Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"Eat the Grapes"

Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church

After a trip down the Little Tennessee, along the straight spine of Chilhowee Mountain, and up Little River and Laurel Creek, we finally arrive at Cades Cove.

The weather is ideal and I am ready to ride. Things start out with an easy downhill run followed by a moderate climb or two. Then, on the left, I see the road to Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church. Settlers established this church in 1827, and the wood frame building now standing was constructed in 1887.

We go inside and examine the spartan interior. Rumi walks to the altar, closes his eyes, and gently runs his fingers over the many Bibles and prayer requests that visitors have left here.

Meanwhile, I step outside to visit the cemetery behind the church. I find it heartening that other visitors are reading the names and dates on the stones and making various observations.

One marker in particular catches my attention. I sweep it clean and then a take a picture. This is the marker for Russell Gregory (1795 – 1864) who was, according to the inscription, "murdered by North Carolina Rebels."

There’s more to this story.

Russell’s son, Charles, joined the legendary Thomas’ Legion in 1862 to fight for the Confederacy. Russell, like many of his Cades Cove neighbors, had remained loyal to the Union. Throughout the Civil War, Thomas’ Legion terrorized Cades Cove with frequent raids to steal livestock, harass children and take prisoners. After a while, cove residents stationed guards along the ridges to sound horns in the event of a impending raid by the Rebels. With his patience frayed, Russell Gregory organized an ambush on the Confederates, who quickly retreated.

Charles Gregory, who was one of the raiders, told his comrades that his very own father had fired the first shot against them. He went on to inform them where Russell Gregory lived, having no idea that his fellow soldiers had revenge in mind. The Rebels returned to the Cove, dragged Russell Gregory from his home, and killed him in front of his horrified son.

However, the gravestone at the Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church is not the most well-known monument to Russell Gregory. That distinction belongs to a high mountain bald that the Cherokees called "Tsistuyi" or "Rabbit Place." The chief of all rabbits, sly and clever, had lived atop that mountain. Arnold Guyot, in his 1856 survey of the Smokies, called it "Great Bald’s Central Peak."

Russell Gregory grazed cattle there during the spring and summer and lived in a circular stone house on the summit. After Russell’s murder his neighbors renamed the mountain "Gregory Bald," the name it carries today.

Reflecting on those sad and difficult days in Cades Cove, I walk back toward the church and hear the familiar cadence and inflections of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher at full bore. I can’t make out what he's saying, but I do see a couple of tourists leaving the church, shaking their heads, and I hear one say, "let's go before he decides to pass the plate."

I peer inside and observe my friend addressing a few astonished onlookers. Pacing nervously, arms flailing, he has already worked up a sweat and punctuates every line with a vigorous, gasping, explosive "HUH" like any number of preachers in that same altar must have done before him.

Who is the kingHUH!
that forms another king out of the groundHUH!,
who for the sake of two beggarsHUH!
makes himself a beggarHUH!

Who is this with his hand out
saying, Please, give just a little
so I can give you a kingdom.

He heals. He enlivens.
He tells the water to boil
and the steam to fade into air.

He makes this dying world eternal.
His greatest alchemy
is how he undoes the binding
that keeps love from breathing deep.
He loosens the chest.

With no tool he fashions where we live.
Do not grieve for your rusty, iron heart.
He will polish it to a steel mirror.

And as you are being lowered into the ground,
closed away from friends, don’t cry.

He turns the ants and the snakes
into beautiful new companions.

Every second he changes cruelty
to loyal friendship.

Remember the proverb, Eat the grapes.
Do not keep talking about the garden.
Eat the grapes.

From a rough stone ledge
come a hundred marble foundations.

Out of unconditioned emptiness
comes this planet with all its qualities.

Out of one huge NO
comes a chorus of yesses.

Rivers of light flow from human eyes,
and consider your ears, where language
alchemizes into amber.

He gives the soul a house,
then another and another.

He descends into dirt
and makes it majesty.

Be silent now.
Say fewer and fewer praise poems.
Let yourself become living poetry.


I finally catch his eye, Rumi nods back, and abruptly exits past his bewildered congregation to join me outside.

"We need to get going," I explain, "NOW."

As we continue around the loop, I share the story of the Gregory tragedy: "And after he died, Charles was buried just a few feet away from his father."

I also tell him about Gregory Bald and we begin speculating about the round stone home that Russell built there. In our imaginations, we both embellish that building. I picture Celtic influences, similar to O’Brien’s Tower near the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

Rumi, on the other hand, envisions something more like a minaret. Specifically, he imagines that Russell’s Tower resembled Qutb Minar in Delhi, India a structure he had seen while it was under construction and long before its completion in the year 1368.

Glancing at my tour booklet, I announce that we’ll soon arrive at the Methodist Church on the right and then the Missionary Baptist Church on the left.

"Promise me," I ask the poet, "promise me you won’t preach at any more churches today. Please?"

He glares at me.

I glare back at him.

And then I’m not sure which one of us is the first to bust out laughing….

Cades Cove Methodist Church

1 comment:

kanugalihi said...

Fantastic, as usual. I wonder how many visitors to these sacred places can glean the meaning that you do. I have also preached in that church, in a similar manner. No one was there to listen.