Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 12

"I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.”
-Robert Henri, 1865-1929

Robert Henri self portrait, 1903

In the years before his walking tour of the South, Vachel Lindsay had studied art in Chicago and New York. One of his teachers was the renowned painter Robert Henri, credited as “an immensely significant force behind the change from 19-century academicism to 20-century self-expression.”

Besides Vachel Lindsay, Henri’s roster of students included Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Man Ray, Leon Trotsky and Ariel Durant. Henri himself admired free-thinker Emma Goldman who founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth in 1906.

Emma Goldman

Lindsay had tried combining illustration and poetry in a style somewhere between William Blake and Kenneth Patchen. At one point, though, Henri urged Lindsay to concentrate on poetry rather than painting or drawing.

As he started his great hike in 1906, Lindsay intended to swap drawings as well as poetry for his lodgings. I have no idea if he left any such sketches behind when he traveled through the mountains. In his descriptions of people and places he encountered, he did make frequent allusions to popular paintings and illustrations.

Vachel Lindsay illuminated poem

Henri’s own words suggest how he might have influenced Vachel Lindsay:

The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state.

When the artist is alive in any person... he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.

An artist's job is to surprise himself. Use all means possible.

Through art, mysterious bonds of understanding and of knowledge are established among men. They are the bonds of a great Brotherhood. Those who are of the Brotherhood know each other, and time and space cannot separate them.

The artist should be intoxicated with the idea of the thing he wants to express.

All education must be self-education.

Vachel Lindsay illustration

Self-education only produces expressions of self.

Art is the giving by each man of his evidence to the world. Those who wish to give, love to give, discover the pleasure of giving. Those who give are tremendously strong.

Pretend you are dancing or singing a picture. A worker or painter should enjoy his work, else the observer will not enjoy it.
Today must not be a souvenir of yesterday, and so the struggle is everlasting. Who am I today? What do I see today? How shall I use what I know, and how shall I avoid being victim of what I know? Life is not repetition.

Salome, Robert Henri, 1909

The most vital things in the look of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory; memory of that vital moment.

Art tends toward balance, order, judgment of relative values, the laws of growth, the economy of living – very good things for anyone to be interested in.

All the past up to a moment ago is your legacy. You have a right to it.

There are mighty few people who think what they think they think.

What we need is more sense of the wonder of life, and less of the business of making a picture.

The real artist's work is a surprise to himself.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Appalachian Trail and Then Some

If these people were on the skyline, and kept their eyes open, they would see the things that the giant could see.
–BENTON MACKAYE, founder of the Appalachian Trail, 1921

Benton MacKaye, 1879—1975

If you thought the 2175-mile path linking Springer Mountain, Georgia and Mount Katahdin, Maine was the full extent of the Appalachian Trail, then guess again.

If you count the International Appalachian Trail it goes much farther.

From 1995 to 2002, the IAT was extended north into Canada, running the 1900 miles from Katahdin to Belle Isle in northern Newfoundland.

And, the international version of the AT won’t stop in Canada, but will go trans-Atlantic. In the past month, trail clubs in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, England, Ireland and Wales formally joined the International Appalachian Trail conference, along with Greenland and Scotland, which joined last year. By next year, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Algeria could be added to the IAT.

An article from the IATC, written by Cameron Burns, explains the European connection to the American mountain range:

That the Appalachians exist in Europe and Africa is no surprise to geologists. Ever since the Earth was formed, rocks and continents have been pushing each other around like kids in a schoolyard. When continents collide, they squash mountains up; when they draw apart, they crack the surface and form oceans.

Albert Mountain Tower, on the AT, Nantahala National Forest

As Maine-based geologist Walt Anderson noted, the Appalachian/Caledonide Mountains were formed about 369-380 million years ago, when the then-existing continents on the Earth's surface all collided to form the super-continent of Pangea. "This collision and uplift formed the Appalachians/Caledonides," Anderson told me. "There were no Appalachians before this time, although there might have been other and older mountains at other locations on Pangea (as some have speculated). About 275 million years ago, Pangea rifted apart, opening the proto-Atlantic ocean, and forming the continents as we know them today."

However, it's only in North America that the range is really regarded as a singular entity -- in Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, Norway, and the few parts of Africa where it can be found, it's just an occasional outcrop left over from a great period of earth-building that happens to share sediments and a history with the famed range along this country's eastern seaboard….

In countries like Morocco and Algiers, there are a few Appalachian-related rocks…. In northern mainland Europe (the Iberian Peninsula and across parts of France, for example) there are some Appalachian-related outcrops and hills….

In Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia, however, you have some major chunks of the Appalachians….

Hence, the famed “long walk” is becoming much longer, although through-hikers will be have to contend with hopping the ocean.

I’d like to know what Benton MacKaye would think of this plan. What he envisioned as the Appalachian Trail in the early 1920s was as much a social experiment as a foot-path. MacKaye himself called it a “project in regional planning,” and it included elements that aren’t the vogue in today’s America. Here’s something I posted a couple of years ago:

During its formative stages, MacKaye called the AT a “Barbarian Utopia.” He described a struggle between the “Civilizee” and the “Barbarian” and prescribed “outdoor culture” as a means of restoring a healthy balance between the natural and the artificial.

[The Civilizee] sees in the mountain summit a pretty place at which to play at tin-can pirate and to strew the Sunday supplement; our Barbarian sees in the mountain summit the strategic point from which to resoundingly kick said Civilizee and to open war on the further encroachment of his mechanized Utopia.

MacKaye envisioned much more than a hiking trail. He proposed that shelter camps along the trail would evolve into cooperative farming camps or, essentially, productive “communes.”

The community camp should become something more than a mere “playground”: it should stimulate every line of outdoor non-industrial endeavor….

The camp community is a sanctuary and a refuge from the scramble of every-day worldly commercial life. It is in essence a retreat from profit. Cooperation replaces antagonism, trust replaces suspicion, emulation replaces competition. An Appalachian trail, with its camps, communities, and spheres of influence along the skyline, should, with reasonably good management, accomplish these achievements. And they possess within them the elements of a deep dramatic appeal….

The building and protection of an Appalachian trail, with its various communities, interests, and possibilities, would form at least one outlet. Here is a job for 40,000 souls. This trail could be made to be, in a very literal sense, a battle line against fire and flood -- and even against disease. Such battles -- against the common enemies of man -- still lack, it is true, "the punch" of man vs. man. There is but one reason -- publicity. Militarism has been made colorful in a world of drab. But the care of the country side, which the scouting life instills, is vital in any real protection of "home and country." Already basic it can be made spectacular. Here is something to be dramatized.

Coweeta, viewed from the AT

MacKaye’s 1921 article is available online:
It has turned out to be a grand social experiment in ways MacKaye might not have imagined. Even so, many of MacKaye’s ideas for the AT are yet to fully materialize.

Our ultimate aim is more than just a trail–it is a whole system of them, a cobweb planned to cover the mountains of the eastern country. It is not ‘to turn the people loose in there’ and give vent to the vandal, but just the other way–to turn them loose to kill the vandal. Here is where the planning comes, for a playground and a living ground–well equipped, well cared for, and well used. –BENTON MACKAYE

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 11

I wonder about the identity of the family that hosted Vachel Lindsay after he left Highlands and reached Jackson County in the spring of 1906. Who knows? Maybe the incident remains alive as a small piece of family lore for some local family, the memory of a story told about the night that an eccentric young man appeared, needing a place to stay, and going on to write about it years later. And then again, maybe not.

Sapphire, North Carolina, circa 1902. "View from the Lodge on Mount Toxaway." Glass negative by William Henry Jackson, Detroit Publishing Co.

From A Handy Guide for Beggars, by Vachel Lindsay:

Musing these matters, I munched my gingerbread, walking past sweet waterfalls, groves of enormous cedars, many springs, and one deserted cabin. I was homesick for that great civilized camp, New York, and the soberminded pursuit of knowledge there.

But civilization lost her battle at twilight, when I swallowed my last gingerbread crumb. Immediately I was in the land beyond the nowhere place, willing to sleep twelve hours by a waterfall, or let the fairies wake me before day. The road went deeper into savagery. I blundered on, rejoicing in the fever of weariness. In the piercing light of the young stars, the house that came at last before me seemed even more deeply rooted in the ground than the oaks around it. What new revelation lies here? Knock, knock, knock, O my soul, and may Heaven open a mystery that will give the traveller a contrite heart.

Let us tell a secret, even before we enter. If, with the proper magic in our minds, we were guests here, a year or a day, we might write the world's one unwritten epic. All day, in one of these tiny rooms, amid appointments that fill the spirit with the elation of simple things, we would write. At evening we would dream the next event by the fire. The epic would begin with the opening of the door.

There appeared a military figure, with a face like Henry Irving's in contour, like Whistler's in sharpness, fantasy, and pride.

"May I have a night's lodging? I have no money."

"Come in. ... We never turn a man away."

We were inside. He asked: "What might be your name?" I gave it. He gave his. The circle by the fire did not turn their heads, but presumably I was introduced. One child ran into the kitchen. My host gave me her chair. All looked silently into the great soapkettle in the midst of the snapping logs.

I have a high opinion of the fine people of the South, and gratefully remember the scattering of gentlefolk so good as to entertain me in their mansions. But in this cottage, with one glance at those fixed, flushed faces, I said: "This is the best blood I have met in this United States." The five children were nightblooming flowers. There were hints of Dore in the shadow of the father, cast against the log walls of the cabin. He sat on the little stairway. He was a better Don Quixote than Dore ever drew.

Dore's Don Quixote

I said, "Every middle-aged man I have met in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina has been a soldier, and I suppose you were."

He looked at me long, as though the obligation of hospitality did not involve conversation. He spoke at last:
"I fought, but I could not help it. It was for home, or against home. I fought for this cabin."

"It is a beautiful cabin."

He relented a bit. "We have kept it just so, ever since my great-grandfather came here with his pack-mule and made his own trail. I — I hated the war. We did not care anything about the cotton and niggers of the fire-eaters. The niggers never climbed this high."

I changed the subject. "This is the largest fireplace I have seen in the South. A man could stand up in it."

He stiffened again. "This is not the South. This is the Blue Ridge."

An inner door opened. It was plain the woman who stood there was his wife. She had the austere mouth a wife's passion gives. She had the sweet white throat of her youth, that made even the candle-flame rejoice.

She looked straight at me, with inkblack eyes. She was dumb, like some one struggling to awake.

"Everything is ready," she said at length to her husband.

He turned to me: " Your supper is now in the kitchen, 'if what we have is good enough.'" It was the usual formula for hospitality.

I turned to the wife. "My dear woman, I did not know that this was going on. It is not right for you to set a new supper at this hour. I had enough on the road."

"But you have walked a long way." Then she uttered the ancient proverb of the Blue Ridge. "'A stranger needs takin' care of.'"

In the kitchen there was a cook-stove. Otherwise there was nothing to remind one of the world this side of Beowulf. I felt myself in a stronghold of barbarian royalty.

"Do you do your own spinning and weaving?"

She lifted the candle, lighting a corner. "Here are the cards and the wools." She held it higher. "There is the spinning wheel."

"Where is the loom?"

"Up stairs, just by where you will sleep."

I knew that if there was a loom, it was a magic one, for she was a witch of the better sort, a fine, serious witch, and a princess withal. Her ancestors wore their black hair that simple way when their lords won them by fighting dragons. She was prouder than the pyramids. If the epic is ever written, let it tell how the spinner of the wizard wools did stand to serve the stranger, that being the custom of her house.

Whitewater Falls, William Henry Jackson photograph

This was a primitive camp indeed. There was no gingerbread. There was not one thing to remind me of the last table at which I had eaten. But every gesture said, "Good prince, you are far from your court. Therefore, this, our royal trencher, is yours. May you find your way to your own kingdom in peace."

But for a long time her lips were still. She had the spareness of a fertile, toiling mother. And, ah, the motherhood in her voice when she said at last, "My son, you are tired."


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bittersweet Beauty

You just never know when you might encounter invasive aliens intent on wreaking havoc in the neighborhood. Walking along the trail at Cullowhee Rec Center the other day, I saw them, lining the little creek that separates the park from the elementary school.

Oriental bittersweet in Cullowhee, 10/22/10

I thought I recognized the plants, but studied a bit when I got back home, and still think they are the noxious Oriental bittersweet, rather than the more well-behaved American bittersweet.

Oriental bittersweet has been identified as the one invasive plant* posing the greatest threat to the forests of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and volunteers crews are working to contain its spread.

The US Forest Service, Southern Research Station, published this description in 2004:

Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), a woody vine with rounded leaves and small yellowish flowers, was introduced to the United States from Southeast Asia around 1860. The bright orange berries produced in the fall have made oriental bittersweet popular for wreaths and winter flower arrangements, but the pretty vine wreaks havoc on the trees and native plants of the Southern Appalachian forest. The vine can spread by root suckering, but is primarily dispersed by the birds and mammals that eat the berries - and sometimes by people using the vines to decorate. Oriental bittersweet easily proliferates in forest openings created by disturbance.

Asheville, North Carolina, is a hub for oriental bittersweet invasion. The vine is literally moving out along roads and rivers into the public lands that surround the city, and poses a real threat to forest trees and plants. Oriental bittersweet grows fast: the plant can cover tall trees in a season, causing them to collapse from the weight of the vines. Understory plants are smothered by the vines themselves or by lack of light.

The native version of the vine, American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), looks very similar to oriental bittersweet, except that it flowers and produces berries at the end of stems, while oriental bittersweet produces berries where leaf and stem intersect. Not aggressive or particularly invasive, American bittersweet itself is under threat. Because it hybridizes so easily with oriental bittersweet, the genetic integrity of the native plant may be lost.

I spotted this pest last fall in a different form and a different place. If you ever go to Cashiers, you might know that rustic/chic produce market near the crossroads. About this time last year, they had stacks of bittersweet wreathes. Sure, they do look quite decorative.

I observed one pleased shopper purchasing a wreath. As the money changed hands, there was no word, no warning, about the invasive nature of the plant. And all it takes is one dusty old bittersweet wreath, tossed in the woods behind the house, to start a new infestation.

From what I learned since then, the state floated a policy several years ago to ban the offending bittersweet wreaths, but THE POWERFUL CRAFTERS LOBBY raised a stink, and pressured the state to back down.

Interesting how even a small, all but invisible, niche of the economy can become a special interest group steering government policy toward a questionable position of tacitly aiding and abetting this scourge.

As it stands now, the NC Dept. of Ag forbids transport of Oriental bittersweet beyond the 13 western counties of North Carolina. (As if the wreaths leaving that Cashiers market aren’t going far and wide!)

Bittersweet quarantine area (in red), per NCDA.

Researchers have actually looked into terminating the viability of those dried seeds on the bittersweet vines and wreathes. The hope was to deactivate the seeds without altering the appearance of the plant materials. No sort of heat treatment or chemical dip or clear spray was found to meet those criteria.

“Natural” options for control or eradication of Oriental bittersweet are few. The best approach is to uproot the plants. However, if a small amount of root remains in the ground, new shoots are liable to come up.

*The list of invasive plants threatening WNC ecosystems also includes:

Vining and bush honeysuckle
Japanese barberry
Japanese wisteria
Multiflora rose
Autumn olive
English ivy



Bittersweet Along the Expressway
by Norbert Kraft

As if in retreat
from the unending lines
of cars jerking and
swerving from Manhattan
onto Long Island
the slender bushes
crawl up the wire fence
preserving the strip
of greenery from
the service road

and like wild animals
trapped in a zoo
peer through wire diamonds
with bright orange pupils.


by George Herbert

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.


Friday, October 22, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 10

Vachel Lindsay wandered, lost, into Jackson County, the dramatic terrain helping to clear his mind of political disagreements and debates between Science and Art.

Wagon road from Highlands to Whiteside Mountain, ca. 1897, Henry Scadin photograph

From A Handy Guide for Beggars:

I turned to the right once too often, and climbed Mount Whiteside. There was a drop of millions of miles, and a Lilliputian valley below like a landscape by Charlotte B. Coman.

I heard some days later that once a man tied a dog to an umbrella and threw him over. Dog landed safely, barking still. Dog was able to eat, walk, and wag as before. But the fate of the master was horrible. Dog never spoke to him again.

Having no umbrella, I retraced my way. I stepped into the highway that circumscribes the tremendous amphitheatre of Cashier's Valley.

I met not a soul till eight o'clock that night. The mountain laurel, the sardis bloom, the violet, and the apple blossom made glad the margins of the splendidly built road; and, as long as the gingerbread lasted, I looked upon these things in a sort of sophisticated wonder.

R. Henry Scadin (1861-1923)

The first time I read this passage, I half expected Vachel to encounter a local photographer and fruit grower by the name of Henry Scadin. I even consulted Scadin’s own voluminous diaries, but found no mention of Lindsay among the entries in April and May of 1906.

Henry Scadin created what is (as far as I know) the most significant photographic record of southern Macon, Jackson and Transylvania counties at the turn of the twentieth century.

Dry Falls

Waterfalls were a specialty for Scadin and he photographed them with considerable artistic and technical ability.

Tea at Grimshawes

I knew that Scadin spent many days walking the roads between Highlands and Toxaway, which fueled my hope that he had crossed paths with Vachel Lindsay. Even if that meeting never occurred, the photographer has provided a window on the same world that the troubadour viewed while tramping through these mountains.

Horse Cove Falls

Photographs by Henry Scadin. From Henry Scadin Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville.

Lake Toxaway


Monday, October 18, 2010


Joshua Tree Under the Milky Way time lapse from Henry Jun Wah Lee on Vimeo.

From The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram:

Over my head the black sky was rippling with stars, densely clustered in some regions, almost blocking out the darkness between them, and more loosely scattered in other areas, pulsing and beckoning to each other. Behind them all streamed the great river of light with its several tributaries. Yet the milky way churned beneath me as well, for my hut was set in the middle of a large patchwork of rice paddies, separated from each other by narrow two-foot-high dikes, and these paddies were all filled with water. The surface of these pools, by day, reflected perfectly the blue sky, a reflection broken only by the thin, bright green tips of new rice. But by night the stars themselves glimmered from the surface of the paddies, and the river of light whirled through the darkness underfoot as well as above; there seemed no ground in front of my feet, only the abyss of star-studded space falling forever.

I was no longer simply beneath the night sky, but also above it – the immediate impression was of weightlessness. I might have been able to reorient myself, to regain some sense of ground and gravity, were it not for the fact that confounded my senses entirely: between the constellations below and the constellations above drifted countless fireflies, their lights flickering like the stars, some drifting up to join the clusters of stars overhead, others, like graceful meteors, slipping down from above to join the constellations underfoot, and all these paths of light upward and downward were mirrored, as well, in the still surface of the paddies. I felt myself at times falling through space, at other moments floating and drifting. I simply could not dispel the profound vertigo and giddiness; the paths of the fireflies, and their reflections in the water's surface, held me in a sustained trance. Even after I crawled back to my hut and shut the door on this whirling world, I felt that now the little room in which I lay was itself floating free of the earth.

More at:

Another time lapse from Henry Jun Wah Lee, preview of The Urban Landscape (Los Angeles), amazing work that should be watched full-screen:

The Urban Landscape - Preview 2 from Henry Jun Wah Lee on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 9

During his evening spent with the Thomas Harbison family in Highlands, Vachel Lindsay observed that the professor “was full of Spencer and Huxley, an anti-socialist willing to die fighting socialism.”

Professor Harbison

I suspect that Lindsay recoiled upon this discovery. Let’s introduce into evidence a poem written long after 1906, but written by Lindsay nonetheless:


I AM unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life's unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.

Man is a curious brute—he pets his fancies—
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, tho' law be clear as crystal,
Tho' all men plan to live in harmony.

Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.

Nowadays, “socialism” isn’t much more than a hot-button expletive used to punctuate Tea Party rants. But a century ago, socialism was a significant movement in America, aiming to correct the same imbalances and inequities that continue to plague this country.

Just two years before Lindsay’s great tramp across the south. Eugene V. Debs was the candidate of the Socialist Party of America, drawing 402,810 votes, or 2.98% of the popular vote in the 1904 Presidential election. Debs remained a highly visible figure in American life into the 1920s, working for social and political change.

Debs proclaimed his philosophy:

While there is a lower class, I am in it;
While there is a criminal element, I am of it;
While there is a soul in prison, I am not free

Something Debs wrote in 1915 could just as easily apply to present circumstances:

I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it. I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war.

Capitalists wars for capitalist conquest and capitalist plunder must be fought by the capitalists themselves so far as I am concerned, and upon that question, there can be no compromise and no misunderstanding as to my position. I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a gang of pot-bellied parasites.

I am opposed to every war but one; I am for the war with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of social revolution. In that war, I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades. There is where I stand and where I believe the Socialist Party stands, or ought to stand, on the question of war."

[From "When I Shall Fight," by Eugene V. Debs, in Appeal to Reason newspaper, September 11, 1915.]

And here’s how Debs summed up his efforts:

My purpose was to have the people understand something about the social system in which we live and to prepare them to change this system by perfectly peaceable and orderly means into what I, as a Socialist, conceive to be a real democracy. . . . I am doing what little I can, and have been for many years, to bring about a change that shall do away with the rule of the great body of the people by a relatively small class and establish in this country an industrial and social democracy.

At the time they met, Lindsay and Harbison would have had fresh memories of the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, which became a milestone in the history of the labor movement. And, during the long strike, talk of socialism entered the debate. Mine owners were determined to wait out the workers, rather than conceding to any of their demands. Meanwhile, many people were calling on federal intervention to end the strike and relieve the hardships resulting from the shutdown. One letter writer to the New York Times urged a laissez faire approach lest “socialism” gain a foothold:

As the settlement of the coal strike is not yet in sight, the people of New York can look forward to very dear coal next Winter…Lord only knows what will become of the poor in cheap tenements who buy their coal by the bucketful.

But it will be very much better to have this condition than to infringe on “the sacred rights of property,” which constitute the basis and bulwark of society: better far to suffer the pangs of cold and hunger and death than disturb the existing order of things.

All this talk of compelling the coal barons to operate their mines is the rankest socialism, communism, and anarchy. The coal lands are the property of these men, just as their pocket knives are their property, and to demand the operation of the mines is as socialistic and dangerous to property rights as to demand than they operate their pocket knives. They have just as much right to hold their lands idle as any other class of landowners throughout the world….

Why single out the owners of coal lands for special attack? Logically the only people who should have votes are the landowners of the country, for they own America. It is wrong that the rest of us, who own no land, should have any voice in the making of laws or government in a country of which we do not own one square foot.

None but stockholders have a voice in the management of a business concern, and none but the owners of this country should have a voice in it.

Disenfranchisement of the masses who own no property would put an end to the dangerous doctrines we now hear so much of, and the “sacred rights of property” would be fully safeguarded.

Leonard Tuttle, August 9, 1902

One month later, a socialist group went beyond pressuring owners to reopen the mines. They urged state ownership of the mines. Again, from the New York Times:

The meeting in Boston on Monday evening, called to urge the settlement of the anthracite coal strike by “mediation, arbitration, or conciliation,” was captured by the Socialists, who turned the discussion into unexpected channels and passed the following resolution:

Resolved, That we, the people of Massachusetts, in mass meeting assembled in Faneuil Hall, the historic Cradle of Liberty, on this Sept. 8, 1902, demand the Government ownership and operation of the coal mines as the best means of ending the strike in the anthracite coal regions, and of securing justice and liberty to the mine workers and of preventing the occurrence of all such deplorable and unhappy conditions.

President Theodore Roosevelt did not go that far, but he did break from previous presidents who would have sided with the mine owners, and attempted to level the field for labor and management in seeking an end to the strike.

Today, we might frame things differently, but the basic issues remain the same. What are the consequences of the imbalance of power between capital and labor? What is the proper role of the government in correcting those imbalances?

Tea Bagger bigots...errr, "patriots"... hit the streets on behalf of their corporate overlords

With their loud voices dominating the political stage these days, the Tea Bagger loonies have their own convenient answers to those questions, while ignoring the tyranny of unchecked capitalism.

Consider this fact:

The share of total income going to the richest 1 percent of Americans peaked in both 1928 and in 2007, at over 23 percent. Between the two peaks is a long, deep valley. After 1928, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent steadily declined… to 9 to 11 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, finally reaching the valley floor of 8 to 9 percent in the 1970s. After this, the share going to the richest 1 percent began to climb again… reaching its next peak of more than 23 percent in 2007.

Sounds like “trickle down” economics to me! Thank you, Ronald Reagan.

Some people ARE concerned with this trend toward greater and greater concentration of wealth and the deterioration of the middle class. With his book, Aftershock, economist Robert Reich has delivered some of the most astute analysis I’ve come across in a long time.

You can follow this link to hear the Fresh Air interview with Reich, which I highly recommend:

Reich sees economic woes reflecting not just normal cyclical patterns, but structural deficiencies in our economic and political policy:

[The middle class] can't go deeper and deeper into debt. They can't work longer hours. They've exhausted all of their coping mechanisms...And people at the top are taking home so much that they are almost inevitably going to speculate in stocks or commodities or whatever the speculative vehicles are going to be... Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have this in country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.

Whether they did or not, Vachel Lindsay and Thomas Harbison could have had a spirited after-dinner discussion on this subject.

Like they say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 8

Vachel Lindsay reached the Highlands plateau at last.

Main Street, Highlands, 1910 (Henry Scadin photograph)

Ten years after his 1906 hike, Lindsay wrote about it in A Handy Guide for Beggars. When Edgar Lee Masters prepared Lindsay’s biography in the 1930s he had access to Lindsay’s many diaries, including those kept on the Southern trip. So, we now have the luxury of two parallel versions of the long journey.

Here’s how Masters related the poet’s approach to Highlands:

It was Sunday and he met a boy going to Baptist Sunday school. The teachers there were a man and his wife, who took Lindsay home with them to dinner. At Sunday school there was a promising student, who had a minute knowledge of Christ and the alabaster box woman. His face “and little body were those of a cherub.” Lindsay gave him “The Tree of Laughing Bells.”

He arrived in Highlands in the evening of this day and went to the house of some people to whom he had been directed by a friend. The woman of the house cooked him an excellent omelet, gave him brown bread and sweet milk, and a couch for the night. The host was a Pennsylvania Dutchman, “earnest, scholarly, and a botanist, superintendent of the nursery at Highlands.”

In A Handy Guide, Lindsay reflected on his short stay as he departed from Highlands:

With no sorrow in my heart, with no money in my pocket, with no baggage but a lunch, the most dazzling feature of which was a piece of gingerbread, I walked away from a windswept North Carolina village…the gingerbread was given me by a civilized man, to whom John Collier had written for me a letter of introduction: Mr. Thomas G. Harbison, Botanical Collector; American tree seeds a specialty.

Back there by the village he was improving the breed of mountain apples by running a nursery. He was improving the children with a school he taught without salary, and was using the most modern pedagogy.

Something in his manner made me say, "You are like a doctor out of one of Ibsen's plays, only you are optimistic." Then we talked of Ibsen. He debated art versus science, he being a science-fanatic, I an art-fanatic. He concluded the argument with these words: "You are bound to be wrong. I am bound to be wrong. What is the use of either of us judging the other?" That is not the mountain way of ending a discussion.

For the purposes of the tale, as well as for his own merits, we must praise this civilized man who entertained me a day and a half so well.

Professor Thomas and Jessie Cobb Harbison and their daughters Gertrude and Margaret, ca. 1905

Thomas Grant Harbison (1862-1936) walked with friend Elmer Magee from their home state of Pennsylvania all the way to Highlands in the spring of 1886. Since Thomas and Elmer shared a love of botany, Highlands was a natural destination. They had survived the hike with rations consisting of a bag of ground wheat and a tin of brown sugar.

Harbison was a largely self-taught scholar who assembled a sizable library at a young age and earned his college degrees through correspondence courses. The people of Highlands were so impressed with the intellect of the ragged hiker that they convinced him to serve as principal of the new Highlands Academy.

Later, George Vanderbilt hired Harbison to collect plants for the Biltmore herbarium. And for two decades while in Highlands, he was a field botanist for Harvard. He conducted plant experiments in conjunction with the Clemson faculty. He also helped to establish the herbarium for the University of North Carolina. And in recent years, his name has been connected with a rather controversial botanical conservation project (that is a story for another day).

In addition to all that, Harbison taught poor mountain children in the Highlands vicinity, and said of that time: ”Those were the happiest and most satisfactory years of my life.”

If you drive through Highlands today, you’ll see the historical marker honoring Professor Harbison.

Although Vachel Lindsay couldn’t fault the hospitality extended by the Harbison family, he was likely rather relieved to get back on the road.

I’ll explain why, later.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Skinny Dip Falls

Skinny Dip Falls, Mountains to Sea Trail, Pisgah National Forest

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 7

Vachel Lindsay continued his long walk toward Highlands. He was thinking about the folks at Mud Creek Flats, who had listened attentively to his recitation of The Tree of Laughing Bells.

Sara Teasdale, ca. 1913.
In his pocket, he carried a letter of introduction to the Highlands naturalist who would shelter the troubadour for a night.

Before following him any further along the path, though, let's fast-forward seven years. After other long-distance hikes across America, and many more poems to his credit, Vachel Lindsay met fellow poet Sara Teasdale. Fittingly, the two were introduced to each other by the editor of
Poetry Magazine.

Vachel Lindsay

Vachel was one of several men courting Sara. He proposed, and she declined. The next year, she married Ernst Filsinger, a wealthy businessman, and presumably less eccentric than the troubadour.

Vachel and Sara reamained friends for the remainder of their complicated lives. Some people would call their relationship a tragic romance.

They had one thing in common - the world failed to measure up to their lofty romantic fantasies.

Two weeks before her wedding to Filsinger, Sara expressed her misgivings in verse:
I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.

Oh plunge me deep in love -- put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.

I wonder what attributes made the sickly Sara Teasdale so attractive to men. The Kiss constitutes "ample warning."
I hoped that he would love me,
And he has kissed my mouth,
But I am like a stricken bird
That cannot reach the south.

For though I know he loves me,
To-night my heart is sad;
His kiss was not so wonderful
As all the dreams I had.

Predictably, Sara Teasdale's marriage to Ernst Filsinger was a disappointment and ended in divorce.

Meanwhile, Vachel Lindsay scored a "hit" with The Chinese Nightingale, a poem he dedicated to "Sara Teasdale Filsinger." Here's the conclusion:

Then sang the bird, so strangely gay,
Fluttering, fluttering, ghostly and gray,
A vague, unravelling, final tune,
Like a long unwinding silk cocoon;
Sang as though for the soul of him
Who ironed away in that bower dim: --
"I have forgotten
Your dragons great,
Merry and mad and friendly and bold.
Dim is your proud lost palace-gate.
I vaguely know
There were heroes of old,
Troubles more than the heart could hold,
There were wolves in the woods
Yet lambs in the fold,
Nests in the top of the almond tree. . . .
The evergreen tree . . . and the mulberry tree . . .
Life and hurry and joy forgotten,
Years on years I but half-remember . . .
Man is a torch, then ashes soon,
May and June, then dead December,
Dead December, then again June.
Who shall end my dream's confusion?
Life is a loom, weaving illusion . . .
I remember, I remember
There were ghostly veils and laces . . .
In the shadowy bowery places . . .
With lovers' ardent faces
Bending to one another,
Speaking each his part.
They infinitely echo
In the red cave of my heart.
`Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweetheart.'
They said to one another.
They spoke, I think, of perils past.
They spoke, I think, of peace at last.
One thing I remember:
Spring came on forever,
Spring came on forever,"
Said the Chinese nightingale.

One of Sara Teasdale's last poems has been adapted as an a cappella choral composition by Frank Ticheli (b. 1958). Beautiful words, gorgeous voices...

There will be rest, and sure stars shining
Over the roof-tops crowned with snow,
A reign of rest, serene forgetting,
The music of stillness holy and low.
I will make this world of my devising
Out of a dream in my lonely mind.
I shall find the crystal of peace, – above me
Stars I shall find.


But all those poems came long, long after the spring of 1906, when Vachel Lindsay wandered these mountains under the evergreen trees and the starry skies.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 6

After Vachel Lindsay’s death-defying day in Tallulah Gorge, he resumed his trip, walking the railroad tracks leading north through Clayton and Dillard in Rabun County, GA.

Mountain View from Clayton, GA

Approaching the North Carolina state line, he diverged from the railroad and spent a precious quarter to take a stagecoach for three miles on the road leading up toward Highlands. Soon, though, the weary traveler was back on foot:

The little streams I crossed scarcely afforded me a drink. Their dried borders had the footprints of swine on them.

Lameness affects one's vision. The thick woods were the dregs of the landscape, fit haunt for the acorn-grubbing sow. The road following the ridges was a monster's spine.

Those wicked brogans led me where they should not. Or maybe it was just my destiny to find what I found.

About four o'clock in the afternoon, after exploring many roads that led to futile nothing, I was on what seemed the main highway, and drugged myself into the sight of the first mortal since daybreak. He seemed like a gnome as he watched me across the furrows. And so he was, despite his red-ripe cheeks. The virginal mountain apple-tree, blossoming overhead, half covering the toad-like cabin, was out of place. It should have been some fabulous, man-devouring devil-bush from the tropics, some monstrous work of the enemies of God.

The child, just in her teens, helping the Gnome to plant sweet potatoes, had in her life planted many, and eaten few. Or so it appeared. She was a crouching lump of earth. Her father dug the furrow. She did the planting, shovelling the dirt with her hands. Her face was sodden as any in the slums of Chicago. She ran to the house a ragged girl, and came back a homespun girl, a quick change. It must not be counted against her that she did not wash her face.

The Gnome talked to me meanwhile. He had made up his mind about me. "I guess you want to stay all night ? "


"The next house is fifteen miles away. You are welcome if what we have is good enough for you. My wife is sick, but she will not let you be any bother."

I wanted to be noble and walk on. But I persuaded myself my feet were as sick as the woman. I accepted the Gnome's invitation.

Lindsay had arrived at Mud Creek Flats, between Dillard and Highlands. Studying an old map, I see that what he called Mud Creek Flats is near today's Sky Valley, the resort development sprawling across an especially beautiful valley to the northwest of Rabun Bald.

We were met at the door by one my host called Brother Joseph — a towering shape with an upper lip like a walrus, for it was armed with tusk-like mustaches. He was silent as King Log.

But the Gnome said, "I have saved up a month of talk since the last stranger came through." With ease, with simplicity of word, with I know not how much of guile, he gave fragments of his life : how he had lived in this log house always, how his first wife died, how her children were raised by this second wife and married off, how they now enjoyed this second family....

After the lady of the house rose from her sick-bed to cook for the whole clan, Lindsay considered her life:

Let us watch her at the table, breaking her corn-bread alone, her puffy eyelids closed, her cheek-bones seeming to cut through the skin. There is something of the eagle in her aspect because of her Roman nose, and her hands moving like talons. It is not corn-bread that she tears and devours. She is consuming her enemies, which are Weariness, Squalor, Flat and Unprofitable Memory, Spiritual Death. She is seeking to forget that the light of the hearthstone that falls on her dirty but beautiful babies is kindled in hell.

Sky Valley, Georgia

For decades, magazine writers had been exploiting a freakish caricature of the rustic mountaineer. I can’t decide if that’s what Lindsay was doing here at Mud Creek Flats. He had an active imagination, for sure:

Next morning was Sunday, a week since Easter. Only when a man has sadly mangled feet, and blood heated by many weeks of adventure, can he find luxury such as I found in the icy stream next morning. The divine rivulet on the far side of the field had been misnamed "Mud Creek." It was clear as a diamond….

After breakfast the wife helped the Walrus to drag the cot out of doors. When she was alone on the porch I told her how sorry I was she had been obliged to cook for me. I thanked her for her toil. But she hurried away, without a pause or a glance. She kissed one of those miry faced babies. She walked into the house, leaving me smirking at the hills. She growled something at the host. He came forth. He pointed out the road, over the mountains and far away. He broke off a blossoming applesprig and whittled it.

"So you've been to Atlanta?" he asked.


" I was there once. What hotel did you use ? "

"The Salvation Army."

"I was in the United States Hotel."

Still I was stupid. He continued:

"I was there two years."

He put on his glasses. He threw down the apple-sprig, and, looking over the glasses, he made unhappy each blossom in his own peculiar way. He continued: " I was in the United States Hotel, for making blockade whisky. I don't make it any more." He spat again. "I don't even go fishin' on Sunday unless —"

He had made up his mind that I was a customer, not a detective.

"Unless what?"

"Unless a visitor wants a mess of fish."

But I did not want a mess of fish. Repeatedly I offered money for my night's lodging. This he declined with real pride. He maintained his one virtue intact. And so I thought of him, just as I left, as a man who kept his code.

As he left Mud Creek Flats to walk the rest of the way to Highlands, Vachel Lindsay had plenty to think about:

I thought of the Gnome a long time. I thought of the wife, and wondered at her as a unique illustration of the tragic mysteries of the human race. If she screams when seven devils enter into the Gnome, no one outside the house will hear but the apple-tree. If she weeps, only the wind in the chimney will understand. If she seeks justice and the law, King Log, the Walrus, is her uncertain refuge. If she desires mercy, the emperor of that valley, the king above King Log, is a venomous serpent, even the Worm of the Still.

But now the road unwound in glory. I walked away from those serpent-bitten dominions for that time. I was one with the air of the sweet heavens, the light of the ever-enduring sun, the abounding stillness of the forest, and the inscrutable Majesty, brooding on the mountains, the Majesty whom ignorantly we worship.


Monday, October 11, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 5

In one of the more coherent, but no less ecstatic, passages from A Handy Guide for Beggars, Vachel Lindsay described his day at Tallulah Gorge.

He had just spent several days to walking from Atlanta to Tallulah on his way to the mountains in April 1906. Taking some cheese and crackers as his fare for the day by the waterfalls, he clambered over the rocks and lived to tell about it. This is lengthy, but I'm posting the whole chapter:




THE dust of many miles was upon me. I felt uncouth in the presence of the sun-dried stones. Here was a natural bathing-place. Who could resist it? I climbed further down the canon, holding to the bushes. The cliff along which the water rushed to the fall's foot was smooth and seemed artificially made, though it had been so hewn by the fury of the cataclysm in ages past. I took off my clothes and put my shoulders against the granite, being obliged to lean back a little to conform to its angle. I was standing with my left shoulder almost touching the perilous main column of water.

A little fall that hurried along by itself a bit nearer the bank flowed over me. It came with headway. Though it looked so innocent, I could scarcely hold up against its power. But it gave me delight to maintain myself. The touch of the stone was balm to my walk- worn body and dust-fevered feet. Like a sacerdotal robe the water flowed over my shoulders and I thought myself priest of the solitude. I stepped out into the air. With unwonted energy I was able to throw off the coldness of my wet frame. The water there at the fall's foot was like a thousand elves singing. "Joy to all creatures !" cried the birds. "Joy to all creatures! Glory, glory, glory to the wild falls!"



I was getting myself sunburned, stretched out on the warm dry rocks. Down over the steep edge, somewhere near the foot of the next descent I heard the pipes of Pan. Why should I dress and go? I made my shoes and clothes into a bundle and threw them down the cliff and climbed over, clinging to the steep by mere twigs. I seemed to hear the piping as I approached the terrace at the fall's base. Then the sound of music blended with the stream's strange voice and I turned to merge myself again with its waters. Against the leaning wall of the cliff I placed my shoulders.

The descending current srnote me, wrestling with wildwood laughter, threatening to crush me and hurl me to the base of the mountain. But just as before my feet were well set in a notch of the cliff that went across the stream, cut there a million years ago. It was a curious combination to discover, this stream-wide notch, and above it this wall with the water spread like a crystal robe over it.

In the centre of the fall a Cyclops could have stood to bathe, and on the edge was the same provision in miniature for feeble man. And it was the more curious to find this plan repeated in detail by successive cataracts of the canon, unmistakably wrought by the slow hand of geologic ages. And to see the water of the deep central stream undisturbed in midst of the fall and still crystalline, and to see it slide down the steep incline and strike each, notch at the foot with sudden music and appalling foam, was more wonderful than the simple telling can explain.

Each sheet of crystal that came over my shoulders seemed now to pour into them rather than over them. I lifted my mouth and drank as a desert bird drinks rain. My downstretched arms and extended fingers and the spreading spray seemed one. My heart with its exultant blood seemed but the curve of a cataract over the cliff of my soul.



Led by the pipes of Pan, I again descended. Once more that sound, almost overtaken, interwove itself with the water's cry, and I merged body and soul with the stream and the music. The margin of another cataract crashed upon me. In the recklessness of pleasure, one arm swung into the main current. Then the water threatened my life. To save myself, I was kneeling on one knee. I reached out blindly and found a hold at last in a slippery cleft, and later, it seemed an age, with the other hand I was able to reach one leaf. The leaf did not break. At last its bough was in my grasp and I crawled frightened into the sun. I sat long on a warm patch of grass. But the cliffs and the water were not really my enemies. They sent a wind to give me delight. Never was the taste of the air so sweet as then. The touch of it was on my lips like fruit. There was a flattery in the tree-limbs bending near my shoulders. They said, "There is brotherhood in your footfall on our roots and the touch of your hand on our boughs." The spray of the splashed foam was wine. I was the unchallenged possessor of all of nature my body and soul could lay hold upon. It was the fair season between spring and summer when no one came to this place. Like Selkirk, I was monarch of all I surveyed. In my folly I seemed to feel strange powers creeping into my veins from the sod. I forgot my near-disaster. I said in my heart, "0 Mother Earth majestical, the touch of your creatures has comforted me, and I feel the strength of the soil creeping up into my dust. From this patch of soft grass, power and courage come up into me from your bosorn, from the foundation of your continents. I feel within me the soul of iron from your iron mines, and the soul of lava from your deepest fires”



The satyrs in the bushes were laughing at me and daring me to try the water again. I stood on the edge of the rapids where were many stones coming up out of the foam. I threw logs across. The rocks held them in place. I lay down between the logs in the liquid ice. I defied it heartily. And my brother the river had mercy upon me, and slew me not. Amid the shout of the stream the birds were singing: "Joy, joy, joy to all creatures, and happiness to the whole earth. Glory, glory, glory to the wild falls."

I struggled out from between the logs and threw my bundle over the cliff, and again descended, for I heard the pipes of Pan, just below me there, too plainly for delay. They seemed to say "Look! Here is a more exquisite place." The sun beat down upon me. I felt myself twin brother to the sun. My body was lit with an all-conquering fever. I had walked through tropical wildernesses for many a mile, gathering sunshine. And now in an afternoon I was gambling my golden heat against the icy silver of the river and winning my wager, while all the leaves were laughing on all the trees. And again I stood in a Heaven-prepared place, and the water poured in glory upon my shoulders.

Why was it so dark? Was a storm coming? I was dazed as a child in the theatre beholding the crowd go out after the sudden end of a solemn play. My clothes, it appeared, were half on. I was kneeling, looking up. I counted the falls to the top of the canon. It was night, and I had wrestled with them all. My spirit was beyond all reason happy. This was a day for which I had not planned. I felt like one crowned. My blood was glowing like the blood of the crocus, the blood of the tiger-lily.

And so I meditated, and then at last the chill of weariness began to touch me and in my heart I said, "Oh Mother Earth, for all my vanity, I know I am but a perishable flower in a cleft of the rock. I give thanks to you who have fed me the wild milk of this river, who have upheld me like a child of the gods throughout this day." Around a curve in the canon, down stream, growing each moment sweeter, I heard the pipes of Pan.



Go, you my brothers, whose hearts are in sore need of delight, and bathe in the falls of Tallulah. That experience will be for the foot-sore a balm, for the languid a lash, for the dry-throated pedant the very cup of nature. To those crushed by the inventions of cities, wounded by evil men, it will be a washing away of tears and of blood. Yea, it will be to them all, what it was to my heart that day, the sweet, sweet blowing of the reckless pipes of Pan.

Saturday, October 9, 2010


October Photographs 2006-2010



ONE by one, like leaves from a tree,
All my faiths have forsaken me;
But the stars above my head
Burn in white and delicate red,
And beneath my feet the earth
Brings the sturdy grass to birth.
I who was content to be
But a silken-singing tree,
But a rustle of delight
In the wistful heart of night--
I have lost the leaves that knew
Touch of rain and weight of dew.
Blinded by a leafy crown
I looked neither up nor down--
But the little leaves that die
Have left me room to see the sky;
Now for the first time I know
Stars above and earth below.

Sara Teasdale

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 4

Stone Mountain, Georgia, ca. 1902

While Vachel Lindsay was walking from Atlanta to the mountains during the last week of April 1906, he was imagining the book that he would write:

It should contain my sermons on the new Christ, and all other things I would wish to say as a priest of art, and cannot say by word of mouth. That is my only chance to evangelize peacefully….

My book should contain the form of my gospel for each type of man I am to meet, a little sermon for each man, scholar, poet, editor, teacher. A Pilgrim’s Message would be a possible title, or I Prophecy the New Earth, or The Songs of a Dreaming Tramp, or The Passer-by, or The Dreams of a Rhyming Tramp, or A Beggar from the Fairyland….

I will do everything for the sake of being my own master….I had better be a beggar than a trader tied to the machinery of his task. In this world he finds no pity. But the beggar’s world is full of brotherly kindness.

Lindsay biographer Edgar Lee Masters called the projected book:

One of the many visions which Lindsay had without materialization….Lindsay was really afflicted with a species of megalomania, as Whitman was for that matter; but where Whitman sought to make a nation of comrades and to spread the dear love of comrades over America, Lindsay was concerned with moralizations of a lower order, so that his descent from an artist to an anti-prohibition lecturer was neither so violent nor so incongruous as one might think at first.

In any event, Vachel had more to think about than the books he would never get around to writing. From A Handy Guide for Beggars:

LET us now recall a certain adventure among the moonshiners. When I walked north from Atlanta Easter morning, on Peachtree road, orchards were flowering everywhere. Resurrection songs flew across the road from humble blunt steeples.

Kennesaw Mountain, GA

Stony Mountain, miles to the east, Kenesaw on the western edge of things, and all the rest of the rolling land made the beginning of a gradual ascent by which I was to climb the Blue Ridge. The road mounted the watershed between the Atlantic and the gulf.

An old man took me into his wagon for a mile. I asked what sort of people I would meet on the Blue Ridge. He answered, "They make blockade whisky up there. But if you don't go around hunting stills by the creeks, or in the woods away from the road, they'll be awful glad to see you. They are all moonshiners, but if they likes a man they loves him, and they're as likely to get to lovin’ you as not.”


Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 3

I don’t know much about the life of Vachel Lindsay, but I do know that his most cherished hopes met with disappointment. He has my admiration for walking hundreds of miles along the dusty back roads of America, and for why he did it.

Lindsay tried to take poetry back to its spoken roots. I should say he took poetry back to its spoken roots, an achievement I intend to make clear eventually.

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, (1866-1949)

Around the same time I took an interest in the adventures of Vachel Lindsay, I heard a story from Meetings with Remarkable Men, by G. I. Gurdjieff. The scene described by Gurdjieff must have been exactly what Lindsay hoped to find, or cultivate, among “the common folk of the American countryside.”

Maybe Vachel should have tried Armenia.

From Meetings with Remarkable Men:

MY FATHER WAS WIDELY KNOWN, during the final decades of the last century and the beginning of this one, as an ashokh, that is, a poet and narrator, under the nickname of' Adash, and although he was not a professional ashokh but only an amateur, he was in his day very popular among the inhabitants of many countries of Transcaucasia and Asia Minor.

Ashokh was the name given everywhere in Asia and the Balkan peninsula to the local bards, who composed, recited or sang poems, songs, legends, folk-tales, and all sorts of stories.

In spite of the fact that these people of the past who devoted themselves to such a career were in most cases illiterate, having not even been to an elementary school in their childhood, they possessed such a memory and such alertness of mind as would now be considered remarkable and even phenomenal.

They not only knew by heart innumerable and often very lengthy narratives and poems, and sang from memory all their various melodies, but when improvising in their own, so to say, subjective way, they hit upon the appropriate rhymes and changes of rhythm for their verses with astounding rapidity.

At the present time men with such abilities are no longer to be found anywhere.

Even when I was very young, it was being said that they were becoming scarcer and scarcer.

I personally saw a number of these ashokhs who were considered famous in those days, and their faces were strongly impressed on my memory.

I happened to see them because my father used to take me as a child to the contests where these poet ashokhs, coming from various countries, such as Persia, Turkey, the Caucasus and even parts of Turkestan, competed before a great throng of people in improvising and singing.

This usually proceeded in the following way:

One of the participants in the contest, chosen by lot, would begin, in singing an improvised melody, to put to his partner some question on a religious or philosophical theme, or on the meaning and origin of some well-known legend, tradition or belief, and the other would reply, also in song, and in his own improvised subjective melody; and these improvised subjective melodies, moreover, had always to correspond in their tonality to the previously produced consonances as well as to what is called by real musical science the 'ansapalnianly flowing echo.

All this was sung in verse, chiefly in Turko-Tartar, which was then the accepted common language of the peoples of these localities, who spoke different dialects.

These contests would last weeks and sometimes even months, and would conclude with the award of prizes and presents- provided by the audience and usually consisting of cattle, rugs and so on-to those singers who, according to the general verdict, had most distinguished themselves.

I witnessed three such contests, the first of which took place in Turkey in the town of Van, the second in Azerbaijan in the town of Karabakh, and the third in the small town of Subatan in the region of Kars.

In Alexandropol and Kars, the towns where my family lived during my childhood, my father was often invited to evening gatherings to which many people who knew him came in order to hear his stories and songs.

At these gatherings he would recite one of the many legends or poems he knew, according to the choice of those present, or he would render in song the dialogues between the different characters.

The whole night would sometimes not be long enough for finishing a story and the audience would meet again on the following evening.


I said there would be some rabbit trails on this journey.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 2

“Sing for your supper.”

Essentially, that was Vachel Lindsay’s strategy for his long-distance walk through the Southeast in the spring of 1906. He would recite his poems and draw his pictures in exchange for a meal and a bed.

Vachel Lindsay in 1912

Demonstrating his resolve, he began his hike in Florida by spending his last nickel on a bag of peanuts. His avowed mission was "sharing the lives of and bringing hope to the common people in the depths.”

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Somehow, Lindsay managed to get by. In Atlanta, he pocketed some cash from giving lectures and reading poems. He also enjoyed the hospitality of the local Salvation Army, which might have inspired his best-known poem, General William Booth Enters into Heaven.

I’ve had to remind myself that the people of 1906 couldn’t switch on a radio or television. They weren’t clicking mice. So, folks starved for entertainment might welcome an itinerant troubadour.

Or not.

Despite his relative financial success in Atlanta, Lindsay's income in the mountains was nil. He didn’t even try to draw an audience in Highlands after he saw that it was a quiet summer resort town for wealthy northerners.

Edgar Lee Masters tells how the poet misjudged one audience in Tennessee:

In the hills he attended a Hardshell Baptist church, and stayed with some pious, rough people. He started to read “The Tree of the Laughing Bells” to them. In the midst of the performance the young woman and the old woman left the room unceremoniously. They returned and Lindsay, not sufficiently persuaded that they did not want to hear the poem, but that they should be converted willy-nilly to beauty, prevailed upon them to listen again.

The old lady grew angry now, and told Lindsay that she no use for such lies. She wanted something with the gospel of Jesus Christ in it, the Old Book was enough for her. The result was that she would not accept the poem as pay for his entertainment, and Lindsay was compelled to leave owing for it….

The fledgling poet counted on one work in particular to be his meal ticket and that was The Tree of the Laughing Bells. I have to remind myself that Lindsay’s energetic vocal stylings enlivened what otherwise might have been interminably tedious…but you be the judge:

The Tree of Laughing Bells, or The Wings of the Morning
[A Poem for Aviators]

How the Wings Were Made

From many morning-glories
That in an hour will fade,
From many pansy buds
Gathered in the shade,
From lily of the valley
And dandelion buds,
From fiery poppy-buds
Are the Wings of the Morning made.

The Indian Girl Who Made Them

These, the Wings of the Morning,
An Indian Maiden wove,
Intertwining subtilely
Wands from a willow grove
Beside the Sangamon --
Rude stream of Dreamland Town.
She bound them to my shoulders
With fingers golden-brown.
The wings were part of me;
The willow-wands were hot.
Pulses from my heart
Healed each bruise and spot
Of the morning-glory buds,
Beginning to unfold
Beneath her burning song of suns untold.

Ah, the ubiquitous “lovely Indian maiden!”

Haven’t we met her before?

The poem continues for stanza after stanza, building dramatically before reaching a climax involving said Indian maiden:

I panted in the grassy wood;
I kissed the Indian Maid
As she took my wings from me:
With all the grace I could
I gave two throbbing bells to her
From the foot of the Laughing Tree.
And one she pressed to her golden breast
And one, gave back to me.
From Lilies of the valley --
See them fade.
From poppy-blooms all frayed,
From dandelions gray with care,
From pansy-faces, worn and torn,
From morning-glories --
See them fade --
From all things fragile, faint and fair
Are the Wings of the Morning made!

Later, in a letter to a friend, Vachel Lindsay recounted the 1906 hike:

I had had very little response anywhere and very little understanding. No one cared for my pictures, no one cared for my verse, and I turned beggar in sheer desperation. Many people try to gloss this over now and make out it was a merry little spring excursion and I didn't really mean it. They are dead wrong. It was a life and death struggle, nothing less. I was entirely prepared to die for my work, if necessary, by the side of the road, and was almost at the point of it at times. . . . [My parents] were certainly at this time intensely hostile to everything I did, said, wrote, thought, or drew. Things were in a state where it was infinitely easier to beg from door to door than to go home, or even die by the ditch on the highway.

I will never forget the easy, dreaming Kentucky and the droning bees in the blue grass, and the walks with Cousin Eudora and Aunt Eudora, and the queer feeling of being the family disgrace somewhat straightened out when I stood up to read 'The Tree of Laughing Bells' to the school. As far as I know, I read it in my beggar's raiment. I am sure I felt that way, and it was the kind hearts around me in that particular spot that made me want to live.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Troubadour Tramps Through the Mountains - 1

Well, now. Here’s a story worth telling, though I’ll admit I’m not sure how to tell it.

The poet Vachel Lindsay came to Jackson County in 1906. A twenty-six-year-old native of Springfield, Illinois, he was walking across the country to spread a message of hope that he called “the gospel of beauty.”

Vachel Lindsay (1879-1932)

I learned about his journey after happening upon his account of a visit to Tallulah Gorge, Georgia. From Tallulah, he walked north to Highlands, Cashiers, Asheville and on to Tennessee.

While I remembered his name, that was about all that I could recall of Vachel Lindsay from my college days. So I went back and took my old copy of American Lit, Volume Two from the shelf to get reacquainted. The editors of that text lumped him in with Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg and Edward Arlington Robinson as poets who “recreate in serious poetry the extravagant humor of the old West or the dry humor of Down East.”

Later anthologies of American literature, or at least the ones I checked, had dropped Lindsay, and I can understand why the literary establishment has forgotten him with the passage of time. Reading his words on the printed page, I was not particularly impressed.

That misses the point, though. Lindsay did not write his poems for the eye, but for the ear, and became known as “The Father of Singing Poetry” and “The Prairie Troubadour.” Vachel Lindsay would not so much read as chant his poems for an audience. Some editions of his poems even include Lindsay’s instructions on how they should be delivered:

To be chanted in deep bass, all the heavy accents very heavy.

To be read slowly and softly in the manner of insinuating music, all the -o- sounds very golden.

Vachel Lindsay had attended the Art Institute of Chicago before going to New York City where he was a self-styled troubadour, selling his poems on the streets and bartering his pamphlet, Rhymes to Be Traded for Bread, in exchange for food.

In Edgar Lee (Spoon River Anthology) Masters’ biography of the poet, he describes the point at which Lindsay decided to leave New York:

Lindsay abhorred the tyrrany of convention, and loved the freedom of the untrammeled life as much as Whitman, almost as much as Johnny Appleseed….

He mixed with Jesus of Nazareth a lasting reverence for Prince Siddartha and for Confucius; and his mysticism led him to Swendenborg and kept him there as long as he lived…

He was willing to starve, but not to be shackled to business, to the system which standardizes the lives of the young and uses them as it does any other raw material. These resolutions were aided by the fact that there was scarcely anything of a practical nature that he could do.

On March 8, 1906, Vachel Lindsay got off a boat on the banks of the St. John’s River in Florida and started walking. We’re doubly fortunate that the story of trip, including his time in North Carolina, is told in Lindsay’s own A Handbook for Beggars, while the same trip is detailed in Master’s book, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America.

Edgar Lee Masters (1869-1950)

After a quick perusal of his early works I was inclined to be dismissive of Vachel Lindsay’s poetry, but learning more him and what he was trying to accomplish, I've adopted a more generous attitude.

I’m still not sure how to tell this story, except to say it might take a while. I can already foresee rabbit trails veering off in every direction.

For now, here’s how Lindsay dedicated his book about the trip that brought him through Cashiers Valley:

THERE are one hundred new poets in the villages of the land. This Handy Guide is dedicated first of all to them.

It is also dedicated to the younger sons of the wide earth, to the runaway boys and girls getting further from home every hour, to the prodigals who are still wasting their substance in riotous living, be they gamblers or blasphemers or plain drunks; to those heretics of whatever school to whom life is a rebellion with banners; to those who are willing to accept counsel if it be mad counsel.

This book is also dedicated to those budding philosophers who realize that every creature is a beggar in the presence of the beneficent sun, to those righteous ones who know that all righteousness is as filthy rags.

Moreover, as an act of contrition, reenlistment and fellowship this book is dedicated to all the children of Don Quixote who see giants where most folks see windmills, those Galahads dear to Christ and those virgin sisters of Joan of Arc who serve the lepers on their knees and march in shabby armor against the proud, who look into the lightning with the eyes of the mountain cat. They do more soldierly things every day than this book records, yet they are mine own people, my nobler kin to whom I have been recreant, and so I finally dedicate this book to them.

– These are the rules of the road:
(1) Keep away from the Cities;
(2) Keep away from the railroads;
(3) Have nothing to do with money and carry no baggage;
(4) Ask for dinner about quarter after eleven;
(5) Ask for supper, lodging and breakfast about quarter of five;
(6) Travel alone;
(7) Be neat, deliberate, chaste and civil;
(8) Preach the Gospel of Beauty.
And without further parley, let us proceed to inculcate these, by illustration, precept and dogma.