An Old Mountain Homestead

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, October 8: A luminous green and gold October afternoon. I’m climbing the steep north boundary of an old mountain homestead on the headwaters of the South Toe River deep in the highlands of Yancey County. All I have to go on is the faded crosshatch fence-lines scratched on a folded survey plat sent to me by the out-of-state landowner. It’s my job to figure out just where are the boundaries of his inherited family land, how the property lies, and perhaps what is its present worth in today’s market?

The only trace remaining of the ancestral boundary line is a ragged fence straggling through the woods---a few loose strands of barbed wire nailed to rotting fence posts and trees---some living, some long dead, even missing. Walking up the steep rocky slope, I see that many of the split-locust posts are gone with the passing decades. All that’s left is a rusted wire hanging in empty air, or fallen, twisted and snarled in the rocks and leaves.

In scrambling over the forested land, I discover a few scattered piles of mossy stones, remaining from the early years of homestead clearing, several generations back. The surface of mountain lands is covered with millenia of broken rocks: scraped and scoured by ice, fractured and tumbled by the long-plowing blade of time. Mountains are forever weathering, breaking down into smaller pieces. The pioneers found land that had to be timbered, cleared and burned, with acres and ages of scattered stones to be gathered up. We still find rows of these ancient rocks piled into field walls, and stacked for foundations to hold the heavy sills of hand-hewn cabins, corn cribs and barns. The old fields have grown back into forests; the former structures burned and rotted away.

As the first settlers saw it, the ancient forestland needed to be cut down and opened up for crops and pasture, in order to provide for their struggling mountain families. After a day of hard work breaking the land, they bedded down early on strawtick and cornshuck mattresses, by tallow candle and fireplace light. Night wind rushed through the trees. The dry cornshuck beds rustled in the primitive human darkness. The babies were born at home, sometimes with the help of a midwife, and wore clothes stitched from flour sacks and such. Mountain children were raised on corn-mush and pig fat, wild greens, dried beans and bear meat. They got by. If there was any surplus harvest, it might be taken down into the smoky settlement to barter for luxuries they couldn’t grow, make or kill. Things like fence-wire and coffee, cut nails and salt. Otherwise, they just made do.

Over time, the ragged homespun children left those secluded homesteads. They found schools and jobs, social doings in the noisy mountain settlements of clapboard buildings and muddy streets. And while no one was watching but the wind, the upland pastures and hard-scrabbled “cropland” slowly returned to ferny solitudes of deep hardwood forest. Bears gladly reclaimed their original habitat.

Today the songs of migrating warblers echo like silver chimes through the golden woods, as they had for countless autumns before the European settlers arrived, killed off the native people and claimed the land in the early 1800’s. Two ravens squawk a few words of October magic to each other as they soar across a high ridge into the next cove. In this year of heavy mast, acorns keep dropping, crashing through the leaves. It’s sweet music to the wild animals, this abundance of nuts drumming the forest floor, giving the fat promise of enough food to keep them warm during the long winter cold.