Sunday, February 27, 2011

On Horsepasture River

I remember my earliest excursions on the Horsepasture River. Thirty years ago, it was a word-of-mouth find. This was before the publication of dozens of new hiking maps, trail guides and waterfall books that direct you to the most obscure treasures of the mountains. This was before the Internet!

Rainbow Falls

Back then, those in the know could park alongside Highway 281, near the bridge over the river. Then it was simply a matter of scrambling down the bank, rock hopping and threading your way to a trail alongside the north bank of the river.

During the past twenty-three years I’ve revisited the waterfalls of Horsepasture River only through fond memories. And a lot has changed. Park on 281 to access the river, these days, and there’s a very good chance you’ll get arrested. With that corridor to the river shut off, the establishment of the Gorges State Park has provided another way in, although with a much longer walk required.

To be accurate, I did return to the river a couple of years ago after the new and improved Gorges park reopened, but I’d gotten such a late start there was no time for exploring waterfalls. Today, I finally got to see those waterfalls once again. Rainbow Falls Trail begins as a state park trail and then continues on the Pisgah National Forest. The trail ends at a barricade you can't miss, with signs identifying the private property boundary and promising prosecution for trespassers.

Fortunately, that point is within view of Highway 281 and also within view of Drift Falls, the first waterfall downstream from the highway bridge. Rainbow Falls, approximately 125 feet tall, may be the standout, but I don’t know of many other short stretches of river with such a variety of impressive falls.

Turtleback Falls, aka Umbrella Falls

If you’re walking upstream from Gorges, you’ll reach (in order) Hidden Falls, Rainbow Falls, Turtleback Falls and (a view of) Drift Falls. Sonme of these go by two or three names, which can confuse the situation. There are other nearby falls that I missed today.

Drift Falls, aka Bust-Your-Butt or Driftwood Falls

With a little over 4 miles of the Horsepasture specified as a National Wild and Scenic River, it is one of the shortest rivers in the system. The Horsepasture got its name from the bottomlands where the river is joined by Laurel Fork Creek and the Toxaway River, an area that is now flooded by Lake Jocassee.

Hidden Falls

Protection for the Horsepasture came in the mid-1980s after an ominous announcement by a California power company. Carrasan Power Company had plans to build a dam above Drift Falls, capture all the water from the river and run it through a 2.5 mile pipe to a power house below Windy Falls. A vocal and effective opposition arose to thwart the power company. If not for their determined efforts, the most scenic stretch of the Horsepasture might have been turned into a dry and silent jumble of boulders.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sacred Groves - 6

Julian Price Park, near Blowing Rock, NC 10/18/07

The Future of Forestry
-C. S. Lewis

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?
When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country's heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac's laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to Wrath, have glazed us over?
Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, 'What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.'
Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight—
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
—Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn's
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.
So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchful)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.


Tree by the trail to Glen Falls, near Highlands, NC 7/7/07


It turns out there's a band that named itself after this C. S. Lewis poem.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Owassee Prophecy

The most recent installment from E. G. Paine follows. Or, follow this link for all episodes to date.

Chapter Sixteen

As soon as news of the proposed motorsports park got out, the controversy snow-balled. People who knew about Lola and Winona’s camp – and especially the volunteers and donors making it happen – were outraged that there was nothing to prevent something as disruptive as a race track.

They contacted every environmental agency they could think of, in hopes of finding some law on some level to halt work on the track. They even tried to get a court order to stop construction, but none of their strategies were panning out. When the sisters and their friends approached the individual board members, the officials were sympathetic and promised nothing.

Even before the race track issue came up, the board had been considering a high-impact development ordinance for Owassee County. It had been getting to the point where, almost every year, a group of “Concerned Citizens” in one part of the county or another would coalesce to fend off new and incompatible enterprises (in the order they appeared on the scene):

Rock quarry
Asphalt plant
Shooting range
Abattoir and rendering plant

After the quiet neighborhoods of several elected officials were threatened by a couple of these projects, the board of supervisors warmed up to the idea of an ordinance. But such things happen slowly. If the race track was going to be stopped, time was of the essence. So, track opponents convinced the board to consider a moratorium on high-impact development pending adoption of a new ordinance.

It was a long shot, but Lola and Winona thought it was their best hope. The county attorney drafted a moratorium and it was set for a public hearing, a prerequisite to the board’s vote at a subsequent meeting.

Meanwhile, the story had been front page news in the Owassee Sentinel every week. A batch of impassioned letters to the editor protested plans for the motorsports park on Mulberry Creek and endorsed the efforts to establish a therapeutic equestrian center.

A week before the hearing, the Fallingwaters’ mailbox was smashed and they found roofing nails scattered along the end of their driveway. On the morning of November 16, Lola got a phone call informing her that the public hearing, set for 6:00 that evening, was being moved from the courthouse to the Owassee High gymnasium two blocks down River Street.

The updates trickled in all day. Apparently, Pam Jackson and Dewaine Dewitt were giving most of their employees the afternoon off with the understanding that they would show up for the public hearing prepared to raise hell.

At 5:30, the gym was filling quickly. The atmosphere was as boisterous as it might be if the Owassee Warhawks were going up against arch-rivals in a playoff game. After Lola and Winona arrived and put their names on the sign-up sheet to speak, Lola whispered, “This is not going to be pretty.”

Daniel came in and sat next to Lola. A couple of minutes later, Vee Nikopoulos joined them. By 6:00, the gym was packed. A couple of rebel flags waved and somebody kept bumping the trigger of an air horn. It was like a pep rally. A very tense pep rally.

The county board of supervisors filed in and chairman Mitch Ryan gaveled the hearing to order. He spelled out the rules for the evening:

“Speakers will be called in the order they signed up. You will have two minutes apiece to make your comments. The board of supervisors will take your concerns into consideration and we will vote on the proposed moratorium at our next regular meeting on November 30.

Ryan called the first name on the list, “Jim Winston.”

When Winston stepped to the microphone, he announced “I’m yielding my time to a special guest who has to get back to Franklin, Tennessee tonight.”

With that, he turned toward the entrance of the gym and nodded.

In walked three-time Nascar champion (and Daytona 500 winner!) Darrell Waltrip. A deafening roar shook the gym. You’d think Elvis was in the building.

Waltrip grinned like the cat that ate the canary, strutted to the podium and motioned an end to the ovation.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ll keep it short. I just came here tonight to tell y’all one thing.”

He leaned back from the microphone, raised his arms, pumped his fists, and issued a guttural scream, “BOOGITY. BOOGITY. BOOGITY. LET’S…GO…RACIN’!”

Then DW strode toward the exit, grinning even wider, while saluting the crowd and giving everybody the thumbs up. The gymnasium went berserk. People jumped to their feet and hooted, rebel flags waved furiously, cow bells clanged and air horns honked. From one corner, a chant started and rolled through the crowd:

“Let’s go racin’…Let’s go racin’…Let’s go racin’…”

Ryan’s attempt to gavel the meeting to order went unheeded. When the cacophony finally started to fade, he called the next speaker, “Sergeant Rick Swain of the Owassee County Sheriff’s Department.”

“As many of you know, I run the DARE program here in our county. Sometimes, it seems like we’re fighting a losing battle in the war on drugs. But we can’t stop now. We need to do everything we can to keep our kids off dope. They say there ain’t nothin’ to do around here, and maybe they’re right. A race track is just what we need more of, a positive thing for the whole family and especially our young people. If it’ll keep one kid from getting’ hooked on that ol’ dope, then I say full speed ahead with the race track.”

Dewaine Dewitt’s turn came. With a raspy growl, he explained:

“I know this thing’s done got blowed all outer proportion. So I’m gonna set the record straight. We intend to be good neighbors. This’ll be good for Mulberry Creek. This’ll be good for the whole county. This’ll means jobs. This’ll mean lots of jobs. Provided the county don’t pull the rug out from under us. Far as them varnmeddlists who claim we’re gonna muddy up the creek, y’all don’t understand that we’ve got engineers to make sure everything is done right. This’ll be world-class.” Dewaine concluded triumphantly, “They ain’t gonna be no varnmeddle impact. So let’s get on with it.”

The next speaker on the list was Rev. John Donne. A rotund fellow in a white linen suit, the venerable old preacher shuffled to the microphone and addressed the crowd in lugubrious tones.

“Precious brothers and sisters, my heart is heavy tonight. Just look at what is happening in our blessed community. The spirit of contention, which comes from Satan himself, has been unleashed upon Owassee County. We must stand firm in unity and brotherhood. I pray that the people demanding this moratorium will reflect on how their actions are afflicting our dear little town. I pray that those who are fighting against this motorsports park will place the peace and harmony of our dear little community above their personal, even selfish, desires to prevent the race track. To them I say: Turn the other cheek. Let us move beyond the rancor and the discord.”

Before leaving the podium, Rev. Donne pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed away tears before blowing his nose. Then he turned and shuffled back to his seat. The crowd responded with a solid round of applause and a smattering of “amens” and “hell yeahs.”

Other speakers were less conciliatory in their calls for surrender. Take Randy Barlowe:

“Them girls up on Mulberry Creek act like these good folks that plan to build the track need to bow down and get their permission to do what they want to do on their own land. Pardon my language, but that’s a load of horse hockey. If you’ll notice, them girls didn’t ask nobody’s permission to set up that camp, or whatever it is.” He pointed at Lola and Winona, “You people move here and want to turn this into Roosha or sumpn’. Well I got news for you. This is still the greatest country in the world because we still have our freedom. And when it gets to the point a man can’t do what he wants on his own property, then we ain’t no better off than them Rooshans or them Red Chinese. I got one word for you girls if you don’t want to live next to a race track. It’s real simple, folks…MOVE!…MOVE!”

In the course of the evening, quite a few speakers did stand up to support the moratorium and they received their share of catcalls, but nothing like the torrent unleashed when Lola’s turn came. While making her case, she mentioned the great breakthroughs she had witnessed in children attending a similar camp in Georgia.

At that point, she was interrupted by one shrill voice, “Then why don’t you go back to GEORGIA, bitch?”

Lola tried to ignore the woman and continue with her comments. Then, someone directly behind Daniel bellowed an especially vile remark, the kindest words in it being “squaws” and “retards.”

Daniel snapped. He jumped to his feet and faced the heckler. “What did you say?”

“You deaf, boy? You heard exactly what I said. But if I need to say it louder, then I reckon I will.”

Daniel was irate and closed in on the man, “Lola and Winona are good people trying to do a good thing. You’d better apologize right now.”

The man laughed derisively, “Get outta my face.” He grabbed Daniel by the shoulders, shoved hard and sent him tumbling. While Daniel was trying to disentangle himself from the bleachers, Vee aimed a solid punch at the heckler’s gut, doubling him over.

Pandemonium exploded throughout the gym. Deputies tried to break up the scuffles, but the scene deteriorated to complete bedlam within seconds.

The board members looked at one another in shock. The vice-chairman caught Mitch Ryan’s attention and dragged his finger across his throat. Ryan nodded, declared the meeting adjourned, banged his gavel and led a hasty retreat from the building.

[to be continued]

From The Owasssee Prophecy, by E. G. Paine

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On the Line

Power resides in the moment of transition
from a past to a new state.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

I am a map fanatic. So when I replaced my Georgia roadmap the other day, I spent a while perusing the new one and found an unfamiliar place, or at least a place unfamiliar to me: Tennga - on the Tennessee line.

Now isn’t that cute?

I remember, long ago, a trip from the North Carolina piedmont to Washington, DC. Just before reaching Virginia, we hit a town called Virgilina. I was young at the time, but not too young to snicker at the sound of that name. And I did contemplate what it would be like to live in a town with a “novelty” name.

With Tennga and Virgilina in mind, I searched my memory for similarly-named border towns, but couldn't come up with much more than Texarkana.

I figured there must be at least three or four others, and that googling “tennga virgilina texarkana” would point me in the right direction. Sure enough, the first result on the list was from, a nifty site for road buffs, which compiles a long list (approximately 70) of such portmanteaus, and has an interactive map.

In addition to the aforementioned towns, there are two Alabama towns near the Florida border: Alaflora and Florala.

Mexhoma, Oklahoma is near the New Mexico line.

Vershire, Vermont is just across the line from New Hampshire.

And while we're on the subject:

I like the name of the Idaho town on the Nevada border: Idavada.

Some names aren’t quite as mellifluous:

Illmo, Missouri

Idmon, Idaho

Wyuta (towns in Wyoming and Utah)

Then you have:

Latex, Louisiana

Calzona, California

Closer to home, I learned of Carova Beach, NC and closer still, Tennelina, NC. I’d never heard of that one, even though it is located in Madison County, near Hot Springs.

Robert Temple has written a whole book on this topic, Edge Effects: The Border-Name Places and devotes an entire chapter to the story of Tennelina. (The post office for the mountain settlement took on the name, Tennelina, around 1903.) Temple’s book is a travel narrative, somewhere between William Least Heat Moon and Charles Kuralt. The author himself calls it an obsession, visiting these oddly named border towns. And in the process, he gathered stories from Tennelina to Carotenn to Dakomin to Kanorado.

With names like those beckoning, I’d better add some more destinations to the long list of obscure places I want to visit.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Great Blue

Great Blue Heron on the Tuckasegee, 2/21/11

The Heron
by Theodore Roethke

The heron stands in water where the swamp
Has deepened to the blackness of a pool,
Or balances with one leg on a hump
Of marsh grass heaped above a musk-rat hole.

He walks the shallow with an antic grace.
The great feet break the ridges of the sand,
The long eye notes the minnow's hiding place.
His beak is quicker than a human hand.

He jerks a frog across his bony lip,
Then points his heavy bill above the wood.
The wide wings flap but once to lift him up.
A single ripple starts from where he stood.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Turkey Gizzards and Cherokee Tobacco

This balmy weather encourages thoughts and deeds of gardening. I've already done an inventory of seeds saved from last year. And I got together an order for some new seeds from Heavenly Seed, LLC, Anderson, SC (more or less the successor to the Bradshaw seed service that came out of Clemson).

Tobacco field, French Broad Valley near Hot Springs, 9/3/07

Their catalog offers dozens of regional heirloom varieties. Just among the legumes you’ll find Good Mother Stallard Beans, Rattlesnake Pole Beans, Johnny’s Red Butterbeans, Iron & Clay Cowpeas, Zelma Zesta Beans and Turkey Gizzard Beans.

Of the latter, the catalog explains:

In 1802 a settler in Kentucky killed a wild turkey. While cleaning the turkey, he discovered two unusual seeds in the gizzard. Curious to see what they might produce he planted them. Very vigorous growing, the turkey gizzard bean should be provided a sturdy trellis and planted early. Large coarse leaves and heavy vines characterize this variety. This bean is well suited to canning and has a tasty nutty flavor when cooked. Attractive marshmallow cream and brown appaloosa pattern seeds are attractive for crafts.

And it’s like that all way through the catalog. I managed to keep the order list short, but I couldn’t resist this one from the Bradshaw Heirloom Collection:

Cherokee Ceremonial Tobacco
This is the original Nicotiana rustica used by the Cherokee Indians during various ceremonies, rites of passage, etc. A small growing tobacco, it grows about knee high with several stalks arising near the crown. Each stalk terminates with a large cluster of flowers. A rather pervasive pungent odor is released from the leaves during times of high humidity

I’ve always been curious to grow tobacco. It sure was a part of a North Carolina that I was witness to, way back when. And the plant has a long history here.

In Advanced Civilizations of Prehistoric North America, Frank Joseph addresses the role of tobacco for the Hopewell culture that occupied the eastern part of this continent, two thousand years ago:

…tobacco was probably considered the holiest herb: it’s smoke and the mildly altered states of consciousness it produces were intimately connected with the spirit world. The pipes were not smoked for pleasure alone, but more for purposes of communication with afterlife entities who provided the tribe with guidance and protection.

Evidently, the nicotine level in the Nicotiana rustica plant is much higher than that in the commercial Nicotiana tabacum, which would explain this reference to its potency.

I just want to watch it grow.

In Myths of the Cherokee, James Mooney shares two versions of this tobacco story:

6. How They Brought Back The Tobacco

In the beginning of the world, when people and animals were all the same, there was only one tobacco plant, to which they all came for their tobacco until the Dagûl`kû geese stole it and carried it far away to the south. The people were suffering without it, and there was one old woman who grew so thin and weak that everybody said she would soon die unless she could get tobacco to keep her alive.

Different animals offered to go for it, one after another, the larger ones first and then the smaller ones, but the Dagûl`kû saw and killed every one before he could get to the plant. After the others the little Mole tried to reach it by going under the ground, but the Dagûl`kû saw his track and killed him as he came out.

At last the Hummingbird offered, but the others said he was entirely too small and might as well stay at home. He begged them to let him try, so they showed him a plant in a field and told him to let them see how he would go about it. The next moment he was gone and they saw him sitting on the plant, and then in a moment he was back again, but no one had seen him going or coming, because he was so swift. "This is the way I'll do," said the Hummingbird, so they let him try.

He flew off to the east, and when he came in sight of the tobacco the Dagûl`kû were watching all about it, but they could not see him because he was so small and flew so swiftly. He darted down on the plant--tsa!--and snatched off the top with the leaves and seeds, and was off again before the Dagûl`kû knew what had happened. Before he got home with the tobacco the old woman had fainted and they thought she was dead, but he blew the smoke into her nostrils, and with a cry of "Tsâ'lû! [Tobacco!]" she opened her eyes and was alive again.


The people had tobacco in the beginning, but they had used it all, and there was great suffering for want of it. There was one old man so old that he had to be kept alive by smoking, and as his son did not want to see him die he decided to go himself to try and get some more. The tobacco country was far in the south, with high mountains all around it, and the passes were guarded, so that it was very hard to get into it, but the young man was a conjurer and was not afraid. He traveled southward until he came to the mountains on the border of the tobacco country. Then he opened his medicine bag and took out a hummingbird skin and put it over himself like a dress. Now he was a hummingbird and flew over the mountains to the tobacco field and pulled some of the leaves and seed and put them into his medicine bag. He was so small and swift that the guards, whoever they were, did not see him, and when he had taken as much as he could carry he flew back over the mountains in the same way. Then he took off the hummingbird skin and put it into his medicine bag, and was a man again. He started home, and on his way came to a tree that had a hole in the trunk, like a door, near the first branches, and a very pretty woman was looking out from it. He stopped and tried to climb the tree, but although he was a good climber he found that he always slipped back. He put on a pair of medicine moccasins from his pouch, and then he could climb the tree, but when he reached the first branches he looked up and the hole was still as far away as before. He climbed higher and higher, but every time he looked up the hole seemed to be farther than before, until at last he was tired and came down again. When he reached home he found his father very weak. but still alive, and one draw at the pipe made him strong again. The people planted the seed and have had tobacco ever since.

James Mooney added this note:

In the Iroquois story of “The Lad and the Chestnuts,” the Cherokee myth is paralleled with the substitution of a chestnut tree guarded by a white heron for the tobacco plant watched by the geese.

Tobacco field and barn, Barnardsville, NC, 9/9/07

Writing from Asheville in May 1848, Charles Lanman related another tobacco story:

Before visiting this remarkable passage through the mountains [Hickorynut Gap], I endeavored to ascertain, from the Cherokees of Qualla Town, its original Indian name, but without succeeding. It was my good fortune, however, to obtain a romantic legend connected therewith. I heard it from the lips of a Chief who glories in the two names of All Bones and Flying Squirrel, and, though he occupied no less than two hours in telling the story, I will endeavor to give it to my readers in about five minutes.

There was a time when the Cherokees were without the famous Tso-lungh, or tobacco weed, with which they had previously been made acquainted by a wandering stranger from the far East. Having smoked it in their large stone pipes, they became impatient to obtain it in abundance. They ascertained that the country where it grew in the greatest quantities was situated on the big waters, and that the gateway to that country (a mighty gorge among the mountains) was perpetually guarded by an immense number of little people or spirits. A council of the bravest men in the nation was called, and, while they were discussing the dangers of visiting the unknown country, and bringing therefrom a large knapsack of the fragrant tobacco, a young man stepped boldly forward and said that he would undertake the task. The young warrior departed on his mission and never returned. The Cherokee nation were now in great tribulation, and another council was held to decide upon a new measure. At this council a celebrated magician rose and expressed his willingness to relieve his people of their difficulties, and informed them that he would visit the tobacco country and see what he could accomplish. He turned himself into a mole, and as such made his appearance eastward of the mountains; but, having been pursued by the guardian spirits, he was compelled to return without any spoil. He next turned himself into a humming-bird, and thus succeeded, to a very limited extent, in obtaining what he needed. On returning to his country, he found a number of his friends at the point of death, on account of their intense desire for the fragrant weed; whereupon he placed some of it in a pipe, and, having blown the smoke into the nostrils of those who were sick, they all revived and were quite happy. The magician now took it into his head that he would revenge the loss of the young warrior, and at the same time become the sole possessor of all the tobacco in the unknown land. He therefore turned himself into a whirlwind, and in passing through the Hickory Nut Gorge he stripped the mountains of their vegetation, and scattered huge rocks in every part of the narrow valley; whereupon the little people were all frightened away, and he was the only being in the country eastward of the mountains. In the bed of a stream he found the bones of the young warrior, and having brought them to life, and turned himself into a man again, the twain returned to their own country heavily laden with tobacco; and ever since that time it has been very abundant throughout the entire land.

Friday, February 18, 2011

How to Pronounce "Van Gogh"

I've stumbled upon a discovery: a whole lot has been written on the topic of how to say "Van Gogh."

The BBC weighs in:

How to Say: Van Gogh
11:40 UK time, Friday, 22 January 2010

An occasional guide to the words and names in the news from Esther de Leeuw of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

During his lifetime, most people would not have given much thought to the pronunciation of Vincent van Gogh's name. Nowadays, getting it right has become a priority for many, especially those who plan to visit The Real van Gogh exhibit which opens at the Royal Academy later this month.

But what is the real pronunciation of Van Gogh? Native English speakers can be heard saying van GOFF (-v as in vet, -a as in pan, -g as in get, -f as in fit) or van GOH (-oh as in no).

In fact, most Dutch people pronounce his surname along the lines of vun KHOKH (-v as in vet, -u as in bun, -kh as in Scottish loch) or fun KHOKH (-f as in fit, -u as in bun, -kh as in Scottish loch). I know that as a child in Anglophone Canada, my Dutch father would have cringed if I ever pronounced one of the former possibilities because he wanted me to say Vincent van Gogh like a native Dutch speaker.

At the Pronunciation Unit, we don't expect non-native Dutch speakers to pronounce his name with a perfect Dutch accent. Instead, we recommend the established Anglicisation van GOKH (-v as in vet, -g as in get, -kh as in Scottish loch) which is codified in numerous British English pronunciation dictionaries.

This recommendation represents a compromise between the aforementioned English pronunciations and the Dutch pronunciations.

The benefits of this recommendation are twofold. Firstly, recommending a single pronunciation ensures consistency across the BBC which in turn supports ease of perception for our audience.

Secondly, this particular pronunciation is rendered by our broadcasters with relative ease (who are for the most part English native speakers) - and approaches the native Dutch pronunciation.

Moreover, we explain the Dutch pronunciation vun KHOKH to our broadcasters. This is helpful for those who want to understand the reasoning behind our recommended established anglicisation van GOKH.

Accordingly, our recommendation aims to satisfy - at least to a certain extent - voices such as as those coming from my father, whilst at the same time ensuring ease of perception and production for English native speakers.

This is news to me. I hate to admit I've been mispronouncing "Van Gogh" for a long time.

How to say it right? This video drives the point home with a little British humour ("Sounds like an outbreak of pneumonia at a frog pond")

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Vance and Carson

Ilya Efimovich Efimovich Repin, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's duel

In John Preston Arthur’s splendid 1914 book, Western North Carolina: A History (1730-1913), he devotes an entire chapter to dueling:


It’s easy for me to choose one to share, since it was told by Silas McDowell and is probably the best-known duel in WNC history. According to this account, Davy Crockett was present for the showdown at Saluda Gap. How cool is that?

From Arthur:

THE VANCE-CARSON DUEL. To the late Silas McDowell of Macon county we are indebted for many facts concerning the duel between Dr. Robert Brank Vance of Buncombe and Hon. Samuel P. Carson of Burke. Mr. McDowell was the friend of both these gentlemen; and, although he waited forty-nine years after the duel had been fought, and himself was in his eighty-first year before committing his recollection of that lamentable event to paper, it must be accepted as the most authentic, because the only, account now available of that affair. Hon. A. C. Avery of Morganton, in an article published in the North Carohna Review (Raleigh) for March, 1913, has supplemented this statement with many important facts bearing on the principals and seconds concerned; and from these two statements the following facts have been carefully compiled:

SAMUEL P. CARSON. He was the son of Col. John Carson and of his wife, who, before her marriage to him, had been the widow of the late Gen. Joseph McDowell of Pleasant Gardens, N. C. He, like his father, was a Democrat, and was young, handsome, eloquent, magnetic, blessed with a charming voice, delighting in all the pleasures and Opportunities of a healthful, vigorous physique. He was educated at the "Old Field Schools" of the neighborhood till he reached his nineteenth year, when he was taken into the family of his half brother, Joseph M. Carson, where he was taught grammar and directed in a course of reading with an eye to political advancement; and before he was 22 years of age he represented the county of Burke in the legislature, defeating his kinsman James R. McDowell for that place. He was born about the year 1797, and was about four years younger than Dr. Vance. Even when a boy he was a great favorite not only with people of his own walk in life, but was worshipped by the negroes on his father's plantation. His mother was a Methodist and young Samuel was a great favorite at camp meetings where his deep-toned and harmonious voice led in their congregational singing. He was also popular with ladies.

Jean Leon Gerome, Duel after a Masked Ball, 1857

GEN. ALNEY BURGIN. He was Carson's second, and was a social and political leader of Burke county, having several times been elected to the legislature. He preserved the challenge which Mr. Carson sent by him to Dr. Vance. This challenge had been written by Carson at Pleasant Gardens and was dated September 12, 1827, taken to Jonesboro, Tenn., and sent from there in order to avoid a violation of the law of North Carolina regarding dueling; for he states in the challenge: "I will do no act in violation of the laws of my State; but as you have boasted that you had flung the gauntlet before me, which in point of fact is not true; for, in the language of chivalry, to fling the gauntlet is to challenge-to throw down the iron glove;.... but, if you are serious, make good your boast; throw the gauntlet upon neutral ground; then, if not accepted, boast your victory." He notified Dr. Vance that he would pass through Asheville to meet friends in East Tennessee, where he would spend a week at Jonesboro, and expected to receive an answer by way of Old Fort, near which place Gen. Burgin lived. His son, Joseph McD. Burgin, was the father of Mrs. Locke Craig, the wife of the present governor.

HON. WARREN DAVIS. This gentleman was a South Carolinian, a cousin of John C. Calhoun, a member of Congress, a man of decided ability, and "thoroughly conversant with the intricate rules of the Code Duello." He was called in by Mr. Carson as an additional second because Gen. Burgin was not well versed in the punctuho of the duello, and Davis "was expected in the arrangements for the encounter and any correspondence that might ensue, to protect Carson."

ROBERT BRANK VANCE. He was born in Burke county about 1793, and was the son of David Vance, who, after serving as an ensign under Washington, married the daughter of Peter Brank, who lived about a mile from Morganton, and fought as captain of a company in McDowell's regiment at Ramseur's Mill, Cowpens and Kings Mountain, while uncle, Robert Brank, for whom Dr. Vance was named, had the reputation of being one of the most daring soldiers in his company. Young Vance was a fine scholar as a school boy; but, owing to an affliction which had settled in his left leg that member had been shortened about six inches and retarded his physical development that when fully grown he was only five feet and five inches in height. His face, how ever, was handsome, and his "mind was of no common order." His family were Presbyterians and he attended the Newton academy near Asheville, afterwards graduating from an unnamed medical school and commencing the practice of medicine in Asheville in 1818. But, having drawn a five-thousand dollar prize in a lottery, and his father having willed him a large portion of his estate, Dr. Vance purchased a fine library and retired from practice three years after opening his office. He was encouraged by his friends, and especially by young Samuel P. Carson, then in the legislature from Burke, to oppose Felix Walker, whose popularity then "was in the descending node," for Congress, but declined to do so till 1823, when he ran for Congress and was elected by a majority of one vote. It was said that when he appeared in Congress John Randolph of Roanoke, struck by his diminutive size and physical deformity, remarked, "Surely that little man has come to apply for a pension." But Vance soon convinced the strong men of the house "that Aesop's mind could be hid but not long, under an Aesop's form, and at the close of the term he had the respect of every distinguished man in the house." The most important measure before the session was an appropriation of $250,000--" and many townships of land" for Gen. Lafayette; and for this measure Vance voted.

FRIENDS BECOME POLITICAL RIVALS. In 1825 Samuel P. Carson and Dr. Vance were opposing candidates for Congress, and Carson was elected; but in 1827 Dr. Vance invited some of his friends to meet at Asheville, and announced that he would oppose Carson's re-election, and would insist on his defeat because he had voted for an appropriation of $25,000 to the citizens of Alexandria, Virginia, which had been recently destroyed by fire. To this meeting Silas McDowell was invited, but his opposition to Vance's idea that Carson could be defeated because of this vote displeased all of Vance's friends, but not Vance himself., Vance and Carson accordingly were opposing candidates in 1827, and at the first meeting at Asheville Carson spoke first; but, in reviewing his course in Congress, he omitted to refer to his vote for the appropriation for the citizens of Alexandria. When Dr. Vance spoke he called attention to the fact that Carson had not referred to that vote, whereupon Carson answered that the City had been destroyed by fire and its citizens left homeless and destitute; and that Vance himself, if he had been in Carson's place, would have voted likewise, because "I think he has a heart." Vance retorted that if those who had applauded Carson's statement "could admire, as some seem to do, the heart promptings that send a man's benevolent hand into some other man's pocket than his own, all I have to say about it is--I can't." Upon this Carson answered that "until Vance should withdraw the charge that he had put his hand into another's pocket to save his own," they could be friends no longer; and proceeded to charge Vance with inconsistency as he himself had voted when in congress for the larger donation to Lafayette. Thereupon Vance charged Carson with being a demagogue, and when Carson replied that but for~ Vance's diminutive size he would hold him to account for his "vile utterances," Vance retorted "You are a coward and fear to do it." This closed the debate.

THE CASUS BELLI. According to Mr. McDowell, Carson's failure to challenge Vance, after having been publicly called a coward, confirmed Vance in his belief that he would not fight; this idea of Carson's cowardice having been suggested in the first instance by Carson's refusal to accept a challenge from Hugh M. Stokes, a lawyer, and a son of Gen. Mumford Stokes of Wilkes, on the alleged ground that young Stokes had forfeited his right to recognition as a gentleman because of his intemperate indulgence in strong drink. A second meeting of Vance's friends was soon held at Asheville, but from it Silas McDowell was excluded. There it was determined that Vance should attack the character of Carson's father "on a floating tradition that, after the defeat of our army at Camden, Carson, with many other hitherto patriotic citizens of North Carolina, had applied to Cornwallis, while near Charlotte, to protect their property. The tradition went so far as to include many of the patriotic men of Mecklenburg county. Up to this day that tradition is an historic doubt." But Judge Avery points out that Col. John Carson had been elected by the people of Burke to attend the convention held at Fayetteville for the Constitution of 1787 of the United States, as a sufficient refutation of the charge as applied to him. But, at the next joint debate, which was at Morganton, Vance used these words: "The Bible tells us that 'because the fathers have eaten sour grapes, their sons' teeth have been set on edge."... My father never ate sour grapes and my competitor's father did. ...In the time of the Revolutionary War my father, Col. Vance, stood up to fight, while my competitor's father, Col. Carson, skulked, and took British protection."

THE INSULT IS RESENTED. All of Samuel P. Carson's brothers were present when this statement was made " and made a move as though they would attack Vance, when prominent citizens interfered and the excitement calmed down." The election resulted in Vance's defeat, three to one, Vance getting only 2,419 votes. Afterwards, "Col. Carson wrote Vance an ill-natured and abusive letter, to which Vance sent the brief reply. . . . 'I can have no altercation with a man of your age; and, if I have aggrieved you, you certainly have some of your chivalrous sons that will protect you from insult.' A few days thereafter Gen. Alney Burgin came to Asheville . . . to enquire which of Colonel Carson's sons Vance alluded to in his lines to his father," and Vance replied "Sam knows well enough I meant him." Then the challenge was delivered and accepted.

THE DUEL. It was agreed that three weeks should elapse before the duel, which was to be fought at Saluda Gap, on the line between North and South Carolina, on the Greenville turnpike. Gen. Franklin Patton was Vance's second and Dr. George Phillips his surgeon, while Dr. Shuflin was Carson's surgeon. "A few special friends attended as spectators, and, though invited by both gentlemen," Mr. McDowell did not go. Davy Crockett, who, according to Dr. Sondley, in "Asheville's Centenary," had married -a Miss Patton, of Swannanoa, is said to have been present as a friend of Carson's. The distance was ten paces and the firing was to be done between the words "Fire, One, Two, Three," with rising or falling pistols. Vance chose the rising and Carson the falling mode; and at the word "Fire," Carson sent a ball entirely through Vance's body, entering one and a half inches above the point of the hip and lodging in the skin on the opposite side. It does not appear that Vance fired at all. Vance died the next day, thirty-two hours after having received his wound, at a hotel on the road, probably Davis's.

CONTRITION. When he saw that Vance had been wounded Carson expressed a wish to speak to him, but was led away; and before his death Vance expressed regret that Carson had not been permitted to speak with him, and stated that he had "not the first unkind feeling for him." Vance also told Gen. Burgin that he had fallen where he had always wished to die" on the field of honor." He was buried at the family grave-yard on Reems creek.

CARSON'S SUBSEQUENT CAREER. Mr. Carson went on to Congress after the duel, was elected a delegate to the State convention of 1835, moved to Texas and became Secretary of State in David G. Burnett's cabinet, never returning to North Carolina. The result of this duel is said to have embittered his life. Mr. McDowell hints at an attachment for, Miss Donaldson, the pretty niece of Andrew Jackson; but Carson died unmarried.

PREMONITION. It is quite evident that Vance expected to be killed; for he made his will (dated November 3, 1827) in which he referred to the approaching duel, and after his death it was admitted to probate, though, when the court house was destroyed in the spring of 1865, the record book contaning it was destroyed. Fortunately, however, a certified copy had been obtained prior to the fire, which copy is still in existence.[2} Judge Avery also states that Dr. Vance stopped at his father's house on his way to the dueling ground "and though almost everyone knew what was about to occur, no allusion was made to it by the family in conversation with their gnest. The impression was made on some of the family that Vance seemed sad. Though recklessly fearless, it was natural that he should seem depressed in view of the prospect that he or Carson, or both, would probably be killed."

VANCE'S MOTIVE. Although Mr. McDowell had been "excluded" from the second conference between Vance and his friends at Asheville, he and Dr. Vance lodged at the same house at Morganton, and he said: "When Vance to our room . . . I remarked to him, 'Doctor, you have this day sounded the death knell over yours or Carson's grave perhaps both.' To this Vance answered: is no fight in Carson. I wish he would fight and kill me. Do you wish to know why? I will tell you: My life has no future prospect. All before me is deep, dark gloom, my way to Congress being closed forever, and to fall back upon my profession or former resources of enjoyment makes me shudder to think of. Understand me, McDowell, I have no wish to kill or injure Carson; but I do wish for him to kill me, as, perhaps, it would save me from self-slaughter."' Would such a statement have been made except to a trusted friend and under the sacred seal of friendship?

COL. JOHN CARSON 'S IMPLACABILITY. Judge Avery tells that, after the Morganton insult, Col. Carson forego his privilege of challenging Vance only upon the promise of his six sons that if "Samuel Carson should first challenge Vance, and, if he sho'uld fall, then the oldest son, Joseph McDowell Carson, should challenge him, and if every one of the six should fall in separate encounters with Vance the old Colonel should be at liberty to wipe, out the insult to the family by meeting Vance on the field of honor." He adds: "Vance was not only mistaken in expecting a back down, but in fact he was provoking a difficulty with six cool and courageous men, everyone of whom was a crack marksman." But that was not all. Judge Avery further states that Warren Davis, Carson's second, refused to "act as his second unless he would promise to do his best or use his utmost skill to hit Vance." Dr. Vance must have known who Davis was and why he had been brought from South Carolina, as well as of the marksmanship of the six Carsons; and that he had deliberately offered a deadly insult to the venerable head of an old and distinguished family because he believed that Samuel P. Carson would not fight is almost incredible. That Dr. Vance should wish to be killed by his boyhood's friend is even more unbelievable. But, whatever his motive, criticism of his conduct was silenced above his open grave; for he went to his death with a courage that was sublime; and for more than three quarters of a century censure has remained dumb, "with a finger on her lips and a meaning in her eyes."

Francisco de Goya, Duel with Cudgels, 1820-23

JUDGE AVERY'S ACCOUNT. In his "Historic Homes of North Carolina" (in the N. C. Booklet, Vol. IV, No.3) the late Hon. A. C. Avery recorded the fact that on the night after the debate between Vance and Carson at Morganton, Samuel P. Carson, his six brothers and his father agreed that if the father would not challenge Vance Samuel would do so, and if he fell each son in succession should challenge Vance till he should be killed. In the event that all the seven Carson sons should fall, then, Col. Carson, the father would send a challenge. It is also stated that Carson went to Tennessee to send the challenge in order not to violate the law of this state; and that David Crockett was one of Carson's friends at the duel. Just before taking his position on the field Carson told Warren Davis that he (Carson) could hit Vance where ever he chose, but preferred not to inflict a mortal wound. Thereupon, Davis said: "Vance will try to kill you, and if he receives only a flesh wound, he will demand another shot, which will mean another chance to kill you. I will not act for you unless you promise to do your best to kill him." Carson promised, and Vance fell mortally wounded, Carson lamenting that the demands of an imperious custom had forced him to wreck his own peace of mind in order to save the honor of his family. In 1835 Carson was elected to the Constitutional Convention of that year. He emigrated to Texas in 1836, was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1836 in that State, and Sam Houston made him secretary of State. Carson was active in securing the annexation of Texas. The Biographical Congressional Directory, 1911, says that Carson "after his retirement from Congress moved to Arkansas; died in Hot Springs, Ark., in November, 1840" (p.532). The same work (p.1076) says that Vance "moved to Nashville, Nash county, where he held several local positions." All of which is wrong. It does not give the date of his birth or of his death.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Muddy Waters

Stone piles near the corner of Skyland Drive and Parris Branch Road. A reader explains, "All the rock at Skyland and Parris Branch came from the big patch of mud across the street from Scotts Creek Baptist on Steeple lane. They dug all the rock and soil out and took it down the road. They then took dirt from elsewhere and filled that area in, and made it a bit higher so its out of the flood plain, possibly. The net result of that, of course, is worse flooding further downstream but I digress. The basic idea as you know is to cut down the mountains, fill in the low patches, and sell some river rock and higher quality dirt along the way."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Prices of Progress

The Internet has become the public space of the 21st century -- the world's town square, classroom, marketplace, coffee house, and nightclub. We all shape and are shaped by what happens there.
-Hillary Clinton, speaking earlier today

Take a short stroll through the local public square and you'll find the map for a $66 million highway gashed through the woods and mountains between Sylva and Cullowhee, renderings of a university-initiated strip mall that can fling enough booze to keep the kids around for more than a semester or two, rollback of land-protection measures on every level of government, developers who scar up thousands of acres on the Tuckasegee and then walk away from their festering sores, and a vocal cadre bemoaning a wholly inadeqate Ingles store and similar lapses in the provision of our commercial needs. One mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore consumer, by god, is steering the ol' shopping cart through the wide aisles of our Super Walmart, just to show those unresponsive corporate bastards at Ingles who's boss!

Yes, our public square is busy with people trying to turn this into the ideal Suburbia.

Part of the adventure of settling in a new place (or staying put in the same place) is the possibility of being changed by that place...

...which is the complete antithesis of what I've been hearing in the public square.

But it is a conflict as old as history. The ones with the wealth and the power win most every time, but eventually, they are brought down by their own excesses.

I try to take the detached historic perspective, but for anyone with a sense of place these are sad times: watching so much destroyed for the most trivial of reasons. Considering all this, I remembered something Wendell Berry wrote in 1988.

In his lecture, The Work of Local Culture, Berry opens with an indelible image of a battered galvanized bucket hanging on a fencepost. He proceeds to explore the same issues we face here and now. And he describes a world that, for most of us, has slipped away forever.

From the E. F. Schumacher Society website:

Each year the Iowa Humanities Board offers a talk by a distinguished humanities scholar focusing on a theme important to the people of Iowa. Under the theme of the Exemplary Project, "A Sense of Place," the 1988 Iowa Humanities Lecture featured Wendell Berry.

Mr. Berry was born in Henry County, Kentucky, and received both his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Kentucky. He has taught at many colleges and universities. Mr. Berry has received numerous awards and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship; a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship; the American Academy of Arts & Letters Jean Stein Award; and the Kentucky Governor's Milner Award in the Arts. Currently Mr. Berry is a professor at the University of Kentucky, and continues to farm 125 acres in the county of his birth.

A prolific writer, Wendell Berry is the author of ten books of poetry, nine collections of essays, and four novels, including Remembering, published in the fall of 1988. He is a frequent, popular lecturer, including both the 1980 and 1986 Annual E.F. Schumacher Society Lectures. Mr. Berry is considered to be the foremost advocate for rural culture in America.

FOR MANY YEARS MY WALKS HAVE TAKEN ME down an old fencerow in a wooded hollow on what was once my grandfather's farm. A battered galvanized bucket is hanging on a fence post near the head of the hollow, and I never go by it without stopping to look inside. For what is going on in that bucket is the most momentous thing I know, the greatest miracle that I have ever heard of: it is making earth. The old bucket has hung there through many autumns, and the leaves have fallen around it and some have fallen into it. Rain and snow have fallen into it, and the fallen leaves have held the moisture and so have rotted. Nuts have fallen into it, or been carried into it by squirrels; mice and squirrels have eaten the meat of the nuts and left the shells; they and other animals have left their droppings; insects have flown into the bucket and died and decayed; birds have scratched in it and left their droppings or perhaps a feather or two. This slow work of growth and death , gravity and decay, which is the chief work of the world, has by now produced in the bottom of the bucket several inches of black humus. I look into that bucket with fascination because I am a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts, and I recognize there an artistry and a farming far superior to mine, or to that of any human. I have seen the same process at work on the tops of boulders in a forest, and it has been at work immemorially over most of the land-surface of the world. All creatures die into it, and they live by it.

The old bucket started out a far better one than you can buy now. I think it has been hanging on that post for something like fifty years. I think so because I remember hearing, when I was just a small boy, a story about a bucket that must have been this one. Several of my grandfather's black hired hands went out on an early spring day to burn a tobacco plantbed, and they took along some eggs to boil and eat with their dinner. When dinner came time and they look around for something to boil the eggs in, they could find only an old bucket that at one time had been filled with tar. The boiling water softened the residue of tar, and one of the eggs came out of the water black. The hands made much sport of seeing who would have to eat the black egg, welcoming their laughter in the midst of their days work. The man who had to eat the black egg was Floyd Scott, whom I remember well. Dry scales of tar still adhere to the inside of the bucket.

However small a landmark the old bucket is, it is not trivial. It is one of the signs by which I know my country and myself. And to me it is irresistibly suggestive in the way it collects leaves and other woodland sheddings as they fall through time. It collects stories too as they fall through time. It is irresistibly metaphorical. It is doing in a passive way what a human community must do actively and thoughtfully. A human community too must collect leaves and stories, and turn them into an account. It must build soil, and build that memory of itself – in lore and story and song – which will be its culture. And these two kinds of accumulation, of local soil and local culture, are intimately related.

IN THE WOODS, THE BUCKET IS NO METAPHOR; it simply reveals what is always happening in the woods, if the woods is let alone. Of course, in most places in my part of the country, the human community did not leave the woods alone. It felled the trees, and replaced them with pastures and crops. But this did not revoke the law of the woods, which is that the ground must be protected by a cover of vegetation, and that the growth of the years must return – or be returned – to the ground to rot and build soil. A good local culture, in one of its most important functions, is a collection of the memories, ways, and skills necessary for the observance, within the bounds of domesticity, of this natural law. If the local culture cannot preserve and improve the local soil, then, as both reason and history inform us, the local community will decay and perish, and the work of soil-building will be resumed by nature.

A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place. Practically speaking, human society has no work more important than this. Once we have acknowledged this principle, we can only be alarmed at the extent to which it has been ignored. For though our present society does generate a centripetal force of great power, this is not a local force, but one centered almost exclusively in our great commercial and industrial cities, which have drawn irresistibly into themselves both the products of the countryside and the people and talents of the country communities.

There is, as one assumes there must be, a countervailing or centrifugal force that also operates in our society, but this returns to the countryside, not the residue of the land's growth to refertilize the fields, not the learning and experience of the greater world ready to go to work locally, and not, or not often, even a just monetary compensation. What are returned, instead, are overpriced manufactured goods, pollution in various forms, and garbage. A landfill on the edge of my own rural county in Kentucky, for example, daily receives about eighty truckloads of garbage. About fifty of these loads come from cities in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Thus, the end result of the phenomenal modern productivity of the countryside is a debased countryside, which becomes daily less pleasant, and which will inevitably become less productive.

The cities, which have imposed this inversion of forces upon the countryside, have been unable to preserve themselves from it. The typical modern city is surrounded by a circle of affluent suburbs, eating its way outward, like ringworm, leaving the so-called "inner city" desolate, filthy, ugly, and dangerous.

MY WALKS IN THE HILLS AND HOLLOWS around my home have inevitably produced in my mind the awareness that I live in a diminished country. The country has been and is being reduced by the great centralizing process that is our national economy. As I walk, I am always reminded of the slow, patient building of soil in the woods. And I am reminded of the events and companions of my life – for my walks, after so long, are cultural events. But under the trees and in the fields I see also the gullies and scars, healed or healing or fresh, left by careless logging and bad farming. I see the crumbling stone walls, and the wire fences that have been rusting out ever since the 1930's. In the returning woods growth out of the hollows, I see the sagging and the fallen barns, the empty and ruining houses, the houseless chimneys and foundations. As I look at this evidence of human life poorly founded, played out, and gone, I try to recover some understanding, some vision, of what this country was at the beginning: the great oaks and beeches and hickories, walnuts and maples, lindens and ashes, tulip poplars, standing in beauty and dignity now unimaginable, lying deep at their feet – an incalculable birthright sold for money, most of which we do not receive. Most of the money made on the products of this place has gone to fill the pockets of people in distant cities who did not produce the products.

If my walks take me along the roads and streams, I see also the trash and the junk, carelessly manufactured and carelessly thrown away, the glass and the broken glass and the plastic and the aluminum that will lie here longer than the lifetime of the trees – longer than the lifetime of our species, perhaps. And I know that this also is what we have to show for our participation in the American economy, for most of the money made on these things too has been made elsewhere.

It would be somewhat more pleasant for country people if they could blame all this on city people. But the old opposition of country versus city – though still true, and truer than ever economically, for the country is more than ever the colony of the city – is far too simple to explain our problem. For country people more and more live like city people, and so connive in their own ruin. More and more country people, like city people, allow their economic and social standards to be set by television and salesmen and outside experts. Our garbage mingles with New Jersey garbage in our local landfill, and it would be hard to tell which is which.

As local community decays along with local economy, a vast amnesia settles over the countryside. As the exposed and disregarded soil departs with the rains, so local knowledge and local memory move away to the cities, or are forgotten under the influence of homogenized salestalk, entertainment, and education. This loss of local knowledge and local memory – that is, of local culture – has been ignored, or written off as one of the cheaper "prices of progress", or made the business of folklorists. Nevertheless, local culture has a value, and part of its value is economic. This can be demonstrated readily enough.

For example, when a community loses its memory, its members no longer know each other. How can they know each other if they have forgotten or have never learned each other's stories? If they do not know each other's stories, how can they know whether or not to trust each other? People who do not trust each other do not help each other, and moreover they fear each other. And this is our predicament now. Because of a general distrust and suspicion, we not only lose one another's help and companionship, but we are all now living in jeopardy of being sued.

We don't trust our "public servants" because we know that they don't respect us. They don't respect us, as we understand, because they don't know us; they don't know our stories. They expect us to sue them if they make mistakes, and so they must insure themselves, at great expense to them and to us. Doctors in a country community must send their patients to specialists in the city, not necessarily because they believe that they are wrong in their diagnoses, but because they know that they are not infallible, and they must protect themselves against lawsuits, at great expense to us.

The government of my home county, which has a population of about 10,000 people, pays an annual liability insurance premium of about $34,000. Add to this the liability premiums that are paid by every professional person who is "at risk" in the county, and you get some idea of the load we are carrying. Many decent family livelihoods are annually paid out of the county to insurance companies for a service that is only negative and provisional.

All of this money is lost to us by the failure of the community. A good community, as we know, insures itself by trust, by good faith and good will, by mutual help. A good community, in other words, is a good local economy. It depends upon itself for many of its essential needs and is thus shaped, so to speak, from the inside – unlike most modern populations that depend upon distant purchases for almost everything, and are thus shaped from the outside by the purposes and the influence of salesmen.

I WAS WALKING ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON several years ago with an older friend. We went by the ruining log house that had belonged to his grandparents and great-grandparents. The house stirred my friend's memory, and he told how the oldtime people used to visit each other in the evenings, especially in the long evenings of winter. There used to be a sort of institution in our part of the country known as "sitting till bedtime." After supper, when they weren't too tired, neighbors would walk across the fields to visit each other. They popped corn, my friend said, and ate apples and talked. They told each other stories. They told each other stories, as I knew myself, that they had all heard before. Sometimes they told stories about each other, about themselves, living again in their own memories, and thus keeping their memories alive. Among the hearers of these stories were always the children. When bedtime came, the visitors lit their lanterns and went home. My friend talked about this, and thought about it, and then he said, "They had everything but money."

They were poor, as country people often have been, but they had each other, they had their local economy in which they helped each other, they had each other's comfort when they needed it, and they had their stories, their history together in that place. To have everything but money is to have much. And most people of the present can only marvel to think of neighbors entertaining themselves for a whole evening without a single imported pleasure and without listening to a single minute of salestalk.

Most of the descendents of those people have now moved away, partly because of the cultural and economic failures that I mentioned earlier, and most of them no longer sit in the evenings and talk to anyone. Most of them now sit until bedtime, watching TV, submitting every few minutes to a salestalk. The message of both the TV programs and the salestalks is that the watchers should spend whatever is necessary to be like everybody else.

By television and other public means, we are encouraged to imagine that we are far advanced beyond sitting till bedtime with the neighbors on a Kentucky ridgetop, and indeed beyond anything we ever were before. But if, for example, there should occur a forty-eight hour power failure, we would find ourselves in much more backward circumstances than our ancestors. What, for starters, would we do for entertainment? Tell each other stories? But most of us no longer talk with each other, much less tell each other stories. We tell our stories now mostly to doctors or lawyers or psychiatrists or insurance adjusters or the police, not to our neighbors for their (and our) entertainment. The stories that now entertain us are made up for us in New York or Los Angeles or other centers of such commerce.

But a forty-eight hour power failure would involve almost unimaginable deprivations. It would be difficult to travel, especially in cities. Most of the essential work could not be done. Our windowless modern schools and other such buildings that depend on air conditioning could not be used. Refrigeration would be impossible; food would spoil. It would be difficult or impossible to prepare meals. If it was winter, heating systems would fail. At the end of forty-eight hours many of us would be hungry.

Such a calamity – and it is a modest one among those that our time has made possible – would thus reveal how far most of us are now living from our cultural and economic sources, and how extensively we have destroyed the foundations of local life. It would show us how far we have strayed from the locally centered life of such neighborhoods as the one my friend described – a life based to considerable extent upon what we now call solar energy, which is decentralized, democratic, clean and free. If we note that much of the difference we are talking about can be accounted for as an increasing dependence upon energy sources that are centralized, undemocratic, filthy and expensive, we will have completed a sort of historical parable.

HOW HAS THIS HAPPENED? There are many reasons for it. One of the chief reasons is that everywhere in our country the local succession of the generations has been broken. We can trace this change through a series of stories that we may think of as cultural landmarks.

Throughout most of our literature the normal thing was for the generations to succeed one another in place. The memorable stories occurred when this succession became difficult or was threatened in one way or another. The norm is given in Psalm 128, in which succession is seen as one of the rewards of righteousness: "thou shalt see thy children's children, and peace upon Israel."

The longing for this result seems to have been universal. It presides also over the Odyssey, in which Odysseus' desire to return home is certainly regarded as normal. And this story is much concerned with the psychology of family succession. Telemachus, Odysseus' son, comes of age in preparing for the return of his long-absent father. And it seems almost that Odysseus is enabled to return home by his son's achievement of enough manhood to go in search of him. Long after the return of both father and son, Odysseus' life will complete itself, as we know from Teiresias' prophecy in Book XI, much in the spirit of Psalm 128:

"a seaborn death

soft as this hand of mist will come upon you

when you are wearied out with sick old age,

your country folk in blessed peace around you."

The Bible makes much of what it sees as the normal succession – in such stories as those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon – in which the son completes the work or the destiny of the father. The parable of the Prodigal Son is prepared for by such Old Testament stories as that of Jacob, who errs, wanders, returns, is forgiven, and takes his place in the family lineage.

Shakespeare was concerned throughout his working life with the theme of the separation and rejoining of parents and children. It is there at the beginning in The Comedy of Errors, and he is still thinking about it when he gets to King Lear and Pericles and The Tempest. When Lear walks onstage with Cordelia dead in his arms, the theme of return is fulfilled, only this time in the way of tragedy.

Wordsworth's poem, "Michael," written in 1800, is in the same line of descent. It is the story of a prodigal son, and return is still understood as the norm; before the boy's departure, he and his father make a "covenant" that he will return home and carry on his father's life as a shepherd on their ancestral pastures. But the ancient theme here has two significant differences; the son leaves home for an economic reason, and he does not return. Old Michael, the father, was long ago "bound/ In surety for his brother's son." This nephew has failed in his business, and Michael is "summoned to discharge the forfeiture." Rather than do this by selling a portion of their patrimony, the aged parents decide that they must send their son to work for another kinsman in the city in order to earn the necessary money. The country people all are poor; there is no money to be earned at home. When the son has cleared the debt from the land, he will return to it to "possess it, free as the wind/ That passes over it." But the son goes to the city, is corrupted by it, eventually commits a crime, and is forced "To seek a hiding place beyond the seas."

"Michael" is a sort of cultural watershed. It carries on the theme of return that goes back to the beginnings of Western culture, but that return now is only a desire and a memory; in the poem it fails to happen. Because of that failure, we see in "Michael," not just a local story of the Lake District in England, which it is, but the story of rural families in the industrial nations from Wordsworth's time until today. The children go to the cities, for reasons imposed by the external economy, and they do not return; eventually the parents die and the family land, like Michael's, is sold to a stranger. By now it has happened millions of times.

And by now the transformation of the ancient story is nearly complete. Our society, on the whole, has forgot or repudiated the theme of return. Young people still grow up in rural families, and go off to the cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do. Now the norm is to leave and not return. And this applies as much to urban families as to rural ones. In the present urban economy the parent-child succession is possible only among the economically privileged. The children of industrial underlings are not likely to succeed their parents at work, and there is not reason for them to wish to do so. We are not going to have an industrial "Michael" in which it is perceived as tragic that a son fails to succeed his father on an assembly line.

According to the new norm, the child's destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. And this norm is institutionalized, not in great communal stories, but in the education system. The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance which it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to the future, of the child. The orientation is thus necessarily theoretical, speculative, and central. The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community. And parents with children in school are likely to find themselves immediately separated from their children, and made useless to them, by the intervention of new educational techniques, technologies, methods and languages. School systems innovate as compulsively and eagerly as factories. It is no wonder that, under these circumstances, "educators" tend to look upon the parents as a bad influence, and wish to take the children away from home as early as possible. And many parents, in truth, are now finding their children an encumbrance at home – where there is no useful work for them to do – and are glad enough to turn them over to the state for the use of the future. The extent to which this order of things is now dominant is suggested by a recent magazine article on the discovery of what purports to be a new idea:

The idea that a parent can be a teacher at home has caught the attention of educators... Parents don't have to be graduates of Harvard or Yale to help their kids learn and achieve...

Thus the home as a place where a child can learn has become an idea of the professional "educator," who retains control of the idea. The home, as the article makes clear, is not to be a place where children may learn on their own, but a place where they are taught by parents according to the instructions of professional "educators." In fact, "The Home and School Institute, Inc., of Washington, D.C." (known, of cours, as "The HSI") has been "founded to show... how to involve families in their kids' educations."

In such ways as this, the nuclei of home and community have been invaded by the organizations, just as have the nuclei of cells and atoms. And we must be careful to see that the old cultural centers of home and community were made vulnerable to this invasion by their failure as economies. If there is no household or community economy, then family members and neighbors are no longer useful to each other. When people are no longer useful to each other, then the centripetal force of family and community fails, and people fall into dependence upon exterior economies and organizations. The hegemony of professionals and professionalism erects itself upon local failure. And from then on the locality exists merely as a market for consumer goods as a source of "raw material," human and natural. The local schools no longer serve the local community; they serve the government's economy and the economy's government. Unlike the local community, the government and the economy cannot be served with affection, but only with professional zeal or professional boredom. Professionalism means more interest in salary and less interest in what used to be known as disciplines. And so we arrive at the idea, endlessly reiterated in the news media, that education can be improved by bigger salaries for teachers – which may be true, but not, as the proponents too often imply, by bigger salaries alone. There must also be love of learning and of the cultural tradition and of excellence. And this love cannot exist, because it makes no sense, apart from the love of a place and community. Without this love, education is only the importation into a local community of centrally prescribed "career preparation" designed to facilitate the export of young careerists.

Our children are educated, then, to leave home, not to stay home, and the costs of this have been far too little acknowledged. One of the costs is psychological, and the other is at once cultural and ecological.

The natural or normal course of human growing-up must begin with some sort of rebellion against one's parents, for it is clearly impossible to grow up if one remains a child. But the child, in the process of rebellion and of achieving the emotional and economic independence that rebellion ought to lead to, finally comes to understand the parents as fellow humans and fellow sufferers, and in some manner returns to them as their friend, forgiven and forgiving the inevitable wrongs of family life. That is the old norm, of which the story of the Prodigal son is an example.

The new norm, according to which the child leaves home as a student and never lives at home again, interrupts the old course of coming of age at the point of rebellion, so that the child is apt to remain stalled in adolescence, never achieving any kind of reconciliation or friendship with the parents. Of course, such a return and reconciliation cannot be achieved without the recognition of mutual practical need. However, in the present economy where individual dependences are so much exterior to both household and community, family members often have no practical need or use for one another. Hence, the frequent futility of attempts at a purely psychological or emotional reconciliation.

And this interposition of rebellion and then of geographical and occupational distance between parents and children may account for the peculiar emotional intensity that our society attaches to innovation. We appear to hate whatever went before, very much as an adolescent hates parental rule, and to look upon its obsolescence as a kind of vengeance. Thus we may explain industry's obsessive emphasis upon "this year's model," or the preoccupation of the professional "educators" with theoretical and methodological innovation. And thus, in modern literature we have had for many years an emphasis upon "originality" and the "anxiety of influence" (an adolescent critical theory), as opposed, say, to Spenser's filial admiration for Chaucer, or Dante's for Virgil.

But if the norm interrupts the development of the relation between children and parents, that same interruption, ramifying through a community, destroys the continuity and so the integrity of local life. As the children depart, generation after generation, the place loses its memory of itself, which is its history and its culture. And the local history, if it survives at all, loses its place. It does no good for historians, folklorists, and anthropologists to collect the songs and the stories and the lore that comprise local culture and store them in books and archives. They cannot collect and store, because they cannot know, the pattern of reminding that can survive only in the living human community in its place. It is this pattern that is the life of the local culture, and that brings it usefully or pleasurably to mind. Apart from its local landmarks and occasions, the local culture may be the subject of curiosity or of study, but it is also dead.

THE LOSS OF LOCAL CULTURES IS, IN PART, A PRACTICAL LOSS and an economic one. For one thing, such a culture contains, and conveys to succeeding generations, the history of the use of the place and the knowledge of how the place may be lived in and used. For another, the pattern of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it, and so, finally, the local culture will carry the knowledge of how the place may be well and lovingly used, and moreover the implicit command to use it only well and lovingly. The only true and effective "operator's manual for spaceship earth" is not a book that any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.

Lacking an authentic local culture, a place is open to exploitation, and ultimately destruction, from the center. Recently, for example, I heard the dean of a prominent college of agriculture interviewed on the radio. What have we learned, he was asked, from last summer's drouth? And he replied that "we" need to breed more drouth resistance into plants, and that "we" need a government "safety net" for farmers. He might have said that farmers need to reexamine their farms and their circumstances in light of the drouth, and to think again on such subjects as diversification, scale, and the mutual helpfulness of neighbors. But he did not say that. To him, the drouth was merely an opportunity for agribusiness corporations and the government, by which the farmers and rural communities could only become more dependent on the economy that is destroying them. This is as good an example as any of the centralized thinking of a centralized economy – to which the only effective answer that I know is a strong local economy and a strong local culture.

For a long time now, the prevailing assumption has been that if the nation is all right, then all the localities within it will be all right also. I see little reason to believe that this is true. At present, in fact, both the nation and the local economy are living at the expense of localities and local communities – as all small town and country people have reason to know. In rural America, which is in many ways a colony of what the government and the corporations think of as a nation, most of us have experienced the losses that I have been talking about; the departure of young people, of soil and other so-called natural resources, and of local memory. We feel ourselves crowded more and more into a dimensionless present, in which the past is forgotten, and the future, even in our most optimistic "projections," is forbidding and fearful. Who can desire a future that is determined entirely by the purposes of the most wealthy and the most powerful, and by the capacities of machines?

Two questions, then, remain: Is a change for the better possible? And who has the power to make such a change? I still believe that a change for the better is possible, but I confess that my belief is partly hope and partly faith. No one who hopes for improvement should fail to see and respect the signs that we may be approaching some sort of historical waterfall, past which we will not, by changing our minds, be able to change anything else. We know that at any time an ecological or a technological or a political event that we will have allowed may remove from us the power to make change and leave us with the mere necessity to submit to it. Beyond that, the two questions are one: the possibility of change depends upon the existence of people who have the power to change.

Does this power reside at present in the national government? That seems to me extremely doubtful. To anyone who has read the papers during the recent presidential campaign, it must be clear that at the highest level of government there is, properly speaking, no political discussion. Are the corporations likely to help us? We know, from long experience, that the corporations will assume no responsibility that is not forcibly imposed upon them by government. The record of the corporations is written too plainly in verifiable damage to permit us to expect much from them. May we look for help to the universities? Well, the universities are more and more the servants of government and the corporations.

Most urban people evidently assume that all is well. They live too far from the exploited and endangered sources of their economy to need to assume otherwise. Some urban people are becoming disturbed about the contamination of air, water, and food and that is promising, but there are not enough of them yet to make much difference. There is enough trouble in the "inner cities" to make them likely places of change, and evidently change is in them, but it is desperate and destructive change. As if to perfect their exploitation by other people, the people of the "inner cities" are destroying both themselves and their places.

My feeling is that, if improvement is going to begin anywhere, it will have to begin out in the country and in the country towns. This is not because of any intrinsic virtue that can be ascribed to country people, but because of their circumstances. Rural people are living, and have lived for a long time, at the site of the trouble. They see all around them, every day, the marks and scars of an exploitive national economy. They have much reason, by now, to know how little real help is to be expected from somewhere else. They still have, moreover, the remnants of local memory and local community. And in rural communities there are still farms and small businesses that can be changed according to the will and the desire of individual people.

In this difficult time of failed public expectations, when thoughtful people wonder where to look for hope, I keep returning in my own mind to the thought of the renewal of the rural communities. I know that one resurrected rural community would be more convincing and more encouraging than all the government and university programs of the last fifty years, and I think that it could be the beginning of the renewal of our country, for the renewal of rural communities ultimately implies the renewal of urban ones. But to be authentic, a true encouragement and a true beginning, this would have to be a resurrection accomplished mainly by the community itself. It would have to be done, not from the outside by the instruction of visiting experts, but from the inside by the ancient rule of neighborliness, by the love of precious things, and by the wish to be at home.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Invasion of the Robins

When I was a little kid in the schoolyard, the reappearance of robins was always a welcome sign of spring’s arrival. I didn't know much about robins. They hopped. They ate worms. Their eggshells were a nice shade of blue. In the years since then, I haven't learned much more than that about them and I haven't considered the migratory behavior of Turdus migratorus…until this winter.

Cullowhee family attacked by raucous flock of over-wintering robins

While reading a local birders’ message board, I was alerted to the presence of a huge wintering flock of robins, along the Tuckasegee River, just below Cullowhee. The source of that news estimated that 100,000 robins were roosting in the bamboo and trees near the trailer park. In fact, while driving past that location yesterday evening around 6:00, I saw a birder watching for the nightly return of the robins to the thickets lining the river.

My first encounter with the flock came when I observed them ravaging the holly trees belonging to a friend in Webster. After those birds deposited great gobs of semi-digested holly berries all over my car, I got some inkling of why robins were named Turdus migratorus.

Nevertheless, I still like robins. And when I see them, I usually hear that old ditty, “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along.” Yes, like Dean Martin sang it.

A couple of Fridays ago, on a drizzly day, I got a good look at the largest flock of robins I’ve ever seen. Thousands of them were grazing at Cullowhee Rec Park from one edge of the fields to the other. It was quite a spectacle.

Terrified schoolchildren try to escape the fury of the massive robin flock swarming around the old Jackson County Courthouse

I have learned that robin fans participate in the American Robin Migration Tracking Project. The website has a ton of information on the birds.

From the American Robin website, some excerpts on the classification and physiology of robins:

Robins were named by homesick European settlers for their beloved and familiar little Robin Red-breast, which has a color pattern brighter but somewhat similar to our robin, though the two species are not closely related….

Robins have sturdy legs with muscles designed for running or hopping, allowing them to speedily evade predators and efficiently cover open ground while hunting. Their colors are bright enough to attract mates and defend territories without being so bright to alert predators too often. Their syrinx ("song box") has complex muscles allowing them to sing rich, complex songs that can carry a long distance. Their esophagus is exceptionally stretchy to allow them to eat huge quantities of berries before nightfall in winter, to allow them to survive cold temperatures without being able to eat in the dark. Their intestines are developed for digesting waxy berry coatings and for getting most of the food value out of worms. Their wings have a pointed shape, the most common shape for birds that migrate using a flapping flight. Their tail is medium-length for quick steering as they fly through branches…

Robin vision is a little more discriminating than ours--it can see things at a farther distance, and may be able to see a wider spectrum of colors than we can. A robin can react to sights much more quickly than we can, to allow it to react as it flies through branches at 20 m.p.h. A robin's hearing is much more finely tuned than ours. It can hear higher-pitched sounds than we can, and can hear tiny differences in sound quality that our ears just simply can't detect. It's sense of touch is not as discriminating as ours in some ways, though it can weave a nest with amazing accuracy relying partly on this sense. Robins can probably not taste as many flavors as we can, and they probably cannot smell as many odors…

Robins don’t necessarily go south for the winter, but will overwinter almost anywhere in the eastern US.

Robins are a migratory species, but their migration is far more complicated than simply a shift southward. There seems to be a great deal of individual variation in where they spend the winter, though males are far more likely to remain in the north than females. There are good reasons. Come spring, the male’s main job is to find and defend a territory. The females’ main job is to create and lay the eggs. This requires a lot of good nutrition and food energy, so females go where they are sure of good food supplies in winter. Yes, they have to use up food energy to migrate north. But migrating and laying eggs are easier for well-nourished birds.

One frequently asked question is, “Why am I seeing thousands of robins this winter and never before?”

The answer:

People noticing robins in areas where they haven't been seen before, it is likely because the robins have discovered a rich food source.

Robin in the Park, 2/4/10

Which raises a question: “What changes have occurred in the local ecosystems to foster an abundance of whatever it is that is attracting the robins this winter?”

And, unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one.


Macon, Georgia's Sidney Lanier (1842 - 1881) wrote this one:

Tampa Robins

The robin laughed in the orange-tree:
"Ho, windy North, a fig for thee:
While breasts are red and wings are bold
And green trees wave us globes of gold,
Time's scythe shall reap but bliss for me
-- Sunlight, song, and the orange-tree.

Burn, golden globes in leafy sky,
My orange-planets: crimson I
Will shine and shoot among the spheres
(Blithe meteor that no mortal fears)
And thrid the heavenly orange-tree
With orbits bright of minstrelsy.

If that I hate wild winter's spite --
The gibbet trees, the world in white,
The sky but gray wind over a grave --
Why should I ache, the season's slave?
I'll sing from the top of the orange-tree
`Gramercy, winter's tyranny.'

I'll south with the sun, and keep my clime;
My wing is king of the summer-time;
My breast to the sun his torch shall hold;
And I'll call down through the green and gold
`Time, take thy scythe, reap bliss for me,
Bestir thee under the orange-tree.'"

-Sidney Lanier