Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"On Trees"

Scaly Mountain Dancers, 2004

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life, unique in the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

-Herman Hesse, "On Trees"

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Elegant Solution

Think about it. A whole habitat in a tiny clay ball...
-Masanobu Fukuoka

People storm an empty field of land, bomb it with seed balls and wait for rain. Before long, a verdant spot springs forth from the nothingness. The sweet spoils of war!
-The Hindu newspaper, India (August 17, 2009)

In The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka describes a method of enclosing rice seed in clay pellets before sowing, in part to protect the seeds from mice and birds. Around the world, farmers are still making seedballs by the thousands. The folks at Planting Milkwood (Australia) consider the possibilities:

Add compost to the clay. Now you have something to kickstart those seeds after germination. Add more growing medium to the Seedball. Even better, for some situations. Add more than one seed. Different seeds. Compatible seeds. Now you're companion planting in the palm of your hand. Seedbombs the size of mandarins, which contain the beginnings of a field of wildflowers, or a hardy herb patch, or a bunch of soil-conditioning legumes. Now you're talking revolution.

In the early 90s, Kathryn Miller presented seed balls as art:

Seed Bombs
Compressed soil and seeds of locally native plants
Santa Barbara, California
I designed these portable seed bombs for landscape re-vegetation purposes. They were thrown out into areas that were degraded, physically abused, or in need of vegetation. As a form of urban and suburban guerrilla activity, it was a small scale, non-sanctioned intervention in the landscape. The seed bombs were made available to museum visitors to take and throw somewhere they felt needed native plants, and in the process they assisted me with my project.

Seed bombing the Raytheon Plant, Santa Barbara, CA, 1992 - Kathryn Miller

From London, here’s a profile of urban green guerrilla Richard Reynolds, who went on a criminal rampage to replace cold concrete with green plants:

And in a short video posted by the Guardian, Reynolds demonstrates how to make seed balls:

People are using seed balls to reforest desert areas, green up urban spaces and grow food crops. Who knows? I imagine green guerrillas could find a few more ways to use seed balls in the Southern Appalachians, as well.

The largest seed ball?

More on Richard Reynolds and guerrilla gardening:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Exponent of All Paths

"I had to abandon the idea of the superordinate position of the ego. ... I saw that everything, all paths I had been following, all steps I had taken, were leading back to a single point -- namely, to the mid-point.


It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the centre. It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the centre, to individuation.... I knew that in finding the mandala as an expression of the self I had attained what was for me the ultimate.

-from Mandalas, C. G. Jung, trans. from Du (Zurich, 1955)


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet

What is art? Nature concentrated.
-Honore de Balzac

Komodo Dragon

From a recent issue of Orion magazine:

The traveling contemporary art exhibition Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet was born of a five-year collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive, and the environmental organization Rare.

The collaborative project sent eight artists to eight World Heritage sites for residencies:

All of the World Heritage sites that the artists visited were under pressure of some sort: a lack of funds for management, an overabundance of tourists, the effects of climate change, industrial development, intensive agriculture or grazing, and more. The artists were free to ignore these issues—but their commitment to creating work about the sites ensured that they would confront them.

The World Heritage program divides its list of 828 sites into three distinct categories. There are cultural sites (such as the Great Wall of China), natural sites named for their biodiversity (such as the Galápagos Islands or any of the seven other sites the artists visited), and twenty-five sites that are considered mixed, such as Guatemala’s Tikal National Park, named for its Mayan temples (cultural) and its location in a large swath of neotropical forest (natural).

Relatively few World Heritage sites are in North America, but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is on the list.

Interviews with the eight artists are on the Orion website.

Mobile Ranger Library, by Mark Dion, for the Human/Nature exhibit

Mark Dion created a “functional work of art” featured in the exhibit. Inspired by his hosts at Komodo National Park in Indonesia, Dion designed a cart that could be pushed over rough terrain and hold all the materials the rangers need in their work.

Slideshow of the exhibit:

A review of the exhibit, from Wunderkammer: A Journal of Environmental Art:

The Human/Nature website:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Something really special for you this Christmas...

And that calls for a little more Tom Jones...

Thursday, December 24, 2009


When Niagara froze solid, 1911


Beauty, like ice, our footing does betray;
Who can tread sure on the smooth, slippery way:
Pleased with the surface, we glide swiftly on,
And see the dangers that we cannot shun.
-John Dryden

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Hey, I want to go party at the Zimmerman residence:

A Good Year for Waterfalls

2009 has been a good year for waterfalls. With the end of the long drought, some old favorites are running better than they have in a long time. In 2008, Bridal Veil Falls (the one near Highlands) was down to a trickle. Not anymore.

Just down the mountain from Bridal Veil, the Forest Service finally reopened access to the incomparable Dry Falls.

Lots of new falls for me in '09, like...


Whiteoak Creek:

Lower Whitewater:

Add to that one episode of waterfall-induced etymological wandering.

Finally, I still haven't seen if for myself, but have heard that Kevin Adams' new map of North Carolina waterfalls is a beauty. His waterfall book has been THE go-to reference for weekend rambles, and I expect the map would be a nice addition to that.

Without a doubt, it was a good year for waterfalls.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Synesthesia, Meditation and Mescaline

I've been looking back over Ruminations 2009 and thinking I might close out the year with some blasts from the past. Back on January 11, Krystle Cole taught us how to milk a toad.

Unfortunately, that video is no longer available.

Fortunately, in a series of very informative and helpful videos, our friend from NeuroSoup still has a lot to say about expanded consciousness:

"What is this reality, anyway, but an illusion?"

And I enjoy hearing her say it. I think I'm fond of her, not because she looks like some girl I knew in the seventies, but because she looks like EVERY girl I knew in the seventies.

Next, a story about mescaline, which was the subject of Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception. Here's how Mr. Huxley saw the future in which we live:

And it seems to me perfectly in the cards that there will be within the next generation or so a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing ... a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda, brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods.

Nowadays, I think we're calling Mr. Huxley's scenario "health care reform."

But I digress.

Ms. Cole, please...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Winter Solstice

The Green Man, born on the winter solstice

Finding it useful to tune out most holidays, I’ve made the mistake of allowing the winter solstice to slip up on me unprepared. Perhaps next year I can dance around a bonfire or find some other fitting way to observe this special day. I have been reading a little about winter solstice to remind myself what I'm missing. Over the centuries, many cultures of the northern hemisphere have celebrated this day. One recurring theme is to make it a time of ritual purification. What a novel concept! I don’t think we’d have much luck pitching “purification” to the contemporary American consumer of holidays. But I like it, and so I’ll give some thought to how I might make myself more pure.

Another common thread is the idea of “light overcoming darkness.” At first, this seems a counterintuitive way to look at the shortest day of the year. On second thought, it does fit since each day will now be getting longer.

Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu emerges from her seclusion in a cave

Obviously, the remnant that still thinks of Christmas as something other than a binge of orgiastic materialism could relate to the themes of light overcoming darkness and the birthday of the sun (Son). However, they might find the parallels to pagan traditions too close for comfort. So let’s move on.

I enjoyed learning about the indigenous people of Finland, the Saami, who worshipped the sun-goddess Beiwe:

She travels with her daughter, Beiwe-Neia, through the sky in an enclosure of reindeer bones, bringing back the green plants for the reindeer to feed upon. On the Winter Solstice, her worshippers sacrifice white female animals and thread the meat on sticks which they bent into rings and tied with bright ribbons. They also smear their doorposts with butter so Beiwe can eat the rich food and begin her recovery.
(From Waverly Fitzgerald’s School of the Seasons)

In east Asia, the winter solstice observance has gone by many names, including the Dōngzhì Festival of China. The origins of this festival can be traced to the yin and yang philosophy of balance and harmony in the cosmos. After this celebration, there will be days with longer daylight hours and therefore an increase in positive energy flowing in. The philosophical significance of this is symbolized by the I Ching hexagram fù (復, "Returning"). The Asian observances involve quite a few food customs, and that scores points in my book.

Hexagram 24 (Fu) Turning point / New beginning

Karachun was celebrated by Slavs on the longest night of the year. Hors, symbolising the old sun, becomes smaller as the days become shorter, and dies on the solstice, defeated by the dark and evil powers of the Black God. To honor Hors, the Slavs danced a ritual chain-dance. Traditional chain-dancing in Bulgaria is still called horo. On the day after the solstice, Hors is resurrected and becomes the new sun, Koleda. On this day, the Slavs burned fires at cemeteries to keep their departed loved ones warm, organized meals in the honor of the dead so as they would not suffer from hunger and lit wooden logs at local crossroads.

The "shamanic cheerleaders" had a good time celebrating winter solstice 2008

Based on what I know of my own German heritage, I figured they probably got it right. And they did, according to one description that I read:

Early Germans (c.500–1000) considered the Norse goddess, Hertha or Bertha to be the goddess of light, domesticity and the home. They baked yeast cakes shaped like shoes, which were called Hertha's slippers, and filled with gifts. "During the Winter Solstice houses were decked with fir and evergreens to welcome her coming. When the family and serfs were gathered to dine, a great altar of flat stones was erected and here a fire of fir boughs was laid. Hertha descended through the smoke, guiding those who were wise in saga lore to foretell the fortunes of those persons at the feast".

The fact is, you could borrow from ancient cultures to craft a different winter solstice observance every year, and have plenty to last a lifetime. Which sounds like a lot more fun than the same old same old.

To Juan at the Winter Solstice
-by Robert Graves

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

Or is it of the Virgin's silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
How many the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love.

Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
Whose coils contain the ocean,
Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
Battles three days and nights,
To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

Much snow if falling, winds roar hollowly,
The owl hoots from the elder,
Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
The log groans and confesses:
There is one story and one story only.

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-blue eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Way Down Upon the Pee Dee River

"Patrick Dale Was Here," Acrylic on panel, December 2009

Why this Pee Dee River obsession? What I haven’t spelled out is that I grew up seven miles from the point where the Yadkin River becomes the Pee Dee, at the confluence of the Uwharrie River on the eastern border of Stanly County, North Carolina.

So, the river and I go back a long way.

I recognize that “Pee Dee” is a comical name. A minor piece of lore when I was a kid concerned the original wording of “Old Folks at Home,” the Stephen Foster song that goes “Waaaay down upon the Swaaaanee River…”

Although Florida adopted Foster’s composition as their state song in 1935, my people took pride in the knowledge that Foster’s first version went “Way down upon the Pee Dee River.

There was no reason for me to doubt the story. Now that I’m older and more skeptical, I set out to verify (or debunk) the Stephen Foster tale. In short order I found an image of Foster’s manuscript draft for the song. Clearly, the name “Pedee” is written on the page and, clearly, it was lined out and replaced with “Suwanee.”

Case closed.

When Foster wrote the song in 1851, several popular songs were set on the Pee Dee River. I’ve already found references to three other Pee Dee songs, but that’s another story for another day.

Today’s question is “How did the river get that funny name: Pee Dee?”

Most explanations I’ve seen claim the river was named for the Pee Dee (or Pedee) Indians.

I now present an alternate theory. Of all my research the past few years, one of the top two or three best “finds” was an 1845 magazine article that explains the origins of place names in the Carolinas. I am uncertain about the reliability of the article but it contains details of this region’s history I’ve never read anywhere else. And that’s definitely the case when the article turns to the Pee Dee:

In connection with this subject it will be somewhat curious to trace the history of some of the more modern names of places, in our country, to show how they came, and from whom they were derived. We have before us a manuscript, written by a very old and worthy citizen of North-Carolina, which is entirely yielded to this subject. Portions of this MS. we shall copy without alteration or amendment. The writer makes no argument, has no theory, is no ways essayical. He proceeds, simply, as a matter of business, to record what he has seen and heard, and knows, in relation to the first discovery, and the naming of well known places in the two Carolinas since their European settlement.

He writes abruptly:

"In the year 1792,1 received the following information from a man named Blewett, who was then about seventy years of age, and who had been raised at some place below Fayetteville, N. C. He said that a company of hunters had made an excursion from his neighborhood up the country to the river now called the "pee Dee;" that they went up the river to an Indian crossing-place, near the "Grassy Islands, and on the side of the Indian path on the bank of the river, one of them, named Patrick Dale, or Daily, engraved with his knife the initials of his name, on the bark of a beach tree, [P. D."] which stood on the side of the path. This served as a direction to future travellers, to direct them where the path leads to, and the river was afterwards called Pee Dee, up, as high as the mouth of Huary;" (Ewharie—on the maps Uwharee—a stream which empties into the Pee Dee in Montgomery county, North Carolina.') "It then changed its name to that of Yadkin from a hunter of that name, who hunted near to the Shallow Ford."

Pee Dee has been usually thought an Indian name; it is difficult now to settle the question. The old maps, land documents, treatises. &c., previous to 1720, would be authorities. The story of Patrick Daily is sufficiently plausible, though we prefer to believe in the Indian paternity of the Pee Dee.

There you have it. Despite my own doubts about the Patrick Daily origin of “Pee Dee” I want to believe the story is true. But even if I’m not ready to correct possibly mistaken beliefs about how the Pee Dee got its name, I can correct the “official lyrics of the state song of Florida”:

Way down upon de Pee Dee ribber
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation
And for de old folks at home.

All de world am sad and dreary,
Ebry where I roam,
Oh! darkies how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home.

All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young,
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.

One little hut amond de bushes,
One dat I love,
Still sadly to my mem'ry rushes,
No matter where I rove
When will I see de bees a humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo tumming
Down in my good old home?

The following performance is really classy. It's just too bad Deanna Durbin got the name of the river wrong.

[Click here for all stories on Gaddy's Geese.]

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lost and Found

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.
-Oscar Wilde

If people would forget about utopia! When rationalism destroyed heaven and decided to set it up here on earth, that most terrible of all goals entered human ambition. It was clear there'd be no end to what people would be made to suffer for it.
-Nadine Gordimer

Hopi Emergence

One September day several years ago, I was rolling across the southern Indiana countryside. In the golden autumn light, the farms that stretched over the hills looked like a cozy patchwork quilt.

Late that afternoon, I pulled into a small town where a German street festival was packing up. I strolled through town dodging the vendors as they loaded their trucks and could detect something special about the place. The numen of New Harmony was unlike anything else I’d experienced.

Near Main Street, I found the Roofless Church. From inside that peaceful space I contemplated a scene framed by an opening in the brick wall: a bush full of red roses, and beyond that, a field full of ripe corn.

Little by little, I pieced together the story of New Harmony as the location of utopian experiments, not once, but twice.

New Harmony, 1832, by Karl Bodmer

First came the band of godly farmers led by George Rapp. A few years later, the Rappites sold out to Robert Owen, who envisioned a community of creative social, scientific, artistic and philosophical inquiry.

New Harmony, as proposed by Robert Owen, ca. 1838

In William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 book, Blue Highways, New Harmony was his last stop before returning home.

Not far from a burial ground of unmarked graves that the old Harmonists share with a millennium of Indians, the mystical Rappites in 1820 planted a circular privet-hedge labyrinth, “symbolic” (a sign said) “of the Harmonist concept of the devious and difficult approach to a state of true harmony.” After the Rappites, the hedges disappeared, but a generation ago, citizens replanted the maze, its contours strikingly like the Hopi map of emergence.

I walked through it to stretch from the long highway. Even though I avoided the shortcut holes broken in the hedges, I still went down the rungs and curves without a single wrong turn. The “right” way was worn so deeply in the earth as to be unmistakable. But without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth. And worse: knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless.

Ah, that well-worn path!

We’ve been conditioned to denigrate anything other than success. We’ve been trained to strive for a destination called “happiness.” It is easy to overlook the lessons of the labyrinth, easy to miss the deeper joys to be found in the errors, the wrong turns, the blind alleys, the doubling back, the misdirection, the fumbling, the chance discoveries…

Chartres Cathedral

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"He knows all the names of the stars in the skies"

The crow wished everything was black, the owl, that every thing was white.
-William Blake

One of the many joys of my life is to listen to the owls call out at night. I hear owls much more often than I see them. Sunday, when a foggy day turned surprisingly warm, I took off to examine the neighborhood.

A flash of wings caught my attention and I turned to see a barred owl landing on a tree limb. The owl stared at me. I stared at the owl. Even though I’d left the “right” camera and the “right” lens at home, I snapped away and bagged a few grainy shots.

It is one thing to know how an owl can turn its head almost completely around and another to actually see it. The owl was facing me and then smoothly swiveled its head around until it was looking at me again...and then swiveled its head back to where it started. I stayed there for a few minutes and so did the owl. Neither of us was in any hurry to go anywhere.

When I got home, I started looking up “owl poems.” This one sounds like something we might have heard in second grade, but I like it:

The Wise Owl

The wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he saw,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Why can't we be like
That wise old bird?

by X.J. Kennedy

The diet of the owl is not
For delicate digestions.
He goes out on a limb to hoot
Unanswerable questions

And just because he winks like men
Who utter sage advice,
We think him full of wisdom when
He's only full of mice.

Barred Owl
by Richard Wilbur

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl's voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
"Who cooks for you?" and then "Who cooks for you?"

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Based on his observations from travels through the Southeast, William Bartram wrote a “description of the character, customs and persons of American aborigines.” While he did single out specific tribes in some cases, he also made generalized statements based on his contact with the “Cherokees, Muscogulges, Siminoles, Chactaws and Creeks.” He does not elaborate on where he witnessed this ceremonial activity:

THE junior priests or students, constantly wear the mantle or robe, which is white, and they have a great owl skin cased and stuffed very ingeniously, so well executed, as almost to represent the living bird, having large sparkling glass beads, or buttons fixed in the head for eyes: this insignia of wisdom and divination, they wear sometimes as a crest on the top of the head, at other times the image sits on the arm, or is borne on the hand. These bachelors are also distinguishable from the other people, by their taciturnity, grave and solemn countenance, dignified step, and singing to themselves songs or hymns, in a low sweet voice, as they stroll about the towns.

Alas, what we have lost in the comforts of our modernity!

Finally, this:

The Owl

The owl is wary, the owl is wise.
He knows all the names of the stars in the skies.
He hoots and he toots and he lives by his wits,
but mostly he sits. . . (and he sits. . . and he sits).


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Magnolias at "La Tete de Kiwi"

I was received with a great deal of courtesy by the mistress of the house whose husband was away. This woman was young, beautiful, but very devout, and continually reflecting on the different ways of thought among the Methodists, Anabaptists and Quakers. Conversations on these subjects went from seven until ten-thirty; I then became bored with it in spite of the kindness and charm of this woman, and I went to bed.
-Andre Michaux, December 1, 1788

The more I delve into Andre Michaux’s December 1788 expedition to the Southern mountains, the more contradictions I find. This trip has earned a place in the history of botanical explorations because Michaux collected specimens of Shortia galacifolia at the head of the Keowee River, and it took a century for subsequent researchers to locate the source of those plants. But the Oconee Bell was not the object of Michaux’s field trip. He was intent on finding Magnolia cordata, a rare tree mentioned by William Bartram on his 1775 trip through the mountains.

If diverse flora was one appeal of the region, Michaux also found a great diversity of people living on this frontier. By all descriptions, the Frenchman was a good conversationalist and well-mannered, but his diary reflects annoyances along the way. On December 1, he arrived near the head of the Savannah River (at the confluence of the Keowee and Tugaloo Rivers) where he stayed at the home of home of a Mr. Freeman (as described above).

Rather than proceeding straight up the Keowee, Michaux headed northwest along the Tugaloo. He traveled about twenty miles on December 2 and spent the night at the home of Larkin Cleveland. On December 3, he crossed the river to breakfast at the home of John Cleveland:

I crossed the Tugaloo River at the only place used for fording. It was so dangerous that two of our horses narrowly escaped drowning.

Larkin and John had fought beside their brother, Colonel Benjamin Cleveland, who was a hero at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. Cleveland counties in North Carolina and Georgia, and the town of Cleveland, Tennessee were all named for the Colonel. After the Revolution, the three Cleveland brothers brought their families to the Tugaloo just east of Toccoa, Georgia.

Leaving the Tugaloo, Michaux went east, spending the night of December 3 sleeping on the ground at Seneca. That night he wrote that his twenty mile trip had been:

…through country completely covered with forests, like all southern provinces, but it was very hilly…

Michaux spent a couple of days botanizing on the Keowee. On December 6, he proceeded upriver to some unnamed Indian village, where he spent the night with a hospitable native family.

On December 7, after securing a Cherokee guide to accompany him, Michaux continued about fourteen miles up the river, camping on the shores of the river at the foot of the mountains.

The next day, Michaux drew closer to the head of the Keowee and found the way becoming more and more difficult. About two miles before the head of the river, Michaux recognized the Magnolia cordata he had been seeking, collected specimens of “a new plant with denticulated leaves” (later identified as Shortia) and also found a place to stay for the night:

In this area there was a small hut inhabited by a family of Cherokee Indians. We stopped there to camp… The weather changed and it rained the whole night. Although we took shelter under a large white pine our clothing and blankets were drenched and soaked. Around the middle of the night I went into the hut of the Indians which could barely hold the family of eight persons, men and women. There were further six large dogs which added to the dirtiness of this housing and to the inconvenience. The fire was in the middle, without an opening on top of the hut to let the smoke escape; however, there were enough openings all over the roofing of this house to let the rain in. One Indian offered me his bed which consisted of a bear skin and took my place by the fire. But finally I was so annoyed by the dogs, which fought all the time for a place by the fire; that I returned to rny camp, especially since the rain had ceased.

On December 9, Michaux wanted to investigate the more precipitous of the two headwater streams to reach the highest mountains:

We had to cross precipices and creeks covered with fallen trees where ten times our horses plunged down and came close to perishing. We climbed up to a waterfall where the thunder of the falling water resembled distant shots of musketeers. The Indians said that at night fires could be seen at this place. I wanted to camp there, but the unexpected snow and the wind were so cold that we looked for an area lower on the mountain that was less exposed to the cold and that had more grass for our horses. The night was terribly cold. There was only pinewood to keep up the fire which burned poorly due to several snowfalls. Our snow-covered blankets became stiff with ice shortly after having been warmed.

Despite the cold temperatures. Michaux collected plants all of December 10 and for part of December 11:

I noticed a chain of high mountains stretching from west to east and where the frost showed little in places exposed to the sun. I gathered a ground juniper (Juniperus repens) that I had not yet noticed in the middle parts of the United States… On these mountains I saw several trees of the northern regions such as river birch (Betula nigra), alternate-leaved dogwood, white pine, hemlock spruce, etc. We crossed an area of about three miles through rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum).

By the evening of the 11th, Michaux had returned to the head of the Keowee. On December 12, he was retracing his steps as he continued downriver:

We kept close to the river and saw several flocks of wild turkeys. Our Indian guide fired at them, but the rifle failed several times since we had not been able to protect it from the rain in the preceding days. Thus our supper consisted of a few chestnuts that our Indian guide had gotten from another of his nation. We made eighteen miles. The weather was very clear. The freeze set in early in the evening, and, after having asked my Indian to tell me the names of several plants in his language, I wrote my journal by the light of the moon.

On December 13th I attempted to shoot a wild turkey at daybreak; there were plenty in this area but I was unsuccessful and we broke camp without breakfast. We were famished and changed our direction towards a camp of Indian hunters, and, although the hills became less steep, it was one o'clock in the afternoon before we arrived there after a journey of six hours estimated at only fifteen miles.

They cooked bear meat for us, cut into small pieces and fried in bear grease. Although it was smothered in grease, we had an excellent dinner, and, although I ate a lot of the fattest part of the meat, I did not become indisposed. The bear grease is tasteless and resembles a good olive oil. It doesn't even have a smell. When some food is roasted with it, it does not congeal until it freezes. After dinner, we made sixteen miles and arrived at Seneca in the evening.

What Andre Michaux actually meant by “the head of the Keowee” has been a subject of disagreement for many years. In 1886, seeking the same patch of Shortia that Michaux had described, Charles Singer Sargent attempted to retrace the 1788 journey. Sargent had his own theory about “tete de Kiwi”:

It has been suggested that the spot described by Michaux as the "Tete de Kiwi" might have been the junction of two rapid mountain torrents, the White Water and the Devil's Fork... It is more probable however, that the spot described as the head of the Keowee is the junction of the Toxaway and Horse Pasture Rivers, several miles above the mouth of the White Water and close to the North Carolina boundary… They are swift rivers flowing through beds cut deep in the rock, broken by innumerable rapids, and full of logs and boulders; in each about six miles from its mouth is a noble fall, or rather a series of cascades of great height and beauty. It was near one of these falls probably that Michaux wished to camp on the evening of the 9th of December, and the evidence favors the belief that it was the falls of the Toxaway.

Sargent believed that Michaux found the old Indian trail that continued up the Toxaway and crossed the Blue Ridge Divide between Hogback and Tigertail (now Panthertail) Mountains. This would have brought Michaux to the Tuckasegee headwaters that flow through Panthertown Valley. According to Sargent, the distant chain of high mountains that Michaux observed on December 11, 1788 would have been the Balsams.

Subsequent investigators have challenged Charles Sargent’s conclusions. In 1983, Robert Zahner and Steven Jones published the results of their attempt to follow Michaux’s path. They assert that the “head of the Keowee” mentioned by Michaux was actually the confluence of the Whitewater and the Toxaway, rather the confluence of the Toxaway and Horsepasture as claimed by Sargent. Instead of going up the Toxaway, Michaux went up the Whitewater to reach the “high mountains” (Chimney Top, Terrapin and Sassafras) where he botanized on December 10 and 11. Zahner and Jones explain that the spot where Michaux collected Shortia, two miles downriver from the head of the Keowee, was very near where Jocassee Dam stands today. This was also the location of an old Cherokee village called “Toxaway” destroyed by Colonel Archibald Montgomery in 1760.

I would like to see more evidence before casting my vote for one theory over another. Some of that evidence, though, is lost beneath the waters of Lake Jocassee. What remains indisputable is Andre Michaux’s ability to meet the challenges of exploring the backcountry. While returning to Charleston after his December 1788 trip through the mountains, Michaux encountered difficulties of a different kind. His biographers, Henry and Elizabeth Savage, describe the events of December 21:

After fording twenty large streams in bitter cold weather, he sought shelter and warmth in the home of an American loyalist with no love for Frenchmen. “This American tory said to me on my arrival that he would kill me if I spent the night at his house,” recounted the botanist, “and I told him I was not afraid of that because I was not fat enough nor my purse either! He wanted to badger me about my country but I was a match for him and he had to be content with making me pay dearly for my lodging.”


The illustrations, above, are of the main object of Michaux’s trip, the plant he identified in his journal as Magnolia cordata. He brought back specimens that were introduced into cultivation, but it would be another 150 years before the tree was once again found in the wild.

The “cucumber tree” or “cucumber magnolia,” notable for its rich yellow blossoms is now considered a variant of the Magnolia acuminata species (Magnolia acuminata var. subcordata).

I’m afraid things are not quite that simple, though. Michaux’s magnolia has persisted as a subject of debate and speculation for botanists up to the present time, and for a thorough examination of this subject, we would involve William Bartram, John Fraser, Magnolia auriculata, M. macrophylla, M. fraseri, Mountain Magnolia, Frasers Magnolia and much more. This is not something I will attempt to sort out, but I'll recommend a couple of articles for any intrepid botanical sleuth who wants some context:

The late Robert Zahner has a helpful article, “Bartram’s Mountain Magnolia,” on the Chattooga Conservancy website,

And Charlie Williams published “André Michaux and the Discovery of Magnolia macrophylla in North Carolina” in Castanea, (Southern Appalachian Botanical Society), Vol. 64, No. 1 (March 1999), pp. 1-13.

With apologies to Monsieur Michaux, I will call on his old friend Puc Puggy to wax rhapsodic over a tree that he saw near Mobile in the summer of 1775:

…how gaily flutter the radiated wings of the Magnolia auriculata, each branch supporting an expanded umbrella, superbly crested with a silver plume, fragrant blossom, or crimson studded strobile and fruits.

Finally (and this is not too much of a stretch) J J Cale sings about those whippoorwills that Bartram heard in the Keowee Valley where Michaux found that special magnolia.

Encore! Encore!

For all stories on Andre Michaux

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gusti Nyoman Lempad at Age 116

I used to have lots of money until it got rotten. I was not too happy. Happiness did not count on how much money you owned but what’s inside your heart.
-Gusti Nyoman Lempad

Every year or two, while going through my library, I'll come across a slip of paper that has marked places in one book after another. The handwriting is not mine, and I can't remember how this note came to me. Had a friend suggested I study the Balinese art of Gusti Nyoman Lempad? Or was the note just stuck inside a used book I'd purchased some time?

Belajar Menari / Dance Lesson, ink on paper, 19 x 29 cm, I Gusti Nyoman Lempad (1862-1978)

Since I'll never know, I might as well get a blog post out of it. The following video tells his story better than I can, and provides a rare visit with someone who had lived 116 years. Lempad, a stone sculptor, architect and artist produced hundreds of linear drawings, and built temples and buildings. He was illiterate, but had brilliant ideas and intellectual discussions with fellow artists.

The way he died was as interesting as the way he lived.

He chose the day on which he was going to die months in advance and on that day he called his descendants together, asked them to bathe and dress him, told them their inheritance, bade them farewell and then died. The day he chose was a holy day.

Digging a little deeper into Balinese culture, I learned this about the Balinese Monkey Chant:

Kecak (pronounced [ˈketʃak], alternate spellings: Ketjak and Ketjack) a form of Balinese music drama, originated in the 1930s and is performed primarily by men. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the piece, performed by a circle of 100 or more performers wearing checked cloth around their waists, percussively chanting "cak" and throwing up their arms, depicts a battle from the Ramayana where the monkey-like Vanara helped Prince Rama fight the evil King Ravana. However, Kecak has roots in sanghyang, a trance-inducing exorcism dance. (From Wikipedia)

What a performance in this video!

The kecak scene is from the movie, Baraka (1992), a non-narrative film directed by Ron Fricke, who was the cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi. Baraka's subject matter has some similarities—including footage of various landscapes, churches, ruins, religious ceremonies, and cities thrumming with life, filmed using time-lapse photography in order to capture the great pulse of humanity as it flocks and swarms in daily activity. The movie was filmed at 152 locations in 24 countries. The title Baraka is a word that means blessing in many different languages.

Here's a trailer for Baraka, and a clip of the first ten minutes of the film:

Koyaanisqatsi has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it many years ago:

Finally, I came across this video which is somewhat in the vein of Koyaanisqatsi. Very illuminating...pardon the pun:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Andre Michaux Sets Out from Keowee

People in the Old World were always being surprised by reports from America of spiders as big as cats and birds as small as fingernails, squirrels that flew and frogs that whistled, of plants so blessed that they could cure almost any sickness and of others so strange that their discoverers were afraid to describe them, lest they be called fools or liars. Americans forested the parks of rich Europeans with sugar maples and hemlocks, filled collectors’ cabinets with mockingbirds and rattlesnakes, enlivened their gardens with fly-eating tipitiwichets and early blooming skunk cabbages. Their science was a matter of the heart as well as the mind, a way to express their feeling for their land and their countrymen’s unabashed pride in it.
- Joseph Kastner

...aromatic Calycanthean groves on the surrounding heights, the wary moor fowl thundering in the distant echoing hills, how the groves and hills ring with the shrill perpetual voice of the whip-poor-will...
-William Bartram, describing Keowee, 1775

Rhododendron calendulaceum

Whenever I'm on the Bartram Trail along the Chattooga or the Little Tennessee I revel in the privilege of walking in the footsteps of a flower-hunter whose ways with words inspired the British Romantics.

Thanks to Bartram’s Travels, our flame azaleas were transplanted to William Wordsworth’s poetry:

Of flowers that with one scarlet gleam
Cover a hundred leagues, and seem
To set the hills on fire.

(From “Ruth” by WW)

The question arises: if Andre Michaux had possessed Bartram’s literary talents, would he be better known today?

Michaux came to the southern mountains a decade after Bartram. As far as I know, we don't have a Michaux Trail Society. Much of Michaux’s trail is lost since Lakes Jocassee and Keowee have flooded his path along the west bank of the Keowee and the Whitewater River.

In a book on early American naturalists, A Species of Eternity, Joseph Kastner indicates the respect that Michaux commanded:

William Bartram knew him as one of the very few collectors who could go over the ground that he and his father had covered and come back with plants neither of them had found.

Michaux first explored the Carolina backcountry, and the Keowee River, in 1787. Keowee, “the place of mulberries," was principal among Cherokee Lower Towns - a mother town that was a busy center of the deerskin trade. On a contemporary map, Keowee is (or would have been) about 12 miles north of Clemson, South Carolina. Today, the old village and Fort Prince George are both submerged by the waters that cool the reactors of the Oconee Nuclear Station on Lake Keowee.

Now at this point, I must interrupt. I thought this story could be told in ONE blog post. After pursuing an infinity of rabbit trails, I realize that it could take a hundred instead.

Keowee was on the west bank of the river, just downstream from Crow Creek. In 1753, the British established Fort Prince George on the east side, across the river from the Cherokee village. By 1760, after ongoing tensions, the British destroyed Keowee. By the time of Bartram’s visit in 1775, Keowee was a ghost town. Bartram writes:

There are several Indian mounts or tumuli, and terraces, monuments of the ancients, at the old site of Keowe, near the fort Prince George, but no Indian habitations at present; and here are several dwellings inhabited by white people concerned in the Indian trade. The old fort Prince George now bears no marks of a fortress, but serves for a trading house.

Fort Prince George, on the Keowee River

Bartram describes the Keowee valley as being “seven or eight miles in extent” and he pictures the thriving place it had been just a few years earlier:

This fertile vale within the remembrance of some old traders with whom I conversed, was one continued settlement, the swelling sides of the adjoining hills were then covered with habitations, and the rich level grounds beneath lying on the river, was cultivated and planted, which now exhibit a very different spectacle, humiliating indeed to the present generation, the posterity and feeble remains of the once potent and renowned Cherokees: the vestiges of the ancient Indian dwellings are yet visible on the feet of the hills bordering and fronting on the vale, such as posts or pillars of their habitations, &c.

Bartram remained at Keowee for a week, hoping to find a Cherokee guide to lead him safely through the mountains. He must be have been struggling with strong mixed feelings. The mid-May spectacle of “the great blue wall” was almost within reach, and yet Bartram was alone, lonely, and aware of the risk he was about to take:

Keowe is a most charming situation, and the adjacent heights are naturally so formed and disposed, as with little expensive of military architecture to be rendered almost impregnable; in a fertile vale, at this season, enamelled with the incarnate fragrant strawberries and blooming plants, through which the beautiful river meanders, sometimes gently flowing, but more frequently agitated, gliding swiftly between the fruitful strawberry banks, environed at various distances, by high hills and mountains, some rising boldly almost upright upon the verge of the expansive lawn, so as to overlook and shadow it, whilst others more lofty, superb, misty and blue, majestically mount far above.

Artist's rendering of Oconee Nuclear Station in the Keowee Valley

The evening still and calm, all silent and peaceable, a vivifying gentle breeze continually wafted from the fragrant strawberry fields, and aromatic Calycanthean groves on the surrounding heights, the wary moor fowl thundering in the distant echoing hills, how the groves and hills ring with the shrill perpetual voice of the whip-poor-will!

William Bartram

Abandoned as my situation now was, yet thank heaven many objects met together at this time, and conspired to conciliate, and in some degree compose my mind, heretofore somewhat dejected and unharmonized: all alone in a wild Indian country, a thousand miles from my native land, and a vast distance from any settlements of white people. It is true, here were some of my own colour, yet they were strangers, and though friendly and hospitable, their manners and customs of living so different from what I had been accustomed to, administered but little to my consolation: some hundred miles yet to travel, the savage vindictive inhabitants lately ill-treated by the frontier Virginians, blood being spilt between them and the injury not yet wiped away by formal treaty; the Cherokees extremely jealous of white people travelling about their mountains, especially if they should be seen peeping in amongst the rocks or digging up their earth.

With no Indian guides forthcoming, Bartram “determined to set off alone and run all risks.”

Leaving Keowee he travelled west toward Georgia. In 1788, Andre Michaux stopped near Keowee and did manage to secure a Cherokee guide before continued north along the river. The following entries from Michaux’s journal are translated from the French:

On December 6, 1788, I left for the mountains and I slept with my guide in an Indian village. The chief of the village greeted us courteously. He told us that his son, who was to return from the hunt that very evening, would lead us into the high hills to the sources of the Kiwi. But he did not return and this old man, who appeared to be about 70, offered to accompany me. This man had been born in a village near the sources of that river, he knew the mountains perfectly and I hoped that his son would not return. For supper he had us served fresh cooked deer meat and bread of corn meal mixed with sweet potatoes (Convolvulus batata). I ate with my guide who served me as an interpreter since he knew how to speak Indian. The chief ate with his wife on another bench. Then the mother of his wife and his two daughters, the one married and the younger one about 14 or 15, sat down around the pot in which they cooked the meat. These ladies were naked to the waist, each having no other garments than a single skirt.

On Sunday, December 7, the housewife roasted maize with hot ash sifted in an earthen pot. When it was a little more that half roasted it was taken off the fire where the mixed-in ashes went. It was then carried to the mortar and being crushed it was put into a fine sieve to separate the fine flour which was put into a sack as our provision. When someone is tired he puts about three spoonfulls into a vessel of water, and frequently adds some brown sugar or moist brown sugar. This also very pleasing tasty drink is a restorative which renews strength immediately. The Indians never go on a trip without a supply of this meal that they call. ..[Rokaharmony].

From 7:30 in the morning to 6 o'clock in the evening we marched about fourteen miles. We did not stop except for one hour for dinner. We camped on the banks of the Kiwi at the foot of hills among two genera of rhododendron, mountain laurel [with evergreen leaves], azalea [which sheds its leaves in winter], etc.

On December 8, 1788, as we were approaching the source of the Kiwi the paths became more difficult. Before arriving there I recognized the Magnolia montana which was named M. cordata or ariculata by Bartram. In this area there was a small hut inhabited by a family of Cherokee Indians. We stopped there to camp and I rushed to do some exploring.

Keowee River, ca. 1936

You would think December an odd time of year to go botanizing in the Southern Appalachians, but Michaux was here for more than watching wildflowers bloom. He was collecting plants to send back to France. Since he had already scouted the area in the summer of 1787, his winter visit was an opportunity to gather seeds and roots for propagation.

Michaux’s adventures at “Tete du Kiwi” will continue at a later date. Meanwhile, I've quoted other passages from Michaux’s December 1788 journal in the story of his discovery of shortia:
For all stories on Andre Michaux

Thursday, December 10, 2009

At the Top of the Wish List

As I took in the shape and colors, the subdivided shades of purple and green and blue, Mr. Benefideo slid a large hand-colored transparency across the sheet, a soil map of the same area. You could imagine looking down through a variety of soil types to the bedrock below. . .
From “The Mappist” by Barry Lopez

Dear Santa,

Saturday morning, I woke up to “Selected Shorts” on National Public Radio. When they announced the first story was by Barry Lopez, I cranked up the volume and listened carefully to a reading of “The Mappist.”

Lopez calls "The Mappist" an exploration of “dangers inherent in a free-floating culture, in, literally, an ungrounded existence.” To the reader, Lopez explains, “On the day that I drafted this story, this was the best I could do with my claim to a knowledge of life. I mean it as a kind of proof against the threat of being alone in the world. I hope it fares well with you, as you bring to it an imagination different from mine.”

I won’t attempt to describe the plot. For anyone who loves books, maps and the mysterious challenge of seeing beyond the surface of things, the story is a gem. After the narrator finds “the mappist” and sees the many unique and exquisite maps that he created, the old cartographer tells him, “The world is a miracle, unfolding in the pitch dark. We’re lighting candles. These maps – they are my candles. And I can’t extinguish them for anyone.”

Well, Santa, I’ve been moderately good this year, but probably not good enough to expect that I’ll be finding this very special edition of “The Mappist” under the tree. I'll put in my request anyhow. Forget those visions of sugarplum fairies. I’ll be dreaming of this book...if you can even call it a book:

The Mappist
by Pacific Editions.
Lopez, Barry
Price: $2,100.00

 Bookseller: Priscilla Juvelis, Inc.
 Seller Inventory #: 9671
 Binding: Hardcover
 Publisher: Pacific Editions
 Place: San Francisco, CA
 Date published: 2005

Book Description
San Francisco, CA: Pacific Editions. 2005. First Edition thus, one of 48 copies, all on BFK Rives paper, signed by the author, Barry Lopez, and the artist / designer / publisher, Charles Hobson, in pencil and numbered by Hobson. Page size: 11 inches x 12 inches.

Bound: with original USGS maps for the concertina binding, which, when opened, creates its own vista of mountains and valleys representing the maps that figure so prominently in the Lopez story, covers made of paper over boards, paper reproducing a 1911 map of Bogotá from the collection of the Library of Congress, publisher's slipcase of wood- grained paper over boards with brass-toned metal label holder attached to spine of box holding white paper label with title and author in black, all suggesting a map cabinet which plays a pivotal role in Lopez's story, further housed in tan corrugated paper board slipcase, slipcase and board covers made by John DeMerrit with the assistance of Kris Langan, new.

The book opens with images of hands emulating gestures of a map maker at work reproduced as digital pigment prints on transparent film. The book also contains landscape images and an image of pencils from the writing desk of Barry Lopez printed as digital pigment prints from monotypes with pastel all created by Charles Hobson.

The text has been printed letterpress by Les Ferriss in Garamond Narrow type. The book and images were created by Charles Hobson who assembled the book with the assistance of Alice Shaw. Barry Lopez's THE MAPPIST was originally published in 2000 in LIGHT ACTION IN THE CARIBBEAN. It is a multi-layered story perfectly embodied by Charles Hobson's book.

Themes of hidden identities searched out and deciphered, hidden intentions coded in seemingly disparate actions, and the tantalizing possibilities of bringing order to a chaotic history are beautifully served by the combination of maps that are the subject of the story and, literally, hold the story together. The story itself is certainly one of the wittiest "legends" ever devised for its surrounding map.

The reader is challenged with images thrown up by the author and artist: bits of map interspersing text, bits of map as foredge and gutter outside edge on any turn of the page, a phrase full of possibilities "he was a patriot" and suggestions in the form of queries: was Lewis Mumford a populist?

When "The Mappist" gives the narrator a copy of his very rare book, THE CITY OF GERANIUMS, the reader is doubly seduced with this act of generosity (or is it instinct to preserve one's values) for the words are preceded and followed by a page of transparent film with the image of a map being passed from one hand to another. Turning the film page, the reader is confronted with the act being completed and the hand off accomplished.

The narrator finishes his tale with a ride down a very dark gravel road, using the sound of the tires on the crushed stone as his "map." We are left wondering where will we find our maps - and will we be able to read them - or remember what we've read. Pacific Editions' THE MAPPIST will certainly help in this ongoing quest.

Please keep me in mind, Santa.

Your friend,

[The Selected Shorts performance of The Mappist made an impression on at least one other listener - ]

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Whitewater Rambles

The Whitewater River has always been unfamiliar to me. I’ve seen Whitewater Falls, “the tallest falls east of the Mississippi”, on many occasions. And that was about all I knew of the river.

Somewhere along the way, I’d heard of “Lower Whitewater Falls.” But I never investigated how, or if, it was distinct from “THE” Whitewater Falls. For all I knew, the “Upper” part was what you see from the Forest Service overlook off NC 281, south of Sapphire, and the Lower Falls is viewed by descending the stairs from the overlook.

Well, I was mistaken, and so I recently devoted an afternoon to a better understanding of Whitewater geography.

Technically speaking, “Whitewater Falls” is a misnomer. It’s not on the map. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names, the tall falls you find on postcards is simply “Upper Falls,” while “Lower Falls” is a couple of miles down the Whitewater River in South Carolina.

With a drop of about 200 feet, Lower Falls is impressive. I finally saw it last month after a two-mile walk from a trailhead on Duke Power’s Pumped Storage Facility at Bad Creek. I had driven past the Bad Creek entrance many times. Due to the imposing gate, the chain link and the barbed wire, I assumed the place was strictly off-limits to wood tramps like me.

Once again, I was mistaken. So I brazenly steered my way through the gate and past the bizarre Bad Creek reservoir. I found the trail and commenced to walking. To reach the observation deck for Lower Falls, you have to cross a footbridge over the Whitewater.

On the east side of the river, the Foothills Trail leads north to the Upper Falls.

On the west side of the river, another trails meanders through old growth toward a twenty acre tract of virgin forest, the Coon Branch Natural Area. This path finally gave me a chance to get acquainted with the Whitewater River. The day was too short, though, so I’ll have to find the gigantic Fraser magnolia on a later date.

Once upon a time I might have known, but I had since forgotten, that the Whitewater begins near the High Hampton resort in Cashiers. Driving along NC 107 toward South Carolina, you’ll cross the river. Silver Run Branch flows into the Whitewater just a short distance downstream from Silver Run Falls.

The final stretch of the Whitewater River is the part that I will never see, since it is lost forever beneath the waters of Lake Jocassee, built by Duke Power in the 1970s. Among the worlds lost to the Jocassee damnation was the trail of the French botanist Andre Michaux who explored the Keowee and its headwaters in 1878 and 1788.

Somewhere between the Whitewater and the Toxaway Rivers, he took notes on one unusual plant. The subsequent efforts of botanists to find the Shortia galacifolia described by Michaux continued for a century before the mystery of the Oconee Bells was finally solved.

Michaux’s second, and last, trip along the Keowee and Whitewater was in December 1788. Over the next few days I’ll post some entries from the journal he kept on that expedition.


For all stories on Andre Michaux