Kathryn Stripling Byer
Kathryn Stripling Byer seeks out the mountains wherever she goes.
I came to the North Carolina mountains looking for my grandmother. She had been gone for years by the time I arrived, but I hoped to find some trace of her spirit here, a spirit that longed to return to her birthplace in the north Georgia mountains before her body died. I imagined her stalking the Blue Ridge, her long skirt a cloud over the full moon, as I wrote in an early poem titled “Ghost Story.”
But stalking what? Something of herself that she had left behind? Or was I the woman doing the stalking, tracking mountain stories and songs to their source? Searching for women who carried the same spirit into their daily lives, despite hardship and family histories that might have prevented them from becoming themselves if not for the saving grace of what they loved and their sheer womanly strength.
I found them, those women. Early on, while living on Pressley Creek, outside Cullowhee I found Mrs. Alma Pressley right across the road from my apartment. Her husband Roy still kept his outhouse, much to her annoyance. She brought me potted plants and tried to talk me into dating one of her young kinfolk. That didn’t work out. By then I already my eye on a certain English professor at the nearby university.
Miss Alma was the first in a long line of what I like to think of as guiding spirits, women who welcomed me to Cullowhee Valley and told me stories that have become woven into my own as surely as garden twine that Miss Alma wove into a lattice for her flowers to climb. A web for what mountain women like to call their “pretties,” as necessary as the looms on which they wove their coverlets.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how much we need that patient, yet satisfying and even joyful, weaving of connections, and how much we can learn from the lives of our mountain women, our guiding spirits. I can write poems and stories about them ‘til the cows come home, as my grandmother used to say, but what else can we who love these mountains do to help weave a web of community to meet the challenges that lie ahead? How can I continue to honor the legacy of dear friends like the late Willa Mae Pressley and Annie Lee Bryson, sisters who reached out to me when I was a newcomer to Cullowhee Valley so many years ago? An outsider who was soon welcomed as though a member of their family. These mountain women cared not a fig that I had ties to the university, that I was nonnative. An invasive species, but not, I was determined to prove, like the kudzu that infests our hillsides or the wild boars that ravage the Smokies!
I grew up in the deep South where outsiders were welcomed, if at all, grudgingly. Yankees were a special breed of invasive species, if you listened to my kinfolks and neighbors. The world beyond the Mason-Dixon line was one they could scarcely imagine, nor did they care to.
Nowadays, we cannot indulge ourselves in such attitudes; there is and always has been a world outside our homeland, and though it has sometimes brought destruction, it has also brought transplants with their own stories and talents that enrich us, transplants who bring us new energy and help to reinvigorate communities that have found themselves at cross-purposes both politically, environmentally, and economically. The truth is, we need each other, native and nonnative alike, now more than ever.
“Solitude is deep water, and small boats do not ride well in it,” another guiding spirit, Emma Bell Miles, wrote decades ago in The Spirit of the Mountains. Mountain women have never been small boats; they have kept themselves atop the deep water of economic and emotional hardship. I don’t think Emma Bell Miles would mind my revising her quote for today’s mountain dwellers: sustaining a sense of community means navigating rough water. Rapids lie ahead. We must learn how to maneuver our way through them.
We mountain women know our place, and we must continue to know it well, its terrain both physical, cultural, and historical. Most of all, we know we must sustain our connection to it, believing that we can continue to sing its legacy in these times when so much seems to be unraveling around us. Last summer I began a blog called “The Mountain Woman” with the intention of focusing on mountain voices and how they can be gathered together to express what matters to us. I wanted to be able to help us listen to each other. Much of my inspiration came from my friend Willa Mae’s favorite quilt pattern, “Hands All Around.” I like to call my blog “Voices All Around.” Since then I’ve posted some of those voices as “guest bloggers,” their reward being a gift certificate to one of our region’s independent bookstores, City Lights in Sylva. If you drop by my blog, you will find a poem about trees by Elijah Morgan, son of my hair stylist Sara Morgan, a short essay by Jackson County commissioner Doug Cody, and posts honoring the late Annie Lee Bryson. The invitation remains open. Mountain men, women, and children are welcome to share their voices on themountainwoman.blogspot.com. Stop by and set a spell, as Miss Alma would say. Tell me what’s on your mind. I’m listening.