North of the 35th Parallel
Time is on my mind when I wake in the darkness in the room of our rented cottage here in the mountains of North Carolina. What time is it? Rolling out of bed and stumbling into the living room, I paw around for my phone and groan when I see it’s 3:38 a.m. Not again!
I go back to bed, but soon start thinking about my show at Crossnnore opening this Thursday, and the signature painting, North of the 35th Parallel. At first appearance it’s a simple piece—a hill, tree and bit of sky. But it’s everything to me.
Thirty odd years ago, when I came up to the mountains, I came for them and the rural structures, and the abundance of nature and animals. I liked the idea of being in a place where cows just might outnumber people. The chance of discovering authentic hand-made goods and crafts made by mountain people tucked here and there among the hollers was also appealing.
Then, after a couple of decades hiatus from these parts, I began coming up here every summer for the past seven years exploring and painting. In that time I have met so many nice people. On Rabbit Hop, in the hardware store and eateries; I’ve met them in their pastures and gardens, on mountain tops and trails, sitting on tractors and fishing in streams. While I am painting, folks have come up to me on bikes and horses or walking with a pack of dogs, whose names I’ve learned too. And there was the gent on a bicycle who took my picture while I painted a farm, and the young lady who stopped while I was parked on a remote road drawing and asked if I was okay and needed help. More than once, I’ve been asked if I needed help.
This morning in the pre-dawn stillness, I was thinking how when I first came here I knew no one and no one knew me. In the course of traveling around Mitchell, Avery and McDowell county, I have come to know the names and a little bit about many people. It struck me that when I think of the natural landscape now, I see the faces of the people I know planted against the backdrop of this land. It not just the natural landscape that I come here for now—it’s to see friends too.
Some of their names and faces immediately come to mind:
Alton, in the apple tree, Nate, Calvin and Annie. Cynthia—her brothers and parents with the dog we couldn’t keep. Teresa from the coffee shop, Kent and Anita, Ed the church steward and his cows, Gloria and Dave, Mary and her partner Alli. Heidi, Lisa and Stephanie make me smile. I needed an egg once to make tempera paint and Lisa ran home and brought me back a dozen of fresh ones from her chickens. So many acts of kindness have been extended to me. Joe and Patty, Richard and Janice, Tom, Barney and Pam. The ones I was fortunate to meet and have now passed, like the powerhouse Dr. Crain, who did so much for the children of Crossnore before her passing. Jay who mowed our grass, and Lloyd. Collectors, clerks, couples, neighbors, artists scattered across these mountains all bring a warm feeling when I picture all their kind faces.
I do not know why I chose to stand in knee high grass by the side of the road one Sunday morning and paint a study of a hill and tree while most people around here were in church. It was extremely hot and dry and I just knew I was going to get chiggers or something itchier from standing in the weeds.
But there was something about this scene that pinned me in place. A stout tree always reminds me of my father, and now my Grandma Dewey, who died this month is included in that remembrance. Hills bring happy memories too, good for rolling and sledding down, and scampering up to see what’s on the other side. I don’t do much scampering anymore, but I still want to climb hills. Though my hip tells me the going up won’t be easy and my knees tell me the coming down will be even more painful. Still, I have to climb that hill. As long as we are alive we need to strive for the summit of our hills.
Yesterday we drove by the inspiration for North of the 35th Parallel and I saw that the tree had been cleaved by lightning. I’m pleased now I took the time to paint it. Painting is a reverent way of living in the world. Painting is a way of honoring this land and the people who call it home.
The mountains remain, but most of the the old places that brought me here many years ago are gone. The old country stores where you could buy anything from a gallon of gas to a cup of fishing worms have disappeared. Traditional crafts have moved from beside the bean patch to inside galleries. And it is good to see young artists carrying on the work. It’s not an easy life and I respect their bravery.
I am Florida born and bred and the sea is in my blood. But I know the quartz sand on the beach once was a part of these mountains. Now when I think of these old hills, I see more than humps and trees and what used to be. I see the faces of friendly people. People that make me feel at home during my time here north of the 35th parallel.