Josna Rege

286. Foxfire

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Nature, seasons, Stories, United States, Work on October 12, 2014 at 1:56 am


. . . a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months (The Foxfire Book)

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 marching 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 (The Foxfire Book)

Aunt Arie (The Foxfire Book)

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.



Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. 5 years later. I was just reading a newly found poem my uncle Louis Cleage wrote in response to something in a work I used to have but let go decades ago. Some things I got rid of that I should have kept for my archives. I thought I was “letting go of the past’ at the time. Not realizing that the past was my work. Sigh. Oh well. Too late now.

    • “Not realizing that the past was my work.” I love that, Kristin. Thank goodness for your keeping and chronicling and giving shape and meaning to what otherwise is just discarded and forgotten, junk and jewels alike. (But just because something is physically gone, doesn’t necessarily mean if can’t be recovered in imaginative reconstruction. A dear friend was just explaining to me the work of recent Macarthur Fellowship awardee Saidiya Hartman and her concept of “critical fabulation.” I thought of you as I was watching the video of her on the MacArthur site and wondering what you, the meticulous researcher, would think of her approach. (

  2. Very moving and eloquent Josna. These are the extreme emotional moments we all recognize and here are the cathartic qualities of time spent in the woods and with our hands resting on paper and the words therein. Your practice of writing is enabling you now to write more personally – and very effectively – without the slightest nuance of sentimentality. You create worlds which are difficult to forget and which keep me looking.

    • Ah, Evangeline, your words are balm, especially since in my opinion they describe your own writing better than they do mine. The world of undercover mole never fails to soothe and delight. Thank you.

  3. This is too public a place for my thoughts right now, so consider yourself hugged and pop over to your e-mail where I can talk to you.

  4. Josna, I also sit with shelves of books that I often look at and wonder about. And then like you I suddenly take one of the shelf and it suddenly awakens an aspect of my history and the important role it played in my thinking at the time. Good moments these.

    I loved your words, “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.” I know the feeling only too well. Thanks for articulating it so well and tersely.

    • Thank you, Don. I like your description of how a book can suddenly awaken memories that have lain dormant for years, giving us access to and new insights into our younger selves at formative moments. I’m glad you liked that particular sentence. I moved words and phrases around for a while before it felt right.

  5. This is exqusite, Josna. It reads like a short story giving full drama to your indulgence of your feelings of ‘dis-ease’ and your attempts to move beyond it. You expressed so well what some days of inexplicable bah-humbug are like.

    And I often turn to shelves of books, thumbing through as you did to find comfort in pages of memories and the soothing rhythm of earlier reads.

    I’m bookmarking this post because it’s one I want to call up in the future. Well done!

    • Thank you, Sammy. I didn’t want to wallow in my mood and yet I didn’t want to trivialize it, either. Like your “days of inexplicable bah-humbug.” And yes, I turn to books for comfort, too, and to enter a different pace (your “soothing rhythm”) as well as a different place.

  6. Some saving is just a waste of space and depressing. Not mine, of course, but my husband’s and my oldest daughter’s. 😦

    I remember Aunt Aire. I left my Fox fire books behind in one move or another. Too many moves, too little space.

    I’m glad you came out of your funk. Must be that Mecury retrograde my fb friends keep mentioning. things were kind of weird around here last night too.

    • I like the idea the planets were responsible, not me!
      See, you still have Aunt Arie in your head; you didn’t need the books anymore–although I expect they served their purpose well in their time.
      I’m sure, with your genealogical work, you know what’s important to keep and what can be let go of once you’ve documented it. But yes, it is other people’s stuff that’s junk–ours is treasure 😉

  7. Thank you very much for this. I will have to re-read and ruminate on it more than once, I’m sure. As I wrote this piece I had only a very hazy idea of where I was going with it, and I still don’t quite know what it is I’ve ended up with. Your comment brings it into focus in a new way, making me see something quite different from what I thought it was about.

  8. Another wonderful rumination, obviously for you a great help in putting things in perspective. Objects, whether books or other personal possessions, are even more of a memorial to individuals when they’re gone than gravestone epitaphs, made more poignant when they are slowly being consumed by time. They can mean so much (or so little) to those contemplating them when we’re each heading towards out personal entropy.

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