I have wanted to write since I discovered what freedom is and what it is not. Writing and freedom are synonymous. I first recognized the experience of freedom when I was nine years old. The location is as sure as Paul’s on the road to Damascus. Like Paul, I was struck with a holy feeling which I can describe only now, a half century from the experience.Dreama Frisk
One Writer’s Voice
That day began early for me, but still my grandmother, uncles, and aunts were already working in the fields too far from the farmhouse for me to find them easily. They would be back for lunch. I was gloriously alone. My grandmother’s white frame house was surrounded by her flower garden of zinnias, sweet peas, hollyhocks, dahlias, and blackeyed-Susans. Whitewashed rocks hauled from the river surrounded individual flower beds. A large, sweet cherry tree full of fruit shaded the front bedroom where I slept One window looked out on the cherry tree and another on the flag stone path lined with clumps of marigolds and curved around the house to the dirt road. Beyond the house to the north were the apple orchard and the gardens and to the west were the acres of fields and the barns. The chicken yard was to the east. Slightly to the south was the pig pen and the turn- around in the road.
I was alone in the place where I felt most at home. What did I want to do this morning? Did I want to pump water for a bath in the zinc tub? Did I want to leave my hair in braids? I pulled my clothes from the top of my suitcase. My shorts and tee shirt.
Little sandals with woven elastic bands. The bottoms of the sandals made corrugated prints on the dirt road as I walked. I was off to life or a least a day of it.
Freedom was heavy in the air as I set off. Where was the dog? He was off somewhere. He was free, too. I didn’t know where I was going and didn’t have to know. On a dirt road in a hollow in West Virginia, you could head off and follow your feet. I did it and knew that I believed in it after I did it. It just kept working. The sun was friendly and firm on my face. The clouds made a sound of contentment as they glided by in the sky. I walked then in the good time~~the time of being perfectly in tune with what you are doing.
Just as I reached the bottom of the large hill separating my grandmother’s place from the rest of McCann’s Run, a coal truck, very large and with a deafening roar, came toward me on the narrow road. The glint of the sunshine on the chrome grill and on the black paint made it clear that the truck would ask no permission to control the road. The driver was not visible to me. This was my road, the road my father walked as a child ~ the road my grandfather had walked ~ even my great grandfather. This road I had claimed for myself. Every house up and down the ten or so miles of this hollow would agree with my claim. They knew I was born in that hollow in the very last house. One neighbor woman helped my grandmother deliver me in the room which the sweet cherry shaded. I could stop at any house at any time. Gladys’s house? She had a piano and would stop her chores to play ditties with me. Nancy’s? I could rock on her porch swing as long as I wanted. A different connection at every house.
The wheels of the truck were huge. I looked directly at the wheels at my eye level. They were reckless wheels. I had to scramble up the hill to get out of their way.
It was easy to squat and hunker on the little dirt cliff above the road. I comforted myself with a vine of wild roses working its way along the hillside. They were pale pink with fragile petals that fell off if the roses were picked. They could only be enjoyed in their own habitat.
Something had happened. Somewhere someone made a decision about our lives. Strip mining had begun. The delicate vine of the wild rose making its incredible lace across the bank would be hard pressed to continue. Freedom would never be the same.
My morning meandering became more of a trajectory. My feet were still walking, but I no longer trusted them to go where they wanted. I stayed on course and arrived at my aunt’s home to play with my cousins. They were all in the kitchen when I arrived. We did not speak of the invasion. We did not acknowledge the roar of the trucks coming close to their side gate. My uncle was preparing to buy a truck and haul coal for the strip mining company.
Thus began my revolution. My aunts and uncles soon found their way to Akron or Cleveland for jobs. Families had their favorite destinations for jobs away from home. Some went as far a Chicago or Detroit. They would return home as often as possible. This could mean driving all night. When one of my aunts or uncles arrived home, we sat together on the porch or in the kitchen. They would hold their opaline cups veined in a web of crackles colored like the creamy coffee inside. As long as their hands held the cups they could be still, but a new anxiety was beginning to run through them. They would catch up with all the news since their last visit. The long morning talks were held in tones so purposeful and warm that no one walked away while there was any conversation left. After that, chores could be done. All the things that could not be done without them; all the things they had always done together like the canning, butchering, repairing the pig pen and hoeing the corn were done with a new urgency. When they left, there cars were packed with food and the smell of home. If it were necessary to write from their chosen cities, letters began with, “Dear All”.
Experiences on dirt roads can lead to conversions as Paul’s on the road to Damascus. My voice went underground. I could not say farewell to freedom when my own people lost theirs so willingly not realizing their loss. The land, the architecture of our lives, was blown to bits up many a dirt road in Appalachia. The continuity of the mountains, one after breathtaking one, was ruined as the seams of coal, which follow a plan, were ripped out where they came closest to the surface. Strange looking shapes replaced mountain peaks as the land was dynamited. Our lives which had a plan, too, became as disjointed and irregular as the stripped mountains.
My family was among the first settlers to cross the mountains in the eighteenth century into what is now West Virginia, These early settlers lived as farmers. Later they dug into the mountains to find coal and used ponies to bring out wagons of coal to heat their houses. They began selling coal from their trucks and the cash enabled them to stay on the land. This was done while giant coal company operations would finally bring the industrial revolution to all of West Virginia. Strip mining, though, would blast them from the land. My life was touched by this last revolution.
My experience with the strip mining truck near the last house on McCann’s Runn symbolized an end to a way of life. Poetry followed and visited me at its whim and its will. “Poetry arrived in search of me, “Pablo Neruda says in his poem, “Poetry.” Y fue a esa…Llego la poesia a buscarme.” A poet’s voice is a revolutionary voice in search of all of us.
My voice escaped into brief poetic flights, but needed more time to cross boundaries and use narratives. The ordinary people of McCann’s Run were my people and their anomie was mine also. All our knowledge and trust came from our families and our freedom. Who was more rooted in Appalachia, the people who stayed or the ones who left?
The chaos of strip mining, mountain top removal, spoilt rivers, and bereft people, spun stories of people looking for meaning in their lives lived away from the land. The hymns they once sang on the front porch in summers when their harmony could echo with my great grandfather’s pounding bass continued to be sung at yearly family reunions. The continuity and connections were breached, but the memory continued. As always, stories were told. The most reoccurring story told at the yearly reunions concerned the beginning of World War II and its hardships and losses for the last farm on McCann’s Run. The hymn, “Further Along”, always a favorite, ended reunions. Voices were strong in the refrain, “Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine, we’ll understand it all by and by.”
In this novel, Before We Left The Land, the characters took their places and gave me their story as they wanted to tell it. I am grateful for those voices. Carl kept his real name and stayed close to me throughout the writing of Before We Left The Land