Tribes

This morning Seth Godin made me start thinking about tribes and threats to tribes, and in particular the tribe I was born into. I was born into more of a clan than a tribe, really, with a big bunch of hill folk on both sides of the family. We were poor, but so was everyone else. We took care of one another, at least that's what we told ourselves. That's what we would have told any reporter with a notebook who asked, but reporters with notebooks were all busy talking to the Appalachian hillbillies, not us in the Ozarks.

I was born into the clan; birth was the only real way of joining. There was no way of departing the clan other than total exile. I had an uncle who chose that route. He joined the Greater Hillbilly Diaspora and got a job working construction in a city far away. He made good union wages, and pretty soon he never came back for holidays anymore. His brothers and sisters took their straying brother as a warning, so they never went far; their life was the life of our clan.

Most of my generation cannot tolerate total exile. The contours of the hills stir us too much, somewhere deep that we can't name; we can't stay out of them for long. Even now when I return, even grudgingly, my heart beats faster as the hill crests reach higher and the hollows plunge down steeper, until finally I top a ridge and see the landscape curving below me like a strange, beautiful woman -- a lover long lost but not forgotten. I tear up sometimes, behind my sunglasses.

Most of my generation cannot live the life of our clan. When I return, so often grudgingly, I hear about how good it is to have me home, not that ersatz place I've been living all these years. The rhythm of the clan closes like dark water over my head, there in the old farmhouse. My second cousin I haven't seen in twenty years is in the hospital, so his kids are staying with their momma, and you know how she is (I don't). The calves weaned on Thursday have torn a hole in the fence, we had best go put them back. My aunt is on the phone, she just kicked her boyfriend out again, maybe we should go see her.

The rhythm of clan-life intoxicates and sickens. Outside of the hills, we admire clans in foreign lands who hold tight to their traditions and take care of their own, even as armies advance and modernity intrudes. They are noble savages, those tribes in PBS documentaries and limited release movies. In the hills, our own sometimes noble savages hold on in the face of modernity, with deers hung from trees both in and out of season and meth cookers instead of moonshiners now. Our native clans seem to cling tighter to their straying members than in the past, now that modernity can come from a cell tower instead of being hid down at the end of a highway, but maybe that is just because I was too young to hear the whisper of modernity when it had to call from the other end of the road.

In the hills either you are on the ridge or you are in the hollow, otherwise you are just traveling from one to the other. I cling to the brush in between up and down, unable to entirely leave the foggy valleys and the wakes by another name in garages and porches when a family member passes, but unwilling to be swallowed by the life of the clan and foreclosed from the entire life I have made. So I write from the hill fringes of a love I cannot fully requite and of a lover I can never truly leave.