Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Backwoods Ingenuity

I don’t watch much television per se, not enough certainly to justify my monthly cable bill; but I do catch up with certain things streaming on Netflix: programs about honey badgers, how to build an ancient Egyptian chariot, that sort of thing.  A couple of weeks ago I chanced upon something called “Hillbilly Blood,” a Discovery Channel series featuring the doings of a couple of highly resourceful fellows who live off the grid and off the land in the boondocks of western North Carolina, practicing what might be called Extreme Self-Reliance--in convenient, hour-long episodes.  They know every plant, medicinal or noxious, in the Appalachian forest, and they gladly consume insect protein that would make city-dwellers gag.  They do stuff like making hunting bows out of old truck springs and arrows out of short lengths of rebar.

Spencer and Eugene messing about

            The program’s premise is of course pretty hokey, and the two protagonists, who are very attractive and plausible fellows, now and again jump the shark.  In one episode, short of cash as usual, they go into the woods, build an ingenious makeshift placer sluice and a water-powered pump, and start washing creek gravel in search of emeralds and rubies.  Quite soon they find a stone worth eight grand.  That might encourage you or me to continue; but they immediately decamp to go back home to their routine subsistence activities and a few chews on shards of venison jerky.

            But on the whole I found “Hillbilly Blood” terrific, a sort of televised version of the old Foxfire books, or perhaps a dramatization of Eric Sloane’s Little Book of Early American Know-How.  Its main message—the independence of mountain folk as evidenced in their competence, skill, and invention—resonates with the experience of my Ozark boyhood.  I knew lots of guys like Eugene and Spencer, beginning with my father and his two brothers, my uncles John and Wayne.  They built the house in which we lived, beginning not with milled lumber but with cedar trees felled by crosscut saw, raised much of the food we ate, and seldom saw a day pass without fixing some antique machine with spit and baling wire.
another of Sloane's captivating books

            My father was a great man, and one of the finest I have ever known.  Unlike the television “hillbillies” he had no principled aversion to remunerated work, and during the decade following the War he dragged me and my siblings to work sites through most of the southwestern states, including three different places in California alone.  But we were always returning to Arkansas for greater and shorter periods, and wherever we were he seemed to try to live, however impractically, as though he were still in some deep woods.  And he always had one essential quality which is not particularly showcased on “Hillbilly Blood” but was characteristic of many of the country people I knew as a child.  I’ll call it spirituality.

            My Dad reported the following story.  There was in a remote corner of our farm a long-abandoned homestead of which the most obvious relic was a large and unusually deep root cellar.  We were seldom there, but in it my uncles stored some fencing materials used for occasional repairs needed in that sector.  One day, when my father was there alone, he rather purposelessly stepped down the narrow stairwell into the murk of this dim place.  A loud rattle made known to him that he had just walked very near to, or perhaps even over, a snake which, looking back now toward the back-lighted steps, on which it was curled, he could see was very large, malignly aroused, and positioned between him and his only route of egress.  By inexplicable fortuity there was lying on the dirt floor of the dugout cellar, barely visible, a cleft stick with a small, even fork at its end.  With this he was able ingeniously to pinion the snake’s hissing head against one of the stone steps, holding it fixed, with its long tail flailing wildly, while he stomped it to death with the heel of his heavy work boots.  All in a day’s work.

            It was not this episode itself, which was less dramatic than many in his life, that impressed me as a child, so much as the humble and matter-of-fact mode of its telling.  He told it as a story against himself, as an indictment of a culpable carelessness.  When asked by my brother what he did when he saw the snake, he answered thus: “I looked around for the stick.”  He did not say “a stick” but “the stick”, and the drift was very clear to me even at the age of ten.  In a situation of considerable danger, there was no question in his mind but that Providence would provide a solution.  All he had to do was use his wits and find it.  He then quoted some lines of poetry that, I much later learned, were from the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.  That is pretty hard-core!  Who knows the third verse of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

“I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
 ‘As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal’;
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel!”