I. Plants and Fish Scales
Glossy, shimmering , green heart-shaped leaves cluster together at the base of a tall oak. The sweet musk of decay perfumes the damp and loamy forest floor. Sunlight streams through the canopies of trees, while plush moss and feathery ferns rest at their feet. a wilted creamy-white rhododendron blossom floats in the pooled water that is secured by the smooth, gray,black, brown, and orange river stones. The water in the river bed tumbles over boulders and slides in between stones lodged in crevices of mud. I am home in the woods.
At the top of Mount Pisgah, there is a restaurant that supposedly makes the best trout, caught from the same stream I sat beside earlier this morning. I sit down at the table with a fellow hiker. She is here in Asheville to find her retirement home so she can be close to her young son, who is not married and probably is unlikely to take a wife and give her a grandchild she says. The waitress serves our trout encrusted in walnuts with a slice of lemon and a side of homemade blueberry butter. We squeeze on the lemons and smother the fish in butter, and I listen as she unfolds her life story in front of me: from her career as a healthcare consultant, to her two marriages, the deaths of her college friend and her husband, her personal awakening and following of Amma the hugging saint, all the way to her friendship with a 40-something Indian woman who is an educator in Oakland and a published poet as well. I watch her smile and glow and become animated to have a listening ear. And I am listening, but I am also marveling at how she slices through the fish and eats scales and all. I pick out my bones and slide the meat off of the scales as easily as I pick out her story with probing, subtle questions and nods of my head. I begin mentally weaving her story into my story as we look out at our window view of the Blue Ridge mountains that press up against the equally blue sky.
II. Toe River Stories
Everything grows here in Western North Carolina. Chestnut trees, oaks, hickories, maples, rhododendrons, thistle, purple coneflowers. So does my hair. And I have hair everywhere on my body, right down to chin hairs and wisps of baby fine toe hairs that I have to shave almost every other day. I’ve never been in such a lush environment and marvel at the fact that even my armpits have a five o’clock shadow.
I have driven 45 minutes north through winding two lane highways that go up, over, down, and around mountains. My destination is the home of George and Sabina, a retired couple from Miami that have been living here for 10 years now. And it is a dream: nestled between a hill and a sloping ravine that has a gorgeous view of the Toe River in the distance. Hummingbirds swarm their feeders and their wings sound like electric fans. We sit on the wrap-around deck and look out at the dense undergrowth that houses one blooming red gladiola a scattering of purple coneflowers, and so many native trees and bushes that twist and turn and wrap around each other and the large boulders in their landscape.
My dog has discovered their orange cat, Fanta, and she chases him around the edge of the deck that has no barriers to protect anyone or anything from crashing into the ravine below. I wince numerous times, and George and Sabina laugh and tell me that my dog is not the one afraid of heights, I am. I shouldn’t transfer my fears to her, they say. My dog is safe enough and knows what she’s doing because she has a sixth sense of her surroundings. To ease my anxiety, though, we hop in the car and take a drive down to the river to wade in the water with Lucy and Reef, their Golden Retriever. There I watch as this nimble and wiry couple, who are my parents’ age or older, skirt over rolling pebbles and stones and sit on big boulders in the middle of the stream. I on the other hand am having a hard time of convincing my pup that she will not die in the water, and have to pick her up and place her down on a shallow sand bar that has enough rolling water to qualify her as wading in the stream as well.
We hop back in the van and George drives slowly back up and over the ridge so we can sight see their “neck of the woods”. At the top of the ridge we come to a clearing and there is a 360 degree view of the mountain range. I feel protected by these mountains. It’s as if they are hugging me in this moment and letting me know on some level that I am safe and secure and right where I should be. Later, at dinner, I loosen up my anxiety about my dog’s walk around the deck and her wanderings off into the woods. She is in a dog’s heaven and by the end of the night, her border collie instincts have kicked in and she has surveyed her entire border and barks at the neighbor dogs and runs down the hill to smell them and make sure they are safe to let near us, her flock.
By the end of the evening, I have learned about how they grew up in Czechoslovakia (George) and Germany (Sabina) and then under different family circumstances in Buenos Aires, Argentina, only to have met in Munich, Germany, many years later. George shares with me his father’s classic tale of a self-made man as first a wealthy plastic factory owner to a refugee in an internment camp to a single father of three working in a Czech restaurant in NYC for pennies back again to a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor who died in a small town in New Jersey some years ago. Their stories grow and take hold of me and anchor me to them and the surroundings even more. Everything grows here in Western North Carolina. Even the stories get richer and more lush.
III. A Dog Named Ashby
On Sunday my neighbor, Darby, took me with him and bought me a ticket to the annual Craft Fair at the Asheville U.S. Cellular Center. There were hundreds of craftsmen, jewelry makers, fine artists, and potters from the Southern Highland Craft Guild. If I was rich, I would have bought something from almost every single vendor. But since that type of wealth is reserved for the Vanderbilts and their collections at the Biltmore Estate, I chose to be the side kick for the day to Darby and his special charm and enthusiasm instead.
Darby stopped at almost every stall and asked the artists questions about their craft. He took a genuine interest in them. For the brief moments he was with them, they became the center of his world. A jewelry designer, named Ruthie, beamed with pride as Darby asked her how she crafted her copper and bronze earrings. By the end of their conversation, he had bits and pieces of her life out in the open and reflected back to her aspects of her personality like a shiny piece of copper. One man pulled out his phone and showed Darby all of his tiny metal work he did on personalized bamboo fishing poles. Another man talked to him about his life as a musician and how he taught his son how to play guitar. Once their stories were in full swing, Darby would turn to me and smile and without missing a beat, I would pick up the questioning and become equally engaged in the person’s story as well.
When the conversation came to its natural end, I would turn to say something to Darby and find he was gone. I walked to the next stall hoping he would catch back up with me, and there I would find him either at the next stall admiring some handiwork or walking up and down the aisles with his headphones in his ears, backpack slung over one shoulder, walking on the balls of his worn out tennis shoes, white socks pressed up tightly against his skinny calves. We would then meet up again and fall into our quickened walking pace. He would tell me some hilarious story of his own or share something insightful and wise until we got to the next stall and he would stop mid conversation and converse with the next artist who had the pleasure of his company for however long it lasted. This became our rhythm the entire day. By the end of our 5 hour tour, our friendship felt natural as if we had known each other for years as opposed to two weeks.
The last stop was at Tom Wolfe’s woodcarving stall. He is an 80 year old man from Spruce Pine, NC, (about 30 minutes away from Asheville), and is the grandfather and wise master of the folk art of whittling and carving here in the Appalachians. Before I knew it, Darby had fleshed out his life story and the man shook Darby’s hand and gave me a hug. I wanted so badly to purchase a carving of his, but I was being frugal with my money. Darby relieved me of that worry and convinced me that I needed a piece of art from an Appalachian man who has written the book (actually several books) on carving figurines. This is the man who says he sees faces and stories in his woodwork as he is shaping them. He smiled and said that as he whittles he begins to see faces of old childhood friends and family members now long gone. We both looked at each other and got a little teary-eyed. I understood him. He’s a storyteller. He uses wood instead of words. Different mediums, but the intention to express ourselves or capture a person, a feeling, a mood, a scene are the same.
The old man hugged me again and told me to name my dog. I said I would. Darby and I bounced out of the convention center and picked up our pace as we walked down sloping sidewalks to his truck. He was in the middle of sharing some whacky and wonderful story about his life when I told him I had a name for my dog. He asked what it was, and I said “Ashby.” He wondered how I came up with that name. I told him it was short for two things that have been a part of my story since the day I got here: Asheville plus Darby. He puffed up and told me how happy that made him feel. I finally had a story of my own.