Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Lessons of Fox and Turtle

    Growing up in the hills of Kentucky was like living in two worlds. On the one hand, the land called to something deep in the spirit, and on the other, desperation called to the "outsiders" to bring in money. Roaming the woods and fields was an education that no school could provide. This was a part of the first world, where joy lit the eyes of a child, and material wants were nowhere near the same as actual need.

    In later years, a grubby little tomboy with thick eyeglasses, far more familiar with a scrub pony or one of the tough little smooth-gaited local horses, went to work in the Bluegrass, on the big horse-farms. There she worked, caring for the glossy hides of the too-often "prima donna" Thoroughbreds and to the whims of their dedicated owners. But she missed the hills terribly.

    She missed the hills that kept the sharp wind off in winter, she missed the smell of the pines in the morning. She missed the way the tough little horses of home looked wooly, turning their hind ends  to the wind, the snow lying on their backs in winter. This young woman missed home, where the tracks of wildlife laced the edges of the thick forest, telling stories few could read.

    One morning, a day off on the farm for her, she was asked to go to town to pick up breakfast at McDonald's for everyone. Armed with a list and a stack of worn dollar bills, she got into the car and departed the farm, driving in the mists of morning down the long gravel driveway to the main road.

    A sudden motion on the side of the road caught her attention, and she stopped gradually, so the tires would hold traction on the loose surface. It was a gray fox, just sitting there, looking somehow desperate. This confused the girl, since most foxes would have been long gone at the sound of an automobile. Something had to be wrong here. Peering around, she finally saw the cause of the vixen's concern: her babies were on the other side of the wide white driveway, separated from the mother by the Mustang the girl was driving.

    It was quite a picture. The vixen sitting in the tall grass, every line of her yearning to go to her young, or for them to be able to safely return to her side. The cubs, obediently still, barely moving, and sitting on their tiny haunches with their eyes on Mother. The pale mist swirled, clinging to the  grass, the car, the foxes.

    Shifting gears quietly, the Mustang backed away. A head popped out the window, and in soft tones told the fox mother to go get her babies, that no one would hurt them today. The adult fox cocked her head to the side, listening carefully to the lilt of the voice, then she arose with dignity, crossed the road and checked her get for injuries. They pounced playfully on her, pressing close to her sides in relief. Once, as they were fading into the damp fog and tall timothy grass, the fox paused in her familial shepherding, and looked back, as if to thank the young woman. The car didn't move until they were on the other side of a black board fence, safe and out of sight.

    That same person, once upon a time and many miles away, had been in the woods alone with her pony, a paperback book tucked in her hip pocket. She had taken out a short, tough rope and tied the pony to a clump of maple beside the ancient trail cut by long extinct bison and later reused for heavy logging with horses. A heaping growth of luxuriant moss called her. She slipped the thin leather lacing she'd used for both bridle and bit on the pony into her pocket as she took out the book. Tossing down the rough saddle blanket she'd had draped over the little spotted horse, she got comfortable on the springy moss with the book.

    However, something kept bothering her. She wasn't sure what it was until a glint of shining white showed up in the tree-filtered sunlight. Rising, she went to it. White is not something usually seen in the deep woods upon these hills.


    In a tight little place between the roots of a tall black oak was a nest of leaves. The leaves had been pressed into place by a small body, and the waving hairs of rusty red and shaded gray told who had been there: a gray fox. A few fleas still hopped among the dead organic matter. She touched the leaves of the nest; they were still warm. But what caught her attention was the story told in the remaining objects.

    In the little nest lay the remains of a box turtle. The naturally camouflaged shell, the gleaming, bare white bones. She thought about it, gently poking to see the details of what had happened.

    The fox had apparently carried the turtle to this place to wait for the shelled creature to look and see if it was safe to come out of its shell. As soon as the long, wrinkled neck of the turtle had poked out of the safety of the carapace, the fox had pounced on it. The rest was, well, lunch. The picture was signed in sharp tooth marks on the still-raw bone ends.

    That tomboy was me; I never forgot the fox's nest in the woods, and even in the approach of middle age, I'm still a happy tomboy. The lessons I learned in the woods have stayed with me for a lifetime. I also grew up listening to the stories of parents and grandparents who in turn had done the same. 


    My father, turning eighty-five years old in February of 2006, remembers when the men of his family used to log all winter, men and horses both using every resource possible to them to buck the winter weather. They'd then float those enormous logs down the Red River during what was called the "June tide".

    I've never seen that "June tide", the regular flooding that once refreshed the land yearly. The topsoil so deposited went down the river with the slaughtered forest. All that remains of the earth here is heavy yellow clay or red sandy soil; the humus is no more. Growing a garden in that sun_baked yellow clay is hard work, as I well know.

    When I asked my father about it, he said our water begins in the big mountains, where the coal mines are. He looked at me with pity and no little understanding, then he turned away so that he wouldn't have to speak of it.

    Since then, so many times I've heard someone say, "It's trees! They'll grow back!" If they only would think about it, they'd see the flaw in such a simple statement. Mow over corn in a garden and what you get when it comes back again is still corn ...  but it's stunted. It'll bear, but never like it would have. Before the advent of the European ways, the native peoples treated these forests as a garden, working with the land's assets to keep the systems stable. Since then, repeated application of poor logging practices, along with the other problems, have further damaged the foothills lands. Until we admit that our culture is the last, best -- and most consistently profitable -- export we can offer the world, the damages will keep happening. And all too soon, that heritage will be gone completely.

    My father had never seen a deer in his homeland until I, his youngest child by many years, was a married woman. It's a sight that still delights his eye, along with the wild turkey that he thought he'd never see. In his childhood, his family was fed in part by the expertise of his mother, who harvested every possible wild plant to feed and attend to the health of her twelve children. A garden, cash crops, and a few farm animals finished the needs. By the time Dad was born, the woodland bison and red wolves were extinct, the deer and turkey gone due to a combination of loss of habitat and overhunting. The day of the hunter-settler was long gone, killed off just as surely as the animals.

    Daylight to dark labor was the rule for all of them. So was short term profit in the face of long term poverty, and it's no different today. We keep selling ourselves, and our land, for a brief boom that isn't worth the subsequent crash the economy, and the ecology, our people must suffer through for generations forward.

    I love these hills, the survival-tough children (human and animal) they raise, but I see it going down the river on that non-existant June tide every year. The unpredictable, dangerous flash floods take more soil away each year, each time the earth is torn and ravaged carelessly. Most of it comes from upstream of these foothills, from the mountaintop removal mining that started back when I was a youngster. At this rate, one day soon the Appalachian Mountains simply won't be there anymore.

    If you've ever seen that barren, alien landscape created by mountaintop removal mining, all man-destroyed, seen the people who still try desperately to live there, who have nowhere else to be, you'll find the same painful misery settling into your very soul that I've had since I saw it the first time. Nothing grows there; the world is literally turned upside down in the name of profit. Even most of the people who work for the big companies which tear down the mountains keep their families elsewhere. It just plain isn't safe. Atop that, I suspect that they're ashamed of what they do, if the truth were told. 

    Mountaintop removal for coal, and stone, is quickly destroying the environment, factories (low paying, no less) finishing off making a mess of our streams and water systems, then leave; irresponsible logging practices are taking the last options away.  None of the current major industries is completely renewable, and all destroy the culture without a backward thought.

    It doesn't take a genius to learn the lessons of the fox and turtle. Stick your silly neck out of the only home you have, and someone more clever will bite it off for you. Keep your children (the future) safe, work with your world's members without greed or anger, and tomorrow will come just the same. Safe and sound.

    What I want to know is this:  Do we cast out a rich, unique heritage of Cherokee, Scots-Irish, German, and English ancestors who came to these hills and mountains looking to make a new life for future generations, or do we finally start being responsible for our actions? The only thing that remains of Kentucky's immense primordial forest is pictures someone thought to preserve, and a few old, fragmented stories. There are images among those old photographs of trees so huge that it took a whole railroad car to haul away each section of the trunks. What a gift, what a heritage. So, do we keep exploiting ourselves, destroying the land we live on? Where do we go from here?

    A few years back, a man from Ohio, visiting the Red River Gorge's Gladie Creek Historical Site once cursed the winding road he'd just driven over. "I know there's got to be some way for them to straighten out that road!" The man was serious, upset.

    I replied gently to him, "Of course, sir. Why don't we just destroy what we came here to see?" To that, he had no reply. He looked ashamed and walked away while several local people nearby snorted with laughter. What else was I to say to him, and remain honest about it? The land is immeasurably different where he comes from; he honestly didn't know what he proposed.

    The foothill region of Kentucky, where I live, has long been known as a "closed community" area. By this, it's meant that in the past, before the roads were extended and improved to increase travel (mostly thanks to coal, a precious kind of black gold, and the greed that has always followed it), there was very little travel into and out of the towns.  Strangers were suspect, and if you had no one to vouch for you locally, chances would be good that no one would give you as much as the time of day. This wasn't due to the legendary moonshine stills of the prohibition era, but to the backgrounds of the residents.

    Historically, the Appalachian region is known only as a dumping ground for white trash, which is proven untrue when you search for the roots of the whole forest.  The depth of the problems people in that time period experienced was huge. All of them had something to escape. A personal history, genetic background (Native American, mostly Cherokee), or pure poverty in some cases. Most only wanted to live without persecution. They were survivors, all of them, and only looking for a better place to start a future.

    Who our ancestors were makes us who we are. The things passed down from generation to generation carry weight and wisdom that should not be spat upon.  Tomorrow's roots are in rich old soil, without which we would all surely suffer. That soil, both figurative and literal, is being destroyed and lost forever, day by day, dollar by dollar.

    My husband and I have made our choice. We bought a small piece of mountaintop, up on Furnace Mountain, where people of a past generation had an iron smelter long ago. There grow heirloom white peaches, gone wild upon the mountain. There grow pawpaw, hickory and black walnut, countless wild herbs and blackberries without the taint of chemicals. It's all regrowth, but we can help it along, preserve a chance at life. The old deed, we're told, called for "the waters of Cat Creek" (originally called "Catamount Creek"), as the runoff from the old Shoemaker farm feeds that stream just below our cliff-sides. We've opted for solar power; it's cheaper, more adaptable, and a lot more responsible. There are freshwater springs on our new farm, and the possibility of a gas well. Our choice is to survive responsibly.

    We've gone home, and we're not going to stick our neck out in the name of pure cash profit. No, we won't be rich, but we'll be happy on our little piece of the mountain. We'll fight long and hard to keep it that way.  Yesterday is worth preserving, and tomorrow is far more important to us than nothing more than today.