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  • John Diamond-Nigh

#Madison County: O what a day!


Several years ago, Lynne and I decided to move to a whole new country–beautiful, exotic, and different than anything we had known before. Portugal? Perhaps. In the end we moved to #Appalachia.


Asheville, to be precise. We have loved this small, cosmopolitan, “gutty”–to borrow an MFK Fisher adjective–city. And surrounding us is a mountain world that we will never grasp, a Cherokee world, a secretive, mysterious, song-catching, ballad-singing, retributive, often archaically superstitious world that is as inaccessible as were the remote villages of Crete where I lived and worked and saw blood feuds enacted in the town squares. Still, we can try.


Two dear friends, Don and Bonnie, who know this region with the exactitude and sympathy of natives, are our guides. Both belong to an association that strives to preserve old buildings, particularly #barns, throughout #Appalachia.


I hear the words "snake church". Hand written and hand stenciled across the front of a grubby white structure are a concatenation of words straight out of Revelation. “The spirit of fire” catches my eye. “Something to do with rattle snakes,” Don says. “If you survived in there, it was proof you belonged to the Lord.” Hmmmm. Trial by poison.


Madison County–up and up along narrower and narrower roads–was a world of greens. I thought of #Lorca’s great poem, beginning, “Green, I love you green . . .” Lynne recites the lines in Spanish. These surging hills of blinding, glittering green were a green to love. Mile after mile, like wooden outcrops skirted in verdure, old barns stood, old abandoned general stores, habitations that ranged from recent to shotgun scrabbles of junk. The blackened barns and surrounding sheds and cribs for the most part are tin-roofed and still intact. Many are log. #Late 1800’s. Most are sheathed in quilt-like lattices of utmost beauty. Most were #tobacco barns and the lattices afforded ventilation.


A beautiful barn, to me at least, in its simplicity, its carpentered elegance, has always been as beautiful as the Parthenon or the Taj Mahal. As meaningful. Their decaying #abandonment only adds a night-shade of poignancy. Don describes the shoestring on which most of them were constructed. You have a family of eight to feed. You’re trying to make your plot of three or four acres arable. You’ve cut your own lumber. You may have some help, maybe not much. And if you hope to survive, you have to get that barn up. Without, of course, electricity. Heroic.


We make our way up a small gravel path, the car rocking like a ship in a storm. After a half mile, there breaks into view the remains of a white house as exquisitely wrought and beautifully proportioned as anything I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a diamond of the carpentry arts. The tasteful frills and ornamentation are beyond belief. You almost can hear the ghosts swishing inside. And it’s falling down. “No one wanted to save this?” I stutter. Closing in is the same slow hurricane of green. Primordial iron implements lie around in the weeds. All of us are snapping pictures like crazy.


Somewhere a dog is barking. A boy’s voice keeps shouting, from a neighboring hill, shut up shut up shut up shut up. Serial, barbaric.


Just as lunch is winding up, a friend of our friends arrives. He’s an architect and a man who has devoted the last twenty years to the #conservation of these dying, austere, magnificent barns. He is brimming with news of his morning, spent in the company of–I gather–a true mountaineer. “Four hours of stories,” he says. Every flower here has, of course, a botanical name and a folk name. He lists the latter. They are vividly poetic. And like the barns, they too are being lost. “At one point, words weren’t enough and this guy just broke out singing a #ballad.” Taylor laughs. He knows these ancient ballads.


What, in a nutshell, are their themes? I ask.


“Well, for the most part, tragic,” he murmurs.

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