If You Don’t Know Where You Are…

Volunteer Daylilies along Goose Creek

…You can’t know WHO you are. Or so says Wendell Berry and others who think about the roots of our identity in the communities and from the landscapes that form our character, values and to a large degree, our destiny.

Ten years ago this summer, the WHERE of my living took precedent over the WHAT of my living. By both accident and by intention, suddenly, here I was–without a professional identity for a time. Who could say how long. And I began to shift my thinking from the ME to the WE; from my future to our future.

Critical to this transition was a change in my understanding about my own belonging. I had what I call my Appalachian Epiphany at a presentation in Floyd by Sharon McCrumb, speaking about her research for a book she was writing. In that study she discovered (the factuality of this is in some dispute I think) that the entire Appalachian chain is underlain by the same geological structure called Serpentine, from the mountains’ southern terminus in central Alabama where I grew up, to the Gaspe Peninsula, under the north Atlantic, rising to erode into Appalachian-feeling highlands above the surface of Scotland and Ireland.

I remember entering a kind of conscious, unblinking trancelike state there in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian Church where McCrumb was speaking to a packed house.

I saw all the places I had lived, from Birmingham, to Sylva and Morganton, North Carolina, to Wytheville and now FLoyd in Virginia. They were, every one, along or within easy sight of the core of the Southern Mountains.

I was Appalachian, by birth and by belonging–so that I could not stray out of touch with these very mountains. This obvious fact had never entered my thinking until that moment.

The other thing McCrumb mentioned–and it really got my attention–was that she had collaborated with the head of the Appalachian Studies program at Virginia Tech. I had no idea there was such a curriculum anywhere, especially just up the road.

A few days later, I called the head of the App Studies program, and she convinced me to take a class she would be teaching, starting in a month, called “Appalachian Identities.”

I am revisiting this history as part of knowing WHERE I am because of where I’ve been, to perhaps get a grasp of where I’m going.

This is a personal rumination. I vacillate about posting it here, since the vast majority of folks who might have participated in this sojourn since or after June 2002 have long since left the building. Maybe a few new, casual guests will be interested to know the roots of Fragments and of the various writing and discourse that has arisen out of these historical roots. Or maybe not. Move along, and just come for the pictures. This is an all-you-care-to-eat a la carte blog.

But as has been the case for a decade, I don’t know what else to do if I’m to know what I think than to see what I say.

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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. I’ll save that quote for sure, Gary. It puts human senses and understanding as the projector for all of cosmic unfolding, I suppose, but the cockroaches just don’t care for cosmic or local history or stories, and I suppose somebody’s gotta do the writing and the reading.

  2. Fred, it’s a fine thought that we too are on a serpentine journey (although in another sense), one that embraces not only the present, but all the past and times to come too. As I get older, time seems to be more of a spiral than anything else.

    Readers come and readers go, but whenever I try to puzzle out why I am wordsmithing and taking endless bad photos, it all comes back to something simple. I do as I do to know my native place, the place of which I am such a small gnarly creaking part – less than a mote in the eye of the universe in fact.

  3. Stay tuned, Cate, more to come on “sense of place” as that concept evolved from a tiny seed also sprouting about ten years ago. Self-knowledge is partial without place knowledge, I’ve come to believe, though how one gains that full understanding I have not fully known. But I’m not dead yet! : > }

  4. I love the geology lesson! No wonder you were able to realize you are an Appalachian. I have been too much of a rolling stone to relate to you on this one (Wisconsin, Michigan, Tennessee, California) but I feel like a North American, and love roaming from coast to coast for months at a time, feeling at home everywhere.