Photo credit: Robin Gottfried
As I walked down the country lane that passes by our house I once again took in a favorite sight on this familiar jaunt – an old farmhouse in a field nestled up against the woods. While I’ve always enjoyed the scene because it reminds me of similar sights in the rest of Appalachia, this time it actually transported me back to Spice Creek and my friends years ago near Boone, NC. This wasn’t just a memory, but a bringing to life the place and people I called home many years ago as a graduate student gathering data for his dissertation.
Land has a way of doing this, of providing meaning, rootedness and healing across time and space. In many ways land itself is a series of relationships – between rocks, roots and fungi; soil, air and trees; plants and animals; humans and the biotic community. As we get in touch with all these neighbors, these associations burn themselves into our psyche, forming us into the person we now are and setting the stage for who we will become. We are the land and the land is us, both individually and corporately. We carry around this community deep inside.
I used to play traditional mountain music with my friends and neighbors: Hattie, Bud, Stanley, Miss Buna (“Bunie”), David. It’s hard to scratch out a living amidst rocks. Rooted in the land that both nurtured and challenged them, my adopted family was tough as the mountains and as open as a mountain track to anyone willing to take them on their own terms. These good people took me into their homes and hearts. From them I learned hospitality. They also gave a home to a “foreign” kid from suburbia. I learned what it meant to be accepted for who I was and to be brought into family. Although I knew I never could truly be a mountaineer, I felt at home, nurtured by the web of human and natural relationships that enveloped me every day. They’ve pretty much now all passed away.
My walk down the lane brought all these life-giving relationships back to life, so that they held me in their arms once more. I was in two places at once, Sewanee and Boone, because the land down the road now connected me to once distant land. Memory merged two places far away from one another into one intimate community. I felt home once again in the presence of my mountains and friends. Sewanee somehow took on a different character.
Several years ago I returned to Boone to give a talk. I hadn’t set foot there in years. Approaching from the west, something I seldom had done, I suddenly felt Bud’s presence. Bud, I’m sure, was nothing short of a Methodist saint. A man in his eighties when I knew him, Bud could out work and out banjo just about anyone I knew. With his handlebar mustache he looked and lived the part of a mountain man. He also was one of the kindest and most open people I’ve ever known. But for him, my wife and I would have lived in a tent during thunderstorms while we spent the summer gathering data. Bud moved us into his old place up on the mountain and watched over us in his quiet, loving way. The entire time I was in Boone after years of being away I felt Bud with me. He still walked with and encouraged me. After all, that’s what Bud would do. Somehow the land brought Bud and me together once more. Perhaps that’s because we both belong to it.
The land also heals. One time I sent a group out into nature with the assignment to love whatever they encountered. That was no small thing since it was hard to see –fog had enveloped the mountain in a white shifting gauze. When we gathered afterward one of the participants shared that, up till then, he had hated fog. As a married student several years ago, his wife would head down the mountain in the fog to go to work. He’d worry all day until she returned home. We’ve had many an accident on the mountain when the fog takes its toll. You learn to respect it. This time, confronted with having to love something he hated, God reach him through it and touched his heart, healing those fearful memories and filling him with comfort and love. Nestled in the fog and the land it enveloped, he was safe.
We like to say that God moves in mysterious ways. Certainly God surprises us, showing her face when we least expect it – on a country lane, driving down a road, walking in the fog. God’s Spirit courses through our web of relationships to bring us together over miles and time and to reconcile us, thereby revealing himself. When we recognize and honor this web we call “land,” we open ourselves to the God who is present in all beings. In other words, God brings us home.