The weekend before opening day the roads are full of them, the men who went away to where the jobs were, going "down home" again, to the land they love but couldn't live off, going hunting for deer they say but really hunting for old sights and old friends, for the families that have scattered and the good times that are gone.
Down home to me is North Carolina. In Swain County, in the western mountains, every third man, woman and child is a cousin, and each second Sunday in July the Smiley clan gathers at Cold Springs Baptist Church to the east, where Miss Carrie lives in a house that from childhood summers I know as well as my own. It stands at the end of a sandy lane lined with pecan trees she and Uncle Clarence planted 60 years ago.
He is gone now, and storms and disease have made gaps in the trees, but Miss Carrie abides. The farm goes on under the care of their son Edgar, and it looks as though the two boys of the rising generation who are farming it with Cousin Edgar will stand ready to farm it after him, which is a comfort because Edgar smokes almost as much tobacco as he grows.
The farm sprawls across Carvers Creek Community, where you have to work at it to stay a stranger. "Southern hospitality" goes beyond good manners; its essence is that one feels a positive -- and pleasant -- duty to make a visitor feel welcome. It is an art and an ethic Miss Carrie taught her children along with the Bible, the family begats, and a sense of stewardship over the land.
Charles Hobbs, master of the hunt for the Carvers Creek Hunting Club, was raised the same way. From the welcome he gave you would have thought no nicer thing had ever happened to him than to have Miss Carrie's nephew show up with two Yankees on the evening trying to get two dozen men and as many dogs organized for a hunt that would range over half the county.
Nobody calls Hobbs the huntmaster, and he wasn't elected or appointed to be in charge, he just is. The clubmembers are his friends and neighbors in the first place and in the second place they are landed men who are unaccustomed to taking orders, but Hobbs is recognized as the best hunter with the best dogs and they do what he says.
Opening day began with breakfast at the clubhouse, and the sun rose high while the men lingered over scrambled eggs, sausage and stories. The visitors were used to taking the field before dawn, and as the sun rose high they were puzzled that no one seemed to notice. Gradually they came to understand that a Carvers Creek deer hunt is as much a community function as a church supper, and nothing was going to happen until everyone was caught up on the doings of folds they hadn't seen for a while.
To call it gossiping would be to miss the point: They were not snooping into affairs of others but "asking after them," sharing the news not only about who's doing what but who needs what. In the same spirit the club sees to it that the ailing, the old, the windows and the poor share in the deer harvest. Some seasons they give away more than they divide among themselves.
That sort of sharing is ancient custom in the community, but the club itself is new as things go in the southeastern sand counties, being less than a generation old. "It used to be that every man hunted for himself, and some would shoot does or fawns or whatever they felt like whenever they felt like it," Hobbs said. "The deer were pretty well wiped out around here. Your Cousin Marcus and some of us got together to see if we could do something about it."
It was a revolutionary act in an area where police still are called "laws," as in, "What was them two laws doing poking around up back under the Stevens field last night?" The club has few rules but no exceptions. Early on, a member who accidentally shot a doe out of season was fined $100, then thrown out, then reported to the game warden. Nothing like it has happen since. Other communities formed similar clubs, and poaching declined from a plague to a minor problem. The deer have grown so plentiful that the limit is two a day and four a season and the game commission urges people to shoot more does.
In response to some signal that city boys didn't catch right away, everyone got up to go out and hunt. With them rose the only woman present, who the visitors at first had assumed had come to cook, since women are scarcer than clean forks even in northern deer camps. Then we wondered which of the hunters she "belonged to," but all the men treated her as though she were just another neighbor, friend and hunter. It turned out that was what she was. Tricia's been with the Carvers Creek club since she was a girl, and the fact that she married a man who doesn't care for hunting has nothing to do with anything. No nephew of the formidable Miss Carrie should have been surprised.
It started a train of thought about changing times that ran on through several days of seeing -- even being run down by -- every sort of deer except a legal one. Most of the club members were, or would be, full time farmers except that it doesn't hardly pay any more. Instead they do shift work at the paper mill in Riegelwood, which is 17 miles away in another county but stinks up Carvers Creek so bad when the wind is wrong that you don't want to go out in the yard to see what's bothering Cousin Blanche's crazy dog. "Smells like money," the people say, and it is simple hard truth.
Diesel pickup trucks have come, and store bought pecan pie, although this heresy is so far found in only a few homes. The community is concerned about burglars. A film of gas and oil fouls spring-fed White lake . . .
But melancholy cannot last around people who, having not seen your mother in 40 years, remember her name and ask after her. It's still there, down home.