Monday, 27 July 2015

Familiar and Strange

I spent this weekend camping in the mountains of Virginia, near Goshen pass. It had been too long since I'd been in mountains. I saw the Milky Way one night (something which, having grown up in a city with some of the worst light pollution on the planet, still blows my mind). We swam in rivers, and hiked up to overlooks. The scenery was spectacular, and deeply rejuvenating. We stayed in the local recreational area, and camped by a river. The nearest town was twenty minutes drive away. The nearest grocery store nearly an hour. We chopped wood and built fire, bathed in the river (using biodegradable soap). And wherever we looked when in the mountains, we saw only wilderness as far as the eye could see. An endless thick forest rolling out over the valleys and mountains.
The mountains of Virginia

Although I grew up in a big city, I spent most of my holidays around mountains: the Vosges of Alsace, the Pennines of the Lake District, the Jura around Lake Geneva, the Alps of Tessino and Aosta. I've spent countless hours running through steep mountain side meadows, and hiking winding paths to spectacular overlooks, with views stretching out for hundreds of miles.
A few years ago, I was able to take my now husband to the small village in Alsace where I spent part of almost every summer holiday. My great grandmother lived there, and four generations of my mother's family has been there now. The Vosges mountains are old mountains, reaching their maximum height at about 1000m. Yet, because of the Ice Age, the valleys are glacial: flat bottomed and steep sided. This is hiking country, and has been in a semi organised fashion for over a hundred years. And so the paths that run from the village to the mountaintops are well known to me.
I took my husband on a mammoth 9 hour hike along these paths that four generations of my family have walked along. Paths that my aunt and cousins and siblings and mother know well. As we climbed up the steep walls of the valley, we passed from the forests to the high meadows, to this day still used as grazing pasture for the cattle that make the cheese for which the valley is famous. In those pastures, farms provide, as they have done for a century, rustic lunches for the hikers. Because this is France, these rustic lunches are delicious, fresh, and come with wine.  Because this is Alsace, the wine is white, and the lunches are enormous. But they go a long way towards making 9 hour hikes bearable.
When you stand on the top of the Hohneck, the highest point of the hike, you look out over similar geology to what you see in the Appalachians: rolling hills, deep valleys. But the geography is totally different.
The view from the Hohneck
Here the land is patchwork. There are forests yes, but they are cut up by pastures, and the valley floor is cleared of trees, and dotted with villages. And all around the mountainsides, small farms, or old shepard's huts, or the odd old country house, are visible. Even after walking up nearly 500m, the land is still human.
Even in the most remote of Alpine valleys in Switzerland or Austria, one will see these marks of humans on the land. What is more, the landscape of Alsace is in some ways more ancient than that of Virginia: much of the Appalachians was once clear logged for wood and farmland. That is why Appalachian forests do not have millenial oaks like European ones do. But with the westward expansion, men moved on, and the forest grew back. In my overcrowded, ancient continent, people stayed.
The Appalachians, and the Vosges, are both rejuvenating to me. But when I stand on those mountaintops and gaze out at the landscape before me, on is familiar, and one is still a reminder that I am not at home. After seven years, even in those places I like most, I am still a stranger here. And, like all expats, I wonder that if I cease to be a stranger here, then that place where generations of my family have walked will cease to be home.
If I have children, will I show them the path up from their great great grandmother's house, through the valley their grandmother, uncles, aunts, father, and cousins played in, up to the mountaintop that looks over a landscape that their family has lived in for over a century? Or will I show them the endless rolling woods that their father discovered with their other father, that have almost no mark of man on them?

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