Friday, March 23, 2007

Webster Bridge, Tuckasegee River

Waynesville, NC, ca. 1880

Jeff Biggers came to town tonight, reading at Osondu Booksellers. No less than Studs Terkel said of The United States of Appalachia (How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America), "Biggers’s inspiring book should be a best-seller immediately. It is a ‘how-to’ book—how to assert your fundamental rights and how to speak out in the manner of the American Revolution footsloggers, whose descendants they are. Read it and your faltering hopes will rise."

Biggers opened his reading with an account of Rebecca Harding, who in 1861 published "The Iron Mills". Her story, set in western Virginia, broke new ground for literary naturalism. In Biggers’ estimation, "Harding set the standard for a century of chroniclers in shattering the stereotypes of the mountaineers and hill folk. Her work reminded the country that Appalachia was not a foreign land, but a vital American crossroads of numerous immigrant groups, blacks, and courageous women, all of whom were playing a significant role in our nation’s industrial saga."

Rebecca Harding Davis was still writing when she visited Western North Carolina almost twenty years later, and she wrote of an incident that occurred in Webster. From The Providence of Nature, Chapter 8, we read of that trip:

The travellers had come South for a summer vacation. They were awed by the mountains' splendor, amused by the mountaineers' quaintness. Their escort for the passage from Waynesville to Franklin was familiar with the road, and stoked their curiosity.

"'We are half way now,' said Judge Hixley, when they reached the little town of Webster. 'There is a bridge hyah over the Tuckaseege, which I discovered five years ago, that I wish toh show you. It is built on square piers of logs, which have been filled in with earth. The wood has decayed, and out of the earth wild vines have grown; the red-leafed ivy, passion-flowers, pink sweet-brier, and feathery fern cover the piers and the bridge, and trail into the water. There are steep, quiet banks at either side, the river is crystal clear, and across it hangs this span of plumy leaves and flowers. It belongs to fairy-land. You will see it at the next turn. Ah-h!'

Over the river stretched a tight, solid bridge of bare new pine planks.

'Lookin' at our new improvement?' said a lank-jawed fellow sitting astride of the fence. 'Neatest thing in Jackson County, that bridge, I reckon.' "

In that one moment, Rebecca Harding Davis captured the essence of two very different world views, a difference still present today, as the ongoing disagreements over development in Jackson County so amply demonstrate. One’s improvement is another’s disappointment.

Maybe the authors of The United States of Appalachia and The Providence of Nature are saying the same thing: when we lose our true history, we lose our true future.

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