Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Old Weathered Cabins

I don't know what it was about the old gray, weathered cabins of the Appalachian mountains. Maybe it was that, in the early 1970s, they were already an image out of their own time and place. Maybe we subconsciously saw that in them. Or maybe it was just the visual drama of them, so stark and skeletal, among the red clay hills; velvet-black on rainy days. The red of the roof matched the clay, but it was the red of rust, not of paint. I don't want to think it was simple nostalgia. There was nostalgia, but it was a lonesomeness for a kind of life that was fading before our eyes. Every old, black cottage that we passed on the rural roads reminded us of our own kin. They stilled lived in those cabins. We would go to visit, only a few times a year; and to us kids, it was the novelty of the thing. It was a strange, new thing, to pump water by hand, to pull the rope in the old cistern and haul up dripping buckets of water; to sit and listen to our great-grandfather and uncles play the fiddle and the banjo; to eat the chicken-and-dumplings and chocolate gravy and biscuits and other rare treats of our great aunts and grandmother's cooking. We marvelled that the outhouse, a strange, mysterious and somewhat spooky place to us, was an everyday, matter-of-fact utility of theirs. What we didn't know was that we were seeing the last of Appalachia. We didn't see them going, but they went. They went the way of the American Chestnut, that Appalachian giant that I never saw, but only heard about from my elders. First went the old covered bridges; then, the rickety paved ones, that provided so much dangerous glee when we were teens in our first cars, and knew no better than to get up a good speed in anticipation of a breathtaking, roller coaster leap that would separate chassis from suspension, if only for a moment. Then the cabins, as they gave way to cozy, trim little cedar-sided and brick houses. The old barns, that used to be everywhere, and of such different designs, quietly disappeared from the landscape. We didn't notice as they disappeared, but we noticed when nearly all of them were gone. And finally, the people. Stern old women in faded sunbonnets and shapeless dresses... wiry, leathery old men in overalls, chewing tobacco and talking of sourwood honey. They, too, existed in such stark contrast to the bustling, chrome-plated and freshly painted world that sprang up around them. It was the dawn of the age of personal computers and cellular phones, but even we didn't see that (that was still a Star Trek fantasy). Those sturdy, coarse-yet-dignified personalities ~ seemingly as strong and ancient and enduring as the mountains themselves ~ simply disappeared as quietly as the old barns and cabins.
The oil painting of the old cabin (above) was perhaps my first landscape. I was only 15 or 16, and it was painted from memory, not direct observation. The details of the overalls on the clothesline, the broom, and the old outhouse, were sentimental, to be sure; the mountains lack form; but the depth and strength of the red clay and cobalt blue hills seem true to me even now.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I love this painting and story, I found your picasa album and you said you painted this around age 16 - I find that so amazing, you are very talented. Try to stay warm tonight, last I heard it is going down to 9 degrees 'round these parts.