These past few days I cannot seem to shake this dis-ease—this disease of anxiety. It’s the feeling of the earth shifting under the feet; of doubt in all that I’ve known to be true. Our neighbors are hurting. We’ve given and donated and offered ourselves as available, but for those who’ve lost so much it can never be enough.
So I do what I always do when I feel helpless, I bury my nose in a book. A couple days ago I picked up Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, a novel I’ve always wanted to read but just never have until now. Summer is for reading, and what’s more, for reading fiction, in my book; so I finally took the plunge. I’ve savored every word of Berry’s economical writing, loving his storytelling voice, which—and this came as no surprise for one well-familiar with his poetry—is warm and rich and lovely.
Last night Jeff had a late meeting and Jeffrey had plans with friends, so after I fed the one remaining boy at home (grilled chicken and vegie kabobs, outside dining on the deck), it was with a thrill that I spread an old blanket out under the shade of the lilac bush. The ground is almost dry now from the heat of the summer sun, the sky dripped blue over me, and I could hear the grasses in the meadows shushing. I carried a stack of books with me like I was going on retreat and read with the songs of Robins as a backdrop.
Turned out I only needed the one book, Jayber Crow. I settled deeper and deeper into the story of orphan boy turned man and it was just the distraction I needed. Imagine my surprise, then, when I turned the page and came upon a chapter titled, “The Gathering Waters.”
In this chapter, Jayber is trying to get back home to Squire’s Landing, Kentucky after taking a roundabout way through Louisville. He is on foot and Berry soon has him walking through one of history’s greatest flood stories, The Great Flood of 1937. In Jayber’s story, he safely crosses a bridge in peril, only to find himself with nowhere to go. A policeman directs him to the capitol building, where he finds warmth, shelter, a hot meal, and a place to sleep for the night among other refugees.
I was thoroughly tired, and I didn’t exactly lie awake, but I didn’t exactly sleep either. As soon as I shut my eyes I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old, every day lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.”
As I read Jayber’s story, I knew I was reading the story of so many West Virginians. My heart was in my throat as I poured over each line, each detailed description of Jayber’s encounters. The scenes were so real, so fresh to me, and images flashed through my mind of mud-filled school buildings, cars atop trees, houses spilled out into the streets. Everything I’ve seen and heard on the news these past few days came to the forefront of my mind and my heart was stilled. Berry places his hero in the Great Flood of 1937, a flood—Wikipedia tells me—that seeped from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, left one million people homeless, took 385 lives, and caused millions (billions by today’s standards) in property damage. This, during the Great Depression when resources for aid were scarce.
It feels like our little state has dipped back in time. We keep shaking our heads and wondering how such devastation can occur during this day and age. But this is what comes of a living scratched out in the shadow of these ancient mountains, a living born in the rich soil of river valleys. It is, as Berry wrote, “… as if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea.”
Cleanup will take a long time here. It will cost much, in more than dollars.
If you want to see more of what is going on here, here’s a little taste from the Weather Channel.
If you’d like to help with the recovery, check out these organizations.
And please keep praying for our neighbors.