Trees- evergreens, oaks, poplars, birches- and plants as varied as thick clusters of rhododendron, ferns, and delicate lady's slippers- surrounded the home where I grew up in Western north Carolina.

The living web of roots stored water from the abundant rainfall of our Appalachian Mountains to feed the stream that flowed in front of my home. I fell asleep to its friendly voice tumbling over rocks, whispering under our bridge, and I was awed by its fierce strength in seasons of flood.

One morning when I was at play my father watched me maneuver a heavy stone to change the course of the creek's flow. I didn't understand all that he was telling me when he said, "Sometimes an obstacle can send a stream, or a person, in a whole new direction." Another time he and my mother discussed the marvelous possibility that moisture from this little creek could be sucked up into clouds and returned to earth as rain, perhaps joining the great oceans of the world to be gathered up again in clouds and someday returned to this very place. I pondered this revelation; I could stand in one small corner of the world and be part of its vast design.

Little wonder that my first book was about a river; The French Broad in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. (And I came to think of a book as another kind of river, beginning with one small effort, gathering force, reaching out to what distant place, what unknown person.) Through miles of walking and driving along unmarked trails and crowded highways threading the French Broad country, I discovered its riches of plant and animal life. I made acquaintance with the diversity of its people, from Cherokees in their native homeland to mountain-born and exotic adopted natives, revealing a wealth of talent and creativity, humor and tragedy. Their stories are the river's voices.

Since those long, precious days beside headwaters of the French Broad I have watched two children trying to dig a bit of water out of a dry river-bed in Kenya, stood beside the mighty Yangtze and the lovely Rhine and Thames, and from the Nile to the Colorado wondered about the harnessed waters of the world. Now I return again and again to my mountain stream, watch it grow smaller than when I was a child due to the forest sponge disappearing under development on the slopes where it is born. But here I know that my place and river is not an isolated corner of the world. It is an artery at its heart.

(And, of course, the French Broad is a major tributary of the Mississippi, joining the Holston to form the Tennessee which flows into the Ohio, and the Mississippi.) 

"A Tall Woman" (an excerpt)
"French Broad" (an excerpt)

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