RAVEN MACK is a mystic poet-philosopher-artist of the Greater Appalachian unorthodox tradition. He does have an amazing PATREON, but also *normal* ARTIST WEBSITE too.

Friday, May 6

J.J. Krupert Top 13 Countdown - April '11 #8: "James River Blues" by Old Crow Medicine Show

I could write about the James River again, being I live 5 minutes from it, but instead I thought it would be funny to share some shit I wrote in college for a Nature Writing class, that my prof. kept on her page for years. I actually had contemplated applying to MFA program for Creative Writing a couple years back and contacted her to give me a recommendation, which she was willing to do, but wanted to see some recent work. I made the mistake of sending her my Me and Brown story about slitting a dog's throat and saving a hillbilly from suicide on the side of the highway, and she backed the fuck off and broke the contact we had made. I guess older women nature writer types can't handle the reality of the lower worlds.
Anyways, here is some shit called "Why I Listen to the River" which I wrote when I was probably like 20. Most people would be embarrassed about cornier things they wrote earlier on, but whatever man, this is how I got to now, and there's actually a lot of the philosophies I still carry in this, even if my musical tastes are different.

By Raven McMillian
One of my earliest memories is of my parents, grandparents and assorted others digging the foundations for two homes on the family's fifty acres of wooded land in Meherrin, a small Virginia town whose only claim-to-fame is a banjo picker named Roy Clark. This land would be home eventually, once a few trees and countless rocks could be cleared away for the room needed to plant a simple two-story structure. I was just four or five at the time, so me and my aunt, also too young for useful labor, would walk with my grandmother down through the woods to a creek spot deep enough to wade in thanks to the work of beavers. The area around the wading spot was fairly clear, due to the beavers ambitious teeth, and I remember the cool water feeling pretty damn good on my tiny body caked with the red dirt found throughout the property. The summer humidity baked that woodland smell into the air, and at that point in my life, everything still made sense to me.
Eventually, one of the houses was complete and the plans for the other were abandoned due to a lack of finances, and my two parents and two younger sisters and I were living the good life of a country home with gardens, a couple of goats, and a woodshed full of winter warmth. My dad handcrafted a little cedar sign to hang at the end of our driveway. At the top he painted "The McMillians," with "Rolling Creeks" underneath in his rambling, reclining manuscript.
I spent a lot of time wandering around these rural creeks while growing up, jumping from side to side of the meandering water, to whichever would branchwhip me the least. I learned to meditate back here, sitting beside the miniature dirt cliffs cut by a tiny stream, counting my breaths and ignoring the world to that trickling sound. The fall was my favorite time, when the leaves swished around my feet and I could see through the naked trees farther than usual. This time of year was always cut short by the threat of trespassing hunters booming too close to ignore.
As I got older, like most teenagers, I preferred to get away from the parents and the home and all the stuff that seems "boring" to a teenager in the country since it's all he's seen for most of his life, and me and my friends would wander southside Virginia in late model cars with illegal inspection stickers and almost empty gas tanks looking for something to get into.
One spot we would usually meander our way around to was a place called Shelton's Rock, a little turn in the Appomattox River deep in the country at the end of a ruttedout dirt road. Here, for some amazing natural reason, a large rock declined into the slow river in a series of steps, creating easy access to the water, as well as a forty foot diving platform at the top. Thirty feet upwater, the river was only knee deep, but for some reason, at this little twist, the river curved around and went underneath this rock, gradually eating away a swimming hole that was bottomless to us since no one had ever reported touching a bottom. Rumor even had it that some folks in the past, no one knew who, had tried in moments of courage to find the bottom, only to get caught in an underwater riptide of sorts, and get wedged underneath the rock as they drowned.
At least once a week in the warm season during my last two years of high school, different assortments of us would ignore the demands for our presence in classes, and waste the day away diving and swimming and drinking and enjoying each other's company at Shelton's Rock. But the world gradually pushed its responsibilities into my young mind, and I found myself hustling off to college in the "big city" of Richmond, me being a naive country boy looking to experience as much as possible, as well as wanting to get away from the "boring" rural life I had always lived. My parents predicted I would eventually miss the country and want to return.
My first week in the city was spent skipping orientation programs with other freaks on my dormitory floor to explore what was really going on around the city. One night that first week, two of these folks introduced me to "the river." We went to a place called the dead rocks, at the edge of Belle Isle, a place my southern ancestors held Union soldiers prisoner in tents. Here, a quarter miles worth of smooth granite rock faces poke up and around still water, in a little offshoot section of the James River, kept for the most part dry most of the year by a small dam of concrete and a lot of brush piles. Occasionally, during high water, these dead rocks get covered, and Belle Isle becomes an island. We went over to the north end of Belle Isle itself, where the river rushes by in rapids, rocks populating the surface, altering the river's flow, creating wild whitenesses, as well as calm swimming spots.
Over the years, I've found myself returning again and again to the river, at Belle Isle as well, as other spots here and there, looking for moments of calm amidst the city life I chose for myself, just as I always went to Shelton's Rock as a teenager, and just as I always wandered back to the streams behind my house as a child. My spirits seemingly flowed with the waters along those streams, into the Appomattox and eventually up to the James.
Well, that sounds pretty corny, and it should because it's just not true. Those streams behind my house, in all likelihood, flow somewhere other than the Appomattox, and the Appomattox itself combines into the James downstream of Richmond at Hopewell, so my spirits would have to have fought westerly, back upstream for a number of miles. But nevertheless, during my life, I've always found positive relaxing moments alongside of running water.
But why is this so? What makes me want to hang around rivers?
I asked a friend these same questions, since he told me he had been battling a paranoid schizophrenia by going to the river a lot. He said we did it because plants and water are better than concrete and steel. That's true, but that still didn't explain why I choose the river over, say, fields or forests.
So I asked myself, "what is the river?"
Well, I answered, it's water, of course, that starts way up in the mountains, almost to West Virginia, and trickles its way down through the state some three hundred miles, basically heading east and into the Chesapeake Bay. Up in those mountains, the river is a crystal clear baby of what it will become. At that point, it is an "uncarved block," a Taoist concept describing the state of nearperfection of a newborn baby, a point where the mind is not yet made egotistic by our manly things. It would be our goal in life, if we were all Taoists, to attempt to return to that state of the uncarved block, back to that original simplicity.
An uncarved block of the James River, born at a place called Iron Gate, where mountains penetrate the open sky, goes about its inevitable flowing. It goes through the Blue Ridge mountains, where the James River and Kanawha Company years ago attempted to carve its meandering nature into a series of straight canals. But the James was a difficult child, and the company eventually had to abandon its ultimate goals and settle for what little damage it had already accomplished.
The James flows past Lynchburg, where men carved mines out of the hills and let the waste go where it may.
In its adolescent stages, it wanders through the Piedmont countryside, accumulating the bruises of eroded topsoil carved from farmland by poor thinking.
It crashes past the rapids of Richmond, oblivious to the murder rates and the state government buildings. Here, it gives me music to daydream and meditate through my own insanities.
It rolls southeasterly, through lands where tobacco farms long ago were carved out of "new" land, but not without the fear of a native hatchet being buried in one's head.
The James reaches adulthood by marrying the Appomattox at Hopewell, where vast industrial "plants" have grown towards the sun. It is here Allied Chemical dumped roach poison into the water in the late seventies, contaminating fish as far away as New York. Here is where my uncle once worked, telling me of companies dumping whatever they could get away with into the river. Here, the James enters the "real world," a New World Order.
The waters become brackish as it grows past the old plantation homes of ancient landlords carved into the landscape, high above the tide and flood lines.
It eases past Jamestown, where the London Company carved the beginnings of a new nation away from the natives already present. Here, the river took its current name, once being called the Powhatan, after an Indian chief, only to be renamed the King's River by the colonists, in honor of King James, but in such a way that the new title could be used to make the natives believe it was in honor of King Powhatan. Everyone simply called it the James after the natives' influence was eliminated by similar conniving methods. The salty tears can be tasted here.
Finally, the James releases itself into the Chesapeake, where it is a physically abused giant growth from its mountain origins. At the Chesapeake, it is far from an uncarved block.
I also was born a tiny beautiful living thing, looking for the most comfortable way to go about my path, but others manipulated me and used me for their own good and took away what I could give them for very little in return. This, I cynically believe, will continue until something bigger swallows me away, my Chesapeake being death.
But the James doesn't seem to worry about it. To borrow a line from the Allman Brothers, "it just keeps on flowing, it don't worry 'bout where it's going."
One of my best friends moved to Colorado a couple of years ago, hoping to get into the music school at the University of Colorado, but he had to establish residency first for affordable tuition rates. After a few months there, he was working a shitty job, had few friends he considered meaningful, and was diagnosed with some disease in his colon. It was curable, but depressing nonetheless. He wrote me a letter about all these problems, saying he wished he could come back and "chill on the river & listen to it laugh and float around some answers."
I had this in mind as I woke up on the morning of my twenty-second birthday with a deep ball of confusion planted deep inside my guts, right where you can sense things. I was disillusioned by the seemingly useless education I was getting, and the superficial people I was surrounded by, and the endlessly futile job I was working at, so I got on my roommate's bike and rode down to Belle Isle, that same place introduced to me four years ago. It was early in the morning, so no one else was around, and I went to the rocks alongside the river rapids. Leaving the bike on the path that circles around the isle, I skipped out onto these rocks, over the holes of still water, over to one large chunk of granite that juts out into the river farther than the rest of the accessible ones. Beside this rock, the water rushed over an underwater rock, and smoothly curled down a drop of four feet between the rock I was on and another piece of granite ten feet over, towards the middle of the river. At the bottom of this flawlessly smooth descension, the water smashed over more rocks, creating bubbling white rapids and a slight mist, along with that comforting sound. I sat myself down at this vortex, shut my eyes, and listened to the river laugh at me and the situations I get myself bogged down in. The river entered me with every breath, flushing out all the traumas I momentarily thought were insurmountable.
And looking back I realize the reason I've always gone to the running water, whether it be a small stream or a raging river, is because it knows what I go through. Just as my ancient newborn mind is polluted as I travel through this material world, its mountain beginnings are corrupted by a lot of what it wanders through. But the river never gets bogged down like I do. It keeps rolling along like always. From time to time I need to be reminded that I should do the same.
Bartlett, Richard A., ed. Rolling Rivers: An Encyclopedia of America's Rivers. New York, NY: McGrawHill Book Company, 1984.
Ryan, David D. The Falls of the James. Richmond, VA: William Byrd Press, 1975.
Seelye, John. Prophetic Waters: The River in Early American LIfe and Literature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Woodlief, Ann. In River TIme: The Way of the James. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1985.
So yeah.
STEAL "James River Blues"
Yet another Iron & Wine song, which I think may be the last since I've purged myself of that obsession!


MissouriDragon said...

As a man who lives in a place called the "Ozark National Scenic Riverways", I know exactly what you mean.

Very well written.

Anonymous said...

I like that.