Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Home to the Mountains

I've been out of town for a couple of days, shooting commercials in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. God but I love them. It's been a rainy summer, and the Appalachians are just verdant. I don't know if I've ever seen such greens.

It's a very different experience than the Rockies. Among the giants of the west, I felt awe: such a sense of smallness. Standing atop the peaks of Colorado, you are struck by what a tiny, insignificant speck you are in the universe. Your troubles seem to fade in comparison to the indescribable scale of a world where your eyes are not powerful enough to reach the horizon. There were times when I felt myself disappear in the Rockies, like a drop of water in the ocean.

The Kentucky mountains do not empty me. They fill me. Where the Rockies are jagged stone fingers pointing my eyes toward heaven, the Appalachians are round, soft breasts drawing my heart toward the earth.

We awoke each morning to fog that would make a claustrophobic whimper. The dew-kissed black top rolled under our vehicles as oncoming headlights glowed toward us in the opposite lane. The hollows seemed reluctant to waken, keeping their covers pulled up tight to prevent the morning light from poking in and interrupting the night's final dream.

We crossed over the dam that holds back Paintsville Lake and parked our cars in the brightening mist. Mountain Homeplace is a working farm, run as much as possible like it was when David Mackenzie and his family built it in 1860. You step over the split rail fence and cross into a world of unpainted log buildings and old wooden gates held closed with grass string. Later, guides dressed in authentic homespun will walk the grounds, sharing the history of the place with the visitors who happen by. At this early hour though, we are welcomed by the scolding goats who expect the first humans in the morning to bring breakfast, not cameras and make-up cases.

While the crew set up for the day's first shot, I wandered from pen to pen, greeting the neighbors. In the goat pen, a pair of kids butted their mothers insistently till the teat was offered, then the little ones sucked while the rest of the community eyed me suspiciously. A pair of tiny cows came to the fence curiously, and allowed me to scratch them between the ears till it became clear I had nothing more than friendship to offer. Nearby, but always out of reach, the sheep gathered close, one brave soul after another bawling out at me to either start serving some vittles or move along. Closer to the barn, a piggy couple were downright belligerent, huffing and snorting indignantly that I had interrupted their sleep for no better reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. Across the yard, the ladies in the hen house stirred nervously, and an unseen rooster crowed out a warning to anyone who might try to disturb his happy
harem. As I peeked into the barn, I was greeted by a little gray mother and her kitten. The cats bounded warily around my feet like folks who were used to avoiding being stepped on. And there at the back of the barn were Sunny and Ted, the only animals on the place who I ever heard being referred to by name. Sunny is a beautiful buff horse with a friendly, trusting nature and just enough of a glint in his eye to make you think he might find his way into some mischief from time to time. Ted is the undisputed king of the place. He magnificent: broad chested and black with shoulders and hips that ripple with muscle. He seems to be the animal they had in mind when they came up with the word "horsepower." Watching him chomping quietly on grass in the pasture, it's easy to imagine him in medieval dress with a knight astride his stout back. But here in the barn, he condescends to give me a nod and a nuzzle with his enormous head. I offer a scratch and a short massage in return. The lesser inhabitants made me feel like an intruder. Ted greets me like an honored guest.

Back up on the porch, I find an ancient, cane woven, ladder back chair and park myself on it to wait for the light and watch the curtain of morning burn away in the rising sun. Gently, the sides of the valley in which we are sheltered begin to appear, first in soft focus, then in greater relief as the daylight warms each leaf and dries the dew-soaked grass. A flock of pigeons circles from the roof of the barn to the side of the hill where the sheep are grazing. A few brave souls light in the hog lot where the pigs have left a few morsels of corn in their trough. The surly inhabitants usually indulge them, but now and then an angry snort will send a cloud of gray wings exploding up from the mud as the flock rises out of harm's way.

I wish I were enough of a naturalist to tell you about the music of the mountains: the millions of insect and bird voices that join together to create an Appalachian symphony that Aaron Copeland could not even dream of. This isn't just background music, it is the heartbeat of the hollows and it fills every lonely corner of your soul with something so holy that no human artist could ever hope to imitate it. It is the rhythm of life. It is the song of Creation. There under the cedar shake porch roof, I breath it in, smiling without meaning to. Feeling welcomed into a place I've never been, and where I couldn't survive on my own for more than a week, I am filled with silent prayers of thanksgiving, even as the  among the actors and crew turns toward the tasks at hand, and the work of the day begins.

Shooting commercials is easy for an actor. You only have to learn a few sentences of dialogue, and the shots are short and quick. The crew's job is to sweat the details. Your job is to hit your marks, say your words, and tell the truth. Most of this group has worked together before, so the mood is easy. We trust one another and joke between takes. What could be a day of tedium is actually several hours of down-right fun. It's almost embarrassing to call it work, especially when the people whose job it is to keep the farm running are around. But they are friendly and hospitable. We aren't the first bunch of Lexingtonians to make our way down the Mountain Parkway to interrupt their day, and we enjoy one another's company like new neighbors. Stories are shared. Lies are told. We all admire the way Ted's ebony sides glow in the sunshine and we all groan and cuss when the wind changes and blows the aroma of the hog yard in our direction.

The final shot on the last day was in the church-house where Kentuckians have been worshiping for 150 years. The pews are old and hard, roughly crafted from the same trees as the barn and the well head. The log walls are clad with white painted wainscot, and the light ripples through the ancient glass of the sash pane windows. We work with the same joy and fun as we did in the barnyard, but there is a kind of gentle reverence to our presence here. Yes, our mission is more profane than sacred, and no, I don't imagine that many of the pastors who have presided here would approve, but I can't help but notice that most of the fellows have instinctively removed their hats at the door. As father of the "bride" in this scene, I am seated in the front pew, and next to me is a beautiful lady who looks to have spent 80 or so winters in these mountains. She starts with a complaint about how long the shoot is taking, but soon we are chatting easily about her health and her life, and her pride in the place where we are gathered. The people who hate life in these mountains leave as soon as they can, by any means available. But the ones who love them stay and grow roots as thick and deep as any tree on the hillsides. She has raised and buried children and grandchildren, survived strokes, heart attacks, falls and storms. She is stronger than I will ever be, and when we part, I feel as if I have been in the presence of royalty. I suppose I have.

Back in Lexington, I feel a kind of sadness. I'm glad to be home. Close to the Y and the people I love. But sad, too. Sad that I couldn't share those beautiful moments with Martha. Sad that as a city boy, I will never really be at home in the mountains. Mum sent me a message this morning. "Back to reality." She's right, I guess. I'm back to the reality of  bills and debts and housekeeping and insurance payments. But there is also love here. Friends. The people who come to my exercise classes. The kids who run with me. The healing work that continues in my mind and soul. Reality isn't all bad.

But there is reality in the hollows, too. There is light that melts away darkness. There are fences to maintain and lives to honor and care for. And always there is the land, the rich earth that covers the mountains and feeds every living thing in them. The Appalachians are the breasts of God. They feed me and inspire me like no other place in this beautiful world. One of our actors, a beautiful young woman whom I've had the joy of watching grow up for most of her life, was leaving the shoot to board a train to move to New York City. She is following the dream that so many of us have followed. Talking with her, sharing her excitement and nervous anticipation, I remembered my own move to "The City," many years ago. When we parted, I kissed her forehead and blessed her, and before I left, I gave her my only advice.

"Hold this day in your heart. This is a special place. Sometime, you're going to need it."

I hope she has the sense to listen to a foolish old man. Days in the mountains are worth holding onto.

I know I'm sure going to try to hold onto mine.


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