Friday, August 29, 2008

Searching for Teresita

The events of one’s life take place, take place. How often have I used that expression, and how often have I stopped to think what it means? Events do indeed take place; they have meaning in relation to the things around them. - N. Scott Momaday

“Could you help me find Teresita?”

Should some perplexed traveler stop me with that question, I’d have a quick reply.

“Sure. Head west out of Franklin on US 64. When you get to Cartoogechaye, turn left on the Old Murphy Road. Follow that to North Jones Creek Road, look for Gillespie Chapel and you'll reach Teresita, between Pine Mountain and Black Mountain."

While that’s a reasonably accurate answer, it’s not what writer and critic Edmund Wilson wanted when he raised the question forty-five years ago. More on that later.

This story began when I heard N. Scott Momaday read a piece called “Riding is an Exercise of the Mind” from his book, In the Presence of the Sun. It’s amazing how a few carefully chosen words can possess the power to transport a person through space and time, and bring back a flood of memories. Momaday’s words did that for me:

One autumn morning in 1946 I woke up at Jemez Pueblo.

Two decades later I would be the one waking up at Jemez Pueblo, and at about the same age as Momaday was in 1946. The twelve-year-old Momaday had come to the place of his growing up, as he put it, and found a place much like the village I saw in 1968. He described the scene:

The village and the valley, the canyons and the mountains had been there from the beginning of time, waiting for me. So it seemed….

The landscape was full of mystery and of life. The autumn was in full bloom. The sun cast a golden light upon the adobe walls and the cornfields; it set fire to the leaves of willows and cottonwoods along the river; and a fresh cold wind rand own from the canyons and carried the good scents of pine and cedar smoke, of bread baking in the beehive ovens, and of rain in the mountains. There were horses in the plain and angles of geese in the sky.

Hearing those words from Momaday took me back to Jemez. I could smell the wood smoke. I could taste the bread from those beehive ovens. I could revisit my own adventures from the time I spent there. I remembered:

One afternoon, my new-found friends at Jemez asked if I liked apricots. “Follow us,” they motioned, and in just a minute we came upon a tree loaded with apricots ripened to perfection under the New Mexico sun. The heavily laden limbs beckoned and we began enjoying the golden fruit. I had never tasted apricots more delicious, either before or since.

I had never felt more at home anywhere else, before or since.

Suddenly, my trilingual buddies were yelling frantically to one another in a language I did not understand. They took off running as fast as they could go. I turned around slowly and saw an old man at the back door of his adobe house, holding a shotgun and scowling. Surely he wouldn’t shoot a skinny little tow-headed boy for raiding his apricot tree. Or would he? And how could you blame him if he did?

I didn’t wait to find out.

Edmund Wilson’s visit to Jemez Pueblo had preceded my arrival by almost 40 years. When N. Scott Momaday began a correspondence with him in the 1960’s, Wilson wrote:

There was a beautiful Indian girl there named Teresita…If you should meet her, please remember me to her.

Momaday never found Teresita, but later reflected on Wilson’s comment:

In his long lifetime, Wilson knew a great many people and traveled widely over the earth….It fascinates me that he should recall to mind a girl in the Jemez Mountains after a span of thirty years. But why should it?

If in August, some year, when I go to see the Pecos bull run through the streets of Jemez Pueblo, I find the old woman, I shall indeed remember him to her.

One indelible memory from Jemez was when the old ladies came around selling freshly cooked tamales. Every evening they'd carry baskets of steaming hot tamales wrapped in cornhusks. I wonder about Edmund Wilson’s Teresita. Since she had been a young lady in 1930, she could have been one of those tamale vendors four decades later. Or perhaps I saw Teresita in Jemez Pueblo taking bread out of a beehive oven. It might have happened.

Now, if a perplexed traveler were to ask me for help finding Teresita, I would hesitate before answering.

“Well, that all depends. Which Teresita are you looking for?”

There is great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one's life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds irresistably. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them, walked in them, lived in them, even for a day, we keep forever in the mind's eye. They become indispensable to our well-being; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there. - N. Scott Momaday

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Great Haywood Artifact Scam

Just south of Canton, past the homeplace pictured here, the land near the confluence of Garden Creek and the Pigeon River has been inhabited for thousands of years.

The Garden Creek archaeological site consists of three mounds and two villages on a twelve-acre tract. At Garden Creek, Mann S. Valentine and his sons conducted one of the first archeological digs in North Carolina. They arrived in Haywood County in 1879 to obtain artifacts for their museum in Richmond, Virginia and employed ginseng hunters, who were most familiar with the mountain recesses, to scout for stone tools, pottery and other traces of ancient civilizations.

Soon, A. J. Osborne became the local agent for the Valentines, obtaining and forwarding artifacts taken from Garden Creek and surrounding areas in Haywood County. One of the first significant finds was a stone cup, followed by birds, animals and men, carved in stone. Learning that the Valentines paid top dollar for such relics, farmers on the East Fork of the Pigeon got busy digging for antiquities.

Having explored mounds in the Ohio River Valley, Valentine began to notice the "absolute unique character of the finds," and acknowledged that carvings of a camel and a rhinoceros could give rise to questions of authenticity. But he insisted that he had taken every imaginable precaution to guard against fraud.

Other archaeologists who examined the carvings reported:

The human figures are nearly all of a uniform type – round, regular, though somewhat flat features, totally distinct from the ordinary American Indian, with a mild, placid expression, almost suggesting that of the Chukchis of north-east Siberia, but more intelligent.

Valentine took the artifacts and photographs to London in 1883 to obtain an opinion from the Royal Anthropological Institute. One of the reviewers concluded that the objects had been manufactured with metal tools and saw no reason to regard any of them as ancient.

Despite the doubts about their origin, the Haywood County artifacts were gaining international attention for their unusual design and clues they might yield regarding the Mound Builders. Meanwhile, Cyrus Thomas was exploring mounds throughout the country for the Smithsonian Institution. After investigating Valentine's artifacts, Thomas exposed them as fraudulent in an 1894 report:

…these articles were made from the soapstone found in that region by some persons who had learned to give them the appearance of age. This is done by placing them, after being carved, in running water which is tinctured with iron, as most of the streams in that region are.

The Smithsonian report even included illustrations of bogus articles carved by the modern counterfeiters in Haywood County- who proudly demonstrated their ability to create "ancient" relics. The embarrassment to the Valentines was so great, they abandoned the plan to devote their Richmond museum to archaeology and instead shifted the emphasis to the fine arts.

In the end, the archaeologists didn’t resolve the mysteries of the Mound Builders…but they learned how a few Haywood mountaineers wielding sharp pocketknives could pull one over on the experts.

In a funny coincidence I just found that Dave Tabler, the Appalachian History blogger, already posted a story today of a West Virginia mound artifact hoax:

Friday, August 22, 2008

Unexpected Discoveries

North Carolina has plenty of places to discover, and one of my favorite books on those places is Carolina Journeys, Exploring the Trails of the Carolinas, Both Real and Imagined. It is different from other guide books – more personal and whimsical than similar volumes. I enjoyed it so much that I tried to contact the author, and learned the sad news that he had died after completing the book. It would have been fun to compare notes with someone who had worn out a copy of the 1939 WPA Guide to the Old North State.

In the introduction to his book, Tom Fowler took a couple of pages to explain his approach to sharing the places he had visited. Fowler wanted to write a guide book without providing so much information that it colored the expectations of the reader. Fowler explained that:

…the novelist Walker Percy thought about this effect of expectation upon perception. He described it as surrendering sovereignty over the experience to the expert – or at least to someone else who will evaluate your experience for you even before you experience it.
Carolina Journeys is intended to tell stories of poorly-known sites of interest in the Carolinas.

We realize that providing information about these sites is the first step in co-opting your sovereignty and reducing you to a sightseer – so our goal is to avoid providing too much information or too good directions or being too knowledgeable and authoritative. Much will be left up to you, dear reader and Carolina sojourner.

I appreciate how Fowler was careful not to rob the reader of the possibility for the experience of discovery. Nowadays, with the abundance of information just a click away, that sense of discovery is harder to come by. For whatever hiking trail or side road the traveller intends to take, it’s easy to find a detailed account posted by someone who’s already been there.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But sometimes there’s extra excitement in finding a place you’ve never heard of. That happened with the waterfalls pictured here. Had it not been for a keen-eyed navigator scanning fine print on the map, it would have been easy to drive right past the place, even though it is right next to a highway. In fact, I’d already driven past it a dozen times without knowing it was there.

I have no doubt that some readers will recognize the place. It’s not hard to find if you know where to look. But this time, I’m not going to name the place, provide directions or divulge any clues.

Then, if you do happen to stumble upon it, you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Tuckasegee Valley - 1760

A portion of the 1760 Kitchin map. The village of Evanga is indicated where the Little Tennessee and the Tuckasegee Rivers meet.

The folks at the North Carolina Collection of the University of North Carolina library in Chapel Hill have been providing a wealth of research materials online, and just this week they’ve announced the beta version of North Carolina Maps. Eventually, this collection will make available via the web 1500 historically significant maps.

I was glad to see one map in particular, the 1760 Thomas Kitchin map, A New Map of the Cherokee Nation. As far as I know, this is the first published map to show any level of detail for the Tuckasegee River Valley. Kitchin engraved the map based on “an Indian draught” and it was included in the February 1760 issue of London Magazine, along with an article describing a punitive expedition against the Cherokee and the importance of obtaining allegiance of the Cherokee to prevent French incursions from the west. In June 1760, Colonel Archibald Montgomery led British forces into Cherokee country to quell the uprising, but was ambushed and turned back, south of present-day Franklin, NC.

The Kitchin map identifies several villages located near the Tuckasegee River, including Newni, Cunnulrasha, Tuckereche, Kittewano, Cunnawiskee and Tuckeseegee.

Thomas Kitchin (1718-1784) was one of the most prolific English engravers and map publishers of his time. He published a wide range of books, many of which were unrelated to the subject of geography. He also produced maps for magazines, such as The London Magazine and books relating to history. He collaborated with Emanuel and Thomas Bowen, and Thomas Jefferys. On his own, he published the General Atlas in 1773.

Nicholas Graham announced the launch of North Carolina Maps this week:

The site currently includes over 750 maps, primarily from the State Archives and the North Carolina Collection. Maps from the Outer Banks History Center will be added in the fall. There is an impressive variety of maps on the site, including many of the earliest maps of North Carolina, state highway maps, Coast and Geodetic Survey maps, and — my personal favorite — soil survey maps. North Carolina Maps also includes at least one map for each of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

New maps and features will be added to the site on a regular basis over the next two years.

The Kitchin map and many, many more North Carolina maps are at:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Rice Farmer and A Raccoon

Extravagance of desire is the fundamental cause which has led the world into its present predicament. - Masanobu Fukuoka

For someone who favors big ideas and high ideals, the real world can be a rude awakening. Though this story took an unexpected turn, it started out as a tribute to Masanobu Fukuoka, who died Saturday at the age of 95. What surprised me was not that he had died, but that he had been alive all this time. Many years ago, when I picked up his books, I thought of him as an ancient and wizened character, although he doesn’t seem nearly that old when I look at the same photos today. Fukuoka wrote an introduction to natural farming, called The One-Straw Revolution. After reading the book, I’d not kept up with him, although I appreciated his perspective.

Fukuoka addressed not just farming, but diet, health, cultural values and the limits of human knowledge. His approach was to observe nature and submit to nature while growing the best food with the least effort. He alternated from dispensing practical advice on raising rice, winter grain, citrus fruits and vegetables on his Japanese farm, to dispensing axioms for a new philosophy of farming:

When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the effort to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized.

In serving nature all is well.

No matter how the harvest will turn out, whether or not there will be enough food to eat, in simply sowing seed and caring tenderly for plants under nature’s guidance there is joy.

I intended to celebrate the big ideas and high ideals of Mr. Fukuoka by sharing many more of his bon mots, but fate intervened. The corn crop in my garden finally reached maturity. All summer long, I’ve been anticipating fresh-picked corn, cooked to perfection and slathered in butter. The time has come. I know it. The raccoons know it. And my fidelity to Fukuoka’s precepts is being tested.

I do try to humble myself and yield to nature, even if it requires sacrifice. For instance, I don’t know of anything that compares to fresh-baked wild blackberry pie. Summer is not summer until I’ve picked a pail of those beauties and transformed them into pie. I’ll even go this far. If capital punishment is implemented for bad puns, the first item I’d request for my last meal would be a piping hot slice of blackberry pie. Even so, I accept that the flocks of turkeys will come through and pluck most of the blackberries just before I get to them. As much as I crave the berries, I don’t mind the turkeys taking a big share.

When it comes to raccoons marauding my corn patch, I draw the line, finding no consolation from Fukuoka’s adage, “In serving nature all is well.” I’ve seen the damage that coons can inflict on a corn crop in one night, and I don’t want to see it again. Raccoons are ingenious and persistent critters. Several months ago they made a habit of pilfering my bird feeder every night, an easy problem to solve by bringing the feeder inside at night.

Separating raccoons from sweet corn is not that simple. I found a zillion blog posts, from just the past week, concerning hungry raccoons tearing up corn patches. In fact, a new YouTube video features a Canadian grower’s examination of his devastated corn patch. He claims to be exasperated with the coons, but expresses it with such laconic fatalism: “Within walking distance is acres of cow corn, but they won’t eat that, no, no. They want the sweet corn, but I guess you can’t blame them. Oh well. That’s life.”

I lack the equanimity to shrug it off that easily. If I don’t act soon to foil the raccoons, they’ll get bolder and bolder. They’ve already taken three or four ears, but that was just a scouting run. I know they could take three or four dozen ears in one raid. So I’ve asked for advice and found lots of sympathy. One friend uses a live trap baited with sardines. Another friend suggests a taller fence. Another friend tells me to get reinforced packing tape, and securely tape each and every ear, strapping them to the stalk. (Instructions for that method here.) Another friend has a coon-hunting brother-in-law and says she’ll call him to see if he’ll run his dogs at my place.

I’d like to think dogs would be useful in this situation. I’d like to think my neighbor’s dogs would do the job. If I go skulking around in the dark to visit my garden, the neighbor dogs perk up and start barking at me. But as a night visitor within earshot of those dogs, I’m less familiar than the raccoons who’ve managed to ingratiate themselves and no longer set off the frenzied barking.

I considered going to the pound, to rent a dog for a week or two. I’d keep him penned in the garden to scare away the coons, and then take him back. But I don't think the pound would go for it.

I brainstormed for other solutions. Running the sprinkler all night? Motion detector lights? A radio in the corn patch…in case the dulcet tones of the BBC announcers would repel the raccoons at 3:00 in the morning?

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel so hypocritical for turning my back on Fukuoka’s generous faith in nature. I’ve worked too hard for this corn to let a pack of semi-rabid raccoons steal it all away. But maybe Fukuoka has the answer, after all, with his advice to submit to nature.

I could start a new summer tradition, and every year, when the corn begins to ripen, I could pitch my tent in the garden. I could build a campfire, read Fukuoka, watch the moon rise, count the stars, roast hot dogs, roast marshmallows, sing cowboy songs, play my harmonica, frighten myself with ghost tales, listen to the corn grow, and keep the raccoons scared away. All the usual campfire things. I could be night watchman until every ear is safely harvested.

That’s how I could go back to the garden, get closer to nature, follow the example of Masanobu Fukuoka, stymie the raccoons, AND harvest all that corn. Like Fukuoka always said:

Natural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature. It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is. It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.

Not that I expect it to happen, but if I were half as perfect as an ear of sweet corn straight from the garden, that would be mighty perfect indeed.

Monday, August 18, 2008

See That Can of Worms?

At the Great Smokies visitor center recently, I came across this postcard.

The caption on the back reads:

With rod and bait pail in hand, Clem Enloe, 84, allowed a photographer to take her picture in exchange for a box of snuff (showing in her blouse). She refused to observe the park’s fishing regulations and fished year-round using live bait.

The photographer, Joseph Sargent Hall, was a young researcher working in the park in 1937. Enloe was quick to inform him that nobody would stop her from fishing in the park. Thankfully, we have a more colorful account of Hall’s encounter with the obstinate angler.

It was said of Mrs. Clem Enloe, from Tight Run Branch, NC, that she was "an awful hand to fish." People would slyly suggest, "have Mrs. Enloe tell about her fishing rights."

And she would snap at the interviewer, "Are you a little Park man or a big Park man?" Without waiting for an answer, she’d continue, "big Park man or little Park man, you son of a bitch, I fish when I please, winter or summer. See that can of worms?" (which were then forbidden in the park)

So far, I’ve been unable to determine the location of Tight Run Branch, NC.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rainbows Made of Ice Cream

Researching old newspapers is a risky proposition for me. I start rolling through a microfilm knowing exactly what I’m looking for and, invariably, I get side-tracked. While some people fail to appreciate it, I marvel at the writing found in some of those articles from the nineteenth century. Take for instance, this piece originally published in the New York Dutchman and reprinted in an 1855 edition of the Asheville News:

We never could understand how people can get a taste of opium fastened on them. We tried a small quantity of it the other day for a “pain internally.” We were ordered to take two pills a day for four days.

The first dose was really delicious. It gave us a pink-tinged sleep, filled to the brim with girls made of rose leaves. We indulged in dreams of the most oriental order. In one of them we had a mother-of-pearl hand sled, with golden runners. With this we glided down a rainbow made of ice cream, and brought up on a terrace, the supports of which were great spars of emerald.

The second night things began to change. About the supports of the terrace anacondas began to appear, while in the distance a lot of green monkeys, with their tails burnt off, were quarrelling about the propriety of making a pin-cushion of us.

The third evening matters grew appalling. The terrace had gone, and so had the rainbow and the girls made of rose leaves, and in their stead we had a bed filled with rattlesnakes, and on the head-board four grizzly bears pulling at a hawser, one end of which was fastened to our neck and the other to an iceberg.

That men should use opium for a day does not surprise us in the least; that they should do so, however, for a month seems really wonderful. Rather than become a confirmed opium-eater we would throw ourselves into Aetna. We can imagine nothing more terrible.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Shopping for Apples

To make a long story short, I went shopping for apples today.

Now, for the long story. Hearing Gary Nabhan talk about about Silas McDowell’s Nickajack apples inspired me to go digging through my files. And here's what I found...

Working from his farm in the Cullasaja valley, Silas McDowell (1795-1879) lived in Macon County (NC) for most of his life and discovered or improved many varieties of apples. Thanks to McDowell, the Cullasaja Valley became a treasure trove of new apple varieties. In 1847, McDowell explained the origin of the Nickajack:

…it is the product of a tree left by the Cherokee Indians when they abandoned the country, and they had no mode of propagating their fruit other than by the seed. I found it when a small tree in an Indian improvement on a branch of the Sugartown [Cullasaja] called the Nick-a-jack creek - hence its name.

In 1855, McDowell listed some of the apple varieties that he had discovered. All except the first four on the list were of Cherokee origin:

Camack's Winter Sweet
Maverick's Winter Sweet
McDowell's Winter Sweet

In 1858, McDowell’s friend and fellow nurseryman, Jarvis Van Buren of Clarkesville, GA, acknowledged that successful apple production in the South was a fairly new trend and credited McDowell for that success:

Many of these [apples] were originated by the Cherokee and Creek Indians, who, it appears, were entirely ignorant of the process of propagating by grafting, but depended upon the sowing of seeds, which were collected in their intercourse with the whites. When the Indians left the country, their lands were occupied by our citizens, and since the enthusiasm for cultivating fruit has become awakened within the past ten years, these desirable varieties have been made public. Amongst our best winter apples are the Equinetely, Tillaquah, or Big Fruit, Chestoa, or Rabbit's Head, Elarkee, and Cullawhee, all of Indian origin — the latter the largest apple known.

Years later, one of McDowell’s neighbors in the Cullasaja Valley advertised even more varieties of trees for sale. This announcement appeared in the July 22, 1881 issue of the Western Reporter:

Cheap Fruit Trees. Mr. W. G. Stanfield, near Franklin, is offering the following very choice variety of apple trees at the remarkably low price of ten cents each. Don't send off for trees when you can get them so cheap at home.
Comanche Winter Sweet
Yellow Pippin
Early Harvest
Red June
Yellow June
Golden Pippin
Great Unknown
Winter Horse
Nansamond Beauty
Johnson's Fine Winter
Golden Russet
Aromatic Cordling
Clark Pearmain
Rhode Island Greening
Red Pippin
Royal Pearmain
Summer Golden Pippin
Winter Queen
Stevenson Fine Winter
Northern Spy
King Russet
Newtown Pippin

However, 33 years later, none of these appeared on a list of apples grown in Jackson County. These varieties were listed in the program for the 1914 Jackson County Fair:

York Imperial
Roman Beauty
Stayman's Wine Sap
Virginia Beauty
Wine Sap
Gano (Black Ben Davis)
Grime's Golden
Mammoth Black Twig
Bryson Seedling
Royal Limbertwig
Delaware Red
Roman Stem
Wolf River

To make a short story long, that’s the background for today's shopping trip to buy apples. Granted, it’s still early in the apple season. In another month or two, I might have more choices than I had this afternoon. I'll probably find more locally-grown apples than I found today. But just for fun, I wanted to see how many apple varieties I could find for sale in Sylva.

What better place to start than Walmart?

They had a half-dozen different apples, with the Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith coming from Washington state, and the Braeburn, Fuji and Gala shipped from Chile.

Moving on to Ingle’s I found the same roster of apples. The biggest difference from Walmart was that almost all the apples were from Washington state rather than Chile, and some of the apples were labeled organic.

Next, I visited Terry’s Produce Stand. He offered three varieties of early apples, the Cortland, Ginger Gold and Wolf River. Mercifully, none of them had come from as far away as Chile, much less Washington.

For my last foray, I stopped at Harold's Supermarket. From what I could tell, all the apples were grown in the Chilean fruit at Harold's. On the other hand, I didn't see anything labelled organic. Signs above the display listed Winesap and Jonagold apples, but I couldn't find them. Harold's did have a relatively good selection of the usual suspects: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Rome, Braeburn, Mutsu, Fuji and Gala. Additionally, they had three varieties tagged as locally grown: Ginger Gold, Wolf River and Poly Red.

When it comes to apple diversity in the market, that's a start. But who knows? Some good people are working hard to renew America’s food traditions. One day soon, we might reconnect with the rich heritage of apple-growing in our own corner of the mountains, and get our first tastes of the apples named for the places we call home. Walmart can keep their Chilean Fujis and Galas. One day soon, we might find a Nickajack, a Cullasaga, an Alarkee…

…or even the largest of all apples, the Cullawhee.

More Varieties - The Apple Journal has a nice online list with descriptions of dozens of apples.

Scanning the list, I did not see the Poly Red, but I did find Paula Red, and the description fits the apple at Harold's. Some other names from the Apple Journal list caught my eye. Here are a just a few of the more intriguing ones:

Crow Egg
Dixie Red Delight
Douglas Wormless
Hollow Log
Husk Spice
Irish Peach
Mountain Boomer
Peace Garden
Pitmaston Pineapple
Pomme Gris
Rusty Coat
Sops of Wine
Winter Banana

Illustrations -
Top, the painting is from the USDA's National Agricultural Library Pomological Watercolor Collection. This delectable online exhibit includes selections from the 7700 watercolors commissioned by the USDA starting in 1887. Since the use of scientific photography was not widespread in the late 19th Century, the USDA relied on watercolor artists to illustrate newly introduced cultivars.

Photographs, from the Ewart Ball Photographic Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville. These photos are from a 1920 Apple Show. The first photo shows a display table of North Carolina apples. The second shows a display by Holston Orchards, Altapass, NC. The third is of a large Wolf River apple grown by Patton and Gillespie. The marks on these photos indicate they were produced by Plateau Studios in Asheville where the legendary George Masa did much of his photographic work. Several years later, Ewart Ball acquired Plateau, and questions have lingered as to whether or not Masa was properly credited for his work.

Smooth Sailing on the SS Peerless

[This was originally posted last summer. Let's just say the Village of Penland developers were becoming very unhappy with me at this point last year. It looks like the perps are going to pay the price for this infamous Greek cruise funded with ill-gotten loan proceeds. I use the term "pay the price" rather loosely. The taxpayers would be picking up the tab for room and board if Anthony "Tony" Porter, Frank "Skip" Amelung and John Kevin Foster actually do prison time, and it wouldn't surprise me to see some taxpayer bailout of the banks that tossed money around without anything resembling due diligence. But, hell, that's capitalism at its best, right? I've inserted some of the reader comments that came in response to the photos.]

What we need is a good photo-journalist. The more I explore what’s happening in these mountains, the more convinced I am that the story can’t be told without pictures. Of course, a trip to the Village of Penland can provide lots of pictures…pictures of pictures of things that don’t exist.

For instance, there’s no 100,000 square feet of retail shopping space to be seen. No Diamond Lake condo to be seen. Just pictures of how it could have been.

On the other hand, you can find pictures of things that really were. Some people would call them amenities.

Like an OCEAN CRUISE. Now THAT’S an amenity.

How about an ocean cruise made possible in part with generous funding from a banking institution near you?

Welcome aboard!

But back to our discussion of photo-journalism.
Do you want a photograph of poker-playing dogs?

Or a photograph of poker-playing ALPHA dogs?

Either way, you’re in luck.

Now, I don’t recognize any of these "dawgs"…
But they look like a fun-loving bunch.
Or should I say a fun-loving "pack"?
[anonymous said - At the blackjack table - On the left, grey shirt w/ glasses: Neil O'Rourke. On the right, white shirt and bald: Kevin Foster.Don't know the others.]

When you get tired of the big boat, you can hit the water on a little boat.

Those other dawgs, too.
[anonymous said - Mr. Porter on the boat with his arms wide open, saying "Welcome Suckers" and Randy Carpenter sitting on the back of the boat helping drag it all in. After all Mr. Carpenter is the one who did the survey's and also his law office closed the loans, why do we not hear more of his involvement?]

Life is good!

[For all Village of Penland coverage: ]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beware the Bitter Buffalo Nut

While hiking recently near the Chattooga River and again at Panthertown Valley, I saw a large shrub that would have been inconspicuous except for the many pear-shaped fruits hanging from its limbs. To be more accurate, I’d say the fruits bore a resemblance to green figs in size and shape, though I knew they weren’t figs. This was one I didn’t recognize and my plant books weren’t much help. But a plant-savvy friend advised me it was a buffalo nut (Pyrularia pubera).

I’m glad that I had resisted the temptation to pick one of the fruits and bite into it. The buffalo nut is a poisonous plant, toxic when taken in large quantities, though just tasting the seed causes severe irritation of the mouth. Early colonists observed the bison and elk (then present in the Eastern woodlands) eating the fruits in winter, hence the common names buffalo nut or elk nut were applied to the plant. Other names included oil nut, mother-in-law nut, rabbitwood, mountain coconut, crazy nut, and Cherokee salve. The nut is actually a brown marble-sized nut inside the green pear-shaped drupe.

George Ellison has written a detailed natural history of the buffalo nut, with references to the early botanists' investigations of the plant. The Cherokees used the plant to make a salve for treating old sores. An oil extracted from the nut was a potential source of lamp oil.

Growing at scattered sites throughout the Southern Appalachians, the buffalo nut is a member of the sandalwood family, and like many plants in that family is a parasite. The roots of the buffalo nut latch on to a host plant and obtain nutrients and water from the root system of the host. The buffalo nut can parasitize a great number of native tree species. In particular, it has been associated with a tree that has disappeared from our forests, the chestnut, and another tree that is rapidly disappearing, the hemlock. But given its ability to thrive as a parasite, it will likely continue to hold a place in the understory of old disturbed forest sites throughout the Appalachians…

…pretty to look at, but not something you’d want to taste.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Smackass Gap

I’ve always liked Hayesville. I've been to Clay County many times over the years, and just learned something new about the place. If you’re driving west on Highway 64, you’ll cross Smackass Gap shortly before reaching the county seat.

I’m serious.

I never knew this until I took a close look at a topo map for the area. Smackass Gap is just west of Ledford Chapel, a church on the south side of Highway 64 overlooking one cove of Lake Chatuge.

According to the Board on Geographic Names, the official federal place-namers, there is only one Smackass in the United States, Clay County's own Smackass Gap. It begs the question, "Why in the world did they name it Smackass Gap?"

I have no idea.

While searching for the answer, I did come across a website for Miz Eudora Rumph, a noted author (In the Sweet By and By) who proudly hails from Smackass Gap. I also learned that Miz Eudora will be hosting a tour of Smackass Gap on September 19 and 20. Apparently, a motor coach full of Red Hat Ladies will be arriving for two days of festivities, including dining at the Hayesville Family Restaurant, a visit to Clay’s Corner (home of the possum drop), Moonshine Mash, a picnic at Chatuge Dam, and lunch at the Jarrett House in Dillsboro.

For real.

Presumably, if you pay the $216 to attend this shindig, you will find out why the place is called Smackass Gap.

On US 64 at Smacksass Gap, Clay County, NC

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Culture of Corn

The preservation of traditional crops is more than just saving seeds. It includes the preservation of the recipes and stories that earned those crops a treasured place in local culture. Many individuals and groups have recognized the value of perpetuating old-timey varieties, and it’s encouraging to see what they’ve accomplished. But those efforts can be tenuous. The story of Cherokee flour corn is a good example.

Back in the 1980s, Western Carolina University Chancellor Cotton Robinson was involved in research to restore the original strain of Cherokee flour corn. As I recall, the Cherokee Boys Club participated in raising the corn and marketing the cornmeal. I remember buying a bag of it, and discovered that it made the best cornbread I even ate. If you were to bring me a bag of that cornmeal right now, I’d drop everything else, pull out the old black skillet and bake some cornbread.

I hope that the recovery of Cherokee flour corn hasn’t fallen by the wayside. Fresh-baked cornbread is one of life’s great pleasures, and Cherokee flour corn made it even better. I’ve not found another cornmeal that comes close. In searching for the latest news on Cherokee flour corn, I did find this description posted by "blueflint" on a message board:

[The Cherokee] late pre-history corn culture was mostly based on their white flour corn, which they are very well known for and this was grown through out the Cherokee lands. If you have never seen this corn grow, it will average 12' tall but in good soil can reach 18'. This is an 8 row white flour corn that grinds silky smooth.

My search also led to a business established to grow and market old Southern crops. Ten years ago, Glenn Roberts founded Anson Mills in order to "grow, harvest and mill near-extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice, and wheat organically, and re-create ingredients that were in the Southern larder before the Civil War." The entire story, at , is worth a read. By searching for the ideal corn to produce grits, Roberts might have saved one variety from extinction. According to the Anson Mills website:

The corn was revered for its high mineral and floral characteristics, and its creamy mouthfeel. He found this corn in a bootlegger's field near Dillon, South Carolina in 1997, and planted and harvested his own first crop of 30 acres in 1998. Known as "Carolina Gourdseed White," the single-family hand-select dated back to the late 1600's. Gourdseed is a classic Southern dent corn, soft and easy to mill.

Preservation of the old varieties is so much more than just botany or agriculture or cuisine. To preserve the old crops is also to preserve language, beautiful and powerful language. I posted a piece on this last year, and it has some relevance to the current discussion:
One of the last conversations I had with someone born prior to the twentieth century was with Robert Lee Franks (1897-2000). While transcribing the 1990 interview, I recognized the poetry in his way of speaking. As he talked about growing corn, he spoke in the gentle rhythms of the past.

Here’s what Robert told me.

Making Corn

It took lots of ground to make corn,
The way the old people farmed it
On these hillsides,
Four foot apart the rows,
Hills of corn four foot apart.
Now that takes a big patch
To make anything.

We grew the Pigeon White, they call it,
And the Hamburg Red Speckled for a long time.
And we got off from that on to a corn
That was mixed a little bit with sweet corn,
Made a great big long grain
Sort of like Hickory King
But it would get ripe quicker.

Sometimes we’d grow a little wheat
And make our flour,
But not often, though.
We just traded corn
For most everything.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Terroir - A Taste of Place

Gary Paul Nabhan spoke in Highlands last night for the conclusion of the 2008 Zahner Lecture Series. I've followed his work as an ethnobotanist for a couple of decades and knew that I was in for an inspiring evening. Nabhan sees the potential for food production to nurture the land and all that lives on it. The subtitle of his latest book is "Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods."

He and his colleagues have established RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) to document and perpetuate heirloom crops, along with the stories and customs that have accompanied farming and cooking in every region of America. That work has already revealed that the Southern Appalachians contain the richest inventory of old-timey fruit, vegetable and livestock varieties in North America, similar to the unparalleled biological diversity of wild plants and animals in the mountains.

As an introduction to his work, Nabhan shared the Terroir-ist Manifesto. Terroir is a French term meaning "a taste of place." In a limited sense, terroir refers to a discernable difference, such as that in wine made from grapes grown in a particular locale. The Terroir-ist Manifesto suggests a broader and deeper meaning for the word.

A Terroir-ist’s Manifesto For Eating in Place
Renewing America’s Food Traditions

Know where your food has come from
through knowing those who produced it for you,
from farmer to forager, rancher or fisher
to earthworms building a deeper, richer soil,
to the heirloom vegetable, the nitrogen-fixing legume,
the pollinator, the heritage breed of livestock,
and the sourdough culture rising in your flour.

Know where your food has come from
by the very way it tastes:
its freshness telling you
how far it may have traveled,
the hint of mint in the cheese
suggesting what the goat has eaten,
the terroir of the wine
reminding you of the lime
in the stone you stand upon,
so that you can stand up for the land
that has offered it to you.
Know where your food has come from
by ascertaining the health & wealth
of those who picked & processed it,
by the fertility of the soil that is left
in the patch where it once grew,
by the traces of pesticides
found in the birds & the bees there.
Know whether the bays & shoals
where your shrimp & fish once swam
were left richer or poorer than before
you & your kin ate from them.

Know where your food comes from
by the richness of stories told around the table
recalling all that was harvested nearby
during the years that came before you,
when your predecessors & ancestors,
roamed the same woods & neighborhoods
where you & yours now roam
Know them by the songs sung to praise them,
by the handmade tools kept to harvest them,
by the rites & feasts held to celebrate them,
by the laughter let loose to show them our affection.

Know where your foods come from
by the patience displayed while putting them up,
while peeling, skinning, coring or gutting them,
while pit-roasting, poaching or fermenting them,
while canning, salting or smoking them,
while arranging them on a plate for our eyes to behold.
Know where your food comes from
by the slow savoring of each and every morsel,
by letting their fragrances lodge in your memory
reminding you of just exactly where you were the very day
that you became blessed by each of their distinctive flavors.

When you know where your food comes from
you can give something back to those lands & waters,
that rural culture, that migrant harvester,
curer, smoker, poacher, roaster or vinyer.
You can give something back to that soil,
something fecund & fleeting like compost
or something lasting & legal like protection.
We, as humans, have not been given
roots as obvious as those of plants.
The surest way we have to lodge ourselves
within this blessed earth is by knowing
where our food comes from.

Gary Paul Nabhan, January 2007

National Public Radio broadcast a report on RAFT in 2005 and features a webpage with the broadcast, music, a list of endangered foods and links to many of the groups that have partnered to create RAFT:

Ozymandias of the Appalachians

In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
- Horace Smith, Ozymandias

Civilizations come. Civilizations go. That’s just as true here in the mountains as it is anywhere else.

Not long ago I discovered a unique place – several miles of pavement that used to be the primary U. S. highway climbing the Blue Ridge to Asheville and other points west. It’s gated off now. You can’t drive it anymore, although you can hike it. If you’re tired of seeing forests destroyed for roads, you can go there and watch a road being consumed by a forest. I experience mixed feelings whenever I visit, finding the site both reassuring and eerie, and somehow reminiscent of Ozymandias. I even have postcards of what it used to be.

Now and then, a mysterious artifact of a past civilization will become a landmark in our world. Judaculla Rock, for instance. Or Nikwasi Mound. Or Track Rock. Or Fort Mountain. We tend to see these as isolated oddities, rather than viewing them all in some cohesive context. At this point, it’s difficult to connect the dots and see how they form a picture of a whole civilization that occupied the Southeastern quadrant of our continent. We’re quick to call it ancient, but it was the modern civilization of its time, just like we’re the modern civilization of our time.

Whether we can see it or not, the civilization was here and left us some messages. Archaeologist Tommy Charles has found more than 300 petroglyphs in the state of South Carolina. How many more have been destroyed? How many more will never be found? Who knows what once stood where we stand, the forgotten Babylon beneath our feet?

If you're ever headed toward Chattanooga, pull over at Cleveland, Tennessee. Ask for directions to the Great Wall of Chatata, near the Hiawassee River. Tell them you’d like to see the ancient inscriptions carved into the wall. I suspect you’ll be greeted with puzzled looks.

Amnesia has overtaken that place now. But had you gone to Bradley County, TN in the summer of 1891, anyone could have directed you to the farm of J. H. Hooper. You would have seen evidence of a curved wall, seven hundred feet long, comprised of three courses of red sandstone blocks. During his visit to Chatata that year, Dr. J. Hampden Porter of the Smithsonian Institute examined the markings on the wall and recognized animal forms and emblems, the old and the new moon, the destroying quoit, the thunder bird, the serpent and forms like many Old World alphabets. Another visitor compared the Chatata writings to those at Dighton, Massachusetts and with the Hamath Inscriptions.

Subsequent experts would declare the markings to be nothing more than fossilized snail trails and that the wall was merely a natural sandstone ridge. Even if they’re correct, even if Chatata does NOT point to an ancient civilization of the Southeast, plenty of other signs do.

The challenge is to make sense of them when they are scattered in disarray like the statue of Ozymandias.

I think it’s worth a try.

And in case the poem printed above is not the Ozymandias you remember, an explanation is in order. In December of 1817, Percy Shelley and Horace Smith engaged in a contest to write a sonnet. History and the critics would tell us that Shelley won. Smith went on to retitle his poem, "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below." Whew!

To his credit, Shelley stuck with the one-word title for his sonnet:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
"Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

[Illustrations - Top, lacking a photo of King Ozzy himself, the best I could come up with was Josef Stalin; middle, 1930s era postcard along the road also known as Old US 70; bottom, A. J. Rawson drawings of inscriptions at Chatata. ]

Finally, someone has made a political statement by illustrating Shelley's Ozymandias:

[I need to update this even before posting it. After writing this story, I saw that one of my favorite blogs, Appalachian History, had just featured a story on mysterious Fort Mountain, GA written by guest host Tim Hooker. He gives us a nice first-person account of his visit to Fort Mountain, or as he calls it, The Poor Man's Stonehenge. When I clicked over to view Tim's own blog, Sushi Tuesday, I saw that he was from Cleveland, TN. So I'm going to pass this along to him, in case he can fill us in on the latest details surrounding the Great Wall of Chatata. I'll leave no stone unturned, so to speak, to get to the bottom of this.]

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Nickajack Apples

Renewing America’s Food Traditions, a new book edited by Gary Paul Nabhan, is a visual feast, a celebration of “the great diversity of foods that gives North America its distinctive culinary identity and reflects our multicultural heritage.” Tell me, where else would you go to find a recipe for Passenger Pigeon Pot Pie? It's in there.

When I opened the book for the first time and flipped through the pages, I was looking for any local references. On page 147 I found a good one, a profile of the Nickajack apple, made popular by Silas McDowell of Macon County.

Silas McDowell has been a hero of mine for many years. A horticulturalist, naturalist, historian and writer, he left us a unique record of life in this corner of the mountains during the 1800s. When I cross the gap up the mountain from where I live now, it isn't far to the Cullasaja valley where McDowell lived and learned. I like to imagine that if he had journeyed from his home to Cullowhee, the trail would have taken him right through what is now my bean-field. It could have happened! I just regret that I wasn’t there to talk with him.

Certainly, Silas would have been eager to discuss his search for native apple trees and especially for varieties that would be good winter-keepers. In 1856, The Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste, published a description of the Nickajack:

THIS very fine and beautiful Southern Seedling Apple originated in Macón County, North Carolina, among the Cherokee Indians, in the vicinity of Nickajack Creek, from which the name is taken. It was first brought into notice by Silas McDowell, Esq., of Franklin, North Carolina,"a most industrious and enthusiastic pomologist, who sent me scions and specimens of the fruit four years ago. It is one of the best of our winter apples, keeps well until April, and, grown at the North, will no doubt keep till June or July. Size, large. Form, rather more oblong than flat. Skin, smooth. Color, dark-reddish purple to a lighter brownish red, striped on an olive-green foundation. Stalk, short, flesh, yellow, subacid, and very palatable. JOHN R. STANFORD, Clarksville, Geo

One of the pleasures of studying the old apple varieties, and culinary heritage in general, is the delectable language that goes with it. Over the years, the Nickajack apple has also been known as the Carolina Spice, Cheatam Pippin, Winter Rose, Winter Horse, Missouri Pippin, and World’s Wonder.

As it turns out, Gary Nabhan will be discussing his new book tonight in Highlands, a place where Silas McDowell spent much time exploring. And so it is that Nabhan will be following in the footsteps, both literally and figuratively, of one of the most fascinating people to ever walk these mountains.
A pair of Nickajack apples

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Check Out These Three

Rich Stevenson – NC Waterfalls

I finally met Rich Stevenson last week at the opening for a photo exhibit at Gallery 86. I was already familiar with Stevenson's fine website devoted to NC Waterfalls (

In addition to his gorgeous photography, he provides driving and hiking directions and detailed descriptions for each waterfall. The site is as close as you’ll find to a exhaustive listing of North Carolina waterfalls. Rich is a great guy who has done a great work collecting this information and sharing it with the world, via the web. If you’re planning a waterfall trip, maybe looking for a falls you’ve never visited before, then his website is the place to start.

The Gallery 86 show includes photographs by Rich Stevenson and other members of the Southern Appalachian Photographer’s Guild. It continues through August 23. Gallery 86 is located at 86 North Main Street, and is open Monday-Saturday 10-5. (828-452-0593)

If you go, be sure to find the photograph that Rich took at Max Patch one snowy winter day. Simply amazing!

Kathryn Stripling Byer – Here, Where I Am

Recently, I stumbled upon a relatively new blog, Here, Where I Am, from Cullowhee’s own Kathryn Stripling Byer, who has been North Carolina’s poet laureate since 2005. Of course, the blog maintains the same high standard of all her previous work.

There’s a story to how I found her blog. Last winter, on a visit to see some Maud Gatewood paintings at the Asheville Art Museum, I caught the last few minutes of a talk and reading by Kay Byer. One poem in particular reached out and grabbed me, and stayed with me. I kept meaning to request a copy of the poem, but never got around to it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I did a web search and found that it was posted on this new blog. The poem is Last Light and anyone who knows and loves the "spirits of this place" would enjoy it.

Also, Kay’s 2007 appearance on North Carolina Bookwatch, can be viewed by following either of these links:

It's well worth watching.

Gary Paul Nabhan – Zahner Lecture

All summer long, I’ve been reading the announcements for the events of the Zahner Conservation Lecture Series at the Highlands Nature Center in Highlands, NC. Every time, I have wanted to attend. Each program sounded like it would be fantastic, but I never made it up the mountain.

That’s going to change this week. This Thursday night, August 7, at 7 P.M., the program will be "Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Restoring Diversity to Our Farms" with author Gary Paul Nabhan. Among his many honors, Nabhan received a MacArthur Fellowship ("Genius Grant") and the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing.

It was many years ago that I became acquainted with Nabhan’s work. He was a co-founder of Native Seeds/Search, an organization devoted to preserving agricultural diversity in the Southwest. His life as an ecologist and writer has taken many different directions. One of his books on my shelf is Cross-pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry:

A pioneering ethnobotanist, Gary Paul Nabhan credits the arts with sparking unlikely scientific breakthroughs and believes that such "cross-pollination" engenders new forms of expression that are essential to discovery. In this highly readable book, he tells four stories to illustrate this idea. In the first, coping with color blindness in art class leads to his career as a scientist; in the second, ancient American Indian songs, when translated, reveal an understanding of plants and animals that rivals modern research; in the third, a poem inspires an approach to diabetes using desert plants; and in the fourth, a coalition of scientists and artists creates the Ironwood Forest National Monument in the Sonoran Desert.

According to the news release announcing the Thursday lecture:

Nabhan will speak about his latest book, "Renewing America’s Food Traditions." The book is a beautifully illustrated and a dramatic call to recognize, celebrate, and conserve the great diversity of foods that gives North America its distinctive culinary identity that reflects America’s multicultural heritage. Nabhan will offer up rich natural and cultural histories and folk traditions associated with the rarest food plants and animals in North America. He highlights the success stories of food recovery, habitat restoration, and market revitalization that chefs, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and foresters have recently achieved. Through such "food parables," Nabhan and his colleagues build a persuasive argument for eater-based conservation.

Over three decades, he has worked with more than a dozen indigenous communities on cross-cultural initiatives to revive indigenous foods to prevent diabetes, to restore ancient agricultural landscapes and to honor traditional knowledge.

Zahner Conservation Lectures 2008 at Highlands Nature Center, 930 Horse Cove Road, Highlands, 828-526-2602

Sounds like a winner to me.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Profits and Prophets

We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

With the arrival of August, I’ve had a couple of things on my mind:

1) It was one year ago that Jackson County enacted steep slope and subdivision development ordinances. At the time they were passed, we were promised that those ordinances would be “revisited” after twelve months. I intend to revisit them this week, whether or not anyone else does.

2) Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer and dissident, died yesterday. Many years ago, when I picked up The Gulag Archipelago and read Solzhenitsyn’s account of his arrest by the Soviet authorities, it sent chills through my body. What a powerful and memorable piece of writing he gave us, in that one story alone.

More than once in the year since the passage of the development ordinances, we’ve seen some hideous travesties proposed by one developer or another. And more than one Jackson County citizen who had expected the ordinances to reign in some of the developers’ more egregious acts has raised a voice in protest, “Buh-buh-but, whaddabout the regulations we have on the books now?” Invariably, county officials have explained that the developers’ schemes “comply with the new ordinances." Either that, or we learn that it’s a moot point, since hundreds of developments were grandfathered in and don’t have to play by the rules, anyhow.

If you thought that a few ordinances were going to the stem the tide of rapacious over-development in Jackson County, I can understand your disappointment in how things have turned out. I’m disappointed, too, but not surprised. Right here on the home-front, we’ve seen once again how well-meaning legalistic solutions are insufficient to meet the problems we face. Solzhenitsyn understood this point and elaborated on it during a commencement address at Harvard in June 1978:

Western society has given itself the organization best suited to its purposes, based, I would say, on the letter of the law. The limits of human rights and righteousness are determined by a system of laws; such limits are very broad. People in the West have acquired considerable skill in using, interpreting and manipulating law, even though laws tend to be too complicated for an average person to understand without the help of an expert. Any conflict is solved according to the letter of the law and this is considered to be the supreme solution. If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint, a willingness to renounce such legal rights, sacrifice and selfless risk: it would sound simply absurd. One almost never sees voluntary self-restraint. Everybody operates at the extreme limit of those legal frames. An oil company is legally blameless when it purchases an invention of a new type of energy in order to prevent its use. A food product manufacturer is legally blameless when he poisons his produce to make it last longer: after all, people are free not to buy it.

I have spent all my life under a communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man's noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to examine the direction of freedom and the direction of the media in Western society (from as far back as the Renaissance) and describes where those trends will lead. If anything, his words have an even more resounding ring of truth in 2008 than in 1978:

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity? If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era. This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.

I'd recommend reading the entire text of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Harvard commencement address, A World Split Apart. During this political campaign season, the candidates all have plenty that they want us to hear, but none of it is as relevant or thoughtful or challenging or nuanced as what Solzhenitsyn shared more that thirty years ago.

Listening to the Garden

I remember hot August afternoons on my grandmother’s front porch, stringing and snapping and shelling.

I had to eat so many green beans when I was a kid that it’s a miracle I’m not green today.

But I still know what’s good. So I planted enough half runners this year to put some up. Now, harvest time has arrived. This morning, I found my Ball Blue Book, took out a fresh box of canning salt, lined up the empty mason jars on my kitchen counter, and set out for the garden, bags and buckets in hand to gather a mess of beans.

As often happens, I got distracted as soon as I set foot in the garden. I was unprepared for an aural assault. Not just the chirping of the birds and the chattering of the insects. It was humming. Thrumming. Murmuring. Buzzing. Droning.

It rolled me back on my heels. Next to my bean rows, the stalks of corn were covered with bees of various kinds. Hundreds of bees. Thousands of bees. The garden was filled with the sound of their wings. The bees were collecting pollen from the tassels atop the corn plants, their knee sacs bulging with the golden harvest.

The corn patch was full of life, bees and butterflies, beetles and fireflies. The ears of corn are ripening, but they’re not ready yet. In a week or two, I expect I’ll be enjoying the corn just as much as these creatures are enjoying it today.

Until then, I’ll be busy canning green beans…

…and listening to the garden.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Secrets of the Salamanders

The Chattooga River hosts a great diversity of rare salamanders. Don't assume that they just swim around and hide under rocks. These salamanders have a story to tell - an old, old story. Specifically, their DNA is evidence of the geologic changes to the rivers in the Southeast.

As mentioned before, I am a map fiend and, when studying maps, tend to look for the divides between adjoining river basins. Until recently, it had not occurred to me how those boundaries have shifted over time. The Chattooga River is a good example. Today, it joins the Tallulah River to become the Tugaloo and eventually the Savannah River, flowing along the South Carolina-Georgia line all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

If you go back in time, though, prior to Pleistocene epoch, it was a different story. The Chattooga was a headwaters stream to the Chattachoochee River, flowing southwest into the Gulf of Mexico.

The process that diverted the Chattooga to the Savannah River system is called stream capture. If you visit Tallulah Gorge, south of Clayton, NC, you'll overlook the place where the rapidly down-cutting Savannah carved away at relatively soft rock and, ultimately pulled the Chattooga and Tallulah Rivers away from the Chattahoochee. (See map below.)

This was not the only instance of stream capture in the Southern Appalachians, but is the best known and most dramatic. Clearly, the diversion of a stream from one river drainage to another leaves a mark on the topography of the land. Less obvious is the impact on the distribution and gene flow of aquatic creatures such as mollusks, bog turtles and, yes, salamanders.

The genetic record reveals that the populations of salamanders in the Chattahoochee and Savannah River basins are more closely related to each other than to salamanders in the Tennessee River basin just across the Eastern Continental Divide. The long-ago geologic process that shifted the headwaters of the Chattahoochee to the Savannah is still reflected in the DNA of the salamanders that inhabit those rivers.

So if you start a float trip down the Chattooga today, you'll no longer reach the Gulf of Mexico. You will, however, share the river with salamanders whose ancestors traveled that watery route from the Gulf to the mountains, a long time ago.

SourcesRiver Capture in the Tallulah District, Georgia, by Douglas Wilson Johnson appeared in the journal Science, Volume 25 (March 1907), pp. 428-432, and provides a good explanation of the process.

The study of salamander DNA was published as Allozyme Variation in Neighboring Isolated Populations of the Plethodontid Salamander Leurognathus marmoratus, S. Randal Voss, David G. Smith, Christopher K. Beachy and David G. Heckel, Journal of Herpetology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 493-497.

Illustrations – Top, looking hundreds of feet down at the falls of Tallulah Gorge. Middle, another view of Tallulah Gorge, facing downstream. Bottom, a map showing the course of the rivers before (A) and after (B) the stream capture event at Tallulah Gorge. (Click on map to enlarge.)

From the past to the future - Like most geologic processes, stream capture is inexorably underway right now. The rapidly eroding gorges of the Keowee-Toxaway basin, in the vicinity of Toxaway, are eating their way toward the headwaters of the French Broad River and will eventually divert those waters away from their present course, in what will likely be the next major stream capture event in the Southern Appalachians. I can hardly wait!