Editors’ note: This issue of Still: The Journal marks our third birthday! To help us celebrate we asked Erik Tuttle and Nick Smith, editors of Wind magazine, if they would share the birthday letters they received while students at the University of Kentucky from their teacher, Gurney Norman, on their 21st birthdays.
For several years, these letters were displayed in the Wind offices, and as far as we know, are published here publicly for the first time with permission from all parties involved.
Gurney Norman, a prolific correspondent and former Kentucky poet laureate, enthusiastically endorsed our idea to reproduce these birthday letters in a digital format so that these missives could live in cyber-perpetuity. We thank Erik, Nick and Gurney for such a wonderful birthday gift that we can share with Still readers.
June 24, 2004
Since your birthday comes so near the summer solstice, I must assign you some appropriate homework. As you know, in France and in pagan society, midsummer night, the longest night of the year, is when all of society's rules governing the expression of eros are suspended. I have heard that to this day there are pockets in the remote mountains of eastern Kentucky where this practice goes on today. Your assignment is to write an 80-page paper on this and related subjects. You have a year to complete your researches, through next summer solstice and your next birthday.
This is one more way that you can help advance the major premise of all Appalachian writers, cultural activists and scholars that: ALL THE PEOPLE IN THE WHOLE WORLD ARE HILLBILLIES, AND THAT PEACE ON EARTH CANNOT EXIST UNTIL THE WHOLE WORLD RECOGNIZES THEIR TRUE IDENTITY.
As studies have shown, one of the great meteors that have struck Planet Earth since creation began landed in Knox County, Kentucky untold millennia ago. Erosion and shifts in the earth's tectonic plates and fiery upthrusts of the earth from below causing faults to occur have altered the landscape of Knox County in ways that, as science has proved, make it the very center of the world. Few know that sages around the world since human life began have quietly studied certain creation myths that tell how it all began in Knox County.
In every generation for ten thousand years, this secret order of wisemen and women selects two new members of the order, young heroes sent through the mists of time to take their place among the sages, to spend their lives studying and telling the old tales to perpetuate this first original level of human culture, drawing from them the wisdom of meaning so that human life on earth can continue and evolve to ever higher planes. In alternate two-year periods, the chosen heroes are young women. Now on your 21st birthday Erik, it is time for you to officially know that you have been chosen to join the order of sages. (It is premature to announce this, but on his next birthday your noble comrade Nick Smith, also from Knox County, will also take his place with you in the order of wisdom seekers.)
In your 80-page paper, then, you are asked to re-discover the lost connections between summer solstice, suspension of the rules of eros, the great meteor, the pockets of ancient sun-worshipers in the mountains, the original roots of universal human Appalachian identity, and Knox County as the center of the world.
Go forth, Erik the Bold, and write of your adventures to come. Good luck and God speed.
Your old teacher,
(from his lair here in Cudjo's Cave beneath the 80 million years old stalactite)
September 8, 2004
Well you are having a birthday at a very inconvenient time for me. Nyoka and I are trying to pack for our trip to England September 17. Ideally I would write to you while in flight over the big ocean where I could talk to you about World War Two, the Battle of The Atlantic, U-boats, ships with a thousand people on them hit by torpedoes and sinking to the bottom, soldiers and sailors from the mountains, young guys, first trip out of the country, still down there in the briny deep. I still think about those WW II boys who never made it home again to see their mammies and pappies and their old homeplaces once more.
I still need to have a sense of original homeplace kept alive by visits, stoking the old memories from my own early life. I go often to walk the old ground where my lost family walked in days of yore. There are places I still go to that will break your heart, free the feelings and the tears, calling it all back to life again. Sitting by the creeks I hear their voices in the flowing water, mountain streams that have been flowing a million years. I'm sure you know it too, that sense of pattern on the land, the coherence of the flowing creeks and rivers shaped by natural forces including gravity, water always seeking the lower level. Then come the times when people built obstructions, distorted the original integrity. (Integrity: the quality of being whole, complete.)
For all the destructive human imprint laid down on the land in our time, there is much of the old that remains; part of our task is to search around and find those early traces when the only human imprint was natural, organic, in accord. The mountain land still has much to say to us. I'm reminded just now of James Still's poem “Leap Minnows, Leap”:
The minnows leap in drying pools,
In islands of water along the creekbed sands
They spring on drying tails, white bellies to the sun,
Gills spread, gills fevered and gasping.
The creek is sun and sand, and fish throats rasping.
One pool has a peck of minnows. One living pool
Is knuckle deep with dying, a shrinking yard
Of glittering bellies. A thousand eyes look, look,
A thousand gills strain, strain the water-air.
There is plenty of water above the dam, locked and deep,
Plenty, plenty and held. It is not here.
It is not where the minnows spring with lidless fear.
They die as men die. Leap minnows, leap.
The land, the water, this poem, Mr. Still, now you own it all, Nick. You have earned it; you know what to do with it. Nourish it and it will nourish you.
Before I go, Nick, let me say happy birthday. You might be interested to know that now in my UK office I am listening to Ravi Shankar play his sitar, ragas. Songs of the universe. clarity. It is changing my mood. Last sunlight of the day outside. Evening approacheth. Have you got hold of Chuck Kinder's new novel The Last Mountain Dancer yet? A wild and original novel, purest kind of hillbilly, gonna rattle some people, make 'em get some new thought patterns going, enough repetition already. Why don't you review it for some publication?
Bill the Conqueror is my ancestor, the Normans were Vikings originally. Grrrrrr. Let's be Vikings! Run around wild and dangerous all over the place. Rob the rich and give it to the poor. I live in myth much of the time. From mythland the ordinary world looks quite strange, unknown, beautiful too. Have you discovered Leonard Roberts' work yet? If not, leave the party this instant and go get a copy of Up Cutshin and Down Greasy. Them old tales they told all around the hills back before television, talk about myth. Sometimes I think I'm Jack, hopping from adventure to adventure. Now here I get ready to go to the old country. You get ready too. Go off and be Nick the Mighty, get used to having power. Same for that redneck boy you run with, ol Erik the Bold.
More power to you, buddy, have fun.
Gurney the Great