adrift at sea within. I'd thrown everything to do with God out of my life. I gave no attention to the supernatural. I became an existentialist, not the intellectual writing books kind, but the everyday life kind, the kind that sees this physical lifetime is it, same as the church I grew up in. The preacher was a Swede from Minnesota. It was the same religious belief system in childhood that made Ingmar Bergman the existentialist he was. It did the same to me. It seems like I feel Bergman films from the inside, because we were created by the same belief system that both of us rejected as a dreadful fairy tale. I first discovered reading by way of fiction by Camus, deBeauvoir and Sartre, for two years. I had found writers who saw it as I saw it. DeBeauvoir and Sartre, each had a series of novels of the French Resistance during the German occupation. I read all their novels through the course of time in the Navy and some of their philosophy, plus plays by Sartre and Genet. I was using this time in the Navy to learn how to read with comprehension. These are the people who taught me to read. They prepared me for Freshman English.
By the time I came to the extremity of needing a major change, giving chance a chance, the Divine hand started guiding me in seemingly supernatural ways, like messages in everyday events, things people say. It seemed kind of eerie, like a consciousness was watching me. It also felt interesting. I'd been reading some Hindu and Buddhist writings. These chance occurrences began to have an order and pointed me to Meher Baba's center between Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, a hundred miles north on highway 17. I wanted nothing to do with anything like that. I was bored with rock stars and gurus. I wanted a quiet place where I could be entirely alone and not be bothered. My initial plan was to take a bus to some unknown small town in South Carolina, rent a cheap motel room until I ran out of money or got it, whatever it was. During three days and nights there, I got it. The direction I called Forward turned 180 degrees. I think of it as the turning point. Shoot an arrow straight up, the farther it gets away from the source, the slower it goes until it finally stops, turns and falls back toward the source. I'd spent my adult life, theretofore, running away from a stifling belief system's interpretation of God. In just a few days at the Center, all my questions were answered by picking up books of Meher Baba's words from a communal bookshelf, opening one randomly and reading the first paragraph my eye fell on. Each time I did that, it was a direct answer to a question that was in the front of my mind. Looking back from now, I can see those three days were the where and when my light was turned on. All my questions were answered and I came away with a whole new set of questions. Mountains seemed like a good place to go.