Daily Archives: July 7, 2011

A landscape, with figures

Below is the brief Prologue to my memoir about moving to Appalachia and running a sheep farm, while my day job was in university press book publishing. I wrote the original passage a couple years ago and have moved it around in the first few chapters, lately deciding to use it as a sort of introduction—it captures my vivid first impressions and also is informed by my later appreciation for the region. It must work in relation to the whole story and especially the first chapter, which I have just recast yet again . . .

That first winter, friends living to the west would warn us when our former Hoosier hometown had been thrashed by wind and water and snow. “Watch out,” they’d say, “there’s a bad storm coming your way.” On television, the Weather Channel’s radar confirmed this: a grainy mass of swirls was leaving southern Indiana and bound for southern Ohio, coming right at us.

But Appalachia’s uplifted terrain pushed back against fronts driven by winds from the south and west, and urged tempests along an easier path. Just before hitting us, storms would turn north and sock Columbus. I pictured the heavy pressure ahead of a storm meeting the hills, slowing and filling space, climbing like water rising against a dam and backing toward the approaching turbulence—the storm’s own force an invisible barrier against itself.

The foothills were strikingly becalmed in summer. A maverick breeze might ruffle soybean fields in the bottoms, but hot gales from the plains that had scoured Indiana without resistance were confused when they met the cool damp maze guarding this green kingdom. Gusts fractured into harmless puffs. At the heart of the valleys, a stillness.

Yet surprise abounded. The hills suddenly revealed secrets—or jealously concealed them in their folds; a casual visitor might never know that behind the dark ridge in front of him a valley stretched out in the sun. Waves of settlers before us had flowed into Appalachia’s furrowed terrain, scouting territory like hens looking for safe nests. They’d found niches. Hard against the gentle hills, they could see something coming long before it saw them.

The undulating hills rose abruptly, rising 300 feet above the flatter ground of the Allegheny Plateau, and formed low ranges that curled protectively around valleys. For all the steepness of their ascent, the lush hilltops were comically rounded: mounds of clay shaped by a laughing child. White mists hung above the wooded ridges after showers, and mist rose like plumes of steam off their wet green flanks.

“Look,” the people told their children, “the groundhogs are makin’ coffee.”

In Ohio’s hill country—a wrinkled shirttail dangling untucked above West Virginia—everything was different: the layered woods, the light flashing from pebbled creeks, the wind in the trees, the wild phlox that bloomed pink beside shaded roadsides late in May.

We’d moved only six hours east, but had come so far. We didn’t realize how far we had to go. And as a local acquaintance joked about such matters, “It weren’t easy.”

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