Mountain People Are a Rare Breed, and That’s Unfortunate

For many decades, Western civilization has been mesmerized by the myth that science and technology will be human salvation, that one day we will be able to create on Earth the “good life” for everyone.

So we have gone forth recklessly, di­verting rivers, splitting atoms, deforest­ing mountains, prolonging the lifespan, and interfering with nature in a million ways, big and small, on blind faith that technology will, in time, solve whatever problems that technology creates. Mean­while we have denigrated as crude and simpleminded all other ways the human being has of knowing and finding mean­ing.

Now we have begun to realize our pla­net is in trouble, that blind technological progress is terribly suspect. Frustrated and alarmed, we begin to look back with new respect to those few remaining peoples, whom we call indigenous, who ha­ven’t “progressed” technologically at all, and who live a much closer relationship to everyday nature. Indeed, the United Nations has designated 1993 as “The Year of the Indigenous Peoples.” As our technologically created problems mount, we begin to swallow our pride.

West Virginia has its own special ver­sion of indigenous population. We are the Mountain State because we once were a mountain people, and there was a lot of heart and hard-earned wisdom up in “them thar hills”—and a special close­ness to nature that we may never com­prehend again, even though we are our­selves, in fact, nature through and through.

Our mountain life heritage is rapidly approaching extinction, but I have a friend whose father still lives on the mountain where she herself, and her si­blings, grew up, attending a one-room school, going barefoot in summer, living a largely self-reliant, self-sufficient life. Eventually all of the children came down off the mountain and pursued careers of various kinds. Finally, even my friend’s mother wanted the town life, but her father wouldn’t leave. For the past two decades he has lived alone, attending a small flock of sheep, his garden and fruit trees.

My friend is his youngest child and she defends him to the death if someone dares suggest that her father is a little strange for refusing to change his ways. “He’s not strange,” she says. “He’s just different.”

One day, a few years ago, she did me the honor of taking me up the mountain with her to meet her father. He is a little man, with long gray hair, and as we sat in his old-fashioned kitchen, with its wood-burning stove, he didn’t speak to me at all. Later my friend told me that he liked me—she could always tell in­stantly whom he liked and didn’t like. “He is very intuitive,” she said.

The visit was during a particularly wet period in the autumn. The rivers were al­most to the flood stage, and the skies hinted of more rain that day, though none was forecast. The old man insisted that we have a bite with him, and he started to stoke up his stove to warm some pota­to ‘patties he had cooked that morning for breakfast.

“It’s not necessary, Daddy,” his daugh­ter protested. “We want to go for a walk with you. We brought some apples with us.” I think she was a little embarrassed at the meagerness of his offering.

“Oh no. Not apples,” he said. “Too wet. Too much rain. Potatoes, when you need dry weather.”

My friend smiled at me, and we both ate some dry potato patties, without but­ter or margarine. As he was serving us a second helping, he said, “Come on, eat up, I can’t do it all by myself.” My friend started to protest, but I winked at her that I was fine.

Although in his 80s, the old man was a vigorous walker. We walked up a path to the top of his mountain, and he was bare­ly winded, while we were both puffing. After walking a couple of miles along the crest, we picked up a crude four-wheel­ drive trail that circled back to his house. When be saw a Jeep approaching in the distance, he said to us, “Dodge ’em,” and my friend whispered in my ear that we should hide behind a tree as he was doing.

“Dodge ’em might not be a bad philoso­phy,” I said, for I saw something innately wise in the old man. Later, as I watched his thin but strong body walk 50 yards ahead of us, I felt a slight ache in my heart for him, trying all by himself to bring forth dry weather by eating pota­toes—like the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico, who believe their morning pray­ers have something to do with the sun coming up.

As we approached again his home, I was tired and thirsty. I suddenly remem­bered the apples in my jacket pocket. I took two out, and offered one to my friend. At the very instant that our teeth chomped into their juicy wetness, out of nowhere a pretty heavy rain started to fall.

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