Friday, May 6, 2011

Chief Red Bird

A mythical red bird figures large in the creation legends of the Cherokee ancestors of the Cumberland Plateau. One finds the title Red Bird somewhat frequently in the area of southeast Kentucky where we lived for a year. The Red Bird River (small sized by most standards, but a river nontheless) flows northward to join many other creeks & rivulets feeding the Kentucky River. Its source in the mountains around us were countless springs & streams burbling up from the mountain rock, enlarged throughout the year by snow & rain. The region drained by this river became known as the Red Bird Valley, a beautiful area lying mostly north & south & covering the rural counties of Clay, Bell, and Leslie. Chief Red Bird was a Cherokee leader friendly to local white populations until he was murdered & his body thrown into the local river. I was never entirely comfortable with that bit of local history. It told me that under the beauty of these mountains laid the story of a betrayal, a murder, & the transformation of a river into a grave. Sometimes I remembered that as I listened to the sounds of the Red Bird River flowing behind our house.

Appalachian Summer I

Summer vegetables were always welcomed on our table.
The hydrangea bush I walked past on my way to work each day.

Yes, this is a county road & typical of the mountains.

The beautiful pine mountains of the Cumberland Plateau

One is left to wonder what will be around the next curve in the road.

Heavy. That’s the word I think of when I think Appalachian summer. Heavy as in the humidity of the air, the overhang of the forest canopy, the torrential downpours of rain, the low-hanging morning mist, the huge and daunting rocks of the mountains…even the heaviness of the fruits and vegetables bending stems and stalks of gardens in the hollers.

Since we lived in the depths of the Daniel Boone National Forest, summer brought on a verdant green canopy of foliage. Its depth obscured the mountain’s face and the homes hugging its edges. Allergy sufferers knew summer by the changing plant and tree leaves. Summer brought out the roto-tillers and garden seed. Many beautiful gardens filled hollers throughout the region, some immaculate and orderly; others a tangle of vegetable and weed stems. Preserving summer’s bounty was an art form for some, forgotten by others—thus instigating Red Bird’s efforts to reintroduce gardening skills to the region.

Summer humidity made us very thankful for air conditioning, and cranky when failed electricity or breakdowns made it go down. Heat came in relentless sweeps of 90-degree days that turned into 90 degree weeks, even months. Air temps often felt like 100+; everybody moved slowly and drank more; sweat poured and clothes stuck. We noticed something about living in a holler: the wind doesn’t blow there—it seems to skip above the ridges and misses the dips. We missed breezes. I often felt as if we were living in a terrarium.

Summer brought tourists to regions around the mountains, but not into the interior where we lived. Here children whiled away summer days playing in creeks, going to grandmas, and watching too much television or playing video games. The distance to parks, YMCAs, or organized activities meant a lot of idle time for youth. Red Bird did its part by providing a summer youth program and organized activities for young children through teens. Most families did not vacation, preferring to stay home during time off. Those who didn’t work to begin with, rarely left the mountains for lack of money or initiative. I found a love for travel very rare among mountain people.

Summer brought work teams en masse to Red Bird in order to participate in its Community Housing Improvement program. Beginning with trickles of teams in the spring and ending in trickles in the late fall, the housing program concentrates its projects on home repairs during the summer months. Work teams use school vacations to put youth energy to work on the many substandard homes in the Red Bird Valley. The forest with its vegetation and humidity, the mountains with their springs and dampness, take a toll on homes, especially on the trailer houses and substandard wood structures clinging to mountain edges. Many families are just now getting septic systems or adequate electricity; county safety and sanitation codes are not enforced in the region, making many homes dangerous and unsanitary for their occupants.

Summer brought community activities too, like cemetery reunions and bluegrass festivals. Cemetary services bring families together, and, yes, they are held at cemetaries. Women cook, men preach, children run around. Bluegrass festivals sometimes go on for days and feature many local groups, as well as national talent. The Osborn Brothers Bluegrass Festival is held each August in neighboring Hyden, featuring long days and nights of gospel, bluegrass, and country. I went to the festival and roasted in the summer sun, marveling at musicians performing energetically in long sleeves.

Yes, summer hangs heavy in the mountains. But even in the humid southern heat, flowers continue to bloom in succession even as hydrangea leaves wilt in daylight hours, water springs out of mountain rocks and the Kentucky River still flows toward the Ohio, the elk roam on mountain pastures, and people sit a spell on front porches. On lazy summer days, it’s good to find a shady spot, a fishing hole, a front porch…or an air-conditioned kitchen with iced tea flowing. Summer seemed to showcase the mountains in their richest and most verdant splendor, in massive coats of green leaves, grass and underbrush…a coat that soon enough would be shed for another season and only a promise of riches that would come again.

Appalachian Summer II

Berries & branches, wild flowers & the fragrance of summer Tobacco barn on the Hal Rogers Parkway

The verdant greenery of the Cumberland Pass

The Kentucky River flows slow & smooth

Beautiful hollers hide away around many a curve

Appalachian hollers are hot. Little wind and few breezes find their way down from the trees lining ridges above us. Storms seem to move over us, or move up the least resistant roadways and rivers. The air we breathe in the summer is sultry and cloying, sticking our clothing to us like slippery Velcro. Even the birds go back to sleep for the day, dogs loll about lazy in the shade, and the hydrangea leaves droop like a basset hound’s ears.

Summer is a time for gardens. Most everyone seems to have one somewhere in their holler--if not theirs, someone in their family has one. I have seen the most beautiful gardens of my life back in these hills. Pole beans climb many feet into the air, making me half believe the Jack & the Beanstalk story. Corn, potatoes, melons, peas, beans and more; they’re all there.

Summer is a time for enjoying the spectacular beauty of these mountains. Many enjoy riding four-wheelers and horses up and down narrow trails; four wheelers are also commonly used for transportation on the local roads. Children splash in creeks and rivers, or if they’re lucky they have an above-ground pool in their back yard. Some make a day of visiting one of several water parks in the region. Fishermen and water buffs enjoy the many lakes and rivers, some creating huge recreational places by damming up their waters. Southeast Kentucky is a place of dreams for the outdoor enthusiast.

Summer is a time of reunions, of sitting on the front porch and watching the world go by, of Vacation Bible School in local churches, baseball, and children home from school. One thing that summer does not seem to bring to mountain people is travel and vacation. Most seem content to stay at home, even when they have the means to travel. For the many unemployed in the area, it seems the times of year run together without much interruption of schedules. For those who work and take time off, most enjoy their time at home on the porch. I have found the rare person who thinks about faraway places, but for most it seems the best place of all is right at home in the mountains.