My words were rooted in these hills, carried on the backs of the Irish farmers who followed the Potomac southwest instead of crossing the spruce-covered ridges of the Allegheny Front. My muscles formed from climbing white oaks and boulders, from hauling firewood. The mountain rivers that flashed through narrow canyon walls, over boulders and under high railroad bridges, flowed through my veins. Laurel brakes nestled beneath Pottsville sandstone ledges were my nursery. Sad fiddle tunes, played by old-timers beside a dying fire were my genetic code.
In these mountains I’d seen things that Alex would never believe: floods, rockslides, forest fires and blizzards. One time I saw a bear defend her cubs from hunting dogs while I hid in the upper branches of an old oak. Later, on that same trip I saw a blacksnake swallow her young when a hawk flew over. One time, near Smoke Hole I found a cave where thousands of bats roosted, then came back a year later to see that the Forest Service had barricaded its entrance to protect them. When I was really little I saw West Virginia’s last confirmed cougar trapped and beaten on the plains above Red Creek. The musky smell of its urine as it pissed itself had made me cry.
From a clearing on Spruce Knob I spent weeks watching two comets, Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake, as they streaked sunward in a cycle of rebirth as old as the solar system. Then on a backpacking trip to Roaring Plains I saw the sky strangely empty of planes and contrails for three whole days, only to return to a world much different than the one I had left.
In my short life dead rivers had struggled back to life, the orange-stained rocks are the only reminders of a time when nothing would live there. In my short life mountaintops disappeared, bulldozed into tender streams. None of this could I have seen from anywhere other than here.
And I couldn’t prove most of it.