Eastern Tennessee, near a village called Townsend. Special trip, friend’s 70th birthday. The idea was to escape the city, any city, all cities. Total success.
The dirt road to our spectacular two-story log “cabin” is barely wide enough for one car and you have to drive through a creek. We were warned that the black bears are emerging from hibernation and that one, probably a two-year-old, has been seen in the woods surrounding the cabin. “Just don’t walk around in the woods with a bucket of fried chicken,” we were told. Well, okay.
(Two hours after writing the above we’re back from town, I sit down at my laptop on the table facing the deck and there he is! On the deck, not fifteen feet away, a young black bear! Friend is cooking something with a lot of onions and the scent was apparently irresistible. I grabbed my camera, but he took off into the woods before I could snap a shot. We’d been leaving the deck doors open, but they happened to be closed right then or he would have come on in. Black bears (except moms with cubs) aren’t ferocious and this one’s just a hungry kid, but still… what does one do with a bear in the house? Probably better keep those deck doors closed.
We’re in the Smoky Mountains; the national park boundary is about 200 yards from the door, which means wi-fi access is almost nonexistent since no towers are permitted on national park grounds. I’ll have to drive into Gatlinburg or someplace to post these blogs, but that’s the trade-off for limitless natural beauty, quiet and a bear.
Also for a cultural experience I’m still trying to figure out. Scots, English, Welsh and Irish settlers made their way through
these mountains centuries ago, and their descendants are still here. But another group, mysterious as the song that is their anthem, also struggled to survive in secret valleys and hollows, until they were driven out and moved to different valleys and hollows. They were the Melungeons, mixed-race people of European, Native American and African genetic stock, whose name some linguists consider a bastardization of the French word melange (mixed). However, my favorite among the theories is that the term reflects a now obsolete Elizabethan word, “malengin,” that meant guile, deceit or ill-intent. Spenser, in The Faerie Queen, named an evil sprite character “Malengin,” and those early English settlers would have known and used the word.
In any event, the Melungeons were often shunned in primitive mountain settlements where survival might depend on mutual effort. Dark-skinned and “different-looking,” they seemed demonic to the predominately white and culturally British mountain settlers.
I’d never heard of Melungeons until yesterday when I bought a CD of local bluegrass songs at Cade’s Cove, an old settlement the last descendant of which died in 1999. One of the songs, “Wayfaring Stranger,” I’ve heard many times but never thought about. This version, with its haunting Dobro guitar, auto harp and mandolin, was so compelling that of course I had to research it to death and discovered that its origins are simply unknown. Here’s a link with an orchestral version – http://www.manhattanbeachmusic.com/html/wayfaring_stranger.html. There are countless lyrics to “Wayfaring Stranger,” which sounds as if it should be an old negro spiritual, except it isn’t. Its origins are lost in the weary footsteps of long-dead Europeans who moved westward into the Appalachians, only later to become associated with the even more weary, outcast Melungeons.
Later I will conclude that the Melungeon thing has some current resonance. Around here, I and literally everyone I know would qualify, at least insofar as seeming demonic!
To be continued….