In memory of memories

Our mountain communities are becoming nothing more than pictures in real estate pamphlets.

There’s an old fellow and his wife who live up the creek from me. He’s getting up in years, well past 80, but he still puts in a big garden and a large tater patch. His wife cans some of the produce, but much is given away to neighbors — many of them too old now to do much in the fields. He still cuts wood for himself and for those on the creek who need it.

He’s got about 100 acres, and he’s proud to take you around and show you where he put in this road or cleared that pasture. He’ll show you all the improvements he’s made and all the ones he plans, and his smile when he talks can light the night sky.

But his proudest achievement may be the four houses that stand on the hill above his house. They’re the homes of his children and their spouses — all good people, and the finest neighbors you could have.

Years ago, when I first bought on the creek and was building my house, I fell off a ladder and broke my hip. The old fellow from up the creek came to the hospital and told me not to worry; whatever needed doing would get done. And it did: He and his son-in-law put in at least two good weeks of labor so my wife and I could get in the house. Neither of them would take a dime. “That’s what neighbors are for,” they said.

There’s a little white house behind a big old oak at the bend of the creek. The man who lives there taught school in Jackson County for many years. To this day, if you mention his name to folks who grew up here, they’ll smile and take on a tone of reverence. Even folks in their 50s still start his name with “Mister,” and though he isn’t even 5 feet tall, folks will tell you that there’s no bigger man in the county, because there’s no one with a bigger heart or a more generous spirit.

Farther on up the creek, there’s another old fellow who is close to 90. He used to be a carpenter, and he loves to tell about all the houses he built, but even more about all the families that have lived in those houses. He lives with his daughter in a house way up in the cove, and there’s kin all around him. He’s sick a lot now, but he comes to the church on the hill, which was built in 1912, whenever he can. And he still sings with the choir in a voice that’s strong and clear. Once in a while, he’ll even sing a solo — maybe one of the many songs he’s written. And you wish your ears were bigger, because it’s an awful lot to hear.

There are people who come to the mountains for views and for landscapes. Their hearts are captured by the beauty they see, and they seek fulfillment and peace in leisure and scenery. Many times, I’ve heard these people speak about the sense of place and of community. They speak of preservation and conservation, often with great passion.

Yet to me, there is a certain cognitive dissonance in their words: Too often, they’re spoken from behind gated entryways. Conservation, preservation and a 4,000-square-foot second home are mutually exclusive ideas. It is hard, I think, for those who speak of sustaining property values to understand the sustaining value of place.

Place and community cannot be manufactured; without the context that people give them, they are bereft of meaning. I look up and down the creek I live on and, more than anything, I find a context that enriches the meaning of my own existence. The views from my front porch are inspiring, but it’s the people of my community who fulfill and sustain me.

Like a lot of folks who live on the creeks and in the coves throughout these mountains, they are mostly quiet and reserved, but they demonstrate their passion for place and community by the lives they’ve led, by the children they’ve taught and by the families they’ve raised. And in doing these things, they have followed the most fundamental of all commandments — be a neighbor.

I look around these mountains and I worry that we’re losing our context for defining place. I worry that, in the years to come, the folks who help us find our place within this place will be left behind. I know that change is inevitable, but I also believe that change and progress are not necessarily synonymous.

Our mountain communities are becoming nothing more than pictures in real estate pamphlets. And in the process, I fear that we’re becoming memories without context. We’re becoming unrecognizable to generations past, and in doing so, I wonder if we aren’t becoming unrecognizable to ourselves.

Perhaps it is selfish or naive of me, but I want the old fellows on the creek to be more than just memories. I want to hold their lives and lessons as examples, as something to live by. I want my ears to be big enough to hear.

[Mark Jamison lives on 67 acres in Jackson County’s Speedwell Community with his wife, Deb, and their five dogs. When not tending the land, he tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]

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