There were many disturbing images to be seen as Hurricane Sandy churned its way up the east coast and into the northeast, and though dire prospects were forecast for the Northern Mountains of North Carolina where Ruth and I live, we actually suffered little more than some gusty winds and three or four inches of wet snow, which soon dissolved. Light as the touch of the storm proved to be for us, though, it stripped most of the leaves from Big Fork Ridge opposite our house and from the forest on Winterstar Ridge behind us; and while I watched on television, as we all did, the devastation Sandy wrought in New Jersey, New York and West Virginia, I was also somewhat comforted by the beauty of the scene suddenly revealed to us in our fastnesses once our weather cleared. To say that our mountains have moods is to assert the obvious, but this week the nearly overnight transition from autumn's peak of brilliant color to winter's starkness was shocking. This is not to say that winter in the Southern Appalachians has no beauty. Far from it. In viewing the transformation I was reminded of a passage from my novel Where the Water-Dogs Laughed:
"The cold weather came on. They rode the country and she watched the great heads of the mountains slowly darken as the woods went bare from peak to foot. Soon the farthest ranges bulked cinder-colored in the distance and the nearer hills got as gray as so much slate or lead or iron and when you looked close you saw that the dullness of them bristled too with millions of tiny black spines that were the now-naked trees. And when that had fully happened, you saw revealed all the features of the hills that the leafy woods had covered up before. You saw the contours of the ridges, you saw every cove and hollow, seams and pleats of sooty black with the clustered green of the roughs and laurel hells at their heads. You saw outcrops of rock and sometimes whole big ledges of rock layered like grainy cakes. And in seeing these things you began to see also the source of the dark magic the country folk perceived in the snake and the bear and in all about them. The hills bred it. It lived in them.
"He took her to a place he called The Herrycanes. It was on a branch-head up high on the side of a mountain and the whole shoulder of the mountain was nothing but a tangled clutter of uprooted and shattered trees. They had lain there thirty years, he claimed. About the time the war ended a mighty storm of wind had come. It had torn trees out by the roots or twisted the tops out of them and then tumbled the wreckage together in great heaps and mounds up and down that whole mountainside. Now most of the bark had rotted off the fallen trunks and branches and the bare wood was smooth and bleached like old bone. Thousands and thousands of bones. It resembled an immense catacomb but roofless and not underground as in Rome, nothing but the vast glare of the winter sky arching over it--a catacomb whose masses of old skeletons some unaccountable force had come violently and without warning to stir and churn and intermix.
"He took her high up to a place...where two ranges met--the Tusquittees and the Valley Rivers, he said. Here a narrow sharp-topped ridge ran north and west, its steep flanks choked with vines and laurel and the spiky black wedges of spruce trees. Far off bulked a tawny round summit--Weatherman Bald, according to Absalom. She gazed long at the prospect. What secrets might be harbored on those heights and in all those deep-cut ravines and thickets? What wraiths and ha'nts, boogers and varmints? What spirits? What magic? It all spoke to her and she heard it just as she had heard Absalom's power that first time and she answered to it now as she had answered to him then.
"Here, he told her, a creek took its headwaters and flowed down the south face of the Tusquittees and passed by his father's farm. Tuni Creek, it was called. The family sawmill was down there now, in the bottom. You couldn't see it from this point of the ridge on account of the way the fold of the mountain lay. But it was down there. It was where he grew up. He was born in a different place, his father's first place. That place was higher up, poorer. "Land so steep you had to do your planting with a shotgun," he laughed."
Gazing roundabout our house at these now-wintertime woods, I'm humbled by the prodigious whimsy of catastrophe, which can wreck the works of man and impose pain and suffering almost beyond calculation, yet in another place can reveal a stunning and majestic beauty. These are the two faces of a tragedy beyond measure, and only God can explain them.