Thursday, August 06, 2009

studies in cultural juxtapositions

We got up and had a leisurely breakfast and went to pick blueberries but it was closed for ripening but being who we are (that is, always leery of rules for rules sakes although respectful of those with sound reasoning behind them) we stopped anyway and husband went to see if there were enough berries ripe to pick or not. Being as there were eight people milling around, we attracted the attention of a person who was working cutting the briars out of the berry field. He came out to see what we were doing and to run us off. When he came out, I asked him if there were any berries. He said no. Behind him was husband, fresh from walking around the field. “What about you?” I said, “Do you think there are any blueberries ready to pick?”

“Oh, there are plenty of blueberries ripe for the picking,” he said.

And you could see that fellow’s face grimace. He was irritated. If he'd a had hackles, they would have been raised. We weren’t going to be easy to run off. How dare we? Dead, awkward silence. I looked at him again. “What do you think? Would she kill us if we picked anyway?” I asked.

He looked up at me, his eyes flashed electric brown, and he said, “That’s my mama!”

“Oh,” I said, “so she would kill us then?” Pause. “We think the world of Mrs. Grullo.” Smile.

And everyone relaxed and we started to take our leave. I don’t know quite what started the next part of it. Some offhand remark, no doubt. I think he mentioned that he’d like to have a cow to milk and I of course said that I’ve milked a cow every day now for six years, and goats before that, and my daughters (who were talking to his daughter who had brought with her a ring neck snake) milk the goat now and that’s when things really loosened up! And it turned into this free flowing conversation telling tales and jokes and stories and family history and now he’s keeping his eyes open for a milk cow for me, and mine can run with his bull after I dry her off (instead of become a beef). We must have stood there for over an hour, with name introductions coming only at our departure along with hearty shaking of hands and an agreement to meet up later in the week.

Then we decided to go catch part of the Virginia Highlands Festival in Abingdon. Now, this thing is big and popular and old -- shoot, I remember coming to it with my mother when I was a child and everything was held on the Barter Green and Martha Washington Inn lawn. Now I usually avoid it, trying not to go to or through Abingdon at all for anything during the three weekends and two weeks that it runs because it totally and entirely gears itself to being a more-money-than-you-have-sense, come-in-from-out-of-town-and-immediately-be-an-expert-on-the-local-arts sort of crowd. Except I do like to catch the photo and art exhibits, and sometimes the arts and crafts booths.

Walking around the arts and crafts area, I admired one painter in particular, and one raku stoneware person who had this copper glaze she’d developed, and there was a leather dress for $500 and some wooden bowls that I told my husband I wanted some wooden bowls and utensils myself, except actually had done, not like those at the fair and done by machine. Then there was this turned wooden bowl booth. That’s all the guy had; perfectly round, perfectly turned wooden bowls and pepper grinders. And, as we’d done with the other wood booths, husband started talking to him about the wood and how they keep it from checking as it dries and the like. The wood turner immediately starts in on how this is all local wood “from right here in Abingdon” but it is obvious that he himself is not. Finally he admits he’s grew up in Pennsylvania. Which is fine. But he has this edge to him. It is like he is trying to be nice but he just doesn’t know how. When he starts telling us how he gets his wood, husband reciprocates by telling him about some trees we have here that were downed by those huge winds in April. I realize that husband is offering this guy to come and get some of this wood. It is the very type and condition that he has just told us he uses. And there I am, watching this interaction, and when we left his booth I said to husband, “That guy didn’t even know you were offering him that wood.”

That’s cultural -- those two men, the one of the blueberries and the one of the wood turning -- being so different. It is like one speaks the language and one does not. And the thing that gets me is that it is not a language that cannot be learned -- it is just that most people who come to live here don’t believe it is a language worthy to be learned.

We both shook our heads and took our leave of the wood turner without introductions or shaking hands or arrangements to meet up later. We moved on to the photography exhibit which was manned by old hometown folks I’d known all my life, who remember being young children themselves and going to see my grandfather preach. Roots are not grown in one generation and the truth is that without real roots, there are no wings either. There were only two ridiculously pretentious entries into the photography contest; most of the entries were actually quite good. One pictorial piece in particular called “Ma done sold the farm” was excellent. And a portrait called “Kenny” I particularly liked. What the judges had awarded “best in show” probably really was and that is nice.

But it was already time for the exhibit to be locked up and so we voted for our favorites and walked back across the viaduct . . . under which a train was passing at just exactly that moment. It was switching some cars out on a side rail and we stood there and watched the whole thing, including getting to see the brakeman switch the tracks and getting to see the tracks actually move, and we talked about the guy who invented the coupling system that saved so many lives and what it might be like to work on the railroad and how big those cars really are and how scary and not like Polar Express it is like when you can’t see the engine or the caboose and the cars start moving right beside you.

And then we came back home.


Madcap said...

So, I'm thinking about this. And trying to say what I'm thinking. I guess it's just ... if you know that the communication isn't getting across, why not say it differently? Or is it because you found his attitude offensive? I mean, the way you folks operate is plenty different from how we interact with each other up here, and I'd hate to think that if I went to visit that I was flaming rudeness all over the show inadvertently. Don't know if I'm getting that out the way I mean to.

CG said...

it isn't like I didn't think about that. And I thought about that in writing this story. Why didn't I just say, in plain English, "Hey doofus, do you want some green maple and beech wood or not?" I just decided it wasn't worth it with him. If that interaction with him would be that difficult, imagine trying to get him to understand something more complicated. After all, he hadn't put himself out to learn my language and he chose to live here.

And he wasn't rude. Didn't mean to imply that.

One thing I wanted to juxtapose is how the local interaction *begins* with boundaries. I think that is the classic hillbilly standoffishness. Which is itself juxtaposed with the classic hillbilly hospitality. It is an interesting thing, and I think it serves a wonderful cultural purpose that isn't *appreciated*. I just want it to be appreciated. I think we hillbillies need to appreciate it first, but by gosh the people who think they are going to make a living off the culture and resources here sure ought to too.

annetteinalaska said...

Even within the same region, you get those differences across generations, across social backgrounds, etc. I love the differences in the way people communicate. I'm just like you, picking apart interactions and holding them up to the light to see the differences. I just love it. Accents, too.

CG said...

oh yeah, I LOVElovelove listening to old people talk. And different accents and ways to use words. And body language is totally fascinating.

rowena___. said...

CG, this quote alone sums up what i have never been able to put into words:

"One thing I wanted to juxtapose is how the local interaction *begins* with boundaries."

that is IT, exactly. and it is only now, from reading this post, that i realize this isn't just me, it is my people. and i like my people. thank you for this little gift.