I grew up in two very different places about 250 miles apart in the southeast US. One place was a small manufacturing town in North Carolina; the other was a sprawling suburb of Atlanta. But the other night I suddenly remembered one thing my two hometowns had in common: in both places, from a car window rolled down in summer, or smudged in winter with dirty breath, you could see, from higher points where the backseat whirred over the highway, where the tree cover thinned for a blink, in the distance but close, the profile of a solitary mountain.
I want to tell you about these two mountains because their presence seems relevant to what I’m writing about. It seems relevant because I’m writing about something else and thinking about them. But how do I justify their presence to you with the depth and the detail the space of an essay seems to ask for, when all I ever saw of them were glimpses?
There's a certain Slant of light, writes Emily Dickinson. She doesn’t really need to keep going, that first line is so perfect. But she does. And in the course of the poem she keeps darkening the information in that line of light without ever letting it dim.
There are not many places in the southeast where trees don’t tunnel over you. From a rolled down car window in summer, the world is a blur of deep pine green and technicolor understory. The winter is a smudged thicket, a briar patch of brown and off-season green. Sometimes a hole opens up in the foliage—a clear cut for power lines, or a red clay maw for a new bypass, with its mud-caked equipment—and you can see the wide undulations of canopy, the high sea of forest on which everything in the south sails. But most sights are brief flashes in the woods. The borders of vision are serrated like nettle. Brambles, loading docks, a riot of pine. Then termite porches, then chokeweed and pines, then a Target, then a void behind it, jungles of sumac. The memories of someone traveling in that country are of things seen in opening scars in the second before they reseal.
The other night I looked out my window. Behind my reflection was the car dealership and the highway behind the building where I live. There was a brief rustle before the two separate mountains of my two hometowns appeared side by side, then disappeared together into a single image. In that rustle I heard their separate names: Sweat, and Bakers.
If I try, I can go back now and reconstruct from something more than memory the details those two mountains shared. They were both small but steep. You couldn’t call them hills. They were topped with radio towers. You could not define their bottom edges. They slid without boundary down into parking lots and loading docks, the raw materials of the Piedmont. But their summits had prominence. They were elegant possums in the backyard of my childhood. When you looked out the window at half-dusk, they stared back, returning pure dusk to you. They had sentience. And in their singularity they slumped with loneliness. It’s strange, but I don’t think I ever went to the top of either mountain. I imagine if you did, you’d see, in the distance, the Blue Ridge, and the reason it’s called that. Which, of course, is distance. Because up close, it’s not blue. If you had been there, up close, just emerging from the woods, looking in from outside our car window as we passed, you would have seen my childhood face, overlaid with speeding green.
The year before we left North Carolina and moved to Atlanta, I was riding with my mom down one of the backroads behind our house, past dairy farms and the state prison. I was 5 or 6, but the way I remember it, I was riding in the front seat. A bird startled up and hit the windshield. My mom braked. While I sat there in shock, staring at a brown smudge on the glass in front of me, she ran around the car and into the weeds, retrieved the dead bird, and came back cradling it in her hands. I don’t remember what kind or color of bird it was—but it was slight, a sparrow?—or where she put it when she got back into the car. Did she lay it in the drink holder? Did she hand it to me to carry? I don’t remember if I ever felt the weight of the bird’s body with my own hands. I only remember what we did when we got home. We went out into the garden with a small cardboard box. I lined it with grass and flowers, and my mom set the bird inside. We dug a hole in the flower bed and buried the box. I collected two sticks from the yard and tied them together with grass to make a cross for the grave.
Years later, in a pine grove just southeast of Atlanta, I helped lower a heavy wicker basket woven with blue ribbons, flowers, and late May greenery into the earth. My mom had died in her sleep, hundreds of miles from where I was living, and I hadn’t got to see her face in death before she was wrapped in a shroud. But my arms and my back felt her heaviness for a brief moment as we buried her. We stood around her grave sharing memories, and I told the story of the bird. I wanted to say something beautiful about my mom in the last moments of her presence in the light. It was the first thing I thought of.
What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped? writes William Carlos Williams. Or in other words, how can I fit words, which are like light, like notes, like ideas, into the hole punched by the heft of a thing, a theme, an occasion for writing?
My favorite song from Slanted and Enchanted is not on the original album—it’s on the remastered version, Luxe and Reduxe, released in 2002, which includes outtakes and other songs recorded in various sessions from the same era. The song is called “Secret Knowledge of Backroads.” I would like the song merely for its title if there were nothing else to it, but there is something else—a piano track like water trickling down a hidden rock face into a culvert. Guitars like cars pulling in and out of parking lots all night. And nothing in the song that illuminates or darkens too much the claim of its title.
Since the other night when their symmetry occurred to me, my two hometown mountains have been moving together through my thoughts. But as each night goes by, they become less and less like the sudden flashes through which I first remembered them. They gather ragged flesh and continuity around them. They sidle up shadowed in their self-light, suddenly domestic, their silhouettes backed by dusk-light through bedroom windows. They are inside the room. They pad like ghosts with magnolia carpels for feet. They hold out their light industry like limbs, and their damp geometry rustles. They thwap their million-leaves. They are top-heavy. They command the memories being made for miles around them. They move like how the mind will make a whole when it has only parts. Like how I imagine the ghost-“she” moving in the old Irish song “She Moved Through The Fair.” So softly they come up close beside me, their feet make no din.