Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Moonrise Tonight

Ice Balls and Sundogs

Driving up Speedwell after work lately I've been seeing sundogs - parhelia - luminous halos near the sun. For the science and art of sundogs, rainbows, glories, coronas and other celestial events, you need to link to this beautiful site: Atmospheric Optics. (Be sure to click "High Atmosphere" on homepage.) Very nice indeed.

We don't have much wilderness to be afraid of anymore. But just to keep our adrenalin flowing, the sky provides plenty to worry about. If it's not flying raptors or radioactive fallout, then it's ultraviolet radiation and ice balls.

Last Sunday morning a hundred pound chunk of ice fell from the sky and crushed a Ford Mustang in Hillsborough County, Florida. OK, first thing you think is airlines, but the airlines say "no, wasn't ours...we dye our water wasn't blue.

Maybe the airlines can duck out this time,. After all, it might have been a megacryometeor. Think hail on steroids.

The weather guessers are calling for "wintry mix" tomorrow. Wonder what the odds are for parhelia and megacryometeors.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Chimney Rock Water

I can't leave Chimney Rock without a side trip to the Bottomless Pools, as described by John P. Arthur:

The Pools, just above the old Logan hotel or tavern in the same picturesque locality [Chimney Rock] are three circular holes from eight to fifteen feet in diameter, in the rock bed of the creek, all of which are said to be bottomless. It is evident that they were made by the revolution of small stones on the softer surface of the creek bed, kept in constant motion by the continual flow of the creek; but they are not bottomless, nor is there any danger of suction, as swimmers disport themselves in their cool depths every summer.

-John P. Arthur, Western North Carolina, A History, 1914.

Chimney Rock Revisited

In 1878, Silas McDowell, the Macon County farmer and all-around-sage dictated his account of the Spectre Cavalry Fight that occurred near Chimney Rock in early September 1811.
McDowell begins:

In the long ago, the Titans built a wall of rock, varying in height from one thousand to fifteen hundred feet, with an open space at its east entrance. And at that opening stands a rough column-shaped rock, three hundred feet high, crowned with a coronet of pine trees. This is Chimney Rock.

According to McDowell, an old man and his wife living near Chimney Rock were seated in their yard at sunset, watching the shadows spread across the walls of the ravine:

When their attention was arrested by the astounding spectacle – to wit – two opposing armies of horsemen, high up in the air, all mounted on winged horses and preparing for combat. At length the old woman heard the word, "Charge" when the two armies dashed into each other, cutting, thrusting, and hacking, and she distinctly heard the ring of their swords and saw the glitter of their blades flashing in the Sun’s rays. Thus they fought for about ten minutes, when one army was routed and left the field, and then she plainly heard the shouts of the victors and the wails of the defeated, soon after which darkness hid both armies from their view.

The couple saw the troopers on subsequent evenings. News of their sightings quickly spread and became a local legend.
Twenty years after the 1811 incident, McDowell had a guide lead him to the top of the ravine overlooking the cabin that once belonged to the couple. McDowell told his young guide that he considered the story of the Spectre Cavalry Fight:

...the most sensational falsehood I ever read, [that] in my opinion it was the old woman who concocted and managed the whole affair. " She must have been an old hag – a devil in petticoats." The youth at this suddenly became transformed; his keen gray eyes glowed like coals of fire, while his breast heaved with the fury of a tiger. He sprang at me. I was as powerless as a child in his powerful arms, and, holding me at arms length over the yawning abyss of one thousand four hundred feet, he exclaimed, "Villian! You shall take back or qualify your utterances against my Grandmother, or I’ll hurl you to the bottom of this cliff."

McDowell, we'll note, did live to tell the tale.

Chimney Rock Rocks

The Chimney Rock region has long been known for geological and meteorological mischief. They didn’t call it "Rumbling" Bald Mountain for nothing. April 22, 1875, Asheville’s Citizen newspaper published a correspondent’s account of one recent tremor:

Having often experienced the mutterings and shakings of BALD MOUNTAIN, which are apparently produced by the detachment and falling of large bodies of rock in some subterranean cavern, we are ready to pronounce this last earthly agitation as not of the same class, nor from the same source, but A VERITABLE EARTHQUAKE.

Reporting with vivid detail, the correspondent told of sleepers awakened by a sound like distant thunder from the south:

Nearer it came, until it was discovered to be IN THE EARTH instead of in the atmosphere, and when immediately beneath our feet, the ground on which we stood was palpably elevated as by a wave underneath. The direction of this subterranean wave was due north and south, and it traveled with immense rapidity. The sound produced by it when immediately underneath us was a compound of the heavy rumbling of thunder and THE SHARP RINGING CLASH as of the crushing or breaking of some metalic or brittle substance in the earth.

According to the writer:

While the agitations of Bald Mountain have never been felt or heard but a few miles from its base, this earthquake shock traversed the whole of the mountain region of North Carolina as far as heard from.

Chimney Rock

Good news on a Monday morning! I was about half awake when I heard one sentence on the radio, "Governor Easley is travelling to Chimney Rock for an announcement today." That meant only one thing: the state is buying Chimney Rock. Last I’d heard, the Chimney Rock Park people and the State were about $20 million dollars apart. But private donors came through to make the deal happen. So we have the 1000 acre landmark becoming part of a new state park near Hickory Nut Gap.

I’ve pulled out some vintage postcards to upload here…over the next few days Most of the cards are from the 1920s to 1940s.

Blame Interstate 40 for taking Chimney Rock down a notch or two in the travel and tourism pecking order. Without I-40 in place, a lot of us Piedmonters found our way to the mountains, past Charlotte, past Shelby, on toward Lake Lure, Chimney Rock, and over Hickory Nut Gap to reach Asheville. There’s sure no shortage of mid-century postcards from the glory days of that corner of the mountains.

Forget W, there WAS some good news reported today.

Our Common Good

From the Tuckasegee Democrat, January 29, 1889:
Our townsman, Mr. O. B. Coward has shown us a pair of Berkshire pigs brought from Columbia, S.C. by Mr. T. B. Coward.

We enjoyed the pleasure this week of a visit to our sister town of Dillsboro. The trade in locust pins and railroad crossties has assumed quite large proportions, and Dillsboro may justly claim to be headquarters for crossties. ...

We learned from some of the leading citizens that the Democrat had failed to receive as hearty a support as we could wish because of the existence of a real or imaginary feeling of rivalry between their town and ours. If any feeling, looking to the advancement of Sylva's interest by pulling down those of Dillsboro, exists among our people we are not aware of it and must protest that the Democrat does not share it. Our efforts are now and will continue to be directed to the upbuilding of the whole county, and we shall rejoice in the continued growth and prosperity of all her towns. In fact we would be glad to see the time when Dillsboro and Sylva shall grow into each other and be governed by one corporation. In the meantime we desire to foster and encourage the kindest relations between the two places. Let us all work together for our common good.

Waterfalls Destroyed

Highway 74 skirts the edge of Sylva as you drive toward the Smokies and Bryson City. You could zip right past the Jackson County Justice Center without a hint of what was sacrificed to build the four-lane bypass. Construction of the road in the early 1970s spelled the end for Dills Cove Falls.

No other town in North Carolina had a comparable waterfall within its city limits…the total height of Dills Cove Falls was said to be 249 feet. But it was standing in the way of progress. It had to go.

You have to wonder what the job was like, demolishing Dills Cove Falls. Who would want to show up for work that day? Do visions of the Falls ever come back in nightmares?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Albert Said It

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.Never lose a holy curiosity.

We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality

The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. So to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that which is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms-this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.

The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.

-Albert Einstein, 1879-1955

Friday, January 26, 2007

Judaculla's Microscope

Letterboxing is not the subject of this post, but is as good a place to start as any. I’d not heard of it until a couple of months ago, and this description from Atlas Quest does sound appealing:
Participants seek out hidden letterboxes by following clues, and then record their discovery in their personal journal with the help of a rubber stamp that's part of the letterbox. In addition, letterboxers have their own personal stamps they use to stamp into the letterbox's logbook.

If you’re a letterboxer, then you would want to know about Judaculla Rock, which IS the subject of this post. And that’s all I have to say about letterboxing, except to add that there are lots of letterboxes scattered around the mountains if you know where to look.
A couple of weeks ago, I reprinted an 1873 article about the Devil’s Old Fields. In that article, T. L. Clingman wrote of the mountains that surround Judaculla Rock near Cullowhee. The NC Museum of History explains its significance:
Judaculla Rock is the largest and best-known example of rock art in North Carolina. It is located in Jackson County on Caney Fork. According to legend, the Cherokees named the rock after "Tsul kalu," a mythical giant hunter whose feet and hands scratched the rock as he leapt from the top of his mountain home and landed on the rock in the valley below.
Therories abound. The rock contains prehistoric code, a hidden message. It is a map, a boundary marker, a treaty monument. I’m considering my own theory and it will be a good one. We all want to know how Judaculla Rock came to be, and it’s hard to take "Nobody knows!" for an answer.
So there’s always room for another explanation. Here’s one I’d never seen until now, raising the new question, "Could Judaculla Rock rewrite the history of technology?" The Dutch scientist Anton Van Leeuwenhoek invented the microscope 1674. Judaculla Rock was etched several hundred or several thousand years prior to that date.
And yet, Judaculla Rock contains distinct likenesses of microscopic life. That’s rather obvious when you compare the pictures of the amoeba, the diatom and the others. So had an earlier civilization already invented the microscope that made the Judaculla carvings possible? Or in the distant past, did astronauts from another planet visit Caney Fork and leave drawings of the basic life forms found throughout the universe?
Hmmmm……..good questions…

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Burnsville Dark and Cloudy

Yancey County Court, Wednesday January 25, 1854
I have seldom seen such scenes in a Court-house as I have seen today. Only two or three cases have been disposed of and they have been handled in the rudest manner. The more I see of the County Courts, the more I wish to see them abolished. Drunkenness has reigned today. A portion of the Court has been drunk all day. How shameful! A portion of the time, while suits were trying the whole court were off of the bench.

At different times I noticed groups about over the Court Yard and in the center stood a large gauky looking fellow with a fiddle and he would saw off some silly ditty two or three drunken fools would dance to the same. The populace have been unusually noisy today. The day has been dark and cloudy and this evening and tonight, it is raining. I have conversed tonight. One can learn little by conversation here, save how depraved men are.
-Augustus Summerfield Merrimon

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Great Eastern Trail

This is huge. After years of work and planning, the Great Eastern Trail will be ready for the first through-hikers this spring. The trail passes through Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York. The GET is 1600 miles long, but with its links to the Florida, North Country, Potomac Heritage and Appalachian National Scenic Trails, this major new trail system connects more than 10,000 miles of eastern footpaths. Read all about it!

Merriment in Yancey County

Yancey County Court , January Term A.D. 1854. Tuesday January 24th. 1854.

I feel confident in saying that I have never seen a court behave so badly and keep such confusion. There is during the Session of the court a continual fuss, a continual talking, so that the Court, the Council nor the jury cannot hear the testimony. It is disgraceful, that in a country like our own, distinguished for its freedom and equality, justice is permitted to be trampled upon.

There has been a crowd in attendance today and they have tried to see how badly they could behave themselves. Scores were drunk and tonight are snoring away over the drunkenness of today. I saw two women drunk and one cursed and swore desperately and proposed to whip some of the male friends that did not please her.

-Augustus Summerfield Merrimon

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Sticks Entangle Easily

"Spittin' Image"
Clemson, 2001

Common Ground, the treehouse pictured in Grow Your Own Home was created by the sculptor Patrick Dougherty. Here's his story. A master of stickwork, Dougherty crafted the structures in New Harmony, Indiana using hornbeam trees.

New Harmony, one of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited, was a great utopian experiment, TWICE, and some of that spirit lives on. A likely setting for Dougherty’s art. After its completion in 2003, Common Ground became a New Harmony landmark.
Then on December 17, 2006 half of the stickwork structure caught on fire and burned. The entire work is coming down this month, and had already been scheduled for removal in the spring of 2007, even before the fire.
Dougherty grew up inspired by the North Carolina sandhill country:
My affinity for trees as a material seems to come from a childhood spent wandering the forest around Southern Pines, North Carolina – a place with thick underbrush and many intersecting lines evident in the bare winter branches of trees. When I turned to sculpture as an adult, I was drawn to sticks as a plentiful and renewable resource. I realized that saplings have an inherent method of joining – that is, sticks entangle easily. This snagging property is the key to working material into a variety of large forms. -Patrick Dougherty, Sculptor

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Grow Your Own Home

Last month, I considered the possibilities of growing your own home. I cast my lot with the potential for biological engineering to make it happen. Either that, or develop really large gourds. Well, it was too sound an idea to be original to me. Even the hope of residential gourds is shared by others, who urge, "Think big if you want. We'd love to build a shelter out of gourds some day!" When it comes to growing your own home, some great minds are already on the case and have been for a long time.
The German landscape architect, Rudolf Doernach, has been practicing "biotecture" or "agritecture" for decades. Using the ancient technique of pleaching and other techniques, Doernach planted trees and trained their branches to form structures that continued to grow on their own. In 1989, he reported, "Very economic vegetal houses, plant villages, and plant cities have been developed for single and multi-story growth. They are living solar collectors and complete biotectonic systems." He details his methods in the article, "Biotecture I - Living Houses."
Mitchell Joachim and Javier Arbona have grown the concept with Fab Tree Hab. The photos in this post and more information on their work can be found at Café Arcane’s "Grow Your Own Treehouse" and at this site from WorldChanging, which shares the encouraging assessment: "Permaculture is about inclusion, accessibility, and mutual service between humans and the natural world. With proper knowledge, you should be able to grow your own house!"
Carrying on that concept:
"Other ecological designers exploring the self-growing treehouse include Richard Reames and Konstantin Kirsch of the Treedome project, who’ve designed latticeworks of tree branches and grown them into cylindrical, multi-room dwellings which become fully-enclosed botanical domes. Fruit and other foods grow on the roof and walls, and the waste generated by the inhabitants becomes nourishment for the structure (a closed-loop system in which, as Bill McDonough says, waste=food)."
No, it’s not a new thought that plants can shelter us, can heal us, can educate us. Why shouldn’t we embrace that idea, cultivate that idea, play with that idea? Terence McKenna in "Plan/Plant/Planet" raises the question, "What does it mean to accept the solutions of vegetable forms of life as metaphors for the conduct of the affairs of the human world? Two important changes would follow from adopting this assumption: the feminizing of culture on a level that has yet to be fully explored…and an inward search for values….This is the truth that shamans have always known and practiced. Awareness of the green side of mind was called Veriditas by the 12th-century visionary Hildegard von Bingen."

McKenna adds: "Our present global crisis is more profound than any previous historical crises; hence our solutions must be equally drastic." So, we might as well think outside the box. Be it ever so humble there’s no place like home sweet home, even if it’s a gourd.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Winter Visitors

Wild critters are feeling the arrival of cooler weather, no doubt. And I've been watching the arrival of wild critters. This started a few nights ago when I filled up the bird feeder before retiring for the night...just to have one less thing to do in the morning. A few minutes later I heard the squeek-squeek of the feeder being blown by the wind, or so I thought. Then I heard the rattle of wood scraps in the wheelbarrow. By the time I got outside, all I could see was a damp paw print. And sunflower seeds scattered about.

Yesterday morning marked the return of Centurus Carolinus. It used to be that the Red-Bellied Woodpeckers were regulars at the feeder. But they were absent last winter, so I was very glad to see another one.

Last night, after dark, the motion light kept coming on. Eventually, I saw a bushy tail disappear around the corner. And the next time the light came on, a raccoon poked his bandit face around the corner of the house. Without intending to, I made enough commotion to set the coon on his way, and he waddled back to the edge of the woods.

I thought about trapping the raccoon and relocating him. Maybe I don't need to. I do have a couple of concerns, though. Rabies is extremely common in raccoons, and the door handles of my house are the lever type. I can imagine what might happen one night if I fail to lock my doors. Will I wake up to find a slightly rabid, fairly hungry and very confused raccoon in my kitchen? That could be exciting.

So with that thought in mind while I was grinding coffee this morning, I considered too the return of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. At that very moment I looked out at the feeder and saw....not a chickadee or nuthatch, but one Red-Bellied Centurus Carolinus snacking away.
It's already a good day.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Light and Air

The camera is not a free agent as brush or pencil, but relentlessly records things as they are. So the artist must bring to her aid strong contrasts of light and shade, artistic grouping and rhythmic lines. To use a camera as a means of artistic expression, a certain quality of spirit must be brought to light and air. – Bayard Wootten 1926

It is unfortunate that there is no Appalachian Photography Hall of Fame. It would showcase some superb, and largely unknown, work from the past century and a half. Certainly, Mary Bayard Morgan Wootten (1875-1959) would deserve to be one of the first inductees. Born in New Bern, North Carolina, she overcame economic hardship, gender discrimination, and the obscurity of a small-town upbringing to become the state's most significant early female photographer. I'd call her a hero. Her father, Rufus Morgan, was one of the earliest photographers to work in Western North Carolina and many of his stereoscopic images survive.

During her lifetime, Wootten provided the photographs for several books, including Muriel Earley Sheppard’s Cabins in the Laurel, a 1935 account of mountain people. The photograph displayed above, "Horse Traders, Bryson City, NC", is from that decade.

Wootten found the right blend of technical artistry and compelling subjects to produce timeless images. More than 130 of her photographs are collected in Light and Air: The Photography of Bayard Wootten. It has been said of her: "Wootten's most notable accomplishment was the creation of a photographic record of black and white Americans in the lower reaches of society--persons that other photographers often ignored."

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Nothing like a road trip through unfamiliar territory to raise plenty of questions. While debunking one Polk County, TN legend I stumbled upon an even better story concerning one of my favorite topics, a failed utopia. I suppose any time you mention "utopia" the addition of the word "failed" is redundant, but nonetheless...

Around 1850, Rosine Parmentier came to the Sylco Mountains of Polk County to establish Vineland, "a unique experiment in social living." With the help of a New York associate, she bought 50,000 acres of land and encouraged French, German, Italian and Austrian colonization. They had great plans for a winemaking industry, but it went sour and the colony dispersed. Contemporary Polk County family names like Beckler, Miolin, Nocarina, Genollic, Sholtz, Pace, and Chable are indicators of this vanished settlement.

Closer to home, I was already familiar with the visionary village of Whittier at the border of Jackson and Swain Counties. Clark Whittier, cousin of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, came here in 1881 and purchased 60,000 acres with the intention of creating the world’s largest temperance colony. "It is my wish, and I so move," he said, "that we start operations here upon the principles of the Word of God, including all morality, especially temperance and prohibition of the strongest form."

An 1886 newspaper article was profuse with praise: No other town in North Carolina or any of the Southeastern States has ever accomplished so much in so short a time. … Five stores, a grist mill, a brick yard, two steam saw mills on the town site, are in operation. ... No lots are sold in Whittier without an agreement to improve them. Prohibition prevails on the whole property. This, the largest temperance colony in the world, and the largest single enterprise by one man in the United States, is attracting attention all over the country. (Highlander, Feb. 19, 1886)
One of the most colorful stories of a mountain utopia dates even farther back. It was in the 1730s amidst the Overhills villages of the Cherokee in eastern Tennessee. A German Jesuit, Christian Priber planned to build a settlement in the Indian territory open to all fugitives, servants, slaves, and felons. His design was "to bring about a confederation of all the southern Indians, to inspire them with industry, to instruct them in the arts necessary to the commodities of life, and, in short, to engage them to throw off the yoke of their European allies of all nations."

Governor Oglethorpe's forces considered Christian Priber to be an agent of the French seeking to alienate the Indians from the English traders, so they arrested him and brought him under guard to be examined by Oglethorpe. He found Priber to be an excellent linguist, speaking English, Dutch, French, Latin and Indian, and to have in his possession two manuscripts: a dictionary of the Cherokee language to be published in Paris; and a book entitled Paradise, containing principles for a commonweath based upon natural rights. Oglethorpe imprisoned Christian Priber at Frederica for life, and the remains of Priber and his books were subsequently lost.

This just scratches the surface of the Priber saga. You’d like to imagine that those books survived and are stored away in a trunk somewhere. But the books, and Priber’s dream, are as long gone as the temperance colony on the Tuckasegee and the vineyards of Vineland.

Thirteen Moons

The trail ahead forked at a big poplar tree, offering simple choices. Left or right? It was a simple time. But I knew even then that you could not just set out in one direction and necessarily get somewhere. You lived in the mountains as if cupped in a puzzle of unclimbable blue ridges and uncrossable black gorges. To travel through that place, you needed to know not only where you wanted to go but also that roundabout was often the only way to get there.
-Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Enjoy It To The Fill

Madison County. Tuesday January 17th. 1854.
This morning it is raining, last night it rained heavily and the road from here to the place where we hold Court is all mud. How unpleasant such a day at such a place.
The day has been verry unpleasant and the drinking population seemed to enjoy it to the fill. Drinking has increased about 20 pr. centum today over yesterday.

-Augustus Summerfield Merrimon

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Blackguard Beyond Description

Merrimon’s supercilious take on things has aged pretty well. He is more than often annoyed, the prototypical angry white guy, you could say, with a puritanical streak. His best line may have come when he was bitching about the sorry lodgings one night: "The pillow" he snarled "was no larger than my fist." Augustus Summerfield Merriment he was not:

Madison County, Monday January 16th. 1854.
As is usual for this place, drunkenness is carried to an incredible extent.
A crowd of filthy whisky drinkers collects around a wagon and drink and curse and blackguard beyond description, women and men, and women sell themselves to prostitution of the basest character not infrequently for whisky.

Monday, January 15, 2007

That Romantic River

photo link
The next several days (and a few more later this month) will feature the blog of Asheville attorney Augustus Summerfield Merrimon (1830-1892). His 1850s diary of sojourns to the Western North Carolina courts and county seats is one my favorites from that grand decade.
Sunday January 15th. 1854.
Today I left home at noon for Madison Court.—I had a cool ride down, that romantic river, the French Broad. Rode 22 miles this evening. Stopped on the river at the house of Smith & Baird, a comfortable place. Quiet a crowd of Lawyers, travelers &c. sojourn here tonight. Tonight I have been greatly amused at the conversation of different ones of our party. The conversation has not been instructive, save in one way, that is we learn from it the nature, that is often hiden of a certain class of men. The river roars tonight, the moon shines beautifully and the rugged hills around awake one to contemplation when he walks alone. I love to be alone in an hour like this. All is silent save the continual roar of the river, and the moon shine comes down so softly.—The night is cool, not cold. It is late at night.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Time of Profound Peace

January 13, 1831 letter from Cherokee leader John Ross to Davy Crockett:
How the President of the U States can reconcile it to his feelings to withdraw from us the protection pledged by treaty, and to allow the state of Georgia to usurp from us the rights and liberties of freemen and to keep up a standing military force in our country and in time of profound peace too, I cannot understand. . . . his policy towards the aborigines, in my opinion, has been unrelenting and in effect ruinous to their best interests and happiness. And whatever may be the result of our present difficulties and troubles, we are prepared to meet it - but never to remove West of the Mississippi upon lands within the limits of the U States.

Eye Candy

1. Inspiring Visionary Architecture
2. Strange Clouds
3. Ladybug Photo
4. Zoom In on Snowflake (Interactive)
5. Foggy China Mountains
6. NYC Street Art
7. World in Your Hand Photos
8. Sidewalk Art

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Such a Gizzard

Entry for January 10, A Walk Through the Year
The French scientist and naturalist, Rene de Reaumur, two centuries ago reported the amazing results he obtained in experiments with the strength and grinding ability of the gizzard of a domestic turkey. He found that a small tube of sheet iron, which could be dented only when subjected to a pressure of eighty pounds, was flattened and partially rolled up after only twenty-four hours in the gizzard of this bird. Another scientist, in a more recent test, showed that in the space of four hours a turkey’s gizzard can grind up as many as twenty-four English walnuts within their shells. Again it has been demonstrated that such a gizzard is able to crush nuts so hard their shells resist pressures of from 124 to 336 pounds before they crack.
-Edwin Way Teale

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

When You and I Were Young, Maggie

I wandered today to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scene below -
The creek and the creaking old mill, Maggie,
As we used to, long ago.
The green grove is gone from the hill, Maggie,
Where first the daisies sprung;
The creaking old mill is still, Maggie,
Since you and I were young.

If you can’t trust the Daughters of the American Revolution and an Eagle Scout then who can you trust?

The story begins as we meander along the route of the millenium-old Unicoi Turnpike in the hills of Tennessee, just north of the spot where John Muir crossed the Hiwassee River on his thousand mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico (September 17, 1867). As soon as I saw the sign for Maggie’s Mill Historic Site, I pulled onto the gravel road leading to a small stream. Some pilings along the creek told me that a mill, long since gone, had operated there. And then, at the edge of the road, I read this marker:

I made a mental note to get to the bottom of the story. But the road beckoned, and more places to explore. At Reliance, Webb’s Store stands on the southern bank of the river. Been a long time since I’ve seen a Texaco sign like this:

And just down river, near the confluence of Junebug Creek, this vintage house is a real beauty:

But I kept thinking about that song, Maggie. And even if I’d never heard it, I could pretty well imagine the melody and could hear Al Jolson singing it, Maaaaggieeee. Back home, it didn’t take long to find some recordings of the song, plus lyrics and sheet music. I was on a roll!
I even found a picture of the dapper songwriter:

And a picture of his beloved Maggie Clark:
Clark? I thought her name was Harris, but we’ll let that slide. Johnson didn’t scrimp on the sentimentality, and when you learn the story behind the song, you understand why. He was a schoolteacher in Hamilton, Ontario and Maggie was one of his students. I guess there weren’t any vigilant school administrators to question the propriety of what happened next. G. W. and the tubercular Maggie fell in love and were engaged to be married. When she became ill, he penned the lyrics to "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" and published them in his book of verse, Maple Leaves. (This was Ontario, CANADA, after all.)

They married later that year, but after seven months, poor Maggie died on May 12, 1865. Johnson’s friend James A. Butterfield (1837-1891) set the words to music and the rest, as they say, is history. Now hold on, what about the 1820 date carved in the monument at Maggie’s Mill? George Washington Johnson was born in 1839 and wrote his poem in 1864. Maggie whatever-her-name-was was born in 1842.

So they got the 1820 date wrong, but there must have been a Tennessee connection for George and Maggie. Let’s see, the widower marries two more times, moves from Canada to Cleveland and eventually to Pasadena, California where he died in 1917. No mention of Tennessee at all.
But the song lives on, recorded by everyone from John McCormack to Benny Goodman to Fats Waller to Mac Wiseman.
And to cap it all, "When You and I Were Young, Maggie" made it into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005. Wow!
So what of the Tennessee claim? All I could find was a gazetteer listing for Springtown, Tennessee: "A picturesque mill adorned the bank of the creek and was first known as Harris Mill. During another period, it was known as Maggie’s Mill; local residents insist that it inspired the ballad, ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie.’" INSIST!!!!! That’s not going to cut it. I might as well INSIST that Beethoven wrote the Fifth Symphony on MY back porch. Look for the granite monument, coming soon.

Despite all my big talk about the value of preserving local legends, I’ll make an exception for something as blatantly misleading as the Maggie’s Mill "Historic" Site.
Polk County, Tennessee should be ashamed.
The Ocoee Chapter D.A.R. should be ashamed.
And I found the phone number for that Eagle Scout, Dan Cain. I’m tempted to give him a call, because he’s got some ‘splainin’ to do, Maggie.

They say that I'm feeble with age, Maggie,
My steps are less sprightly than then,
My face is a well-written page, Maggie,
And time alone was the pen.
They say we are agèd and grey, Maggie,
As sprays by the white breakers flung,
But to me you're as fair as you were, Maggie,
When you and I were young.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Terra Preta

"Truly it has been said that there is nothing new under the sun, for knowledge is revealed and is submerged again, even as a nation rises and falls. Here is a system, tested throughout the ages, but lost again and again by ignorance or prejudice, in the same way that great nations have risen and fallen and been lost to history beneath the desert sands and in the ocean depths."-Paracelsus

We are like anyone who has ever lived: we live in the modern times. And in today’s modern view knowledge is acquired and accumulated in a linear progression. "We possess more knowledge than we’ve ever had, and will certainly possess even more in the years ahead." It seems a reasonable claim, but I have come to doubt it.

Do we really know more than we ever have? Researchers can wade through the Tuckasegee River and come out with one report after another, but looking back I see that our knowledge of that river is dwindling. What about those who built the fish weirs in the river, centuries ago, who could answer questions we would not even think to ask? What about those who performed ablutions to wash away their sins and could see a river that our eyes see only dimly, if at all? What about those who were alert to the tiny turns of weather and the blooming of plants alongside the river from year to year? What about those who sat by the ancient fire under the new moon and the hunter and spoke of the uktena, swimming beneath the waters of the Tuckasegee?

I wonder what stories of the river are told anymore. Legends so well known, they could be shared with a glance and a nod? Is folklore like some extinct bird, that used to be alive, but now is just some dusty curiosity in the corner of a research lab? Stories fade, the knowledge is lost, and measurements captured by every scientific instrument available won’t be enough to bring it back.

I consider the river because I was reminded today of lost knowledge and the secrets of the past. Kelpie Wilson has posted a truthout article on the top green tech ideas of 2006. It is an informative discussion of LED lightbulbs, solar photovoltaics, wind kites and hybrid vehicles. But the last item in the article stopped me in my tracks:
"Terra preta (the black earth) is new to Western science, but it is an old technology from the Amazon that disappeared when the native populations were wiped out by European diseases after Columbus."

From our choice spot in the worldwide greenhouse of the 21st century, we can say that those Amazonian farmers employed an elegantly effective process to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and put it into long-term storage in the earth:
"The technology of black earth is simple: Instead of slashing and burning the rainforest to make way for agriculture, long lost Amazonian civilizations burned forest slash in smoldering piles to make charcoal, and then buried the charcoal in the soil. This produces an astounding increase in soil fertility. The charcoal itself adds nutrients to soil, but it also acts as a sponge to absorb and retain any manures or other added fertilizers for very long periods of time. Some of the terra preta soils created more than 500 years ago are still highly fertile today."

Somehow, those farmers KNEW. In the midst of tropical soils, poorly suited to agriculture, they created oases of fertility. Was it the result of careful experimentation or the result of fortunate mishaps? Or was it just as likely that their practices emerged from prayer and ritual? However it happened, terra preta made possible the networks of farms, villages and walled cities of THEIR modern times. Today we can measure their success by cation exchange capacity, humic acid fraction and other scores. But we can’t say we have recovered the knowledge of the black earth farmers from 2000 years ago.

Tomorrow, when I look at the Tuckasegee, I’ll think about the past and forgotten stories of the river. And in case any faint echoes still vibrate across these hills, I’ll pray that I listen carefully.

My Father's Suitcase

Via the BBC, I heard a quite remarkable lecture the other day. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk was awarded the 2006 Nobel Prize for literature, and opened his Nobel lecture with these words:

“Two years before his death, my father gave me a small suitcase filled with his writings, manuscripts and notebooks. Assuming his usual joking, mocking air, he told me he wanted me to read them after he was gone, by which he meant after he died.”

What followed was a powerful memoir on the inner life, fathers and sons, writing and the role of literature. I was not familiar with Pamuk, but if “My Father’s Suitcase” is indicative of the insight, grace and honesty of this writer, then his novels on life in Istanbul would be worth searching out.

“A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is: when I speak of writing, what comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or literary tradition, it is a person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and alone, turns inward; amid its shadows, he builds a new world with words. ...The angel of inspiration (who pays regular visits to some and rarely calls on others) favours the hopeful and the confident, and it is when a writer feels most lonely, when he feels most doubtful about his efforts, his dreams, and the value of his writing – when he thinks his story is only his story – it is at such moments that the angel chooses to reveal to him stories, images and dreams that will draw out the world he wishes to build.”

Thursday, January 4, 2007


There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness. Success comes from strength, control, and respectability. A successful person has the energy to create something, to keep control over its development, and to make it available in large quantities. Success brings many rewards and often fame. Fruits, however, come from weakness and vulnerability. And fruits are unique. A child is the fruit conceived in vulnerability, community is the fruit born through shared brokenness, and intimacy is the fruit that grows through touching one another's wounds. Let's remind one another that what brings us true joy is not successfulness but fruitfulness.
-Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

Tuesday, January 2, 2007