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  • John Diamond-Nigh

#Madison County (2)


Grapevine Road winds skyward, twisting back on itself like a fistful of crumpled wire. At the crest, a row of broken tombstones juts from the earth in archeological silhouettes. Far, far below, the sleepy broadcast of sheds, houses, barns and trailers look as small as Monopoly houses.


Don is pointing and recounting a #massacre hereabouts during the #Civil War. Locals, as it happened, having no particular stake in the preservation of slavery, weren’t much inclined to join the cause. A plantation house in Charleston bears little kinship to a timber cabin here. A #Confederate regiment in nearby Marshall–no surprise–frowned on this ‘delinquency’ and, as punishment, withheld #salt, so necessary then for the preservation of food. The locals, in turn, raided a salt stash in Marshall one night to which, of course, the regiment replied, ferreting out of this secretive, gullied terrain whoever they could, and slaughtered them en masse.


A second, more interesting story belongs at the scale of #moles, an Aesop fable of sorts. #Revere township is famous #ballad country. One singer, a Baptist preacher (by some accounts) and a drunk to boot, was known for his sadism, chiefly to animals. Especially moles. One night, dead drunk, he collapsed in his barn (Bonnie points out the rudimentary, iron-colored shack.), high in the tail end of a branch, or dead end valley, and there had a dream in which the Queen of the Moles tells him to stop this torture, particularly toward her fellow moles, or else . . . .


The man awakens, frightened by his dream, and writes what would become one of the greatest #Appalachian ballads, #O Death-–a ballad widely popular in its time and sung a long time later in the movie, #O Brother Where Art Thou (easy to find on Google).


The #barn is as charming, corroded and iron-brown as a thousand other barns in Madison County. But really, who cares about barns? They’re disposable vestiges of a rural culture that most of us have fled. They are archetypes of a brutal, rustic conservatism most of us, right now, find gallingly at odds with the urgencies of the moment–tumbledown emblems of nostalgia that still impose themselves on feed store calendars and snow-dappled Christmas cards.


Maybe, maybe not. This from a passage by the English potter #Edmund de Waal: As earth (speaking of the clay he uses to make pots) it is universal, but also particular, it comes out of a territory, land, place. We all know the word #terroir, having to do with wine or cuisine. Maybe we, too, need that same telluric distinction–two-legged bottles of wine that we are. Some earth, some root, some origin. Contrast that with the mayor’s prediction that 25 years from now, most of the county surrounding Asheville will have moved into the city. Their earth, their territory shaken off. A beautiful barn, with its clarion shape and unostentatious elegance, as rooted in its place as a local ballad, chastens the severances of our urban lives.


It’s just before Christmas, the trees are bare. A milky light pervades the hills. Wooded outlines rise and fall like the movements of a symphony. I’ve hardly blinked away the beauty of one amber-latticed barn than another appears. An old mill, a general store, a belfried Jesuit church with the impossible name of #Church of the Little Flower. (Where didn’t those Jesuits go?) All as picturesque as hell. You sense that it’s still an outlander world. A dying, parochial realm with its ancient, even #outlaw, codes, its family webs, its shotgun ambivalence toward #outsiders like me.


Easy to romanticize, easy to condemn, impossible to grasp.

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