Novelist Donald McCaig moved to Highland County to drop out of society, only to discover another world that demanded his commitment

The big field down by the river is called, with country logic, the Big River Field. When the sun climbs over the mountain, steam rises from dewy tangles of clover. Up by the barn, a farmer is giving the neighbors' boy his first lesson in making hay: how to grease the bearings on the hay bine, how to coax a smooth shift from a much-overhauled, 30-year-old tractor. When Donald McCaig first saw this farm in 1971, he had never changed a spark plug. Anne Ashley, his companion, had never held a lamb. The farmhouse had been abandoned for five years. It had no running water, no heat. The barn tilted ominously. There wasn't a fence on the whole 280 acres. But the valley curved like a wide cradle -- a nurturing arc of shimmering pasture slung between the forested mountains of Virginia's western crease. The front porch faced a peak so high you had to throw your head back to find its top. On summer nights, fireflies flared across its dark bulk and the stars behind blazed brighter than all the lights of Manhattan. He was a Madison Avenue copywriter, she a Brooklyn social worker. Like hundreds of other young people that year, they were cruising back roads in a makeshift camper, looking for a piece of land with wildlife and clean water. They'd met in a Greenwich Village bar popular with after-hours poets. They'd hung out with friends named Pooh-dog and Pearl of the North Woods. Every so often, with other budding activists, they'd headed to Washington, D.C., to get tear-gassed at anti-Vietnam War protests. And as friends rented farms in New Hampshire and built cabins in Maine, they'd felt the tug of the back-to-the-land movement. And so they'd arrived at a place where the landscape spoke to them but the neighbors mostly didn't. "What we didn't realize then -- and one of the many things Timothy Leary was wrong about," says Donald McCaig, now 58, "is that when you drop out, you inevitably also drop in." The world he and Anne dropped into was a mountain community of taciturn, self-reliant Scotch-Irish farmers. The county, Highland, population 2,500, was the poorest in Virginia and one of the most sparsely settled in the eastern United States. The nearest town, Williamsville, boasted 12 inhabitants, a post office, a church and a general store that sold reversible butt-warmers for deer hunters -- camo on one side, blaze-orange on the other. Privacy is closely guarded in the lonely valleys of Highland County. Socializing happens in families and clans. There is no such thing as a dinner party, no such thing as a gathering of un-alikes. Manners are formal. When a neighbor visits, local etiquette is to stand and talk in the dooryard. No one asks anyone in. At first, Anne and Donald weren't much worried about fitting in to the community. They intended to bring their community with them. Two friends -- Marsha and Richard -- came along from New York, the seeds of what was to have been a commune. Marsha lasted through two weeks of hauling water and chopping wood. Richard held on for almost a year, helping dig a vegetable bed and raise a hog as part of the dream of self-sufficiency. Then the day came to slaughter the hog. "He went down to say goodbye to it, and then he said he'd have to go for a drive because he was a bit upset," recalls Donald. "He just kept driving." No other city friends came. Anne and Donald struggled on alone. That first year, local people would see the longhaired couple at the general store. "You farming?" they'd ask. McCaig would reply: "I will, when I figure out what it is." They bought their first two sheep to munch down the overgrown fields, not knowing that sheep won't eat tall grasses. They bought a pump to bring cold water into the kitchen and took a week working out how to install it. Somehow, between then and now, Anne turned into A.A. McCaig, respected sheep breeder of Rambouillets and Dorsets. Donald became a sheep dog expert. Both became pillars of Williamsville -- members of the Presbyterian church, precinct captains on Election Day, knowledgeable locals passing on farm lore to a new generation of neighbors' kids. And somewhere along the line, Donald McCaig, garden-variety Northern liberal, also found he had become a Confederate sympathizer. "If it wasn't for the firehouse, we may not have stayed here," says Donald, sitting on his porch with five Border collies at his feet. He was in the general store their fourth spring in Highland when the talk was of a disastrous fire in a nearby valley. The nearest fire department was an hour away -- "not much use except for wetting down the ashes." Someone said Williamsville ought to have its own volunteer department, and before Donald knew it, he was helping to build a firehouse. That summer and fall, every time he hauled stock to market or picked up supplies, he filled up his truck for the return trip with concrete blocks, then stopped at the store and conscripted whoever happened to be hanging around to help lay them. What couldn't be scrounged was paid for through money raised at dances and chicken barbecues. Laying blocks and baking for the dances, the McCaigs got to know their fellow Williamsvillans. The McCaigs may have been longhairs with outsiders' ways and odd politics, but they were young people who had come to live in a place where most of the young people left. By winter Williamsville had the Bath-Highland Volunteer Fire Department, its first new institution in years, and the McCaigs had a place in the community. One day, Anne mentioned to an elderly neighbor that she and Donald were going to New York. "She thought I meant that we were going for good, and her eyes filled with tears." They still didn't have much of a clue about how to make a living. One of the first neighbors they got to know was Uncle Peewee Stephenson, who stored his extra hay in the barn they hadn't yet figured a use for. "He was twice my age and half my size, and he bucked two bales of hay to my one," Donald recalls. One day, after loading his truck, he asked the McCaigs if they knew yet what they were going to do. Donald proudly rattled off their plans for the vegetable garden, the cider press, the ham smoking, woodcutting, wool growing. Uncle Peewee listened politely until Donald ran out of steam, and then said: "Yes, but what are you going to do?" Everyone in the valley did all the things Donald had mentioned, but they all knew that wasn't enough to pay a mortgage. It wasn't long before the McCaigs knew it, too. Anne got a job as a social worker over the mountain in Staunton. Donald foraged for a few months' work back on Madison Avenue. "There was this nine-month gap on my resume and they'd look at me -- You been in Betty Ford, or what?' " In between, the sheep flock grew. Between lambs and wool, they made income that added up to less than minimum wage. To help with the shepherding, they got a puppy named Pip. And in teaching a Border collie his life's work, McCaig found the mainstay of his own. Pip's smarts and skills inspired McCaig to write the novel Nop's Trials, about an abducted Border collie. The book, published in 1984, was a huge hit. By the time the sequel and the movie rights sold, the McCaigs were being described in the big-city press as "the richest subsistence farmers in Highland County." Who knows if McCaig's voice, in those early years, had its unlubricated creak, the rusty timbre that suggests long days alone on the land, not seeing too many people, not saying too much? It is the perfect voice in which to deliver commentaries on rural ways, and it is from these wry essays on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" that many people know him. In rush hours all over America, commuters listen to McCaig on sheep dog wisdom and tractor maintenance, ram psychology and the delicate diplomacies of life in a small community. For three minutes, exhaust-sucking urbanites taste the sweet air of the Alleghenies. All farms have a delicate ecological balance, a logical series of "if/then" equations linking inputs and outputs. A mathematician might express the McCaig enterprise something like this: If sheep, then dogs. If sheep plus dogs, then books plus commentaries. Minus sheep minus dogs equals zero muse. The sheep and the dogs reinforced the McCaigs' role in Highland's human community. Anne is the one sought out for her sheep know-how, according to her husband. "I'll answer the phone and a neighbor'll say, Ah, Donald, how's the weather up by you?' and we'll talk about that for a bit. Then he'll say something about lamb prices, and we'll go around that. Then there'll be a pause, while he figures if he's been polite enough, and he'll finally get to the point: Ah, Donald, can I speak to your wife?' " Not many individuals can make the transition from city professional to farmer. Even fewer couples manage the journey in tandem. Anne, who hails from the leafy affluence of Maplewood, N.J., describes herself as "raised to marry an orthodontist and shop." Instead, she has become a woman who knows how to wield a chain saw, resuscitate a lamb, muck out a stall, buck a hay bale. She bears scars from knife nicks and hoof slips while trimming rams' feet and delivering breech ewes. At 53, she is much sturdier than the willowy 26-year-old with loose braids pictured on the running board of their very first pickup truck. But her eyes are just as gentle. There are ewes in the McCaigs' fields who are too old to bear any more lambs. On most farms they would have been mutton long ago. Donald grumbles about "Anne's retirees." He wishes for lightning bolts, flash floods. In very bad moods, he mutters about getting his rifle. "You do that," says Anne calmly, "and I'll do a nice little three-minute commentary all about it for NPR." Donald raises a pair of eyebrows as unruly as unmown hayfields and retreats from the discussion. Once, in an essay, he described his own appearance: "Imagine Mark Twain's head on Ichabod Crane's body. Now hold your mental picture to the light and crumple it." It is telling that he likens himself to two early American characters, for in the years since the photograph on the pickup was taken, he hasn't aged so much as antiqued. With silvering curls and lush mustache, he seems to have stepped from an 1860s ambrotype. It is as if by living on a farm first settled in 1780, McCaig has come to resemble its ghosts. "When we moved here, I thought this was a landscape without ghosts," says Donald McCaig. "Manhattan had so many -- so many people had died there, their souls seemed to adhere to the facades of the the old buildings. You'd look up and see a sign, Bank Street,' where there was no bank, or Men's Hats' -- and you'd think of the people who'd toiled in those tenements." It took time to feel the press of past inhabitants in Highland County. But slowly, ghosts began to move out of the shadows. Stooping to replace a fallen stone in a remnant of wall bordering the hill field, it occurred to McCaig that slaves might have sweated the big rocks into place. Lying in bed listening to the old iron roof adjusting itself, muttering through the night like a restless roommate, he wondered what stories his old log house had to tell. He began to research the history of his land for a book called An American Homeplace. In 1990, poring over documents in the county courthouse, he came upon an incident that haunted him. It was a court case over a runaway slave from the nearby Gatewood plantation. A white couple named Kirkpatrick had harbored Jesse, the runaway. When patrollers tracked him down at their cabin, the Kirkpatricks could have denied knowledge of his runaway status. Gatewood, the owner, apparently encouraged them to do so. Instead, they defiantly proclaimed what they'd done -- a felony in 1861 Virginia. They were sentenced to five years in Richmond's penitentiary. And Jesse, asked if he would attempt another escape, replied enigmatically: "It's a mighty big mountain up there." McCaig fretted over the story. He had found no other evidence of abolitionist sentiment in Highland County in 1861, so why had the Kirkpatricks taken their singular stand? And why hadn't Jesse simply said, "No, massa," when asked if he'd run again? Surely the answer he'd given had invited worse punishment. There was no way to find out. The Kirkpatrick prison records were lost in the Richmond evacuation fire of 1865. Jesse's fate wasn't recorded. From the shards of the Kirkpatrick case, McCaig began to create an elaborate vessel of possibility. Soon he was at work on a new novel that had nothing to do with dogs and only a little to do with farming, yet was as entwined with his life in the mountains as anything he had done. "All I ever write about is our life here, and the Civil War is an aspect of our life here," McCaig says. "Had we settled in Pennsylvania, there's no way I would have written a Confederate novel. What would I have been trying to understand?" To understand the Kirkpatricks, he created a past that explained their uncharacteristic behavior, and then set them adrift in the war's eddies. He sent the slave Jesse back to the mountains and eventually into the Union Army. The Gatewoods and their neighbors became Confederate soldiers, as did almost all able-bodied white males in 1860s Highland County. Through the family's eyes, the book revisits every major engagement in the war's eastern theater. The sections about Jesse came readily; McCaig had no trouble understanding and depicting a man's quest for freedom. But capturing the main slave owner characters -- Gatewood and a neighbor named Catesby -- was far more of a challenge. "To be a decent man and a slave owner at the same time -- feeling my way into that personality was the difficult thing." McCaig had no blood ties to the war, Union or Confederate. His family were Norwegians and Scots-Canadians who settled in Butte, Mont. For a while, his working title was The Worst Cause. But the book with that name went nowhere. One hot afternoon, he and Anne took their five dogs to swim in the river, as they always do at the end of the day in summer. Some of the young men of the surrounding farms were already there, standing on the bank, having what they called a "deer/beer" party, grilling venison steaks over a campfire. Maybe it was something about the low light, or his own mood. But when McCaig looked at the sinewy young men, he saw something other than the neighbors he'd known for years. "It was almost as if I could see straight through them to the Confederate soldiers they could have been." From there, it was a short step to the realization that if he had lived in these mountains in those years, he too would have been a soldier in Robert E. Lee's army. He might or might not have been a slave owner; he might or might not have believed that slavery was wrong. But he would have gone to war in any case, because his community had gone to war. He eventually chose the title Jacob's Ladder because the 1860s seemed to him to be a time when people believed they had glimpsed heaven. "I came to realize that what happened to Southerners, black and white, was a surge of hope -- of conflicting hopes. The slaves were hopeful that they were going to be free. The Confederates were hopeful of starting a new nation -- of doing what their grandfathers had done." If the Border collie books paid off the farm, Jacob's Ladder almost put it on the block. McCaig wrote the novel against all advice and without an advance. No one wanted to bankroll a sprawling 500-page war epic by a man in his fifties famous for his dog books. McCaig himself barely knew what he was getting into. Researching the Second Battle of Manassas, he happened to visit the battlefield as a group gathered around the spot where Stonewall Jackson's men held the railway embankment and threw stones at the Union troops when they ran out of ammunition. "I heard someone in the group say, At this point, of course, only two Confederates were still on horseback,' and a chill went through me. I realized that a lot of people know a lot about this war and that it would be insulting not to get it right." Getting it right took six years, pushing out all other writing and a lot of farm work as Anne became involved in editing -- among other things, she says, "writing Bleeech!' beside the dreadful bits." By the end, they were deep in debt. Then, as the completed manuscript met with one rejection after another, even Donald's stalwart agent began to lose heart. A mortgage in your late fifties is harder to come by and more dispiriting to live with than one in your thirties. Everything Donald and Anne had worked for over more than 20 years seemed about to be lost. In the acknowledgments to Jacob's Ladder, Donald refers to the morning they learned of the 12th rejection, "when things looked most bleak." Anne turned to him and said, "We had to take this risk. It was the right thing to do." Not long after, Norton bought Jacob's Ladder for six figures. Reviewers likened it to "a collaboration between Shelby Foote and Margaret Mitchell." The book is dedicated For Anne -- When I see you coming I will rise up with a shout and come running through the shallow waters, reaching for your hand. The man who chides his wife for sentiment about her sheep is a softy when it comes to his dogs. Four of the current five are offspring of Gael, the "wee bitch" McCaig found after scouring Scotland for the perfect sheep dog. He wrote about her in his 1991 bestseller, Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men. Now, the farmhouse is configured around her progeny. Because puppies often mistake rugs for grass, the floors are carpetless. Anything that can be chewed on has been. Five large dog crates commandeer the sun room. Harry and Silk have distinguished themselves in sheep dog trials, and Josie is expected to do likewise. Dot is a fine farm worker. Zippy, the fifth dog, "is totally useless," McCaig admits. But she has earned a berth in the household by virtue of a pleasant personality. And it's quite a berth. No draughty byre here. All five share the McCaigs' bedroom, and sometimes their bed. Their stirrings, at 6 a.m., are the farm alarm clock. McCaig dresses quickly and leads the dogs out for their morning walk. From a thong around his neck swings an orange plastic dog whistle that can send five beasts on elaborate maneuvers. In the early light, the river is a thread of silver edging hayfields that glimmer like hammered gold. Yesterday's hard rain has given the morning an added sparkle, but it is beauty with a price. For farmers, "make hay while the sun shines" isn't a philosophical pensee, it's an operating instruction. Wet hay rots. McCaig mowed the hay in the Little River Field two days earlier and left it to dry in windrows. He bends and scoops a damp handful of purple-flowered vetch and feathery timothy. Raising it to his face, he inhales deeply and wrinkles his nose. "Gone," he says. A few years ago, such a loss would have been painful -- and dangerous, leaving them low on winter feed. But as the McCaigs have grown older, Anne has allowed the breeding flock to become smaller. That has decreased profits, but also the number of lambing- season all-nighters and feed anxieties. This year's pregnant ewes graze under maple and locust. McCaig whistles all dogs but Dot to lie down. His next whistle sends her flying up the hill in a wide arc, and the one after that stops her cold, just close enough to control the sheep without panicking them. From there, Dot droops and slinks, edging the skittish ewes down the hill, close enough so that Donald can inspect them for signs of maggots. When Donald is satisfied that all's well, Dot sends the ewes on their way, and dogs and man walk on, climbing a gentle rise that affords a fine view of farm and sheep. It is the dogs' graveyard. Gael, Pip, Moose and other eminent dogs are buried here, the small plots marked by low rock cairns. Anne writes a letter for each dog and places it in the grave with them. Anne and Donald plan to be buried just above the dogs, joining the throng of ghosts inhabiting this landscape. "When we moved here," Donald says, "the farm remained the Mackey place for years. It didn't become the McCaig place until the last people who'd known the Mackeys had died. After we go, I suppose it'll be the McCaig place until all the neighbors who've known us are gone." It's an unexpected kind of afterlife, and the thought of it pleases him. Perhaps because death is always close on a farm, with its relentless cycles of breeding and slaughter, many of McCaig's commentaries have dealt with the passings of beings, animal and human. One told of how he left the church after a minister failed to mourn with him the passing of his first dog, Pip. "He wasn't being callous or flippant or insensitive," McCaig said in the commentary, "but his church does not believe that dogs have souls, hence our connections to dogs are sentimental. No more important than a child's attachment to a favorite teddy bear. I do not believe you can work with animals, certainly you cannot train them, without deciding that if humans have souls, dogs do, too. And if there's a heaven waiting for me, Pippie's already in it." A couple of years ago, McCaig went back to church, adding his voice to the other seven or eight in the tiny Sunday congregation. Not long ago, their neighbor Peewee Stephenson died at the age of 97. McCaig wrote a commentary about him, an obituary for the unsung life of a singular man, and an elegy for the fraying of links to the earlier era that Peewee had known. "Every community is a gathering place, moving through time," McCaig wrote. "With the death of our last 19th-century man, Williamsville is moved entirely into the shiny new 20th century and the ex-Confederates Peewee knew so well have slipped farther back into the darkness." But from the end of the McCaigs' dirt road, enfolded in the mountains whose Indian name -- Allegheny -- means "endless," the 20th century doesn't look all that shiny. McCaig mightn't be a 19th-century man, but he lives in its likeness. There is a parlor game in which each person is asked to say, very quickly and without reflection, how they hope the people at their wake would finish a sentence beginning: "He was so . . ." Donald considers the people likely to be at his wake: the farmers and hunters and shade-tree mechanics -- much the same crowd as those in the deer-and-beer gathering down by the river. He makes a morose face. "They'll probably say, He was so . . . dopey.' " Then, breaking the rules of the game, he reconsiders his answer. "What I hope they'll say is: He was one of us.' ". Geraldine Brooks lives in Waterford, Va. Her most recent book is Foreign Correspondence: A Pen Pal's Journey From Down Under to All Over. CAPTION: In 1971, Anne Ashley, Marsha Grothe, Donald McCaig and Richard Simon dreamed of living off the land; right, Donald tends the sheep. ec CAPTION: Donald and Anne on their farm, first settled in 1780. ec