In 2012 the Jacksonville Center for the Arts sponsored Portrait of Floyd, Virginia. Mr. Glen McClure of Norfolk took seventy-four black-and-white photographs of residents, mainly downtown, many of the photos then included in a booklet and exhibited in the gallery. This album of six-dozen-plus residents underlines the diversity of the indefinite “Floyd,” both its individuals and groups. Just consider the retirees–each deserves an autobiography. In Appendix 2 you will find the girlhood memories of Betty “Sunny” Bernardine, who was born in 1926 and raised in a country town in Illinois, where her parents moved from Chicago to grow their own food during the Depression.
Here is another album of citizens, along with a little sociology offered by your perspicacious author.There tends to be a wide political rift between the Soapstones–quarried from local rock–and the Bridgestones, who rubber-rolled here from elsewhere. But the county’s unlikely mix of citizens, besides being stimulating, may be placid to a surprising degree, thanks partly to the in-migrants of the early 1970s who helped inoculate the natives against xenophobia.
One clerk at the Rt. 8 Dollar store speaks with a Long Island accent and lives in Hillsville, about 45 minutes and 450 curves away. At the Rt. 221 Dollar, near the Post Office, a woman parked a truck displaying a sticker “I am the Gun Lobby.” A little bumptious, she wore cowgirl boots, jeans, and a shirt that didn’t mind moving up and down at the bare midriff. Another customer wore a net-like cap, a print dress, gray stockings, sensible shoes and spectacles, along with the expression “I am invisible.” Another time, one of her denominational sisters would steer out of the Food Lion parking lot with her right hand as she held a cell phone to her net-cap. At Floyd Pharmacy a customer reported that the child accompanying her had woken up before dawn to buy a tractor with Daddy; another told the clerk in thick New Yorkese that she still owned property in Brooklyn. One of the most prominent members of the alternative community came here decades ago from where else but British Columbia. One native, Susan Osborne, is an osteopath who sings, paints, plays the violin, runs the Barter Clinic, and tends to wear a long-skirted Royal Peasant ensemble.
One resident (Morgan’s father) works for two weeks a month in Alaska. And the retiree who raises goats–how much help does he get from that M.D. degree? One resident hangs large signs in his yard on behalf of conservative political candidates (and plays a loud conservative radio station), but he hails from Minnesota and drives a Prius. To some people the Devil is just as corporeal as their friends, neighbors, and Roy G. Biv–who, among the Country Baptists, the Brethren and the Mennonites, is the sole Mnemonic.
Laura Polant, a principal of the annual Floyd Yoga Jam ‘way out in the country, offers this self-description:
I am one of the dakinis who co-created the “collective hallucination” that is the YOJam weekend…. A tiny snapshot in time, a mini-utopia which comes into be-ing, like a mid-summer’s night dream and then fades back into the mist…. You could also say I am one of the directors, co-creatrix, den-mother, corporate liaison, media magician and wordsmith of the group!
A fairly cosmopolitan Came-Here might still have a country background. Ralph Roe, for example, worked as an engineer in California but grew up on a farm in New York:
We had about forty cows, one bull, two horses, one dog, and fourteen cats. They all had names except for the chickens and pigs. Mabel might get three scoops of grain, whereas Bertha would only deserve two. The grain looked and tasted like granola and had some drops of molasses in it (like honey in a granola bar). Of course, being vegetarians, their main courses were dried hay and whole cornstalks chopped up, which included the ears.
Photographs of two people in Portrait of Floyd, Virginia were displayed most prominently in the Jacksonville Center–but these citizens are seriously dissimilar. Both live in the Check area, but the bearded Arthur Conner (pictured below, 2012) crossed the Himalayas twice in the military, and he seems as authentic and complex as the bass fiddle grasped by the hands that fashioned it. In her portrait (not shown), River Roberts, almost eighty years younger, seems to be resting momentarily like a sprite who has been running around in many-laced high-tops. Contributing to the county’s modest ethnic variety, a number of hard-working people maintain a low profile and sometimes keep their nacionalidad to themselves.
As for the county’s ethos, it tends toward kindness. When I asked someone to give an example, she thought for several moments. “Gannon,” she replied. “People regularly give him rides.” This fellow took one-too-many rides in high school, has to walk with little cooperation from one side, and lives in the subsidized Pine Ridge Apartments. After his wreck, he benefited from counseling by Bill Gardner (Chapter 28). “Invaluable,” Gannon declared to me.
One 17-degree day he and I happened to meet outside Harvest Moon. “People tell me,” he said: “‘Don’t be afraid to ask'”–i.e., for a lift. He glanced at his open coat, and on behalf of the town I immediately zipped it up and closed the top snap for good measure. Noticing that his right hand, which held a bag, was ungloved, I offered him mine. At the second offer he took it but declined the left glove–shortly before I noticed that his other hand was tucked in its pocket-home. A couple of years later I congratulated him on being named King of Mardi Gras, a celebration sponsored by Blue Mountain School as a fund-raiser. But when I offered him a ride home from the grocery store, he said he already had one and added a quip. “I don’t walk anymore: I’m king.”
Unlike this general solicitousness toward Gannon, hostility can meet youngsters with an unorthodox sexual orientation. “For many in Floyd County,” writes Jim Best, President of Floyd PFLAG, “coming out means the fear of being kicked out of the house. Fear of homelessness. Or in terms of one high school senior, ‘social suicide.'” As everywhere, organized religion probably has a mixed influence on this and other social issues.
Despite its geographical breadth, the area is a Protestant stronghold. Roman Catholic churches bear a slight resemblance to plants grown out of their zone, and the the priest may even hail from a different hemisphere. (The newly-built Catholic Church on the outskirts of Floyd-town–its rocks built upon Petros–closed its doors and then a year or two later re-opened as if under new ownership.) How about “U-U”–Unitarian-Universalist? A person must drive up Rt. 8 and over to Blacksburg to escape what that association calls “dogma.” Quaker? Established in Floyd, yes, but marginal, like a Christian mission to Wherezistan. No temple or mosque in the county but an abundance of what might be called Ancient Pagan or New Age gatherings. These counter-cultural values and rituals–are they reactions to Abrahamic patriarchy? To Christian duality of heaven-hell, body-spirit, material-spiritual, sin-not sin, saved-not saved, saint-not saint, male-female?
This unofficial American province has a distinct folk influence. At one extreme a pastor might have only a little formal education; at a lesser extreme, have enough unsophistication to criticize the materialistic “Nieman’s Market.” A hand-painted sign might read “Evanglist.” Severe verses of the Bible (e.g., about hell and sex) might be considered–well, Gospel. The anthem of this territory is John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace.” It has only five notes (i.e., of the pentatonic scale) but they beat the singer down as a “wretch.” This word puzzles your author, who regards as worthless only that person who snaps up the last newspaper.
And as everywhere, theological correlates with political, both of these attitudes typically conservative–at least among whites. Indeed, the Bible Belt is woven from a striking variety of fibers and hues:
Location: town (churches tend to be restrained) and country (tend to be demonstrative).
Size: mega- (metal cathedrals) to mini (like chapels).
Ethnicity: Caucasian, African American, Hispanic, ad infinitum. In a Black church taking up the offering might resemble a toll booth: the member walks up front and deposits money into a plate and under a hawk-eye. I have never visited an Iglesia Bautista, just Mexican restaurants.
Denominational: Baptist, Methodist, Seventh-day Adventist, Latter-day Saints, and (in Floyd County), Mennonite and Church of the Brethren…. Some churches in Floyd County might call to mind the 1950s automobiles that putter around Havana. Writes Jim Best:
The choir director of a very conservative congregation invited me to sing but the pastor intervened right before the service. “Our church constitution,” he declared, “does not permit homosexuals to sing in the choir.” The choir director called me after church to report that there was no such prohibition in the church constitution. Another visitor quoted the pastor as saying he didn’t have to go by the church constitution or the Bible but just his feelings.
But denominations vary by congregation, each of which changes in turn over the years. For example, decades ago my late friend, a minister in North Carolina, was fired for backing the rights of African Americans; yet around that time female ministers made a tentative appearance.
A final variation, assumed but unspoken: many a crack between churchgoer and creed.
At the Floyd Country Store, the Friday Night Jamboree is preceded by Gospel Hour, 6:30-7:30, no dancing or clogging. The county’s land gives root to an occasional stark, home-made cross or trio of crosses that, observed by a Christian, may evoke veneration and comfort, perhaps a twinge of guilt; for a non-Christian, perhaps discomfort with this suggestion of long-ago human sacrifice. An occasional T-shirt or church marquee bears alphanumeric theology: 1 cross, 3 nails, 4 given. The county’s weekly newspaper features an entire page, “In the Spirit,” that invites readers to worship and lists churches (no fewer than seventy-nine in one issue). Obituaries typically open not with died but with Heaven, Home, Jesus, The Lord, Choir, and so forth…. For a Christian reader, a comfort, verification, and celebration; for a secular one, perhaps a circumloc-euphemism.
“Spiritual”–O word equally positive, powerful, and vague! It can include Father God, Mother Earth, even Uncle Sam when he is assumed Christian. The word encompasses Spiritualism, statism (body politic as quasi-divine), Sabbatarian, Saturnalian, Selassie-centric, and all manner of sectarianism. Its meaning depends heavily on context, like Newton’s “free” or Lynchburg’s “Liberty” University. However defined, spiritual endeavors coexist peacefully in Floyd County–and make life more engaging for many Came Heres. Example: at the Bread Basket on Rt. 8, an Amish/Mennonite bakery, Randall asked about the young woman who had let him photograph her hair-covering (later chapter). “She’s in Granada,” came the surprise, “teaching for her year of service.”
Such imports include a surprising number of Jews–at least by heritage if not by observance. A famously vague word, it gives sociologists dyspepsia with its potpourri of genealogy, heritage, religion, values, appearance, etc. At a dinner party I asked about this outsize presence and was reminded that Jews were prominent in the the early idealistic counterculture movement.
Of the people that Marjory and I ended up associating with, only a minority went to church, for one reason or another–a major contrast with the typical From Heres. In a few cases, the marriage was split into believer and non-believer. I told one new arrival that the town was holding its breath to see which church he would favor. With a good-natured laugh: “I hate to see people die of suffocation, because I’m a Jewish agnostic.”As everywhere, there are conflicts, grudges, falling-outs, ex-es, stories lost to discretion. Why so many divorces, I wondered, among the Came Heres? Know a place by its paradoxes (as I maintained in Along the Waccamaw). One person ventured to say that there were no more splits than in the rest of society. Another replied (from experience) that the dreamed-of new life was too hard for some. Because these divorced or lived-togethers both tend to stay in the area, there are many once-couples. A friend tried to draw up a sort of family tree of Floyd’s ex-spouses but finally gave up: “I needed a Scattergram.” As for jobs, occasionally one hears a jaundiced statement like “Nobody wants to work in Floyd County.” “This builder was crooked–and he was Church of the Brethren.” “Single men are scared by educated and accomplished women.” I also heard this warning: “If you come to Floyd County, bring your own job.”
The Green Garage sold fresh vegetables by the honor system–just put your money in the slot. Same as a few of the pottery studios out in the country. There was no outside lock on an old cabin at Travianna Community, nearly deserted, but our daughter’s indoor electronics disappeared, perhaps as a bonus to a crew of workers. A few people give “neighbor” a bad name: one family operates heavy equipment at 5 a.m. on a Sunday, while another puts a broken washing machine in the yard and uses it to burn garbage. My friend Tom (world-trip companion) declared that a top-loading washer is ideal for that purpose, whereas a front-loading dryer can bake bread.
By contrast, the series of shipshape properties along Ridgeview Rd. NW amounts to a two-mile-long yard-of-the-month contest. At various informal recreation areas, however, aluminum cans and cardboard boxes trash the roadside. A hiking friend noticed that a beautiful tree next to the road bore hack-marks on its trunk; appalled at this vandalism, she spotted the axe and took it home. Some residents indulge in a sort of home cooking, undertaken even in their vehicles. But the area is comparatively fortunate: “Some towns,” asserted one person, “are devoured by meth.”
One drug seems quietly accessible at the grass-roots level. The cannabis plant illustrates the county’s motto, “To grow is to prosper”–an irony pointed out by Laura Polant, who arrived in 1981. “Remember,” she added, “marijuana follows a long earlier tradition of growing corn for revenue.” Profit from moonshine, she explained, sometimes paid taxes on the farm or even bought the land–just as in the recent past with marijuana. (For an account of moonshine’s Depression-era effects on the economy, society, and justice system of Franklin County, adjacent to Floyd, see Spirits of Just Men, by Charles D. Thompson, Jr., Univ. of Illinois Press, 2011.)
I had always wanted to try a pot-laced brownie and as a surprise received a large chocolate-chip cookie for my birthday. From an heirloom plant, of unknown efficacy, it contained an oil made from leaves. Remembering to Eat Local, I ended up rather dizzy and inclined to smile for twenty-four hours. A business meeting at Black Water Loft went smoothly but perhaps a little strangely. This experience seemed to be a form of communion with the back-to-the-landers, who enjoye their ritual-recreational version of the Greeks’ holy basil. Forty years later, the law of the dominant culture still deemed marijuana a threat, and one seller spent nine months in jail at society’s expense.
One economic mainstay is barter. The most Floydian example, perhaps: one family paid for a substantial number of cello lessons with an old Mercedes Benz, which the young teacher drove to college in Ohio.An occasional bumper-sticker reads “Coexist.” As a goal, unambitious, even namby-pamby. Still, it’s quite peacenik in comparison to “Don’t Tread on Me.” This warning frequently issues from license plates decorated with a coiled viper. “Me” seems to view fellow-citizens as threats–perhaps even or especially if they elect The Government. Does the serpent-citizen not eye them with a tightly-wound hostility that promises retaliation? The mythical serpent of Genesis sunders human from deity; the metal one, individual from society.
Politically there is dyspepsia, enough to need a dose of Dia-Bisma (sold in Chapter 5). Some liberally-inclined residents weep by the headwaters of Babylon, although they don’t hang up their lyres but rather strum them. At a TEDx conference sponsored by Blue Mountain School, a speaker mentioned an elected official and brought a loud, collective groan from one pocket of the audience.
Unlike Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire, in 1901, there is no Polish Town, although there is a small African American section and Hispanics tend to live in pockets of house trailers. Socially there is no gated community except the ones that pen cattle. When one couple considered moving permanently to the area, I offered caution. “In your city you’re in the upper crust; there is no upper crust in Floyd.” Their response was thought-provoking: “Floyd is classless.” On this question someone offered a different perspective: “There are various communities.”
Of course there are the Confederate flaggers, as just about everywhere (even in Maine and outside Waremme, Belgium, from my observation). Farmers’ Supply keeps a few such banners in the tactful attic, but some folks display them by trailers or on trucks. These people don’t know Shiloh from Shinola. One person converted the rear window of a large pickup into the Reb-X with its ten white stars–unconcerned that the Dodge originated in Detroit. Unknown is the degree of sympathy that these folks engender from other citizens.
Despite the expected conflicts cultural, political and personal, the County is friendly to a remarkable degree. For example, at Floyd Pharmacy the cashier was chatting with an even older man than me when I gingerly interrupted–“Please don’t go”–to set one package of jumbo crayons and one of colored markers on the counter. “Now nobody can say I’m a bad grandpa.” “I thought those were for you,” quipped the fellow as we all laughed. “You’ll never know,” I replied.In Floyd County, residents vary greatly as to what they eat. At one extreme, people demand organic foods such as raw pepital, local beets, calendula flower, Medjool dates, and Nori sesame seeds, as well as sometimes-exotic grub like Sharwood’s Indian poppodums. (Non-edibles might include Waleda Sea Buckthorn body lotion and even Total Kidney Cleanse.) The white-breaders, by contrast, may keep a garden like the health-foodie, but at the grocery store they follow the recipe of the sociology textbook for it would call their “cohort”: whole milk, lots of meat, fatty and salty snacks, soda pop, not to forget cookies and Dew.
One person looked at a display of avocados, asked “What are those?” and answered herself: “They look like rotten pears.” Having learned that they yield guacamole, she cheerily exclaimed, “Oh, like at the Mexican restaurant!” One shopper, I’ll call her Rotunda, wheeled out a cart crammed with about sixty bottles of soda pop. One parent bought a bottle of Pepsi the same size as her young daughter’s belly. For one customer in line, a balanced diet was Schlitz & cigs. “White bread” includes a trip to Hardee’s for fried bologna and Velveeta biscuit. (If you see Randall munching a pork-barbecue sandwich at the Xpress Mart, he is doing research.)
All these physical and social variations are complicated by the passage of time. As Heraclitus said about a river: Nobody ever steps into the same one twice, for neither the river nor the person is the same. Places, people, and customs In Floyd County vanish with the Streetcar Diner down the track of time.
“Who will watch the home place?” asks a song often performed by the acoustic quartet Windfall. (Lyrics by Laurie Lewis.) For many derelict farmhouses in Floyd County the answer is “raccoons.” More positively, El Tenador, a roller skating rink on Rt. 221 that operated into at least 1980, was reincarnated as Phoenix Hardwoods. (“We had a big Halloween skating party there,” said Barbara Triplett; “I remember two years in a row dressing up and renting roller skates.”) In the Floyd Press an estate sale lists obsolete items to be auctioned off such as a horse-drawn wagon-frame, milk cans, and an apple-butter kettle & stirrer–not much there to repurpose. But after forty years, a former Christmas-tree farm declines into a motley woods and then becomes slated for restoration–a culling process powered by horses in a return to an ancient, salutary technique.
Ancient is relative. In Floyd County all Caucasians and people of African descent are Came Heres–when viewed against the background of Native Americans, who seem to have begun sojourning or living in the area thousands of years ago. For an overview of the equally sketchy and fascinating evidence, see “Floyd County and Native Americans,” Chapter 25 of Jean Thomas Schaeffer’s Raised on Songs and Stories: A Memoir of Place in the Blue Ridge (Floyd, VA: Harvestwood, 2014).
If a writer tries to impose too much order on all the heterogeneous, inconsistent, and sometimes mysterious details of a place, the document will rebel. Yet a writer must observe and judge. These goals involve a risk so colorfully implied by the ancient fable of three blind Hindus. As they tried to identify an animal, the first sat on a stool, clasped a heavy sac on the creature’s belly, and squeezed its several downward-protuberances; the second moved his hand over its long, rigid beak; the third petted its shaggy—wait a minute, something’s wrong! Maybe these guys were Chinese.