-But there's a Tree, of many, one
A single Field which I have looked upon
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
The Pansy at my feet
Doth the same tale repeat::
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
It was well into that enormous summer that I left Ohio for the last time, coming east through the hills and mountains of that interminable region called Appalachia. The green of the world went home to my eyes and all the tremendous vitality of its growing washed over me and left me feeling pure and uncertain. I had been only two weeks alone at night, and it was as though I had dropped through the bottom of her world and vanished beneath the low cloud ceiling. Vanished among the jade wool evening hills, lost in the thick maze of shadowed hollows and quiet watercourses. I was gone and I wanted to know it for myself.
As always the art was there for me, the photography which brought me past lighted windows at night, like a friend who asks nothing of you, not even your sanity. My documentary project, which concerned Appalachian post-industrial landscapes and people, was my excuse for the winding, aimless route down through West Virginia. The project was my balm, my retreat when I needed it, when I needed to feel like I was doing something. It had gone nowhere in six years.
It seems logical to begin any narrative with a description of its main character. I will allow you to imagine me as a very average man, of average height and build, brown hair and pale complexion. I walk swinging one arm more than the other. Some say I don't speak clearly. My posture in photographs is noticeably feeble, infirm. Say what you like, I sometimes thought, it's all about the scoreboard. Anyway, that was back then and you wouldn't recognize me now.
And coming out of summer evening dalliance along the Ohio into Huntingdon and over to the mighty Kanawha in the green heat, following a lurching highway, I began to remember what it's like at night in a strange country. And how it was only two weeks plus a day since things had been level and sane.
I hadn't called Angela. I couldn't. I couldn't hear anything anyway, over the roar of time as it geared up to spit me out. She had come in at night with telling breath and told me to sleep on the couch. I had tried to shrug it off but in the morning she had looked at me with such dull retreat that my stomach turned. It took all day to finish the thing and by the end I had no more desire to fight it. So I left.
That clairvoyant feeling you get right after the end of a movie had stayed and I had a vague idea that I could make good photographs while it haunted me. I felt far away, and a hush was in everything I saw, like a stadium at night. I walked in the cities unknown, unknowing, without need for analysis or cognition. The photos would come. Ha! Why not? I came to the mountains without need for belief; I wanted to forget everything. At least that's what I thought. The road bore me, as it always had, up, down across the flanks of the West Virginia mountains. Secret. Alive. Afraid.
I photographed the river towns up through Charleston, walking the concrete, looking. There was a flavor of preparation in the air - business were dressing out for the Fourth and there were fireworks stands and flags and specials on beef. The color red. Kids in the streets. Celebrations on the insides of fences, birthday parties, trampolines. I thought I might have gotten some good photographs of two old men fishing. But always there is some technical question nagging: was the depth of field shallow enough? Was my viewpoint appropriate? And so forth.
Once behind a row of factories, a little boy playing on the sidewalk grinned up at me and asked me my name. I lied quite naturally and was so astonished that, crouching to his level, I began to babble almost apologetically. I took his photo and walking on, wondered how I could lie to a child. And later, crossing a street through traffic, I was almost sure knowing eyes followed me. There Goes a Man Who Would Lie To a Child. I slept poorly for several nights in a row.
Sitting by the river was probably the best thing I did. On a concrete wall, still warm from the sun, looking out across to the little lights awake in the dark on the opposite bank. I thought about America for a while, and wondered how I could love it so much. I was warmed by the night and I thought gradually that what I loved was below the surface of perception, somewhere back beyond my years. All the strip malls and fast food joints and car dealerships and plastic and glitter and invitations and retributions were holographic to me. They didn't go home to my heart because I hadn't grown up with television, I thought. Only the land seemed to move me, and only people whose lives were intimate with it attracted me. Two hundred years ago John Marshall had led an expedition down this jungled river, remote long beyond all the other eastern rivers. I imagined it. I could be John Marshall if I tried.
In the morning fog I photographed a tug boat pushing barges upstream and I found it to be strange against the hills.
Further up into the secret land I drove, feeling it pass beneath the tires and asphalt. It was impossibly green and the mountains came down to touch the water. This was a good pace, one you could forget by. I wanted to forget and I wanted to be in love with America again. I tolerated the shady little motels and plain food because I was free and unknown in a strange land and it was getting better anyway. I would make it better.
When I was a boy in Dayton, we lived in a trim little cape north of town whose backyard was bordered by a stream. There was wild growth along its banks and beyond, a tangled field curving away to the west. The land was flat but I found secret places along the stream, places to catch minnows, places to sit.
I ran barefoot playing soccer and wiffle ball and there was a trampoline. We had friends over for barbecues. I remember their legs. The grass was soft to run on with your bare feet.
Then I stepped in dogshit one day and I had become a teenager and I didn't run around barefoot anymore. I entered the cloistered life of middling Ohio. My friends played Atari. When I learned to drive, I noticed that the streets were all laid out in square patterns. That's when I started to hunger for the West.
I went one summer, driving and camping, drinking wine in front of campfires of my own creation, masturbating outdoors, fishing, running around yelling at the top of my lungs. I asked favors of no one; needed no invitations. I didn't care where the sun set as long as the days were full. And they were.
I raged against my confinement and hardly set foot in the back yard again after my return. For a week I lay in bed at night and stared into the darkness wondering why was I cursed with impossible desires.
High school came and passed like a sickness. I had learned nothing since the age of fourteen and the light was poor inside, which made the eyes hurt. I was angry and afraid and soon it was over and I was standing in front of a thousand people quoting Walt Whitman.
I trickled in and out of colleges, ranging across the country in search of peace. No women could touch me and none tried, and friends passed like apparitions and did not visit. Towns, cities, roads, rails, a thousand million moments passed while dull eyed I strove further. Across the deserts and plains I flew. The day would come, the place, I would find it and she would be there and would meet my eye across a dusty street and we would live in a low cool house where the western light would linger in the summer evenings.
No. I came back thoroughly beaten and resigned myself to working in a print shop owned by my father's friend. I lived at home, unabashedly now, and drove ten minutes to work. The mornings were quiet at gas stations smelling wet pavement and coffee and the shuffle of car doors, with the sweet red sky turning to blue. Smoothly and unremarkably I entered into the secret lives of women, some of whom were new but some were not, and I thought for a little while I was happy but fall came and the illusion was revealed.
My hiking boots are stained with the earth. They have disappeared into the June mud along the Continental Divide and sloshed through many rivers. The laces are stiff and need to be replaced. Oh well. The trailhead was still in the early morning, but the birds called somewhere off above and beyond.
Jeff, an old college friend, was along for the day. He was a river guide and mountain biker and infinitely more fit than I. We hadn't seen each other much since Urbana, and I was somewhat surprised to have run into him in a low bar in Beckely two nights before. But here we were again, together in the present, with a trail before us. The motorcycle death time far from mind.
Glade Creek Gorge is immense, rugged, and remote as any country in America. We walked with a hunger, looking all around us like children. The mountain tops disappeared in the morning fog. Trees towered at dizzying angles, jutted from the steep cliffs and draped vines arcing down towards us. Chatter of the stream, the silence of the rocks, small delicate green plants, soft woody compost. Primeval. The trail naturally became steeper, narrower, respectfully skirting boulders and downed trees. I love the sound of my footsteps on a small trail.
After a couple miles, we stopped to rest at a crossing of the stream, me panting, leaning on a rock, Jeff casually seated, munching on some mysterious hiker bar. His constant casual air was attractive, but it annoyed me at times; I lacked such composure. Jeff had everything he needed. He never hunted the faces of a crowd. I envied his straight black hair, too, because on a motorcycle I had never looked the part. I sighed, and raising my head, I noticed that another creek came in from a high hollow here, crept through the trees, and quietly entered the main course.
'What's the name of this place?' I panted. Jeff shrugged.
'I doubt it has a name.'
'That creek must come from some place,' I observed idiotically.
'Well, let's find out.'
'Yeah, just a second,' I panted.
We splashed across the creek and pushed through the undergrowth that separated the two streams at their junction. The new stream was strewn with boulders and we easily hopped from rock to rock; a delightful mode of travel. Rhododendrons bulged close, their shiny leaves glowing softly, concealing quiet spaces beneath. There were pools, deep and green, with the water sliding across flat rocks into them, and small trout idling on the fringes of the current.
Again we stopped to rest, by a pool above a lovely spidery waterfall. The moss was thick and excellent to sit upon, and the whiteness of the rocks' upturned faces glowed in the half-light of the overcast day. The instant we stopped moving there came a hush. No birds cried. The water's sound was silence. We sat unspeaking for a long time.
'This is so mythic. I just'' I trailed off.
'Man, lets not tell anyone about this place,' Jeff said.
'Yeah, good idea.'
'I mean, just look at the way the water comes down through there. The shapes of it. Like long hair, you know. And the rhododendrons, man, they go so well with the water, you know,' he babbled excitedly.
'I know, man. This place, it's just' one of those best places.'
'No doubt. Let's name it.'
'The creek? Why?'
'Why not? It's there, right?'
'OK. What then?
'Well, this is the oldest river drainage in North America. Maybe something like 'Dinosaur Creek' or that really old guy from the bible.'
'Why not just leave it alone?' I asked. There was an odd pause.
'Then we will. Photography boy,' he said softly, tilting back his head as he drank. I swallowed my protest under the gathering weight of his words. That someone with such a one-way relationship with nature could flush me out made me redden in anger, and I put my head under the waters of the stream and cried for what I knew was the truth: What even the rugged men who first explored America, and who named our great rivers and mountains and cities, and who continue to photograph and write about the same, couldn't admit: That we can never go home again and that we are born with all we need. I cried into the water as the howl of ancient time engulfed my head.
I opened my eyes slowly, and found there a dirty ceiling of plaster stipple, and light coming in from behind the curtain. An intense dream had left me with only sweatiness and that heavy, wise, feeling you get when you are leaving a movie theater. How could I still be in West Virginia? It had been weeks. I was tired and I lay in bed for a long time.
Slowly the morning came to me and I knew that I was nowhere and why I was here I did not know but that it was wrong. Gravity held me there in that bed beyond the fresh morning time. I was ill and I remembered Martin in Saigon and I didn't feel so bad. Sit up, pivot to edge, feet on floor, scratch, feel around to make sure they're still there, sigh. Crappy shower, and I walk past the mirror. Hungry. Feeling black.
Toss the dead weight of the camera bags back into the car, check out of room. Foot settles onto accelerator ritualistically. No destination, just ritual. I have descended.
At a greasy diner I ordered greasy food and moped above a coffee cup. My waitress had tight jeans and I let her catch my glance. She moved lightly, too lightly for someone with a conscience. But when she smiled upon delivery I felt a stirring solidarity and I winked at her. She turned just a little bit too slowly and moved off in the air. The smell of her perfume mixed with the heady odor of my breakfast was strangely exciting. I shot her another steady glance.
As my eyes fell away, I noticed it had started to rain again outside, and the light had become pearly. I paused, struck by a wordless thought. Then other thoughts glowed, and faded: There is silence in the rain, just as there is in growing. Makeup is not an art. Smiling is. Here's your check. Have a nice day. Insane.
'Who are you, hon?' She asked, not really facing me.
'I'm a photographer.'
'Oh, rally? What do you take pitchers of?' I chuckled inside, reflecting on how I had again allowed my expectations to interfere with my evaluation of another person. Oh well.
'Oh, just landscapes, people. Mostly in Appalachia.'
'Oh' Well, that's interestin'.' There was an uncomfortable pause.
'You don't wanna take my, uh, pitcher do you?' She flashed an uneasy grin, lowering her eyes. Shit. Another frustrated prom queen. Great.
'Uh, yeah. Sure. What do you have in mind?'
'I dunno. You're the photographer.'
'Where do you want to do it?'
'How bout out back by the crick?'
'Sure. You can take a break?'
'Yeah'' She suddenly looked at me with such incredulity that I panicked, trying to recall what had just passed. Had I said something?
'Uh, yeah. Yeah, I'll just pay, here, and go get the camera.'
'Well, I don't wanna be a bother,' she said quickly. 'Actually, forget it. It's OK.'
'Oh' Well, it's no big deal. Huh! It's so natural to me, it's really no bother at all. It's what I do. In fact, I'd love to take your picture.'
'Well, OK. Let me just take care of a couple things.' As she turned away, I noticed there were people in the diner. People that should be served.
We went around the side of the building through a stinking alley and onto a lawn that spilled over from the adjacent house. There was a small creek running among the trees, and, to my utter surprise, two plastic chairs facing the water. She sat in one of the chairs, and as I set up the tripod I noticed her composure. It had stopped raining, and the soft white light played upon her features with an amazing luminosity.
'What's your name?' I asked.
'Angela,' she said hesitantly.
'Seriously? I, uh, know someone whose name is Angela, too,' I stuttered, aghast at how unreal things had become in an instant.
'Oh? It's a common name, I guess.'
'It must be. That's funny.' I photographed from between her and the stream. Her eyes were different outdoors. It is the best portrait I have ever made.
'OK, now I'd like to do one of you facing this way with the stream in the background.' Keep with the water-moving theme. Should be good.
'Well, if you have to get back, then''
'No, it's all right. Go ahead.' I tried to explain something about the water being symbolic of time and geologic progress. But something in her expression cut me short.
'It's just that' ah, I dunno, you're the photographer. But'' I waited for the words.
'You'll be able to see the stream anyway.'
'Well, my lens is really long, and it won't, you know, cover that much''
'In my face, I mean.' Bam. Oh, God. Oh God.
'Yes. Yeah, you're right. You're right.' I sighed and a stinging came to my eyes again. 'Thank you Angela.' Thank you so much so much so much.
Since there was nothing I knew better, I drove on. Asphalt and signs with words and cars and noise and unseen pollution filled my consciousness. I longed for a quiet, forgotten little park with water to walk next to, and benches to sit on. Just a place to be. It had stopped raining and the road was dry again.
There were magnificent old mine ruins along the road, and I spent a better part of the day lugging the camera about, making pointless studies of decay. By the afternoon I could not muster the effort to drag it out again. I was finished and I knew it. There was only one thing in my life besides photography and I had blown that too. Angela. Huh. I sat sideways in the driver's seat, feet on the ground, choking on a peanut butter sandwich. Look at me, I thought. I am my generation. And we are all dying slowly.
More bad food and black hotel dreaming atop cigarette burned beds where a thousand black thoughts have been aroused and broken since this lousy hotel opened. No dreams come to those who wait, anxious for asylum in the charred aftershock of day. We all run too swiftly, strive too mightily, cry to too-powerful gods. When and where did I disown it? I wish I never stepped in dogshit. Regret at night humid in the lovely south no words please no words, it's just that the hills are so beautiful in the evening. We know. Go to sleep. It's OK.
I was on the road before I really awoke and consciousness surprised me, disappointed me. I was beginning to hate my power of cognition. I was beginning to hate myself. Wearily I pulled into a diner for breakfast. Getting out of the car took a leviathan effort, and was accomplished in a clumsy, slow heave. Had I combed my hair? I didn't know.
The people in the diner depressed me. They were old miners and plain housewives and dirty kids. At least in my brokenness I had fraternity. Even that giant blonde redneck at the end of the counter looked familiar. Very little consolation though. The food comes and eggs are marvelous. They have no intermediate colors, only stark white and stark yellow. And the yolk so perfectly round. They're good to eat, too, which works out nice, since that's what I'm doing. Energy denied one soul, now my hair, my eyes, my bones. Cool. The little red speck from the rooster, right?
Bam - the door. Something pulled me back. Coming out of the diner I saw a woman sitting on one of the concrete wheel stops near my car, crying. She was large, and her back trembled beneath a white sweatshirt. She lifted her face as I approached, and her dark, wet eyes stopped me instantly with their unwavering silence. I saw with sudden gravity that I was alone in a strange land, and no philosophy could ever change it. I saw the fusion of my fate and my past in that instant, and I saw with horror the great raw earth with lines of leafless trees against an empty winter sky. A place without summer. She looked at me without plea, and in her face there was a serenity of the kind that is borne of violence.
There was a great pause and then I spoke, squatting and putting my hand on her shoulder. 'Do you need a place to go?'
She nodded, and in her plain, worried face there was a slight release.
'You can come with me. I mean, I don't want to'' I couldn't speak into her eyes. Language was suddenly redundant. What was I doing? Did it matter? I told her everything, from way back, and how I came here and why and she understood my predicament, but offered no sympathy. And I understood her past and the tragic irony that scarred her life and made her what she was. By the time he came out of the diner we had shared the means to a common future, but then he stopped, and looked at my hand on her shoulder, and saw the intimacy of our position. A hatred came into his face, a true hatred, as if I had somehow nullified his position of ownership, negated his existence. A cry leapt from his cruel mouth.
'What the hell is going here? Who are you?' he spat coarsely. I just looked at him. She stared at the pavement. I kept my hand on her shoulder.
'Woman,' he cried, and then, in a barely controlled voice, 'Woman, get in the car.' Grabbing her arm, he dragged her to her feet and pushed her in front of him to the black car next to mine. She got in without looking up and I could see she was sobbing. Then, as I stared in disbelief, he turned around and walked straight back to me.
'Who the fuck are you?' he growled, inches from my face, enunciating each word in a strained voice. His enormous, unshaven blonde face filled my vision and a vile breath passed out from behind his rotten teeth. He had gray eyes.
'I'm just passing through,' I said, unable to think at all.
“Listen, punk, if you don’t leave people alone you’re gonna regret it, understand?”
I nodded slightly.
“And you know, we don’t like your kind around here anyway,” he continued, half turned away, “But I hate you city assholes coming down here and…” he struggled for a word. “Meddling.”
I stared with a forgotten fury into those eyes, resisting them and hating them. I would never. Not here, not now. I will never be corrupted.
With a growl, he turned, slamming the car door, roaring the engine, and squealing out of the parking lot. Disappeared up the street. Emptiness all around. Oh shit, I thought, oh shit, what just happened? Shit. How could I have done anything? Damn, tragedies are a dime a dozen, though. I looked around at West Virginia, at the thrust and parry of the hills, the lost hollows, the ragged town. A far off train whistled at an unseen crossing. And the sound of small water came to me on the faint breeze, a creek behind the trees. Why here, why this summer. Ha!
I fell back into the driver’s seat and pulled the door shut heavily. I saw my car pulling out as if from above, at the end of a long movie. Disappearing into the green mountains slowly. The edge of the open land of the town. Uphill around a bend, another, and another. The forest hanging close, jungled and dark. Brownrock country. Dim afternoon light, still and cool. Silence.
The road climbed the mountain, winding among the hollows. Then out among the hills on top, old gravel pits hidden to left and right, abandoned trailers, burned, broken windows.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked.
“Where are you going?” She asked.
“I don’t know. I was just traveling. Now I don’t know… Do you have relatives you can go to?”
“Got family in Man.”
“Where is that?”
“About twenty miles further.”
“And you can stay with them?”
“Will you be safe?”
She said “Hmm.”
“Would you like to come with me?”
The road, the cruel road. Over forgotten country, passed over country. Burned, cut, excavated, and left to the foliage. But retaining the dignity of a rape victim, radiating a kind of comfort in the knowledge that its state cannot be further lowered. That it will never be anything less. The earth will return, without enmity, and quietly, methodically reclaim what was lost. It is written. Nothing is lost. Maybe it will all work out, I thought. Something stirred in the back of my mind, and I thought I remembered something. What was it?
And then, I saw, as I simply turned my head, that there was a black car following me. It was not driving on the road behind me, it was following me. It’s OK, I thought. Rednecks are mostly harmless. But the black car moved closer, too close. I sped up. Still it held. Adrenaline and my hands tightened on the wheel. Shit.
As we drove on, the three of us now, the road curved through the hills in a way that was indistinct, unmemorable. A thousand highways looked like this. Slow, moving with industry. Gray. Silent.
Suddenly the car jolted and I yelled and in the mirror the black car was sliding away behind, so close still that I couldn’t see all of it in the mirror. My heart painfully raced and I could not think or act. Sweat and I swore and she was gripping the seat like I was gripping the wheel.
“What the fuck is he doing?” I was frightened.
Then we went around a bend and the black presence that had just filled my mirrors and consciousness was gone. I checked and checked and checked but the car did not appear. I kept speeding and the words were pouring out of my mouth.
“Where the hell did he go? What’s going on? Oh shit, oh shit. All I could think was, How the fuck is this happening? What about her? And all the hanging vines and sprangling trees and pattering rock waterfalls and undulous hills that had gone to my eyes not long ago were now a blur.
I began to believe that the car would never come. I expected to keep not seeing it. But then there it was, plain as day, in the mirror again. Coming fast, faster than I thought possible. I started straight ahead in that terrible silence which was unbroken by the racing engine and my racing heart. The car came up close and stayed.
Presently, it eased ahead I prayed my tongue on my teeth that I would live and there was a slight bump. The car fell back a little and suddenly swerved out to pass. It was obliterated by the van in a flash of white. I screamed and squealed to a halt and in the mirror I saw the saplings whipping down out of sight where the car went over the edge and a van at a tree arm dangling nothing I could see or hear but the terrifying image destroyed instantly and the accident scene spinning around, tall trees. What what what what? Run to the van the edge of the cliff empty, oh God, oh God, are you alive Mr.? Scream, how many people in van… Oh my God, no. The kids are alive I comprehended that well, but here I’ll carry you. It’s OK, it’s OK. No it’s not, no pulse. One child is OK. The other I am trying to revive give breath come on kid, it’s OK. Come on. OK. Pulse.
Somehow a paramedic arrives and takes over and then miraculously an ambulance, police, fire trucks. I find my car, move it on out of the way. Lean against the back, red lights flashing, it’s getting dark now. Voices scattered, calling through the air. A tow truck arrives, backs to the edge. I cannot look as the black mass rises through the warm summer air. I cannot look.
Some cops come over and start to ask me questions. Who are you, where were you going, what happened. Why? And you knew her? No? Yes?
“You really don’t have anything to worry about,” said one cop.
“Just a few more questions. We’ll contact you if we need any testimony in the future. Where can we reach you?”
“Where’s home? Ha! How should I…” I cried at the policemen. I wanted them to either leave me or arrest me. “Can’t I just…” I told them my parents’ address and number in Dayton. Choking it out one word at a time because all knowledge and all memory had fled and I had finally achieved what I set out to do at this cost I never I never.
I ended up in a small village on Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. I don’t really remember how or why. I don’t care either. I’m still alone, if you care. I don’t. I work in the day and pass the night in sleep. There’s not much else to say about me. Several people died all around me. Does that make me special? I don’t give a shit.
When I first came to the ocean, I walked out on the beach to where the land and water meet. There it was, lapping angrily at the sand. And beyond, Europe, the Old Home. I will never go there. To the id. To the womb. Because here is the ocean, the true womb, and I may not pass, but merely foot along its shore in the nether-light, haunted by the vision of a low, cool house where the western light lingers.