Two watersheds have created my life. I have mapped out the valleys and mountains of these singing waters in the folds of my grandmother’s quilt and the creases of the palm of my hand. These wrinkles in the landscape, and the waters that created them, carry me home again and again. ~ Jim Minnick
“It's supposed to be you who cries while reading my book, and not the other way around!” I wrote in an e-mail to my friend Jim Minnick, author of Finding a Clear Path. Jim and I recently met-up at the Franklin County Book Festival, where we both were scheduled to do readings, and where we happily exchanged our respective books.
Mine is a family story about losing two brothers and is part of a curriculum in a grief and loss class at Radford University. His is a collection of essays steeped in his growing-up years on a farm in Pennsylvania, and living in the countryside of Southwest Virginia as an adult.
When I reached page 14, I broke down.
My father taught me to read. Long before I could decipher the black squiggles on a page, he had me reading the meadow and mountain woods … Jim wrote in an essay titled “Walking in a World of Language.” In “Naming What You Love,” the essay that follows, he writes: Red bud, bergamot, red-eyed vireo. I record the return and reawakening of each species in my notebook, my private welcome back.
“Growing up the way you did, with support and encouragement that fostered your love of nature, stirred up my grief at not having such a childhood,” I wrote to Jim in the e-mail. “I wanted the names of the amazing natural things around me, but, coming from a small town working class family of 11 with a father who was struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from WWII, no one knew the names or remembered them,” I confessed.
Jim, a former Floyd County blueberry farmer who has since moved to Rural Retreat, Virginia, is a teacher of writing and literature at Radford University. A portion of the proceeds from his book, published by the West Virginia University Press, is donated to the Blue Ridge Forest Cooperative, a landowner group working to practice sustainable forestry, and to the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. The donations are made in the names of Floyd Countians, Mary Risacher and Tony Equale. (Note: Mary passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after the publication of Jim’s book).
As a Floyd Countian myself, Mary and Tony’s were not the only recognizable names I came across in Jim’s book. Many of the regional places and events Jim writes about are familiar to me.
In simple, gracefully precise language, Jim writes about a Rock Castle Gorge hike, another one up to Buffalo Mountain, the ice storms of 1993, and finding his way on the back roads of Floyd County using the Little River as a map. Birds, butterflies, yellow jackets, and a turtle with the date “1899” carved on its body all show up in Jim’s book, as do blacksnakes, or the stories of them, passed down by former owners of the 100 year old Floyd farmhouse that Jim and his wife lived in for 12 years.
Most of the essays in Finding a Clear Path were previously published in a column that Jim wrote for the Roanoke Times New River Current, and many include useful suggestions and resources, including those for building a pond, growing ginseng, making horseradish, and more. Jim’s unobtrusive voice is a blended part of the natural world that he writes about. “An eloquent invitation to slow down and pay attention,” the quote on the cover, written by Sandra Ballard says.
But my whole family also read in the written world. Every day Mom and Dad read the newspaper. My older sister scowled at my interruptions of Nancy Drew … Later Kathy, my sister, helped me to write my name, Jim continues in “Naming What You Love.”
More tears come, as I recall my first day of kindergarten and the sense of un-preparedness I felt when I discovered that most everyone in the class, but me, already knew how to write their names. It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of writing my name – I learned to do it by the end of the day – but no one had shown me beforehand, or told me it was something important to know.
As an adult, writing has become a central theme in my life, and although I missed out on the degree of individual guidance that Jim had growing up on a farm, I’ve been making up for lost time, learning to identify flowers on the Blue Ridge Parkway, foraging for wild herbs to make my own medicinal tinctures, and growing and preserving a substantial amount of my own food.
Living in the country for the past 20 years has accelerated my exploration into natural world, but it’s an ongoing self-study. I consider Jim’s book to be a refreshing opportunity to continue my education. Viewing the world from his eyes has further opened my own.
For Colleen, a fellow lover of woods and words, Jim wrote below his signature in my copy of “Finding a Clear Path.”
Note: Jim's book can be ordered via the West Virginia University Press or can be purchased in Floyd from Notebooks, as well as from Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.