January 2009

Scott Blackwood

Flame in the Mouth

River of Earth

A sense of place, of rootedness, is something Americans seem to both pine for and fear. We fear it because to be an American is to be inseparable from movement. Whenever we're still, we're anxious that we might stay that way -- we might keel over between the tick and tock. But sidling around our insides is the feeling that even in the midst of all of our motion, our doings and goings on, there's a simultaneous undoing, an unraveling, a wound thread suddenly spooled out. And then we begin to pine for some imagined motionlessness -- a more settled existence of living with and observing the world not overmatching it. Never entirely comfortable in either state, we feel perpetually “out of place."

James Still, the Appalachian writer best known for the novel River of Earth and a collection of short stories, Pattern of a Man, understood this duality about Americans. The people he wrote about had difficulty from the beginning with the world's outsides corresponding to their insides. The Scotch-Irish, the primary settlers in those hills, were emblematic of this American ill-fittedness, the longing for motion but uneasiness with it. Before they arrived in America, the Scotch-Irish were a generally unruly, nomadic people, who'd been kicked out of England and Ireland. Once here, they did not as a whole take to the rootedness of farming. In Appalachia, they found the coal mines or the mines found them. And despite horrific working conditions and deprivations, their families often followed the coal camps through the hills -- even to this day. Did the men who worked there find some solace in the movement down deep? In the clock work of arm and pick ax? It was a mystery to Still that people continued in this work, despite the misery it caused their families and the presence of the more sustainable life that farming offered -- he traced this experience in his masterwork, River of Earth, one of the best but least known novels about place.

In James Still's work the subject is often how to get home again despite ourselves, how to reconcile ourselves with the pull of the land. And though people often think of Appalachia as a world enclosed by fundamentalist religion, as Appalachian scholar Jim Wayne Miller points out, most of Still's people in his novel River of Earth and his short stories are closer to the nature religions than they are to the Pentecost. It's a sad and lovely world that they dwell in -- its compensations and mercies are thornier, harder earned, more keenly felt. And though the preachers in Still's work talk about the world beyond, his characters tend to see themselves rooted in rocks and dirt and trees, as if they're weighed down with the coal dust they've breathed. 

The need to travel beyond is only a kind of imaginative husk that's been transformed by Still's characters into a kind of American fatalism, one in which our movements, our meaningful acts, are illusions. It's the ground under our feet that capriciously moves us along that matters. It's this shifting place of both movement and stillness that fills us with desire and dread and ultimately offers us our only home. It also provokes in us the deepest sense of mystery. As Still's preacher Bother Mobberley says, "These hills are just dirt waves, washing through eternity… [and] where are we headed on this mighty river of earth, a-borning, begetting, and a-dying? The living and the dead riding the waters? Where is it sweeping us?"