By Renea Winchester
Outside, a Cardinal declares the day shall be "pretty, pretty, pretty," a refreshing change from the dreary "wet, wet...you" accurate prediction of precipitation we've endured this winter. A Carolina Wren joins his song, drowning the forecast with tweets and clicks. She sings her gravely song with head held high, as she awakens daffodils from their slumber, giving me hope that finally, I've made it through another winter.
Nature plays an important role in not only establishing a sense of place, as was the case with my book, In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes, but providing the physical escape needed in order to create. I refer to myself as a "sensory-author," one who must feel (sometimes literally) that which she is writing about. Concerned that my memory would fail, I wrote portions of In The Garden With Billy on fast-food napkins. Scribbling frantically beneath the corn stalks while praying for a cooling breeze, I wrote clipped phrased I'd use later. Once I returned home, I'd unfold the napkin, brush aside the dirt wedged in the creases, and relive the day while working on my laptop.
Recently, I was awarded the Denny Plattner Award for my non-fiction essay. Remembering is a come-with-me story about the tradition of "Decoration Day;" a practice my family has maintained for over seventy-five years.
The road narrows and turns to grass. I inhale deeply and fight back tears. I am home. Several generations of family members have loaded into the back of pickup trucks then parted a sea of tourists to visit a place we hold sacred. While others flock to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to play, we travel to a place few will ever see. We travel in part out of duty and respect. We travel to honor our heritage, and remember.
In this excerpt, I carry you into a secret place my people once called home. Without personally experiencing the moment, my feeble imagination can not envision anything as accurate as what I share. While I do not categorize myself as a "Nature Writer," everything I've written that has won awards has reflected my love of nature. Leaving me to ponder for a moment, Where am I finding this soul-feeding nutrient in the heart of Atlanta?
Often, I retreat into the woods behind my home. Carrying a blanket, water bottle, and a notebook (yes, I still put pen-to-paper), I escape to the trickle of a creek which is actually the overflow from a neighboring pond. Sitting beneath an enormous river birch, I imagine the whispering water is actually the deafening rush of the Oconaluftee River, or Indian Creek Falls. I must write quickly, because my mind is rarely fooled by this trickery.
Inevitably, this attempt at solace triggers my neighbor's need to cut his lawn. The whining Briggs and Stratton grates against my process like nails on chalk. It is, without fail, a promise that the moment I begin to write, he decides it's time to cut the grass (on a Sunday, no less). Shaking away this impediment, I try another route. Lacing my shoes tight, I grab the hand-held recorder, determined to walk myself into a creative moment. For me, walking has proven to be a highly effective means to generate ideas. Unfortunately, soon after I begin rambling off a list of ideas, the ear-piercing cry of an ambulance shatters the moment.
Desperate, I must escape into a place where I can not be found. Vanishing into a pathless place where busyness is not invited, I listen for the voices of those who have walked the land before me. I sit still, aware of everything and nothing. I must taste the sweetness of the moss, hug the calloused fragility of bark, and try not to cry as my face presses into the creases of the hemlock tree, all while knowing this species may vanish during my time on earth.
Overhead hemlocks are loosing their battle with the Wooly Adelgid. The once strong trees stand weak and anorexic. Only a few green branches remain. Surrounded in death, they bravely fight to survive the microscopic beetle’s attack. I notice the smell of the forest has changed. Something is missing. The honey fragrance of mountain laurel and honeysuckle travel on the breeze, but the heady smell of hemlock is less pungent. Tears fall as I wonder if the species will survive another season, or will their skeletons be all that welcomes me home next year.
Lacking the imagination of those much greater than I, my best offering to readers is an invitation into my world; one filled with yarn-spinning true-life characters, pristine places few will ever see, and the belief that everyone, every single one of us has a story that matters to someone. While I create this on paper, it is impossible for me to share it with you unless I first experience it through the eyes of Mother Nature.
Renea Winchester is an award-winning author whose book In The Garden With Billy: Lessons About Life, Love & Tomatoes was recently nominated for the SIBA award. She lives in Atlanta, but escapes to the Smoky Mountains at every possible opportunity.