An early chapter draft from a book in development ~ One Place Understood: Field Notes from a Terrestrial Belonging by Fred First
“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are” Wendell Berry tells us.
If you are reading that statement for the first time and it does not make perfect sense to you, I hope it will before you turn the last page of this book.
If we assume that Mr. Berry’s statement is true, then the more I tell you about my where, the more you will know the who behind this natural history memoir. And the more you come to understand about your own WHERE the more that will reveal to you of your own WHO-ness.
This book is about places. What I hope will dawn on you as you turn the pages here is that there is far more to your HERE than you had imagined. There is more richness and wonder within the here-and-now-ness of every single one of us than most have given serious or adequate thought to be well-placed. I call this complete web of being in relationship to nature, place and community our “personal ecology.” This is an odd phrase that I hope will make very much sense to you some day, and that you will pass on to your children and grandchildren.
While this tale is grounded in place, place is only a space on the map until we tell our stories there and give names to what we see and hope and know as we move around and grow older and wiser in that space. And so this is a book of stories.
So to my mind, the fabric I’m trying to weave here for my own benefit consists of several key converging threads: First, the threads come from the decades-long geographic migration towards an ultimate and seemingly pre-ordained location in the gentle mountains of Floyd County; they form out of the life-situation crisis of opportunity that opened empty hours and days at home here to become deeply grounded and embedded — to become a true native of this space; the patterns in the fabric take shape from a life-background affinity for the beauty and wonder of nature; and they appear just in time out of late-onset urgency to photograph and write from and about the natural world and sense of place before it is too late — for you-here-now and for them-there-then.
That’s a lot of vague reference which I hope to lay out and fit together in some but not too much detail in this endeavor at sense-making. Is it possible to at least find the edge pieces of the puzzle and maybe be able to stand back some distance and see a shape and pattern from it all?
I have no idea as I sit here at the keyboard well before daybreak, but since I’m enjoying the journey and it keeps me off the streets, I intend to just keep learning what I think by seeing what I say.
You may not always know where in the world you are, but you’ll know when that place is not home, just as you’ll know it when you finally find home for the first time. Or the second.
The first time we moved to Virginia in the mid seventies, we were disarmingly young, but we had a vision and we were driven. Some place we would call home had beckoned us — north of Birmingham. It would be a place not flat, not hot for long, not busy, with dark night skies, open spaces and the freedom to fail or to thrive much closer to the land than we had ever been. That was about as finely-tuned a future as we could conjure. All I was sure of in the mid 70s was that it was time to get ourselves back to The Garden.
How all of that fell in place, looking back today through the hindsight end of the lens, seems so ordained, when, at the time, there were no knowns, no clear paths forward — only the hope of home and belonging and roots someday; somewhere.
We baled on city life with the message sent by the Arab Oil Embargo of ’73, a symptom visible to even the Earth-indifferent of humanity’s impossible-to-sustain addiction to fossil fuels. That wake-up call propelled us to aim our future toward a quiet rural eddy where we could raise our child (only one infant at the time) outside of cities. We were encouraged when the young Mother Earth News distilled the essence of a simplified rural life into an alternative magazine. Its pages empowered us to take risks and to improvise. But there little that could be done towards “wiser living” from a second-floor apartment. We’d need to be closer to the ground in a lot of ways to live the Mother Earth kind of life.
At the same little book store in Homewood where we’d once purchased our first copy (and I think only the second edition) of Mother Earth News, we discovered “Finding and Buying Your Place in the Country.” The detailed instructions in that book (which is still on our book shelves upstairs) demystified all the potential hurdles to living the rural life and helped put legs under our dreams — a hope that stayed active even after we finally moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and bought our first home on a busy street in the city limits of Wytheville. There were still horse-mounting stones in front of many of the old houses in this sleepy mountain town.
We were much closer to True North there, but had not arrived at our destination. The coaching and encouragement of this rural land guide did much to boost our faith and confidence that, if we persevered with sufficient determination and passion and hope, we’d get where it was that we knew we must be going.
It came as no real surprise beyond Birmingham that we ended up in both the country and the mountains. Even in our first years of married life, we seemed to hold the common notion that where we would live was less about seeking a rung on the ladder of success than it was about succeeding in finding a compatible landscape and habitat. Jobs and career-tracks would come second.
I’d known since childhood vacations to Gatlinburg that mountains moved me. The cold, clear steams of the Smokies were precious as liquid diamond when I was ten. One doesn’t forget the feeling of being where one belongs. That bond was made stronger by backpacking trips from Auburn — deep in the steamy pine forests of south-central Alabama — to the high balls of the Smokies early in grad school.
Since my first memories of the outdoors, I had been most myself in the natural world. I liked the way mountains and nature made me feel in their presence; I liked who I was when I was where I wanted to be. And I wanted to live in that “vacation” kind of world and with the sense of lofty well-being that mountains gave me. And once we found it, I wanted to thrive within that “place of power” — as Carlos Casteneda had called such special places of personal alignment. And I was determined to live in that place year-round, and not just two work-weeks a year, like most of the unhappy mis-placed grown-ups I knew who had settled for no more than that.
That we ended up exactly here in the northeast tip of Floyd County both is and is not remarkable. Looking back, its inevitability seems ordained. The fragments join to form the whole of which they were always a part. The cause of every effect is apparent, each stepping stone appearing at the moment of need, or soon enough, to be the grounding firmament of another and another leap of faith, bringing us inexorably here, just when the time was right for this chapter in our lives to be written.