Appreciation for my friends of these mountains, and the many people I know casually, has been with me mightily this week. It has been a slide show of the mind, people I have known and appreciated in the second half of my life. The first half of the life was my education, the time I learned what I needed to appreciate the people and the culture of the mountains. About a year before I left the city for the country, I rendered a prayer from the heart that I wanted to live in a completely different culture where they speak English. Within weeks, the opportunity to go to the mountains came available. I suspected it answer to prayer, but it hadn't happened yet, and I'm not one to celebrate the light at the end of the tunnel until I'm out of the tunnel. The light might be an oncoming train. I was looking for something "real" that I never found in the city, but among a few people I knew. It wasn't until settled into my new life that I learned I'd been put into a culture very different from the one I left behind. And I said, Thank you.
As soon as my parachute landed me on Waterfall Road, I knew there would be no turning back. Moved in on the first of November, 1976. Some people I knew said, "You'll be back in January." Those were the ones I did not keep in touch with later. I kept in touch with the ones who said, "What a great opportunity." They were the ones that knew me. The others told me they didn't know me at all when they said I couldn't handle it. Old man Tom Pruitt, who was then exactly the age I am now, was the first person I met. Upon meeting Tom, talking with him the first time, I knew I was on my track. Sitting in his pickup, arm resting on the door, Tom in his hat, brown lines of tobacco juice ran from the corners of his lips to under the chin. He favored a ventriloquist's talking doll with those lines. He told me he'd been down at Whitehead store where somebody said they could put an A-bomb on the moon. Tom's reply, "What they want to do that for? Th'aint nothin up there. The Bible said the moon was just a light. Ye cain't land nothin on no light." That moment, I knew Tom was a God-send. I'd been looking for real people a long time. And there he was, before my eyes, a real live, true human being, somebody who thinks about things he's told and makes up his own mind.
Tom also believed the earth flat and the sun went around it. It's obvious. The sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, circles around and comes back up in the east. He said in school, he finished the 7th grade, the teacher one day explained about the world being round like a baseball. Little man Tom said, "I aint never seen narry mountain on no baseball." This was his reasoning for the rest of his life. I felt compelled, but stopped myself, to explain if the earth were shrunk to the size of a baseball it would be smoother and slicker than any ball-bearing made by the most exacting machine. On a baseball magnified to the size of the earth, the line of threads would make mountains so high they'd stick way up beyond the atmosphere. The leather wrapping on the ball would be major mountains and deep valleys. I already intuited his mind could not stretch to visualizing something he could not conceive. I never tried to explain, because I don't believe it makes a bit of difference in our everyday lives if we believe the earth flat or round. To send a small tractor to Mars requires an understanding of earth's roundness, but driving a pickup to town and back, it doesn't matter. I was enchanted, a pre-Copernican man in 1976.
I realized Tom's religious belief system went back to Seventeenth Century, Sixteenth, Fifteenth, back to Medieval. I felt like I was in touch with a belief system that went all the way back. He had missed the cosmology of round earth and the cosmology of evolution. That put him from two cosmologies in Western civilization's past. My role in coming to the mountains was to learn from the mountain people. I realized after some months of working with and running with Tom's nephews on the weekends that I've got nothing on these people. Their intelligence was beyond mine. Theirs was first-hand experience intelligence. Mine was second- and third-hand by way of reading and lectures. Their knowledge was practical. Mine wasn't worth a damn out here in the world among people who live by first-hand experience. Tom had his own form of the scientific method. He never believed any of the stories about spooks and haints. He said if a man looks at a thing enough, he'll find what really happened. No acceptance, at all, of the supernatural. Tom and his nephews taught me where I am in the first year. Tom came from the world going away, whereas the nephews, my age, were from that world though influenced by new trends sweeping over the land, television, radio, cars, beer. I knew Tom the last fourteen years of his life. I listened to Tom's stories as if at the feet of the Master, learning the customs and about the people he knew, the old ways. Tom was an embodiment of the old ways. I think of him as my first teacher in the ways of these mountains.
winslow homer himself