Monday, September 8, 2008

Return to Atagahi

Synchronicity is a funny thing. After a couple of weeks of working too hard, the call of the wild was becoming ever more insistent. The time had come for me to get out on the trail and reconnect with my inner woodland gnome. But just before I left the house, I checked the computer. Google Reader alerted me to an update from one of my favorite blogs, where the following quote had been reprinted:

A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.
(From ARCTIC DREAMS, by Barry Lopez)

Aha! "A spiritual landscape within the physical landscape" has become as much a part of my reality as the air I breathe. And so I had this quote in mind as I arrived at Kuwahi, the mulberry place, the sacred mountain, where a sign explained:

The Cherokee believed bears had their townhouse inside this mountain. Bears would congregate and hold dances here in the fall before retiring to their dens for the winter.

I peered through the fog and the mist swirling around this mountain and tried to catch a glimpse of the valley below before reading from the sign again:

Nearby was the enchanted lake of Atagahi, where wounded bears would submerge in the water and be cured of their injuries when they emerged. The animals kept the lake invisible to hunters, but if a human were to sharpen his spiritual vision by prayer, fasting, and all-night vigil, there was a slight chance they might catch a glimpse of Atagahi at daybreak. The lake would appear as a wide but shallow body of purple water, fed by springs flowing from high cliffs. Paw prints of all the bears that had visited would be impressed in the sands along the shore. Fish and reptiles teemed in the water and a multitude of birds flew constantly overhead.

Looking down through the clouds, I could see a trace of a lake. As if to quell the excitement of tourists who might think they’ve seen Atagahi, the sign continued:

The lake you see in the distance today is Fontana, created during World War II to generate electricity for the war effort.


Of course.


Not to be confused with Atagahi.

When I returned from Kuwahi, I picked up the most indispensible book ever written about the Southern Appalachians. I wonder if people appreciate how fortunate we are to have such a book about this place we call home - James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees. Mooney described the enchanted lake:

Westward from the headwaters of Oconaluftee river, in the wildest depths of the Great Smoky mountains, which form the line between North Carolina and Tennessee, is the enchanted lake of Atagâ'hï, "Gall place." Although all the Cherokee know that it is there, no one has ever seen it, for the way is so difficult that only the animals know how to reach it. Should a stray hunter come near the place he would know of it by the whirring sound of the thousands of wild ducks flying about the lake, but on reaching the spot he would find only a dry flat, without bird or animal or blade of grass, unless he had first sharpened his spiritual vision by prayer and fasting and an all-night vigil.

Because it is not seen, some people think the lake has dried up long ago, but this is not true. To one who had kept watch and fast through the night it would appear at daybreak as a wide-extending but shallow sheet of purple water, fed by springs spouting from the high cliffs around. In the water are all kinds of fish and reptiles, and swimming upon the surface or flying overhead are great flocks of ducks and pigeons, while all about the shores are bear tracks crossing in every direction. It is the medicine lake of the birds and animals, and whenever a bear is wounded by the hunters he makes his way through the woods to this lake and plunges into the water, and when he comes out upon the other side his wounds are healed. For this reason the animals keep the lake invisible to the hunter.

I have another book, as unreadable as Mooney’s book is engrossing. That book is Occoneechee, The Maid of the Mystic Lake, by Robert Frank Jarrett, the same Robert Frank Jarrett who was the original proprietor of the Jarrett House in Dillsboro. The only reason I mention his volume of bad verse is because the story of Atagahi inspired Jarrett’s interminable poem about the lovely Indian maiden, Occoneechee. Perhaps a brief sample is enough to discourage anyone from making the effort to obtain a copy of Jarrett’s book:

There the stream Oconaluftee
Hides its source far from the eye,
Of the white man in his rovings,
Far upon the mountain high;
And the forest land primeval,
Roamed by doe and wandering bear,
And the hissing, coiling serpent,
Was not stranger to them there.

Catamount and mountain-boomer
Sprang from cliff-side into trees,
And the eagle, hawk and vulture
Winged their course on every breeze.
At the footfall of this maiden
Sped the gobbler wild and free,
From the maiden Occoneechee
Flitted butterfly and bee.

For anyone who does enjoy that sort of thing, another hundred pages of it awaits the eager reader. I give Jarrett his due, though, he considered the spiritual landscape within the physical landscape, that enchanted lake, that place called Atagahi.

With James Mooney's help, I have Atagahi marked on my maps, in case my prayer and fasting gives me the glimpse I long for. Whenever I am near it, I listen carefully, in case I hear the whirring sound of the thousands of wild ducks flying about that enchanted lake.

Who knows? Maybe that sign on the mountain was right:

The Great Spirit told them, “If they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they can come to a magic lake and be made well again.”

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