And How Should I Then Live?

Goose Creek, Floyd Co Virginia
Goose Creek, Floyd Co Virginia (Photo credit: fred1st)

It was not a rhetorical question ten years ago this week: what was I to do with myself, standing at the edge of a precipice, the leap of faith promising both pain and promise?

“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.”

This short passage comes early in Slow Road Home because it came early in that inexplicable, mapless chapter of my life that had appeared with such jarring suddenness–as if a chaos-creating someone had walked into the room of my life and changed channels from the regular soap opera; only the stage and props had stayed the same. The roles for the two familiar characters was rewritten almost overnight, the lines confusing, the plot and ending a featureless terrain as far as I could see.

And yet, I had a sense that there was purpose beyond the abyss. The destination would not show itself the next morning, the next month. If there was meaning here, if there was a point to this unplanned change of course, I would have to wrestle it to the ground anew every morning. Writing seemed to offer the Rosetta Stone for making sense of both who and especially WHERE I was in June of 2002.

How should I then live in the light of all that had happened? What was I to do with myself if I was not a biology teacher or physical therapist? Was there worth, merit or esteem to be found in simply being fully human, living intentionally where a man woke up each new morning, in an isolated and beautiful mountain valley?

A decade of attention, of stillness, of language and light, has brought answers. And from the fragments, as I had so hoped, is emerging the whole of which they have been a part all along. It’s only my script, only my own synthesis of “what it all means” and of my role, and our role, in it. But getting it down in words seems a worthwhile use of what remains of my time and energy.

All along, the writing has been about relationships–to nature, place and community. But the writing has been fragmentary. Now, I see the possibility to pull the threads together, to knit the patchwork into a larger body of work that tells both my story as a biology-watcher becoming aware of his personal ecology, and our story as a unique generation of humans at a profound and historical turning point.

I imagine the book completed. I lack the skills and discipline, but these are foes that can be defeated.  I lack the zeal and drive I used to draw from a body of responsive blog and news column readers.  I have no idea where to find those missing nutrients now.

So what am I to do with this not-so-subtle and time-urgent epiphany?

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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. Maybe it’s time to take a paper notebook and pen up Nameless Creek to the spot with the lawn chairs and sit in expectation…Even if the words don’t come, the time will be well spent.

  2. Gary, exactly! Also taking the ipad for sketching. Total immersion.

    Out with the camera some this morning in the pasture, due for cutting soon, didn’t want to miss it in its “feral” state. An image up soon on Fragments.

    I need a sense of audience and accountability that I once had. I have the passion and I have the message. I’m not motivated enough to build it and and hope they come. I had so much help during the building in years past–encouragement, mostly, but I find I need some shepherding and conversation about the process along the way.

    I’ve thought maybe the best way to go under the circumstances is to learn not to NEED to write or to have my views of the world, from micro-to-macro, “out there” any more and be happy to live locally for the duration. Other people live without writing. I did too, until ten years ago this month.

    But the momentum of a decade of habit and urge is hard to bring to a screeching halt.

    We’ll see what happens.

  3. New publishing and e-reader choices (and even audiobook, though I suppose that’s considerably more effort) offer a wider range to reach, even for the same or lower costs.

  4. Fred – this is a long shot here, but have you considered starting up writing workshops for people? Workshops that involve being out in nature? Helping other find their voice? Creating an audience for others that then creates one for you? Just an idea and as I said perhaps a long shot.

  5. You know, Fred……………… One thing that keeps me coming back here every morning is your deep love for the earth and her wild places – it shows in every image and every paragraph you write, and I love coming here. The idea of workshops is inspired, and you are the perfect person to do them.

    On a day to day basis? We watch and just breathe in and out, continue walking the wild and incandescent path we are on. We sketch and take photos, write about our rambles online and in print, pass on what a truly wondrous place this planet is.

    I’ve almost worn out my copies of your books and will have to reorder them soon. Oh yes, and more books please!

  6. Cate…Thanks much for your thoughts and vision. We’ll see what the coming weeks hold. If anything I’ve become more distracted than ever with the outside work and garden, new guitar, new “painting toys” and that whole other way of “mixing” colors and shadows in my mind.

    The book I have in mind may not be able to leave that cluttered place. Something more bite-sized might be helpful. Or, as I’ve considered often, something that mixes images, music and words like the “visual essays” I have done the past couple of years, but available on DVD or online somehow. And an audio-booklet, perhaps.

    I envy those folks who know from an early (or even a much later) age what they were supposed to do when they grow up.

  7. wow, Fred. I’m glad to have met you. Looking forward to working with you and learning from you. I read your blog long before moving here. Lovely, peaceful words. Thanks.

  8. Wow, Fred. I’m glad to have met you. Looking forward to working with you and learning from you. I read your blog long before moving here. Lovely, peaceful words. I like the writer’s workshop idea. Maybe an online class?

  9. I hear you, Fred, and share many of your points of view. I also know from what I’ve read that you will do as you damn well please.

    That’s a good thing. Riders on the Storm.

  10. Fred, I haven’t read your blog for two months while I’ve been traveling, but I’m home, and I just read this entry. It prompts me to share a quote from an interview with an artist named Ran Ortner that I just finished reading: “I think that making art is profoundly and fundamentally life affirming. To make art is to give, to pour yourself into life, so you don’t die with the music still inside you. You give it to your culture.” (From “The Sun” magazine, June 2012.)
    You can apply that to all the art forms you pursue, so it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows through you, as long as you keep expressing, through one art form or another, or all combined! I love what you do with all your art forms.