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?