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I live in the American South and it seems you cannot drive more than two blocks in any direction without coming across a church. In fact, I have seen a crossroads where all four corners each features a different church. They come in all varieties, from the most sedate Episcopalian, to the most frenetic Holiness. There are so many different types of Baptist, that I wonder that anyone can be confident that he has chosen the right one and not by accident found the shortcut to Hell. 

Church is so completely built into the culture, that it is taken for granted. The first time I visited my barber here in Asheville, N.C., he made for casual conversation by asking me which church I went to. I had to squirm a little and let on that I don’t go to any. “I am not religious,” I said, understating the case rather diplomatically. 

I have no religion; I’m not even an atheist. Being an atheist seems like wasting your time angrily proving that Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny doesn’t exist. I haven’t had a religious impulse since I was 9 years old. 

Anyway, the South must be the only place in America where churches outnumber convenience stores. You find them everywhere and in every economic register, from the banal brick churches with large parking lots that minister to the bourgeoise, to the strip-mall storefronts that cater to the more out-there fringe-element evangelicals. In one, the parking lot is filled with Buicks and in the other, with pickup trucks and aging Datsun hatchbacks. 

My favorite is a church just north of Greensboro, N.C., that looks something like a high school pre-fab gymtorium with words in large letters on its front that can be read two ways. I’m sure its believers only see “God Can” as a profession of the capabilities of the deity. But I prefer to think of it as a place of canned piety. The tin roof only reinforces the image of a  kippered divinity. 

The newest pestilence among the churches is the clever changing sign out front, advertising either a Bible verse or bad pun. These can be entertaining, although I wonder what a real old fire-and-brimstone preacher man would have thought of them. Not much, I suspect. 

I know of two such preachers, one on my side of the family, and the other on my wife’s. I grew up in New Jersey among Norwegians, and the first church I ever went to, as barely more than a toddler, was Trinity Evangelical Free Church in Teaneck, N.J., where the presiding minister, Pastor Anderson, gave his sermons in Norwegian and although I didn’t understand the language, there was no mistaking the import of his message: He was a hellfire and damnation sort, who poked his finger at the congregation, wagging it as he scolded them at the top of his voice. We were all damned, for sure. I have been told that away from the pulpit, E.W. Anderson was a kind and mild man with a good sense of humor. It’s a side of him I never saw. 

(Pastor Anderson may have been ahead of his time in at least one regard: From 1931 to 1936, he broadcast a weekly radio program — in Norwegian — every Sunday. His religion may have been old-fashioned, but he took advantage of emerging technologies.)

RD Bell preaching

The other is my wife’s grandfather on her mother’s side, a wiry and contentious old man named Rhudy Dolphus Bell. No one seems to know where he earned his ordination, but he was a severe and unforgiving man, always ready to consign the sinner to an eternal rain of fire. He was known in his time to padlock churches where offending parishioners had been caught in — or suspected of — sinful behavior, and he would post a sign on the door: “Because brother so-and-so was seen at the dance hall with sister so-and-so, who is not his wife, this church is officially closed.” Of course, he had no official authority to do such things, and was thus rather taken for a crank. 

RD Bell baptizing

That old-fashioned Old Testament fire-in-the-eyes preaching was much more common in the past than it is now, outside of televangelists ranting and weeping on the airwaves. R.D. Bell regularly took part in so-called camp meetings, aka tent meetings, aka revivals, when the preaching went on all day long, with preachers spelling each other as they wore down, like tag-team wrestlers. 

Of course, the king of the revival circuit was Billy Graham, who ran things on an industrial scale. 

The Cove

I live in Asheville off Exit 55 of Interstate 40. That is also the exit for the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, which is fashionably set upslope on the mountain on the far side of the highway. This is Billy Graham country. The bypass around downtown is the Billy Graham Expressway; there is a bronze statue of the man in Ridgecrest, just east of Black Mountain at Exit 66, and Graham’s home in Montreat, just north of Black Mountain; Montreat is a religious retreat community that looks like the vacation home of old money. The houses tend to be cobbled from stone set among the trees, and Lake Susan sits in the center of town, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Real estate values are astronomical. 

Lake Susan, Montreat


Graham is an interesting case. Less Old Testament than many evangelists, he preached against racial segregation and even allowed, in some moments, that even good non-Christians might be saved. 

A few things you might not know about Graham. When he was a boy, he loved reading Tarzan books and, according to his father, would hang on trees and try out the old Tarzan yell. “I think that yelling helped develop his voice,” his father said later.

St. Anthony of Padua

And, after he received the calling in 1937, while a student at the Florida Bible Institute near Tampa, he was known to paddle to an island in the Hillsborough River where, like St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes, he would practice his sermons and “preach to the birds, alligators, and cypress stumps.”

By the way, Graham’s college degree, from Wheaton College in Illinois, is in anthropology. Who knew? 

I mention Graham because I have a personal confession to make. No, not that kind. 

My parents were relaxed when it came to religion. They both grew up in religious households, but seemed to have taken the lesson away from their upbringing that they would not force church on their children. My father, especially suffered from religion. His father — my Pop-pop — had been a successful homebuilder in New Jersey and quite well off, but lost it all in 1929, when my father was 10 years old. The old man tipped into the religious mania, banning dancing, radio, music, and anything that might be considered fun, from the home. They went to church two or three times a week, and all day Sunday. It was quite a constrictive childhood for my father and his five siblings. 

They never said it, but I believe my parents decided they would never visit that on their children. 

My mother’s mother wasn’t quite so bonkers, but she was pious, and her apartment was filled with religious trinkets and devotional pictures. When I was young, she lived with us. And when I was 9 years old, she took me to Billy Graham’s 1957 Crusade at Madison Square Garden in New York, where he preached to sold-out crowds nightly for 16 weeks. I was young and impressionable; Graham was riveting and inspiring.

I had been to the Garden for Rangers hockey games and the Ringling Brothers circus, so I knew the venue. But I had never seen so many people packed into it. At first, I wasn’t sure who was talking. Graham sideman Cliff Barrows did most of it, acting as an emcee for the show, but I thought at first he was Graham. After all, he was as far from me as home plate is from the outfield bleachers. The choir sang, and George Beverly Shea dropped his pear-shaped baritone down into the depths of what I now recognize as bathos. 
But when Graham finally came out and began sermonizing, he was electric. It was my introduction in crowd psychology, and the power of oratory over the masses. My friend, the late Dimitri Drobatschewsky, who fled Nazi Germany told me how he had listened to Adolf Hitler speak when he was a teenager and how, he said, even as a Jew, “I could hardly keep my arm from raising in the Nazi salute.” Hitler had that effect on his audience. There must be something to that. I would never otherwise compare Billy Graham to Hitler, but Graham had that kind of hypnotic effect on his listeners. And when it came time, at the end of his speaking, to “come forward and accept Jesus,” I was ready to go. Let me go down. But my grandmother said I was too young, and wouldn’t let me go. I rankled, but I stayed up in the bleachers. The mood soon passed. I never had a religious moment again. 

There may have been something in Graham’s relentless activity, because his minion, Cliff Barrows lived till he was 94; Graham till he was 99 and Shea until he was 104. 

But then, famous atheist Bertrand Russell lived to be 97. 

Where is home? I don’t mean where is your house, where do you sleep most nights, what is your address. But rather, where do you belong? 

For many of us, home is illusive. For most of my adult life, I have not lived in the same house for more than seven years at a time. I have lived in four corners of the nation, splitting my time from the Northeast, where I grew up; to the Southeast, where I went to school, got married and divorced; to the Northwest, where I went to recuperate; back to the South, where I got married again; to the Southwest, where I worked for 25 years; and now, back to the Southeast in retirement. But I cannot say, despite repeatedly returning, that I feel the South is home. 

It is where I feel comfortable, where I recognize the landscape on my skin, where I have found family. But there remains something alien about it. Something I can never be fully a part of. 

Certainly, part of this is political: The red state conditions are sometimes depressing. There is nativism, clannishness, religion, suspicion of outsiders, lingering racial division. There is a satisfaction of being Southern that can seem provincial. 

Yet, there is also a friendliness and helpfulness that I never found in any other corner of the U.S. When my wife, before we were married, was snowed in in the mountains of Ashe County, N.C., a neighbor she barely knew, walked a mile and a half through the knee-high accumulation to knock on her door and check on her, to make sure she had enough firewood to last out the imposed isolation, and to bring her a basket of food. Not in New Jersey. Not in Seattle. Not in Phoenix — although snow in Phoenix would be pretty much out of the question anyway. 

North Cascades

When I moved to Seattle, in 1978, before all the Starbucks and California immigration, I was agog over the Olympic Mountains I could see over Puget Sound to the West, and the towering Cascades to the east. When I went out hiking, it was through rain forests of Douglas fir and western red cedar. The ground was spongy underfoot and emerald green moss grew on decaying logs and stumps. Floating on the waters of the sound were goldeneye and cormorant. The air was soft with cool humidity. 

I certainly had planned to make Seattle my home, and I mean that —  not just a place to sleep at night, but I never felt like more than a traveler spending time in an exotic locale to soak up the ambience along with the rain.

And, compared with the East coast I grew up in, the nature was almost monotonous. When I lived in North Carolina, on the land around my house in Greensboro, I counted a hundred different species of tree and plant. I came to love them all. But there on Phinney Ridge in Seattle, there were two species of tree. Two. They were everywhere and they were prodigious and impressive. But two. I longed to return to the East. And so I did. 

Meat Camp, NC

But even then, I moved from Summerfield north of Greensboro, to Obids in the mountains, to Meat Camp just north of Boone — all in the space of two years. And then, to Virginia Beach, Va., to take up a job teaching. After six years there, when my wife was offered a teaching position in Arizona, we packed everything up into a Ryder truck and drove across the continent, without even having a house lined up where to unload the truck. We thought it would be fun to stay in the desert for a couple of years. It turned into a quarter of a century. 

I came to love the desert, but truth be told, I did not live in the desert, I lived in Phoenix, which is Cleveland in the desert, a characterless city of endless suburbs and strip malls in the valley of the Salt River — a river with no water in it. 

(The famous joke about Arizonans is they go to visit New York City and when they came back they were asked about it. “It was wonderful, huge skyscrapers, millions of people, and traffic like you wouldn’t believe.” “What about the Empire State Building?” “Yep, we went up to the top and you could see for miles around from river to river.” “The Hudson?” “Yep.” “What was the Hudson River like?” “Couldn’t tell, it was covered in water.”)

I loved my job, writing for the newspaper, and I loved my colleagues: I came to respect and value the really hard and dedicated work that journalists do. Over those 25 years, we moved four times. None of the houses was home. They were our quarters, but there were no roots. 

North Carolina called back after retirement, and I now live in Asheville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a blue city in a red state. And I have gotten old here, but it is not home. It is a residence. 

I don’t know if it is my New Jersey birth that has given me this sense of rootlessness. I spent the first 17 years of my life there, but I couldn’t wait to escape. Going off to college was liberation. New Jersey was banal, suburban, bourgeoise, dull, conventional, oppressive. I never felt I belonged. 

River Street, Madison, NC, in Rockingham County

I know from my wife and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for my wife, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

I don’t know how widespread is this feeling I have, how many people share it, whether it is a symptom of the late 20th century, or whether it is confined to just me and my personal makeup. I believe I am not alone. 

I suspect many from my generation, growing up with the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and living through an adolescence and young adulthood of assassination, riots and revolutions, felt chucked out of Eden quite unceremoniously. 

If you come from Armenia or Poland or Vietnam or Tibet, you have a clear sense of identity, and an unbreakable bond with the land that gave you suckle. Certainly, most Southerners I have come to know have that feeling about their soil of origin. But there are many others, certainly from my generation, who share my sense of rootlessness, the sense that I can never be so comfortable in a place that I would long to be buried there. 

Perhaps it is because I have moved so often that I cannot share that sense of home. I have a residence on the earth, but not a home. 

I express all of this not so you should feel sorry for me. In fact, this homelessness has its advantages. I have had, in recompense, an ease and comfort anywhere in the world I find myself. I have been to three continents, and 14 countries, three oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, and never have I felt anything but at ease wherever I have gone. Being in a country where English is not spoken is as comfortable as being in a place where people eat mopane worms off the grill. 

Travel has felt such a part of my self-identity, that while others might feel distressed having to move to another state or country, torn roots and all from the soil they call home, I, in contrast, feel most myself when seeing some new terrain, hearing new accents or languages, eating new food, driving on different pavements and finding out about the sun-orbiting globe that, more than any single spot, feels like home to me. 

shatley meal
If Mr. Yelverton had a first name, I never knew it. Everyone used the more formal address.

George YelvertonHe ran a barbecue restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., and I knew him in the early 1970s. To call it a restaurant is an exaggeration: It was a hole-in-the-wall behind the main line of storefronts along the city’s main street. Butted up against the brick back walls of department stores and banks, Yelverton’s Barbecue faced only a parking lot.

Mr. Yelverton was thin, wiry, with high cheekbones and short silver hair and with the reserved demeanor of a gentleman. He made pork barbecue in the eastern North Carolina style.barbecue 2

Most people who know anything about barbecue know that the nation is subdivided by regional chauvinisms. There is Kansas City barbecue and Texas barbecue. Even North Carolina is split between Halifax style — eastern North Carolina style — and Lexington style.

It was a time of rapid change in the South, and change in Southern cooking as well. Many local barbecue establishments had changed their method of making hush puppies, using a new device that extruded corn batter into the hot grease like a carnival funnel cake. Mr. Yelverton didn’t approve.

“I never saw the advantage of doing things faster and easier,” I remember him saying one day. He showed me his technique.

“You mix up your cornmeal with water,” he said, making a stiff, granular dough rather than a batter. “Then you take a dollop of it up in a serving spoon.” He had a large, steel-handled spoon about 15 inches long. “Then you use the back of a tablespoon to whip off bits into the grease.”

Each serving spoon was subdivided into four or five hush puppies, each cut away from the gob with a flick of his wrist on the convexity of the tablespoon, leaving a perfect hush puppy, shaped like a lemon wedge, with ridges. They turned a beautiful, aromatic coppery color and were absolute heaven when you bit into them hot.

hushpuppies 3Recently, my wife and I were back in North Carolina and, though Yelverton has long gone, we stopped at a barbecue joint in Shelby. The hush puppies had changed: Not only were they plopped into the grease via the ubiquitous extruder, making little round cigar shapes (I’m being polite), but they were made with added onion and sugar.

“That’s not a real hush puppy,” my wife said. She can be very strict when it comes to the right way to do things, and hush puppies with sweetener counts for her not simply as a variant, but as a perversion.

“Hush puppies don’t have sugar in them,” she stated categorically.

My wife is typical of many Southerners: certain the way she grew up was the “right” way. It fuels many a heated discussion. You get obstinate opinions about whether to soak country ham, about whether Brunswick stew requires squirrel meat, about the best apple to fry.

“I like June apples,” my wife says. “My great-grandmother said they were the best.”

Her great-grandmother was a genuine Civil War widow and had the bona fides.

If there is one thing that defines Southern food, it must be the soil, the terroir, the sandy podzols of eastern North Carolina or the black loam of the Mississippi Delta. You can see it in the flesh of catfish made pink by the red-clay river bottoms.

Like patriotism, food preference grows from the land where you grew up and the people who raised you. It is what you know and what you are comfortable with.

Southern food is divided by region, by class, by race. The food of Louisiana is sui generis. The menus of South Carolina plantations were more upscale than on the small farm holdings in Piedmont North Carolina or Virginia. The hardscrabble diet of the Blue Ridge Mountains is something else again.

Yet, there is a certain overlap. Soul food and Southern cooking emphasize different aspects of the cuisine but share more than they don’t. Cooked greens, side meat, cornbread — these are the common denominators.

The original of both was humble — pronounced “umble” without the “h.” It was food grown on family farms, from hogs slaughtered on a frosty morn and made into sausage and head cheese.

greenfields mealThere is nothing fancy about it. I remember once a friend visited from New York, where he was an investment lawyer. We took him to Shatley Springs in Ashe County, N.C., where they serve family-style meals with piles of fried chicken, country ham, boiled greens, scraped corn, hot biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy so thick a knife can stand upright in it, served with little dishes of corn relish and pickled beets and washed down with sweet tea.

“I loved it,” he said later. “Especially the chicken sauce.” Chicken sauce! We all laughed good over that one.sally lunn bread

There is an upscale Southern cooking. It comes from plantations and includes such things as peanut soup and Sally Lunn bread and Lane cake.

But for me, the best is the down-and-dirty recipes that came through grandmothers and aunts. Foods so primal there aren’t even recipes for them, like the dog bread I came to love — a form of cornbread so basic its ingredients might as well be earth, wind and fire. I first ate it in Halifax County, among the cotton fields and abandoned tractors, pickup trucks and windbreaks of oak trees. I asked how to make it.

“First, you mix up a mess of cornmeal,” she said. No half-cup of this, or 6 ounces of that. Just mix up a mess.

That’s white stone-ground cornmeal, if you are brave enough to try this, with salt and enough water to make a thick batter or thin dough.

In a black-iron fry pan, you melt some bacon grease or the renderings from streak-o’-fat-streak-o’-lean and heat it up till it sputters at you. Dump in the cornmeal and stick it in the oven till it’s done. Can’t tell you how long. It depends.

When it comes out, it is heavy as a transuranium element, with a thick, dark undercrust that makes it all worthwhile.

Cut it into wedges and use it to soak up your “pot likker” or your sop.

THE SEVEN KEYS

There are seven defining ingredients in Southern cooking. From Virginia through Alabama and out towards eastern Texas, these are the comestibles essential for your pantry. hog snout

Pigmeat

The hog is Providence’s gift to the Southern belly. Pork is central to so much that defines the cuisine, from barbecue to country ham to the many varieties of bacon — side meat, fatback, not to mention bacon grease. Nothing seasons pintos like ham hocks. “The hog seasons everything that isn’t him,” said one Southern cook. Pigmeat also defines the McCoy-Hatfield divisions between those who soak their ham before cooking and eating it and those who cherish the crust of salt that develops as they fry their slice of unsoaked country ham in a black-iron frying pan. Special mention should be made of liver mush, which is to North Carolina what scrapple is to Philadelphia.fried chicken

Fried chicken

There is almost no controversy over fried chicken. It defines White Southerners and Black Southerners, upper-crust and redneck. Fried chicken, slowly cooked in a black-iron frying pan till it’s brown and crusty on the outside and hot and juicy on the inside, is the very badge of Southern regional pride.biscuits

Hot breads

You don’t find a lot of yeast breads, but baking-powder breads are all over. Biscuit dough can be baked into biscuits, buttered, covered in jam or jelly with dinner, or split in two and slathered with gravy for breakfast. It can also be dropped into boiling stock with cooked chicken to make dumplings. On the other side, cornbread can be baked in a sizzling-hot frying pan or in a black-iron form to make cornpone, or dropped into hot fat to make hush puppies, or, what may be the best, cornbread cakes, which are cornmeal pancakes, buttered and served in a stack with your pintos. You can’t beat a meal of fried fish, caught yourself, with new potatoes and scallions, eaten with a helping of cornbread crumbled into buttermilk.collards

Greens

The recipe reads, “Cook up a mess of greens.” This means you take a pile of collards or mustard greens, turnip greens, young pokeweed, or peppery “creasy greens” — which is wild watercress, “the caviar of Southern greens,” one woman called them — and cook them down with some fatback or bacon until they are a fraction of their precooked volume. You serve them with vinegar, and don’t forget to sop up some of the “pot likker” with your cornbread.leather britches

Field peas and beans

The number of varieties of Southern pulse is immense — field peas, Crowder peas, black-eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans — and whether dried or fresh, makes a daily contribution to the plate. A variety of green beans, dried on a string on your front porch, is called “leather breeches” (or britches) and when reconstituted in a pot of water with seasoning meat, develops a deep flavor almost beeflike in character.biscuits and gravy

Gravy

In France, they say, “La sauce c’est tout,” the sauce is everything. In North Carolina, they say, “Could I have some more gravy on them biscuits.” A Southern gravy is sometimes so thick you might be forgiven for thinking it is mortar for bricks. Gravy comes in many forms: sawmill gravy, red-eye gravy, chicken gravy, chocolate gravy.peach pie 2

Pie

Finally, you can barely survive in the South without pie or its kissin’ cousin, cobbler. Sometimes, lunch is just a slice of pie and a cup of coffee. Southern food isn’t always the most heart-healthy, for sure, but as one Southerner put it, “Is there a better way to commit suicide than pie?”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Appalachians Part 2: In which the author eats a persimmon

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On a late October morning, after a solid frost, you can find a bushel of brownish mottled balls scattered on the ground in the rime under the persimmon tree. They look spoiled and perhaps their thin skin has cracked.

You pick one up and tear its skin wide, forcing the orange flesh through, against your teeth. You push the soft, puddinglike flesh against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, separating it from the hard, grasshopper-size pits that you suck on for a few minutes before spitting out.

There are few wild foods sweeter and more delicious than the ‘simmon you find for yourself on an old, deserted farm in the mountains of North Carolina.

The farmhouse has lost most of its paint, there are spider webs on the dusty windows, and a few boards have fallen through on the front porch. The house sits at the bottom of a hill, where hay still is mown in the summer. At the top, there is the edge line of a hardwood forest. At this time of year, along the creek at the bottom of the slope, the red maples are scarlet and the sweet gums are yellow.

And the ubiquitous zigzag rail fence will seem to outlast everything in the decaying farmhouse but its chimney. ashe county back road

It is the Blue Ridge, the first range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. It rises as low hills in northern Alabama and continues north, growing higher through Georgia, South and North Carolina and Tennessee, then thinning out and shrinking again in Virginia, only to sink below the soil once more in Maryland.

The Blue Ridge is what we think of first when we consider the Southern mountains. Its people, its wildlife and its landscape are distinct: black bears, porcupines and possums play in thickly forested hills interspersed with valleys, or ”coves,” where leather-skin farmers grow feed corn and burley tobacco and pasture their cattle.

These Eastern mountains are very different from the higher, wilder, but simpler ranges of the West. They are lower for one thing — the highest is Mount Mitchell, at a mere 6,684 feet. They are round, soft, fuzzy with trees. road up Mt. Mitchell copy

And they are inhabited.

There are wildernesses in the Blue Ridge, accessible only by serious hikers, but you can’t really think of the Appalachians without thinking of the people who live there. Every creek-filled crease in the folded rock has its two-story clapboard house, its barn, springhouse and root cellar.

In the cool fall days, you can see the blue smoke rising from stone chimneys and hear the distant sound of chain saws bucking another cord of wood.

Times have changed some: You also might find a satellite dish in the yard. Because these old houses — some a century and a half old — are so hard to heat, the descendants of their builders sometimes have moved into a mobile home parked right next to the noble old house.

However, you will always find the woodpile, the kitchen garden and the pickup truck on the dirt driveway.

The people of the mountains, however, are not mere stereotypes.

By and large, they are comfortably in the 21st century. There are fast foods, hardware stores and Kia dealerships. High-school kids wear Nikes and everyone waiting for the schoolbus seems to have an iPhone.

However, there is something different about them, their clipped dialect, wary sense of humor, flat-pitch singing, white-clapboard religion and, above all else, an unbreakable attachment to the land. Those who leave spend the rest of their lives pining for it, dreaming of going back.

”I lied to my God when I left the mountains and kem to these devilish cotton mills,” said one old mountaineer, quoted by Appalachian historian Horace Kephart. ”Ef only he’d turn me into a varmint I’d run back tonight. Boys, I dream I’m in torment; and when I wake up, I lay thar an’ think o’ the spring branch runnin’ over the root o’ that thar poplar; and I say, could I git me one drink o’ that water I’d be content to lay me down and die.” snow

For nature is so insistent, both for the brutality of its winter and the beauty of its summer, that the mountain population grows right into the rocks and soil of the hillsides. Pull one out and his roots remain in the ground.

I know. I have become one of them.

Everything about the Southern Appalachians sticks in one’s innards.

So that when the midwinter snows close the schools for weeks at a time and the white tufts gather in the pine needles, deadening all the sound of the landscape, you might hear in the distance the county plow scraping the pavement and the clatter of tire chains. catawba rhododendron

The hillsides are scratchy with gray branches and beech trees with smooth aluminum bark, and last year’s dry papery copper leaves rattle in the breeze.

Then the spring: It is spring when the Appalachians are most themselves.

The cool humid air hangs as fog in the river bottoms and the dew hangs on the stamens of the rhododendron, which snake out of the flowers like a lizard tongue.

Witch hazels spread over the ice-water stream.

The area’s waterfalls are at their peak, spreading water like a coat of varnish over the gray, lichened and mossy granite. Trilium

There is color under your feet and over your head. The redbud tree spatters the forest with a spray of reddish purple; the wake-robin grows pinker by the day. There are buttercups, columbine, maypops, geraniums, trilliums, mayflowers, fire pinks and yellow lady’s slipper.

Everywhere, low under your ankle, there are the leaf-whorl and drooping antenna-flower of the common humble violet.

The mountain winters are frozen solid, so when the spring thaw comes, the whole landscape pops open.

And no matter where I was living, when spring came, I thought of it in these mountains.

Next: Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

View from Craggy Gardens

The East Coast of North America varies more widely than any other region of the continent. Westerners are Westerners, but no one could confuse a Manhattanite with a Cajun, a Down Easter with Virginia gentry.

There are drawls in the South, missing R’s in New England, even French in Quebec.

But there is one thing that ties the East together, a kind of central nervous system that defines both its history and emotional core: the Appalachian Mountains.

Running from southwest to northeast for 2,000 miles from Alabama to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Appalachians are a true cordillera, not a single mountain range of peaks but a chain of ranges that span a continent.

There are the Unakas, the Blue Ridge, the Alleghenies, the Green, White, Black, Blue and Brown mountains, the Berkshires and Catskills, the Notre Dames and Shickshocks.

They were this nation’s first frontier, a physical barrier to continental expansion in the 18th century that helped define the original 13 colonies.

It took an unusual sort of pioneer to settle the green stony hills, and their inhabitants to this day maintain much of their independent nature. It is one of the strengths of the Appalachians.

They are among the oldest mountains — parts are more than a billion years old — and they are also structurally complex. Appalachian map

They can be divided into three very different sections from east to west. This structure is clearest in Virginia.

There in the front range of the Appalachians are the old, volcanic Blue Ridge, rising abruptly from the Piedmont. Behind it lies the broad, fertile Great Valley — a kind of cordillera of valleys — best-known in northern Virginia as the Shenandoah Valley. The Ridge and Valley Province comes next, fronted by the Alleghenies. It is a long series of low sedimentary ridges, like a line of breakers at the shore. In these loaf mountains are some of the nation’s early iron and copper mines.

Behind that is the Appalachian, or Cumberland Plateau, the wide belt of rocky bumps of almost equal height extending through most of West Virginia and into Kentucky. In these hills, miners still dig out the soft, bituminous coal that is the nation’s greatest single natural resource.

But the Appalachians are also partitioned from north to south. It is traditionally divided into the southern, central and northern sections: The first, from Alabama to Maryland, includes the highest peaks in the East. The second, running through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, are mostly long ridges. And in the north, encompassing New England and Atlantic Canada, the mountains grow once more in height and ruggedness.

For the several blog entries, we will look at the Appalachians and the people who live in them, taking them section by section.

NEXT: The Southern Appalachians

Ashe Co. plowed field

You cannot walk five feet in the South without knowing there is blood in the dirt.

It gives July 4 a special meaning, for you know that no matter where you turn, there is history under your foot.

There is history elsewhere in the country, too: Bunker Hill, Mass., Fort Ticonderoga in New York or Tombstone, Ariz. But they are singular places you go to visit — somebody else’s history. The South is so full of history that its land and people seem buried under the sense of it.

The first democratic legislature in the New World was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The author of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian. And the Revolutionary War came to a close at Yorktown, Va.

Each state has its Civil War sites, where thousands of its men are buried.

There are the street corners where civil-rights workers were hosed and beaten by police. Cotton fields where slaves were whipped.

It is interesting that the one place in the country where Black and White share the most is the South.

For most Americans, history is a story told in a schoolbook. It seems removed from the lives we live. For most Southerners, history is something their grandparents did or was done to them.

It isn’t just that the Civil War raged over the landscape. No part of the United States has suffered so much warfare on its land.

There had been battles with Indians from the very first European settlements.

The Revolutionary War brought Gen. Nathanael Greene to the South, where he led the British on a wild goose chase. The South also was the stage for Francis Marion, called the ”Swamp Fox.” Towns are named for them throughout the South.

natgreenemonument

The War of 1812 brought Andrew Jackson to fight with both the British and the Creek Indians.

The Mexican War helped bring Texas to the South and later to the Confederacy.

And, in the meantime, the blood of countless slaves and freedmen enlarged the tragedy of the South. There were lynchings and later the violence of the civil-rights movement.

It isn’t only rancor and slaughter that give the South its sense of history, but the land itself.

sprott evans

You can stand in a cornfield in rural Sprott, Ala., 25 miles north of Selma, and see the stand of trees at its border, knowing the trees are no more than 60 years old. And that before those trees began filling in the countryside, there were cotton, sharecroppers and poverty. A dilapidated wooden shack sits in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why anyone ever built there.

sprott farmhouse

Then you recognize they didn’t. The sharecroppers’ home — just like those written about by James Agee in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941 — was built by a cotton field, but times change and history presses on and the fields are now woods.

I have lived in the South for the better part of my life. Every town, every pasture, every street corner brings to mind details of what they call ”The Great War.”

The library in Greensboro, N.C., where I lived, was a wartime hospital. In Madison, N.C., where my wife grew up, the family names of the wealthy whites and the poorest blacks were often the same, a legacy of slave times. The constant presence of the Civil War in the South crosses color lines.

In most other regions of the United States, the Civil War is something you read about in a book. In the South, the Civil War is now, a perennial now. A Southerner’s perspective on the war is personal. It is in the blood.

So, when I hear the battle names reeled off on TV documentaries — Shiloh, Vicksburg, Gettysburg — they sound distant on the narrator’s tongue, distant as Gallipoli, Waterloo or Omaha Beach. To most Northerners, they are just distant names.

But when I lived near Norfolk, Va., and traveled to Richmond on Interstate 64, I passed the Elizabeth River, where the Monitor steamed out to meet the Virginia (nee Merrimac); I passed Fort Monroe, where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned after the war; I passed Malvern Hill, where the Peninsular Campaign sputtered in frustration.

My wife, Carole Steele, was born in North Carolina and learned about the war firsthand from her great-grandmother, Nancy Hutcherson Steele, who was 10 when it began. She had plowed the fields during the war while her father and brothers were away fighting. When she died at the age of 98, she did so in my wife’s childhood bed in a small house on the banks of the Dan River. Carole was 8 at the time.

Nancy Hutcherson Steele

Nancy Hutcherson Steele

After the war, Nancy had married Rowan Steele, who had joined the Confederate army at the age of 14, becoming a bugler in the cavalry. He was allowed to join the cavalry because he owned his own horse.

At war’s end, as a courier for the 16th Battalion, N.C. Cavalry, he was wounded in the head at Appomattox and left deaf in one ear.

One of the first things he told his family when he returned from the war was that he could no longer tolerate to eat black-eyed peas. In one of his battles — he would never say which one — in a field of black-eyed peas the blood flowed in the furrows like irrigation water, a vision he could never shake when confronted with a bowl of the peas.

Rowan and Nancy were married in 1868. He lived until 1917, when because of his deafness, he didn’t hear the train that killed him.

Rowan Steele

Rowan Steele

She lived long enough to teach Carole how to tie things up with hickory strips instead of rope, a trick she had learned in the great deprivation of the war, when they stretched what little game they could kill with ”peckerwood dressing” (sawdust), when they ate pokeweed and made ”coffee” from parched rye and wheat.

And she taught Carole to make the paper flowers that many Confederate women sold after the war to make a few dollars for disabled veterans.

As Henry Miller wrote, ”The Old South was ploughed under. But the ashes are still warm.”

For a Fourth of July in the South, history is what fertilizes the rich red clay.