Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Roaming Back Roads In North Carolina

The following article by Ronald Blythe appeared in The New York Times 21 September 1986.

Ronald Blythe's new book, Divine Landscapes, will be published next month by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.. New York Times. (Late Edition (East Coast)). New York, N.Y.: Sep 21, 1986. pg. A.15

Copyright New York Times Company Sep 21, 1986

Whenever I leave home, which isn't often, I tend to go what we used to call ''the extra mile.'' I arrive at a quite unforeseen added destination to that which I set out for. These little add-ed journeys have, over the years, over-shadowed - overshone - the main trip. I find myself dwelling on them, on the accidents that caused them, on their durability as experiences.

Not long ago I traveled what was for me the farthest ever, to North Carolina to assist in celebrating the founding of the first English settlement on American soil. It was one of those sad plantings that did not take. The first small group of men and women that Sir Walter Raleigh earthed on Roanoke Island returned to England; the next just vanished. Were they drowned trying to get home? Slaughtered by offended Indians? No one knows; it is a mystery. Time, wrote Sir Walter in one of his poems, ''When we have wander'd all our ways/Shuts up the story of our days.'' They said he hated the sea.

My plane descended at the city named after him and in aromatic heat. As the chief airborne view of North Carolina is one of trees, I quite expected moist woodland smells to engulf even the runway, but that an entire state should be so fragrant, as clearly it was, surprised me. In this respect nothing had changed since Verrazano rounded Cape Fear in 1524, eyes and nose overwhelmed: ''Faire fields and plains . . . good and wholesome aire . . . sweet and odoriferous flowers . . . trees greater and better than any in Europe.''

William Byrd, one of the finest American diarists, agreed. I had been reading his ''Journey to the Land of Eden'' for a book I was writing and knew that, if anything, he found the scented perfection of North Carolina, especially where it bordered the Dan River, a danger to human progress, for it produced contentment and indolence. My reason for coming to the state did not stretch this far; Chapel Hill and Duke University were to be my limits, and most pleasant limits too. Going the extra mile does not mean repudiating the point where one should have halted. It is simply that because of what happened so unexpectedly in Caswell County, the university celebrations became a separate story.

It all began with a jolt. Checking my engagements, I noticed that nine days sprawled emptily between them. Why had I not noticed? What should I do? Here was a quite embarrassing amount of time for the secondary jaunt, though where to? The festival organizer's diary was not nearly so blank. The nine days were for Caswell County, for me to see it and absorb it and make what I could of it. He drove me to it in the warm dusk, the road deserted and ribboning toward Virginia. ''Where are we going?'' - ''It's a surprise!'' It was. An antebellum country house in a park, columned, waiting, with whippoorwills calling through the great crescent of trees that secluded the gardens, the first time I had heard them. The approach was like the opening of a novel, with the lovely house announcing itself in the half-dark amid box, willow oaks and apparitionlike magnolias.

A Confederate soldier was buried on the lawn. Night after night I sat above him on the classic balcony listening to the bell-sounding birds and the house creaking as wooden buildings do after a day's sun, and as my house in England, pegged together much the same moment as Sir Walter Raleigh decided to populate this tempting countryside, always does after the heat has bitten into it.

Faulkner had stayed here, and many other writers, and the library reflected one of my favorite literary periods, the 1920's to 1940's. I wrote in it part of a play I was working on for Chelmsford Cathedral, but chiefly I lotus-ate, idled and let Caswell County take me over. The scents here were intense, resinous, lemony. I walked past slave cabins to an enormous lake spread with bank-to-bank waterlilies, and past wrecked tobacco fields gone to hay. At Durham the Duke tobacco factories, built when the company's motto was ''Pro Bono Publico,'' were being turned into shops and restaurants and art galleries.

The reticence and the tremendous eloquence alike of Caswell enthralled me. Its grand architecture had never been modernized because of the penury that followed the Civil War, so everywhere I wandered gleamed Greek Revival, now fresh as paint. It was like a scattered, wooden Bath. But the atmosphere was still and nerveless, remote and waiting, like parts of rural Britain long ago. Only about 20,000 people live here and most of their work is done in Greensboro, Rockingham County and Danville, Va., daily leaving Caswell to its silence.

But agriculture's loss is wildlife's gain, and great tracts of forest and abandoned farmland now preserve the sumptuous flora and fauna of the Piedmont. It was the ancestors of these plants and creatures that filled the pages of America's first natural history, those delicate watercolors made during the 1580's by John White, the leader of the ill-fated second expedition and the grandfather of Virginia Dare, herself the first English person to be born in the New World.

White, who left his colonists behind to return to England for supplies, brought home paintings of milkweed, cardinals, plantains, Algonquin Indians, fireflies and woodpeckers (''Maraseequo: A woddpicker of this bignes'' - Red-headed Woodpecker), waders and fishes, but none of Virginia and the rest of the Roanokeans, who were never seen again. The site is compulsively searched for answers and has yielded, among other tantalizing fragments, an English sickle. That little corn harvest, if they had one, has been succeeded by mighty cotton and tobacco harvests, but now, everywhere, from the coast to the state's deepest inland regions, the harvest most obvious to the visitor is that of the primal ecology that turned the heads of early travelers.

My incomparably kind host drives me through the bumpy lanes, taking almost as much stock of everything as myself, for often it is only by showing a visitor our own sights that we begin to see what they are. Townlets with big empty shops, the workshop of Thomas Day at Milton, the brilliant but mysterious cabinetmaker whose furniture and fittings, and taste generally, are prized throughout Caswell. Day came here in 1823 -from where, nobody is sure. Denying that he was a Negro in spite of his looks, he employed slaves and married a black wife for whose sake the Miltonians forced the North Carolina General Assembly to amend the 1827 act forbidding migrant free Negroes to enter the state. A craftsman of genius, Day made furniture from local woods, which with his fabric designs permitted him and his wife to exist in some kind of racial limbo. Staircases, beds, mantels, exquisite floors, chairs, hangings; what a bargain Caswell got, not for its humanity but for its pragmatism.

It is impossible for an English writer to wander through the rural South and not become preoccupied with evidences of slavery and racism, and this not from any ''clean hands'' point of view. For Britain made vast profits out of the ''West India trade'' and plowed them into many of the ravishing country mansions that are now among its chief tourist attractions. What we didn't have were black people, or only such a scattering of them as to be a novelty. It is they, of course, who since the 1770's made Caswell's landscape, who dug and ditched its fields, planted its gardens, laid its roads and helped build its pretty houses and churches. Ditto their anonymous village laboring men and women equivalents where I live.

Caswell was notorious Klan country. In the library where I was writing my cathedral play there are bills of sale for people. Outside the kitchen door swings the huge bell that governed their lives. Outside the courthouse at Yanceyville, just down the road, stand their youthful descendants. Caswell is, I am told, part of the background of Alex Haley's bestseller, ''Roots.'' The literary inheritance of North Carolina generally is tremendous, and I can see why. Climate and scenery produce the languor requisite for a certain kind of introspection and creativity. The local writer I particularly like is Reynolds Price, whose books - ''The Names and Faces of Heroes,'' ''A Long and Happy Life'' - give me the swift entree that I need to this captivating place. Guidebooks are one thing, but I always have to supplement them with the novels, poetry and paintings indigenous to an area. Price's epicenter is Macon, a little town four counties east along the Virginia-North Carolina line, and reading him ties up my historic references.

So does meeting the artist Maud Gatewood, who takes me to the Dan River. The house where I am staying is part of her childhood, and her paintings of Caswell, to paraphrase a famous summary of John Constable, are a part of the landscape of every North Carolinian mind. She studied under Oskar Kokoschka. As with Reynolds Price, her work brings me as close as anyone can be who hasn't lived here for generations to this fragment of the United States. She is bluff and witty and has something of the panache of what we would call a country lady, an aristocrat.

Her new house, half-tucked into a wood, reminds me how cramped and mean its British equivalent is, for we seem to be having minute rooms imposed on us by today's builders. The modern wooden houses I stayed in at Chapel Hill and elsewhere, slightly chilly with air-conditioning, were wonderfully spacious. The forest birds besieged them. So did bird-sized insects. The windows and verandas are screened-in. Iridescent hummingbirds sipped honey-water from little vials, their wing-motion so rapid that their green bodies appear to be supported by a stain of air. Heart-pine and shrubs pressed right up against the clapboarding. The old Caswell houses, highly ornamental, must have begun their lives in clearings, but the voluptuous vegetation is spreading back.

One night I sat on the balcony under the Grecian portico where the soldier buried just below must often have sat with his family, to watch one of the famous North Carolina thunderstorms, and the vast oaks, old before he was born, in turmoil. There were hundreds more like him down the road at Raleigh in a cemetery that was described at the time as ''a suitable and permanent resting place for the heroes of crushed hopes.'' Raleigh had surrendered to General Sherman the day before Lincoln's murder. The great house was new when Sherman's army swept past it and through the Carolinas, ruined their economies and prevented what architecture was left after his devastations (a lot) from being replaced.

For me, the briefly stranded visitor, those few hot days in Caswell County were a pulling together of threads. Each day was 48 hours long and as much yesterday as the present. I seemed to have passed quickly and unconsciously from sightseer to initiate, making few notes, taking no pictures, certain that what I had experienced was safe within me in every detail. This has occurred before in other places, most of them nearer home. It has something to do with stopping the ''travel,'' with entering a destination. It takes a little time - more time than traveling, as such, allows. It takes, too, a brand of American hospitality that has no equal anywhere.

The play I was writing in Caswell County was about two women who lived in Norfolk in the 14th century, Mother Julian and Margery Kempe, the authors of two of the first books to be written in English by women. Mother Julian was a recluse and lived to be very old without seeing much more than what lay outside the window of her cell. Margery Kempe had traveled to Jerusalem and seen all of the then-known world, but to understand what it meant she had to consult the person who had discovered its meaning simply by staying put. There was something of this enclosed quality about Caswell County and, to me, it was very telling.