Life in Three Centuries

Recently, I visited my Appalachian birthplace and without fail the experience had its disturbing effect. I have spent many more years here than there, and with each return visit I must slip back into an alter ego I left behind all those years ago. I need that person and the perspective of those early times to reintroduce me to my first world. Since then I have earned degrees, learned a few languages, read and written books, taught at universities, and most of all, made a living and raised a family. To go back to that first world involves a strange metamorphosis. I welcome it, but it does not readily welcome me. We are a bit stand-offish with each other. To put it paradoxically, my old world and I are familiar strangers.

The sensation always brings up a question: who would I be if I had remained in that environment? A celebrated philosopher once said, “I am I and my circumstance.” A dramatic way of putting it, but it means the world we live in forms the other half of our being. By re-entering it I glimpse the life I could have lived and the person I might have been.

I grew up surrounded by elderly relatives born far back in the 1800s. Their ideas, language and outlook became mine, and probably more than I know, remain so today. In lower Appalachia we had no electricity, telephones, automobiles, radios, computers, and much less television. We walked, rode horses, or drove wagons to visit, attend church and do business. But if today we define that bygone era by the things we lacked, we can also remember it by the things we lost. Calendars said it was the 20th century, but in effect and in form, we were people of the 1800s and heirs of earlier centuries. We rose with crowing roosters, worked and played by daylight, cooked and ate ancestral food, farmed as our forefathers had farmed, and after a brief interval of reading or conversing by lamplight or fireplace, retired to night’s velvety quiet dominion. By today’s standards, it was a supremely personal world dominated by human faces and spoken words.

Then the aggressive 20th century began its invasion. First came electricity. I shall never forget the euphoria I experienced at my first sight of an electric light bulb dangling from a cord. Like a crazed moth, I ran circles around it until I was exhausted from the splendor. Ancient cars began to appear on our muddy, rutted roads, and for a time wagon ruts and car tracks vied for predominance. Then after World War II, the 20th century triumphed; the wagons suddenly disappeared and the old world was gone. Eventually, the tortured 20th century ended and the terroristic 21st replaced it.

Exaggerating to make the point, I claim to have lived in three centuries. I treasure them all impartially, but nostalgia, that mellow distillation of time, pleads mightily for the first.

Harold Raley