This story is sponsored by Samsonite, my suitcase of choice for exploring the world. Whether I’m jetting off to Paris or Sydney, skiing for the weekend or tasting my way through Appalachian organic farms, Samsonite carries my life into the world, and carries the world back into my life. #WeCarryTheWorld
“I bought a house just to burn it down,”
Josh begins, recounting his first real estate purchase—a rectangle patch of green out here in the sloping backwoods of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The young man pushes back the honey hair from his forehead and laughs freely. “The land was good, but the house was falling apart—so I invited my friends over from the fire department, and they used it for a training drill. You should have seen how fast it burned.”
He still owns the land, he says, as he pulls the steering wheel, sending us northward in the total darkness before dawn. “I keep my kilns out there—really big kilns—big enough that even you could walk inside.”
“So it’s still on fire, in a way,” I say, still only half-awake. I am sitting shotgun in Josh’s big red truck, a Dodge so wide you could lay a king-size bed in the back. The road hums beneath my feet while Josh sips coffee from the mug he has made—a bold brown cylindrical lump the color of cow pies. The road bends around every uneven tobacco field, while the grey mist hangs heavy on the horizon, daring us to pass. Century-old barns sag with the weight of time and moss, and Josh informs me that this rickety red truck is older than me. This news makes me glad, for we both share a love for old things.
“I just bought the old county jail,” he adds jovially, “with some friends,”—He laughs again, as if buying old county jails is just something one does on the weekend, like duck hunting or antique shopping. With nothing but his vehement words, Josh paints a vision of what this old building will become, until I am convinced that buying a crumbling jail in remotest North Carolina ranks right up there with the Louisiana Purchase in terms of solid investments. No, he will not burn down the jail, he says—he will keep it, and fix it up instead.
I only just met Josh Copus the day before, in this airy, brick-walled design space in downtown Asheville. I was struck by his physical height and effortless joy; and felt impressed by his unique ceramics—angled, flowing vessels fired copper, black, umber, and ochre. The natural colors reminded me of the Paleolithic paintings in the caves of Lascaux—earthy artwork from 17,000 BC.
“I wish I could show you where I dug this clay,” said Josh, his eyes twinkling with earnest thrill. I accepted his sincere offer, and that is how I ended up in his truck now, at six in the morning. As a child, I was taught never to get in cars with strangers—but as a traveler, that is precisely how all my best adventures begin. Besides, Josh is not a stranger. Minutes into our drive, the artist feels like an old and kindred soul. I recognize it in the clay-streaked interior of his truck, the creative debris of broken pencil stubs and art fragments that bounce around the backseat, and the grey-green mud trapped beneath his fingernails. One of us, I think. It is always comforting to find one’s tribe, especially on the road.
Now the soft morning is meek and beautiful. For a dazzling moment, the Blue Ridge Mountains appear more indigo than blue, shifting through cooler shades until they reach a dark and muted green. Josh grew up in these mountains, across the state line, in that rare southwest corner of Virginia—on a commune, he says. I imagine a childhood of damp sleeping bags and pot-scented paperbacks—so different than mine—though I know very little of hippie communes. All I know is that he had the freedom of the forest, and he still has it now.
“You know how North Carolina is the cooler of the two Carolinas?” asks Josh, watching me as I watch the landscape emerge timidly from the night.
“Yes,” I accept his truth readily. I mean no offense to the other Carolina, but as a traveler, North Carolina got to me first. I already know its beaches and mountains and people—I have felt the poetry of this gentle piece of America, and one’s first love cannot be forgotten.
We park at a remote rural junction, still gauzy with mist, then march on the wet ground towards a small manmade pond in a wild field. I follow Josh, who moves like a young and awkward stag to the edge of the water. He is lithe and lanky, dropping closer to the earth as if hunting for secret things living underground.
“The guy who first showed me this place—I call him my clay angel, because seriously, he was a total stranger who just showed up one day, led me here, and then disappeared. I never heard from him again.”
It is not the first vague reference to the supernatural I have heard in North Carolina. Just the other night I met a good witch—an “excellent witch” she insisted—who described the land spirits that inhabit these forests and mountains. In Appalachia, they call them “The Cousins” and it bodes well to keep the spirits happy, whatever that entails—candy, bourbon, or a good song. Whether the land spirits led Josh here, or some shy passerby, Josh found his clay.
“So this clay angel took me to this field,” continues Josh, pointing at the grassy hole in the ground, “And I had to dig down a good six feet just to get some clay, but there it was! So I started digging, loading up the truck, but then I see another guy walking over,” Josh pauses for effect, the toe of his shoes squishing into the orange-brown mud, then continues. “I thought I was in trouble, because let’s face it, I was kinda stealing.”
My mind stops to let the moral dilemma swill in my own mind—is digging up clay from a farmer’s field stealing? Is it stealing if nobody wants it? As kids, we used to pull out the very best lumber from the construction sites in our neighborhood. Some of our best backyard forts were built with top-grade two by fours lifted from “the scrap pile”. But was it wrong?
Josh continues, “Turns out, the guy had come over because he thought I had run my truck off the road—wondered if I needed a tow. And that was Neal Woody.”
And now we are standing on Neal Woody’s farm. These are his fields, his grass, his dirt, and his clay. Josh spreads his arms out wide and retells their first interaction. “So I tell him, ‘Hey, I do pottery, and I found some nice clay in your field,’ and then he said, ‘Hey I know pots. I have some!’ So he invited me into his house and showed me his full collection of folk pots from North Carolina—these were really old! And, you know, the way he looked at the pots, you could tell he had a lot of appreciation. So, I was glad for that.”
Thus began their years of friendship, the younger Josh and the older Neal. The farmer let the artist take the “old dirt”, as long as he filled up the holes with newer, better dirt, and Josh made Neal some new pots from the old dirt.
“In the olden days, they would hit a vein of clay and just dig up a big hole and keep makin’ pots with it—leaving a hole in the road. That’s why they call it a pot hole! So we gotta fill ‘em back in afterwards,” explains Josh, now ready to harvest the clay. He sticks his shovel into the ground, then stands on the metal edge like an Olympic diver, ready for take off. He pushes the steel blade into the earth and sways on the handle, cleaving into the ground. Then he lifts a chunk of pure blue clay. It’s a handsome lump that smells like mushrooms, muskrats, and wet bark.
“That bluish stuff is all organic—so it all burns out when you fire it. But there’s a ton of iron in this, too, and that’s what gives that final color—the black, browns, and cranberry red.”
Josh holds the clay like a mother holds the head of her sleeping baby. Then he hefts another chunk and hands it to me, grinning. I envy him and the very real twinkle in his eye. He is ecstatic to be pulling up clay from the ground at a time when most people are still in bed, and he is sharing this joy and mud with me, a stranger from up North who liked his mugs. Together, Josh and I fill the plastic bucket until I struggle to lift it.
“One bucket, that’s 50 pounds of clay, it takes about one-and-a-half pounds of clay to make a coffee mug—let’s say two pounds—so this bucket will make 25 cups.” Josh does the math but quickly admits that not a single one of these unborn coffee cups will ever change the world—as if this is the measure of all worthy pursuits—“But,” he adds, holding his hands in front of him, as if preaching a sermon, “that coffee cup actually is this place. Literally. It’s a piece of this place. This used to be stone, and then it got weathered down to clay, and by adding fire, it becomes stone again.”
And like some unwitting dirt-stained philosopher, Josh reduces our human lives to something so fleeting and inconsequential, a single tick-tock in the much longer life cycle of stoneware pottery. This mud is older than me, I think, squishing some of the blue-brown muck between my fingers, and this mud will outlive us all somehow—if only as a coffee mug or an ashtray. As we teeter back to the pickup, loaded buckets in hand, another larger truck rumbles towards us. Inside is Neal Woody, the tobacco farmer whose land we have been digging up by the bucketful—land that has been in his own family for generations.
We shake hands through the window, and Neal opens the car door, setting a boot down on the ground and adjusting a cap that reads, “Jeff’s Auto Sales”. He seems naturally shy, with a face that mimics the rise and fall of these western Carolina mountains. I stand back and listen to Neal and Josh, talking soil, farming, and rain. Neal is everything America wishes it still was—still believes it is, at times. His Scotch-Irish ancestors farmed this land, and he has farmed this land for longer than I have been alive. When tobacco prices fell, he moved on to vegetables that fill the busy restaurant kitchens of Asheville—pattypan squash, green beans, peppers and cucumbers. It’s a lot of work for any man, and I listen sympathetically while he laments the lack of dependable farm labor.
“Don’t matter how much I offer to pay,” he says. “They still don’t show up. I’ve been expecting a guy here for the last two hours and he’s still not here.” Neal checks his watch, and Josh offers for us to help. I’m game, though I wonder if I am still capable of kneeling in the dirt for ten hours straight, plucking vegetables from the ground.
Neal politely declines our offer, and I am secretly glad. As much as I’d like to play the part of gung-ho farmhand, I know from personal experience that farm work—real farm work—loses its charm after about 15 minutes. I make a much better tourist, which is the role I play now, following Josh and Neal through the neat rows of fat squash and creeper beans. Neal plucks off a flowing, melon-colored squash blossom and offers it to me. It is the kind gift of a gentleman famer, and the flower tastes crunchy, juicy, sweet and natural—like a citrusy radish. This is Neal Woody’s gold, born from this dirt and laid on my tongue.
“That old dirt that Josh takes is no good for farming,” explains Neal, reading my mind as I wonder how he can sacrifice his own land. We call it pipe clay,” he says, “’cuz they used to make pipes out of it, but it’s not worth anything to me. It’s what Josh does with it that makes it special—I love all the stuff that he makes!” Neal opens up to me, and the three of us stand there like the opener of a bad joke—a farmer, a potter, and a writer walk into a field. We are three different men, but we all work with dirt.
Josh and I stay with Neal for about an hour. He loads Josh down with vegetables, picked right from his farm, all the while feeding me whatever interesting, bright thing happens to be growing in front of us. I keep saying, “Thank you,” over and over again but it feels insufficient against Neal’s full-hearted bounty. Finally, when his reluctant farm worker arrives, Josh and I take our leave, shaking hands once more and waving goodbye to the ruddy, indomitable Neal.
Our truck pulls away, and I watch the sloped farm in the rearview mirror, all yellow and green in the new sun. The mid-morning scene vanishes in a silver chrome flash, and soon, Josh and I are back in the land of traffic lights and brick buildings. Too soon I am back on an airplane, pulling away from these mountains, headed home, where I unzip my suitcase and dump the entire contents into the laundry. Only later—days later, in the odd indoors light—do I notice the sprinkle of dirt I have dropped in the hall. Old dirt . . . the old dirt from Mr. Neal Woody’s farm, now blessing my carpet, tickling my naked toes in the dead of night, shading my dogs’ paws, filling up an inch of my vacuum someday, when I decide it’s time. But for now, old dirt is the best souvenir, for I have North Carolina in my rugs—the farms and flowers and sweet-smelling pines, Josh and Neal, and the misty indigo sunrise. None of that ever goes away. Even now, months later, I can lift the coffee cup to my lip and feel it in my hands, the dirt-brown mug that Josh made—a veritable piece of the Appalachian Mountains, rough as rock and sturdy as stone.