Jack Frost is one capricious little dude. I didn’t expect to wake up to three inches of snow on the deck this morning. And I can’t remember when I’ve seen so much snow AND so much fall color at the same time.
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Jack Frost is one capricious little dude. I didn’t expect to wake up to three inches of snow on the deck this morning. And I can’t remember when I’ve seen so much snow AND so much fall color at the same time.
Friday, October 24, 2008
Call me greedy, but I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to talk about my favorite places in the mountains. Some things are best kept secret, lest throngs of visitors descend upon them. But at the risk of contributing to that traffic in some tiny way, I can’t resist talking about the Chattooga River.
I’ve not had a particularly successful season of fall photography. When the pictures turn out "blah" I can always resort to my standard, "The light just wasn’t quite right that day." That’s a lot easier than acknowledging my creative and technical deficiencies. So, on this rainy October afternoon, I decided to go for as close to a sure thing as I know: the Bullpen bridge across the Chattooga River. I arrived there under my favorite lighting conditions, a steady drizzle, and commenced to shooting. (Apologies to my poor mistreated Nikon.)
The Chattooga is gorgeous any time of year. The Chattooga has a spirit to it that I won’t even attempt to describe. And the recorded history of the Chattooga is endlessly fascinating.
Intending to pluck out some tidbit of Chattooga lore to accompany these photos, I turned to James Mooney and what I have touted (ad nauseum) as the most indispensable book ever written about the place we inhabit, his Myths of the Cherokee.
Once again, Mooney came through, with his reference to Tsatugi as the name commonly written Chattooga or Chatuga. Mooney offered possible Cherokee derivations:
From words signifying respectively "he drank by sips," from gatugia…or "he has crossed the stream and come out on upon the other side," from gatugi.
But according to Mooney, Tsatugi was a name of foreign origin, specifically from the Creeks who laid claim to at least a portion of the Chattooga River during the first half of the eighteenth century. More often than not, the Cherokees contested the claims of the Creeks in North Georgia and Western North Carolina:
The ordinary condition between the two tribes was one of hostility, with occasional intervals of good will.
Mooney listed several place names reflecting the former presence of Creeks, among them Coweeta, Tomatola, Coosa, and Chattooga. All this time I had never thought that Chattooga, or those other names, might be anything other than Cherokee.
So much for today’s toponymy lesson. While perusing this topic, I discovered another bit of Chattooga trivia. In June 2002, some Atlantans travelling the Chattooga made a remarkable discovery. An odd-shaped log protruding from the riverbank was, in fact, a 32-foot long dugout canoe constructed in the Cherokee style, but with metal tools. Carbon dating of the yellow pine canoe suggests it was crafted around 1760. The ancient canoe is on display at the Oconee Heritage Center in Walhalla, South Carolina. Now that I’ve learned about the old canoe, it’s gone straight to the top of my list of things to see in Walhalla.
Canoe photos and more at: http://www.oconeeheritagecenter.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3&Itemid=1
A couple of days ago, I harvested sweet potatoes. Back in mid-summer, I set out nine Beauregard slips on the keyhole garden near my front door. I knew I’d enjoy the foliage of the vines, even if the sweet potatoes didn’t produce much. But they produced quite generously with some really big potatoes and lots of small ones. These Beauregards have a red skin and a smooth textured flesh. I grew them once, a long time ago, and intend to grow some again next year, starting them earlier so they’ll have more time to fill out before the first frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-Robert Frost, 1916
Saturday, October 18, 2008
The odd perversity of human nature. How else can you explain it? The fruit associated with our expulsion from Paradise is the fruit we hold in highest regard.
The forbidden fruit,
The golden apples,
The apple of discord,
William Tell’s apple,
Isaac Newton’s apple,
Johnny Appleseed’s apple,
Apple of my eye,
Apple a day,
Baseball hot dogs apple pie and Chevrolet,
An apple for the teacher,
The Big Apple
And one bad apple.
How ‘bout them apples?
On a brisk October afternoon in the 1850s Silas McDowell wandered the Cullasaja Valley searching for wild apples. On that same afternoon, hundreds of miles to the north, Henry David Thoreau set out from Concord searching for wild apples. Silas left us the Nickajack, the Alarkee, the Equinetely, the Cullawhee, the Junaluskee, the Watauga, the Tillequah and the Chestooah. Henry left us a treatise on Wild Apples in which he contemplated the naming of them.
Oh, the delights of pomaceous nomenclature! When enthobotanist Gary Nabhan visited Highlands recently, he spoke of the many varieties of apples originating from the Southern Appalachians:
I think the names of these apples are interesting because some of the varieties go by multiple names. The Nickajack apple that was first promoted in Franklin was also known as Carolina Spice, Spotted Buck, Colonel Summerhour and World’s Wonder. What a great name for an apple – World’s Wonder. You have things like Hubberson’s Nonesuch and Seek-No-Further. Just park yourself under that tree and wait for them to fall into your lap! That’s about the highest compliment you can give another species. Seek No Further!
When apple breeders breed apples they must eventually name those apples. That was the challenge facing some Minnesota apple breeders after they crossed a Gala with a Braeburn:
We put a very scientific 'keep an eye on this one' note on the Sugar Shack tree. Of course, we hadn't named it yet, and we are the type of people who would name an apple 'Keep An Eye On This One,' but we later thought 'Sugar Shack' was a better name. The guys who named the apple variety 'Westfield Seek-no-further' in Connecticut 'way back in the mid-1700's didn't do too bad with a novel name, though. Antique apple collectors are still growing the variety, and the intriguing name certainly has something to do with that. We could name an apple 'Minnesota Never-stop-growing-this-one' and then hang around a few hundred years and see if it worked. It's worth a shot.
Some UK orchardists consider how the naming of apples has become yet another corporate enterprise in this fallen world:
Part of the appeal of the old heritage apple varieties is their good honest names. In the "good old days" apples were named without fuss. A common strategy was the name of the person who discovered them - Pott’s Seedling, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Kidd’s Orange Red, Granny Smith, Chivers Delight and so on. If that didn’t have quite the right ring to it, the name of the local village might suffice: Ribston Pippin, Barnack Beauty, Allington Pippin, Braeburn. Another popular strategy was to borrow the name of a famous person such as Lord Lambourne, Freyberg, Bismarck for example. If you were stuck (or not very inventive) you just went for something really simple like Red Delicious or Golden Delicious. In the 21st century however the important job of naming (or branding) new apple varieties is no longer left to the happy grower, but has been taken over by marketing departments, who see apples as just another consumer item, and might as well be naming a new car as a new apple. Thus we have Kanzi, a brand new 21st century apple, which means "hidden treasure" in Swahili - of course.
For the last word on this subject, I’ll yield to Henry David Thoreau for a passage from Wild Apples:
The Naming of Them
 It would be a pleasant pastime to find suitable names for the hundred varieties which go to a single heap at the cider-mill. Would it not tax a man's invention,--no one to be named after a man, and all in the lingua vernacula? Who shall stand godfather at the christening of the wild apples? It would exhaust the Latin and Greek languages, if they were used, and make the lingua vernacula flag. We should have to call in the sunrise and the sunset, the rainbow and the autumn woods and the wild flowers, and the woodpecker and the purple finch and the squirrel and the jay and the butterfly, the November traveller and the truant boy, to our aid.
 In 1836 there were in the garden of the London Horticultural Society more than fourteen hundred distinct sorts. But here are species which they have not in their catalogue, not to mention the varieties which our Crab might yield to cultivation.
 Let us enumerate a few of these. I find myself compelled, after all, to give the Latin names of some for the benefit of those who live where English is not spoken,--for they are likely to have a world-wide reputation.
 There is, first of all, the Wood-Apple (Malus sylvatica); the Blue-Jay Apple; the Apple which grows in Dells in the Woods, (sylvestrivallis), also in Hollows in Pastures (campestrivallis); the Apple that grows in an old Cellar-Hole (Malus cellaris); the Meadow-Apple; the Partridge-Apple; the Truant's Apple, (Cessatoris), which no boy will ever go by without knocking off some, however late it may be; the Saunterer's Apple,--you must lose yourself before you can find the way to that; the Beauty of the Air (Decus Aëris); December-Eating; the Frozen-Thawed, (gelato-soluta,) good only in that state; the Concord Apple, possibly the same with the Musketaquidensis; the Assabet Apple; the Brindled Apple; Wine of New England; the Chickaree Apple; the Green Apple (Malus viridis);--this has many synonyms; in an imperfect state, it is the Cholera morbifera aut dysenterifera, puerulis dilectissima;--the Apple which Atalanta stopped to pick up; the Hedge-Apple (Malus Sepium); the Slug-Apple (limacea); the Railroad-Apple, which perhaps came from a core thrown out of the cars; the Apple whose Fruit we tasted in our Youth; our Particular Apple, not to be found in any catalogue,--Pedestrium Solatium; also the Apple where hangs the Forgotten Scythe; Iduna's Apples, and the Apples which Loki found in the Wood; and a great many more I have on my list, too numerous to mention,--all of them good. As Bodæus exclaims, referring to the cultivated kinds, and adapting Virgil to his case, so I, adapting Bodæus,--
"Not if I had a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths,
An iron voice, could I describe all the forms
And reckon up all the names of these wild apples."
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Hear what I have to say
Just like children sleeping
We could dream this night away.
But there’s a full moon rising
Let’s go dancing in the light
We know where the music’s playing
Let's go out and feel the night.
-Neil Young, Harvest Moon
Shine on, Harvest Moon, the full moon of song, the full moon I’ve always known by name.
The next one after Harvest Moon, the Hunter’s Moon is the full moon that shone over these blessed hills this week.
Every full moon has a name. In fact, I’m learning that every full moon has many names. At Beyond the Fields We Know the Hunter’s Moon is identified by dozens of names, such as Acorns Falling Moon, Big Chestnut Moon, Chrysanthemum Moon, Moon When Geese Leave, Moon That Turns the Leaves White, Striped Gopher Looks Back Moon, Travel in Canoes Moon, and Winter Coming Moon.
The list suggests so much. I think of the remote places and the distant times that people looked up through the burnished leaves of autumn, observed the full moon, and called it by name. I’ll confess that on any given day, I can find plenty of reasons to be disenchanted with humanity. But when I consider some long-ago father teaching his children about the Moon When Geese Leave, I’m enchanted.
Perhaps the Creator gave us poetry to compensate in small measure for the ways in which we humans are something less than the animals and plants that surround us. Whether or not that’s the case, there’s poetry in the names of the full moons.
The Farmer’s Almanac lists the full moons of the year by the names are generally known in America. After the Harvest Moon and the Hunter’s Moon come the Beaver Moon, the Long Nights Moon, the Wolf Moon, the Snow Moon, the Crow Moon, the Pink Moon, the Flower Moon, the Strawberry Moon, the Buck Moon and the Sturgeon Moon. For the most part, these names are derived from the Algonquin culture of the Northeast
Another list appeared in a Shepherd’s Calendar published in the 16th century. These names hark back to earlier times on the British Isles with hints of Greek and Roman mythology. What we call the Harvest Moon was known as the Barley Moon, followed by the Blood Moon, the Snow Moon, the Oak Moon, the Wolf Moon, the Storm Moon, the Chaste Moon, the Seed Moon, the Hare Moon, the Dyad Moon, the Mead Moon and the Wort Moon.
In one of those funny ways that modern technology opens a door to ancient tradition, a web search of a phrase like “full moon names” yields a remarkable amount of information. I printed the results from one site alone – 23 pages of names that various Native American tribes used to refer to the full moons of the year. According to that source, the Eastern Cherokee names for the successive full moons are the Harvest Moon, the Hunting Moon, the Snow Moon, the Cold Moon, the Bone Moon, the Wind Moon, the Flower Moon, the Planting Moon, the Green Corn Moon, the Corn in Tassel Moon, the Ripe Corn Moon, the End of Fruit Moon and the Nut Moon.
The act of naming creates something that didn’t otherwise exist. Janika Kronberg writes about this in an essay on the Estonian poet Ene Mihkelson, "Naming the Things of the World":
The main aim of Mihkelson's poetry is to give names to things. Memory and naming are her dominating motifs. Mihkelson names things and phenomena, as only things possessing names are able to persist. As regards the past, naming denotes saving something essential from oblivion, and as regards the present, it is an invitation for something essential to come into being. Mihkelson firmly believes that all things come into being when they are born in language, she believes that the Word creates time.
When I read the lists of names for the full moons, I feel as though I’m reading the table of contents for a book that’s been lost, and I wonder what memories persist to explain such names as these:
Moon When the Wolves Run Together
Winter’s Younger Brother Moon
Moon When the Water is Black With Leaves
Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire Moon
Moon When the Little Flowers Die
Berries Ripe on the Mountains Moon
Crest of the Hill Moon
Moon of the Turtle
Wind Tossed Moon
Moon of Red Grass Appearing
Moon When the Spruce Tips Fall
I know it is possible, though not likely, that I could live more attuned to the phases of the moon, and become so familiar with the full moons of the year that I would give them names. For now, I’m glad that those who’ve gone before have known the moon that well.
Under the Harvest Moon
by Carl Sandburg
Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
I’ve been studying the names that have been assigned to the full moons of the year and expect to have more on that lush poetry in a later post. Today is the day of a full moon, in this case the Hunters’ Moon, which is the first full moon following the Harvest Moon, the Harvest Moon being the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal equinox.
Farmers could continue to bring in their crops, working well into the night under the light of the Harvest Moon. By the time of the next full moon, dwindling leaf cover made it easier to hunters to track their prey throughout the night.
Traditionally, the Hunters’ Moon was celebrated with feasting throughout Western Europe. Even today, one American community observes “The Feast of the Hunters’ Moon.” The Tippecanoe County Historical Association sponsors the event near West Lafayette, Indiana as a re-creation of the annual fall gathering of the French and Native Americans which took place at Fort Ouiatenon, a fur-trading outpost in the mid - 1700s.
Tens of thousands of people turn out for the feast each year. The 2008 celebration took place on September 27-28, but in 2009 it will be on October 10-11. Though I’ve never attended “The Feast of the Hunters’ Moon” I do have fond memories of the Wabash River, and wouldn’t mind returning there next October for what sounds like a fun time.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
I enjoy learning about the failures of great people. These days, success of a certain kind, success in the eyes of the world, is such a crucial standard, at whatever cost it is attained. I find it encouraging that Henry David Thoreau floundered so badly during his life, at least by the measures of success that many would employ, and persevered with his mission anyhow.
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Picking up paw-paws; put 'em in your pocket.
Picking up paw-paws; put 'em in your pocket.
Way down yonder in the paw-paw patch.
– American Folk Song
You can spend years doggedly searching for something and never find it. Then, when you turn your attention to other pursuits, you find it after all.
Twenty years ago, I got interested in paw-paws, and discovered them to be quite elusive.
I collected reports about paw-paw sightings and set out to track them down, but without success.
I went to the woods and called out for "Paw-Paw", "Indiana Banana", and "Custard Apple". I never got an answer. I never heard, " Come pick me!"
I considered taking a trip to the Ohio Valley, because I read they were common in the farmers’ markets of that region. But that was just too far.
I ordered the trees from a nursery, and planted them in a choice spot. They promptly died.
I wondered if I would ever sample what has been described as "the largest edible tree fruit native to the United States" (at over one pound per fruit). I could only imagine the flavor, variously described as a combination of apple and banana, or as a blend of banana, mango and pineapple.
That all changed the other day. My brother and I had explored an enormous old barn and were walking toward a nondescript cabin by a rushing stream when I saw some egg-sized green pods scattered on the ground. Looking up, I saw the nondescript tree holding still more of these pod-like objects. At first I thought they were nuts of some kind, inside oblong green husks. But they weren’t walnuts. They weren’t butternuts. They weren’t pecans.
They weren’t nuts at all. There’s only one thing they could be. I exclaimed…
My long search had finally come to a conclusion. I picked one up, broke it in half and started nibbling at the fruit.
Hmm…not bad. Not bad at all.
I scrambled around and gathered up all the fallen paw-paws I could find.
What a red-letter day!
With the availability of other fruits, the paw-paw has faded into relative obscurity, but it has a long history in the gastronomy of frontier America. The chilled fruit was a favorite dessert of Thomas Jefferson. If it was good enough for TJ, it’s good enough for me.
Several years ago, various medicinal qualities were ascribed to the paw-paw. An extract of compounds from the fruit became popular as an alternative cancer treatment. Apparently, acetogenins in the paw-paw reduce the growth of blood vessels that nourish cancer cells and inhibit the growth of multiple drug resistant (MDR) cells. According to a Purdue researcher, no other cancer treatment has shown any effectiveness against MDR cells.
In the 1990s the potential of paw-paws as a commercial tree fruit crop gained attention and the horticulture research program at Kentucky State University has concentrated on rasing the paw-paw successfully.
The KSU researchers told of a nearby restaurant that features the paw-paw in many of their dishes:
Chefs at the Oakroom, a AAA five-diamond restaurant at Louisville’s Seelbach Hilton, have developed a menu of Appalachian cuisine, which includes pawpaw. The menu includes a pawpaw and green tomato relish on a French rib pork chop, pawpaw sorbet, and a Pawpaw Foster with pawpaw ice cream (made by Bray Orchards) for dessert. The Pawpaw Foster consists of flambéed pawpaw and banana using ginger liqueur (wild ginger is indigenous to Kentucky) over pawpaw ice cream. The Oakroom has also begun serving a pawpaw brandy.
More than a century ago, one writer paid tribute to the paw-paws of his youth:
We can never realize what a great blessing the pawpaw was to the first settlers while they were clearing the great natural forest and preparing to build cabins. Planting fruit trees was rather an experiment for a number of years. The pawpaws, and a few other wild fruits of less value, were all their dependence so far as fruit is concerned. Well do I remember sixty or more years ago my father would take his gun and basket and go to the woods and return in the evening loaded with pawpaws, young squirrels and sometimes mushrooms of which he was very fond. But there will never be a recurrence of those days which were the happiest of my life.
- James A. Little, The Paw Paw, 1905.
Now, I have a handful of paw-paw seeds. I’m guarding them carefully until I can plant them carefully. Then we'll see what happens.
You never know. The day might yet come when I can amble around, way down yonder in the paw-paw patch, and return home with a basket full of the delectable fruit.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Elk watchers take note. Most of the herd have returned to Cataloochee Valley for the fall rut. The air is thick with hormones...and the echoes of bugling elk. At one point in the afternoon, I saw this bull emerge from the woods and eventually recognized him as the same elk with whom I'd crossed paths - in another part of the Park - on numerous occasions.
He's known by the number on his ear tag, but in an earlier report I named him "Elmer" to help obscure his identity and keep his whereabouts unknown. Elmer is one of the largest bulls in the herd and is quite the bugler, as well.
Serious elk watchers are familiar with the numbers of their favorite elk, just like NASCAR fans are familiar with numbers of their favorite drivers.
One of those serious elk watchers told me that Elmer has been in some bruising battles with an old rival for at least the third year in a row. "[Elmer] took a whoopin' last week from #3," according to my informant. Now that I've taken it on myself to start naming the elk, it looks like we'll have to call #3 "The Intimidator."
Here's a picture of Elmer that I snapped last spring, before his antlers had grown out to their current impressive size.
What a magnificent critter!
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Olive Tilford Dargan, ca. 1914
I never thought I would read a better account of picking wild strawberries in the Smokies than William Bartram’s journal entry from May 1775. The tantalizing sensuality of his descriptions verged on a lustful licentiousness that some might find objectionable. And with good reason. Bartram’s account was really more about his craving for ripe fruit, so to speak, than it was about wild strawberries.
I’ll admit that I may have taken too much vicarious pleasure in Bartram’s adventure and was too willing to overlook its disturbing undertones. Just recently, though, I discovered another story about picking wild strawberries in the Smokies. It appears in Olive Tilford Dargans’s From My Highest Hill.
Dargan (1869-1968) was a fascinating character. The child of two schoolteachers in Kentucky, she had an interest in writing from an early age. A year at Radcliffe College sharpened her social consciousness and her commitment to the suffragist movement. Later, working as a secretary to a Boston industrialist, she witnessed a robber baron at close range. After moving to Blue Ridge, Georgia, she married South Carolina aristocrat Pegram Dargan, a Harvard grad with literary interests.
They soon relocated to New York City where her poetic plays drew rave reviews. The sale of performance rights for one of the plays allowed the Dargans to buy acreage near Almond, in Swain County, and in 1906 the couple moved to a log cabin on the mountain.
Sharing the small cabin with her husband, Olive was deprived of a “room of one’s own” where she could pursue her writing. But circumstances never lessened her interest in human rights. During time spent in London before the First World War, she observed the plight of working women and children struggling to escape dire poverty, and wrote: “It is impossible to live and not join the fight.”
In 1915, her troubled marriage ended when Pegram was lost at sea during a voyage to Cuba. The next year, she returned to her cabin in the Smokies and threw herself into physical work: “I find myself busy from dawn until I fall into the bed at night. I am mending fences, digging ditches, carrying rock, cutting poles, and other incredible things.”
The well-meaning outsider also intended to improve the lives of her tenant farm neighbors. As one might expect, in the years that followed, she learned as much or more from the Carolina mountain folks than they learned from her. She related her experiences of farm life and the mountaineers she grew to love in a series of stories first published in 1925 as Highland Annals, and later expanded and revised in the 1941 book, From My Highest Hill.
Dargan recognized how earlier Appalachian writers had exploited the highlanders through overly-romanticized stereotyping and she tried to avoid that in her stories. I’d say she succeeded. Dargan’s fictional alter-ego, Mis’ Dolly, is engaged in a wary dance with her native-born neighbors. They test her. She risks offending them with her notions of betterment. Often as not, her neighbors’ dry humor, and gift for understatement, impart a valuable lesson for Mis’ Dolly. With sensitivity and nuance, Dargan depicts the mutual affection that grows between herself and her neighbors, while interweaving descriptions of the landscape, old customs, farm lore, and the social currents affecting life on the mountain. Her stories ring true.
I’m told, by one who would know, that many mountain folks have accepted From My Highest Hill as a more authentic and respectful account than Horace Kephart’s acclaimed Our Southern Highlanders (1913), a book that some found condescending and exaggerated.
The 1941 edition of From My Highest Hills in distinguished by the contributions of Bayard Wootten, the pioneering photographer. Wootten is one of my favorite North Carolina photographers. She is one my favorite photographers, period. And her images are the ideal complement to Dargan’s prose.
Mis' Dolly was uncannily prophetic when she predicted that within a few years the mountain culture she had come to love would be as "dim in time" as "the ways and customs of Atlantis." Sure enough, even sooner than she imagined, the construction of Fontana Dam would inundate and obliterate the community of which she wrote.
I won’t attempt to excerpt or summarize Dargan’s story, Serena and Wild Strawberries. I would call it a classic of Appalachian literature…a fine introduction to Dargan’s work.
And, with apologies to William Bartram, I have to say it’s the best story I’ve ever read about picking wild strawberries in the Smokies.
Three Swain County men, a Bayard Wootten photograph from the book.
Friday, October 3, 2008
Albrecht Durer, Melencolia, 1519
Several days ago I read that Mental Illness Awareness Week would run from October 5 – October 12 this year. Let’s say I’m prone to indignation (righteous or not) over perceived injustice, and when it comes to the attitudes toward people dealing with mental illness, I perceive more than a little injustice. People coping with cancer and diabetes are not told to “just snap out of it” and expected to get better instantly, as if their maladies are acts of willful defiance. But when it comes to mental illness, well, you know…
So what follows is an expression of my indignation. It’s about the injustice and not so much about me. I hope I can avoid the risk of coming across too ponderous, too melodramatic, too trite, or too indulgent. Here goes...
I have a dragon inside. The dragon almost killed me, but I struggled to withstand his attack, and I survived. I cannot claim that I banished the dragon. He sleeps for now. He could awaken again. I would be a fool to underestimate his power.
But I’m grateful for the dragon. The fight that he gave me was a precious gift. I can see that now.
I wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night counting my blessings. I would not appreciate those blessings as I do, if not for the dragon.
Six years ago, I was at the end of my rope. The pain had become unbearable, and everything I had done to ease the pain had failed. The dragon was winning. Out of desperation, I found a name in the Yellow Pages. I dialed the number and heard a recording from the other end of the line. The trace of humility I heard in that voice gave me a small degree of comfort, a tiny glimmer of hope.
I can’t say how or when it began, but I can say how far it had gone by the time I picked up the phone.
Looking out on the brightest of days was as though peering through a thick, gray cloud. The heavy weight that I carried every moment of the day was like a 200-pound overcoat that I couldn’t remove. My gut was tangled with knots of grief. My whole body ached.
I still remember pulling into Ingles and needing change to buy a newspaper, but being unable to summon the courage to approach the cashier with so bold a request as “Could you change this dollar for me?”
If I’d had a gun in the house I would have considered its alluring promise of sweet surcease from sorrow.
I don’t know if my smile was enough to hide all this from the world. For the most part, I suppose it was. But, strange to say, I’ve never asked.
When I met the humble man, I was not surprised that he named my dragon “major depression.” I was surprised he had so little to say. He offered no solutions that I can recall. I just remember that I began to speak to him, and the words came pouring out. I reflected on this in my journal the next day: “Is there a connection between speaking freely and personal empowerment?”
In that same tortured journal entry, still uncomfortable to read, I wrote of the doubts and fears that had silenced me. I wrote of “the monolithic monuments to personal failure that tower over my psychic geography” and “the dry deserts and frozen wastes that stretch out and threaten to engulf the tiny oases and tropical enclaves in my soul.”
Then, as now, I must have heard the voices of the skeptics, because I added, “on the other hand, when does all this become self-indulgent blather to justify my unwillingness to change?”
Is that how to explain depression? A deficit of character? A lack of gumption? An unwillingness to change?
Someone might have said to me, “Be grateful for what you have. You have material security. You have physical health.” But I already knew that, and it only made matters worse. “If I’m faring this badly now, how could I manage an unfortunate turn of circumstance?”
I look back through the months of journals that documented the long struggle after I hit bottom. I can’t condense that struggle without making it sound much easier than it actually was. It certainly wasn’t as easy as popping a Prozac might have been. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s not my place to judge anyone who chooses that route, but I knew it was not for me.
I did not want to euthanize the dragon. I wanted to understand the dragon, learn to live with the dragon and glean the lessons he was sent to teach me. Week after week, I visited the humble listener. My stories and my questions continued to flow.
After a while I wrote, “The depression is like a fog that descends and covers me – blocking my view until I feel lost and disoriented. When it lifts, even if I haven’t moved and I’m still atop the mountain – I can suddenly see far, miles and miles under the sunshine, from the same place where I had been fogged in.”
I wrote everything I could remember from my childhood and slowly grew to accept my past, whereas I had only considered it a painful burden up to that point. Pardon the cliché, but I embraced my inner child with compassion.
I began to recognize that my depression resulted in part from the gulf between the person I perceived myself to be and the person I felt I could, or should, be. I tried to imagine that person. A picture came to mind. I longed for the joie de vivre of Zorba the Greek, someone willing to sing and dance in the street, to make a fool of himself, without regret. I chuckled at the thought.
I took a hundred small steps. I tried to eat better. I tried to sleep better. I tried to exercise more. I took Saint John’s Wort. I practiced techniques of cognitive therapy to modify my habits of thought. I studied neuro-linguistic programming and discovered how subtle adjustments of posture and gesture have a powerful effect on mood.
I gazed upon the colors of the natural world around me, to absorb its healing energy. The soft greens and yellows of the May foliage were a source of strength and comfort. One day I drove past a roadside planting of poppies, and felt I’d never seen anything so red. The redness of those poppies - the essence of that redness - infused my spirit with a sense of life, a sense of renewal. I can feel it even now.
I took up oil painting and learned that the highlights are made brighter when the shadows are made darker.
I flailed away on my guitar, and sang sad songs…off-key…and loudly.
I reached the point where my heart broke open and the miraculous beauty of one leaf, one flower, one sunset, was enough to bring me to tears.
It’s been an interesting road, these past six years. “The greater the challenge, the greater the reward,” is a lesson I’ve been given several chances to learn and re-learn.
I’ve never felt more loved, more connected or more at peace. I’m not Zorba, yet. Maybe I never will be, but I can say I sang Occoneechee on Main Street, and I’m the better for it.
I cherish all this today, for I might not have it tomorrow.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s dragons. I won’t say “I know how you feel.” I’m not able to prescribe a ten-point plan for recovery. But I’ve witnessed the miracle of resilience. I’ve learned how that which we most want to avoid can sometimes be our salvation.
I appreciate how the ancients counted melancholia among the four humours and accepted it as a part of life. It was not to be eradicated, but instead, brought into balance.
I believe it can lead us toward, rather than away from, a richer and more abundant life.
And that’s the spirit in which I intend to celebrate Mental Illness Awareness Week.
Call me crazy if you like.
It won’t bother me a bit.
Inspired by the Durer engraving, Melencolia, (above) Edward Dowden composed this sonnet:
THE bow of promise, this lost flaring star,
Terror and hope are in mid-heaven; but She,
The mighty-wing'd crown'd Lady Melancholy,
Heeds not. O to what vision'd goal afar
Does her thought bear those steadfast eyes which are
A torch in darkness? There nor shore nor sea,
Nor ebbing Time vexes Eternity,
Where that lone thought outsoars the mortal bar.
Tools of the brain--the globe, the cube--no more
She deals with; in her hand the compass stays;
Nor those, industrious genius, of her lore
Student and scribe, thou gravest of the fays,
Expect this secret to enlarge thy store;
She moves through incommunicable ways.