Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Raven's Bread

"If we had a keen vision of all that is ordinary in human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel's hearbeat, and we should die of that roar which is the other side of silence."
-George Elliot from Middlemarch

When I was growing up, the legend of the Hermit of the Uwharries fascinated me. Sometimes, hiking the trails around Morrow Mountain and along the Yadkin River, I’d pass a mossy bank and imagine that hermit, tucked away on some sacred spot up the hill. It still happens, now and then, when I wander the Smokies, finding my way back home.

Funny thing how a rat-race society, dedicated to the destruction of everything beautiful and alive, would greet a hermit with derision, seeing him as a useless person hopelessly out of touch with all that matters. Thomas Merton, the contemplative Trappist, danced the awkward dance between engagement and isolation. In 1953 he wrote,
"There is one thing I must do here at my woodshed hermitage, St. Anne's, and that is to prepare for my death. But that means a preparation in gentleness. A gentleness, a silence, a humility that I have never had before - which seems impossible in the community, where even my compassion is tinged with force and strain."

Fifteen years later, Merton was simultaneously engaged in the struggle against the Vietnam War while he continued to explore the experience of solitude. In March of 1968, just six months before his death, with his worldly fame well established, he said,
"Almost every day I have to write a letter to someone refusing an invitation to attend a conference, or a workshop, or to give talks on the contemplative life, or poetry, etc. I can see more and more clearly how for me this would be a sheer waste, a Pascalian diversion, participation in the common delusion.... For me what matters is silence, meditation - and writing: but writing is secondary. To willingly and deliberately abandon this to go out and talk would be stupidity - for me. And for others, retirement into my kind of solitude would be equally stupid. They could not do it - and I could not do what they do."

It is hard to imagine a Thomas Merton achieving worldly fame in 2007. I’m glad to see that Paul and Karen Fredette, of Hot Springs, NC, are still publishing Raven's Bread, Food for Those in Solitude, “a quarterly newsletter for hermits and those interested in the eremitical life.” It opens the door to a welcome place.

Richard Simonelli, writing in the May 2006 edition, shared these thoughts on the dance, the challenging and frustrating and most difficult of dances,
"The individual and the community are in constant relationship. Energies flow back and forth between them in a way that is necessary and good. The laws of interplay between the individual and the community must be honored and obeyed so that both can live in harmony. To focus on the individual in isolation is to tell an untrue story. To think of the community as the highest good is also untrue. We must be individuals within the community as well as finding community within ourselves."

December 27, 1873

From Appleton’s Journal, December 27, 1873

The Devil's Old Field is an opening of several hundred acres on the top of the Balsam range. The Cherokees regard the treeless tracts, at various points on the mountains, as the footprints of Satan, as he stepped from mountain to mountain. This old field, however, being his favorite resting - place, was more extensive than were his mere footprints. In fact, this was his chosen sleeping-place.

Once, on a hot summer day, a party of irreverent Indians, rambling through the dense forests of balsam and rhododendrons, suddenly came into the edge of the open ground, and, with their unseemly chattering, woke his majesty from his siesta. Being irritated, as people often are when disturbed before their nap is out, he suddenly, in the form of an immense serpent, swallowed fifty of them before they could get back into the thicket. Ever after this sad occurrence, the Cherokees, as the sailors say, gave this locality a wide berth.

After the whites got into the country, a set of hunters, known by the name of Queen, either by daring or diplomacy got on better terms with the old fellow. As their reputation was any thing but good, envious people used to say that they escaped injury at the hands of Satan upon the same principle that prevents a sow from eating her own pigs. These Queens spoke in favorable terms of the personal cleanliness of his majesty, and his regard for comfort, asserting that they had often gone to the large, overhanging rock, in the centre of the field, where he slept, and, out of mischief, in the evening had thrown rocks and brushwood on his bed, and that next morning the place was invariably as clean as if it had been brushed with a bunch of feathers.

Of late years no one has seen him in those parts, and it is believed that, either tired of the loneliness of the place, or because he could do better elsewhere, he has emigrated.
-Thomas Lanier Clingman

Monday, December 25, 2006

December 25, 1858

How full of soft, pure light the western sky now, after sunset! I love to see the outlines of the pines against it. Unless you watch, you do not know when the sun goes down. It is like a candle extinguished without smoke. A moment ago you saw the glittering orb amid the dry oak leaves in the horizon and now you can detect no trace of it.
-Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Paint Rock

Leaving Hot Springs, we crossed the bridge and turned left, following the French Broad as it funneled into Tennessee. Just before the state line, crazy stacks of limestone towered over the road. Two hundred years ago, this was a well-known landmark in Western North Carolina, situated on the Cherokee frontier boundary and along a major drovers route from Kentucky and Tennessee to the low-country plantations of South Carolina.

John Strother, a surveyor of the 1790s, described the Indian pictographs still visible on the rocks:
The face of the Rock bears but few Traces of its having been painted ‑ owing to its being smoked by pine knots and other wood from a place at its base where Travellers have frequently camped. In the year 1790 it was not much smoked the pictures of some Humans, Wild beasts, fish & fowls were to be seen plainly made with red paint some of them 20 & 30 feet from its base.

The NC Museum of History explains the Paint Rocks as they’re understood today:
The pictograph at Paint Rock, is an intricate rectilinear pattern in red and yellow. The design is similar to that found on Mississippian-period ceramics in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. An estimated half of the original pictograph exists today; the rest has faded or chipped off. The design and condition of the paint suggest that Paint Rock dates from the Mississippian period or later.

One stereoscopic image of Paint Rock taken several years after the Civil War features a large party of visitors clustered around Braxton Bragg. A Confederate general, Bragg had a reputation for eccentric behavior:
...a strict disciplinarian and one who adhered to regulations literally. There is a famous story about him as a company commander at a frontier post where he also served as quartermaster. He submitted a requisition for supplies for his company, then as quartermaster declined to fill it. As company commander, he resubmitted the requisition, giving additional reasons for his requirements, but as the quartermaster he denied the request again. Realizing that he was at a personal impasse, he referred the matter to the post commandant, who exclaimed "My God, Mr. Bragg, you have quarreled with every officer in the army, and now you are quarreling with yourself!"

It looks as though Bragg had a memorable visit to Paint Rock. I know I did.

December 24

The rising of the sun of this last morning before Christmas comes in a special way. I look down the slope toward the brook and see brilliant stabs and flashes of light scattered over the weeds and bushes. Walking among them, I find they are strewn with plates of frost, many tilted at exactly the right angle to reflect the dead flower heads of the goldenrod, along the outer branches of the plum tangle, down the rough rails of the rustic fence.
- Edwin Way Teale, 1899-1980

Friday, December 22, 2006

A Poet's Advice

To be nobody-but-yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy like learning how to blow up the world – unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.
It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.

-e. e. cummings

Thursday, December 21, 2006

America Unhenged

Today being the winter solstice, it seems like a good time to visit some American monuments inspired by Stonehenge.

Conquest of the Land

Some time ago I heard of an old man down on a hill farm in the South, who sat on his front porch as a newcomer to the neighborhood passed by. The newcomer to make talk said, "Mister, how does the land lie around here?" The old man replied, "Well -- I don't know about the land a-lying; it's these real estate people that do the lying." In a very real sense the land does not lie; it bears a record of what men write on it. In a larger sense a nation writes its record on the land, and a civilization writes its record on the land -- a record that is easy to read by those who understand the simple language of the land.

Food comes from the holy earth. The land with its waters gives us nourishment. The earth rewards richly the knowing and diligent but punishes inexorably the ignorant and slothful. This partnership of land and farmer is the rock foundation of our complex social structure.

Monday, December 18, 2006

December 18, 1859

It is a lichen day. The pitch pines are very inspiriting to behold. Their green is as much enlivened and freshened as that of the lichens. It suggests a sort of sunlight on them, though not even a patch of clear sky is seen to-day. As dry and olive or slate-colored lichens are of a fresh and living green, so the already green pine needles have acquired a far livelier tint, as if they enjoyed this moisture as much as the lichens do.
- Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nantahala Blue

On his May 1775 trip to the NC mountains, William Bartram encountered the Cherokee leader Attakullakulla, who was on his way to Charleston. Much earlier, in 1730, Attakullakulla and six other Cherokees accompanied Sir Alexander Cuming on a trip to England, where they were honored by King George II. The picture above was taken today on the Nantahala River, not far from the meeting place of Bartram and Attakullakulla.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Riverbend Reflection

This morning along the Tuckasegee River

Hunting the Elusive Great Blue

Meandering along the Tuckasegee this morning, I observed several great blue herons. They are alert and wary, and do not linger to have their pictures taken. These are three different birds watching over their respective stretches of the river.

Monday, December 11, 2006


"Colours are the deeds and suffering of light."
- Goethe

"Sometime early in a child's life, neurobiologists speculate, light flavors the senses toward yellow, then, as we mature, sends us on to blue. Along this path I was to pass through green to reach blue, there to feel not the press of its 'enchanting nothingness,' as Goethe wrote, but blue pulling me after it. But I am stuck. Stuck in between. Stuck in turquoise, the color of yearning, the color that borrows the concentric tension of green and holds blue's enchanting calm."
- Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meditations on Landscape, Art and Spirit

Cullasajah, by Silas McDowell

Loveliest and purest Nymph of the mountains,
Cradled in rock and fed by the fountains,
But like some bold hoyden at play!
Behold her wild run as she leaps down a rock!
(Some earthquake river boulder or block)
And is there dashed into spray!
Hark! it's the roar of a wild cataract.
My heart throbs while I in wonder look back,
Up a dark glen wierd and wild,
Twixt rock-cliffs lofty and hoary,
And now I see what? This nymph in her glory ---
She is Nature's fairest, spoiled child
Robed in a veil of mist she leaps into a pool,
That is breezy and pure, shady and cool;
She rests there awhile,
'Til joined by many a sister and brother
She starts on her way home to her mother,
With filial devotion.
And passing Mount Lookout many a mile,
There looms to her view a palm-covered isle,
Where she meets Mother Ocean.

(Silas McDowell, Asheville Citizen, August 5, 1875)


I had survived the weight and hollowness of black and gray. When the color red saved my life, it was not just a color I saw. It was the essence of red that infused my spirit, redness itself that reached my inner being to feed and sustain me. Manlio Brusatin writes, “colors express altogether vital functions of human existence but do not belong to the pompous mechanics of the human heart. They belong rather to something more like breathing or the softer organs, which sustain life in a way nearly invisible from the primary bodily functions….Insects – creatures that seem sometimes to be all eyes, nothing but chromatic perception – seem to multiply colors according to the laws of their individual species, but their competitive economies, so to speak, are actually more simple. They use these moments of chromatic competition within their color-filled days to carry out their functions, living in color before being continuously, incessantly devoured or created anew in the form of other minuscule living beings. To believe in colors from this standpoint might mean dissolution into the dust of new lives, desires, and passions, endless disappearance and reappearance, on and on without end. Colors thus constitute the most serious deception, an adventure in dust and the habitual pain of living.”

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Grow Your Own

I recall picking up a dusty Popular Science magazine from the early 1950s. It predicted that by the year 1985 the post office would be using guided missiles to deliver the mail. Attempts to forecast the future can be ridiculous failures. On the other hand, Dick Tracy was carrying a cell phone for decades before the rest of us, so prognostication might be of some value.

As oil starts to go bye-bye, and then some time after America's war with China to secure the dwindling reserves of it, we will enter the post-petroleum era. Things will be a lot different, that’s a safe bet. But perhaps biotechnology will allow us to make the most of our old friend, photosynthesis. Constructing McMansions won’t be as viable as it is today, so we may turn to growing our houses instead of building them.

Plant products have been used for shelter with great success. My own house is framed with lumber and insulated with cellulose fibers. A nearby lodge is sided with tree bark and some more modest huts I know of keep the rain out with thatch roofs. I really don’t think it’s a stretch for biological engineers to develop seeds that would develop in such a way to provide load bearing structure and protection from the elements.

Just imagine. Pick a nice house site. Excavation simply involves digging a hole in the ground for planting the house seed. Add water, sunshine and a little time. Then enjoy your new home. Around here they say that new houses are sprouting like weeds. In the not so distant future, that statement will be taken much more literally.

Meanwhile, due to my lack of expertise in biotechnology, I’m going to develop improved varieties of gourds. Birdhouse gourds. Really, really big birdhouse gourds. And then, just in case the biotech people drop the ball on this one, I’ll be able to plant some seeds and photosynthesize my own house.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Scaly Mountain Dancers, oil , 11x14", 2004

Cowee, Puc Puggy, Wordsworth and Wedgwood

“Some of these roving beauties stroll over the mossy, shelving, humid rocks, or from off the expansive wavy boughs of trees, bending over the floods, salute their delusive shade, playing on the surface; some plunge their perfumed heads and bathe their flexile limbs in the silver stream; whilst others by the mountain breezes are tossed about, their blooming tufts bespangled with pearly and chrystaline dew-drops collected from the falling mists, glistening in the rainbow arch.” (William Bartram describing mountain vegetation, May 1775)

Students of quantum physics describe the observer effect, or the change that the act of observing has on the phenomenon being observed. This is one reason I’m fascinated with the accounts by early travellers through the Southern Appalachians. There’s charm in the florid writing style that has almost become a language foreign to our own. That language offers sensual pleasure of words for words’ sake, mostly missing from modern discourse. Rarely, someone like Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier will compose sentences that leave this reader breathless with the sounds and images created. Not surprisingly, Frazier steeped himself in the accounts of the mountain travellers, William Bartram in particular.

You could say that by the act of observing, Bartram, like a quantum physicist, changed the phenomenon being observed. The world he observed would have been different absent his observations On one level, his words depict a world that was in this place before us. Even more intriguing, those words depict HIS PERCEPTION of the world that was in this place. And then there’s the simple visceral delight of the language he used.

Bartram’s Travels can be read as a documentary account of the people and places he visited, or as a journal revealing a curious botanist exploring unfamiliar territory, or as lush transcendent poetry uttered like the glossalalia of a enraptured believer overtaken by the spirit. To the degree that his writing succeeded on all those levels, it had a great power to influence Charles Frazier and many writers who preceded Frazier.

When he traveled into the Cherokee territory of western North Carolina in the spring of 1775, the 36-year-old botanist had already explored much of the southeast and met with many Native Americans, including an amused Seminole chief who had named him “Puc Puggy” or “the flower hunter.” Puc Puggy could not have arrived at a better time. Spring was the perfect season for new discoveries in the rich plant life of the mountains. Frontier life, though, was unsettled. Cherokee relations with nearby white settlers were tense. Only a year later, General Griffith Rutherford followed in Bartram’s footprints to destroy one village after another.

Bartram advanced down the Little Tennessee River, through the Cowee Valley and crossed the ridge to reach the waters of Alarka, where he described a scene that was both innocent and salacious, and particularly poignant in light of the tragedy to come a year later. Puc Puggy:

“enjoyed a most enchanting view, a vast expanse of green meadows and strawberry fields; a meandering river gliding through, saluting in its various turnings the swelling, green, turfy knolls, embellished with parterres of flowers and fruitful strawberry beds; flocks of turkies strolling about them; herds of deer prancing in the meads or bounding over the hills; companies of young, innocent Cherokee virgins, some busily gathering the rich fragrant fruit, others having already filled their baskets, lay reclined under the shade of floriferous and fragrant native bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jessamine and cerulian Glycine frutescens, disclosing their beauties to the fluttering breeze, and bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams; whilst other parties, more gay and libertine, were yet Collecting strawberries or wantonly chasing their companions, tantalising them, staining their lips and cheeks with the rich fruit."

No American naturalist had as much effect on the English Romantic poets as Bartram. Samuel Taylor Coleridge borrowed Bartram’s descriptions for Florida waterways for his poem, Kubla Khan. And William Wordsworth was inspired by Bartram’s accounts of Cherokee life along the Little Tennessee. This would be the second significant export from Cowee Valley to England. A decade before Bartram’s arrival the Cherokees were selling kaolin clay to buyers for Josiah Wedgwood’s English pottery works, the same Josiah Wedgwood who had a grandson named Charles Darwin.

With a Cherokee chief as a central figure, Wordsworth’s poem Ruth, borrowed extensively from Travels:

He told of Girls, a happy rout,
Who quit their fold with dance and shout
Their pleasant Indian Town
To gather strawberries all day long,
Returning with a choral song
When day-light is gone down.

He spake of plants divine and strange
That ev'ry day their blossoms change,
Ten thousand lovely hues!
With budding, fading, faded flowers
They stand the wonder of the bowers
From morn to evening dews.

He told of the Magnolia, spread
High as a cloud, high over head!
The Cypress and her spire,
Of flowers that with one scarlet gleam
Cover a hundred leagues and seem

To set the hills on fire.

If you’d ever want to return to a day along the Little Tennessee in the spring of 1775, William Bartram is your best bet to make it happen. Wordsworth expressed what Bartram certainly thought, when he wrote that there is “a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of thought, and rolls through all things.”

And I say, Amen to that!

On the Trail to Buck Knob

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Where's That Crucible Today?

The following news report first appeared in the Raleigh (NC) Register and was reprinted the July 1, 1829 edition of the Cherokee Phoenix and Indians' Advocate. I really would like to know what happened to that crucible. It reminds me of similar old reports about finding traces of Spanish gold mining operations in these mountains.

Indian Relics.
We are informed by an intelligent gentleman, that in digging for Gold recently, in the county of Burke, a crucible was found at a considerable distance below the surface, which bore evident marks of having been much used. It is believed, that the Aborigines were aware of the existence of the gold formation, and doubless the crucible found had been put in requisition by them for the purpose of fluxing the precious metal. This belief is strengthened by the fact, that in the same place whence the crucible was taken, a soapstone slab was found, with excavations of various sizes, which had probably been used in moulding ornaments, to decorate the ears and noses of the Indians, from the gold which had been previously melted in the crucible.

Barometer Earthstar

Naturalist extraordinaire George Ellison wrote of the barometer earthstar (which was new to me) in his column this week:
“There is a category of puffballs known as earthstars. These have a hard outer membrane that peels back as the earthstar ripens and reveals a puffball-like inner core. (These star-like fruiting structures are also quite beautiful in regard to color and conformation.) Most earthstars then disperse their spores like other puffballs. But one species called the barometer earthstar (Astreus hygometricus) has devised an ingenious mechanism whereby full spore dispersal is obtained.
“As the common name indicates, the outer covering of the barometer earthstar is sensitive to meteorological conditions. During wet weather the outer covering remains open and some spores are no doubt dispersed in the normal puffball manner. But during dry weather the outer covering contracts and closes in on top of the inner core thereby squeezing out any spores that remain.
“Field guides usually indicate that most earthstars appear in late summer or fall. For whatever reason, I spot them more frequently in early or late winter during rainy periods when the fruiting structures are fully open. Perhaps I don’t observe them at other times because of leaf litter.
Having read this, I will now be looking for barometer earthstar…and I will also be considering how one could adapt the principle of the barometer earthstar to an architectural project. Where’s Frank Lloyd Wright when you need him?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Sublime Wonder of Life

"This state of, what Buddhism calls, unconsciousness, and the suffering that is resultant, can only be remedied through coming into consciousness, through the realization of one's own deepest nature. Sin is removed by awakening, by becoming enlightened. I have long been intrigued by the notion of sin not being an action but an attitude that brings forth actions that would be called sinful. This hearkens back to a watershed moment for me as a freshman in college. I was attending a lecture by the Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel, when in answer to a question concerning the nature of sin, he answered: 'I consider the origin of sin to be in the denial of the sublime wonder of life.'" -Bill Walz in Rapid River, December 2006

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"None of us will ever accomplish anything excellent or commanding except when he listens to this whisper which is heard by him alone."

Monday, December 4, 2006

Observing the Unseen

“The gardens of the future will far surpass anything known at present, not because science and intelligence aid or promote them but because love does. The sensitivity and sharing of love, the oneness it brings, makes the plant more full what it is, more fully its God-essence.” (The Findhorn Garden, 1975)
Considering sustainability, permaculture, healing, teaching, creativity and self actualization, where are the common threads, what is at core…once you peel away the distractions and the narrowness of vision? Observing the unseen, hearing the unheard, remembering the forgotten, imagining the unknown…it’s really simple. More from Findhorn,: “Always it is your state that the nature world responds to, not what you say, not what you do, but what you are.”
By spending so much time and effort OUTSIDE that state, that truly conscious state, the war continues, the war on the planet, the war on each other, the war on ourselves.
I’m thinking of an old farm in Cary, paved over with freeways, targets and starbucks. Does anyone hear the voices still calling out from that farm? Does anybody see the footprints still pressed into the earth? And this too shall pass.
More from Findhorn:
“It makes an enormous difference to the soil when you work it with love, when you handle it with love, think of it and the life in it with love…God can work with us in this aspect and raise all life, raise the whole tone of life on this planet.”
It's better to consider the intangibles, all that which cannot be bought from someone else and all that which we cannot pay someone else to do for us. It’s time to return to the garden.

Alfred Opiolka, Painting with Purpose

One tearful woman asked him to make a coffin with garden flowers for the day her 94-year-old mother passed away.
"She told me, 'The garden meant everything to my mother', and thought that the coffin was the best final farewell she could make to her mother when she departed," Alfred Opiolka said.

Extraordinary Photos from All Over

Six Fine Sites for Extraordinary Photos
1. Japanese Zen Gardens
2. Incredible Wildlife Photos – National Geographic
3. More Amazing Wildlife Photos – NWF Contest Winners
4. Breathtaking High Altitude Photos
5. Croatia Waterfall – Land of the Falling Lakes
6. Aurora Borealis Photos

Friday, December 1, 2006

The Mystery of William Frerichs

He was a curious sight in the Smokies and the Blue Ridge of the late 1850s, trudging along a rugged trail with his canvases, paints and sketching tools. The artist from Belgium, aligned with the Hudson River School of New York landscape artists, found fresh inspiration for his huge paintings. Born in 1829, William C. Frerichs had come to America in 1852 and settled in New York City, before marrying in 1854 and moving to Greensboro College (NC) to teach art.At every opportunity, Frerichs left Greensboro to explore the mountains of western North Carolina. His dramatic, romanticized paintings depicted thundering rivers and towering, craggy mountains that dwarfed any people pictured in the landscapes. At least two Frerichs paintings of “Tamahaka Falls” survive, one of which is displayed at the NC Museum of Art. Identified as being in “Cherokee County”, the actual location remains a mystery. Another large Frerichs painting can be seen at the Greenville County Art Museum (SC). His time in North Carolina was difficult. An 1863 fire destroyed most of his work. Because of his knowledge of the mountains, the Confederate Corps of Engineers drafted Frerichs to supervise mining operations. (His engineering skills were exemplified by his 1873 patent for an “improvement in snow-rams for railroads.”) Reportedly, Frerichs was captured by the Union Army at least once. By 1865, he and his family returned to New York.At the age of 18, Frerichs completed a 12 by 17 foot painting that was purchased for the emperor of Russia, and in his early years, he studied throughout Europe. But after coming to America, Frerichs tended to be an outsider, and never an active member of the landscape painters in New York. He died in 1905 at the age of 76. What were the paintings that burned? Where is Tamahaka? Where exactly did he travel in the mountains? Has anyone written of what must have been a memorable encounter with Frerichs on his journeys?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Cullowhee Trail

Western Carolina University is developing a Cherokee Heritage Trail. Took guided walk on the proposed trail this afternoon. Turns out that most everything WCU has built in the past 80 years has disrupted some fairly significant archaeological sites. Killian Building sits right where a large mound once stood...where Daniel Rogers had grown his corn for 60 years. Excavations suggest permanent settlement for the past 7000 years, with some 10,000 year-old spearpoints appearing here and there. Scattered about, for a mile or so, were settlements: consisting of adjacent winter and summer homes. Winter homes were small round structures made of wattle and daub. Summer homes were long open sided, covered sheds. The better part of the valley, as far as you could see, had been covered with corn fields. And this for several centuries before the first Europeans arrived. River cane along Cullowhee Creek and the Tuckasegee River was used for baskets, mats, trays and screens. Rock pile fish weirs in the rivers funnelled the fish to where they could be caught. Rutherford and his army of 2400 came from the Piedmont in 1775 and burned every village they met. And so it goes with outside developers ever since. You know the rest. Photograph is WCU campus, ca. 1924, seen from Dix Gap.

More Lost Knowledge

The Antikythera Mechanism spent 2000 years at the bottom of the sea. It contains 30 interlocking gear-wheels and bears copious astronomical inscriptions. It computed and displayed the movement of the Sun, Moon and planets, and predicted eclipses. It was 1500 years ahead of its time. It may have been developed by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus around 140 BC.
“How can the capacity to build a machine so magnificent have passed through
history with no obvious effects?”
And you have to wonder, what other knowledge is lost or remains hidden?
Listen to the NPR story.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Crazy Language

“Invaluable” means valuable and “inflammable” means flammable, but “invisible” is the opposite of “visible.” Laurance R. Doyle writes about some quirks of the English language in the Christian Science Monitor this week. For students learning English as a second language, some expressions can bewilder, such as the adage “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

We have to wonder why a package sent by car is a “shipment”, but when sent by ship, it is “cargo.” We drive on a parkway and park on a driveway. Rush-hour traffic is slow.

English is flexible, and evolving. A linguistics professor lectured: “Two negatives in the Russian language still make a negative (made more emphatic), while two negatives in English actually make a positive. However in no language do two positives make a negative.” To which a skeptical student replied, “Yeah, right!”

We recite at a play, but we play at a recital.
Our feet can smell, but our noses can run.
When a lamp is out, it is NOT shining, but if the stars are out, they ARE.

A tool for understanding, language can amuse and confuse. Chuang Tzu put our predicament into perspective:
“The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to.”

Monday, November 27, 2006

Why Poetry?

Francis Ponge, from “The Silent World Is Our Only Homeland", describing the function of poetry:

“It is to nourish the spirit of man by giving him the cosmos to suckle. We have only to lower our standard of dominating nature and to raise our standard of participating in it in order to make the reconciliation take place. When man becomes proud to be not just the site where ideas and feelings are produced, but also the crossroad where they divide and mingle, he will be ready to be saved. Hope therefore lies in a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless, and later reinvents a language. …
This is why, whatever one says, poetry is much more important than any other art, any other science. This is also why poetry has nothing in common with what appears in the poetry anthologies of today. True poetry is what does not pretend to be poetry. It is in the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking the new encounter.”

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Signs of the Changing Seasons

The ones that were here before us would plant corn when oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear. That signal for planting a crop is a classic application of phenology, the study of periodic events in plant and animal life cycles. These events, including bird migration, plant blooming and fruiting, insect activities and harvest dates for cultivated plants, are influenced by variations in temperature and precipitation.

Henry David Thoreau claimed he could observe the woods and identify the day of the year without benefit of a calendar, based on his acute awareness of phenological cues.
Gardeners or not, what would happen if we all relied less on the calendar and tuned in to the phenology of the Southern Appalachians? Here's how to begin:

Step one - consult the ncnatural list of bloom dates for 140 wildflowers native to the mountains. Mark the year according to the blooming of the skunk cabbage and dandelions in early spring all the way through to asters and witch hazel in the fall.

Step two - take an active part in advancing phenology related scientific study. Operation RubyThroat invites nature watchers to share their observations of hummingbird migration patterns. In addition to compiling data on hummingbird activity across North and Central America, the project promotes deeper understanding of the need for environmental cooperation among people of the Americas.

Step three - participate in research studying the effects of global climate change. Volunteers across the country can take part in the National Phenology Network’s project to observe the blooming dates of plants, such as lilacs, in multiple locations over multiple years.

Step four – slow down and tune in to the natural progression of the seasons with rituals, recipes, songs and ceremonies inspired by the changing events of nature.

Step five – grow more food and learn how the ones who were here before us used their skills of observation to learn from nature. But get ready now because you need to plant your beets and carrots when the dandelions bloom.

Whether you live in Cullowhee or Katmandhu, you too can become a phenologist.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Blinded by the Written Word

Lacking the written word, how does a culture transmit knowledge? Without written language, how does a culture build upon the direct observations of the world? How does that culture’s collective memory survive? Specifically, I consider the Cherokees. Their comprehension of the movement of the sun, stars and planets was not like mine. Deprived of the benefit of the written word, I wouldn't know what to expect when I look up at the night sky. It would be a random and unpredictable bunch of lights. Without having read about astronomy, or without having heard from others who had read about astronomy, I would be at a loss to understand it. The Cherokees, on the other hand, recognized patterns to the movement of the moon and stars, collecting a body of knowledge that allowed them to anticipate the events that occurred overhead. In a similar way, they knew the uses for hundreds of plants. This could not have resulted from a trial and error process begun anew by each generation. The obvious answer is oral tradition…but even this explanation doesn’t seem wholly satisfactory. Not if the oral tradition is limited to a recitation of facts, a listing of observable characteristics, and accounts of personal experience. Was it for the sake of survival that fanciful tales were told, mysterious stories that reached a deeper subconscious level and had greater mnemonic power? What about the ability of movement and gesture to "imprint" information on the consciousness? And to what degree does aesthetic sensibility serve a functional role? Concepts of human beauty developed from a recognition of the qualities associated with a fertile or a protective partner. Over time, did a similar innate sense develop so that, for instance, different plants would elicit different aesthetic responses, and thus allow for the plants to be used more effectively? The written word has brought us much. But I wonder at the capacities and powers that have atrophied as a result of our reliance on the written word. And I wonder what it would be like to experience these mountains with the benefit of those capacities and powers.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Obscure Nuts

This was a pleasant surprise. I was wondering, when was the last time that anyone around here cracked open a few hickory nuts? I expect it’s been a while. But here’s a gentleman from Wisconsin who has not only been cracking more than a few…he has them for sale. That’s great news. Thanks, Ray!

Friday, November 17, 2006

East Fork of the Pigeon, oil, 16 x20"

Gerard DeBrahm Explains the Great Smokies

"Although these Mountains transpire through their Tops sulphurueaous and arsenical Sublimations, yet they are too light, as to precipitate so near their Sublimitories, but are carried away by the Winds to distant Regions. In a heavy Atmosphere, the nitrous Vapours are swallowed up through the Spiraculs of the Mountains, and thus the Country is cleared from their Corrosion,; when the Atmosphere is light, these nitrous Vapours rise up to the arsenical and sulphureous (subliming through the Expiraculs of the Mountains), and when they meet with each other in Contact, the Niter inflames, vulgurates and detonates, whence the frequent Thunders, in which a most votalized Spirit of Niter ascends to purify and inspire the upper Air, and a phlogiston Regeneratum (the metallic Seed) descends to impregnate the Bowels of the Earth; and as all these Mountains form so many warm Athanors which draw and absorb, especially in foggy Seasons, all corrosive Effluvia along with the heavy Air through the Registers (Spiracles) and thus cease not from that Perpetual Circulation of the Air, corroding Vapours are no sooner raised, than that they are immediately disposed of, consequently the Air in the Appalachian Mountains in extreamely pure and healthy." (ca. 1760)

Cullowhee Poppies

Language and Landscape, the Poetry of Place

If “language is the DNA of a culture”, what does it mean when words…and specifically, words used to describe the landscape…fade into oblivion? Yesterday, National Public Radio profiled a new book, Home Ground. The book’s authors have collected more than 800 terms used to describe the American landscape. Words like playa, milk gap, looking-glass prairie and hoodoo. The intersection of language and landscape is fascinating, with the power of words to evoke nature and of nature to evoke words. Mysterious symbiosis. With the loss of such colorful and descriptive words, comes an erosion of the ability to comprehend and communicate the depth and complexity of the landscape. It is a noteworthy example of lost knowledge, wisdom once common that has dwindled from disuse.

May Theilgaard Watts opens her book, Reading the Landscape of America, with an account of seeking and finding several antiques in the Great Smoky Mountains, namely: a woven bedspread, a song, a word, and a forest. They all had one thing in common and that was they were not only antiques, but disjuncts, “long ago, cut off, isolated, or disjointed, from others of its kind.” Watts expected such disjuncts in the Smokies, a “region that had so long been a sort of sanctuary, or refugium, for cut-off groups of plants and men and customs.”

As this place becomes less and less a sanctuary or “refugium” is it any wonder that language and landscape are eroded and stripped of their diversity, their poetry? Who else is out there, attempting to read the landscape, and grasping for the right words? Didn’t Thoreau say “In wildness is the preservation of the world”? Could we add, “In language is the preservation of the wild”?

Satulah Afternoon

The Ice Man

This story was heard, and written, at a time long ago when the mountains quaked and smoke issued from chasms in the granite.

The people were burning the woods in the fall when a poplar tree caught fire. It burned and burned, and as the roots burned a great hole in the ground grew larger and larger. Frightened, the people thought it would burn the whole world. They could not control it, for it had gone too deep and they did not know what to do.

At last, the suggestion came to find a man living in a house of ice, far to the north. He was a little man with long hair hanging to the ground in two plaits. Messengers sent to seek his help watched him unbraid his hair, take it up in one hand and strike it against his other hand, creating a gust of wind. A second time he struck his hair across his hand, a light rain started to fall. A third time brought sleet mixed with raindrops, and a fourth time, hailstones fell as if from the ends of his hair. "Go back," he told them, "and I shall be there tomorrow."

The messengers returned to find their people gathered helplessly around the burning pit. The next day, a wind blew in from the north. But it only made the blaze burn higher. Then a light rain only seemed to make it burn hotter. Then the sleet and hail dowsed the flames with smoke and steam rising from the coals. The people fled for shelter as the hailstones covered the embers, and put out the fire at last. When the people returned, they found a lake where the fire had burned, and from below the water came a sound as of embers crackling.

So, I wonder now: what did this story mean to the ones who told it and have now gone on? And what does it mean today? Why do these mountains not rumble and burn as they did in those days?