Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Garden in the Wilderness

" Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. " Matthew 4:1

William Bartram returned to Fort Prince George, South Carolina on May 30, 1775, after a week of botanical exploration along the Little Tennessee River. When I tried to return to Fort Prince George a few years ago, I found it covered by the waters of Lake Keowee. A sign at the edge of the lake instructed me to leave without delay if I heard warning sirens from the nearby nuclear reactor.

Every May, I have Bartram on my mind, thanks to his account of travel to the Cherokee Middle Towns in 1775.
I can’t think about wild strawberries without thinking about Bartram’s famous encounter with a party of berry-picking maidens.

And I realize more than ever that the length of Bartram’s visit to the Southern mountains was entirely inadequate for the subject of his study. He investigated plenty of spring flora during his week in the Tennessee Valley. But I wonder what else Bartram might have discovered if he had arrived a couple of weeks earlier or stayed a couple of weeks longer.

Bartram, though, wasn’t merely cataloging plant specimens. He was recording a perspective on the Garden in the Wilderness. Whenever I take the short drive from Clayton, Georgia to Franklin, NC, I picture the world that Bartram saw as he followed the same course across the Blue Ridge Divide:

I OBSERVED growing in great abundance in these mountain meadows, Sanguiforba Canadensis and Heracleum maximum, the latter exhibiting a fine shew, being rendered conspicuous even at a great distance, by its great height and spread, vast pennatified leaves and expansive umbels of snow-white flowers; the swelling bases of the surrounding hills fronting the meadows, present, for my acceptance, the fragrant red strawberry, in painted beds of many acres surface, indeed I may safely say many hundreds.

AFTER passing through this meadow, the road led me over the bases of a ridge of hills, which as a bold promontory dividing the fields I had just passed, form expansive green lawns. On these towering hills appeared the ruins of the ancient famous town of Sticoe. [today’s Clayton, GA] Here was a vast Indian mount or tumulus and great terrace, on which stood the council-house, with banks encompassing their circus; here were also old Peach and Plumb orchards, some of the trees appeared yet thriving and fruitful; presently after leaving these ruins, the vale and fields are divided by means of a spur of the mountains pushing forward; here likewise the road forked, the left hand path continued up the mountains to the Overhill towns; I followed the vale to the right hand, and soon began again to ascend the hills, riding several miles over very rough, stony land, yielding the like vegetable productions as heretofore; and descending again gradually, by a dubious winding path, leading into a narrow vale and lawn, through which rolled on before me a delightful brook, water of the Tanase; I crossed it and continued a mile or two down the meadows, when the high mountains on each side suddenly receding, discover the opening of the extensive and fruitful vale of Cowe, through which meanders the head branch of the Tanase, almost from its source, sixty miles, following its course down to Cowe.

I LEFT the stream for a little while, passing swiftly and foaming over its rocky bed, lashing the steep craggy banks, and then suddenly sunk from my sight, murmuring hollow and deep under the rocky surface of the ground: on my right hand the vale expands, receiving a pretty silvery brook of water, which came hastily down from the adjacent hills, and entered the river a little distance before me; I now turn from the heights on my left, the road leading into the level lawns, to avoid the hollow rocky grounds, full of holes and cavities, arching over the river, through which the waters are seen gliding along, but the river is soon liberated from these solitary and gloomy recesses, and appears waving through the green plain before me. I continued several miles, pursuing my serpentine path, through and over the meadows and green fields, and crossing the river, which is here incredibly increased in size, by the continual accession of brooks flowing in from the hills on each side, dividing their green turfy beds, forming them into parterres, vistas and verdant swelling knolls, profusely productive of flowers and fragrant strawberries, their rich juice dying my horses feet and ancles.

THESE swelling hills, the prolific beds on which the towering mountains repose, seem to have been the common situations of the towns of the ancients, as appear from the remaining ruins of them yet to be seen; and the level rich vale and meadows in front, their planting grounds.

In 1833, Timothy Flint published The History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley. One passage caught my attention because Flint, like Bartram, revealed the idea (or ideal) of the Garden in the Wilderness. According to Flint’s account of white settlers immigrating to Missouri, the Wilderness celebrated their arrival:

Springs burst forth in the intervals between the high and low grounds. The brilliant red bird seen flitting among the shrubs, or perched on a tree, in its hollow whistle seems welcoming the immigrant to his new abode. Flocks of paroquets are glittering among the trees, and gray squirrels are skipping from branch to branch. The chanticleer rings his echoing note among the woods, and the domestic sounds and the baying of the dogs produce a strange cheerfulness, as heard in the midst of trees, where no habitation is seen. Pleasing reflections and happy associations are naturally connected with the contemplation of those beginnings of social toil in the wilderness.

In the midst of these solitary and primeval scenes the patient and laborious father fixes his family. In a few days a comfortable cabin and other out buildings are erected. The first year gives a plentiful crop of corn, and common and sweet potatoes, melons, squashes, turnips, and other garden vegetables. The next year a field of wheat is added, and lines of thrifty apple trees show among the deadened trees. If the immigrant possess any touch of horticultural taste, the finer kinds of pear, plum, cherry, peach, nectarine and apricot trees are found in the garden. In ten years the log buildings will all have disappeared. The shrub and forest trees will be gone. The arcadian aspect of humble and retired abundance and comfort will have given place to a brick house, or a painted frame house, with fences and out buildings very like those, that surround abodes in the olden countries.

It is a wise arrangement of providence, that different minds are endowed with different tastes and predilections, that lead some to choose the town, others manufactures, and the village callings. It seems to us that no condition, in itself considered, promises more comfort, and tends more to virtue and independence, than that of these western yeomen, with their numerous, healthy and happy children about them; with the ample abundance of their granaries; their habitation surrounded by orchards, the branches of which must he propped to sustain I heir fruit, beside their beautiful streams and cool beach woods, and the prospect of settling each of their children on similar farms directly around them. Their manners may have something of the roughness imparted by living in solitude among the trees; but it is kindly, hospitable, frank, and associated with the traits, that constitute the stability of our republic. We apprehend, such farmers would hardly be willing to exchange this plenty, and this range of their simple domains, their well filled granaries, and their droves of domestic animals for any mode of life, that a town can offer.

No order of things presents so palpable a view of the onward march of American institutions as this. The greater portion of these immigrants, beside their wives, a few benches and chairs, a bible and a gun, commenced with little more than their hands. Their education for the most part, extended no farther than reading and writing, and their aspirations had never strayed beyond the desire of making a farm. But a sense of relative consequence is fostered by their growing possessions, and by perceiving towns, counties, offices and candidates springing up around them. One becomes a justice of the peace, another a county judge and another a member of the legislative assembly. Each one assumes some municipal function, pertaining to schools, the settlement of a minister, the making of roads, bridges, and public works. A sense of responsibility to public opinion, self respect, and a due estimation of character and correct deportment are the consequence.

This pleasant view of the commencement and progress of an immigrant is the external one. Unhappily there is another point of view, from which we may learn something what has been passing in his mind, during this physical onward progress.

All the members of the establishment have been a hundred times afflicted with that gloomy train of feeling, for which we have no better name than home sickness. All the vivid perceptions of enjoyment of the forsaken place are keenly remembered, the sorrows overlooked, or forgotten. The distant birth place, the remembrance of years that are gone, returning to memory amidst the actual struggles of forming a new establishment, an effort full of severe labor, living in a new world, making acquaintance with a new nature, competing with strangers, always seeming to uneducated people, as they did to the ancients, as enemies, these contrasts of the present with the mellowed visions of memory, all tend to bitterness. We never understand how many invisible ties of habit we sever in leaving our country, until we find ourselves in a strange land. The old pursuits and ways of passing time, of which we took little note as they passed, where there are new forms of society, new institutions, new ways of managing every thing that belongs to the social edifice, in a word, a complete change of the whole circle of associations, feelings, and habits, come over the mind, like a cloud.

The immigrant, in the pride of his remembrances, begins to extol the country he has left, its inhabitants, laws, institutions. The listener has an equal stock. of opposite prejudices. The pride of the one wounds the pride of the other. The weakness of human nature is never more obvious, than in these meetings of neighbors in a new country, each fierce and loud in extolling his own country, and detracting from all others in comparison. These narrow and vile prejudices spread from family to family, and create little clans political, social, religious, hating and hated. No generous project for a school, church, library, or public institution, on a broad and equal scale, can prosper, amidst such an order of things. It is a sufficient reason, that one clan proposes it for another to oppose it. All this springs from one of the deepest instincts of our nature, a love of country, which, like a transplanted tree, in removing has too many fibres broken off, to flourish at once in a new soil. The immigrant meets with sickness, misfortune, disaster. There are peculiar strings in the constitution of human nature, which incline him to repine, and imagine that the same things would not have befallen him in his former abode. He even finds the vegetables, fruits, and meats, though apparently finer, less savory and nutritive, than those of the old country.

Under the pressure of such illusions, many an immigrant has forsaken his cabin, returned to his parent country, found this mockery of his fancies playing at cross purposes with him, and showing him an abandoned paradise in the western woods, and father land the country of penury and disaster. A second removal, perhaps, instructs him that most of the causes of our dissatisfaction and disgust, that we imagine have their origin in external things, really exist in the mind.

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

To the emigrants from towns and villages in the Atlantic country, though they may have thought little of religious institutions at home, the absence of the church, with its spire, and its sounds of the church-going bell, of the village bustle, and the prating of the village tavern, are felt as serious privations. The religious discourses so boisterous and vehement, and in a tone and phrase so different from the calm tenor of what he used to hear, at first produce a painful revulsion not wholly unmixed with disgust. He finds no longer those little circles of company, into which he used to drop, to relax a leisure hour, which, it may be, were not much prized in the enjoyment, but are now felt as a serious want. Nothing shocks him so much, as to see his neighbor sicken and die, unsolaced by the voice of religious instruction and prayer, and carried to his long home without funeral services. These are some of the circumstances, that, in the new settlements, call up the tender recollections of a forsaken home to embitter the present.

These are the dark sides of the picture of immigration. But there is, perhaps, less romance in. the American character, than in that of any other people; and every thing in our institutions tends to banish the little that remains. We are a people to estimate vendible and tangible realities. Imaginary and unreal sorrows and disgusts gradually yield before an estimate of the value of abundance and independence. More than half the inhabitants of the western country still dwell in cabins; and to those who know how much general contentment with their lot, moral and sturdy hardihood, guileless honesty, and blitheness of heart these humble establishments generally contain, they bring associations of repose and abstraction from ambitious and artificial wants, and present on the whole, a balance of real and homefelt comfort and enjoyment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The General Speaks

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.

- Dwight D. Eisenhower

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Finding Piggies

Have you seen the little piggies
Crawling in the dirt?
-The Beatles

Ha, ha, ha, you and me,
Little brown jug, don't I love thee!
-Joseph Winner

While searching for Oconee Bells and again while hunting Pink Lady's-Slippers, I crossed paths with the reclusive piggies. They were hiding at the base of short plants bearing shiny leaves, and by brushing aside the leaf litter and loose soil, I got a better look at those porcine objects. Called "piggies" or the equally descriptive "little brown jugs" these peculiar formations are the blooms of wild ginger plants.

Traditionally, the strongly aromatic root of the plant has served as a substitute for ginger. Modern researchers have extracted an anti-tumor compound, aristolochic acid, from wild ginger.

The common wild ginger (Asarum canadense) is a deciduous plant with glossy heart-shaped leaves. While older guidebooks include other species in the Asarum genus, the evergreen wild gingers are now classed in the Hexastylis genus. Little Brown Jugs (Hexastylis arifolia, formerly Asarum arifolia) has smaller and more sharply triangular leaves than A. canadense. Other species found in the Southern Appalachians include Hexastylis minor, H. shuttleworthii, H. virginica, H. memmingeri, and H. heterophyllum

The wild gingers are notable for their unusual, almost subterranean flowers. Ants, beetles and other terrestrial creatures are known to pollinate the gingers. Often, they are pollinated by fungus gnats, who lay eggs inside the "piggies" as they flit from flower to flower. But, later, the gnat larvae die from munching on the poisonous plant tissue of the host.

The Dictionary of Regional English compiles several references to the common names of the plant and its bloom:

Piggies, that is, pygmies...

The jugs grow to roughly an inch in length, and, clustered together, they look like piglets with open mouths waiting for supper. Little Brown Jugs were thus quite often called "pigs" by local people...

The wild ginger has captured attention from proponents of the doctrine of signatures. That philosophy dates back at least as far as the Greeks of 2000 years ago and was further developed by European herbalists during the Middle Ages and after. They contended that shapes, colors and other characteristics of plants were clues to their usefulness in treating various physical problems. For instance, walnuts were considered helpful for curing head ailments. Small holes in the leaves of Saint Johns Wort were thought to resemble the pores of the skin and, thus, the plant was used to treat dermatological complaints.

As mentioned previously, the name “orchid” was derived from the Greek word for scrotum, and referred to the shape of the orchid root. Indeed, men would use that plant for its presumed aphrodisiacal effect.

Wild ginger is a member of the birthwort, or Aristolochiacea family. The name comes from two Greek words, aristos, meaning best, and lochia, meaning delivery. Not surprisingly, plants in the birthwort family were considered to have medicinal value during childbirth. So, for many centuries, the womb-like shape of the wild ginger's flowers has inspired its use for promoting reproductive health in women.

On the other hand, to paraphrase a comment attributed to Sigmund Freud, "sometimes a flower is just a flower."

[Photos were taken in early May, and I believe these are specimens of Asarum canadense. I assume the bloom shown in the last two pictures was covered even more than the usual wild ginger flower, and was blanched by being deprived of sunlight.]

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Rain and the Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros, Albrecht Durer, 1515.

Rain and the Rhinoceros, by Thomas Merton

Let me say this before rain becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money. By “they” I mean the people who cannot understand that rain is a festival, who do not appreciate its gratuity, who think that what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real, so that the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market. The time will come when they will sell you even your rain. At the moment it is still free, and I am in it. I celebrate its gratuity and its meaninglessness.

The rain I am in is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound. It covers the flat roof of the cabin and porch with insistent and controlled rhythms. And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.

I came up here from the monastery last night, sloshing through the cornfield, said Vespers, and put some oatmeal on the Coleman stove for supper. It boiled over while I was listening to the rain and toasting a piece of bread at the log fire. The night became very dark. The rain surrounded the whole cabin with its enormous virginal myth, a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of silence, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside! What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!

Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

But I am also going to sleep, because here in this wilderness I have learned how to sleep again. Here I am not alien. The trees I know, the night I know, the rain I know. I close my eyes and instantly sink into the whole rainy world of which I am a part, and the world goes on with me in it, for I am not alien to it I am alien to the noises of cities, of people, to the greed of machinery that does not sleep, the hum of power that eats up the night. Where rain, sunlight and darkness are contemned, I cannot sleep. I do not trust anything that has been fabricated to replace the climate of woods or prairies. I can have no confidence in places where the air is first fouled and then cleansed, where the water is first made deadly and then made safe with other poisons.

There is nothing in the world of buildings that is not fabricated, and if a tree gets in among the apartment houses by mistake it is taught to grow chemically. It is given a precise reason for existing. They put a sign on it saying it is for health, beauty, perspective; that it is for peace, for prosperity; that it was planted by the mayor’s daughter. All of this is mystification. The city itself lies on its own myth. Instead of waking up and silently existing, the city people prefer a stubborn and fabricated dream; they do not care to be a part of the night, or to be merely of the world. They have constructed a world outside the world, against the world, a world of mechanical fictions which contemn nature and seek only to use it up, thus preventing it from renewing itself and man.

Of course the festival of rain cannot be stopped, even in the city. The woman from the delicatessen scampers along the sidewalk with a newspaper over her head. The streets, suddenly washed, became transparent and alive, and the noise of traffic becomes a splashing of fountains. One would think that urban man in a rainstorm would have to take account of nature in its wetness and freshness, its baptism and its renewal. But the rain brings no renewal to the city, only to tomorrow’s weather, and the glint of windows in tall buildings will then have nothing to do with the new sky. All “reality” will remain somewhere inside those walls, counting itself and selling itself with fantastically complex determination.

Meanwhile the obsessed citizens plunge through the rain bearing the load of their obsessions, slightly more vulnerable than before, but still only barely aware of external realities. They do not see that the streets shine beautifully, that they themselves are walking on stars and water, that they are running in skies to catch a bus or a taxi, to shelter somewhere in the press of irritated humans, the faces of advertisements and the dim, cretinous sound of unidentified music. But they must know that there is wetness abroad. Perhaps they even feel it. I cannot say. Their complaints are mechanical and without spirit.

Naturally no one can believe the things they say about the rain. It all implies one basic lie: only the city is real. That weather, not being planned, not being fabricated, is an impertinence, a wen on the visage of progress. (Just a simple little operation, and the whole mess may become relatively tolerable. Let business make the rain. This will give it meaning).

Thoreau sat in his cabin and criticized the railways. I sit in mine and wonder about a world that has, well, progressed. I must read Walden again, and see if Thoreau already guessed that he was part of what he thought he could escape. But it is not a matter of “escaping.” It is not even a matter of protesting very audibly. Technology is here, even in the cabin. True, the utility line is not here yet, and so G.E. is not here yet either. When the utilities and G.E. enter my cabin arm in arm it will be nobody’s fault but my own. I admit it. I am not kidding anybody, even myself. I will suffer their bluff and patronizing complacencies in silence. I will let them think they know what I am doing here.

They are convinced that I am having fun.

This has already been brought home to me with a wallop by my Coleman lantern. Beautiful lamp: It burns gas and sings viciously but gives out a splendid green light in which I read Philoxenos, a sixth-century Syrian hermit. Philoxenous fits in with the rain and the festival of night. Of this, more later. Meanwhile: what does my Coleman lantern tell me? (Coleman’s philosophy is printed on the cardboard box which I have (guiltily) not shellacked as I was supposed to, and which I have tossed in the woodshed behind the hickory chunks.) Coleman says that the light is good, and has a reason: it “Stretches days to give more hours of fun.”

Can’t I just be in the woods without any special reason? Just being in the woods, at night, in the cabin, is something too excellent to be justified or explained. It just is. There are always a few people who are in the woods at night, in the rain (because if there were not the world would have ended), and I am one of them. We are not having fun, we are not “having” anything, we are not “stretching our days,” and if we had fun it would not be measured by hours. Though as a matter of fact that is what fun seems to be: a state of diffuse excitation that can be measured by the clock and “stretched” but an appliance.

There is no clock that can measure the speech of this rain that falls all night on the drowned and lonely forest.

Of course at three-thirty A.M. the SAC plane goes over, red light winking low under the clouds, skimming the wooded summits on the south side of the valley, loaded with strong medicine. Very strong. Strong enough to burn up all these woods and stretch our hours of fun into eternities.

And that brings me to Philoxenous, a Syrian who had fun in the sixth century, without benefit of appliances, still less of nuclear deterrents.

Philoxenos in his ninth menra (on poverty) to dwellers in solitude, says that there is no explanation and justification for the solitary life, since it is without a law. To be a contemplative is therefore to be an outlaw. As was Christ. As was Paul.

One who is not alone, says Philoxenos, has not discovered his identity. He seems to be alone, perhaps, for he experiences himself as “individual.” But because he is willingly enclosed and limited by the laws and illusions of collective existence, he has no more identity than an unborn child in the womb. He is not yet conscious. He is alien to his own truth. He has senses, but he cannot use them. He has life, but no identity. To have an identity, he has to be awake. But to be awake, he has to accept vulnerability and death. Not for their own sake: not out of stoicism or despair – only for the sake of the invulnerable inner reality which we cannot recognize (which we can only be) but to which we awaken only when we see the unreality of our vulnerable shell. The discovery of this inner self is an act and affirmation of solitude.

Now if we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth. This seems to be the collective endeavor of society: the more busily men dedicate themselves to it, the more certainly it becomes a collective illusion, until in the end we have the enormous, obsessive, uncontrollable dynamic of fabrications designed to protect mere fictitious identities – “selves,” that is to say, regarded as objects. Selves that can stand back and themselves having fun (an illusion which reassures them that they are real).

“In all the cities of the world, it is the same,” says Ionesco. “The universal and modern man is the man in a rush (i.e. rhinoceros), a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots…” Rhinoceritis, he adds, is the sickness that lies in wait “for those who have lost the sense and taste for solitude.”

There will always be a place, says Ionesco, “for those isolated consciences who have stood up for the universal conscience” as against the mass mind. But their place is solitude. They have no other. Hence it is the solitary person (whether in the city or in the desert) who does mankind the inestimable favor of reminding it of its true capacity for maturity, liberty and peace.

We still carry this burden of illusion because we do not dare to lay it down. We suffer all the needs that society demands we suffer, because if we do not have these needs we lose our “usefulness” in society–-the usefulness of suckers. We fear to be alone, and to be ourselves, and so to remind others of the truth that is in them.

"I will not make you such rich men as have need of many things,” said Philoxenos (putting the words on the lips of Christ), “but I will make you true rich men who have need of nothing. Since it is not he who has many possessions that is rich, but he who has no needs.” Obviously, we shall always have some needs. But only he who has the simplest and most natural needs can be considered to be without needs, since the only needs he has are real ones, and the real ones are not hard to fulfill if one is free!

The rain has stopped. The afternoon sun slants through the pine trees: and how those useless needles smell in the clean air!

A dandelion, long out of season, has pushed itself into bloom between the smashed leaves of last summer’s day lilies. The valley resounds with the totally uninformative talk of creeks and wild water.

Then the quails begin their sweet whistling in the wet bushes. Their noise is absolutely useless, and so is the delight I take in it. There is nothing I would rather hear, not because it is a better noise than other noises, but because it is the voice of the present moment, the present festival.

Yet even here the earth shakes. Over at Fort Knox the Rhinoceros is having fun.

Thomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York: New Directions, 1966)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mount Mitchell Tower Dedicated

At long last, this past Saturday, officials dedicated the new observation tower at Mount Mitchell, so here's a reposting from August 12, 2007:

The quest for a cool place on a hot day took us to Mount Mitchell, elevation 6684’.

After a long trip up the Parkway from Asheville, I was ready for the short walk to the observation tower. But a sign at the botton of the trail said "CLOSED". The old tower on the summit was gone!

That started me thinking about the various structures that have stood atop the mountain.

In 1835, Dr. Elisha Mitchell became the first person to measure the mountain, the tallest peak in the United States. He made several return visits and fell to his death while exploring the mountain in 1857.

In 1888, a 12-foot-tall monument marked the grave of Dr. Mitchell, who had been buried on the mountain bearing his name.

Several years later, visitors erected a 15-foot-tall platform perched on poles at the summit.

After Mount Mitchell became North Carolina’s first state park in 1915, the state built a covered wooden platform about the same height.

In 1926, a stone tower of a medieval design was constructed atop Mount Mitchell.

In 1959, it was replaced by the 30-foot-tall tower that was demolished last year. Engineers had determined that the 1959 tower was structurally unsound.

A tower now under construction will be 10 feet tall and 36.5 feet in diameter, with a curved and gently sloping ramp for access. The 135-foot ramp, supported by circular columns will make the platform fully accessible.

In addition to the architect’s rendering of the new tower shown here, is a photo of the actual construction as of July 2007. For more, you can click on the Vaughan and Melton website for photos of the Mount Mitchell tower as construction proceeds.

Charles Dudley Warner visited Mount Mitchell in September of 1885, before any markers or towers were built upon the mountaintop, and here’s what he saw:

In the center of the stony plot on the summit lie the remains of Mitchell. To dig a grave in the rock was impracticable, but the loose stones were scooped away to the depth of a foot or so, the body was deposited, and the stones were replaced over it. It was the original intention to erect a monument, but the enterprise of the projectors of this royal entombment failed at that point. The grave is surrounded by a low wall of loose stones, to which each visitor adds one, and in the course of ages the cairn may grow to a good size.

The explorer lies there without name or headstone to mark his awful resting-place. The mountain is his monument. He is alone with its majesty. He is there in the clouds, in the tempests, where the lightnings play, and thunders leap, amid the elemental tumult, in the occasional great calm and silence and the pale sunlight. It is the most majestic, the most lonesome grave on earth.

As we sat there, awed a little by this presence, the clouds were gathering from various quarters and drifting towards us. We could watch the process of thunder-storms and the manufacture of tempests. I have often noticed on other high mountains how the clouds, forming like genii released from the earth, mount into the upper air, and in masses of torn fragments of mist hurry across the sky as to a rendezvous of witches.

This was a different display. These clouds came slowly sailing from the distant horizon, like ships on an aerial voyage. Some were below us, some on our level; they were all in well-defined, distinct masses, molten silver on deck, below trailing rain, and attended on earth by gigantic shadows that moved with them. This strange fleet of battle-ships, drifted by the shifting currents, was maneuvering for an engagement.

One after another, as they came into range about our peak of observation, they opened fire. Sharp flashes of lightning darted from one to the other; a jet of flame from one leaped across the interval and was buried in the bosom of its adversary; and at every discharge the boom of great guns echoed through the mountains.

It was something more than a royal salute to the tomb of the mortal at our feet, for the masses of cloud were rent in the fray, at every discharge the rain was precipitated in increasing torrents, and soon the vast hulks were trailing torn fragments and wreaths of mist, like the shot-away shrouds and sails of ships in battle. Gradually, from this long-range practice with single guns and exchange of broadsides, they drifted into closer conflict, rushed together, and we lost sight of the individual combatants in the general tumult of this aerial war.

Monday, May 11, 2009


IRIS, in Greek mythology, daughter of Thaumas and the Ocean nymph Electra (according to Hesiod), the personification of the rainbow and messenger of the gods.

As the rainbow unites earth and heaven, Iris is the messenger of the gods to men; in this capacity she is mentioned frequently in the Iliad, but never in the Odyssey, where Hermes takes her place.

She is represented as a youthful virgin, with wings of gold, who hurries with the swiftness of the wind from one end of the world to the other, into the depths of the sea and the underworld. She is especially the messenger of Zeus and Hera, and is associated with Hermes, whose caduceus or staff she often holds.

By command of Zeus she carries in a ewer water from the Styx, with which she puts to sleep all who perjure themselves. Her attributes are the caduceus and a vase.

-From the 11th edition, Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1911.

Iris is a genus of more than two hundred species of herbaceous perennials native to the temperate zones in the northern hemisphere: Europe, Asia and North America. The species that was first named for the Greek goddess was probably Iris pallida, a fragrant variety sometimes called the Sweet Iris or the Dalmatian Iris, from its supposed place of origin, the Dalmatian coast of the region once known as Illyria. It grew wild in the warm, dry climate of Greece, where it was well-known as a spring flower.

The goddess Persephone, just before she was kidnapped into the underworld, was gathering iris for garlands, along with roses, violets, crocus, narcissus and hyacinth.

Unlike the story in many myths, Iris was not turned into a flower by one of the gods. In fact, it is not really clear whether the flower was named for the goddess or for the rainbow, with its bright colors. In the myths, Iris was never explicitly associated with the rainbow, although they had the same name.

Plato said that the names of both the messenger god Hermes and Iris were derived from the word "eirein", from the verb "to speak." If so, then Iris's name means "speaker," and the rainbow was presumably named for her, although the reason is not clear.

On the other hand, Pliny, in his Natural History, said, "the flower being of various colours, like the rainbow, to which circumstance it is indebted for its name."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Life and Death Among the Weeds and Wildflowers

My greatest skill has been to want but little. For joy I could embrace the earth. I shall delight to be buried in it.
-Henry David Thoreau

Find the cost of freedom
Buried in the ground.
Mother Earth will swallow you.
Lay your body down.
-Stephen Stills

On December 17, 2008 I almost bought the farm. I was alongside Kephart Prong shooting pictures. While peering through the viewfinder, I heard a tremendous crash. Jerking back from the camera, I saw an enormous tree limb at my feet. Had I been standing 18 inches farther north at that moment, this would have been the last picture I ever took:

Oh well.

Not a bad one to go out on, actually. Unfortunately, if it had turned out that way, I’m certain that some clod would have resorted to the execrable cliché, "Waaallll, at least he died doing what he looooved."

Puh-leeze. Can we retire that comforting observation from our arsenal of tools for making sense of life and death?

I was mulling this over the other evening while feeling particularly blissful. I had just tracked down a patch of pink lady slippers and was being serenaded by thousands of frogs while the moon was glowing golden overhead. I was on a bridge overlooking what might be my favorite river on the planet. Moments of greatest contentment are a good time to think about death. The way I see it, if you haven’t learned how to die, you haven’t learned how to live. I’m still working on it.

This spring, I have delved into learning the wildflowers. With each foray into the woods, I’ve been kicking myself for waiting so long to get acquainted with the botanical diversity that graces these mountains. But as "civilization" becomes less appealing by the year, the natural world is increasingly attractive and hospitable. Flowers are a mighty fine portal to that realm.

I had intended to keep these thoughts to myself, but something odd happened this morning. I was thinking about Thoreau and wondering if he had made any pithy remarks about wildflowers. While researching it, I learned that Thoreau was buried on May 9, 1862. His coffin was covered with wildflowers as it was lowered into the ground of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts.

Beyond the coincidence of the May 9 date, I discovered another coincidence. A well-known passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy to Thoreau includes a reference to the lady slipper (Cypripedium):

It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great. Under his arm he carried an old music-book to press plants; in his pocket, his diary and pencil, a spy-glass for birds, microscope, jack-knife and twine. He wore a straw hat, stout shoes, strong gray trousers, to brave scrub-oaks and smilax, and to climb a tree for a hawk's or a squirrel's nest. He waded into the pool for the water-plants, and his strong legs were no insignificant part of his armor. On the day I speak of he looked for the Menyanthes, detected it across the wide pool, and, on examination of the florets, decided that it had been in flower five days. He drew out of his breast-pocket his diary, and read the names of all the plants that should bloom on this day, whereof he kept account as a banker when his notes fall due. The Cypripedium not due till to-morrow. He thought that, if waked up from a trance, in this swamp, he could tell by the plants what time of the year it was within two days.

On that latter point about Thoreau, Emerson probably got it right. Neither one of them, however, could have anticipated a complicating factor announced by researchers in 2008:

As reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS, November 4, 2008, vol. 105, pgs., 17029–17033), was that, on average, around Walden Pond plants are indeed flowering about a week earlier than they were during Thoreau’s time, coincident with local warming of about 4.3°F over the past 100 years. But hidden in that "average" are exactly which plants are doing well and which ones are not. A disproportionately large number of weedy, non-native species are the ones blooming earlier; these plants seem to have the genetic and behavioral flexibility to take advantage of those earlier warmer temperatures and blast out their flowers, getting an early start on reproduction. But the charismatic wildflowers—things like buttercups, anemones and asters, dogwoods, lilies, orchids, St. John’s worts, violets, and others are losing out. For whatever reason, they seem not to have the ability to move their flowering clock forward to get a jump on spring.

In the eulogy, Emerson did reveal a bit about Thoreau’s take on weeds:

"See these weeds," he said, "which have been hoed at by a million farmers all spring and summer, and yet have prevailed, and just now come out triumphant over all lanes, pastures, fields and gardens, such is their vigor. We have insulted them with low names, too,—as Pigweed, Wormwood, Chickweed, Shad-blossom." He says, "They have brave names, too,—Ambrosia, Stellaria, Amelanchier, Amaranth, etc."

Re-reading Emerson, I realize how little I have to say, when Emerson has already said so much in his inimitable manner. So, here are a few more excerpts from his tribute to Thoreau, who was buried 147 years ago today.

His interest in the flower or the bird lay very deep in his mind, was connected with Nature,—and the meaning of Nature was never attempted to be defined by him. He would not offer a memoir of his observations to the Natural History Society. "Why should I? To detach the description from its connections in my mind would make it no longer true or valuable to me: and they do not wish what belongs to it." His power of observation seemed to indicate additional senses. He saw as with a microscope, heard as with ear-trumpet, and his memory was a photographic register of all he saw and heard. And yet none knew better than he that it is not the fact that imports, but the impression or effect of the fact on your mind. Every fact lay in glory in his mind, a type of the order and beauty of the whole.

His determination on Natural History was organic. He confessed that he sometimes felt like a hound or a panther, and, if born among Indians, would have been a fell hunter. But, restrained by his Massachusetts culture, he played out the game in this mild form of botany and ichthyology. His intimacy with animals suggested what Thomas Fuller records of Butler the apiologist, that "either he had told the bees things or the bees had told him." Snakes coiled round his legs; the fishes swam into his hand, and he took them out of the water; he pulled the woodchuck out of its hole by the tail, and took the foxes under his protection from the hunters. Our naturalist had perfect magnanimity; he had no secrets: he would carry you to the heron's haunt, or even to his most prized botanical swamp,—possibly knowing that you could never find it again, yet willing to take his risks.

He was equally interested in every natural fact. The depth of his perception found likeness of law throughout Nature, and I know not any genius who so swiftly inferred universal law from the single fact. He was not pedant of a department. His eye was open to beauty, and his ear to music. He found these, not in rare conditions, but wheresoever he went. He thought the best of music was in single strains; and he found poetic suggestion in the humming of the telegraph-wire.

He had many elegancies of his own, whilst he scoffed at conventional elegance. Thus, he could not bear to hear the sound of his own steps, the grit of gravel; and therefore never willingly walked in the road, but in the grass, on mountains and in woods. His senses were acute, and he remarked that by night every dwelling-house gives out bad air, like a slaughter-house. He liked the pure fragrance of meliot. He honored certain plants with special regard, and, over all, the pond-lily,—then, the gentian, and the Mikania scandens, and "life-everlasting," and a bass-tree which he visited every year when it bloomed, in the middle of July. He thought the scent a more oracular inquisition than the sight,—more oracular and trustworthy. The scent, of course, reveals what is concealed from the other senses. By it he detected earthiness. He delighted in echoes, and said they were almost the only kind of kindred voices that he heard. He loved Nature so well, was so happy in her solitude, that he became very jealous of cities and the sad work which their refinements and artifices made with man and his dwelling. The axe was always destroying his forest. "Thank God," he said, "they cannot cut down the clouds!" "All kinds of figures are drawn on the blue ground with this fibrous white paint."

There is a flower known to botanists, one of the same genus with our summer plant called "Life-Everlasting," a Gnaphalium like that, which grows on the most inaccessible cliffs of the Tyrolese mountains, where the chamois dare hardly venture, and which the hunter, tempted by its beauty, and by his love (for it is immensely valued by the Swiss maidens), climbs the cliffs to gather, and is sometimes found dead at the foot, with the flower in his hand. It is called by botanists the Gnaphalium leontopodium, but by the Swiss Edelweiss, which signifies Noble Purity. Thoreau seemed to me living in the hope to gather this plant, which belonged to him of right. The scale on which his studies proceeded was so large as to require longevity, and we were the less prepared for his sudden disappearance. The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. It seems an injury that he should leave in the midst of his broken task which none else can finish, a kind of indignity to so noble a soul that he should depart out of Nature before yet he has been really shown to his peers for what he is. But he, at least, is content. His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.

It was getting late. I was ready to head back home and check out the pictures I'd taken. I got into the car, stepped on the gas, grabbed a random cassette and popped it in the player.

Traveling music.



Thumpp-uhh -Thumpp-uhh-Thumpp-uhh-Thumpp-uhh

Well now, I get low and I get high,
And if I can't get either, I really try.
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes.
I'm a dancin' man and I just can't lose.
You know it's all right. It's ok.
I'll live to see another day.
We can try to understand
The New York Times effect on man.

Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother,
You're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Feel the city breakin' and everybody shakin',
And we're stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive, stayin' alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin' alive.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


by Carman, Bliss (1861-1929)

Who passed this way and left this trace
Of beauty in so wild a place,

To stir our souls with marvelling
At so incredible a thing?

Who sent this living miracle
In the deep Northern woods to dwell,

Where only hermit thrushes come
And the shy brown bear makes his home?

Whence was the inspiration caught?
Whose was the sudden happy thought?

Or whose the impulse thus to bless
The rough untrodden wilderness?

Deep in our hearts glad tidings say,
Beauty herself came by this way,

And with a wisdom older far
Than alphabet or calendar,

Cast off her sandal as she sped
Lest we should miss the way she fled.

And so forever we pursue
The shadowy trail of Beauty's shoe,

And for her sake must leave behind
Riches and rest and peace of mind,

To follow on that shining trace,
With beating heart and breathless pace.

By darkling wood and haunted stream,
Still lured by the enchanting gleam,

Wherever the long way may lead,
To keep the trail is all our need.

On simple fare, in poor attire,
Torn and waylaid by flint and briar,

With the lone dawn upon the height
Or the great desert stars by night,

Through burning sun and blinding snow
Untiring and content we go,

If only so we may behold
Dear Beauty's self ere we are old.

And then there’s the restatement of the obvious, as told by Barbara Kingsolver in her novel, Prodigal Summer:

"Who named it that?" he asked, and laughed – they both did – at whoever had been first to pretend this flower looked liked a lady’s slipper and not a man’s testicles. But they both touched the orchid’s veined flesh, gingerly, surprised by its cool vegetable texture.

Pink lady slipper (Cypripedium acaule) is a member of the orchid family (Orchidaceae), and while the family name is derived from the Greek orchis, "a testicle," that allusion is to the round tubers found on some species.

Surprisingly, the orchid family is the largest in the world, with about 200,000 known species. Most orchids depend on soil fungi for part of their food. Hence, the flower is difficult to transplant or cultivate in captivity. The generic name for lady slippers, Cypripedium, is compounded from the Latin Cypris, "Venus," and pedilon, "shoe."

Finally, the great James A. Duke shares this:

America's long courtship with sedatives and tranquilizers may have decimated ladyslipper populations here and there. Once known in Europe as American valerian, the ladyslipper has a long history as an antispasmodic, sedative and tranquilizer. The herb industry is attempting to help preserve ladyslippers. Many of the bigger dealers have publicly announced that they no longer deal in ladyslippers. North Carolina herbalists are attempting to propagate ladyslippers in tissue culture in hopes of mastering their cultivation, much as they have mastered ginseng cultivation.

Ladyslipper is not the only orchid endangered by medicinal collectors. One Baltimore herbalist told me he could get $18 for the paired tubers of Aplectrum or Tipularia. Like the middle eastern "salep", paired tubers of these species suggest the testicles and hence, following the "Doctrine of Signatures", they are promoted as "aphrodisiac".

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Peasant Bard

Thousands, and likely millions, of farmers and gardeners have collected bits of pottery and stone artifacts while turning the soil in the spring. It was after just such an event that Josiah Canning (1816-1892) wrote “The Indian Gone!” in 1838.


By night I saw the Hunter's moon
Slow gliding in the placid sky;
Her lustre mocked the sun at noon—
I asked myself the reason why?
And straightway came the sad reply:
She shines as she was wont to do
To aid the Indian's aiming eye,
When by her light he strung his bow,
But where is he?

Beside the ancient flood I strayed,
Where dark traditions mark the shore;
With wizzard vision I essayed
Into the misty past to pore.
I heard a mournful voice deplore
The perfidy that slew his race;
'T was in a dialect of yore,
And of a long-departed race.
It answered me!

I wrought with ardor at the plough
One smoky Indian-summer day;
The dank locks swept my heated brow,
I bade the panting oxen stay.
Beneath me in the furrow lay
A relic of the chase, full low;
I brushed the crumbling soil away—
The Indian fashioned it, I know,
But where is he?

When pheasants drumming in the wood
Allured me forth my aim to try,
Amid the forest lone I stood,
And the dead leaves went rustling by.
'The breeze played in the branches high;
Slow music filled my listening ear;
It was a wailing funeral cry,
For Nature mourned her children dear.
It answered me!

Canning’s early fondness for American antiquities, natural history, poetry stayed with him his entire life. At age 15, he built a printing press and launched his own newspaper, which eventually bore the slogan “The Tyrant’s Foe, the People’s Friend.” After brief stints as a printer in Wisconsin and Virginia, Canning returned to his birthplace in Gill, Massachusetts in 1838 and started farming. Comfortable with seeing himself as a “versifying plowman” Canning spoke of the pastoral origins of his poetry: “My muse sprang from the green turf, and is clad in the rustic garb of the plough.” Later, he would be known as “The Peasant Bard.”

After hearing of the Cherokee removal and Trail of Tears in 1838, Canning wrote “Lament of the Cherokee.”


0, Soft falls the dew, in the twilight descending,
And tall grows the shadowy hill on the plain;
And night o'er the far distant forest is bending,
Like the storm-spirit, dark, o'er the tremulous main;
But midnight enshrouds my lone heart in its dwelling,
A tumult of woe in my bosom is swelling,
And a tear, unbefitting the warrior, is telling
That Hope has abandoned the brave Cherokee!

Can a tree that is torn from its root by the fountain,
The pride of the valley, green-spreading and fair,
Can it flourish removed to the rock of the mountain,
Unwarmed by the sun and unwatered by care?
Though Vesper be kind her sweet dews in bestowing,
No life-giving brook in its shadow is flowing,
And when the chill winds of the desert are blowing,
So droops the transplanted and lone Cherokee!

Loved graves of my sires! have I left you forever ?
How melted my heart when I bade you adieu!
Shall joy light the face of the Indian ?—ah, never !
While memory sad has the power to renew.
As flies the fleet deer when the blood-hound is started,
So fled winged Hope from the poor broken-hearted;
O, could she have turned, ere for ever departed,
And beckoned with smiles to her sad Cherokee!

Is it the low wind through the wet willows rushing,
That fills with wild numbers my listening ear?
Or is some hermit-rill, in the solitude gushing,
The strange-playing minstrel, whose music I hear ?
'T is the voice of my father, slow, solemnly stealing,
I see his dim form, where the gloom gathers, kneeling,
To the God of the white man, the Christian, appealing;
He prays for the foe of the dark Cherokee!

Great Spirit of Good, whose abode is the heaven,
Whose wampum of peace is the bow in the sky,
Wilt Thou give to the wants of the clamorous raven,
Yet turn a deaf ear to my piteous cry?
O'er the ruins of home, o'er my heart's desolation,
No more shalt thou hear my unblest lamentation ;
For death's dark encounter I make preparation,
He hears the last groan of the wild Cherokee!

While Canning was not exempt from romanticizing native people, he recognized their humanity and also anticipated the self-destructiveness of white expansionism. He made that point in the conclusion of one of his later poems, “None May the Future Read Correctly”:

Has our fond regard
For human progress warped our mental view
Of the great Future? Can it come to pass
That when a few more wonders of our time,
Marvels of science and art, are found,
Till we become as gods in knowledges,-
A mighty, jealous power shall supervene,
Revulsion, revolution dire occur;
Forgetfulness, impenetrable gloom,
Blotting the brilliant science of the age,
Shall fall on man and cast his status back
To Babel’s lost, disintegrated base?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

On the Trail

Nantahala National Forest, Macon County, NC 5/3/09

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Maverick Genius

Professor Ignatz Mucklefutz, director of the Institute of Pollo Ferrum inspects a new acquisition.

More years ago than I care to remember, I heard a tape-recorded lecture by one of the great maverick scholars of the past century. Because of his thick accent I had to listen closely, but I would have anyhow because Professor Ignatz Mucklefutz was fascinating.

It is hard to categorize his line of thought and his accomplishments, but I would describe him as a cross between Saint Francis of Assisi, Carl Jung and Thomas Edison, if you can imagine that.

Professor Mucklefutz, a reclusive heir to the Swiss ball bearing Mucklefutz family fortune has devoted his life to the study of rusticulated pollo objet d'art. These rare and beautiful objects were the focus of worship in the little known Great Chicken Cult of Machu Picchu.

I didn't even know that the professor was still alive, but he is alive and active as ever.

Ignatz is looking for a North American Director for the Institue of Pollo Ferrum and several candidates, including one in the Asheville area have been identified. For now the search is being conducted with the utmost discretion and secrecy because the directorship includes access to certain accounts and formulas that have national security implications.

In case Ignatz schedules a public presentation of his latest travels and findings during his visit to WNC I'll be sure to mention it here.