GREEN MOUNTAIN LIGHTS




When my son was one, and my daughter was not yet, my then-wife and I bought an one-hundred-year-old farmhouse in Yancey County.  Though city-living in Virginia, we came to the mountains on long weekends to work on the house.  Eventually our mountain dream would be real, but the electricity needed a third wire, a well needed to replace the springhouse, and the tin roof needed paint.  With no furniture in the house, we slept on the floor in sleeping bags.  Picnics by candlelight were mountain chic to us.  We were morphing into mountaineers, pioneers, ridge runners.  We were living history, while making our story a part of the legacy.

The tenants that were living in the house when we bought it had a skeet clay pigeon “thrower” installed on the front porch, complete with expended shotgun shells lying about.  They had set flower pots of marijuana in the tall grass in the front yard.  The mountain grasses were so tall you would not know the pot pots were there unless you stumbled upon them while exploring.  The tenants thought that paying $100 a month rent to continue living in the house (compared with the free previous rent) was exorbitant, and they moved out.  On one of our early “visits” to our high country palace we were greeted with a mess:  someone had thrown a log through a window because the log and the glass were on the inside floor.  Then they took a standing lamp we had brought, breaking out the other windows because the glass was on the outside of the house.  Also they had pushed the porcelain commode over, uprooting it from the wax-sealed floor, cracking the tank top in the bathtub.  The sheriff translated this event for us:  it was probably the former tenant telling us that it would have been better to let him stay here for free, “protecting” the property, rather than leaving it vacant, subjecting it to vandalism.  When the sheriff heard the family name of the tenant, he said he knew of three persons with that name: one was wanted by the law, one was just out of prison, and the other was just a bad character.  We cleaned up and repaired the mess, taking it as the dues you had to pay to become part of the neighborhood.  The bad ol’ past was not going to tarnish our good new future!

In the evenings we would sit on the front porch, and look out into the misty trees and grassy (now mowed!) mountainside, so high up they were enveloped by clouds.  The house was across the gravel state road from a bold branch that provided the rhythm and gurgle against the melodies of the swooping swallows that gave way to occasional squeaks of bug-chasing bats, circling our chimney, silhouetted against the dimming evening light.  The mountain beyond the road and the stream rose toward the tree-obscured ridge.

Our first night as “hillbillies” on the porch was accented by the pitty-pat of rain drops on the tree leaves across the stream.  As we rocked on the porch, enjoying the rain and a self-satisfied smile of transcending time, we shed our previous urban life and clothed ourselves in our rustic mountain “off-the-grid” dreams.  While glowing in our illusion, I noticed another glow.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw something green flash, but by the time I turned square on toward the mountain beyond the stream, it was gone.  “Did you see that?”  “See what?”  We adjusted our porch rockers to face the mountain, but all we saw was the road, the stream, the leaves of the trees and the darkness.  Then it happened again.  In a different part of the mountain.  We both saw it this time: a green flash, like a small firework, halfway up the slope in the trees.  When the little green light came on again for just a few seconds in a third locale, we looked at each other, but were silent without an explanation of the phenomenon.  Chaos was winning over reason.  We both went in the front door and tip-toed into the small bedroom, bare-floored except the bedroll and pillow where our son slept.

Another look at each other culminated in a glad exhale of tension, discharging the fear from our stomachs, and replacing it with a smile on our lips at how foolish we had been.  We strolled back onto the porch and resumed the watching position, comforted by the evident fact that our mountain dream had “unexplainables" in it.  Applying our college-educated intellect and scientific inquiry to the mystery, we started to conjecture as to the cause of this green light phenom.  “Maybe it’s swamp gas.” “But there’s no swamp.”  “Maybe the rocks have phosphorescent qualities.”  “But it’s such a small area each time.  Wouldn't there be boulders lit up, and constantly, not sporadically?”  There was no lightning, just a gentle rain, so it couldn’t be sky electrics reflecting off the leaves.  Our thoughts drifted from natural to man-made causes.  “Is someone camping up there?”  There was no house or structure on that slope.  “Who would be camping this close to a road?”  Silence.  Rain-leaf splats.  There it was again — a little green lumen in the wet leaves.  And there again off to the left.  And again further up the mountain.  We looked at each other in the dark.  Our hands found one another on the rocker arm.  “What if there is a still up there, and we’re seeing the kettle fires?”  “Do they still make moonshine in these mountains?  Isn’t the drug of choice marijuana?”  “You think there’s a pot field hidden in the trees?”  “And they’re harvesting at night to avoid the low-flying National Guard dope-sniffing planes?”  “Wouldn’t the Mary Jane harvesters be armed against intruders?”  Another green wink.

We gathered up our son, still sleeping, put him in the car and drove to a friend’s house in Alexander to spend the night.

But I was not going to be run off our dream so easily.  Early the following morning I drove back to our farmhouse, but rather than parking in the driveway, I stopped down by the paved road over the river bridge.  I hiked up the mountain slope side of the road and branch opposite our house, where we had seen green the night before.  Trying to be as stealthy as possible so as not to alert the “outlaws,” facing upward to spy their camp, I stepped over logs, brushed back ferns, and nearly stepped on two turtles trying to make a son to inhabit their bedroom floor.  I decided to concentrate more on the immediate present path than the unseen future camp.  As I was stepping cautiously around obstacles on the steep bank opposite my farmhouse, my visual periphery brought my head up just short of something crossing my path at eye level.  It was a wire — actually two naked metal wires paralleled in front of my face, kept separate by a series of ceramic bars.  The ends of each bar was attached to one of the wires and spaced about three feet apart.  The barred wires stretched down the slope to the telephone pole on the gravel road opposite the farmhouse, and it went uphill the other way toward the ridge.  I followed the wires, like a Washington Post reporter following the money, up the slope to the ridge top, still wary of tripping into some smugglers drinking coffee or moonshine around a morning campfire while packaging lids of “Appalachian Brown” weed.  I found no campfire, but at the ridgeline at the end of the double wire, I found a tree.  The wires wrapped up the trunk and were attached to a bicycle wheel without the tire perched horizontally atop the tree.  What in the world!

Another mystery.  Man-made, but not in the present.  It was the relic of a previous man’s invention.  As I looked up at the metal wheel in the tree, and back down the mountain to the telephone pole and the farmhouse, it dawned on me what this was, and why we had witnessed the eerie light display the night before.

Back before the days of the internet and cable TV,  there was airborne television.  Broadcast towers sent out signals, like radio, and you had to have rabbit ears sitting atop your TV to receive the signals.  In places where the signal was weak, you had to mount huge antennae on your roof to pull that signal in to your cathode ray tube in order to watch Ed Sullivan or Grand Ol’ Oprey on Sunday nights.  And if your location was too far out in the suburbs, you might have to get a motorized antennae so you could rotate that signal-catcher to focus in on that TV tower.  But out here in the mountains, there was no hope of bending that signal down into the valleys.  So some enterprising Prehistoric ridge runner had strung a double wire from his television set, out a window of my farmhouse, across the road to the telephone pole, then across the branch up the mountain to the highest tree he could climb on the ridge.  Using an old bicycle wheel as a mountaintop antenna, he dragged that signal, and Jack Parr on The Tonight Show, into our farmhouse.

What I surmise happened last night was that the rain collected on the tree leaves over which the double wire was strung.  Just like telephone wires, there is a certain amount of static electricity carried along that conduit.  The electricity linked with the raindrops and caused an energy discharge as light.  It turned green when seen through the green leaves.  Whether that “scientific” explanation is accurate or not, is not important now.  I dispelled the chaos of not knowing then, I remain living on this mountain now, and I cherish my migration from city cliff-dweller to mountaineer with the mystery of the Green Mountain Lights.

May 23, 2015

Rob Storrs