Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Tall Woman passes

"I'm going out to smell fresh rain on summer dust and prehistoric water odors of the old French Broad in flood. Won't you come too?"

Wilma Dykeman died on Friday, December 22nd. She was a great figure in my childhood, a writer of the place where I grew up, and she cast a giant shadow of her own. She lived all her life near the French Broad River in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, the only child of a mother whose people had lived in the North Carolina mountains since the eighteenth century. She collaborated on several books with her husband James R. Stokely, Jr., a poet and nonfiction writer, among them Neither Black Nor White, Seeds of Southern Change, and Prophet of Plenty.

Her own writing began with radio scripts and short stories, followed by articles for Harper's, the New York Times Magazine, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. In all, she published more than sixteen books. The French Broad, one of the famous "Rivers of America" series, was the first, and represents a lifetime of observation and note-taking. It recounts the history, legend, biography (such as the chapter on Thomas Wolfe), sociology, and economics of a mountain region that draws its life and ways from this stream and its tributaries.

Her critically acclaimed novels especially reflect her understanding of people in the North Carolina mountains. The Tall Woman tells of a determined mother's fight for education and justice in the years after the Civil War. The Far Family picks up several generations later and shows how long-lasting her efforts were.

In The French Broad she wrote:
"...this is the chronicle of a river and a watershed, and a way of life where yesterday and tomorrow meet in odd and fascinating harmony... Dwellers of the French Broad country are learning an ancient lesson in all their natural resources; it is easy to destroy overnight treasures that cannot be replaced in a generation, easy to destroy in a generation that which cannot be restored in centuries."
And here is a meditation on the "Westward Ho!" mural in Nashville's State Capitol building:
The popular title for the mural echoes the cry not only of this small band of struggling humanity but of the irresistible multitudes to follow. It might have been voiced by one of the leaders--in coonskin cap--who has reached the top of the pass and whose outstretched arm beckons his companions on toward the horizon. Leutze identified that distinctive and optimistic figure as "a frontiere farmer (Tennesseian)."

The German-born Leutze, whose best-known painting was Washington Crossing the Delaware, had done his homework well. That "Tennesseian" and his family represented a new breed of American, those wishing to sever the umbilical cord to Europe and turn westward. Here are the western prototypes: buckskin-clad trapper, eager young adventurer on horseback, hunter well stocked with two rifles, a lad whose wound is perhaps reminder of an Indian encounter.

But above all his mural suggests the migrants' reach for a place to call home. Bathed in the scene's clearest shaft of light are a mother and daughter huddled beneath the protective arm of the "Tennesseian" and awestruck by the glorious vision before them. At an earlier point on the crowded trail up the mountains another mother and child lean forward in one of the many covered wagons which, upright or awry, bear the tools and furnishings for future homes. As in the earlier westward thrust across the Appalachians in which Tennesseans had tended to bring their families with them to the frontier, it is the yearning for land as home that provides meaning and energy to overcome all doubt and hardship on the long trail.

Both ominous and promising at the center foreground of the scene, though obscured under deep shadows in contrast to the sunlit faces of the pioneer leaders, a black youth leads a donkey bearing a young Irish immigrant and her infant. Is he already free or does he represent that struggle for emancipation tearing at the nation's vitals even during the mural's creation? Is she welcome in America or has she already encountered the rising tension over immigration, especially in some of the growing cities? Whichever the case, these two will remain part of the country's and Tennessee's unfolding history.

Conspicuous by their absence are the Native Americans whose spirit nevertheless broods over the scene in several vague figures along the upper border.
And here's a thought about the place I grew up:
At a place called the Black Oak Ridge--later Oak Ridge--the vision of Albert Einstein for harnessing the power of the atom and a simple "O.K." by President Roosevelt appropriating two billion dollars came together to create the nation's first uranium purifying plant. Known only by the code name "Y-12," it represented a new unknown frontier.

Oak Ridge's residents were brilliant scientists and engineers gathered from universities and laboratories around the world. They were generals from the armed services, administrators, and in a great horde they were laborers laying down roads and streets in winter mud and summer dust, constructing dormitories and barracks, single and multifamily homes, trailers, stores--a city. Where there were woods and fields and scattered farmhouses a few months earlier, miles of bristling fences appeared. Questions and rumors were forbidden.

On August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, Oak Ridge learned the immediate purpose of its existence while the world entered a new age of human existence.

Continuing research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory addressed both war and peace and stirred some of the old mystery that surrounded its beginning. Conclusions reached by J. H. Rush, a physicist who worked on the atomic project, remain relevant today. Rush believed that "the specific horror of atomic war had obscured the real meaning of the Manhattan District Project. What the project signified was that mankind was moving into a new order of power over itself and the environment, that henceforth the consequences of man's acts must be weighed with utmost caution."

Self-discipline and the wise use of nature: if the first is a supreme reminder posed by Oak Ridge, the other is best exemplified by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are physically separated by an hour's drive but when the last descendant of a pioneer family still living in the national park was asked by a visitor, "How far is it from the Great Smokies to Oak Ridge?" she replied, "About a hundred years."

Her figure was off by several million years, but the spirit of her answer was accurate in the Tennessee way of measuring distances between places and people by time as well as space, by personal experience as well as by immediate appearance. Perhaps just as pathbreaking as Oak Ridge in the way it links people and nature, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the first national park (dedicated in 1940) not granted by Washington from its public lands but rather bought by the people themselves. Tennessee and North Carolina's state funds, philanthropic gifts of the wealthy, schoolchildren's nickels and dimes--all became a legacy for future generations. For years it has attracted more visitors than any of our other national parks. Here is a green kingdom of more varieties of trees than in all of Europe, where birds can migrate vertically from the valleys to high pinnacles rather than migrating to a distant habitat, where the diversity of animal and aquatic life reaches from the lordly black bear to the lowly salamander, each claiming its own territory.

Cabins, farms, a mill, a schoolhouse, and a church still stand in the park as witness to the hard, independent, often rewarding life of those early settlers in this land of the western waters. And along its western boundary a segment of the Cherokee still live on the special reservation won after fierce guerrilla resistance to removal.
She was deeply concerned with the people and the natural resources of Appalachia, and the way they shaped and sometimes destroyed each other. Her books are simple, not obscure, but deeply illuminating.

She will be missed.



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