Can you imagine living in a place of flat expanse, where no mountains puncture the clouds and the sky meets the earth without resistance? I can’t.
The first time I visited Illinois and Indiana, I had a difficult time adjusting to the level horizon. Without mountains to hold it at bay, the sky radiated bright menace. I felt a desire to hunker down in the seat so I might not be sucked up into the wretched blue.
I need mountains. I love the secrets in their shadows. I like rubbing shoulders with gravity as I navigate switchbacks. I fancy the hide-and-seek of our sun and moon. And I know there are others who suffer from this mountain lovesickness.
Forming the knobby spine of the eastern United States, the Appalachians impact so many aspects of our lives that it’s hard to divest ourselves of their influence. Years ago, panelists at an Emory and Henry Literary Festival discussed the effect of the mountains on Appalachian residents, particularly writers.
Author Ron Rash suggested that landscape is destiny. “It affects the way we perceive reality and ourselves,” he said. “Mountains enclose us from the outside world, protect us, nurture us, like a womb. But they also loom over us and remind us of our smallness, making us feel powerless.”
Perhaps it’s that powerless feeling Rash talked about that draws the Appalachian people together. We empower ourselves with fellowship, with music and with stories. Jeff Daniel Marion recalled growing up in a family of storytellers, while poet Michael McFee said, “There’s something about the mountains that self-creates a community.”
Gurney Norman valued the communal aspect of Appalachian life. “I like the feel of being in a grand community . . . where people have had a common experience. It’s just life, in place, among your people.” He also described the mountains as “a lively, fertile place.” Examine the number of talented writers, singers, musicians, artists and storytellers who have called Appalachia home and you can see the truth in that statement.
Mountains feed imagination, even after we leave them. Jeff Daniel Marion said, “For me, going away suddenly was the kick start to writing poetry.”
Appalachian people take the mountains with them wherever they go. I’ve found this to be accurate in my own life. No matter where I travel or where I settle, I recall my sense of elation at riding ridges . . . remember the peculiar thrill I feel when I see the bruised valleys below . . . appreciate the strength of the shoulders on which I stand. You see, you can take me off the mountain, but you can’t take the mountains out of me.
Originally published in "Notes From the Better Place," a column in The Coalfield Progress, October 9, 2006.