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Wednesday, 22 February 2006 00:00

Gilfillan’s Burnt House to Paw Paw

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Several weeks ago I was perusing the used bookstores in Asheville, where there are, somewhat surprisingly, at least four excellent establishments in the immediate downtown area. I always check out the sections featuring Western North Carolina and southern Appalachian titles. Aside from natural history, those are the major areas in which I’ve collected since the 1960s. In the Captain’s Bookshelf, an immaculate establishment, I spotted a little soft cover volume by Merrill Gilfillan titled Burnt House to Paw Paw: Appalachian Notes (West Stockbridge MA: Hard Press, Inc., 1997).

Even if I hadn’t recognized the author’s name, I probably would have examined the book anyway because of the subtitle. But Gilfillan also happens to be the author of one of my favorite travel books, Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains (Boulder CO: Pruett Publishing, 1988), wherein, as one reviewer described it, “The author has crisscrossed the backbone of the North American continent from Texas to Alberta ... observing land and life forms. His writing ranges from lyrical to earthy as he travels the minor roads, small towns and river valleys of the Great Plains.”

Also a poet and short story writer, Gilfillan now resides in Colorado, but he was born in an eastern Ohio town that he depicts early on in Burnt House as being situated “precisely on the edge of the Appalachian mountain system, a village located ... within a mile of the town limits to the east [where] the first roll and rise of the hills, and, eventually, a couple of hours to the southeast, the fold of the full Appalachians.”

Like Magpie Rising, Burnt House to Paw Paw is a description of Gilifillan’s travels and observations, this time in the Appalachian terrains of West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, and the Maryland panhandle, in that order. Driving, camping, walking, and just sitting still, Gilifallan observes closely and then recreates the essence of what he sees in prose that is highly impressionistic, interweaving threads of the past, both human and natural — especially the birds he sees and hears so lovingly. He is an aficionado of the overlooked, the out-of-the-way, and the oft forgotten described with poetic economy that illuminates. Here are some excerpts, taken almost at random.

“And now, with the sun straight up and the redbirds singing, we have officially entered what geologists call ‘the most elegant mountain chain on earth’ ... I am taking this long misshapen ride through my own country for a rest and for a classic change of scenery ... I want to sit in the Smoky Mountains at warbler time ... There is each day in all directions up and down the road inextinguishable amazement at the virtuoso tenacity of botanical nature and the beauty of women along the way.’”

“I park along the Tug Fork and walk over to see the stream. There, below where the titmouse calls in the awakening woods, shine the three dominant whites of this May Kentucky left bank: the train of sycamores, the twinkling dance of the many dogwood blossoms, and the drift and talus of decades of human trash — milk jugs, diapers, cans and mattresses, washers, dryers, frigidaires — dumped over the lip of the stream.”

“Warblers on the retina work like honeysuckle on the nose. During migration, when the stream valleys are full of them, it is total immersion. To be under the right tree on the right morning of May is to partake of one of the great biomagnetic fields, a rush of such delicate beauty and intensity that it is best described as tidal, as a wave — a wave by Hokusai.”

“It is easier to grasp the intricacies of the Appalachian topology in the leafless winter. Januaries, the million trees have a gawky, bony-kneed look against the snow tailings and duff of the wet hills. Little moves but the crow patrols. There is everywhere the feeling of deep pause and a coiling latency. It is raw and muddy landscape with a sad, sacked look. But the topography can be more easily got. The shadows are sharper, the bone beneath more traceable.”

“Twice I saw, this morning, in the upper meadows of Clinch Mountain, high up in the open, rolling, stony pastures, calm old men in overalls and straw hats, bracing themselves with canes, standing in the belt-high meadowgrass among grazing cattle. Simply standing at ease among guernseys in the sunny fields, observing in a casual and familiar way the family creatures they had walked out a slow quartermile to see, to bask in the comforting bovine presence and to enjoy the uncomplicated chattels-on-the-hoof .”

“Looking south from the Smokies I think of solitary William Bartram on his horse, laden with specimens [where] in the actual mountains of the upper Tennessee River the country afforded the gamut of first-impression emotions: astonishment at the sumptuous variety of the vegetal world on these slopes, admiration for the tantalizing, everchanging hue and lure of the receding ranges (‘towering mountains seem completely in motion as I pass along’); and the chill of the humid loneliness, the deeply corridored desolation of his trek.”

“There is something likeable about Cherokee, North Carolina. I felt it when I passed through 20 years ago and now again today. Its onetime tacky tourist attractions have the soft worn edges of four or five decades and an outmoded look that makes them liable for second glances. Compared to its flagrant competition across the Smokies, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Cherokee has an experienced grifter feel that almost amounts to character.”

“It strikes me now as a noble capacity, the capacity of loving place, holding place, and a high form of human excellence. It is something so deep and clearwatered that for days now I have felt that the true Appalachian moment, as far as human content goes, is the moment when people disappear into the hills, turn up a narrow hollow road, or walk back a thin lane and fade into the treedom.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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