Greta McDonough writes the popular weekly column "From This Place to That" for her hometown newspaper in Owensboro, Kentucky. She is working on two books: an early reader about Henderson, Kentucky native Lucy Furman, and a memoir, currently titled Growing Up Flat: A Western Kentucky Childhood. She teaches at Owensboro Community and Technical College.
Writer's Workshop Pastoral
Rain sneaks up on you here. You never see it coming, and hardly notice the thunder, it sounds so much like the rumble of coal trucks lumbering down the mountain roads.
The mountains of Eastern Kentucky are close together, rising straight up, then down, then marching around in circles, obscuring much of the sky and all of the horizon. There is no going to a window that faces the southwest so that you can study the sky—the sky that hangs over McLean County, say or Panther—so you can analyze the clouds and watch the storm roll in.
One minute it is dry. The next it is raining. That’s all.
The end of July is as hot and humid in Hindman as it is on the banks of the Ohio River. But it is a different kind of hot and a different kind of humid. Here, weather takes on heft and shape, especially in the mornings when the mist hangs like cobwebs draping sycamore, maple and oak.
Mornings break cool and dank. Damp from the deep woods creeps into civilization during the night and turns our cars slick with sweat beads of dew. Inside climate controlled buildings, the bedclothes tangle around your legs in a clammy mess and everything—furniture, plastic, paper, all your clothes—are spongy and cold.
The haze burns off by nine each morning and the day turns hot. Sweaty humid Delta hot and you carry this heat with you, ringing your shirt collar and damping your hair.
The writer Hal Crowther found his “cathedrals of kudzu” here. You pass them every morning and they welcome you home at dusk as you descend and climb the high hill to the cabin that is your home this week. Spiking up like stalagmites from the undergrowth, spires of kudzu climb up vines, pointing the way to heaven, all gothic and dark.
You are never so surrounded by nature at home as you are in this place. Directions are given not in street names so much as by landmarks, usually natural. Up on the ridge, at the fork of Troublesome Creek, over yonder in town. To get to class, to dinner, to the singing, you must cross a creek, leave pavement and navigate uneven ground. You learn to see in the dark and walk in it, unaided by street lamps or smooth pavement.
There is rain at Hindman this week. In the late afternoon it “comes a storm” with driving rain that mists up under the shelter of the porch, forcing the writers gathered there to readjust rockers, move away from the edges, until they are finally driven indoors. You sit on the porch as long as you can, the mist speckling your journal page in puffy pinpricks.
The rain is spraying horizontal now and you abandon the porch altogether, but with a reluctance you don’t understand. Inside the dining hall writers and teachers have taken refuge, sitting in tight knots with heads bent together discussing their work or politics or nothing much at all. Like a kid at summer camp secretly grateful for a mid-week break, you hope the rain lasts a while.
It is raining again as you write this, a morning storm that takes you by surprise, one that sounds like it isn’t likely to quit anytime soon, like it can’t help it, the sky’s so swollen and bloated.
You come here knowing you will sweat for a week, will sweat sitting still the air is so thick. You come for good words—written, spoken, read. You come to see friends, to laugh late into the night, to sing in a chapel at midnight as it clings to mountain rock and earth.
Without your flat Western Kentucky horizon you lose all sense of east or west, north or south. All you know is this. You are here, right here. You are deep in James Still’s “sheltering hills” and for a week you let them cradle you. For a time, in these hills, with these words and this rain, you “cannot pass beyond.”
In the evening, after classes, supper, the dishes, you wander out into a dusk that grows thick with the settling day. Evening falls as slowly as morning rises and when all light disappears you are left with the buzz of crickets and branches crackling underfoot. Strains of music skittle like buckshot through the trees, so soft and scattered that you can not be sure you have heard it at all.
You think will try to find it, and walk with your head down and ear cocked, summoned like a monk to prayer. In a thin line you join the others until you come to the place that holds the music, holds the brethren and holds open the space for this brand of evensong.
You do not know the music of Jean Ritchie, the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family—these hymns of the hills. When you were young your parents rarely listened to the radio. They owned just a few recordings, novelty songs mostly and Fred Waring arrangements. You sit just outside the circle like a sinner or a “haint.”
In the dark your left hand itches for the slick feel of a mahogany guitar neck, your right hand fingers Travis-pick the air. You have nothing to offer up. None of your music is true enough for this place. You know this, but your left hand continues to work bar chords in the dark.
On the last evening, tired, aching for home, you gather at the foot of the mountain for an impromptu swap of poetry. One by one or sometimes in groups, the writers rise and read the lovely words. It is a tent meeting now—a literary revival—under the stars.
The reading gives way to music, the music gives way to hymns. In the dark one person takes his neighbor’s hand and so it continues until the unbroken chain of writers meets itself and closes the circle. As one song dies away someone begins another, all still holding hands through the singing. These are the hymns you were raised on, melodies more familiar than words those first Sundays of your young life. Your harmony is rusty, like your church-going, but you sing along in tenor, sometimes alto. Every now and then you hum.
The time comes to bring your gift to lay it at the foot of the mountain, at the foot of all poetry, at the feet of your friends. Stepping out from the circle, still tethered on either hand, you begin. From somewhere you have not visited lately come words, melody, and breath. You sing alone, clear and unhurried. You sense your own music rather than hear it, know it only from the inside out. In this moment all falls away.
You are standing and singing, solitary and whole. You are finally, that most elusive thing, the giver and receiver, the personal and public profession of faith. Singing solo in the darkness, you slip softly into the light.