Here’s a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay from NC contributor Anna Maria Johnson and her husband, the photographer Steven David Johnson. Anna Maria Johnson is a writer, Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student, and a lovely artist in her own right. She was a co-winner of the NC Rondeau Writing Contest last year, and who can ever forget her amazing Novel-in-a-Box Contest entry? This essay is Anna Maria’s first post on Numéro Cinq as an official Contributor—we hope for many more like it. And it’s also the first time we’ve had a husband and wife team work together. It’s a wonderful addition to the growing Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” series.
What It’s Like Living Here–Cootes Store, Virginia
Text by Anna Maria Johnson, photos by Steven David Johnson
(Author’s Note: The locals pronounce this place “Cootes’s Store,” though the green road sign omits the possessive.)
At home on the Shenandoah River, North Fork
Home. What’s it mean? By age twenty-one, I’d lived in twenty-one places and thought home was a place I’d never find.
John Denver’s song “Country Roads” refers to western Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River. This northwest corner of Virginia is where I now live, along the river’s North Fork, which runs parallel to Route 259, my road. When I travel alone, I sing the old folksong, “O Shenandoah,” and ache to be home.
Home, for me, is family: a husband and two daughters. But increasingly, “home” is becoming a specific 2.3-acre plot of land with dilapidated sheds, gardens, woods, meadow, and a white farmhouse with a front porch.
Our farmhouse. Its wood plank bedroom ceilings, steep stairs, foot-thick walls, and hand-made plank doors with old-fashioned latches hint at the log cabin our house used to be—and still is, beneath its vinyl-sided exterior and dry-walled interior. The bathroom, an aging plumber told us, was installed only in the late 1960s or 70s; he remembers doing it. The back kitchen was probably added then.
My husband, Steven, wanders down to the river nearly every day to photograph his friends—mink, herons, deer, cattle, water snakes, starlings, swallows, kingfisher, and once, three otters.
Cootes (remember to say “Cootses”) Store is named for the combination general store, post office and community spot that used to be here, run by Mr. and Mrs. Cootes, way back when. An octogenarian at the history museum in nearby Timberville told me he remembered someone buying a drink at the Cootes’ store more than a half-century ago, paying with a fox fur and getting a rabbit skin back in change.
After the Cootes’ country store closed, the community no longer had a post office, so today, our address is listed as Broadway, the town three miles away. Now Cootes Store is “an unincorporated community.” “Unincorporated”—disembodied, little more than a hodgepodge of dwellings and barns, and that green sign posted along Route 259 that reads “Cootes Store.”
We must drive to Broadway if want to send a package or buy a few odds and ends, either at the struggling Ben Franklin store or the thriving, cheap Dollar General. Theoretically, town’s within biking distance, but with over 5,000 cars and heavy trucks per day (according to VDOT’s 2005 estimates) careening past at 65 mph and no shoulder, we’d be laying our lives on the line if we biked or walked—literally “on the line,” the thin white line that divides road from steep drop-off into river on one side, woods on the other.
Seventy years ago, before Broadway absorbed Cootes Store, our girls would have walked ten minutes northwest to a three-room schoolhouse whose bell tower still pokes up from among the broken-down cars, trucks and buses that lay haphazardly in what is now an auto graveyard. Today, the bus carries them instead into Broadway where they attend a sprawling brick elementary school with four hundred children from all over the northern part of Rockingham County—Hopkin’s Gap, the farms, the town, and the sprawling, beige developments in between.
Most local folks are friendly, but newcomers like us will always be thought of as “Yankees” or immigrants. Because we lack a local surname like Deevers, Ritchie, or Bazzle, people are slow to trust us. I’ve wormed my way into the community by driving elderly ladies to their hair appointments, visiting the Village Library weekly, and, for two years, writing a monthly column for a free local newspaper. I knew I’d succeeded when, shortly after my gardening column mentioned Swiss chard, there was a run on chard seeds at the town nursery. Someone at the library said, “The clerk didn’t understand it, they’d never run out of those before!”
Our kitchen is aglow, and I am making dinner in the red-enameled cast-iron pot. It’s soup, made with beef from cattle raised at our neighbor Don’s farm.
One of my first conversations with Don took place over the the barbed wire fence that divides his farm from our two acres. “Take me up to the mountains,” he said, “and I can eat!” He hunts, fishes and traps game, in addition to raising beef cattle. He grows most of his vegetables, too.
“Did you ever eat rabbit?” he asked me. I used to have a pet rabbit.
“What about squirrel?” No, never eaten a squirrel. (You need a lot of them to make a stew, he conceded.)
“Bear? Snake? Groundhog?” He went on to explain how groundhog meat had to be strung up for a few days before cooking, otherwise it was too tough to eat. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d been a vegetarian for six years. Later, he brought us venison steaks and bologna.
Over the years, Don has helped us with a number of home repairs: relaying brick in the fireplace hearth, replacing the kitchen door sill, cleaning mineral deposits from our water heater and replacing the heating element. When I offer to pay him, he says, “Pour the water out on the ground and see where it settles,” which seems to mean something like, “What goes around, comes around.
Thanks to Don and his gifts of meat, I’ve returned to being an omnivore.
When we first moved to this old farmhouse in June 2005, the grass in the yard was knee-high. I ran the lawnmower till I hit something hard—a rock? I stopped the mower to investigate.
It was a box turtle. Its shell, like a carved wooden sculpture with Japanese-looking characters brushed onto it, was cloven in two, but the turtle still breathed, and its eye looked straight at me, as if posing the question, “What have you done?”
I’d never seen a box turtle before. Slowly it raised its ancient head, and I saw its pulse beating in its dinosaur-like neck. Hesitantly, my fingers touched the hard surface of its maimed shell–greenish brown, with yellow and orange markings. How long would it take for the turtle to die, I wondered. Should I stay with it till it breathed its last, or did it want to be left alone? I remained until I could no longer bear to observe the suffering I’d caused.
Since then, there have been other box turtles, like the one who raids our compost bucket for over-ripe peaches.
Oh, but that first one. Forgive me.
At times, creatures or plant forms appear to be mysterious symbols, almost as if nature is daring us to find meaning in its patterns.
Flocks of birds pass over our house seasonally—red-winged blackbirds, vultures, grackles, geese, starlings. In autumn, countless starlings settle on nearby fields and then rise en masse, making a whooshing sound like that a feathered aircraft might make.
Once in winter, we found a starling with its feet frozen to our ice-filled gutter. It flapped its wings and squawked, struggling to free itself. Steven and I stood on the porch roof and took turns pouring warm water over the feet and blowing warm air onto it with a hairdryer until, after more than a half-hour later, the starling broke free and flew away.
Were we right to save the starling?
It’s true that starlings are not native to this continent, that they’ve become an invasive species. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote of the bizarre attempts some conservationists have made to exterminate starlings in order to preserve native flocks.
But we can’t help but identify with the invasive birds. Starlings, like parrots and ravens, can imitate the sounds of human speech. And like the starlings, Steven and I–and many of our ancestors—are not native to the place we now live.
But it’s home.
—text by Anna Maria Johnson, photos by Steven David Johnson
Wow, absolutely lovely, both the writing and the photographs. Thank you both for sharing a picture of your life in Virginia.
Simply gorgeous photos and writing.
Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I absolutely love this piece–photos and text!
Beautiful, subtle, engaging piece, Anna Maria – makes me (almost) want to move back to the country! And I have, by the way, eaten every kind of meat Don mentions. Also, have you heard the song “Snow Is Gone” by Josh Ritter? It has a great line where he equates the arrival of the starling with the onset of spring (something to look forward to in these darkling days): “Hello blackbird, hello starling/winter’s over, be my darling”
It was a great experience to work on this collaborative piece with Anna Maria. We’re inspired to do more of this kind of thing.
If you are curious about the starling and the hair dryer, you can view photos here:
Absolutely, do more. You’re a great team.
Thanks for the kind words, Rich, Natalia, Laurie, John P., and Doug. John, I enjoyed that song. Thanks for suggesting it. I’ll have to listen again when the snow is really gone! (And John, if you’re really tempted to move to the country, there are 2 houses for sale by ours! We could start a writers’/artists’ community)
Steven, yes, this was a joy. Let’s do it again.
Very nice – I liked the story about the person paying with a fox fur and getting a rabbit skin as change!
You mention being newcomers: way back in 1970 my grandmother, looking for a place the whole family might gather together for holidays, bought a farm just about in the geographic center of Pennsylvania. One of our new neighbors complained to her back then that they (the neighbors) still didn’t feel accepted in the area. They were, after all, newcomers, also. Asked how long they had been there, they said, “Well, it’s only been eighty years.” They were not joking.
I zoomed in my browser so I could see the pictures up close, wanting to see the rhythms of nature so beautifully captured in Anna Maria’s language. My favorite part is Anna Maria driving the old ladies to hair appointments, and of course the run on swiss chard seeds at the hardware store caused by her gardening article. What a lovely portrait of a place. Makes me rethink city life….
Lovely! The box turtle story makes me a little weepy. Brava and Bravo!
Gorgeous stuff, Johnson family! Thank you for sharing it. Thanks also for clarifying how to pronounce Cootes’s Store.
Lovely. Thank you both. The video of the peach-eating turtle was a nice touch too.
Beautiful writing about my husband/s native soil. We have returned to live in Virginia, close to Broadway, and can identify completely with this great essay. Maybe we’ll meet in person some day!
Anna! I love your darling life, thanks for sharing. Such beautiful writing.
This is a stunning piece, such accessible writing and lovely photos! You two have clearly found home.
“At times, creatures or plant forms appear to be mysterious symbols, almost as if nature is daring us to find meaning in its patterns.”
Just wonderful. Also thanks for the trip and bringing back some memories. I was born in Virginia and spent some time in this part of the state. And do thank your husband for these great photos.
Loved reading this, Anna Maria, and seeing the wonderful photos.
You did a beautiful job on this, Anna Maria–just terrific!!
I’ve just re-visited this piece after the chaos of the AWP conference. I have an appreciation for the starling dilemma. The photo of the flock in flight captures the essence exquisitely. In Vermont,one is not considered a native unless there are at least four preceding generations. If I ever found myself in an unfortunate situation where I needed help getting back on my feet, I trust that my community would be there for me. You did the “right thing.”
Beautiful AnnaMaria and Stephen. Thank you for this essay. And congrats on your new job, AnnaMaria! Will you return from Oregon to the Valley?
Rob Stewart, someone I do not know, but who is your friend on FB, sent a friend request to me and it led me to you, where I learned of all the changes that have taken place in your life since last I saw you at Dance & Co. And to this essay, which I loved reading. All the best, Eva xo
I’m Linda Cootes Smith and found this story so compelling. This has to be God’s country. Wish I could have been from here, although I know my people must have loved this land. I don’t know how I am related to the Cootes’ here, but would love to know more about them. I was born in North Carolina, so there has to be a connection somewhere, with a name like that. I had my DNA done w/ Ancestry and found out I am 64%German, 24% English.
If there are any Cootes’ left, please contact me.
My great grandma, Elizabeth Whissen, was from “Cootes Store.” We never knew it was a real place until Google set us straight! We have Cootes in our family line, and of course the Whissen’s and Cootes’ are strong in this part of the country. I love this website and thank the nice couple for putting it out there. If you’d like to reach me, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.