Home PageArchivesVolume no. 4Issue 3Nonfiction: John Crutchfield

Of Any Thing The Image

A Domestic Archeology

John Crutchfield

 
Not many miles from Asheville, North Carolina (unblushingly dubbed “The Paris of the South” by its own Chamber of Commerce), the Blue Ridge Parkway passes beneath the sharp crest of a ridge dividing the Riceville Watershed, on the sunlit southeastern side, from the Weaverville Watershed, on the colder, darker northwestern side. Here, with about twenty miles still to go on the long climb up to Mount Mitchell, a small brown sign informs travelers that they have reached Bull Gap, named for the last bull buffalo seen (and thereupon shot) east of the Mississippi. If you happen to be distracted by the view out over Riceville and the Swannanoa Valley, you might not notice a narrow secondary road that peels off sharply to the left here, then winds up through the gap before plunging down the the other side, cleaving close to the mountain as the lanes narrow and the curves tighten, and what guard-rail there is provides little comfort at the thought of the precipitous drop beyond.

This is Ox Creek Road, and it is the road one must take to reach the small, one bedroom house wedged into a dark cove where my father lived alone from 1989 to 2006.

By the time he moved there, he had already changed his residence several times since the divorce from my mother in 1986, and I would have had no reason to suspect that he would settle in this particular place for nearly two decades. Besides, I had other things on my mind. 1989 was the year I graduated from high school and entered the University of North Carolina. But within a few hours of finishing my first semester’s exams, my girlfriend met me at my dorm in her light blue Mazda sedan, and drove us west out I-40 toward Asheville. We were going to spend a few days with my Dad before Christmas.

Would love to have y’awl up here, he’d said over the phone. Long as you don’t mind gettin’ primitive.

[Exhibit A: Scale Model of Log-Cabin in
Wilderness w/Moccasins Drying on Front Porch.
Courtesy of Dan'l Boone Museum and Gift Shop.]

§

We’d made it as far as the foothills around Hickory when a light snow began to fall. Headlights came on, the traffic slowed, the snow fell harder. Soon it was obvious we wouldn’t make it to Asheville before dusk. When we finally met up with Dad in the Waffle House parking lot at Exit 55 (“Veterans Hospital”), it was night, and the temperature was dropping. The snowflakes were smaller now, and fell steadily—they were not yet sticking to the road, but soon they would be. Dad checked the tread on the Mazda’s front tires, judged them passable, and led us slowly up the Parkway to Bull Gap, then left onto Ox Creek Road. The moment we passed through the gap, we entered a different world: snow lay thick across the road and crusted the stark, black trunks of the trees. A strong wind whipped sheets of it across the windshield and whined through the gaps in the doors. Suzanne, my girlfriend, stopped the car and said, Um…do you want to drive?

Having grown up in the mountains even farther north, in Watauga County, where snow (at least in the 70’s and 80’s) was plentiful, I felt I knew what to do. I dropped the little tin-foil car into second gear, and rolled along gently, keeping a soft pressure on the brakes. The snow-blurred taillights of Dad’s four-wheel drive Toyota vanished around the hairpin curves in front of us, and I thought to myself that all it would take is for one tire to start slipping, and we’d begin the slow, carrouselling loop toward the precipice.

My nerves had just about reached the frazzle stage when a pale yellow light rose up in the dark ahead of us. I could make out the vague outline of a porch—a small house sitting in a little glade on the mountainside above the road. But the road seemed to drop sharply down and away to the left at this point, the worst hairpin curve of any we’d navigated yet. In the apogee of the curve, Dad’s taillights swerved unexpectedly to the right, and disappeared. The headlights on the Mazda felt their way along what turned out to be a small row of mailboxes, followed by a narrow opening to the right, where Dad’s tire-tracks notched the snow. I slowed as carefully as I could, but as soon as I tried to turn, the front wheels slipped, and in an instant I lost all control of the car.

Here it would be expected of a writer to pause for a moment and say that “several things flashed through my mind at once.” But if memory serves, nothing at all flashed through my mind. My mind was a complete blank. I gripped the useless steering wheel, Suzanne braced herself on the dashboard with both hands, and together we watched the trees twirl oddly past us in a silent Viennese waltz.

Luckily for us, the grade in the curve was so poorly engineered, that the car, after executing a complete three-sixty, slid right into the small side-road, where it scooted gently to rest on the shoulder as if I’d parallel parked there. After a moment, there was a knock at the driver-side window. It was Dad, in his smudgy down vest and one of my old ski toboggans. I cracked the window.

Looks good,
he said. I reckon just leave it here for now. Y’awl hungry?

[Exhibit B: Old Ski Toboggan w/Holes,
poss. Mouse-Chewed.]

§

A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 1: The Porch

One plastic dog house (residence of “Amber”); two ceramic dog-dishes (both w/stenciled “DOG”); one walking stick (approx. 4' long, hand-cut, still w/bark); seven cardboard boxes of books, notebooks, manila file folders (marked “Graduate School 1,” “Graduate School 2,” “Dr. Leybrun,” “Scrapbook,” “Army Language School,” “Dream Journals,” and “UFO”); two white outdoor cushioned pool chairs (from Nana and Granddaddy); one laundry line w/clothespins (strung between porch posts); one carved stone goddess statue in seated position w/pedestal (approx. 12”w x 20”h x 12”d, buxom); six hand-cut wooden stakes w/string (approx. 18” long, use unknown); one broom sedge doormat w/ printed greeting (“GIT!”).

§

The little driveway at the mailboxes is really no more than a gravel trace. Almost immediately, it gets side-swiped by Ox Creek, which this far up the mountain is a swift-running stream. In winter the stream is fringed with ice, the dark rocks glazed and treacherous. There is no bridge, only a wide, more or less flat place where the stream shallows out enough for a car to cross through it. On the other side, the trace forks, and the right turn follows along the stream-bed, climbing steeply up the mountain into a grove of sizable hemlocks. Here is a small gate, usually open. But instead of going through it, one makes another hard turn to the right, back over the stream (this time by means of a narrow earthen bridge over a metal culvert through which the stream passes), and onto an even narrower drive, which ends at a small flat area scattered with wood chips, bark, stacks of branches, and a pile of misshapen and “hopeless” (i.e. un-splittable) chunks of firewood. Nearby stands a concrete cistern with a piece of sheet-metal placed over it, from which an orange, heavy-duty power-cable emerges, drops unceremoniously to the ground, and snakes down a short grassy slope to a small house of maybe 700 sq. ft., which it enters through a slightly cracked window.

When we arrived that night, all of this was, of course, covered in snow. The house with its yellow porch-light looked like a derelict barge adrift on the North Sea. But for us at that moment, exhausted with the stress not only of the drive, but also of exams just behind, the little house looked like a safe haven from all of life’s adversities. A whiff of smoke on the air told me Dad had a good fire going in the wood stove.

[Exhibit C: Yøtul Wood Stove Advertisement
w/Happy Scandinavian Family, circa 1971.
Courtesy of Life Magazine.]

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A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 2: Under the Porch

Four lawnmowers (two dead; one functional; one manual, very rusty, could go either way); misc. plastic and terra-cotta planters (nested in each other, tipped over, broken, etc.); one scythe; one scythe handle (blade missing); one unidentifiable wooden construction; one to-scale replica of Giza pyramid (made of 1/2” copper pipe w/PVC fittings); several dozen flat stones of various sizes and shapes (interesting); one wheelbarrow (upside down); one wooden freight pallet (broken, mossy).

§

Prior to moving into the house on Ox Creek, my father lived in several places in and around Asheville, not all of which I saw. These included a house-sitting arrangement out US74 in Fairview, and another on US70 in Black Mountain. He also stayed with friends and acquaintances or with Grandaddy and Nana down in Charlotte, and for a certain number of weeks was living out of his car. All of this I was aware of at the time, but adolescence seems to have wrapped most of my awareness in a kind of hormonal gauze: I heard about things, I knew about them, but I didn’t really understand anything. The only sharp realities were the emotional shocks of my own immediate experience, the unspeakable horrors of the locker room, the perils of the cafeteria, the monstrous Sturm und Drang of simply walking down the hall at Watauga High School, terrified to the bottom of my soul at the prospect of crossing paths with certain rather sadistic upper-classmen, but at the same time wrenched with longing to feel just once! the eyes of a certain girl meet mine. No, Dad’s distant peregrinations meant little to me then.

But age and experience have made it possible now for me to imagine what it must have felt like for him, at age fifty, to lose his job, watch his marriage dissolve, and leave with only what he could pack in his car. Sometimes I wonder if he ended up in Asheville because that was the nearest sizable town he could reach on a single tank of gas. In any event, Asheville was far enough away from Boone for him to try to make a new start, but close enough to mean he could still come to my soccer games and wrestling matches, and still see my sister in her 8th-Grade play.

When I learned, shortly after starting my first semester at college, that he finally had a permanent mailing address, I assumed it was because he’d bought a house like everybody else does. In truth, all he’d found was a place to rent, and for almost nothing—A little cabin off the Parkway, he’d written in one of his long letters. Oh, it ain’t much in the way of luxury. Knowing Dad’s gift for understatement, I assumed we were now talking about rough-hewn logs and a dirt floor. Maybe you’ll want to stop over sometime before the holidays. I’ll have the boys here cook up a fresh batch of moonshine.

[Exhibit D: Whiskey Still of Peculiar Design.
Operator pictured: “Pap” Critcher of Ashe
County, North Carolina, circa 1892. Courtesy
of Smithsonian Institution.]

§


A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 3: The Yard

Three bird feeders (one long, cylindrical, glass, typically filled w/sunflower seeds; one wooden w/sloping, hinged roof for mixed seeds; one w/mesh slots for suet); three hummingbird feeders (red plastic w/glass reservoirs, actually on porch, should have mentioned above); one St. Francis bird bath; one large woodpile (mostly black locust, seasoned, cut to approx. 18” length, split and stacked); one small woodpile (kindling, misc. sticks); one outhouse (constr. fr. wooden planks, now rotten, listing hard to left, moon-shape cut into door); also: grass, weeds, moss, sticks, rocks, leaves, toadstools, wild turkey excrement, one dead squirrel.

§

For the years he lived in the house, my father enjoyed what must have been the lowest rent in Buncombe County. Even when the landlord raised it by 50% from $100 to $150, and then eventually to $175 a month, I’m sure Dad knew better than to complain. With a half-dozen dowsing jobs a month during summer and fall (more during a drought year), he could live comfortably, with enough cash left over for incidentals. These would have included new books, repairs to the car, and fees for esoteric seminars and workshops in Asheville.

The landlords, Mr. and Mrs. Carpen, lived further up the hollow, beyond the gate. I only met them once, when Dad took me up there to introduce me. Mr. Carpen was a bald little Jewish man who owned (it turned out) a factory down in Weaverville, “Carpen Steel.” He spoke with a strange, rather brash accent, which I later learned was typical of Brooklyn, New York. He was open, friendly, generous in his abrasive way. His wife was the epitome of “birdlike”: her body was small and wiry but one sensed there a hidden ferocity. From either side of her prominent, beak-like nose she viewed the world and the people in it with a skeptical eye, as if she expected to be disappointed and to be obliged to say something about it. They had a son, Joe, several years older than me, whom I’d observed once up in the woods with a chainsaw. He was wearing a strange, pointy knitted hat and oversized wooden shoes, like a Dutchman, and for these reasons he struck me as odd. (I met the man many years later in Asheville, when I was living there and working in theatre. He is in fact odd, but so are most people in Asheville.)

The Carpens owned the whole mountainside at that time, as well as a decently-maintained soccer field next to their factory, which they rented to the Town of Weaverville for $1 a year. Dad always spoke well of the Carpens; although there was the one time, several years after Mr. Carpen had died, when he had arranged to take Mrs. Carpen to see one of my plays being performed in town; there was a misunderstanding about transportation—she thought he was going to come pick her up—which resulted, according to my Dad, in a bona-fide Yankee tongue-lashing.

[Exhibit E: Michelangelo's charcoal study for
Miriam Telling Off Abimelech Right in Front of
Everybody. Courtesy of the Vatican Museum.]

§

A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 4: The Woods

Remains of dry-stacked stone walls marking terraced flat areas (presumably intended for agriculture, now overgrown w/locust, beech, basswood, hemlock); large wooden shed (contents unknown); pile of broken glass (mostly jars, some window panes); pile of scrap metal (incl. bed frame and headboard, two large buckets, numerous tin cans, one bicycle frame, one maul head w/broken handle); stack of cut wood (approx. one cord, un-split, rotted, species not identifiable); lots of briers; lingering dust of bereavement; gossamer sorrow; leafmash.

§

At the end of my first year at Chapel Hill, my mother remarried and moved out to Memphis, a city that had little charm for me—or at least, not enough to warrant the long drive west. (Tennessee, it turns out, is a very long state.) So when vacations rolled around, I loaded up my books and gear and headed to Asheville to stay with Dad. It was during one of these visits—over my Spring Break in 1993—that a gargantuan blizzard hit the whole East Coast. As evening fell the day before I was scheduled to head back to school, the birds were frantic at the feeders—we knew something was up. The forecasts had called for bad weather, but when the storm hit at midnight, it stalled out over the mountains. We woke up to dead silence and a strange bluish glow from the windows. The power was out, which meant no water, since the well had an electric pump. All we had was the wood stove, a nearly empty ice box (Dad had been planning to re-stock after I left), and lots and lots of snow.

This state of affairs lasted for several days with no sign of improvement. We melted snow in a pot on the wood stove for drinking water and for rudimentary bathing. The food in the fridge quickly ran out; but I made a fortuitous discovery in Dad’s closet: hidden down among the camping gear I found an old canvas bag with several unopened packages of backpacking food—mostly freeze-dried beef stroganoff.

This cache was, by our calculation, at least ten years old, reckoned from the date of our last camping trip together. The reason it was comprised mostly of beef stroganoff was that, during that last trip, we’d discovered this particular dish to be virtually inedible. Sometimes freeze-drying works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But one man’s sawdust-flavored dog food is another man’s salvation—or in this case, the same two men’s salvation under different circumstances. Needless to say, we rationed the stuff like wild-caught Scottish smoked salmon.

Meanwhile, the snow kept falling.

When it finally stopped, it lay three-and-a-half feet deep on the ground. I spent the next two days shoveling a path (more like a tunnel) from my truck, which was parked at the wood pile, all the way back out the drive and around and down to the mailboxes at Ox Creek Road. On the evening when I finally broke through to the main road, we heard the snowplow grinding up from Weaverville toward the Parkway.

[Exhibit F: Documentary Photograph of
Crutchfield the Younger, Age 22, w/Snow
Shovel and Idiotic Glacier Goggles, March,
1993. Courtesy of The Crutchfield Family
Archives.]

§

A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 5: The House

Numerous bookshelves (mismatched, filled beyond intended capacity w/books, papers, magazines, pamphlets, newsletters of American Dowsers Association); one small Yøtul woodstove (matte black); one chopping block for kindling; one 1940's era Boy Scouts of America hatchet (stuck upright in chopping block, orig. leather grip replaced w/twine); one pair leather work gloves (holes in both index fingers); one rocking chair; one large writing desk (see below); one queen-sized bed w/box spring; one wooden chair w/pillow; various photographs and art on walls (incl. orig. watercolor landscapes, some executed while undergrad at Washington and Lee Univ. in mid-1950's, some earlier); one U.S. Department of Interior topgrph. map of Grandfather Mountain Quadrangle (TVA 215-SE); drop-ceiling throughout; brown carpet throughout.

§

Some years later, when I was in graduate school studying poetry, I wrote a poem about this blizzard incident. The poem became part of a long sequence I called “The Boone Elegies,” which consisted of three roughly-equal sections addressed to the three members of my family: Mom, Dad, and my younger sister, Lilian. Each elegy was divided into seven numbered segments of variable length, all written in epic meter—dactyllic hexameters, in case you’re wondering. (Why epic meter? Because that’s just the kind of poetical professional I was.)

For some reason, and despite several years of earnest effort, I never quite managed to find a publisher for “The Boone Elegies.” (This is also true of my other poems.) And yet, as I write this, it occurs to me that perhaps my chance has finally come. Doubtless there are those who will call it cheating to smuggle a poem out into the world under cover of prose; but at age forty-two (as of this writing), and without a stitch of literary success with which to cover my nakedness (and a whole wardrobe of the self-knowledge that comes with persistent failure), I think I can say with confidence that I don’t give a damn.

Here, then, I present, for the first time publicly, Section III of the Second Elegy of “The Boone Elegies,” which takes up more or less where Section II left off: our heroes waking to discover themselves snowed-in, waterless, powerless, and perhaps not a little bored. (Note: the passages in italics are my rather Wordsworthian rendering of Dad’s actual speech.)

                III
                Hard to tell what time of day it is. We tend the fire, scoop up
                        snow off the porch, set the pot down hissing
                on the stove, haul in more firewood to dry, scrape together a meal
                        of crusts, and watch the snow fall. Time was winter was
                always this way, the trout-ponds blown solid. Folks had to pipe-in
                        the sunshine till April, when snow got down shoe-mouth low.

                I sit in your rocking chair pulled up close to the stove, and read Werther,
                        cradling the book in a barbarous hand, the soot
                and oil from my thumb slowly darkening the pages. I watch as you
                        trudge to the bird feeder, scattering seeds on the waist-
                high shelf of snow, surrounded in flickering colors, a blizzard
                        of wings moving with you as you move through the drifts
                and the daylight withdraws from the laden trees, the blue laurel
                        curl up their leaves, opaline, brittle, and nightfall
                comes quickly up here in the cove, darkness incorrigible,
                        and there’s nothing else to do now but turn in.
 

Is this unspeakably bad? I can no longer tell. It’s been a long time since I thought seriously about poems, or even read any of the stuff.

But the thing about “a blizzard of wings” I definitely still find semi-tolerable.

And now that I think of it, a lot of my poems during that period centered on experiences I had while staying at Dad’s place. The cabin itself always figured in the background of these poems, as a quiet, I’m tempted to say soulful, setting for introspection, friendship, love and work—whatever happened to be my theme. And somehow, even when not literally, Dad was always there in those poems too, stoking the fire, fixing pancakes, or taking for-damn-ever to get moving in the morning so we could go for a hike.

[Exhibit G: Color Postcard w/Photograph
of Humungous Stack of Pancakes, Butter,
and Syrup. Caption: “Come 'n Gittit, Y'all!”
Courtesy of The Presidential Committee for
the Preservation of Breakfast in the New
South, circa 1978.]

§


A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 6: The Closet

Misc. 1960's era U.S. Army gear (one infantry pack frame w/orig. canvas straps; one fatigue jacket; three tan dress shirts, insignia removed by pre-teen son for use in super awesome war-games with pals; one pair black paratrooper boots, well-oiled; one down sleeping bag w/green canvas slip cover, musty-smelling, but not in a bad way; one ammunition box, contents unknown); one small German-made leather backpack, well broken-in; one large Jansport® frame pack; one Thermarest® ground pad; misc. camping gear; various flannel shirts; one winter coat; one rain coat; one trench coat; one fleece pullover (Christmas present from son and daughter); one pair hiking boots; two pair work boots (one apparently chewed by sharp-toothed animal); one pair walking/casual shoes; one bow-saw; one replacement blade for bow-saw; one machete w/leather sheath; one black baseball cap (embroidered w/ single word “MEXICO”).

§

When friends from growing up or from school or from Germany (where I’d spent a year abroad) came to visit, I always wanted to take them to Dad’s house. The atmosphere was peaceful, Dad seemed to enjoy the company and take pleasure in my friends’ antics, and there was fun stuff to do: chopping wood, hiking up in the mountains off the Parkway, heading down into Asheville to drink beer and shoot pool. But more than anything, it seemed as though there was always plenty of time up there. Everything seemed to move more slowly—I’m not sure why. Was it the soft clamor of the stream hurrying down through the night that made the daylight hours seem slow by comparison? Was it the birdsong early in the morning? Was it the shadow of the mountain, the fact that sunlight was a precious resource, since it didn’t even reach down into the cove until 11 o’clock, and had slipped away again by 3 p.m.?

I remember my friend Albrecht from Leipzig sitting in a ramshackle lawn chair down in the yard in the narrow stripe of sunshine, writing postcards in nothing but his maroon briefs and yellow-tinted, Chinese pimp shades: Johnny, mensch: nun, das ist der Urlaub. (“Johnny, dude: now this is vacation!”)

—But if I go down the rabbit hole of memories here, I’ll never get out, and my poem will never get published after all. Time to skip ahead.

[Exhibit H: Promotional Material: “Visit the
Infamous Rabbit Hole! (And Gift Shop),”
circa 1995. Courtesy of City of Asheville,
Division of Esoteric Wonders Management.]

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A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 7: The Desk

Misc. small framed photographs of son and daughter (separately, together, w/friends, various ages, settings, incl. hideous school pictures), of Nana and Granddaddy, of Dr. Leybrun (Professor Emeritus, Washington and Lee University), of anonymous Native Americans (source: Bureau of Indian Affairs?); one green touch-tone office phone, circa 1980; one paper holder (small vertical metal stick w/pairs of spring-loaded metal clip hands—somewhat reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer's iconic prayer-hands—attached at regular intervals for clasping notecards—I'm not explaining this well.); stacks of papers (junk mail, memo paper w/notes written in ballpoint, letters, newspaper clippings, etc.); small leather cup w/pens and pencils, pair of scissors, letter opener (silver plated); one electric typewriter (legendary for role in composition of dissertation on "Don Quixote" reputed to be longer than novel itself); row of small green, blue and brown glass bottles arranged near window sill, small ceramic figurine (of lion? walrus? Henry Kissinger?) yowling or perhaps yawning.

§

(Skipping ahead.) The last place I lived in Asheville was a ramshackle old Cape Cod style house close to downtown. When my wife and I bought the place, it had been empty for years, had broken windows, no heat source of any kind, and a hole in the roof through which rain poured directly into the kitchen. And that’s just the obvious practical stuff; the list of aesthetic horrors would go on for many pages. As we had a new baby and no money, it fell to me to make the house habitable by the sweat of my own unskilled but indomitable brow. I plunged in with the gusto of someone who has not the faintest idea of the difficulties that await him.

One thing became clear, however, as summer gave way to fall: it’s actually kind of difficult to handle tools properly if one’s fingers are numb with cold. I bought a space heater, but discovered that the icy wind blowing through the broken windows reduced its effectiveness considerably. I took to jogging up and down the stairs between tasks to warm up—which sounds like a great way to stay in shape, but actually it only made me hungry and tired.

In the first of many generous acts relating to the house, Dad stepped in and gave us a late wedding present: a new Yøtul wood stove, plus flue insert and installation. (An expensive proposition indeed, as anyone knows who’s ever looked into it.) Finally, we had a heat source—but alas, no fuel. Where could I rustle up some seasoned firewood? More to the point: where could I rustle up some seasoned firewood without having to pay for it?

I forgot to mention that by this time, Dad was also living in town. When I first moved to Asheville as a thirty-five-year-old bachelor in 2006, he decided it was time to “come down off the mountain”; he bought a little brick house in an old working-class neighborhood in East Asheville, called Oakley. The house has a great back yard for gardening, and is only a five-minute walk from Oakley Elementary School, with easy access as well to the Parkway and to Warren Wilson College, where for a few years then I had a part-time teaching job.

Though we’ve never talked about it, I think Dad was imagining I’d “settle down” in the house there with him, maybe even fetch me a bride from the local 30-Something populace, and become a solid citizen and pater familias right there under his roof. Only something like this, I think, can explain his willingness to undertake such a move in the first place. Dad has never been one to embrace change.

The move off the mountain wasn’t easy. For reasons I can only speculate on, Dad wanted to do it himself. I had already been living in the house for several months, and Dad was still lingering up at the cabin. Even after he finally moved his bed into the Oakley house, he would spend entire days up at Ox Creek and come back in the evening with only a chair and three jugs of well-water. (He still drives up there several times a month to fill his glass apple-juice jugs with water from the tap there, convinced it tastes better than filtered municipal water.) As I found out later, he even made sure a friend of his took over the lease, someone who’d let him visit pretty much any time he wanted. He wanted to let go, but couldn’t.

All this by way of saying that when the question of firewood arose this past winter, his idea that we head up to the cabin to forage did not surprise me. Since the blight ten years ago had killed off most of the black locust, there was abundant wood up there—and dead locust, unlike say, dead oak, just gets harder and harder the longer it stands there, essentially seasoning in place. After a few years, the stuff’s like iron, and packed with BTU’s. Even the smaller branches and fragments are worth saving.

[Exhibit I: Chart of Common North
American Hardwoods, Arranged by Average
BTU-Output Per Dry Pound. Courtesy of
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Bureau of
Hillbilly Affairs, 1962.]

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A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 8: The Kitchen

One microwave oven wrapped in tin-foil; one conventional oven (knobs missing); one stove top (only front burners functional); one Toast-R-Oven®; one sink w/misc. dish rags, steel wool, lavender-scented detergent, odd coat-hanger contraption w/rag-knob on end for washing down inside bottles and tall glasses, bar of soap, toothbrush; one refrigerator, referred to as “ice box” (for contents, see below), surface covered with scotch-taped clippings, postcards, photographs, headlines, often w/handwritten captions. e.g. “Before Dad Got Rich,” “Feel The Bliss, Dammit!” “Boy? Who's Boss On This Plantation?” and “Hershey”; cabinets (for contents, see below); small ceramic owl and potted azalea on window sill; one washing machine (function dubious).

§

I realize now that the rituals surrounding wood heat—gassing up the saw, sharpening the blade, lubing the bar and chain, trudging up into the woods to scout dead or dying trees, felling them without getting killed, dragging the logs down out of the woods, cutting them up to length, splitting the sections with maul and wedges, stacking the split pieces so air can get in to season the wood, carrying it months or years later into the house to feed the stove, laying the fire itself, lighting it, keeping it going at the right temperature through the night, scraping out the cold ashes in the morning—these rituals account for much of the time I’ve spent with my father since the days we still lived together as a family up in Watauga County. And not just the time: somehow the rituals marked out a certain emotional territory for us as well. It was a way of being together, through a cooperative task, one that, while requiring little talk, still allowed for humor, particularly in the chopping and splitting phase (when a recalcitrant knot or twist in the grain would provoke us to Shakespearean bombast: “What, knave? Thou defiest me yet?! Dearly shalt thou pay for this insolence!”—whack!). I remember spending entire mornings together this way, with the satisfying result taking shape before our eyes: walls of stacked firewood like ramparts against the coming cold. Kind of like stanzas of epic meter, now that I think about it.

[Exhibit J: Ancient Etruscan Drinking Vessel
Depicting Warrior Atop Mountain of Sticks,
circa 750 B.C. Courtesy of British Museum.]

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A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 9: The Ice-Box

Two containers Seven Stars® organic yogurt (“maple,” very sweet); one large jug organic apple juice; one qt. container Stoneyfield Farms® organic whole milk; one block Irish cheddar cheese; two four-packs Starbucks® Frappeccinos®; misc. plastic bags of nuts, dried fruits, flax seeds, coconut shavings, etc.; one package pancake mix; one loaf whole wheat bread; one intact barred owl carcass (frozen in plastic bag); numerous small glass droppers (contents unknown); one yellow onion; one stalk broccoli (past its prime); three “Red Delicious” apples; one plastic pint container peanut butter (¾ empty); one stick sweet cream butter; one bag purple grapes (moldy).

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It had been a long time since we’d harvested wood on the mountain together. Much had happened since: I’d gotten married and become a father, bought a house of my own, and (somewhat paradoxically) left a safe career in Academia for the uncertainty of a life in professional theatre. But I still had my little Stihl chainsaw—which fired up again as good as ever, albeit not without a little coaxing. I loaded up the gas can, the jug of bar and chain lubricant, the wrench and the blade file, ear protectors, work gloves, maul and wedges, an extra sweater, and headed up the Parkway.

It was cold enough to snow—colder up in the cove, where the cabin nestles above Ox Creek. But the sky was clear; it was a good day to be out in the woods. I parked near the old wood-splitting area, and unloaded my gear. From the outside, the cabin looked as it always had, apart from a few changes to the front-porch furniture. Of course Nana’s chairs were gone, as were the cardboard boxes of Dad’s books and papers. Amber’s dog house was gone, and her bowls had been replaced by dishes for cat food. The roof had perhaps a bit more moss on it than I remembered, and there were new drapes hanging inside the windows. All was quiet.

Dad and I had agreed to meet at 9 a.m.; I was about a quarter of an hour early, so I got started on my own, the chainsaw swinging at my thigh as I trudged up into the woods, stepping over rotten branches and stumps, and picking my way up through the remains of stone walls built sometime in the early part of the last century. After snooping around for half an hour, I found a couple of massive black locusts lying parallel to the slope—they must have come down in a storm some time ago. Already the bark had dropped off—an ideal find. I cranked up the saw and went to work, cutting six-foot-long sections to drag down to the splitting area, where I’d cut them into 18” lengths and split them into quarters.

I must have gotten into the rhythm. When I noticed Dad’s car, I looked at my watch and discovered that an hour had passed. By this point, I’d finished with the chainsaw, and was dragging the logs one by one down through the woods, happy to be free of the noise and gasoline smell. Dad apologized for being late, saying the cold slowed him down. Gets to me more than it used to, was the way he put it. I told him not to worry, and pointed out where the logs were—about a hundred yards up the mountainside. He and I followed the path I had worn up to the site, and each of us grabbed a log.

Soon I started to notice that, without particularly exerting myself, I was getting two logs for every one of his. I looked at him. He was moving slowly, uncertain in his footing. He stopped frequently too, as if needing to catch his breath. Finally he stopped altogether and stood over the fresh log he’d intended to pick up. Think I’ll let you finish up here while I do a little reconnaissance, see what else I can find up there.

Once I had all the logs down, I cranked up the saw again, cut them to length, and started in on the splitting—always the most satisfying part. From time to time I’d pause and look up into the winter woods, just to make sure Dad was alright. This was a new feeling, I realized: concern for his safety. Silly, in a way; after all, he was only tramping around up there, scouting out more dead trees—a man I’d seen do this all my life, and who, moreover, had always been a hiker and woodsman. But without my really noticing it until now, something had changed.

I went back to chopping. When I glanced up again several minutes later, I couldn’t see Dad any more. The light had shifted, and the leafless grey branches had become a kind of smoke on the mountainside. I called out in our half-joking dialect, Pap? Whurr you at?

Up hyeah, boy! came the answer. Now I saw him: his blue down vest and white hair way up in the woods, easy to miss. Find anything? I called.

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A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 10: The Cabinets

One full set (8pcs.) Harvard University drinking glasses (origins unknown); misc. flatware w/yellow rim (origins unknown); misc. white cups and saucers (received as special offer from Harris Teeter on King Street in Boone, NC, circa 1982); one Juicerator®; one set tumblers (w/etched initials “CHC”); misc. dry foods.

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But I didn’t finish the story of my first time at the cabin back in late December, 1989, driving there through the snowstorm with my girlfriend Suzanne. We woke the next morning to a complete white-out. It was magical and exciting, being snowed in together there on the first day of Christmas Vacation. Dad had kept the wood stove going all night, and the cabin was warm. What you young’uns think ’bout some pancakes? he asked.

After breakfast, the three of us suited up and hiked down to Ox Creek Road—our tire tracks from the night before were now completely obscured—and back up to a trail-head Dad knew about, which took us further up the ridge along an old wagon-trace to a place called Rattlesnake Lodge. The lodge had been built around the turn of the 19th Century as a private summer home by a wealthy doctor from South Carolina. The place had burned down in the 1920’s, and all that remained now was some stonework and a spring, all of it gradually subsiding under the tide of leaves and moss. In the snow, the lodge seemed like the ruins of an ancient and noble civilization. Dad lead us out to a large semi-circular flat area, a terrace of sorts, surrounded by a stone wall, in which a massive white oak grew. Here we had a snack of cheese and crackers.

I remember Dad pointing out a single male cardinal in a laurel bush at the edge of the terrace. The dark red bird looked fragile against the world of snow. But he seemed perfectly content where he was, and didn’t mind us watching him. Suzanne’s winter cap, I noticed, was exactly the same color red.

§

As I was helping Dad unpack in the new house, I found something I hadn’t known existed: a picture he’d taken of me and Suzanne during that very hike, using his old Nikon manual 35mm. I was a little stunned: how young I looked then, how confident standing there beside my first girlfriend—someone I haven’t seen now in almost twenty years. Dad captured an entire era of my life in a single image. The shot is perfectly framed, perfectly in focus. For some reason, he’d used black and white film. This was unusual, and I can only assume he did so out of necessity: it was the only fresh roll he had on that occasion. It lends the image an eerie, almost memorial quality, as if the young people pictured there had long ago disappeared. Which of course, they have. As I held the print with my fingertips, I thought, This is the work of a master.

I put the picture back in the box where Dad had kept it—one among many boxes full of photographs he’d taken with that same camera, going back to my childhood and infancy, and even to a time well before I was born, when he and my mother were first married and living in Mercersberg, Pennsylvania. But the picture had lead me to something else, something that had been floating around in the family lore as long as I could remember: that as a young man, my father had been a gifted artist. In prep-school at Loomis in Connecticut, and then later at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, he had done water-colors—landscapes mostly, derelict barns and farmhouses, sun-mottled trout streams, ridges gently shouldering their way into the blue distance—some of which I’d seen, but never really looked at. They were merely part of the mute surroundings of home, like furniture and houseplants. As a boy, I’d naturally been much more interested in the posters hanging on the walls of my own room—of the movies and music I liked, most of which is now forgotten.

But the paintings were still here, some having been brought down from the cabin, others out of storage. I unwrapped them all and looked at them with different eyes. They were all beautifully composed and minutely observed and rendered—particularly in the play of light and shadow (no easy feat, I’m told, when using watercolors)—and yet they were suffused with a melancholy it would be difficult to describe. It seemed not to be the melancholy of a lonely teenage boy, as my father doubtless was at the time, but the melancholy of a much older person, someone who had come to know how longing, having once touched the heart, colors the whole life indelibly, like the watery hues staining the paper itself. Maybe the reason I hadn’t seen this before in my father’s paintings was because I hadn’t known it before. Why had it taken these relics of my father’s boyhood, and of a talent he took hold of for only a few brief years, to teach me I was indeed my father’s son?

As it had fallen to me to arrange the furniture and decorate the new house, I made sure to hang the paintings first—all of them, and to fit in the furniture around them as best I could.

Huh, Dad said when he saw the paintings there. I guess you like my oeuvre after all, boy. Nice to see. One thing about the ol’ cabin: not enough room to keep everything a fellow wants to keep.

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A Quick Tour of the Premises (Synchronic View). Phase 11: The Air

Complex smell of wood smoke and ashes, damp bark, leather, canvas, rust, toasted bread, sautéed onions, tomato soup, well water (minerals), moss, lavender (see “The Kitchen,” above), drying laundry, dog fur, old books and papers, canvas, typewriter ribbon, pencil shavings, mink oil, snow (falling, melting, evaporating).
 

John CrutchfieldJohn Crutchfield was raised in Watauga County, N.C., and lived for many years in nearby Asheville. His poems, essays, stories and reviews have appeared in a variety of national and international journals. He now lives in Berlin, Germany, works freelance as a writer and literary translator, and teaches part-time in the Institut für Englische Philologie at the Freie Universität Berlin.

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