Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Old Chestnuts

An Appalachian Spring is the most sweetly-savored seasonal experience I've ever had: long, with gradually emergent flora–and certainly fauna–over the span of about two or more months, and filled with bird song. While I was delighted to find that we have four seasons here, of varied durations from a New England year, the spring is my most favorite time to be in the knobs and hollers of Kentucky.

Composer Aaron Copland's glorious symphony, Appalachian Spring, captures that beauty and emergence of spring in music. I often listened to it as a young girl with my father on the hi-fi in our suburban living room, where Appalachia seemed like a distant and dreamy place somewhere on the map south of our little corner of northeastern Ohio. Little did I know that one day, by way of New England, I would be living here or that "Appalachia" also technically includes most of New England and much of the northeastern corridor. Now we live in its most westerly foothills, the lovely, rolling "knob region" of south-central Kentucky.

Over at Cupcake Chronicles, we're getting back on track with our mutual reading and blogging. This month we are enjoying Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver. This is the first novel I have read by her, having enjoyed her essay collections and her nonfiction gem, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which we read together last summer. A Kentucky native and a biologist by training, the natural world, landscape and its people inform much of Kingsolver's writing and especially this novel. She is certainly one of our finest living writers.

I don't often do this but I am double-posting today at Cupcake Chronicles and here at In the Pantry. I needed a bit of spring today as we begin to thaw and warm again, and hope you might, too. In the meantime, perhaps you'd like to read this book along with the Cupcakes–you are more than welcome to join our conversation!
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In Chapter 3 of Prodigal Summer we are introduced to Garnett at the start of a morning in May. Already I know that this novel is so richly tied to Appalachian place and landscape and the people in it: home places, farms, cabins, hollows. Last night I had to pause to reread this short and luminous chapter again. Because of its beauty, and its resonance for me here in Kentucky, I couldn't wait to include it here this morning in its short, breathtaking entirety:
Eight years a widower, Garnett still sometimes awoke disoriented and lost to the day. It was because of the large empty bed, he felt; a woman was an anchor. Lacking a wife, he had turned to God for solace, but sometimes a man also needed the view out his window.

Garnett sat up slowly and bent toward the light, seeing as much with his memory as with his eyes. There was the gray fog of dawn in this wet hollow, lifted with imperious slowness like the skirt of an old woman stepping over a puddle. There were the barn and slat-sided grain house, built by his father and grandfather in another time. The grass-covered root cellar still bulged from the hillside, the two windows in its fieldstone face staring out of the hill like eyes in the head of a man. Every morning of his life, Garnett had saluted that old man in the hillside with the ivy beard crawling out of his chin and the forelock of fescue hanging over his brow. As a boy, Garnett had never dreamed of being an old man himself, still looking at these sights and needing them as badly as a boy needs the smooth lucky chestnut in his pocket, the talisman he rubs all day just to make sure it's still there.

The birds were starting up their morning chorus. They were in full form now, this far into spring. What was it now, the nineteenth of May? Full form and feather. He listened. The prothalamion, he had named this in his mind years ago: a song raised up to connubial union. There were meadowlarks and chats, field sparrows, indigo buntings, all with their heads raised to the dawn and their hearts pressed into clear liquid song for their mates. Garnett held his face in his hands for just a moment. As a boy he had never dreamed of an age when there was no song left, but still some heart.
I am already reveling in the natural and peopled world of Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer and perhaps am enjoying it all the more because it has been a very cold and snowy January.

NOTE: I had to look up prothalamion: it is a song or poem celebrating an upcoming wedding, from the title of a Tudor-era poem by Edmund Spenser, written in 1596.

NOTE on MY PHOTOGRAPHS: The indigo bunting is a common bird here in south-central Kentucky. At first we thought they were bluebirds darting back and forth in front of us, but the feathers of an indigo bunting are an even more intense blue. I actually saw our first bluebirds here a few weeks ago on a fence post behind our house. [Apologies for my not owning a zoom lense–that would have enhanced these photographs.]

As you might expect by now, old home places are a recurring photographic subject of mine: the window image is from an abandoned Greek Revival farmhouse near the community of Forkland and Gravel Switch (now used to store hay and farm equipment) and the root cellar is built into a cool, shaded northern hillside across the street from it on another property. Both images were taken in May 2009.


Tora: said...

I absolutely adored Kingsolver's 'Prodigal Summer'. A magical book that made me want to move there and never leave.

Anonymous said...

Copland's "Appalachian Spring" is one of my favorites. My grandmother, the one who lived where I now live, died in early March 1968. I lived and worked in Lexington at the time. My father called me early, early to tell me she had died and I headed for Casey County around 5:30 AM that same day. As I drove, "Appalachian Spring" was playing on the radio. The sun was beginning to pink the sky during that time and it was obvious that our spring was on its way. I still get so nostalgic when I hear that lovely piece of music and I feel so close to my beloved grandmother.

Yosemite Cat House

Catherine said...

Tora, I couldn't stop reading it last night, it haunted my day, and now I can't wait to get back to it again!

I've always enjoyed books about place and farms and people but this one is transcendent.

And Yosemite Cat House, your story is beautiful, also. You must have had such a special connection with your grandmother. When I hear it I think of my dear Dad, too.

Copland also wrote the music for the Lincoln Portrait which they also performed at the Lincoln Memorial before Obama's inauguration. I was in tears.

To have music in my forever memory from childhood that shaped my images of what "Appalachia" might be, now forms so much of my connection with what our new lives have become here.