One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Christy by Katherine Marshall. It is the true story of a young woman who travels to a remote corner of the Appalachians to teach. In spite of the hardships she faces, Christy comes to love the people who have learned to scrape a living from the rocky hillsides. From the moment I read that book, I wanted to be a teacher and live in the faraway blue mountains. In 1983, after graduating from college with an education degree, I hopped in my little red Zephyr and headed for an interview in a small town tucked in a high valley on the far edge of Virginia. The road snaked over the first mountain and I sang along with the Beach Boys as I drove through a light dappled forest that parted only occasionally to reveal sweet green meadows dotted with sheep and cows.
On the second mountain, I lost my radio signal and by the third mountain the only signs of life were large satellite dishes (this was the 80’s, when the satellite dish was jokingly known as the “West Virginia state flower”) and the gargantuan piles of firewood everywhere. The further into the mountains I drove, the higher and deeper the piles grew. Every yard was decorated with a stack of winter fuel as long as five or six pickup trucks.
But, it was a beautiful June day and I assumed that people had overestimated the amount of wood they’d need and that these stacks were left over from the previous winter. The countryside grew more picturesque and more remote the further I drove, but I was relieved to find a town full of wide-porched houses at the bottom of the last mountain. After convincing the superintendent and principal that I was their girl, I drove home confident that I would soon be living out my dream.
Fall in my beautiful mountain county was idyllic, but the temperature dropped as fast as the leaves. Luckily my roommate and I had electric heat and by wearing three sweaters apiece and keeping the thermostat set in the low fifties, we were able to afford to stay warm. By the following winter I was living in a small log cabin. When it snowed, I often woke to find white drifts sifting across my living room floor. Paying for electric heat was out of the question. I would be broke by the end of the winter. Luckily, by that time, I had met my future husband and he helped me build up a supply of winter wood, so I could burn the little fireplace insert that came with the cabin. Having been raised in a house with a woodstove, he found the idea of wearing three sweaters laughable. That winter, I supplemented my heat for the first time with wood. It was the beginning of my journey into self-sufficiency.
Now, I have a wood pile as long as five pick-up trucks, or longer if I am lucky. I grow my own produce in a large garden and store it carefully in my root cellar. My water comes from a spring less than a hundred yards from my house, and I even have two horses should gasoline become so overpriced that I can no longer afford to drive. What I don’t have is a lot of money in the bank. But, it doesn’t really matter. I feel more secure than many of my city friends who must depend on others for food, heat or water. Bring on the storms, let the electricity fail, I will stay warm. Snow in drifts five feet tall? I have a cellar full of food to last me through the longest winter. There’s a certain satisfaction in being so directly connected with my own survival. Those huge stacks of wood I wondered about as I crossed the five mountains to my eventual destiny? They were my guideposts to a richer life.
In Mason Jars
Inside my cellar, glass jars glow
between the rock walls, row on row.
They mark the time of rain and sun
that like the larks I know is done
and scarce can bear to know.
They hold tomato’s ruby sheen
that glowed a moment midst the green
admired by all, but captive now
in Mason jars.
I take these jars in winter’s night
and think of past days long and bright
when fruit was gathered to be canned
and lay like bright jewels in my hand
I’ve caught a bit of summer’s light
in Mason jars.