Every year on this day I think of this song:
P.S. I took this photo several years ago on a hilltop outside of Amherst at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Best e-mail I’ve received all day had this photo, with a note saying simply “Roses still in bloom!” I’ve had a great time during my residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I’m going to hate leaving — it’s a beautiful place, and I’ve made great progress on a new novel — but I’m also looking forward to returning to New Jersey and my gardening correspondent.
Years before Bill Haley became a mediocre and unlikely rock-and-roll pioneer he billed himself as Yodelin’ Bill Haley, performing country swing with his band The Saddlemen. Here’s Yodelin’ Bill singin’ “Rose of My Heart” —
Even better, here’s the late, lamented Eva Cassidy doing a beautiful rendition of a song based on Robert Burns’ “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose” —
Had my photo/portrait/post office mugshot taken today as I begin the final week of my three-week stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ve done lots of work on a novel — inspired by the life story of the real-life 1920s Italian anarchist with the unlikely name of Severino DiGiovanni — and where they have invited me four times in the last four years to spend time as a fiction-writing fellow because, nearest as I can figure, I’m a fellow who writes fiction.
Anyway, however I got here, I’m very excited about this novel. But I’m wondering about this photo.
A writer friend who’s very smart and very hip and very talented and very published just messaged me to say “Great picture!”
My brother, on the other hand, who I can always count on for his support because he’s blood, emailed back: “You look like a serial killer.”
So, let’s say early reviews are mixed. I myself don’t know what to think.
Do I look like an author? Do I have that intelligent, slightly bohemian, interesting, he’s-a-genius-but-an-approachable-genius look that I suppose all writers — or maybe it’s just me — crave?
Or do I look like I’m lost? Like I’m being interrogated by the NSA and CIA and FBI and KGB all at once in order to save time? Like I have amnesia and I’m wondering why I keep hearing nothing on the radio but country music and fire-and-brimstone preachers? Like I’m doing a screen test for Andy Warhol’s Incredible Plastic Inevitable?
Or like I’m just about finished contemplating and now I’m about to answer a reporter’s question: “What, Mr. DiGiovanni, is the meaning of life?”
Well, if I’m in the mood, and I think you’re all ready to handle it, I’ll answer that question in my next blog post — but in a pre-screened post that will be available only to people who, like my astute writer friend, with declare with great enthusiasm: “Great picture!”
Now, thinking back, I keep hearing that haunting song, “Long Black Veil,” and especially this part of the refrain: She walks these hills in a long black veil/She visits my grave when the night winds wail…
As far as I know, there are no graveyards at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which occupies what was once a horse farm, outside of Lynchburg, Va. But it is, indeed, located atop a windswept hill, and it was nighttime, very late into the night before Halloween, actually past midnight, so it was already Halloween. And – who knows? – maybe there’s an old farm family’s graveyard somewhere in these fields or woods.
The writing studio I was assigned is more remote than some of the others, which are spread through a sprawling former horse barn. This stands alone, a small cottage. There are woods behind it, then a rural road, and then railroad line used by freight trains that rumble and roar down the tracks more often than I remember from previous stays.
And there are sounds. The hooting and screeching of owls. The yipping and howling of coyotes. The occasional shriek of what sounds to me like a bobcat. And, with the windows open on a cool October evening, there are the things that go bump in the night – weird thumps, unexplained creaks and even, a few times, what sounded like the footsteps of somebody walking right outside my window, although a quick look outside showed that there was no one there and that it was probably just a sound conjured up in the mind of writer who was sitting by himself, in a small cabin, at the edge of the woods, near the freight-train tracks, on a dark hill in Virginia, with no one around, on the eve of Halloween.
There are explanations for all the familiar creepy stories that make the rounds at Halloween – or else they’re so outlandish, told so many times as stories that “really happened to the cousin of my college roommate’s best friend,” that the stories feel safe to tell or hear once more: the ghostly hitchhiker… the babysitter who gets creepy phone calls from inside the house…the life-sized clown statue in the corner (“WHAT STATUE!,” the freaked-out parents scream at the babysitter over the phone. We DON’T HAVE a clown statue!”).
But what about when something really happens? When there’s something that’s not just some urban legend or passed-down story? What is there to say and what is there to think when it’s long after midnight, on the night before Halloween, and the crescent moon is bright, and you go to your cabin door and look outside — and there you see very clearly a slow-moving, misty form gliding softly across the lawn.
You look at it once. You look at it again. And the vision takes shape, and you realize it is a woman in a flowing white dress, and at first you wonder if it’s one of the other artists and writers staying at this place. But it’s late, and the studio across the way is unoccupied, and you just know that this figure – this woman pacing slowly in the moonlight – is not one of us…at least not anymore.
She’s a vision, she’s a glimpse of something we can’t explain and might regret explaining if we could, she’s a spirit or a ghost or some goddamned thing that I can’t explain, and if you have doubts about whether I really did glimpse this woman who walks these hills in a long white dress, then tell me why I went to the cottage door at just that moment. Tell me why I opened it. Tell me I was just hearing things. Tell me that it was just my imagination, that no one really rapped, rapped, rapped at my cabin door.
I’ve been spending time in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, at a wonderful retreat called the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve done four residencies here, working on my fiction, as a visiting fellow.
It’s become so familiar to me that it feels like a second “home” — not at all comparable to my first “home,” New Jersey, where I’ve left behind someone I love dearly for about three weeks so that I can chase my elusive muse, but “home” enough that I’d love to have her here with me so she could hear the coyotes and bobcats and owls at night, and could help me count the stars in the velvet-dark sky, and could enjoy the quiet (except when the freight train rolls by, which it does frequently all through the night) and could meet some of the interesting and inspiring writers and artists and composers I’ve met during my stays here on this former farm called Mount St. Angelo.
Maybe most of all, for some reason, I’d like her to see this dark horse and these misty hills, which I see every morning as I walk down the hill from my studio to breakfast in the dining room:
I was thinking Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash and the romance of America’s wide open spaces.
Instead it turns out that the freight train rumbling through a wooded ravine near my writing studio a dozen times each day probably isn’t carrying hoboes and adventurers and descendants of Tom Joad. It’s more likely carrying Clorox bleach, or Pine-Sol, or Glad trash bags, or Hidden Valley salad dressings, or Brita water filters, or Burt’s Bees natural personal-care products.
Turns out this freight train, which seemed so poetic, is rather prosaic.
The trains run along the Norfolk Southern’s north-south mainline between Washington, D.C., and Birmingham, Alabama, passing through Amherst, Va., which is home to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’m in the midst of a fiction-writing residency – and to the Clorox Company, which manufactures all of those products. The freight trains service the Clorox facility here, according to the town of Amherst’s website.
My writing studio at the VCCA is at the crest of a hill in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, on property which used to be a horse farm and where a few horses, lots of cows, coyotes, deer — and a woodchuck, which I spotted this morning peeking out of one of its holes in a nearby pasture – share space with about 30 artists, writers and composers.
So while I have been hearing some not-very-desirable sounds, including the hum of the nearby highway to Lynchburg, I-29, and the snap of hunters’ gunshots in the nearby woods and fields, I also hear the neighing of horses, and the barks of coyotes, and the hoots and screechs of owls — and the lonesome whistle and mighty rumble of that freight train.
The freight trains are carrying bleach and plastic trash bags and salad dressing and Pine-Sol? So what? It still makes me think of this song by the late Elizabeth Cotton, sung here by Pete Seeger:
I’m still at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in rural Amherst, Va.. When you pull into the property from Highway 29, you drive up a winding one-lane road that goes right through the middle of a pasture where cows roam free — and sometimes stand right in the middle of the road and refuse to get out of the way.
This morning I drove down toward Lynchburg in search of (not necessarily in this order) Sunday’s New York Times and Washington Post, and a good, filling down-home Southern breakfast. I found both — the papers, surprisingly, at a convenience store in little Amherst, and breakfast at a roadside cafe called Dudley’s Family Style Restaurant in Madison Heights (where the menu includes catfish every Friday night and, ironically, cow brains with scrambled eggs every morning).
When I drove back to Amherst and the VCCA, this cow was standing in the middle of the road and refusing to budge. It just stood there looking at me. And I just sat there looking at it. The staring match lasted about two minutes, until the cow finally decided to step out of the way. Hooray for me, right? Victory for humans vs. cows once again, right?
But then I saw this in my side-view mirror:
The cow was giving me the evil eye! I think I’ll drive out the back entrance tomorrow.