Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Peacocks on Pigeon River

Two books about Western North Carolina, both published in 1913, are still in print: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders, and Margaret Morley’s The Carolina Mountains. I suppose that the arbiters of taste in such matters favor Kephart’s book by a wide margin, and I can understand why it has aged well despite its shortcomings. Morley indulged in flowery prose that was fashionable in its time, but turns off most modern readers. I like it, though. Her chapter on The Forks of the Pigeon River showcased her talent for describing mountain scenery, and you could do much worse than to read it while traveling from Canton to Cold Mountain.

An episode on the Little East Fork of the Pigeon demonstrated how Morley’s high-flown idealism was at odds with the gritty reality of mountain life. Morley was surprised to encounter a gang of peacocks:

When we admired them with a sort of anticipatory pleasure in the time to come, when peacocks will sun themselves on the walls of the charming gardens that charming people will make here, we were brought violently to earth by learning that the real value of the peacock is in its superiority to chicken meat.

As with almost any outsider writing about Appalachia, Morley starts skating on thin ice when she gets into social commentary. Though not as guilty of condescension and caricature as the parade of writers that preceded her to these mountains, Morley adopts a certain tone in discussing “the mountaineer” that some might find objectionable. On the other hand, she was witness to a period of social, environmental and economic change in the mountains not unlike our own. This passage caught my attention because it hints at the complexities of what we call “property rights”:

The mountain people are many of them poor and ignorant, but the ill-clad man, who to the city visitor may look like a vagabond, is not to be treated as such; he knows some things the fine-appearing stranger does not know, and is well aware of the fact. The mountaineer is very old-fashioned, so old-fashioned that he values native shrewdness above what he calls "book-larnin"'; so old-fashioned that he thinks his neighbors as good as himself, and himself as good as his neighbors, irrespective of who has the biggest cornfield; and so old-fashioned that he believes progress to be a menace against his personal freedom, a thing to be combated at every point.

His long-continued, almost communal life in a free wilderness, where every one had a right to do what he pleased, — hunting, fishing, pasturing, even cutting down trees wherever it happened to suit his convenience, — made for him the acceptance of other ideas of property rights peculiarly difficult. He gladly sold his land to the newcomer whose slaughter of the forests he understood, but if the purchaser, instead of destroying, tried to preserve the forest land, prohibiting, burning-over, pasturing, and common use of the territory — then there was trouble. Also the inalienable right to hunt and fish when and where he pleased was a part of the faith of the mountaineer, whose long sojourn in the wilderness had ingrained in him primitive ideas which the gradual filling-up of the country did not change, although his methods were rapidly exterminating both fish and game animals.

Morley came to the mountains from the intellectual circles of New England. She settled into the artists’ colony of Tryon after she had already gained some notoriety in Victorian America for writing sex-education books for children. She must have been an object of curiosity, traveling difficult mountain terrain in the cumbersome clothing of her time, and taking amazing photographs along the way. It’s likely she was an object of scorn for being a part of the invasion that she derided. Even so, I find something timeless and hopeful in the words she left us:

For Nature is long-suffering and very kind, so kind, indeed, that in moments of discouragement one has only to remember that even if the worst were to happen, and these beautiful mountains become devastated by ignorant invaders, when the time came, as come it would, that the profaner depart, nature would begin anew her beneficent task of creating beauty.

East Fork of the Pigeon, oil, 16"x20"

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