The strongest element in fiction set in the mountain South is a sense of place. That connection to the land is the key to understanding the people who settled here, those who are drawn to live here now, and those who cannot leave. In my Ballad novels I try both to celebrate the land, and to understand its power over those who have become a part of it.
The first member of my family to settle in America was my five-times great-grandfather Malcolm McCourry, a Scotsman who left a law practice in New Jersey in 1790, took a new young wife, raised a second family and homesteaded in a log cabin in the wildwood until his death in 1829– a sojourn in the wilderness lasting longer than his tenure as a lawyer on the eastern seaboard.
He must have felt at home in the mountain fastness of western North Carolina. What he never knew was that in a geologic sense, he was back home. In The Songcatcher, my novel based on Malcolm McCourry’s life, the central theme was provided by a scholarly publication on Appalachian geology. In Traces on the Appalachians: A History of Serpentine in America (Rutgers University Press, 1988), geologist Kevin Dann writes that the first Appalachian journey was the one made by the mountains themselves.
The proof of this can be found in a vein of a green mineral called serpentine which forms its own subterranean “Appalachian Trail” along America’s eastern mountains, stretching from north Georgia to the hills of Nova Scotia, where it seems to stop. This same vein of serpentine can be found in the mountains of western Ireland, where it again stretches north into Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and the Orkneys, finally ending in the Arctic Circle. More than two hundred and fifty million years ago (before even fish existed yet) the mountains of Appalachia and the mountains of Great Britain fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Continental drift pulled them apart, at the same time it formed the Atlantic Ocean.
The mountains’ family connection to Britain reinforced what I had felt about the migration patterns of the early settlers. People forced to leave a land they loved come to America. Hating the flat, crowded eastern seaboard, they head westward on the Wilderness Road until they reach the wall of mountains. They follow the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, and finally find a place where the ridges rise, where you can see vistas of mountains across the valley. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the Cornishmen– all those who had lives along the other end of the serpentine chain– to them this place must have looked right. Must have felt right. Like home. And they were right back in the same mountains they had left behind in Britain.
Perhaps it isn’t a unique experience in nature, this yearning for a place to which one is somehow connected. After years in the vast ocean salmon return to spawn in the same small stream from whence they and their forebears came; Monarch butterflies make the journey from the eastern seaboard to the same field in Mexico that had been the birthplace of the previous generation. The journey there and back again is unchanging, but each generation travels only one way. Is it really so strange that humans might feel some of this magnetism toward the land itself?
If you go looking for the serpentine chain in Britain, the best place to find it is on the Lizard, a peninsula in Cornwall between Falmouth and Penzance that is the southernmost tip of England. There at Kynance Cove you can see the cliffs of magnesium-rich serpentine, and the chain of rocks in the bay that marks the path to Ireland’s link on the great geologic chain. The other end of the serpentine chain follows the Appalachian Mountains from Alabama to the tip of New Brunswick. How wonderful, I think, that the people who loved those mountains in Britain found them again when they came to settle in this country.
My office sits perched on the edge of the ridge so that from my window I can see green meadows far below, and folds of multi-colored hills stretching away to the clouds in the distance. It could be any century at all in that vista, which is just the view one needs to write novels set in other times. I tell myself I don’t want to live anywhere else, but every year or two, I make my way back to Britain, and I spend a few weeks wandering around the west of Ireland, or the coves of Cornwall, or the cliffs of Scotland– an ocean away from home, but still connected by the serpentine chain.
Sharyn McCrumb is an award-winning Southern writer, best known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels and for “St. Dale.” Forthcoming novels are “The Devil Amongst the Lawyers” (Thomas Dunne, 2010) and “Faster Pastor” (Ingalls Publishing Group, 2010),the latter co-authored by NASCAR driver Adam Edwards. In 2008 Sharyn McCrumb was named a “Virginia Woman of History” for Achievement in Literature. http://www.sharynmccrumb.com