Of all the things I love to do
The one that’s my delight
It is to take a ramble
On a starry night
—an old ballad
I am a child of Appalachia. My family ranges from the Cherokee foothills all the way up to Pisgah, to Cane River, almost to Lost Cove.
I have written about my grandma Lilly, the first great love of my life, that she grew up just light enough to pass but not to matter. Married at thirteen and raised eight babies.
My people were subsistence farmers, sharecroppers, multi-racial poor white trash and worse, taking to the forests to gather firewood and hickory-nuts and lion’s mane, to hunt squirrel, rabbit, bullfrog, catfish, trout, racoon, and sometimes even possum.
My grandma Etta brought all the Cherokee into our line, and hers was a family who chose during the Great Removal, like Marrano Jews, to hide in plain sight, assimilating into white culture and fading into the forests. They could not persuade their bodies to leave those hills, no matter the cost.
Grandma was a fey wise woman too. She prepared herbals, met with women, foraged; pointed out to me the sacred places, under stone and by water, the trees of worth, the shy creatures of air and earth and sky.
She let me see they meant no harm, had their own ways and business to perform.
Her husband was Robert Holloway, whom I was named after. His people were driven off their land by the famine and the English, flung toward America in coffin-ships where thousands died, then impressed into armies, poorest of the poor, wandering south and west until they found any scrap of ground abandoned, and stayed.
This is a story from my childhood in the mountains of North Carolina, in the mid-1960s:
When I stayed in Big Creek in Yancey County, my grandparents left me to sleep in a warm fine room that I cherished: small, contained, with a high bed and its own woodstove, a shelf of books, a door to the porch but not the house, filled with the sound of water: spring, freshet, creek, sometimes even the distant raging river.
In the middle of the night one summer grandpa knocked on the door and stepped in. He had his old home-made rifle in his arms.
“Get up,” he said, “if you want to go coon hunting.”
Grandpa was never a man for words, but I was, and so I asked him a thousand questions on the way to the dog-lot, but he never answered. We opened up the pen and the hounds swirled out in a mob, four or five tall bony black-and-tans that my grandfather tended like kin.
We all headed up the mountain together, using a trail that went through his cow pasture and up to the high ridge. I raced to keep up with him.
“Grandpa, where’s my flashlight?”
“You don’t need a flashlight,” he said. “We got a moon tonight.” And so I began to instill a night vision, to understand that a beam of sharp light is blinding to the target and the bearer, dividing the whole into seen and unseen. It’s been a useful metaphor all my life.
That night, we followed the dogs through the night, up hill and down valley, crossing wet creeks and little bogs, dodging dog hobble and laurel hells, avoiding any lit place, working our way always deeper into Pisgah Forest.
Sometimes we sat and listened to the dogs talk to each other, their voices changing if they caught a scent or went to tree. It was beautiful.
I was on my last legs when we crested a rise and looked down on a long ribbon of water under the moonlight. The old man motioned to a massive pig-nut hickory, and I slid down to lean against it. After a time, light slowly crept in on cat feet, and the whole mountain erupted into birdsong and rustling. Fifteen feet away from me I saw a long-eared rabbit politely looking away. Grey squirrels heaped scorn at us from the trees, who seemed to breathe and stretch all around us. On the forest floor little quaker-ladies were blooming and bowing to each other, falling away to cohosh and beeches and then the Cane River, where a doe and two fawns gingerly entered the water.
I could hear the trees in conversation, the rustle of creatures in the leaf litter. I could sense somehow the pheromones on the wind, everything. It’s all alive, I thought. Every little bit of it. I knew that this was my grandfather’s way of revealing his interior life, his love and loyalty.
And those lies are beginning to fall apart, outside the seats of power.
Maybe we can take the wisdom of the old and the courage of the new to form a culture and tell the truth, every day. The world is waiting for that, every day.