Monday, June 30, 2008

Sharyn McCrumb: Endangered Species: The Cosmic Possum

Endangered Species:
The Cosmic Possum

By Sharyn McCrumb

Consider my dining room: oil paintings of hunting scenes; an 8 ft. walnut pier mirror from a North Carolina plantation; an oak silver chest full of handmade English armorial silver (London 1790’s), sitting atop a heavily-carved Victorian walnut sideboard, and… propped up against that antique sideboard: the red and black side panel of a Nextel Cup car, autographed in silver Sharpie by Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton. What does this mean?

I am a Cosmic Possum.

The term, coined by Tennessee poet Jane Hicks, (Blood and Bone Remember: Poems from Appalachia, Jesse Stuart Foundation Press, 2005) refers to people of Southern mountain heritage who have acquired modern sophistication without losing touch with their regional origins. It is the physicist who collects heirloom quilts; the environmental engineer singing Child Ballads; and my teenage daughter Laura, reading with equal ease the hallmarks on antique British sterling or NASCAR driver numbers on the back windows of pick-up trucks.

For cosmic possums culture is not an either- or proposition. The trick is to move into the future without letting go of the past, because if you lose your cultural identity, you have nothing to sustain you in the modern rootless world which lurches from one ephemeral trend to another.

Cosmic possums turn up in interesting places. A few years ago I was in Arizona to present the Ballad Music Program with bluegrass musician Jack Hinshelwood. We had a free day to kill after we finished the program, so we drove up to the Grand Canyon, which I had never seen. That evening we stopped at a fancy restaurant geared to the tourist trade. Besides its western buffet, the restaurant offered a program of Native American dances, performed by young boys from the local reservation. Nine-year old boys in the full regalia of traditional Navajo costumes drummed and danced their way through thousand-year old rituals, looking so perfect that, watching them, you’d believe it could be any century at all. Half an hour later, when we finished dinner, we walked out to the parking lot, and saw one of the young dancers. He still wore the traditional shirt and head-dress of his dance costume, but now he also wore jeans and sneakers. He was sitting on the running board of his dad’s truck, playing his GameBoy. Delighted, I whispered to Jack, “A cosmic armadillo!”

Individuals these days feel enormous pressure to surrender to the great national homogenization. Regional accents are ridiculed; hillbilly jokes and media stereotyping foster a sense of shame for one’s origins; and parts of the Southern mountains have been turned into a blurry Disneyland of current ethnic chic to accommodate the “new people.” Navajo flute music plays in the gift shops around Asheville, chalets and haciendas pepper the hillsides, and Kokopelli prances on turquoise and coral pottery a continent away from where he belongs.

Long ago I learned to value the gift of my heritage.

As a UNC undergrad, back when folk music was in flower, I bought a ten-dollar guitar from a Durham pawn shop and learned a repertoire of three-chord songs from a Joan Baez album. At Thanksgiving I went home to impress my mountain-born father with this new skill that his tuition money was making possible. I sat there on the sofa, playing a rendition of “John Riley,” just as I had learned it from the latest LP. To my astonishment, my father joined in, a little Ernest Tubb on the tune, but letter-perfect on the lyrics. Had he been listening to Baez ? No. He’d learned the song from his grandfather, he said. I checked the liner notes on my album: a Child ballad from the Scots border. My forebears had brought this old tune to America in the 1700’s, passing it down from parent to child for two hundred years. But I went to the Record Bar and paid $6.98 for it. My ancestors and their Appalachian neighbors preserved those old ballads which had been lost in Britain. Because of them the music survived so that there could be an era of folk music, but I had missed it.

I pass this along as a warning. You are the only link between the past and the future. If you throw away your cultural identity, if you refuse to pass on traditions, songs, and stories to the next generation, those treasures may be lost forever. If you’re lucky, some mainstream scavenger will sell you back your birthright for $6.98, but why let it go in the first place? Before we cross the road to the brave new world, Cosmic possums look both ways.

Sharyn McCrumb, a New-York Times best-selling Appalachian writer, won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and the AWA Book of the Year Award for St. Dale, the story of a group of ordinary people who go on a pilgrimage in honor of NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt, and find a miracle. McCrumb, who was honored as a “Virginia Woman of History” for 2008, says: “Writing about NASCAR was a wonderful experience for me. After spending my adolescence writing term papers and avoiding proms, I am now jumping hills at 100 mph with a race car driver on Virginia backroads, and it is glorious. The books won literary awards, are taught throughout the region, got me invited to the White House, and put the Earnhardts and a Daytona 500 winner on my SpeedDial. I'm having much more fun than writers usually have.”
McCrumb is best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels. A film of The Rosewood Casket is currently in production.


Anonymous said...

I just ordered Jane Hicks book. Thanks. I want to be a Cosmic Possum.

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