And How Should I Then Live

It is late, and I am last to bed, past the usual time. I step out onto the front porch into the cool, sweet air of early June, and sit on the top step quietly as if not to disturb the wildlife, whose nocturnal day I am entering.

The pasture grasses just beyond the maples are in full flower and their pollen smells like midnight bread baking, while Goose Creek sends up wafts of spearmint, wet mud and turbulence.

My eyes soon learn to see in darkness and I am aware of soundless flashes of summer lightning, and stars overhead. My night vision comes and goes with each flash and pause and flash. Rising from the dark field on the fragrance of grasses are tens of thousands of lightning bugs. Put them in a jar, shake and see them illumined with the cold translucence of memory. They pulse and rise above the field in counterpoint to the tempo of the clouds, signaling ancient syllables that we could understand, if we were more often still, less hurried, and more at home in our own pastures.

Gravity pulls me down and I lie on my back, on cool stone horizontal, before a mock-infinity of space, wondering what is my place in this world of men and of words? Do I deserve to be so blessed among Earth’s teeming humanity? What must I do in the warmth of this gentle epiphany that is revealed to me tonight and how should I then live? Maybe I will try to find the words in the morning, after the house is quiet again and the fireflies have gone to bed and the world smells of heat and ozone and toast.


It was seven years ago that I wrote those words–June 6, 2002–a date that, for me, marks the beginning of a journey. And I am traveling still.

I was lost then, pleasantly, terrifyingly lost, and only knew that from that night on, I would write as I found my direction and destination. Seven years ago, I began searching for words to find my way forward toward some kind of purpose and point, for an unknown listener and with an uncertain outcome. To write without hope and without despair, every day, from the heart, from what I had seen, smelled, felt on my skin. That is all I knew I would do.

“Summer Lightning” (now in Slow Road Home) is the first thing I ever wrote that broke my heart. Yes, that is what I wanted and needed to say, that is the vision I needed, even if it came as questions and not as answers.

I was a wanderer, and it is in finding our way by giving our full attention to every step along the way, every bent twig and bend in the road that we are best able to put ourselves properly on the maps by which we orient our lives. I miss that lostness, even as I pause this morning as fireflies settle into the tall pasture and give thanks for having since that night found something of a path, a point and a place to fully live.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Hello Fred! Enjoyed the videos courtesy of WDBJ. Makes me miss Floyd County even more! I MUST finish reading my current book so I can get to reading What we Hold in Our Hands!

    Your book order from England did not by chance come from Krin Collins Suref, did it? She use to live in Copper Hill and now is in England. She might enjoy one of your books.

  2. The picture, moving…
    The write, awesome and beautiful!
    I am so glad that I came to your site…it is refreshing…..Your writes are down to earth and reassuring…thank you