JOHNNY ROBINSON: Forgotten Farmsteads

The rock piles are the first things I notice that tell me I’m in the vicinity of an old farmstead. They’re made of stones about the size of a loaf of bread or a gallon of moonshine, and they’re piled up three to five feet tall.

Yep, as the trail I’m on takes me up a mountain hollow or across a remote ridge top and I start seeing those piles of rock dotting the forest around me I know the mountain people had been there. It makes me smile, for it’s a delight and a curiosity, among other things, to think of those folks –my ancestors maybe– hewing out an existence far off the beaten path way up in these Blue Ridge Mountains.

It’s been at least a century since these farms I’m talking about were inhabited, and believe me there’s not much sign of them now. Once-cleared garden plots have become indistinguishable from the surrounding forest; where rows of corn used to snake along the mountainsides is again the oak-hickory of mature Appalachian highlands.

What does remain, though, continues to withstand the test of time, and will likely outlast me by a long shot. The rock piles, for instance. And there might be sections of stone wall here and there also. These walls are really just linear rock piles, variations on the rock pile theme; they aren’t walls constructed through careful rock selection and placement, no indeed.

I guess the mountain folk were mainly just trying to get the rocks out of the garden, out of the corn field, quickly so crops could be planted; their survival depended on it. And by the way, having plenty of kids was a plus for those hardy families when it came to providing labor for tasks such as picking up and moving lots and lots of rocks.

A tour of one of these old mountain farmsteads, found along the Appalachian Trail and other local paths, usually yields evidence of buildings too. The structures themselves were often constructed of pre-blight common American Chestnut, and such is probably long-since rotted away, but remnants of stacked stone foundations of these once-proud no-nonsense little shacks may yet remain.A henhouse, corn crib, spring house, small barn, and of course the settlers’ cabin itself may all be represented, however subtly.

A splendid, although haunting, sight to find amidst these ruins is a solitary stone chimney, standing sentinel-like in the forest. Lording over solitude now, its blackened hearth is testament to a lively existence in former days.

A clutch of gravestones often adds further clarity to the depiction of hardscrabble life in the mountains. Marked by unadorned, misshapen headstones –maybe wooden markers once accompanied them– and equally natural ones at the foot, a hurried feeling is conveyed; “We’re gonna make this burial short and sweet so we can get on with what needs to be done to get the rest of us through the winter.”

Obviously, the kin of those laid to rest under summer’s green canopy, or winter’s skeletal limbs of oak, are long gone from the lonesome mountain farmsteads, the chain of ancestry too petered-out to be anything but lost. But it makes me wonder. On my hikes I contemplate what the tough-by-necessity mountain people experienced, about how different their lives were from mine.

They lived simply, without what today we call absolute necessities such as electricity and running water and internet, no social media much beyond the spoken word. And I can get trapped into thinking, assuming, that these tough mountain people who buried their loved ones in simple graves on windswept ground were simple minded too, but no, I’m sure they were not.

They, no doubt, asked the same unanswerable questions that I do, questions about the nature of life itself. Why am I here? Where did I come from? What’s out there beyond the stars? With such thoughts I feel a kinship across the years with the long-gone mountain people; In my imagination I hear their voices in the wind, see their faces etched in the furrowed bark of tree trunks.

Spring is finally coming to the mountains, and in the tiny graveyard a few bunches of daffodils bend under the stiffness of a chilly breeze, tree limbs moan in the gusts. Even though the remains of the earthy mountain people are now earth itself, the spirit of their being lives on.

It lives on through me, it lives on through you.

Johnny Robinson