The Rightness of Things

LAST night, gracefully, utterly unselfconscious of having kept an expectant audience waiting weeks for her scheduled appearance, Spring came quietly to these Great Smoky Mountains.

As though in some pagan rite of thankfulness, small fires were lighted for miles around — dead-leaf fires on gardens, greenoak fires on new tobacco beds. Curling upward from many coves, the smoke has now blended to form a powder-blue haze over all the hills.

The pair of fuss-budgety house wrens that took over the pewees’ nest under our cabin eaves in the fall left with the last cold breath of winter. To-day the pewees, the nonchalant, uncombed, shiftless roustabouts, came back. The chewinks, too dignified in their formal dress of rose and white and black to hurry at anything, are staying to enjoy the changes. The redbirds chatter and dash conspicuously from fir to sweet gum, from persimmon to hackberry tree. And the mocking bird, that light-hearted idiot, sits all day long on a branch and mocks them all, talks to himself in many tongues, punctuated by low chuckles. He and the chewink seem to appreciate the finer shades of the season’s mood more deeply than all the rest.

It is now a year since we came to this mountain, built our log cabin, grubbed ground for a garden. Where twelve months ago there were honeysuckle, briar, and bush, there is now a garden plot freshly ploughed and fertilized, waiting impatiently for seeds on which to demonstrate its boastful fertility.

Many of the trees that made a wood too close about the cabin have disappeared, gone up the fireplace chimney in winter smoke. The thinning out revealed many unsuspected treasures. There were small dogwoods struggling under brush and weeds, and directly below the cabin two wahoo bushes — ‘hearts bustin’ with love,’ as they are called here. Beside them we have set out some pussy willows, packing black woods loam about their roots, laving them with cool water, wishing them well till another spring, when they will be the first to herald the passing of cold.

Planting in these Carolina mountains is a ritual, a ceremony in which every man, woman, and child, and every wild thing joins. Cottontails that disappeared from close by the cabin some months ago are again to be seen hopping across the path that leads to the garden. Seed artichokes, spread beside the garden patch to dry and forgotten in the fatigue that follows a day of working in the sun, show marks of their tiny nibbling teeth. They will attack the vegetable garden later on; but there will be enough for everyone, so we shall let them go their way. If they become too eager in their attentions to the new pea vines, we shall put shining glass bottles on sticks along the rows. That never fails to put fear into their fuzzy heads.

The moon plays no small part here in the rituals of spring. The dark and the full of the moon, like the swinging of a pendulum, mark the times for planting. Root vegetables, potatoes first of all, go into the ground in the dark of the moon. One dare not defy that custom. In virgin country such as this, one unconsciously respects the rhythms of nature and the beliefs of the people who have shaped their lives to those rhythms. Sheepishly perhaps, but feeling that there may be something in it after all, we are waiting, having missed the March planting, for the dark of the April moon to drop our potatoes into the open furrows.

Luther, the colored man who chops our wood, says we are foolish to waste energy these spring planting days grubbing honeysuckle from the clearing around the cabin. If, says he, we should dig the roots away in the dark of the August moon, they would speedily die. We are saving our extra pennies, and when that time comes shall let him have his way, turning our energies now toward the planting of a bed of mustard greens, the dividing and transplanting of our horse-radish roots, the careful tending of the lettuce seeds in the cold frame.

The planting of a seed satisfies some longing in the soul of a man. Watching it sprout and grow justifies that longing, and gathering the fruit of the vine which grew from that seed plants in the soul of the man a seed of its own, a slow-moving, slowgrowing belief in the rightness of things.

All nature, at the coming of spring, participates in this rightness. Hard, roughbarked oaks fall under a careless axe that they may fertilize young tobacco plants with their ash; but they fall with a dignified resignation, and the blue smoke of their passing softens miles of rough mountains, settles softly into deep lonesome coves.

It is up through the decayed leaves and blossoms of last year’s maturity that this season’s flowers come. That is right also, for they spring from the everlasting seed of the flowers that came before them.

The mating of the birds, the stirring of the earth, the elimination of the wrong weed for the right plant, all have a rightness of their own. The man who plants seeds and tends their growth learns to understand that rightness.