- Published: 08 March 2018 08 March 2018
I was 21 when I read The Prince of Tides by the great Pat Conroy, and even now I remember its opening line, "My wound is geography." He was speaking of the South Carolina low country, of the waters and the marshes and all the living things that share that place. If you've read the book and remember its characters then you understand the power of those words. "My wound is geography…"
I'm a child of the South, and more specifically, a child of the river. Growing up in Rowan County, my family had 472 acres where the Yadkin spilled into the headwaters of High Rock Lake. It was a beautiful property, its borders unchanged since Cornwallis camped on it during the Revolutionary War. I've not stood on that land in three decades, but I remember the fields and woods like I'd walked them yesterday. I can close my eyes even now and feel the breeze that rose off the river. I remember the cattle, the deer, the stutter of quail and the smell of black snake on my hands. We lived in the city, but spent long days on the farm. We had horses and dirt bikes and outbuildings as old as the county, itself. For two miles our property followed the water. That meant coves and driftwood and arrowheads in the sand. For a boy like me it was paradise.
I think most every week of that land, of its pastures and streams and its wild and secret woods. It was a world unto itself, a forgotten nation with a population of me. My family was there, of course - the parents in the garden, the sisters on horseback – but most often I was by myself or with some friend from the city. We'd build forts in the hayloft and rafts beside the river. The old tenement shack was mounded with stored seed, and that was a playground no other boy ever had: a dozen dusty rooms and hills you could never climb. I knew every inch of that property, and I mean every single one. I knew where to watch for Copperhead and the best places to fish, where to pick fig and pear and blackberry, the fallen trees across the creeks, and which muddy spots would suck off your shoes. I caught catfish the size of my sister, bream by the hundreds and, once, a largemouth bass that must have weighed nine pounds. When I was older I hunted, but mostly for quail and dove and rabbit. I liked the deer too much to shoot, and even now let them roam unmolested on land I own in Virginia.
Life on the river was a special gift, and there was a song I learned early: the call of a fox in the night, of bullfrogs and owl and the blow of a startled deer. For a handful of years it was the rhythm of my childhood, to wake in the gray light and fall asleep with fireflies in the trees. And all the while there was the river, the slow, muddy brown and all the wonderful things it carried - not just the fish and the otter, but the blue-glass bottles, half-buried, the boaters and the fowl and the silver wood stacked everywhere the water bent. Childhood on the Yadkin was an adventure, and the river cut a channel right through me. I write about it in my books; it touches most every story. My second novel, DOWN RIVER, is an unabashed testament to the river, and to the power of memory.
Yet, good things end. And though I blame no one for the sale of the farm – divorce happens, as does life - I ache for the place that was. The land was developed years ago, and in a way that hurts all the more for its thoughtless nature. It's a junkyard now, and a trailer park littered with plywood additions and dead cars and dogs on short chains. This, too, shows up in my books, and speaks as well to the power of loss.
"Geography is my wound."
I can't think of those early days on the river without feeling the changes time has wrought, not just on the land but on all of us. Things were simpler then. There was no Internet, and no such thing as a Play Station or a smart phone. Kids walked to school and played outside. The television had three channels. When the farm was sold, all that seemed to change. I know it didn't happen on the same day or even in the same year, but it feels like it, looking back, like the ruination of that farm signaled an end to simplicity. Maybe there's something to that. Maybe I just got older.
What I do know is that I've always aspired to have my own farm on a wide, slow river, to retrieve what I'd lost and to offer the same experience to my children. I never lost sight of that dream, and though it took a long time to achieve it, I've been fortunate enough to not only find the perfect property, but to buy it out of development, and thus protect it forever. I walk that land almost every day. I take my children there, and my wife. I lead my dogs through the fields and woods and think, "No development will happen here."
There's poetry in that, I think.
I no longer live in North Carolina, but I set my books there, and when I close my eyes its what I see: Salisbury and Rowan County, the people and the land and the long, forever river.
In Pat's book there's a second line after the first. "My wound is geography," he wrote. "It is also my anchorage, my port of call."
He got that one right, too.
John Hart is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, The King of Lies, Down River, The Last Child, Iron House, and Redemption Road. The only author in history to win the best novel Edgar Award for consecutive novels, John has also won the Barry Award, the Southern Independent Booksellers' Award for Fiction, the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award, the Southern Book Prize, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. His novels have been translated into thirty languages and can be found in over seventy countries. A former defense attorney and stockbroker, John spends his time in North Carolina and Virginia, where he writes full-time.