Walking from the New River to Newbern, Virginia




I am a listener.  I am a storyteller.  I am a writer.  I am a tenth generation Southwest Virginian.  I grew up in Dublin in Pulaski County, I learned to listen at the corner of dinner tables, beside the kitchen sink, standing at the end of the ironing board, sitting at the kitchen table snapping beans as my mother, and the rememberers in her family, shared the stories that had been passed to them.  I also heard their own stories of the people and places they had known, the choices they had made and what those choices cost them, the stories of the work they had done and the ones with whom they had shared that work.


Our Home - Emory, Virginia

My father was a veterinarian.  During my growing up, much of his work involved making farm calls to treat livestock.  I took every opportunity to ride with him on those calls, loving the countryside, the back roads, the rutted dirt tracks.  In addition to “step and fetch,” my job on those trips was to open and close the farm gates so that we could pass through in the car or the truck.  While my father saw to the livestock, I walked to the top of a hill, wandered to the source of the farm spring, rummaged in old barns.  I listened as the farmers told of times of peace and plenty and abundance, and of times of trouble and doubt.  As with the stories I heard from my own family, I heard in these stories the timbres of jokes and laughter, bitterness and tears, from other rememberers from other centuries.  In this listening, I began to sense, to feel, the whisper and hum of that place.

Fields behind our house looking north - Emory, Virginia

As an undergraduate studying history at Emory & Henry College, and in seminary at Emory University, those stories offered me some of the categories through which I ordered the world and by which I continue to map my way.  The skills I had acquired as listener and as storyteller served me well as I worked for five years as the minister of a rural, four-church circuit in Wythe County, Virginia.  There, I spent most of my days listening to people, learning how to weave together their stories to help draw sense and meaning from the turning points of their lives.  In all of this, I came to appreciate and to honor in story the ordinary of our lives out of which we constitute who we are as part of the membership of a place, as citizens.  I earned my doctorate in American Studies at Emory University’s Institute of the Liberal Arts, where I came to understand these stories in a larger context.  I also began to ask myself questions about stories and lives, about culture and society, about place; questions that I have not yet found ways to answer.  I continue to live those questions.


Some of the questions I am now living I first heard but did not comprehend in the earliest stories that helped shape me.  As I have better understood my own stories from Southwest Virginia and have come to know New York and Brooklyn with their stories, I have recognized the utter difficulty, even impossibility of totaling a life, of summing up all that makes us who we are as a people in a place.  There are realities, histories and truths, which cannot be bound in any story, and there are other realities, histories and truths, so profound and so defining that they cannot be told but in story.

Whitetop Mountain, Virginia


Brooklyn Bridge

Spire of Emory Chapel - looking south - Emory, Virginia

My family and I live in Washington County, Virginia, between the small towns of Emory and Meadowview, in the southern end of the valley in which I grew up.  At Emory & Henry College, I am department chair for the interdisciplinary program in Public Policy and Community Service, and I direct Emory & Henry College’s Appalachian Center for Community Service.  I also serve as the director for the College’s Bonner Scholars Program and MA program in Community and Organizational Leadership.  

In my writing, as in my teaching, I try to create opportunities for persons to come to value their stories and those of others.  I want readers to understand their stories as giving expression to who they are, their hopes and their dreams, and the often very harsh realities and painful mistakes out of which those dreams and hopes arise.


The New River from Godby's Cliffs - Pulaski County, Virginia


When I write, and in the classroom, there is for me a feeling of others there, people I have known, ones who have shared their stories with me, and many I could not have met but I know them through their stories and this place we share.  They are there in what I teach, in what I write, in the silence I keep, in the questions I ask.    In all the aspects of my life there is an enduring and ongoing conversation between stories and memory and history and place and the questions into which I am trying to live.

This dynamic and evolving interplay has helped to define for me a citizenship of place in which I serve on the boards of directors for a number of nonprofit organizations, and I am active in a range of civic initiatives.

I like to think that you can also trace some of the stories of my life and hear the resonances of this conversation in my apple orchard, vegetable garden, flock of laying hens, and in the flowerbeds around the house.   I also know the best stories, the ones from which I derive the most meaning, are those that involve my wife and our two children.  I often feel that I am, as Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow describes himself, “an ignorant pilgrim crossing a dark valley.”  Nevertheless, as stories have given me the hum and the whisper of this place, I have come to know, as Jayber Crow does, that “for better or worse our lives are woven together here, one with one another and with the place and all the living things.”

Copyright (c) 2011 Talmage A. Stanley. All rights reserved.