Archived Opinion

The past, present and future on Alarka

By Dawn Gilchrist-Young

(Editor’s note: Writer Dawn Gilchrist-Young is conducting a series of interviews with mountain natives to gauge their reaction to changes taking place in the region and their memories of the past. These stories will appear intermittently in The Smoky Mountain News.)

When you head up Alarka from N.C. 19/74, you see a microcosm of western North Carolina — old home places with mountain pastures, high end real estate development signs every quarter mile, and enough trash to discourage even the most dedicated “Adopt-a-Highway“ group. Like the rest of the region, upper Alarka is a combination of stunning natural beauty, abject disregard for litter laws, and unbridled greed.

In Donald Edward Davis’ Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians, he writes about six periods of cultural and regional change in the mountains over the centuries, from the conquistador’s impact on the native peoples to the transformation of the land and people between the years of advent and decline in the timber industry. A person traveling up Alarka Creek today, or across almost any of the coves or ridges, can see what may be the seventh period of change — housing construction on a scale that rivals the impact of industrial logging. In recent writings for this paper, Thomas Rain Crowe aptly describes this over-construction as “the new gold rush.”

Bertie Combs is a resident of Alarka whose small frame house sits a quarter mile down the road from the log cabin where she was born in 1920. The fields across from her house, where her family cultivated corn for three generations, now lie fallow. The cabin that sits at the edge of these fields was built by a local man and is where Bertie and her family moved when she was 9. As Bertie says, it is now the property of “a Florida woman who said she wanted to ‘recondition’ it, but never did.” Instead, a mobile home sits behind it, and the cabin itself is falling to rot, even though it was well built to have lasted this long. Taylor Parris, Bertie’s father, tilled those fields and ran a mill on the property that ground corn and produced the first electricity on Alarka. When he died, he was buried about a mile up the mountain from where the cabin sits. He supplemented his farming by blacksmithing as a means of barter, by making caskets and cutting cordwood with the tools he smithed, and by pulling teeth and removing skin cancers with a homemade salve — but these last two he did for free.

The family cemetery on Alarka where Taylor is buried also holds Bertie Combs’ mother and an infant girl who only lived a few days, one of seven children born to Bertie and her first husband, Horace Jones, who was killed working in California tunnels in 1964. Because the family cemetery had no more room at the time, he, and later, their two sons who died in adulthood, had to be buried on Deep Creek.

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Bertie still remembers a sister’s child who developed a fatal strep throat one hard winter, and how the whole family walked up the mountain, carrying the child through a deep snow to bury her in the family cemetery. All the deaths, Bertie says, haunt her, and so she tries not to think about them. She focuses instead on the four daughters, 15 grandchildren, 23 great grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren who are still living. She also concentrates on what she knows how to do best — gardening in summer, canning in fall, and quilting in winter.

Like her father, Bertie Combs is a person who does what is necessary. In that way, her ties to the land represent a disappearing culture, one whose connections to a terrain were born of necessity, of a direct relationship between land and the living, between land and the dead. And this relationship, for the most part, is no longer possible in a world where, as Mrs. Combs says, “People are busy with their TVs and their computers. People will help you if it’s money they can give, but they live all around and won’t help their elderly neighbors.”

Unlike most of her neighbors, Bertie still leans towards self-sufficiency, heating with wood all winter when oil prices are too high to fill her tank, providing for a number of her’s and her second husband’s needs through canning and freezing from her vegetable garden, making quilts and clothing, pulling teeth for those grandchildren and great grandchildren who will allow her, and, until a year or so ago, raising pigs and chickens. And she doesn’t mince her words when it comes to the real estate sales taking place on Alarka.

According to Mrs. Combs, when combined with the trash pitched out by locals and newcomers, the developments springing up everywhere are “ruining the scenery and tearing up the mountains.” She adds that the people moving into the developments, “won’t be friends with you, won’t throw up their hand even if they live right in your door. They put up gates and keep people out.” Further, Bertie says of the people moving into the overpriced developments, just like the young people she knows, “have no imagination — they play games and eat hamburgers. They have too many pleasures — too much stuff. They’d starve to death if they had to raise their own food.”

But raising one’s own food is about maintenance of the land as much as it is about nourishment of the body, and both are part of sustainable living, an old idea that is now a slow growing movement gaining a new following. Although that movement of good land stewardship has a few adherents among land developers here, they are by far in the minority. As long as there are people willing to dump trash along the roadsides, developers willing to turn lush mountainsides into strip mines of $500,000 homes on half acre lots, and people who prefer a wasteful, careless, and ostentatious lifestyle to a down-to-earth lifestyle, sustainable living, neither the kind Bertie Combs once knew, nor a more modern version, is a possibility.

Just down the road from Bertie’s home, there are seasonal houses big enough to hold her’s five times over. Some of the houses are perched on badly excavated lots that thicken the waters of Alarka Creek with red clay runoff after a rain, and look themselves as if they might slide into the creek along with all the diapers and milk cartons if it just rained hard enough. In the last chapter of Where There Are Mountains, Donald Edward Davis says, “In the past, when humans and the environment came together in the mountains, they influenced each other. Nature was never entirely opposed to social life, and mountain culture has always exhibited ecological aspects.” But there is no relationship between people and land when that land is viewed only as a commodity to be bought and sold.

Bertie has a Life magazine photograph of her father sitting in a rocking chair that he made on the porch of the cabin where she was raised. In the picture, Taylor Parris is enigmatically pointing ahead of him for the benefit of the photographer who had strayed 10 miles up Alarka Creek. From the porch of that cabin, however, if you point in the same direction, you are pointing up into the Alarka mountains. Perhaps Mr. Parris was simply giving the photographer directions. Or perhaps he had a prescient sense, as the natives must have had when they sighted the first Europeans, that this arrival signaled significant change.

(Dawn Gilchrist-Young is a writer and teacher who lives in Cullowhee.)

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