At long last, we managed to get ourselves down to southern Virginia this summer, a trip vastly overdue and a time to reconnect with family. There are other chapters to be written about ties that bind and family history, but this one is about the land.
When we woke, whether we looked out the front or the back window, there were cattle, and, once, a young buck grazing among them, pretending at being a steer. Aunt Norma, dealing with medical issues and unable to take the journey herself, emphasized the importance of going up the mountain, and cousin Mike took the men on the long drive up. Cattle were fed; pictures were taken. I remember going up there as a child and picking wild strawberries, and turning strong lights on at night so we could see the deer. Mike’s father, and the grandfather we share, raised cattle, too. I’m told my father cowboyed out west, summers, and it helped pay for school.
I didn’t go up the mountain, but I sat overlooking the hills in the mornings, and one day walked up the dirt road—more cattle to visit but also the hum of crickets and birds, tangles of wildflowers, and unfolding curves that beckoned me. Trees waved in the gentle breeze and I thought of my father, who also loved this land. I visited the cemetery, where he and many of my other relatives’ tombstones nestle in the green grass, the markers weathered and hosting lichen and moss, not far from the mountain.
Woody Guthrie was right—this land is our land . But so was Robert Frost in The Gift Outright —“the land was ours before we were the land’s.” His poem, an inaugural one for John F. Kennedy, talks of nations and war, and my people were part of that story, too. But this part makes me think of the mountain, and how it owns us all now:
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
I’m told there are some cousins, most of whom I’ve never met, who aren’t especially attached to our family’s mountain. But I am so glad for those who have given themselves to it, seen the grace that it holds; longed for, sought, and found wordless connection there. We are the land’s as much as the land is ours. And the connection we feel comes with responsibility; if you spend enough time in nature this realization becomes unavoidable. Teddy Roosevelt, another lover of mountains, said it well:
Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.
And Gary Snyder has summed up the way that many feel; the way that I felt in Virginia although I was hours away from my house and usual environs:
Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.