I Heal Inside & Out on a Mountainside During the Pandemic
A Virus Inside and Out
During my first, brief marriage in my twenties, Truman Capote, a friend of my father in law, telephoned, and in his froggy voice, asked if my husband and I wanted to go with him to Studio 54. I was immersed in my work as an MFA student in poetry, at Columbia’s School of the Arts, and I explained I had too much work on my desk. So I’ve always been a bit of a recluse.
Ten years ago, I “left the Mother Ship,” as a poet friend of mine puts it, gave up my tenured position at Rhodes College in Memphis, and moved to Western North Carolina. Eventually, after driving to over fifty houses, I found a cabin on the side of a mountain, surrounded by woods, at the end of a dirt and gravel drive. In the dark, when I first moved here, getting out of the car at night, I was overwhelmed by the presence of the hundred foot poplars, cushioned by pines, hickory, scarlet oak. The cabin is on a flat space, literally cut out from the side of the mountain, so it sits on a shelf of land, with a forty foot cut bank arcing up behind it. That cut bank is a path for bears, deer, who follow its edge because the woods end at the cut bank.
I have a virus, which causes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, recently renamed Systemic Exertion Intolerance Disease. It has no biomarker. I first came down with symptoms during the qualifying exams for my doctorate at Temple University. I have an iron will, and I knew my immune system was compromised, but I forged ahead. About ten years ago, the illness intensified, and five years ago, after spending the summer hiking and taking two to three hour walks, I couldn’t get out of bed. But on one of those walks to the reservoir, which verges on National Forest, I saw a snapping turtle two feet long from extended head to tail. I wanted to see bobcats and mountain lions on my hikes. But I do see bears; one a tiny cub, small as a puppy, rappelled down the side of our compost bin.
This morning, I took the walk on flat ground, to the hairpin turn in the driveway, back and forth, because I am no longer allowed to walk the steep slopes of the mountains or the lower parts of the drive we live on. Every morning I see the microcosm, the second pink clematis that flowers weeks later than the first, the inch wide nascent buds, like tiny bouquets, that will open into bunches of hydrangea, a ladybug on its leaves, the Fire Pink that grow wild along the driveway. I check the seedlings of cucumber, pepper, tomato, for eaten leaves, the crocosmia for mildew, the rose and iris for aphids, and delve into the supply cupboard built onto the back of the cabin. Inside it are my sprays for bugs, but also a pile of snakeskins found outside the walls of the cabin.
My husband and I have a system for killing a copperhead. We’ve found them in the woodpile, and in the stonewall of raised beds in the back of the cabin, where heat gathers on the graveled area around the beds. I pinch the head with a snake tong and my husband lobs off the head with a shovel. I transfer both head and body into a bucket. But you can’t go near the head; it won’t die, buried at the edge of the driveway, for hours, and it’s hinged jaw can still bite.
Despite the challenges of fallen power lines sparking, bears thumping over the compost bin, mice, and copperheads, I love it here. I hear wild turkeys as they make their different sounds, wrens and redbirds, the neighbor’s rooster across the holler, the streambed running with water so clear you can hardly see it as it goes over the rocks. Wild iris crowd the swales that run water downhill into the stream bed. Outside there is a pandemic, in the macrocosm, and inside the microcosm, I contend with injections, liquids, and capsules I take as protocols for my own virus, but if I focus on the natural world, I am saved.
About the Author
Tina Barr has lived with CFS since 1989; her book, Green Target, about her life in the cabin, won the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the Brockman-Campbell Award. www.TinaBarr.com
18 CommentsLeave a comment
Thanks for these beautiful observations and memories, Tina. You are an amazing person and a brilliant poet.
Thanks for your honesty and the beauty of your words and photos – all is wonderful!
Lovely, lyrical and vivid and nourishing. Wow! Thank you, Dear Tina!! On a more pedestrian level, I cannot wait for your next class. Best wishes and stay well! tuck
We love everything about this memoir S!udio 54 pales beside the Cabin.
Glorious, evocative essay, with photos only your eye could gather.
To me, the words you wrote here speak to the discipline of Columbia, and the inner toughness of South Philly. I think they also reflect your time in Maine; clear, clean, to the point and with attention to, and a love of beauty.
Thank you, Tina, for the glorious insights into your life. I’m so sorry about the Chronic Fatigue,
But you seem to be dealing with it admirably. I can’t compete with your wildlife. Just deer and ducks here, but I’m in awe of your dealing with the snakes. Enjoy the wondrous cabin. Love, Alan
Tina, I’m always amazed, and embraced, by your reflections on your life and the life around you up here in the mountains. Thank you so much for sharing these images and experiences with us. My life is the richer for seeing them through your eyes.
Despite the snake stories and the snakeskin photo, I am, as always, drawn to the beauty and insight in your words. You are courageous on many levels, my dear friend and teacher.
There is nothing more inspiring than graceful endurance. Yours.
Tina, The beauty and grace of your journey and words are an inspiration, nourishing and a delight, always. I look forward to a walk up to your cabin even if it is virtually.
What lovely reflections, Tina. Photographs are wonderful too. So glad you chose to make Western North Carolina your home. You, your poetry, and your cabin have blessed many of us. Stay well.
You are an eloquent survivor of CFS, Tina, and so much more. Thank you for telling us about your life with the turtle, tiny cub, wild iris and the healing power of nature.
Stay well and safe.
This is absolutely fabulous in every way. You and I lead parallel lives in so many ways,
Your words and your pictures are both amazing!!!!!
Love you, Kristie
Lovely picture of your life. We are both fortunate to be immersed in Nature during this trying ti,e.
So moving and beautiful, these pieces, Tina. May the cabin and the surroundings continue to offer quiet and inspiration.
Only been in Flat Rock for several years, two of which we cared for my son, Scott(DS-ALL passed 5/26/22). We love it up here after living for 38 years in “hot” Columbia. Started writing poetry last September and enjoy writing poetry after struggling for 40 years to write 3 books(unfinished). I have written with “Brothers and Sisters” about my military experiences in Vietnam. I have quite a few about Scott, one was read at his memorial service and I include here:
My hand goes out to his,
My palm up toward the clouds,
His grasping in the other direction.
Closing warmly on my gnarly hand
His skin is soft and pliant,
And his eyes peer to the back of mine
Not saying something unneeded
Not able to put it out in words,
What is easy for me to say,
Is hard for him to convey with words.
His eyes and manner tell me
But I seem to need to say it,
He knows what he means,
Just listen with your eyes and mind
Its “I love you” without the sound.