This essay appears in “Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America, available now from Belt Publishing
By Stacy Jane Grover
I see a city marked by flame. On East Main Street, General Sherman’s childhood home stands as a museum. Every day pick up trucks with confederate flags in the back windows blast by in mushroom clouds of diesel smoke. The city takes pride in being the birthplace of the man who cut across the South leaving only ashes in his wake. The story of the great field burner and the many legacies fire left on this city have been seared into us since childhood. Ebenezer Zane blazed a trail from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, founding the city. The first Anchor Hocking glass factory burned to the ground and resumed production only six months later, naming their most famous product line Fire King. The Fairfield County Fair—the longest continually running fair in Ohio—was famous for such events as “Racing by Gas Light” and the “Lake of Fire.” I carry these histories with me as I wander through town. I see them everywhere.
Down the street, the Grandstand in the fairgrounds smolders. The grandstand, built in 1909 and featured in the finale of the 1947 film “Green Fields of Wyoming,” was destroyed by arson in one night. As I stare at the rubble, I remember the words of George Ward Nichols, Sherman’s aide de camps, as he saw Atlanta burning: “A grand and awful spectacle is presented to the beholder in this beautiful city, now in flames.”
Across town, smoke looms large and black above Anchor Hocking’s clamshell as the factory burns again. Firefighters on extended ladders pour water from hoses to quench the billowing flames. Seeing them, I am reminded again of Sherman and his response to President Lincoln’s call to send more troops to fight the confederacy; “Why, you might as well attempt to put out the flames of a burning house with a squirt-gun.”
On King Street lay the remnants of a house exploded by a basement meth lab. The spires of brick towering over the blackened hills of rubble carry fragrant memory upward from the stones below.
On the occasion of this fortuitous homecoming, of seeing my birthplace in flames, I ponder the nature of self, of place. I haven’t inhabited—occupied, lived, been present or taken up space in—this town for years. And while the town never fled the corridors of my bodily memory, I fled it. The landscape of Fairfield County, Ohio sprouted the seeds of my imagination, helped them take root. I created my own worlds in which myriad lives were lived among the very real rich and varied Appalachian characters with whom I shared my life. My father levitated at church. My mother foresaw her grandmother’s house burning down. My grandmother braved a barn fire to save a horse. The women of my family were sensitive, always seeming to know more than what was visible, impossibly wise to me as a young child. I dreamed of inheriting their strength and wisdom, and in many ways, I did. I wore and played how I chose, hidden by the trees and valleys that surrounded me, unencumbered by the terrible burden of gender. Without any references to compare myself to, without any knowledge of others who felt or thought like me, I assumed everyone did. I had the vague sense that my queerness was a mark, but it was mine and I wore it well. It took the shapes I formed it in, filling the empty spaces of fields, dancing in the shadows between forests, falling freely down rolling hills deep into the sandstone valleys below.
I was a shy girl whose mind was shaped by the geography as much as the geography was irreparably being shaped around me. As trees were removed for roads, fields for houses, barns for garages, so too was my own imagination replaced by an overgrowth of new information. I encountered stereotypes of the rural women I idolized that portrayed them reductively as strong, fierce preservers of rural culture, matriarchs with otherworldly attachments to the land, or as poor victims, battered, subservient wives struggling to raise children. The best of them were the beautiful but dumb, available girls with strong sexual appetites. I inherited a new way of seeing from these negative portrayals. I began seeing the women around me differently. I began seeing myself differently, too.
When I came out as transgender and searched for a community, I struggled, wishing to be a country woman, of the land, that place of undefined gender, to not leave the landscape behind for my new-found identity. But I did not want to be a victim, battered, subservient. I didn’t want to endure more than I had endured. The small queer community I found told me I had to leave the suffocating myopia of the countryside to experience true freedom, and deaths of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard—the first and only visible manifestations of queerness I had encountered—only reinforced in my mind that the only good queer in the country was a dead one. Rural life and queer life were simply incompatible. With nothing to hold onto, no strength to reference, I gave up trying to affirm myself, burying my feelings in the soil deep beneath sedimentary layers of red clay and limestone. I felt trapped, as though the mountains were threatening to collapse and bury me beneath them. I had to get away, to put enough distance between me and this town, as if my problems were tied up in the landscape, the sacred forests of my memory, as if the geography that shaped me was suddenly my undoing.
I moved to the city where I found not the expected freedom but constraint; not the promised anonymity that would allow fluidity in my expressions, but constant surveillance. I inherited a new queerness, on that was now a mark I was told how to wear, shaping me into contours I didn’t recognize. I was what was restraining my transformation, and in order to grow into the shared vision of metropolitanism that would lead to my salvation, I had rid myself of all that marked me a bumpkin. The knowledge of myself absent of a referent to reflect back all that I wasn’t. That seeing stars was a part of being, that horizons were literal, that backwards was a direction that most often lead to family, that sunsets couldn’t be blocked by anything but mountains and only if one decided not to climb them. These things I could not bring into the dusty confines of the city, the brick and wire and concrete hardened any permeable part of my mind, kept out the climate that shaped me, the person I had been amongst the fields and trees and valleys of my childhood.
Walking through this landscape now, my memory map morphs as landmarks I encounter remind me not of a place in stasis—mythically free or myopically restrictive—but of an ecosystem in constant flux.
In each ecosystem fire behaves differently, and organisms within them have to adapt accordingly. The characteristics of how fire interacts with a given ecosystem is called a fire regime. Fires burn at three levels: ground, surface, and crown. Ground fires burn through the soil that is rich in organic matter. Surface fires burn through dead plant material on the ground. Crown fires burn in the tops of the shrubs and trees. Organisms that live within these regimes are either resistant, tolerant, or intolerant to these types of fires. The places within an ecosystem ravaged by fire range from freshly burned spaces to those fire left untouched for years. Sites burned by fire progress through continuous and directional phases of colonization, which are characterized by the vegetation that arise. After a fire, the seeds already present in the soil, or seeds that can travel quickly to the soil will be the first to regrow in the burned space. Different species of plants are capable of exploiting different stages in the colonization process, creating in the landscape patches of multiple species. The unique makeup of these patches is determined by the characteristics— soil, climate, and topography— of a place, characteristics in constant flux.
There are spaces in town where fire has burned enough for me to inhabit. The antique store, the catacomb of consumerism’s past, where beauty and embarrassment fetch equally dubious prices atop their unflattering, dust-drenched, wood-paneled crypts. I fit in here, somewhere between the state spoon collections, the mid-century furniture, the mannequins who, like me, stand strangely over-dressed, catching double glances by passerby’s knowing the proportions aren’t quite right. I can hide here amongst these queer items queerly out of time.
The coffee shop in the old hardware store on Broad Street with the décor more out of place than me, demanding more attention than I can garner. Giant paintings of Santa Claus praying in sanctuaries hang from the exposed brick, distracting gazes away from the tables in the back corner where I sit with coffee reading, unnoticed for hours.
The alley behind the old record store where I first kissed the boy with the blondest hair wearing orange parachute pants and candy bracelets who waited for me holding sushi. Shaded for over a century, thick moss meets brick street where few cars pass, and few feet bother to tread the uneven facade. I sit alone daydreaming, unburdened from the necessity of constant attention to my surroundings.
There are spaces where the fire has barely touched, where I can inhabit only fleetingly. Fountain square at night, where I can sit at and look up at the clock tower through the tree branches. The silence expands the city to be able to include me. I can’t stay long, for daytime brings families, children, businesspeople, relational categories of existence that, when present, erase my own. But for a while, the water is all mine; the cherub faces gaze only at me.
In Rising Park, the green surrounding Standing Stone, where nature offers refuge, but also a seclusion that allows for violence. I hide off the regular paths, my feet finding comfort in uncertain terrain. The view from the mountaintop shrinks the city so that I’m able to include it within me. I savor what I can before moving on, careful to notice those around me.
The west side by the factories, in the “neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town where was neither town nor country, and yet was either spoiled.” The gaps in the railroad tracks and power lines, the holes in the fences, the cracks in crumbling foundation gives me room to breathe, to think, to create. The isolation leaves me unprotected. I keep moving, never stopping long enough to be seen.
There are spaces where the fire has not touched, where I find little or no space. The grocery store, under the unforgiving incandescence. I go at night and park close to avoid the jaundice light of the parking lot, the groups of men and their cars gathered at the edges, the aggressive machismo brewing trouble. I hit the needed aisles with precision, never strolling with Ginsburg or Whitman, feet always moving, head always down.
Independence Day at the fairgrounds where the throng of bodies moving in close quarters squeeze out that which doesn’t fit the mold. The combination of feverish nationalism and alcohol becomes a potent mix that never fails to combust. I watch from afar, reminiscing a youth spent sprawled on quilts staring past the red-chipped barn roofs into a coarse July sky.
The mall, the microcosm of the consumerism’s worst traits illuminated by piercing fluorescence and hard, unwelcoming floors. The building contains my body, hyper-visible, unable to escape the gazes of others or the memories amassed in a decade of working here. I won’t risk going.
I circle back through town breathing in the smoke from so many fires. The smoke has seeped into my hair, my pores, the fabric of me. The thick scent conjures faded bodily memories, summons in me the realization that no matter how I’ve tried to erase the traces of this place, the Ohio country has stuck like pollen to every inch of me. No matter how I’ve changed or tried to wipe the dust of wheat and corn from my being, I can’t. The mountains have opened my senses to a different way of knowing, of being so that no matter where I go or who I encounter, I weave them into the quilt of my past.
The city weaves into a patchwork before me, the fires burning holes that provide glimpses of pathways regrown and growing, membranes seeping and spilling, the ecosystem pulsating, glimpses of eternity. I know the story of this place is not a linear trajectory, not the narratives inherited from my ancestors, the writing of will onto landscape. The land is the land is the land, and while it has never been open, it has opened me.
In Rising Park, four hundred people spread out under trees and by the many ponds celebrating the county’s first Pride parade and celebration.
The unusually cool Ohio June—free of rain and its usual high humidity— helps celebrants relax, let down guards so readily worn, guards that often keep them from participating in, let alone appreciating, the daily spaces they inhabit. When possible, relaxing in the summer often brings anxiety, fear, and violence to those unable to buttress themselves inside away from other bodies and the necessity of light dress. The day carries a peaceful density cuts through the usual tension. No protestors come to intimate; no preachers on bullhorns come to shame. For an afternoon, the tension rages on outside the confines of these bodies melded in hill, shade and tree. And in the center of the park by the largest pond, a new tree sprouts in the shade of old ones, finding room amongst all that is already present, the genesis of eons of soil, climate, and topography, the creation of the flux. ■
This essay appears in “Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America, available now from Belt Publishing.
Stacy Jane Grover is a transgender Appalachian essayist and translator from Carroll, Ohio. Her writing appears in Belt Publishing, HEArt Online Journal, InsideHigherEd and elsewhere. Find her at stacyjanegrover.com.
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