When fall comes in Knoxville, things change. School reaches a point where the novelty of seeing familiar faces everyday has gone, and the burden of work sets in. I would remind myself every year that I did not belong there, that although I spent my whole life in that smallish, Southern Baptist-infested town, I was a total outsider who needed to get out. And then one year, fall came along again, and my mind changed. At that moment, I knew Knoxville would forever be my hometown.
Knoxville is in the valley of the Appalachian Mountains, pronounced App-uh-latch-en, with a hard “ch.” Not App-uh-lay-shen. People who live in the valley punch out the hard “ch” with pride. Those mountains are our pride. The Great Smoky Mountains, we call them, named for the gentle haze that grazes the tops. Our theme song “Rocky Top” relates a history of an Appalachian lifestyle on those hills, a song written in only ten minutes and one that was taught to me in elementary school chorus class.
Each line was deciphered for us, and I discovered “corn in a jar” was code for moonshine and that the two men who didn’t come down from the hill because they had been killed were cops. It is a love song for a lifestyle that is mostly long gone; but beyond that, it is a love song for the mountains. A love song for Tennessee.
In the fall, those mountains start to die. And in death, they become alive. Like phoenixes, they burn brighter in their last moments. The greens turn into reds that turn into oranges that turn into yellows. A phenomenon! How do such monstrous, daunting creatures transform into welcoming, friendly giants so quickly?
For years, I lived in that valley, learned among the trees, experienced pain and happiness and friendship in the center of that womb. I had always seen these changes and I had never noticed. Yet on that one particular day in the beginning of fall, I looked up as I walked. I noticed. It felt like I was stepping outside of my own head for the first time. I saw mountain upon mountain and hill upon hill lively conversing in colors with each other. I eavesdropped, feeling like two eyes and two ears were not enough to take it all in. Soon, they invited me into their chat, and the birds joined in, flocking together across a sky that looked delighted to be watching such a scene.
This scene! These colors! These mountains! This place. Knoxville. When I looked at the layers of tall suburban houses that edged along my hill, I thought: they must see what I see. I was a member of this community that lived with that scene every year, a community entrenched in conversation with the Smokies. And in spite of all the negative stereotypes of being Southern, in spite of all the pressures to convert to a religion I didn’t understand, and in spite of all the chosen ignorance of many of the people I had grown up with, I had to accept that I was a part of this community of the valley. I wasn’t allowed to separate myself from those around me anymore. The place we shared connected us, even if our ideologies and affiliations seemed a world apart. I could no longer deny my hometown.
In a town where I seemed to clash with everybody, I finally learned how to communicate. My eyes and ears had been closed to them, just as theirs had been closed to me. But I no longer had to agree with them to understand them and to love them. Through the mountains, we were a community. They talked to them, and I talked to them, and with the lively death of the trees as mediator, we could talk and talk and talk to each other without ever saying a word.