This evening, feeling melancholy, hard done by, and inclined to self-pity, I went for a short walk in the damp night air. With invisible mists rising all around me, I was in that kind of mood where one begins to wallow in the miserably pleasurable certainty of being misunderstood by the whole world. Slipping on a peacoat and wrapping a woolen shawl several times around my neck, I flung myself dramatically out into the dark, stomping up the hill to the border of our town, where both the sidewalk and the streetlights end abruptly, and striding back down again, like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme.
On the way down I paused for a moment at the quince bush, where one small but perfect specimen the size of an apricot came off in my hand without the slightest resistance. Velvety-cold, it glowed yellow in my cupped palm as I bore it home. Just about hitting my stride as I was coming back into the house again, I reflected that if it had been a different time of day—more likely, if I had been at a different stage of life—I might have gone on walking almost indefinitely. My legs were aching, but from disuse rather than overuse, and I craved adventure, defined, on this Saturday night in October, as just about anything other than grading papers or working on my deferred taxes.
Still bundled up in my outdoor clothes—for in this ornery mood woe betide anyone, myself included, who dared suggest that I might turn up the heat—I huddled in front of my glowing laptop as if it were a fire in a cave of yore and scanned my Facebook feed, prepared to take exception to just about anything. There was a review of a new book about hoarding (which has just been added to the latest DSM) which purported to “depathologize” the practice. After all, one person’s hoarding is another person’s collecting. DSM-5 defines hoarding disorder as characterized by the persistent difficulty of discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. I curled a misanthropic lip at those “others” who failed to value the items I chose to keep, pathologizing my perfectly harmless predilection for printed matter. Defiantly, I posted a link to the review on the page of my Facebook decluttering group and hoped, like the man in the Monty Python skit who wanted an argument, that someone would take the bait. But no one did; all it drew was a disappointingly cheery Like.
As I glared round the room in search of something else to focus my wrath on, I was overtaken by the thought of what my bookshelves would look like five, fifty years hence if the house were to be abandoned. Years ago Andrew and I had stumbled upon one such scene, in a broken-down barn in Concord in the woods of Old Road to Nine-Acre Corner (the longest street name I have ever encountered, by the way; the street sign reads, “Old Road to N.A.C”), where we retrieved a rain-soaked old medical manual and attempted to restore it, but in vain. With my eyes in soft focus, I contemplated the wall of books in the dining room, considering how rarely I actually opened any of them, and wondering what they really meant to me. It was then that the Foxfire books shimmered into view.
I plucked the first volume from the shelf and opened it—after how many years! Re-reading the introduction reminded me of the project, begun in 1966 by an idealistic and highly educated young English teacher who started a magazine in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in which high-school students interviewed ordinary Appalachian Mountain folk. These were hard-working people who eked out a subsistence living, doing everything, but everything, themselves. Their matter-of-fact accounts of their lives lit up a generation of young people who set out to learn their skills and carry on their tradition of self-sufficiency.
Aunt Arie was an elderly woman who, since the death of her husband Ulysses, had lived by herself in a log cabin with no running water, working, working, all the livelong day. The interviewer asked her:
Doesn’t being here alone bother you sometimes?
Aunt Arie freely acknowledged that it got “mighty lonesome”, that she was afraid of snakes, and that the foxes had never allowed her to keep any of her chickens: “they catched th’last one of ‘em.” She did not downplay the difficulties, but neither did she have any regrets:
We made a good life here, but we put in lots’a’time. Many an’many a night I’ve been workin’ when two o’clock come in th’mornin’—cardin’n’spinnin’n’sewin’. They want me t’sell an’move away from here but I won’t do it. It’s just home—‘at’s all. I spent my happiest days here (Foxfire 1: 30).
I looked over at the little quince, still glowing, in the wooden fruit bowl with two pears from my father’s pear tree. Tomorrow the rest of the pears had to be picked and put by before they fell to the ground and rotted. I would make pear sauce for the winter. What was the point of my anger? There was no argument to be had and no-one to have it with.