right back in the same mountains they had left behind.

From A Novelist Looks at the Land” by Sharyn McCrumb:

In Traces on the Appalachians: A History of Serpentine in America, geologist Kevin Dann writes that the first Appalachian journey was the one made by the mountains themselves.

The proof of this can be found in a vein of a green mineral called serpentine which forms its own subterranean “Appalachian Trail” along America’s eastern mountains, stretching from north Georgia to the hills of Nova Scotia, where it seems to stop. This same vein of serpentine can be found in the mountains of western Ireland, where it again stretches north into Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and the Orkneys, finally ending in the Arctic Circle. More than two hundred and fifty million years ago the mountains of Appalachia and the mountains of Great Britain fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Continental drift pulled them apart at the same time it formed the Atlantic Ocean.

The mountains’ family connection to Britain reinforced what I had felt about the migration patterns of the early settlers.  People forced to leave a land they loved come to America. Hating the flat, crowded eastern seaboard, they head westward on the Wilderness Road until they reach the wall of mountains. They follow the valleys south-southwest down through Pennsylvania, and finally find a place where the ridges rise, where you can see vistas of mountains across the valley. The Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, the Cornishmen – all those who had lives along the other end of the serpentine chain – to them this place must have looked right. Must have felt right. Like home.  And they were right back in the same mountains they had left behind.

Perhaps it isn’t a unique experience in nature, this yearning for a place to which one is somehow connected. After years in the vast ocean, salmon return to spawn in the same small stream from whence they and their forebears came; monarch butterflies make the journey from the eastern seaboard to the same field in Mexico that had been the birthplace of the previous generation. The journey there and back again is unchanging, but each generation travels only one way. Is it really so strange that humans might feel some of this magnetism toward the land itself?

I thought this bit of mountain geology was a wonderful metaphor for the journeys reflected in The Songcatcher, and that, in a sociological way, it closed the circle. I imagined my ancestor, Malcolm McCourry, harkening back to memories of the hills of Scotland he knew as a child. Perhaps when he saw the green mountains of North Carolina, he felt that he had come home. When I visit Scotland, I marvel at the resemblance between their land and ours— surely the pioneers felt the same awe in reverse.

If you go looking for the serpentine chain in Britain, the best place to find it is on the Lizard, a peninsula in Cornwall between Falmouth and Penzance that is the southernmost tip of England. There, at Kynance Cove, you can see the cliffs of magnesium-rich serpentine, and the chain of rocks in the bay that marks the path to Ireland’s link on the great geologic chain. Serpentine began as peridotite, first as molten rock beneath the surface of the earth, and then as a deposit on the ancient seabed of the Rheic Ocean, some 375 million years ago. When two prehistoric super continents collided, the Lizard was slammed into the landmass that would become Britain. Another continental do-si-do produced Laurentia, which traveled north of the equator, passing the Tropic of Cancer 100 million years ago. Since the last Ice Age, the Lizard has rested at 50 degrees north latitude, part of an island walled away from continental Europe by the rising sea. The boundary between the landmass of the Lizard and the rest of Cornwall lies at Polurrian Cove, a clear demarcation. In the tiny village of Lizard, craftsmen today carve bowls and pendants out of tremolite serpentine, just as the Cherokee indians in eastern America once carved bowls of their own from this mineral– just as the Vikings farther north on the European chain carved spindle whorls from the soft rock. Will the circle be unbroken? Indeed.

I have scores of cousins who have never left that mountain fastness: no amount of money, and no dazzle of city lights could ever tempt them to abandon the land. I feel some of that power of place as I write, looking out across the ridges of mountains stretching along the Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail, and knowing that deep in the earth the serpentine chain is snaking its way past my farm, pointing the way to Canada, to Ireland, to the Orkney Islands. My office sits perched on the edge of the ridge so that from my window I can see green meadows far below, and folds of multi-colored hills stretching away to the clouds in the distance. It could be any century at all in that vista, which is just the view one needs to write novels set in other times. I tell myself I don’t want to live anywhere else, but every year or two, I make my way back to Britain, and I spend a few weeks wandering around the west of Ireland, or the coves of Cornwall, or the cliffs of Scotland – an ocean away from home, but still connected by the serpentine chain.

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4 Responses to right back in the same mountains they had left behind.

  1. Angelo R. April 23, 2010 at 6:04 am #

    That was fantastic. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Mark Wales April 23, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    Thanks for that! I just discovered your blog and it’s exactly what I needed! I’ve really got into nature writing recently and am currently reading Thoreau’s ‘Walden: Or Life in the Woods’ and have got a stack of others waiting to be read, including the works of John Muir. :D

  3. martin February 23, 2011 at 3:20 am #

    Kynance Cove in Cornwall is WELL worth a visit, but don”t get cut off by the tide or get sunburn (on the one sunny day of the year!)

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