Still Literary Contest Nonfiction Winner: Greta McDonough
Greta McDonough is the author of Her Troublesome Boys: The Lucy Furman Story. In addition to her popular weekly column, “From This Place to That,” for the Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer, her work has appeared in Kentucky Living and as special features for the Evansville Courier and Press. Many of her essays have been anthologized, and she is currently working on a memoir. She is professor of human services at Owensboro (Kentucky) Community and Technical College.
Nonfiction judge Joyce Dyer writes of Greta's winning essay: "I love how quickly I was lost in this essay—completely consumed. Its irresistible voice, risky technique, and slow unwinding provide the reader with a true sense of the heart’s interior. It’s a strange and eerie essay that is oddly comfortable with itself, even in its uncertainty."
On Sight and Seeing
Go from a bright afternoon into a darkened theatre and you will be blind, or nearly blind, for several minutes, maybe longer, and your gait will be halting and hesitant if you dare move at all until your night vision kicks in and you can find your way in the dark, no longer kicking your foot in front of you, feeling for obstacles or exploring the floor for a gaping abyss.
If you have chosen an early matinee and the rolling credits sweep you out into a still bright afternoon, you will experience blindness again, less frightening than the claustrophobic black of the darkened theatre, but still jarring as you squint and shield your eyes, investigating this new infirmity with your outstretched hand instead of your probing toe.
Science, and more specifically, physiology, will tell you this phenomenon is down to the anatomy of the eye and the brain, all rods and cones and neural adaptation, but you don’t need to know these things to understand the sensation. Your eyes have been adjusting to light and dark from the instant of your birth. Perhaps that is what precipitates the first howling cry as you react to the loss of the dark and the traumatic arrival into the glaring light of a delivery room, with its banging white walls and gleaming stainless steel.
You don’t spend much time thinking about this once the novelty of new life wears off. It is merely a nuisance you tolerate because it is short-lived, like sneezing or the hiccups. You can experience it any place on the planet, in Budapest or Bogota, and when it passes you go right on about your business; it is that insignificant.
You grow up on a river, in the flat skillet of an ancient river bed, where just on the other side of the wide expanse of the Ohio the midwest begins to stretch out and expand, and your father often takes you to the river’s edge to see the barges, themselves flat and long, pushed along by tugs no bigger than toys.
The landscape of your childhood is smooth and plane beneath your feet and bicycle wheels. What elevation exists is gentle and lazy and scattered around the rim of town, so subtle that you can pass through what accounts for hills and never quite know it.
At 16 someone tells you that you live in an oak savanna, the grassy land that lies between the Appalachians and the Plains, a place of light forests and diminishing hills until grass is all there is.
Around the same time you read Catherine Marshall’s Christy and Harry Caudill’s Night Comes to the Cumberlands, and you fall asleep dreaming of mountains and creek bed, missionaries and music.
And you think, go there. Go see. Go be in those mountains that are part of the very state you live in but might as well exist on the moon for all you know of them. Go to those hills, older than any mountain chain on earth, a hundred times older than your flat land and your flowing river.
And you do.
It takes a while, but you go, and you find a place that is welcoming and warm, a place that provides you comfort and a family you didn’t know you had, a writerly place, but a musical place, too, a place where the absurd is commented on with regularity, and laughter rings the hills. Pretension is commented on, too, and always before you leave this place, someone sees the red fox, always at night and often when alone, someone, maybe you, will be the Chosen One this time, and the fox finds you and makes you look and he takes your breath by the mystery of it, and you will be shinier in the morning for having seen it.
At first the mountains with their stalagmites of kudzu racing each other up the steep hills seems romantic and exotic to your untrained eye. Kudzu is no stranger, it grows all over the south, even in your flat land, but there it flows out like a blanket, not up. It doesn’t take on form as it does in the mountains, and so it seems less threatening somehow.
In the mountain midmorning the sunball appears and burns off the last of the mist that settled in the branches of the trees. The hills crouch closer, the valleys deeper and more narrow than you are accustomed to, and your breathing shallows, as if willing the landscape to shallow, too. The mountains that delighted you just days before begin to choke you and you think you might just suffocate from the awful green of it.
You chalk it up to sensory overload, too much music, too much laughter, too many late nights. You don’t give it much thought until your time in the mountains is over and you have driven out of the hills into a flatter, but not yet flat, land.
You stop on your journey home and your travel mate watches as you lean against the car and gaze off into the middle distance, because there is a middle distance now, and she hears you sigh.
She is a poet and notices things, and she says, you miss this. You need it, the open spaces. And you do, you need a place for your eyes to rest, to adjust, to see. You have known it on some cellular level, and now you know full stop. She tells you of growing up in Knoxville but attending graduate school in Indiana. Once a month she made her new husband drive her to some hills before the flatness of the Corn Belt drove her mad.
And this gets you thinking.
Maybe there are other less tangible cones and rods at work when you gaze upon the world, the cones and rods that adjust to the light and dark of the familiar. The cones and rods of human vision are meant to function exactly the same from one to another. Yet your own inner eye adjusts differently from that of your friend, the poet. You are both undone by elevation, you too much of it, she by too little. Deprived of your familiars, a kind of physic blindness sets in, temporary but distressing.
In the mountains, your steps are stiff and unsure until the neural adaptation is complete, or nearly so. As you wait for the transformation, you note how different the ground is beneath your feet, how your ankles bend to accommodate an incline, how your knees must work to maintain equilibrium. When you hike deep into the mountain’s heart, or up to the high ridge, you notice only the few feet in front of you, then a few feet more, until you arrive at your destination, a pinnacle or dale. It is not the way you walk at home.
You are more compelled by the looking out, not the looking down. It is your first, most natural orientation. In your own environment you look out a broad street and see cars more than half a mile away. It is effortless. At the foot of that same street where the river laps, at the place you once skipped stones with your father, you stand easily and look a mile upstream and two miles downstream and well into another state.
The landscapes that move you most are the open ones. England, the green and pleasant land of Blake, with its gentle hillocks and long horizons, or Nebraska, with its red wheat fields rolling into big sky. You can stand on a rise in those places and understand the term “commanding view.”
Mountains provide commanding views, of course, but getting to them is a commitment. As a child you stood on Jefferson’s Rock at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and looked across the treetops and down upon the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, but you and your brother spooked yourselves up there on that ledge, because you could no longer see your parents and finding the way down suddenly seemed impossible. You became disoriented and frightened. There was nothing natural about it, looking out from so high a perch for two children born at sea level.
Yet you love this place, these Appalachian mountains that run down eastern Kentucky like an arthritic spine. More than the place, you love these people, the family your heart has chosen. In the lush and green quiet, you can almost see your friends as little boys scurrying along creek beds and exploring the undergrowth, little boys who counted among their friends the trees, who wept when those friends were felled by man or nature. You see them, although you did not know them then, knew them first as grown men. But still, from time to time they appear as barelegged children running through your dreams.
You return to the mountains again and again. Driving in, your heart expands even as your vistas shrink, although your friends will argue that there are plenty of vistas here, how could there not be? You learn to find the middle distance by looking up instead of looking out. Even so, your practiced gaze is marred by whole mountains missing now, ridges drawn and quartered by mountaintop removal.
With each visit your vision adjusts more quickly, and the feelings of claustrophobia occur rarely, if at all. You have trained your eyes to see what is important here and to seek it out. You look deep into the lace of a leaf, marvel at the spider web gone pink in the light of breaking dawn. You bear witness to your friends’ anger and anguish over the loss of their mountains, their home, their familiar. You scan the wide expanse of faces gathered in a circle, five conversations going on at once, and silently promise each one pints of blood, a kidney.
You think in those moments of the late poet, James Still, an Alabama boy, by way of Texas, who came to this place for a season and stayed for the rest of his life. Only those who know his story well realize he was first from somewhere else. You think you know what he means when calls them “prisoning hills,” these mountains that he adopted as his own.
His eyes took a while to adjust.
James Still loved these mountains; he chose them. He embraced and accepted his place within them. He knows that at the end of it all, he “cannot pass beyond” them, and he never did. With time Mr. Still came to see himself nowhere else but here.
Your vision of where you belong is less distinct and certain. You have lived long enough to feel comfortable in many places. But still you return to the mountains. They try you, these mountains with their big shouldered peaks leaning in and over you. It takes a while for your balance to re-calibrate to the pitch and yaw of uneven ground. You wait for your eyes to adjust from one kind of light to another, knowing that when your vision returns, you will gaze upon a new familiar, the one you, too, have chosen. A place that for a little while, you recognize as home.
Read Greta McDonough's previous work in Still
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