On Native Ground

The art of abidance and staying home

The front porch of the crossroads store,
post office and mill at Unger Store, West Virginia.

In gathering material for his next book, Joe Bageant has been traveling the hills of Virginia and West Virginia where he grew up. Below is a short excerpt from his ongoing road journal.

By Joe Bageant

Driving Shanghai Road on the way to visit my childhood church in Unger Store, Morgan County, West Virginia, I crest the hill just above our old family farm. And spot something that makes me stop and turn off the truck motor, lest the moment be interrupted. Ahead of me in the Sunday morning sun stands an old farmer I've known all my life, Ray Luttrell, meditating on his hayfield. Standing on the very spot by the road where I've seen his late father Harry stand countless times, he is just looking at that hay field, motionless for many minutes.

Before him is his most familiar place on earth, his native ground. And I feel that for a moment at least I once again know that same home ground, again feel the personal sense of eternity in its very "itness." A tableau profoundly exclusive to that place and its people, so specific in its fabric of detail and history that it cannot exist anywhere else on earth. 

When you are born and raised in one ancestral place, and, like Ray, accept that you'll probably die there, you know it intimately, specifically and forever. Just as those before you knew it. All your early memories, all the voices inside your head, they come from there, and you know it and its community in a way other people never will. The geographic arch and trajectory of a life can be so specific as to know its precise beginning and ending spot. Once while squirrel hunting Pap stopped in the woods at a pile of leaf buried stones that had once been a chimney and said, "Right there, right there was where I was born." And all his life he knew exactly where he would be buried. In the cemetery where I am headed, where we may find him today, should we care to dig deep enough, right next to Maw and his children.

On this late April morning in 2009 the sun raises steam from the dewy lawn of Greenwood Methodist Church, high on the hillside bend in the road near Unger Store, West Virginia. Inside about fifty people, most of them above that same number in age, listen to the minister, a young woman in her thirties, tell about how the lord does provide. First comes the group recitation: "Be guided by God's word, that you may bear good fruit …" Then as living proof of that good fruit, farmer Ray Luttrell's fresh faced 10-year-old granddaughter is called up front to be recognized for her recent accomplishment — a prize winning a school social science essay titled "Why We Are In Iraq." For that she earned a story and full color picture in the local newspaper, The Morgan Messenger.

This is followed by a lilting version of "Easter People Raise Your Voices." The window tinted rays of colored light flash on the spectacles of the congregation and choir. I count four people not wearing glass, which says something about the aging congregation. Toward the end comes the time when church members express any "Joys and Concerns," as the moment is called. A tall fellow about seventy stands up, looking firmly into the congregations' eyes, and in an accent similar to that of many who've retired here from Washington D.C., says, "Did you all know that California has passed a law against children using the words mother or father in the public schools? They must now use the word "parents." And the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) says it will sue any community that observes The National Day of Prayer. Wake up America!"

As background for foreign readers, America has had several National Days of Prayer since the Continental Congress called for the first one in 1775, and has been a national formal observance since Harry Truman signed a bill formalizing it in 1952. Since then America's most powerful evangelical forces have pretty much commandeered the holiday for their own political purposes, through the National Prayer Committee, focusing on events specifically for the evangelical committee. Hence the ACLU's objections.

When it comes to waking up America, the little church at Unger Store may not have been the best place for him to start. Only one woman nodded in agreement, and then a bit too fervently, leading me to think she might have been his wife.

Personally I am having serious doubts about California schools outlawing the words mother and father, which sounds too much like far right Internet propaganda. Yet, having known many California gay and lesbian parent activists, such a ridiculous agenda is not out of the question. And though I grew up observing the National Day of Prayer in the public schools, the observance has soured for me over the years. I'd guess however, that I am the only person in the churchhouse who feels this way.

Several expressions of concern and calls for friendship prayers follow, mostly regarding sick members, people about to undergo cancer surgery, a family that had suffered the death of an elder.

"Anyone have any joys they would like to express?" asks the minister. This elicits the heartfelt testimony of an 82-year-old woman: "I was 40 when I got saved. When I found Christ. So by now I've spent more than half my life in His service. It has been a happy life and a better life. And I don't need anything more in this life than what He has given me. But I would like to ask for one little thing, for Cindy Hill (the pianist) to play ‘Oh How I love Jesus.' Would you do that Cindy?" And she sat down.

While Cindy played "Oh How I love Jesus" I thought about my father, grandparents, uncles and the other family members buried just outside those thick stained glass windows. The past became present, and I found myself looking around me for a girl, certainly an old woman by now, who I'd had a crush on in the little one room school house we attended then. Up front is Ray Luttrell again, this time in a green and gold choir robe. His son Dallas stands beside him in the choir, and in the pew in front of me I see the back of the Luttrell grandchild's head, the precisely parted white scalp hairline down the middle with its odor of peach scented shampoo.

The Doxology rolls around signaling the end of the service, perhaps for the first time in my life I hate to leave a church. It is so peaceful here. I see what we rarely see anymore — a humble willingness to abide by the forms that have held their society together for generations. Each person an individual, by but traveling together like a flock of arrows toward a mutual destiny, but always somewhere over home.

Because abidance in the form has been so continuous, it's hard to walk a few steps in any direction here without bumping into a reminder of previous abiders. Folks once here, but now gone. You remember its dead, and in doing so you have access to all they ever did that was right and all that was wrong — what worked or did not work for those people and that community — you know that. Even if you don't know you know it. In that way, places own us and we belong to places. A community with no memory of its dead is no real community, because it has no human connectivity grounded in time — just interaction. It's merely a location populated by disassociate beings. A community's inherited memory from its dead provides its spiritual and moral animation, its posterity. Simply because we are humans, not aggregations of marketing or employment demographics, and are more than just a bunch of people who happen to be in the same place.

Not that most of us have a choice in the matter. We cannot escape most of what was already set in motion before our birth, such as being moved around by larger forces, for necessary employment, or alleged opportunity, or for "quality of life" as measured by consumption (a corporate yardstick if ever there was one). We find ourselves living in an unfamiliar land, ungrounded and psychically uncounseled by our ancestors through the living memory of a native community. Through deeper long term association with familiar people's lives and work, their grieving and their joy. 

The solution to this void is simple, yet impossible to our minds. Stop moving. Reduce or eliminate mobility. Grow in situ. Send down roots through the pavement and send branches out through the people around us. Teach children the value of same. The fact that this sounds so untenable and absurd is proof of the industrialization of our comprehension and the commoditizing of our aspirations.

We can "think globally." But for better or worse, we exist locally. And some pain and loss come with existence, regardless of where we choose to exist. Americans in particular find it hard to grasp that there's no "better place" left to run toward, geographically or economically. No new frontier other than the present, upon which we can begin to build a more resonant and meaningful place in the world.

Which is what endures in Ray Luttrell and a few remaining others along Shanghai Road. Watching Ray makes me feel fortunate to be part of a known and knowable human chain of lives lived entirely in a distinct place, even if mine has not been. And I like to believe, vainly perhaps, that as long as they endure, I endure, even as do departed friends and ancestors endure in me. All I can do in testimony is windrow these words like hay, and with providence, they will be as orderly, and make as much earthly sense as make as much sense as Ray's long streaks of clover hay under next June's sun.

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