“About this grass now. I didn't finish telling. It grows so close it's guaranteed to kill off clover and dandelions-"
"Great God in heaven! That means no dandelion wine next year! That means no bees crossing our lot! You're out of your mind, son.”
—Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
By Ali McGhee
I was born into the deep lap of these mountains in mid-May. My birthday, which falls more or less on Mother’s Day each year, must either be a great gift or a curse for my mother, whose marriage brought her out of the Piedmont loam and into the Blue Ridge’s rocky soil, where she has never felt at home but has established herself nonetheless, digging delicate branch roots in deeper; each season marking a spurt of new, hard-won growth. Despite her still-bright dreams of returning to the land of her own childhood, she remains here, sustained by the occasional trip to her own hometown, a migration to drink deep of familiar waters before she drives back up the curving finger of Old Fort Mountain to sit in the stillness of strange woods.
I, however, had the privilege of landing in native ground, and unlike my mother, the gently rolling Piedmont held few charms for me. Plants in my grandmother’s garden, worked by her careful hand, were beautiful but knew nothing of wildness. Knotty branches in her carefully-pruned orchard were the only reminders of the irregularity of an uncultivated world. The woods, on the other hand, were not the same as they seemed to be at higher elevations; rather, the warmer weather encouraged a kind of choking competitiveness across the nearly impenetrable forest floor. Those woods, held hostage between city and fields, kept few secrets of any interest to me. They were, if anything, a difficult way to pass between houses in the Old Town neighborhood of Winston-Salem. The ribbon of gray road was a much more reliable connector to a friend’s yard. I loved my grandmother’s house, its kitchen filled with smells of chicken and dumplings that bubbled away on the stove, its spacious rooms and bay windows where the light streamed across wood floors and Chinese rugs, but outside of that small world there were few charms for me. Those forests were not mine.
When I was still very small, my father and I planted a wildflower garden in the wooded backyard. He had grown up under the weight of Georgia summers and found a spaciousness my mother never felt in the thinner mountain air. It was spring, and my own new year was marked by the new blooms emerging in the forest, their buds about to reveal themselves amidst the vibrant, waxy green of new leaves.
Mayapple. Jack in the Pulpit. Solomon’s Seal. Trillium, blazing scarlet like a beating heart. We lifted each from its patch of earth and carried it like a sacred thing to our little plot, encircled with stones from the creek, which was teeming with new spring life. Minnows, tiger salamanders, crayfish dusted a rusty blue. Several times I found a kind of snail, I think, that made its own shell from the creek bottom, a mosaic of pink pebbles and silver mica.
We would hike in the woods, picking wildflowers to take home to my mother, who stayed indoors, warier with each season’s turning. My father pointed out the life hidden around us: Indian paintbrush, warrior-red in its glade, white-tailed deer, the calls of turkeys, the overhead circlings of buzzards and flinty-eyed hawks.
My father eventually moved to Marshall, on top of a mountain where sunsets blaze crimson fire over forests that stretch on into forever. My mother still lives deep in the woods, encircled by trees in their riotous green.
I go out each morning to say hello to the joyful sassafras, the showy redbud, the maples that stand sentinel like old men stooped over, guarding the entrance to deeper forest. These, too, are family.
When I was a child, the forest seemed impervious to humanity’s ruinous encroachment. Now, it is encircled by a tall iron gate, a barrier that imposes upon the natural movements of deer and bears, that interrupts the paths carved by forking streams, that muffles the echoes of mountain gods crying out against a dark the likes of which they have never seen before. All I can do is kiss the rain-dotted redbud leaf as I walk out the door, sending an apology to all of those who walked before me, and all of those still to come.