The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Homing Instinct

By Kenneth M. Hawks © 1989

Issue: September, 1989

There was a time, before World War II, when most folks in Carroll County, Virginia were born, lived and died on the same piece of ground. Our log cabins, churches, pasture, hay fields and yes, even the cemeteries, were personal and precious.

This changed in 1941 when my brother and countless other farm boys and girls left their homes to defend the land that their ancestors had watered for generations with sweat and tears. The young people who fought for their homes during that War to end all wars, like their forefathers in the Civil War, were inspired by more than strategic battlefield targets. They fought bloody and passionate battles for their homes and land where losing meant more than the loss of some foreign hillside. They fought and many died for run-down shacks and cabins on worn out land. They defended their friends, families and homes with honor and all who came back to the mountains were changed forever. Like my brother Harold, some returned and stayed on the farm for a time and tried to recapture the old ways, but most left again for the towns and jobs they knew existed beyond the mountain ranges.

I grew up on one of the small farms in Lambsburg, Virginia just before and during the big War. My Grandfather, Lawrence H. Hawks, had migrated over the Blue Ridge Mountains in the late 1800's to carve out a 125 acre farm and raise a family. My father, Hugh Jerome Hawks was raised on that land and after Grandfather Lawrence died, he tended it with his thirteen year old bride, Zula. Together they weathered the Depression and raised five children.

I spent my first sixteen years on that land and must confess that even now, some forty-five years later, have never escaped its memory and magnetism.

While growing up I assumed our homeplace in Carroll County to be eternal and permanent. My small world was clearly defined, its boundaries marked by Elks Creek, barbed wire fences and brushy woodlands where we hunted for squirrels in November. In those days our fathers believed that their land, habits and the old ways of making a living would pass unaltered from generation to generation, but, alas, the war changed our culture and life patterns. In boyhood, home was merely a haven from the elements and when the day came in the 1940's to say "goodbye" to Ma and Pa and the endless farm chores, I hoped it would be forever. But, after more than forty years, I began to understand the wisdom of the saying, "A man travels a lifetime in search of what he needs and eventually returns home to find it." Yes, what we really love is home, a place where our feet may leave but never our hearts.

So I migrated back, a visitor, to discover that during my nomadic years most of the old landmarks had been destroyed. I was hurt and angered. The clapboard school house had burned down, they had abandoned the two-lane gravel roads which climbed the hills and our corn fields were covered with scrub pines. Why hadn't local folks remembered, before tearing down Burt Ward's store, that I had made so many trips there to sell blackberries or trade Grandma's eggs for lamp oil? How I was loafing there by the grease rack when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor? How could they have built a new school house on the ball field where my father and his sons hit so many home runs for the Lambsburg baseball team? The Blackberry Cannery where G. C. Blackburn, Jr. and I fought over the privilege of walking Hazel Chenault home after work at midnight, had become a weed infested cow lot.

Over the years, during brief visits with my mother, I had not noticed or protested these assaults and changes until, of course, it was too late. Suddenly, I was a stranger on the land of my ancestors and learned that Carroll County had not marched in time during my forty-five year absence. I quickly gained a fresh appreciation for the places, people and things that had shaped my life. Had I memorized in vain the sights and sounds of the 1940's?

This knowledge made me anxious to place blame on whatever was causing a changing world, on wars that scatter people to the winds, on hard times that drive people from the land. Yes, even my own wanderlust habits.

While young it is easy to recount your home's shortcomings and grumble at its routines. Yet, there comes a time when we go back in person and in memory to our childhood landmarks as if driven by an invisible magnetic force. The "homing-instinct" is real - birds and animals are trained to it, but mountain people carry it deep in their hearts and genes. In my father's sixty-seventh year, he walked with me over to Shingle Branch and said that the homeplace would always be there for me, my brothers and sisters if hard times drove us back to the land. It was a cloudy, cool fall day. The hickory trees had lost their leaves and the first signs of winter were on the barren cornfields. He died a few months later.

A few years ago my brothers migrated back to the mountains, not because of hard times, but I think in answer to a natural signal longing to find the security, love and peace of home. There along Stewart's Creek and among the rusting corn plows they are living with their life's landmarks - not so much gone but in their mind's eye, they see the roots and anchors which gave their lives shape and meaning.