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Wednesday, 10 June 2009 19:16

Recreating the past with nostalgic

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Remembering Henderson County by Louise Bailey. History Press, 2005. 144 pages.

In Louise Bailey’s Remembering Henderson County, the author recreates the past with affection, nostalgia and humor. To me, reading any of her books (I’ve located six of them) is akin to sitting on my porch in the evening while the light fades and the hectic noise of traffic recedes, until it could easily be a century ago; rain crows call and the night wind is freighted with honeysuckle. Now, all I need is a cool sip of spring water from a gourd dipper. For me, reading a few pages of a Louise Bailey book is the equivalent of a refreshing drink from a mountain spring. I’m a little anxious about the results though. Water is not supposed to be intoxicating, but after reading Louise, I tend to get a bit light-headed and “fanciful.” This is an example.

In the chapter titled, “Who Are We Western North Carolinians?” Louise describes a conversation with a farmer near Flat Rock who bought one of the first Model T trucks (circa 1915) so he could haul produce to Laurens, S.C. “It had solid tires on the back and pneumatic tires on the front.” This model had no windshield and no curtains; consequently, on a hot summer night, a steady stream of bugs and insects peppered the passengers’ faces.

The farmer’s first run to Laurens was memorable. The roads were washboards and gullies that could easily warp an axel, and heavy rains often made them impassible or dangerous. Average speed was 10 mph. However, the most interesting aspect of the journey was the return trip. “The way the lights worked, if you had the motor running real fast, you had good light.” Inevitably, the T-model would slow and the lights would dim and go out.

It is easy to imagine what this trip would be like in moonlight. Progress would be slow, but what a wonderful experience, puttering through the moonlight ... a kind of

magical, dream-light landscape. Ah, but for this weary farmer, there is no moon. He stops and sleeps fitfully until daylight.

For me, this wonderful description of an interrupted journey reminded me of all of those analogies in literature for the creative impulse or revelation. I remember some old German poet that told a story that is similar to Louise Bailey’s description of a night journey home from Laurens.

The German poet was lost in “a dark wood,” and very frightened because a storm was brewing. Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning, and in that instant, the traveler saw the distant village, the church steeple and the roof of his own home. When he was once more in darkness, he retained a memory of where he was going and how he could get there. There are other famous brief “flashes of lightening” or momentary insights in which weary, disheartened travelers a nd poets suddenly “see” a world “behind” the darkness.

Maybe I’m getting a little carried away here, and I am definitely “embellishing” Louise’s story. However, I like the image of a Model T truck puttering through the dark At 10 mph. The lights have gone out, but for a moment, the moon swims from the clouds into the open sky and the Model T truck travels for a short time by moonlight.

Yes, I am “pushing the envelope” here, but that seems to be an apt analogy for a writer who sometimes travels by the magical but brief illumination.

To me, “traveling by moonlight” in a Model T is profoundly different from traveling by the “common light of day,” or its artificial equivalent (electricity). Maybe if I sit still on my porch tonight, maybe if I play a little Nina Simone, drink a little spring water and concentrate, I can, for a brief moment, be a passenger in Louise Bailey’s Model T. I’ll let you know what happens.

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