A Novelist Looks at the Land
by Sharyn McCrumb
A country road in the west of Scotland. I look out at the sweep of field and forested hills surrounding us, and I feel a sense of calm. “It looks right,” I say.
A month later I went home to southwest Virginia with a photograph of that landscape of Scottish countryside, and I passed it around to the neighbors. “Where is that?” I asked them.
“Bland County,”: they would say, naming a county between us and Tennessee.
They were right: it did look like Bland County, even though it was half a world away. I wondered if their answers echo the feelings of their pioneer ancestors two centuries ago, who, having to homestead in a strange land, chose a place that reminded them of home. In a way, they were back home, though it would be two centuries later before anyone realized that geological miracle.
“Land is who we are,” says Randall Stargill, a character in my Appalachian novel The Rosewood Casket.The strongest element in fiction set in the mountain South is a sense of place. That connection to the land is the key to understanding the people who settled here, those who are drawn to live here now, and those who cannot leave. In my work I try both to celebrate the land, and to understand its power over those who have become a part of it.
From time to time readers of my Ballad novels tell me that they have moved to the Appalachians because they felt drawn to that place. “It’s odd,“ they say. “My ancestors didn’t come from here, but I felt that this was where I belonged.“ I nod and ask, “Are your ancestors Scottish, or Irish, or Welsh?“ Usually the answer is yes. “Then in a way you are from these mountains,” I tell them. The explanation is as geologic as it is mystical. I tell them about my own ancestors, whose story must be similar to their own family’s history. My father’s people settled in the western North Carolina mountains in the 1790‘s, when the wilderness was still Indian country. Originally from Scotland and the north of England, they left the eastern seaboard to venture into the wilderness of the Appalachian frontier, because they wanted highland vistas, land, and as few neighbors as possible.
The first of my family to settle in America was my five-times great-grandfather Malcolm McCourry, kidnapped as a child from the Scottish island of Islay in 1751, and made to serve as a crewman on a sailing ship. He never saw his family or his home again. In his late teens Malcolm turned up in Morris County, New Jersey, where he became a lawyer, later fighting with the Morris Militia in the American Revolution. In 1791, Malcolm McCourry, fifty years old in an era when fifty was old, declined to retire into a peaceful twilight of grandchildren and prosperity. Instead, he left his wife and grown children and headed down the wilderness road through Pennsylvania and into the Carolina back country to begin a new life on the frontier. He took a new young wife, raised a second family (from which I am descended), and homesteaded in a log cabin in the wildwood until his death in 1829-- a sojourn in the wilderness lasting longer than his tenure as a lawyer on the eastern seaboard.
He must have felt at home in the mountain fastness of western North Carolina. What he never knew was that in a geologic sense, he was back home. In The Songcatcher, my novel based on Malcolm McCourry’s life, the central theme was provided by a scholarly publication on Appalachian geology. In Traces on the Appalachians: A History of Serpentine in America (Rutgers University Press, 1988), geologist Kevin Dann writes that the first Appalachian journey was the one made by the mountains themselves.
The proof of this can be found in a vein of a green mineral called serpentine which forms its own subterranean “Appalachian Trail” along America’s eastern mountains, stretching from north Georgia to the hills of Nova Scotia, where it seems to stop. This same vein of serpentine can be found in the mountains of western Ireland, where it again stretches north into Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and the Orkneys, finally ending in the Arctic Circle. More than two hundred and fifty million years ago (before even fish existed yet) the mountains of Appalachia and the mountains of Great Britain fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Continental drift pulled them apart, at the same time it formed the Atlantic Ocean.
The mountains’ family connection to Britain reinforced what I had felt about the migration patterns of the early settlers. People forced to leave a land they loved come to America. Hating the flat, crowded eastern seaboard, they head westward on the Wilderness Road until they reach the wall of mountains. They follow the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, and finally find a place where the ridges rise, where you can see vistas of mountains across the valley. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the Cornishmen-- all those who had lives along the other end of the serpentine chain-- to them this place must have looked right. Must have felt right. Like home. And they were right back in the same mountains they had left behind in Britain.
Perhaps it isn’t a unique experience in nature, this yearning for a place to which one is somehow connected. After years in the vast ocean salmon return to spawn in the same small stream from whence they and their forebears came; Monarch butterflies make the journey from the eastern seaboard to the same field in Mexico that had been the birthplace of the previous generation. The journey there and back again is unchanging, but each generation travels only one way. Is it really so strange that humans might feel some of this magnetism toward the land itself?
I thought this bit of mountain geology was a wonderful metaphor for the journeys reflected in The Songcatcher, and that, in a sociological way, it closed the circle. I imagined my ancestor, Malcolm McCourry, harking back to memories of the hills of Scotland he knew as a child. Perhaps when he saw the green mountains of North Carolina, he felt that he had come home. When I visit Scotland, I marvel at the resemblance between their land and ours— surely the pioneers felt the same awe in reverse.
If you go looking for the serpentine chain in Britain, the best place to find it is on the Lizard, a peninsula in Cornwall between Falmouth and Penzance that is the southernmost tip of England. There at Kynance Cove you can see the cliffs of magnesium-rich serpentine, and the chain of rocks in the bay that marks the path to Ireland’s link on the great geologic chain. Serpentine began as peridotite, first as molten rock beneath the surface of the earth, and then as a deposit on the ancient seabed of the Rheic Ocean, some 375 million years ago. When two prehistoric super continents collided, the Lizard was slammed into the land mass that would become Britain. Another continental do-si-do produces Laurentia, which travels north of the equator, passing the Tropic of Cancer 100 million years ago. Since the last Ice Age, the Lizard has rested at 50 degrees north latitude, part of an island walled away from continental Europe by the rising sea. The boundary between the landmass of the Lizard and the rest of Cornwall lies at Polurrian Cove, a clear demarcation even today. In the tiny village of Lizard, craftsmen today carve bowls and pendants out of Tremolite serpentine, just as the Cherokees in eastern America once carved bowls of their own from this mineral-- just as the Vikings farther north on the European chain carved spindle whorls from the soft rock. Will the circle be unbroken? Indeed.
I have scores of cousins who have never left that mountain fastness: no amount of money, and no dazzle of city lights could ever tempt them to abandon the land. I feel some of that power of place as I write, looking out across the ridges of mountains stretching along the Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, and knowing that deep in the earth the serpentine chain is snaking its way past my farm, pointing the way to Canada, to Ireland, to the Orkneys.
My office sits perched on the edge of the ridge so that from my window I can see green meadows far below, and folds of multi-colored hills stretching away to the clouds in the distance. It could be any century at all in that vista, which is just the view one needs to write novels set in other times. I tell myself I don’t want to live anywhere else, but every year or two, I make my way back to Britain, and I spend a few weeks wandering around the west of Ireland, or the coves of Cornwall, or the cliffs of Scotland-- an ocean away from home, but still connected by the serpentine chain.