Sunday, January 6, 2013


Here I sit at my computer on a brilliant Sunday morning, able to gaze through my outsized windows at the gray stickwork of the leafless trees around the house and, beyond them, at the bristly contours of the mountains, a pure blue sky arching over it all.  Small fragments of fleecy cloud fleck that sky; one moment they are there and the next, are gone.  On my stereo the plaintive voices of penitentes sing their ancient alabados with the nasal, occasionally grating tones of very old men with Moorish, Spanish and Indian blood throbbing through them, their dreams and thoughts fixed on a far different world. 

The scene before me seems immemorial; two hundred years ago a Cherokee brave might have stood on this same January mountainside in the Southern Appalachians and seen much the same sight, only the forests would have been denser and would have been evergreens instead of hardwoods.  It is an intensely personal moment of immediacy: Of a life being wholly lived but surrounded by a landscape that has seen countless human and animal lives come and go; has seen this and not even noticed. 

These thoughts come to me because in the last weeks I've started to sense my own impermanence; an apprehension that my time may be short and a concomitant awareness of how much will be lost when I am gone. I do not mean me, myself.  I’m not that vain.  Or not even the inevitable fading away of my written works.  But a loss of what has been in me, in my heart and mind and hopes and fears, things that no one but I can know about.  I look at my bookshelves, lined with volumes each of which has its double story to tell, its own and mine too, mine in the sense of the private message each one delivered to me and informed how I thought and felt and, yes, lived.  Every book-spine tells a certain tale about a certain time of my living or a certain person who touched my life. Each has also informed in some way what I wrote.  But of course what I wrote is as impermanent as I myself.  It will not be as if I have left behind an imperishable body of work that will touch others ages hence.  I will have been an obscure regional author, altogether unremembered.

Yet is this not true of the preponderance of the human condition?  But a handful of lives have been lived whose accomplishments deserve to be perpetually remembered.  I do not deceive myself that I would leave such a bequest.  I have garnered some acclaim in my time; not as much as I craved but probably far more than I rightly deserved.  Do not mistake me; I don't mourn losing my physical self; I as a person am of little account.  But I do mourn the loss of this world as I have seen and felt it—these forests, these highlands, these clear skies skiffed with cloud, which never noticed me.

Of course that makes no sense.  It is self-obsessed and basely stupid.  No matter how fervently I feel myself to be an organic part of the mountain world I live in; no matter how much its beauty has transported me; no matter how its harsh weathers and splendid autumns have struck me with awe; the mountains mark me not.  For them, I have not even been here.  This has been true for all mankind from the beginning.  Therefore, consider:   Is it death itself that we all fear; or is it the loss of a wondrous yet cruelly unremembering world? 

But have we truly examined this world whose attention we have so craved?  For most of us, including myself, the answer has been no.  The material world is, for most of us, a mere backdrop against which we play out our preoccupations.  I have written about the mountains and the West because they speak to me, not because I am in some fashion a part of them that they, in turn, recognize and accept.  I have used them.  They have rightly ignored me. The truth is that we humans regard most highly ourselves and those whom we love or pretend to love; all else has been but window-dressing or passing fancy.

Those of you who have been following this blog will know that I’ve lately been smitten with a sense of surprise and unpreparedness before the troubling prospect of my ageing and ailing.  One manifestation of this shock has been a resort to e-publishing.  For years I had maintained a backlog of unpublished—and possibly, though I hope against this—unpublishable written works.  The sudden prospect of impermanence smote me with a desire to expose these works to public view.  In this regard I plead guilty to the charge of vanity.  I did not want to leave without exposing to the world—even to a world of complete indifference—the sum of my life’s work as writer.   

It is, I confess, a ridiculous desire; the last thing this world needs are the written works of someone who may never have deserved to have been noticed in the first place.  Yet I have persisted.  It is what we humans do.  We persist not only in the face of indifference but in the face of derision, contempt, even hatred.  Whole races and religions and ethnic communities have done this.  It is not simply that our first laws are vanity and self-preservation—or self-delusion--or even commitment to a cause or a faith.  It is that we wish to believe there is a uniqueness in each of us that justifies our having lived, (hopefully in a decent way) and a desire for that uniqueness to be somehow preserved.  Dismiss it, if you wish, as a mere craving to have been noticed or, to put it  more crudely, to achieve immortality.  But there are worse things than to have been noticed, and one of them is to have passed unnoticed.  As Dylan Thomas wrote, we rage, rage against the dying of the light.  And we rage rightly.  Each of us has some amount of individual worth, and when one of us goes, all of us lose another small bit of the whole that is all of humanity.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I offer my latest e-book.  Readers of this blog will know me best for my books on the Southern Appalachian mountains and the American West.  But I've always entertained a love for the entire sweep of history and have longed to visit each era and locality novelistically, knowing I could never cover it all.  The period that fascinates me most, other than the 19th-century American South and West, is what we call the Medieval period--roughly the time between 1000 and 1450 AD.  The book I'm putting online was my homage to that age, so different from our own and yet so familar in human terms.  In my previous blog post I described its antecedents, its content and its meaning, at least to me.  Its title is Call Down Heaven's Fire
In it I tried for the first and only time in my writing career to examine immense societal issues such as the nature of religious faith; the intolerance that leads to organized violence like the crusades, not only against perceived infidels but also against those thought to be domestic heretics; the feudal system; and the code of chivalry.  As I did in posting my John Wesley Hardin book, I need to issue an advance warning to my readers.  This too is a book not to be approached by the faint of heart.  But it remains my most ambitious novel to date, even taking into account Nor the Battle to the Strong, and I am unapologetically proud of it.  It is summarized on my website, under the Fiction heading.  More than that I will not say here, except to ask you to consider reading it.  You may get a prior glimpse of its contents on  I hope that glimpse will tempt you further.

The book is live under Kindle Books on amazon and, within a day or so, should be live on barnes and noble too, for Nooks.  Thank you for considering it.

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