A frame within a frame. She did not include herself in this painting of her native hill, near Boones Mill, nor did she extend the view downward, to include the snow-covered field she looked across, from her studio, that winter day much like this one when she sat & made the painting.
With this photo I insert the painter, the field—a blank, white middle ground—& the tops of far trees, a little slice of sky above so that your eye can fly up. And still, it can’t fly far enough. What I left out (for a frame must always eliminate so much of the world): the field stretching away vastly to the west where it meets the feet of blue mountains, pale-orange fire flaring out from darkening ridges at the last moments of that short day, casting an eternal quality of light on the flock of wild turkeys that were scattered in a line, each one making its way, pecking through the snow for whatever sustenance might be found, forgotten seeds & grains.
But let us venture back into the frame, the things you cannot see even within it. Teels Creek flowing alongside the base of the slope. The spring peepers that are hibernating under logs & rocks, body fluids frozen. They will be the first to signal the spring thaw. They will emerge to sing in raucous daylong choruses & breed crazily through the warm rains of March.
In a painting, the middle ground is often where the main action takes place. In landscape painting, it is often in that wide-open swath of earth where there is another sort of “blank canvas”—a lake, a field, a sea that provides the space for action, for reflection, for being. It is the place where meaning emerges. Our story here is written upon that ground, the snow-covered field, that expanse of white that lies before us, the viewer, behind her, the painter. She showed me the maps when I arrived, yellow lines that frame each parcel of land across which the Mountain Valley Pipeline will be laid, piece by piece, extending beyond the sides of this frame for some 300 miles. After construction of the 42-inch gas pipeline that will require 125 feet of easement (that includes the creek, the slope, beyond; the maps are rough, who knows), the pipe will be buried—under the field, under the snow, under the frozen frogs, out of sight.
Upstairs I sit with Jennie, looking out three wide picture windows with a view onto the woods, bare poplar trees, silvery-white trunks. Snow coming down fast. She talks about the birds she’s watched over these past 40 years. The migratory scarlet tanagers, pine siskins, indigo buntings, and the ones that stay through winter: titmice, nuthatches (“like little clowns”), juncos (“sort of drab & homely in their way”). She likes to watch them flitting among the trees. Over the years, she says, she’s seen fewer and fewer of the migratory ones.
In the basement her husband, Peter, has dug out of the hillside, my eye lands on a panorama glued on plywood & tacked to the wall. Strange to see it that way, on film, what digital erases—a panorama composed of individual frames meant to mimic the action of the eye as it scans a landscape, processing each portion & stitching it into a seamless image of what we might call the lay of the land.
Peter, once an architect, is now a puzzle-maker by trade, his specialty being three-dimensional ones of animals & insects, made of wood. He leaves his workbench where he’s fitting together a spider, comes over to point out specific features I might take note of as I worked to understand the property we’re on—tucked away into Slings Gap, a part of Bent Mountain, which the Mountain Valley Pipeline will transect.
The maps I’ve studied showing the proposed route are called “parcel maps.” What will be a continuous 300-mile stretch of the earth with pipe laid underneath is marked by lines that divide the topography into individual parcels, cut into portions that look like puzzle pieces. As Peter points & talks I think of how the sections of a pipeline fastened together look something like this panorama, how in between the segments of metal pipe are spaces that might open up and leak. I think of Jennie’s tanagers & buntings growing scarcer, their flyways & migratory routes now fragmented, and notice how the fine edges of the panorama’s glued photos have begun peeling up.
A dead hemlock had fallen across the path. He lifted it with the flat head of his Pulaski, pulled it over the ground until it pointed downhill, slid it down the slope. “Gravity,” he said. “The lazy man’s way to move a tree.” I had met him on the trail that morning, bent over, scraping & grading the frozen earth, puffing clouds of breath. His hair punctuated patches of lingering snow that glinted beneath dark copses of rhododendron, had made me think of a phrase: “As above, so below.”
Said he was a volunteer, building & maintaining trails at this 1,600-acre preserve that protects a stretch of Bottom Creek near its headwaters, where the pipeline will run—across the creek, twice, & alongside, for miles, I trace it with my finger on the maps.
Blue line of the creek, twisting; red line of the pipe, turning. This is the top of my watershed—Bottom Creek drains Poor Mountain, cuts a massive gorge, then flows outward to the west at Allegheny Springs to become the South Fork of the Roanoke that flows past my house 25 miles to the northeast.
Creeks are like pipelines of stone, dug & laid into the earth by the very substance they will carry, by water that supports all life, transported with the help of gravity, that force that also holds us to the Earth.
We come to the edge, get a rush of the creek in our ears, of the falls tumbling off the wall of the gorge opposite us. Funny: what pulls all things down is what made this cliff so high, makes us feel so close to what we might call the sublime, the word literally meaning “rising to a great height.”
Far below, as far as a thing could fall from here, to the bottom of Bottom Creek, live three rare fish—the orangefin madtom, the riverweed darter, & the bigeye jumprock. For some reason, then, I think of them leaping up, out of the creek, flying up & into the white frothy tops of his hair.
Coming around the bend, I saw it this way, how I’d never seen it before. A fine dusting had put this filter on the world: soft light, high contrast, everything in rare vivid form, a kind of lucid vision. I saw then how the creek was a long dark ribbon that snaked & slithered across the cove, how water connects everything.
Miles upstream, these waters trickled from the top of Poor Mountain & drained the southeastern slope & were met farther down by Mill Creek, which pours off the western side of Bent Mountain. Laurel Creek flows off the northern flank to join them just upstream of here. Another unnamed creek comes in from the east, and they combine & flow into the South Fork of the Roanoke River. From there the waterways are almost too many to name, with Georges Run, Spring Branch, Boners Run & Dark Run coming in from their own cuts & hollows, too many to say, on & on that way across the Piedmont to Albemarle Sound, an estuary on the Outer Banks and Atlantic Ocean.
These creeks that form a sprawling network of life are laid by time & water into paths of least resistance, through all the folds of the soil. Conversely, pipelines are buried corridors of gas laid by institutions using blunt forces, whose plans are governed by the logic of eminent domain. Theirs is a path of great resistance, but profit has a way of forcing open new channels.
It takes up to 15 million gallons of fresh water (mixed with a slew of chemicals) to frack a well. Many who live around fracking have been finding they can light their tapwater on fire.
When Midas, stricken by thirst, brings water to his lips to find that it has turned to gold, he begs Bacchus to strip him of the power he’d asked for. (“The rich poor fool.”) The god grants him relief & “bids him seek the stream that cut the land…then trace the river to the fountain head,” where he plunges his body in. Cleansed, with new vision, he sees how the stream “informs with veins of gold the neighboring land.”
Michael had one of the barn doors swung open and was loading his pick-up with armfuls of firewood he took from inside. It was the barn, not Michael, that beckoned me: tall, straight, sturdy, mythic-gray against snow-dusted ridges. An elder barn that stood in a region of many others crooked and crumbling. A noble structure full of stories. Its outer boards were chestnut, a tree that once dominated Appalachian forests, before blight wiped them out in the early 1900s. The barn’s inner walls were hemlock, a tree now almost decimated by the woolly adelgid.
And that firewood: There’s a Cherokee story about the first fire, born when lightning struck a hollow sycamore. For most of the history of the populated North American continent, people kept warm by fires at night. Fire fueled myths and minds. The Haudenosaunee saved most their stories for winters in the longhouse, where they would tend and stoke the fire, get fat on story. Flames eating logs, embers breaking apart.
Another story is that gas “burns clean.” What is left out of that story is that methane, the heat-trapping gas that is exponentially more potent than carbon dioxide, leaks out at every stage of gas extraction and distribution, and that climate change is making our winters milder and shorter here.
Later, lying awake at night, in my mind’s eye I could see the single blue flame of my furnace burning clean in the basement.
This essay is part of our #VQRTrueStory project, a social-media experiment in nonfiction that delivers stories across platforms. Each week, a contributor takes over our Instagram feed, @vqreview, to post original dispatches that tell the stories behind the pictures. The dispatches are then published on our website, and two are selected for inclusion in each issue of the magazine. You can visit the #VQRTrueStory archive to read all the contributions so far. And be sure to follow @vqreview to keep up with the project as it unfolds.