This last week my brother, grandson and I traveled to a hidden-away valley just across the border of Missouri where we once lived when my brother and I were young children. I have always had a greater pull to come back to this childhood home and land more than any other place we lived, and we moved around often. Driving down the winding gravel road that led to the floor of the valley, I thought that mysterious pull might have gone away since I had not visited the area in years. I had changed. Perhaps the yearning I once sought to fill would have been satiated by other means. Yet, as we drive down the narrow road covered by tall, stately trees with branches interlacing in the middle overhead, I felt that familiar tug at my heart. No, it was still there. And the valley hadn’t changed. Much.
The flora and the fauna clung to the edges of the road, and I knew a botanist’s delight would be realized by future exploration on both mountainsides of the valley. There had to be hundreds of varieties. A stream run the length of the valley, fed by cold water running out from caves in the mountain. I remembered turning over small rocks in that stream, with forked stick ready, to catch the small crayfish that would shoot out backwards with their tails first.
Our family lived here several years ago, and we children went to a one-room schoolhouse until the state consolidated the school to one several miles away. My parents were unwilling for us to ride that far to school on primitive roads, and after some unsuccessful attempts at a satisfactory solution, we moved away. But my heart stayed there.
Periodically, I have returned. A family that lived there when we did stayed on the land. There were 12 children in that family. They were as poor as we were, but they owned land as we did. One of the boys, Eddy, has graciously invited me to stop and drink in the magic of the place, and to even wade in the stream coming from that cave in his front yard. Oh, the water was always so cold. The previous owners had strung a curtain across the cave front and they kept their butter and other perishable products on shelves in the cool air of the cave. It has since been blocked over (to my dismay).
I remember back to when I was a child there. Days spent with adventures of climbing the mountains, crawling under overhanging cliffs of the mountains, searching for dry caves, carving our initials in trees, helping bail hay in the summertime, and doing farm chores. Birds were a part of my memory. I can still hear their cry as they floated high overhead. I want to say they were eagles, but I don’t know for sure. I do know there were crows, hawks, and buzzards, along with the common sparrows and yard birds.
Mama had a unwritten list of “don’ts” for us to obey. Don’t be out after dark because of the mountain lions in the area. Don’t go down a certain holler because wild hogs had been seen there (they were very dangerous) . Don’t go down to where bootleggers had built a still in a cave earlier (they might come back). Don’t crawl into caves (we might disappear). In spite of her anxiety that we might get hurt, Mama gave us the freedom we have treasured the rest of our lives.
I remember a lecture I attended in college where the visiting professor described how the people of Israel were a part of the Promised land. It was part of their identity, their inheritance. I wonder if that isn’t a part of our created being, as well. Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” This possibility may be the root of many who say “if I could just own a piece of land.” I know I am connected to my land. But industry pulls us away into concrete jungles, high rises, and industrial plants. We live in houses where we can see our neighbors outside our windows. Each one of us must make the choice to remain connected to God’s creation or follow the pull of modernization.
I believe Eddy in that hidden valley gets it. He chose to stay with the land. But the land has been a demanding lover exacting fidelity from him. He says he has never worked outside the valley, but lives on produce from the land. I’m sure he has spent plenty of blood, sweat, and tears, for these crops show heavy labor. This trip, we stopped in to visit him again. We passed rows upon rows of vegetables that he irrigated from the steam. He sells these vegetables, and honey from his hives. He crafts doors and furniture from cedar trees on his land. He does have a phone and electricity. He was almost apologetic for not being more progressive, yet despising progress. He said he hoped the county never paved the roads through the valley. I agree with him. It would be almost a sin to cover this beloved land with pavement or cement.
He might not be wealthy in material goods, but he processes a wealth that I envy. I tried to share this thought with him, but he took it I meant the riches of the Bible. I didn’t try to explain, for I indeed do share that with him. The interesting part is that this valley is surrounded by some of the most prime real estate around, and he and his family have bought up most of the valley. They have been the keepers of the land.
But my family and Eddy’s family are not the original keepers. Before us were a generation of settlers who’s homes have slowly rotten into destruction, and have been torn down. Before them were the Indians. I remember walking through the plowed fields looking for arrow heads. We found several nice ones. I guess the Indians liked the valley also, and fished the streams. There was a mound of ground high up on a mountain in front of our house. I remember my mother and father telling us not to disturber it, because it was told to be a Indian burial site.
I think it may be fairly common for a person to have that strange urge to connect with the land. Robert Redford made the movie, “A River Runs Through It,” a story set in his beloved Montana, and has developed the Sundance Ranch where one can visit a canyon green with life. Henry David Thoreaux wrote “Walden (Pond), Life in the Woods,” about his experience of living off the land. In modern times, it has become a experiment for many who are “living off the grid” in self reliance from electricity and other modern utilities.
Do you have a place that calls to you to return? Most of us can’t return physically to that place and time, but we can try to preserve nature the best we can. I know I see and feel God more intimately when I am surrounded by His mighty works and delightful sculpturing of nature. Thankfully, we have national parks, and people like Redford who saves raw nature like Sundance Ranch for others to reconnect with that pull toward nature and the land.