Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Whenever I head north, to my first towns and counties, I love to drive Route 9 up from Poughkeepsie, or up the Taconic State Parkway. On each road there is a moment when I realize I've crossed a boundary. The line is somewhere in Rhinebeck, on Route 9, and it's where the Taconic crosses Jackson Corners Road. The house across from the quiet rush of the Roelof is just a few miles from that crossing.* North of that line is my heart's first home.

For years now, when I return from the North, when I cross the state line on Interstate 85, back into this Carolina I adore, I roll down the window and holler for the joy of being where I belong. The pavement painting, the spacing of the lanes, the way the trees grow, the way the fields lay on the bones of this land, the very way the sun kisses the surface of this place all speak home to me. Once I felt stuck between the two, unwilling to return to my roots in New York's rural Hudson Valley, but my ties to this North Carolina Piedmont were not as deep as childhood. Now, on my most recent trip, to mingle with family as we laid to rest our patriarch, the first generation of three to be born in Poughkeepsie, I discovered I loved NY more, and belonged to it less.

This trip I felt the hollowness of the explanations I have made to Southern friends about what I called Northern manners. Somehow the idea that the priorities are different up North, that privacy, bold honesty, and not wasting someone's time are paramount virtues in New York and New Jersey, had always seemed on a par with the Southern concepts of seeing people first, acknowledging their humanity first, then getting to the point. But this trip, perhaps because family was in the grip of that gentlest of gatherings, a funeral, the bruskness of some New York strangers, the refusal to acknowledge a passer-by on the sidewalk, struck me simply as rude. Boorish. Unwilling to take a few moments for pleasantries, courtliness, courtesy; suddenly I heard the Southern sound of those words, and I was firmly placed. I have new boundaries, and a new home in the deepest sense. My heart is no longer between; I have laid it here in Dixie.

Several years ago I tried for many evenings to hear when the day birds give way to the evening sound of the wood thrush. I also tried to hear when the cicadas stop and the katydids start, to see if there is a gap between, an overlap, or a sudden change of insect guard. I was unsuccessful all that summer, and never heard either transition. Every night I would not have paid enough attention at the critical moments, and the boundaries were crossed unnoticed. I was hearing katydids and did not recall when the cicadas had stopped. Suddenly it was all wood thrushes and frogs, and no robins singing their sweet sleepy goodnights. I had not been here enough.

This summer, when I have finally firmly placed my heart here, when I have lived in this house in Hillsborough almost as long as the one at Jackson Corners, I have heard the transitions many times. It has seemed effortless. The cicadas still buzz quietly as the katydids begin. The wood thrushes start their seductive calls long before the last day birds have winged to bed. Now that my heart no longer straddles the Mason and Dixon line, and I have settled myself more firmly than I have since childhood, I can hear the whole song of this chosen place. I'm home.

(*The watercolor illustration above is "From Turkey Hill" - a dreamscape of the house where I grew up. The stream in it is the Roelof Jansen Kill, a Dutch name from the 1600s.)

Click here to see and hear a wood thrush. The first sounds, with the pauses between them, are typical evening song. Sounds like these are strung together like this in a long series, for an hour or so each evening. The other (less musical) sounds are for other parts of the day and other activities.

Cicada sound here. Imagine this quite loud, and when one stops on one side, you notice another is already gearing up on another side. The hotter it is, the louder they are. This is the soundtrack of a Carolina day in July. Sound above is from an educational site at the University of Michigan.

Katydid sound here. They also get louder and faster the warmer the night is. Sound is from a wonderful site by Thomas J. Walker (crickets and katydids) and Thomas E. Moore (cicadas).

For more insect sounds, check out a site Walker and Moore reference - Songs of Insects.


Anonymous said...

How odd to read that you drive up the Taconic, although sorry to read of the reason you were there. The Taconic is my favorite drive on the planet. Very near my home in the Berkshires.
Thanks for the wood thrush song. also my favorite.
All the best,

Steve Emery said...

Isn't it weird how we all overlap in so many ways? A friend and I, when we were sixteen, learned to backpack by hiking over several of the tallest Berkshires. They hold a special place in my heart as a result. As for the Taconic, I grew up riding a ten mile stretch every Sunday to church. That stretch* was how we measured the progress of the seasons, mapping the liturgical year onto the changes in woods and fields. I particularly love those miles and the rest of it northward.

*From the Jackson Corners Rd exit to the little town of West Taghanic, where our little Catholic church was kitty-corner from the West Taghanic Diner, which is still there, though the church is no longer in use.