When Gil Jackson said he knew of a place off trail and way back in the Smokies, a sacred site to his people, I had to go see for myself.
Gil grew up on the Qualla Boundary and lives now in Snowbird community. An educator and avid outdoorsman, he’s also a fluent speaker of Tsalagi or Cherokee, the intricate tongue only spoken now by about 200 remaining members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Gil has partnered with Barbara Duncan to teach Cherokee Level II at UNC Asheville. I’ve been sitting in on the evening classes, eager to learn the language that is native to the Blue Ridge before English was ever heard in these hills.
Gil had mentioned making a field trip to Medicine Lake. I’d read my James Mooney, the great anthropologist who had chronicled the Cherokee’s myths, history and sacred formulas. Mooney recorded several stories of encounters between men and bears and a mythic body of waters where bears healed themselves.
Families had handed down the tale of a old medicine man named Jaki-oo-sti, who earned his white hairs and wisdom with a chance encounter with a bear. Out hunting, he had shot the bear with his muzzleloader, but then the bruin started talking to him, pleading for him not to shoot again. “Something is wrong. We are not supposed to meet,” the bear told the man. “There is a fine line that divides our worlds and you have crossed over to mine.”
The wounded bear asked the man to accompany him to a magical lake for healing. At the lake, the bear immerses himself in the waters and then resurfaces with his wounds completely healed.
The bear shares a secret wisdom as to good plants, the wind, nature and animals. With the bear as his spiritual guide, the man sits in a cave with the Thunders, the beings who create the loud clashes in the sky during a storm. They use a long living snake as their bench. One by one, from youngest to oldest, the Thunders go out and make their noise, shaking the world.
Just another of those Just-So stories, many people might think, but walking through the Blue Ridge with the thunder int he distance, or the little sounds that the little People may be playing tricks on you, or if ever see the shambling shape of a great bear in the woods, you realize the Cherokee were talking about their realities, not just imagining stories for a good campfire. There are places in our woods where you can feel the thin spaces and believe that there are creatures watching from the other side.
Gil had heard of the place for decades. Oldtimers would say, “oh it’s just over the ridge there,” but no one seemed to know for certain. Then a healer from Oklahoma took him to a place in the Smokies, just above the Big Cove community on the Qualla Boundary. Gil later pinpointed the site on a topo map, as a place where three creeks flowed together at right angles from the north, east and south and headed west. X marked the magical spot.
“That has to be it,” Gil said. Trouble was it had taken him 12 hours of bushwacking down a overgrown manway to the pond and then up the mountain again back to his car.
But we were up for an adventure, all students wanting to learn more about the culture along with the worlds of Cherokee we were tasting on our tongues in our weekly classes. Out of the classrooms and not the woods seemed like a good idea.
Six of us got a late start on Good Friday, with a slight sprinkle though the trees, but the weather was promising for the weekend. It was around 8 p.m. and getting dark before we made the top of Hyatt Ridge. Rather than push on another mile in the dark to site 44, we decided to pitch camp on the flats. Snapping poles for tents, readying for the night, firing up some water for dehydrated chili, chicken and rice, apples and cheese. We were settling in for the evening.
Jordan brought out her well-worn paperback of scary stories to be told around campfires. Devon wanted to hear the one about the preacher in the haunted house. Will read the one about the Hook, and the escaped killer who leaves his signature hook in the side of a necking couple’s car. “The stories themselves aren’t so scary, said Jordan. “It’s what I think about them afterwards.”
Gil started talking about things he had seen. True tales are the scariest once you think about them
Like the old-timer he had brought to see the Medicine Lake. They had camped nearby, and they are sound asleep. Gil’s friend woke up, hearing the sound of footsteps in the woods. He could see a light floating toward the tent. Maybe it was the moon, but it came from the north and then retreated.
Gil shook his head.
Scary things happen on the reservation. Gil once hired some buddies to paint a rental house over in Big Cove. But they hastily left the house and wouldn’t go back. One man said he had sensed a presence, someone watching him. When he looked out the window, he saw the red bandana around the head of an old woman, but her feet wasn’t touching the ground. She was floating over the creek, glaring balefully at the paint crew.
"A levitating lady is mighty scary," I joked, but no one was really laughing.
We sat in the night, listening for what may be out in the woods.
“Deyvon, do you know why the old people wanted to sit with a body overnight?” Gil asked.
To keep witches away. When Gil’s father had passed, the family had sat vigil with the body in their small Baptist Church. His sister and brother-in-law feel asleep. But then the sister woke up and there was a wind that blew the door open. A man stood there. He came in and looked over the body of the dead man, but didn’t touch it, perhaps because it had been embalmed.
He may have been a witchdoctor in search of a fresh liver to steal and eat.
An owl hooted nearby, and we shuffled nervously on the logs we sat on, our headlamps peering out into the darkness of the Smokies, the endless nights over the mountains, the thin spaces between reality and imagination where things walk that haunt your dreams.
Will and Deyvon shared the story of Spearfinger, one of the Cherokee’s most terrifying monsters.
Spearfinger, once upon a time, could appear in any shape she wished, but underneath her guise was a stone monster whom no one could harm.
She was most dangerous in the autumn, for then she could walk out of the mountains hidden in smoke from bonfires. One day, late in October, out of that smoke she appeared to a group of children, disguised as an old woman.
She smiled at a little girl. "Sit on my lap, and I will brush your hair," she said. The innocent girl sat upon her lap and then, with her special stone finger, Spearfinger stabbed the child's side. The girl never felt a thing.
Later the girl walked home, and that night she grew very sick. Then the villagers knew. Spearfinger had struck again.
Fearing for their children, the people had a great council, and the medicine men came up with a scheme to dig a great pit. Then they made a huge bonfire, and when Spearfinger saw the smoke, she came down into the village and chased the young men right to the trap. Just as the medicine men had planned, she did not see the pit, and so she fell in.
The monster was coming out of the pit, threatening to eat all their livers. Then a chickadee alighted on the witch’s hand. So the warriors shot their arrows at that hand, and true enough, that was where Spearfinger's heart was located.
Spearfinger sank to the ground, slain at last. And the Cherokee still honor the chickadee, calling it ‘tsikilili or "truth teller."
When we went to bed, Jordyn slept in her hammock with her boots on, both to stay warm and ready to run if Spearfinger, or a bear or a ghost came into the campsite.
Gil kept seeing a bright light out of his tent and wondered why Jordyn was shining her headlight at him. But then he decided it was the moon.
From my tent, I heard only the snores of my fellows, and the owls hooting close by. Barn owls are called ugugu in Cherokee, but sometimes sgili, when someone suspects the calling predator is not just a feathered bird, but a shapeshifting spirit. It is the same word for witch or ghost.
The sun rose the next morning, reddening the eastern rim. We eat breakfast and set out for a day’s journey to find Medicine Lake. Coming down the trail to site 44, I see the bear bag cables strung by the trees, and the flash of a white tail ahead. “Awi tsigowatiha” "I see a deer."
A good sign, an omen. Gil said that he always knew he was close to Medicine Lake when he reached one of the forks of Raven Creek. Each time, he would see a rainbow trout leap up out of the water as if in greeting.
But the spirits of the place could be finicky. He had been up the same creek with a friend, Lamar Marshall of Wild South, who held a GPS in his hand. Gil warned against taking photos or mapping coordinates, which could disrespect or disrupt the power of the place.
Lamar had his GPS device swept out of his hand by the current. They scouted up and down the creek, but never found it.
We leave the Hyatt Ridge Trail and head west up over the ridge, finding a faint path marked with pink and blue ribbons. Later on the maps, I discover the name is Breakneck Ridge, perhaps an omen in itself. Wildflowers are in profusion with long views to the south.
Along the way, single file on the elusive trail, we chatted and learned about each other. Jordyn had her camera, snapping photos along the way. A media communications major, she had her eye on a job as a journalist.
Deyvon had finished his political science senior paper on tribal sovereignty and medical marijuana. Native Americans have built casinos in states that had previously outlawed gambling. Would tribes lead the nation in marijuana production?
Gil was a font of knowledge, stopping to point with his hiking pole at the profusion of wild geranium, triangular blooms of trillium both pink and white, delicate Dutchman’s breeches, yellow lilies hanging their heads, bloodroot and toothwort. He showed us socchan, the spring green savored by the Cherokee who boil and sauté the leaves. Wadsi, too, better known as ramps, the pungent onion-like herb that sprouts in spring across the Smokies.
The ribbons led up and out the ridge as we mad our way over windfalls, and blowdowns, toppled trees that blocked the trail.
We stopped at the top at a hog wallow - a muddy puddle where wild boars rolled around and then rubbed their bristly bellies against mud caked tree roots.
“That must be Medicine Lake,” we joked.
Suddenly, the ribbons gave out. We scouted out the edge of Breakneck Ridge, but there was no sign of the distinct trail that Gil had followed at least twice before. Could it be hidden by a blowdown? Or perhaps the Little People were playing tricks on us.
The sun drifted behind a gathering cloud cover. The space was feeling thinner.
No need to go bushwacking downhill. Rather than plunge ahead and get seriously lost, surrendering our current condition of seriously confused, we retraced our steps over the next couple of hours
We circled back to campsite 44 and ate our lunch. What had promised to be a warm day had taken on a slight chill as clouds covered the Smokies. We slipped on warmer shirts as our sweating bodies cooled off. Eating rolled-up tortillas with honey and peanut butter, we reached a consensus. We could go on down the trail and cut up the creek until we came to the Big Pond, but getting back out before dark was unlikely. Breakneck Ridge had been no picnic, no easy stroll. We were feeling the burn of hours of hard hiking.
So we made our way back to our base camp, packed up our tents and gear, and hiked down to the cars parked at the bridge at Straight Fork, then drove on home.
Gil apologized for not finding Medicine Lake, but there was no need for forgiveness.
We had gotten what we had come for. We returned with our livers safe from any monster or witch and with our hearts gladdened. Maybe the Little People had misled us, but we had found our own healing waters, soaking in the spirit of these woods, in the footsteps of the first people who had hiked these hills for centuries before us, and in the company of friends that day.
That was medicine enough.
When the world is too much with us, when the new fake news and our President-elect's stream of tweets are boiling the blood of too many of my friends fixated on Facebook and the future, I beat a hasty retreat to books to try to make sense of my fragmented and frightful days.
I've fished out an e-book I downloaded into my Kindle a few years back, "Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation." Think of it as a kind of ethical or philosophical how-to guide when your world ends and you're stuck in the wasteland of the future glaring upon the smoking ruins of all your cherished assumptions of how things are supposed to work.
Lear is a philosopher looking at the human possibilities of survival. His case in point is the story of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow tribe in Montana, who saw the demise of a traditional way of life and the passing of the buffalo he had hunted as a young man.
Plenty Coups refused to speak of his life after the buffalo, so that his story seems to have been broken off, leaving many years unaccounted for. "I have not told you half of what happened when I was young," he said, when urged to go on. "I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides," he added sorrowfully, "you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away."
Lear is trying to make sense of that strange insistence that Plenty Coups makes: "After this nothing happened." Actually plenty happened in Plenty Coups' life, taking up agriculture rather than hunting, lobbying Congress against transfers of Crow lands, even representing Native Americans at the 1921 ceremony inaugurating the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, DC. But that was a different life for this man, who had to surrender all hope that his old way of living could be resurrected. He had to find a new understanding - a radical hope - in living past his own history.
Lear sees a lesson for us all in how Plenty Coups wrestled with his old/new life. It's the vulnerability all humans share in an always uncertain future that erodes the comfortable assumptions we have shared. In other words, how do you thrive in and not just survive the end of your world.
"We live at a time of a heightened sense that civilizations are themselves vulnerable. Events around the world - terrorist attacks, violent social upheavals, and even natural catastrophes - have left us with an uncanny sense of menace. We seem to be aware of a shared vulnerability that we cannot quite name. I suspect that this feeling has provoked the widespread intolerance that we see around us today-from all points on the political spectrum. It as though, without our insistence that our outlook is correct, the outlook itself might collapse. Perhaps if we could give a name to our shared sense of vulnerability, we could find better ways to live with it." - Jonathan Lear.
It may be only a day at a time that we feel our way forward, vulnerable, yes, but perhaps not so afraid, even radicalized by the notion that hope is still available in this America of ours.
This essay first appeared in June 2016, and I've received more response from readers than any other story I've done in my years as a journalist, In light (or the darkness) of our recent election, Asheville's anxiety and Thomas Wolfe's wisdom may be a useful tonic for our times.
In 1983, I arrived in Asheville to take my first job with a daily newspaper. I was a cub reporter, covering night cops. I moved into Montford, on the curve of Pearson Drive in a three-story Queen Anne that had been divided up into apartments. The house like the neighborhood like the city had fallen on hard times.
As our River Arts District has been called “sketchy,” the adjective “seedy” might have applied to all of Asheville back in the day.
Asheville was like a fine lady who had seen better days, her Art Deco facades abandoned, the storefronts displaying nothing but dust. Downtown was deserted after dark. Gay men in those days when AIDS was just whispered about circled the Grove Arcade building in their cars, flashing their headlights, arranging trysts. The hookers walked Lexington, sad, stringy-haired women trying to support drug habits.
Downtown was deserted after dark. I walked to the magistrate’s court, then in the ground floor of the County Courthouse, to check the warrants, looking for murders and domestic abuse, drunks and thieves and drug dealers. Those wayward citizens were housed upstairs in the courthouse, the best views in town through barred windows. The accused stared across the asphalt of Pack Square to the Downtown Club in the BB&T building where bankers ate in the afternoons.
Way out Tunnel Road, the Dreamland Drive-In was still showing features at night, doubling as a flea market by day. Meanwhile The Mountaineer Inn flashed its neon Hillbilly down the hill from the Mall where all the department stores had fled over the still fresh Beaucatcher Cut.
The French Broad River ran brown, frothy, forgotten down by the railroad tracks, tobacco warehouses and hobo camps. Summer nights, you could still hear the train whistles and the revving engines of stock cars down at the Asheville Speedway
All beer was imported in those days, Budweiser was king and Schlitz, second. Coors had just fired its first Silver Bullets across the Mississippi. When the bars closed, we drove down to Biltmore, for early morning breakfasts at the Hot Shot Cafe, cats-head biscuits and saw-mill gravy.
Down Biltmore, the Fine Arts Theater was showing "3 on a Mattress" and other porn. The Plaza on Pack Place was in its last days of frayed red carpet and rancid buttered popcorn. Long before the Zombie Walk, Asheville was sucking wind, the lifeblood seemingly drained away.
I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over the years, asked how they arrived in Asheville. To a man and a woman, they say something like “I was called here. I felt an energy. This was home.” Back in the heyday of the New Age, (which some could argue, never has ended in our Cesspool of Sin), there were emanations from a giant crystal buried in the top of Mt. Pisgah.
Now some say there is a vortex, a whirlpool of psychic energies, centered over Swannanoa or perhaps dancing over the stone obelisk of our favorite Confederate, savior and slaveholder - Gov. Zebulon Vance.
Asheville emanates a vibe, a feel, an intuition, a hunch, a hankering. The drum circle in Pritchard Park with the newly retired Boomers banging out their different beats.
I suspect our city has the feel of a summer camp. We are all campers, swimming in mountain cold currents, weaving baskets to carry our own meaning, making lanyards for our whistles through the cemetery. We recapture something of our childhoods. Something lost and by the wind grieved, the ghosts of ourselves. Who said, "You Can't Go Home Again?"
You can’t talk of Asheville without talking of Thomas Wolfe.
After a childhood of Tarzan and comic books, Wolfe was the first writer I had read who dared to write about real life. I was 16, the perfect age to hear Wolfe's weird goat cry. In “Look Homeward, Angel,” Wolfe put me by the bedside of Ben when he died in the upstairs. I walked with Eugene on Pack Square, when he saw his father’s stone angels come to life, when he saw his brother’s ghost in this town.
And I reread Wolfe again, when I moved to his hometown. Tom was dead right what pebbledash stucco feels like when you rub your hand against the wall on the porch of a Queen Anne. What the wind feels like whipping up Walnut Street. I walked to Riverside Cemetery to pay my respects to the writer who pointed me home. I kissed the top of the granite headstone where 6-foot-6 Tom sleeps in the warm mountain dirt.
Asheville is small town. Asheville is large. She contains multitudes. Natives and newcomers, the Patton Avenue cruisers and the commune crowd, hippies give way to hipsters give way to the Travelers, those unbathed backpackers with their mongrels on ropes taking up residence on sidewalks.
"Keep Asheville Weird." "We Still Pray." "We Still Lay." "Support Local Food." "Don’t Postpone Joy." We wear our city on our car bumpers locked in the rush hour crawl over the Bowen Bridge each evening, headed straight into the sun.
We have coaxed the tourists to come again, 9 million a year. We are Beer City. But we’re still a BYOJ kind of place. Bring your own job, or join the overeducated wait staff trying to make ends meet.
Who can afford home here now amid all the hotels for the upper-upscale?
We are worried - has Asheville jumped that shark in the French Broad River?
Not just Asheville, America, still reeling from the reality show ending of our recent election. Rising inequality. Social media. Social anxiety. Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore burning, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Charlotte. Nasty women. Deplorables. Black lives matter. Blue Lives Matter. All lives matter. Can we agree that anything matters any more?
I keep turning back to Wolfe, to what would his last word, the ending to the novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
“I believe we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall found…. I think the life which we have fashioned in America, and which has fashioned us, the forms we made, the cells that grew, the honeycomb that was created, was self-destructive in its nature and must be destroyed.
I think the true discovery of America is before us. I think the fulfillment of our spirit, of our people, of our mighty and immortal land, is yet to come. I think the true discovery of our own democracy is still before us. And I think that all these things are certain as the morning, as inevitable as noon.”
Wolfe warns us of an enemy, with us from the beginning, and still with us in Asheville and in America– “single selfishness and compulsive greed.”
It’s not just my Asheville. It’s our Asheville, our Appalachia, our America. We share a city, a country. We share an endless yet ever-ending story. The book that Wolfe wrote, that we write is not closed yet. We turn the page.
"Gayotli Tsalagi Tsiwoniha." ("I speak a little Cherokee.")
It's intimidating introducing yourself to a roomful of strangers with words that seem to bunch up in your mouth, rather than trip off your tongue, but everyone was game.
"Osda," or "Good," the students encouraged each other. The group included a firefighter from Florida, an academic from Boston, a retired Navy veteran, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and me, a curious journalist, intent on learning more about Western North Carolina's first language.
For the past few months, we've been taking online classes in Your Grandmother's Cherokee, a revolutionary method of learning the ancient language. Barbara Duncan, education director at the Museum of the Cherokee Indians, invited students last weekend to her home in Whittier, a farmhouse with expansive views of rolling pasture and blue sky, the perfect setting to practice a little Cherokee.
It's one thing to see the words created on a computer screen. It's another to hear the words roll off the tongues of living fluent speakers, like Gilliam "Gil" Jackson.
Jackson grew up and still lives in Graham County's Snowbird community - among the Eastern Band's most traditional strongholds. For the past decade, he's taught a language camp for the youngsters in Snowbird. His students are so good, he can drill students to add and subtract using Cherokee. Next year, he'd like to teach algebra and geometry in Tsalagi. But Jackson admits it's an uphill battle. There are only about 100 to 200 fluent speakers among the tribe's 15,000 members, mostly elderly. He knows only of about 50 youngsters who are serious about learning the language. Jackson calls it being hungry.
Why learn to speak a language that has been seriously in decline in the past few generations? That's like asking what is the use of the trillium wildflowers that grow on mountainsides, well away from trails where humans might stop and admire them. Trillium, by the way, has an interesting name in Cherokee or Tsalagi that means thunder and lightning.
And no, I have no Cherokee blood that I'm aware off. I hail from hearty Scotch-Irish and German stock, a long line of dirt farmers who settled in the Carolinas and the Appalachians.
But I am curious about how language and landscape are intertwined. People talk differently in our parts. And not so long ago, the King's English was an alien sound in the mountains.
To talk the talk of the Tsalagi is to walk a ways in the moccasins of a proud people, to catch a glimpse of the way they saw the world around them. The Cherokee left their names on the land they inhabited for centuries before the arrival of Europeans - from Swannanoa to Cullowhee, Cataloochee to Tusquittee, which means "where the waterdogs laughed."
Asheville was once called Tokiasdi, or the "place where they raced," perhaps referring to canoe races at the confluence of the French Broad and Swannanoa rivers.
Cherokee is among the world's 7,000 languages, but linguists estimate half may be extinct by the end of our 21st century. A language may be dying off every 14 days around the world, UNESCO has reported. But the people I sat with Saturday want to make sure their language doesn't die.
Even though Sequoyah devised a syllabary to document the language, a first among Native American tribes, that still doesn't make Cherokee a living language if no one is using it on a daily basis to joke with their kids, talk to their relatives, or dream at night.
Your Grandmother's Cherokee is the brainchild of John "Bullet" Standingdeer, who grew up on the Qualla Boundary. As an adult, Standingdeer was secretly ashamed he couldn't memorize and master Cherokee. For adult learners who know only English, Cherokee's long compound words can sound meaningless. Ask a fluent speaker for help and they can only repeat the words they learned as children. They can't say how the words change tense or meaning.
But Standingdeer kept searching for the logical patterns, and discovered while the words changed, certain sounds or syllables remained constant, offering a clue to underlying structure. For Standingdeer, it was like locating the Rosetta Stone.
Cherokee actually conjugated its long verbs consistently and logically enough for a computer algorithm to predict the forms. Standingdeer applied for and won the patent for that algorithm that is the linchpin to the Your Grandmother's Cherokee website. Cherokee's polysyllabic words work as complete sentences rather than individual nouns and separate verbs.
And Cherokee is much more precise and tactilely nuanced than English and European languages. There are different forms of the word to give for example, if you are handing over a cup of liquid, a bowl, a pencil, or a piece of paper.
It's also interesting to discover what words the Cherokee didn't traditionally use, like "respect." Jackson said respect was something the Cherokee would assume in a person's behavior, not just to pay lip service. Likewise, there is no word for "please" as in "please, help me." The Cherokee assume if you ask for help, you will be given it. No need to beg.
And Cherokee has always been a flexible language, inventing new words with old concepts. When Cherokee first encountered an African elephant, they called it "kamama utanu," or "great buttterfly," since the pachyderm's great ears resembled wings. They are also inventing new words for technology to fit their tradition. "Devil's box" may be the best term I've ever heard for the ubiquitous computer
Jackson applauded the Your Grandmother's Cherokee system. "If you can teach a methodology, then second language speakers will just fly," he said. Eva Garroutte grew up in Oklahoma as an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation. She has spent years listening to fluent speakers, but she couldn't get the hang of it until she encountered Standingdeer and Duncan's system. Her Cherokee name is "Dawa" or "flying squirrel" - the animal that can negotiate between the world of mammals and the sky of birds.
Your Grandmother's Cherokee works like that bridge between fluent speakers and adult learners, said Garroutte, now a Boston College sociologist. "You can figure out something that your ancestors thought centuries ago because they left traces in the language," she said. "It's such an elegant language that does all these cool things. You can spend your life learning it," Garroutte said, who can carry on conversations.
There are other clues as how the Cherokee viewed people as well as the landscape. Anger is a passive construction, something that happens to you like getting sick. Among the emotions as expressed in Cherokee, happiness doesn't just happen. It's an active verb along with being thankful.
The familiar world of Western North Carolina looks a little different to me these days with new words to roll off my tongue, and how the lilt of Cherokee mimics the mountains, the rise and fall of ridges and coves.
My favorite word, so far, in Cherokee?Agwasgwanigoska. "I am being amazed."
How do we know where we are online?
It’s easy to make fun of the Twitter zombies, those lost people head down tapping away on their iPhone as they walk or drive. But truth be told, I’ve bumped into things. I’ve spent minutes transfixed by Steve Jobs’ legacy. The smartphone makes us all look dumbstruck. We are social media suckers, scrolling down, looking for friends for enemies, for our next like, our next outrage. What’s Trump saying now on the stump? Who’s feeling the Bern? Aw, what a cute puppy.
We see our world delivered in bits and bytes and digestible data. We lose sight of our surroundings. We are lost to physical reality with the virtual world in our hand.
I’ve been thinking about place and its importance of it in an increasingly data fragmented world. Google maps will gladly show us the street scene, but how do we understand where we are?
Remember Nature? What do we think when we hike out to a gorgeous vista or up a great trail. Do we automatically take a selfie on top to post to Facebook? Are we conquering the mountain or are we its companions.
I’ve been turning to Barry Lopez, one of our foremost writers and thinkers about place. How do we think about nature.
Here’s Lopez on “A Literature of Place.” These seem like instructions for re-enchanting our world, breathing as animals on our planet, finding the human home in the cosmos.
“How can you occupy a place and also have it occupy you? The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place. If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.
How does one actually enter a local geography? (Many of us daydream, I think, about re-entering childhood landscapes that might dispel a current anxiety. We often court such feelings for a few moments in a park or sometimes during an afternoon in the woods.) To respond explicitly and practicably, my first suggestion would be to be silent. Put aside the bird book, the analytic state of mind, any compulsion to identify and sit still. Concentrate instead on feeling a place, on deliberately using the sense of proprioception. Where in this volume of space are situated? The space behind you is as important as what you see before you. What lies beneath you is as relevant as what stands on far horizon. Actively use your ears to imagine the acoustical hemisphere you occupy. How does birdsong ramify here? Through what kind of air is it moving? Concentrate on smells in the belief you can smell water and stone. Use your hands to get the heft and texture of a place - the tensile strength in a willow branch, the moisture in a pinch of soil, the different nap of leaves. Open a vertical line to the place by joining the color and the form of the sky to what you see out across the ground. Look away from what you want to scrutinize in order to gain a sense of complexity, the sense that another landscape exists beyond the one you can subject to analysis.
A succinct way to describe the frame of mind one should bring to a landscape is to day it rests on the distinction between imposing and proposing one’s views. With a sincere proposal you hope to achieve an intimate, reciprocal relationship that will feed you in some way. To impose your views from the start is to truncate such a possibility, to preclude understanding.”
James Salter died at age 90 in June, almost a year after I gave this lecture at Mt. Holyoke College at the annual Warren Wilson College MFA alumni conference. Since I first encountered his stories 30 years ago, Salter has been the writer who most mattered to me.
The Arrogance of Failure:
On Reading James Salter
“There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.”
James Salter, All That Is
In the summer of 1984, half way into Orwell’s fatal year, at the dawn of Reagan’s supposed Morning in America , the August issue of Esquire arrived in my mailbox. “Take This Magazine on Vacation! The Best of Summer Reading,” The self-referential cover featured two fair-skinned representatives of what were then called Yuppies, a young man and woman snuggling in a beach hammock over the latest issue of the venerable men’s magazine. Beaming at the camera, they had evidently already read the contents and were knowledgable of useful tips for the male of the species to pick out an Oriental rug, properly pack his fly fishing rod, mix a pina coloda or book the best B&B for his next assignation.
But for me, Esquire had gone one further with its first fiction issue, offering not just the motto “Man at His Best,” but my first real tips on “How To Be a Writer.” The cover listed a lineup of heavy hitters whose names I knew and books I had already devoured; Updike, Doctorow, Ken Kesey, the eternally ubiquitous Joyce Carol Oates, all vetted by guest editor Irwin Shaw who had just died that spring.
But there was one author I had never encountered. His thumbnail picture inside did not do him any favors: a mustachioed man in a floppy fishing hat and plaid shirt, like everybody’s unfashionable dad on vacation, a serious mismatch with the elegance of the sentences that followed.
The story was titled “The Fields at Dusk." which began with the line “Mrs. Chandler stood alone near the window in a tailored suit, almost in front of the neon sigh that said in small, red letters PRIME MEAT.”
Mrs. Chandler, Vera her name, is a middle-aged woman living beyond the breakup of her marriage, a hasty love affair with her handy man. The story is set in hunting season, geese flying south in broken formation, shots resounding in the distance. Vera is, of course, wounded in her own way, forever grieving the death of a young son drowned in the sound. The story ends with an image of one of the hunted geese, felled by buckshot, bleeding out in the wet fields. Cut to a woman alone in a beautiful house. “She went around and turned on lights. The rain was coming down, the sea was crashing, a comrade lay dead in the whirling darkness.”
I want to say that the words moving from the page inside of me eclipsed that August afternoon. I looked up and must have blinked. Things looked different. I was different. The unexpected difference that an encounter with art makes in our perception. I dove back in, rereading the story. Who was this guy and how had he worked this spell over me?
Tom Jenks’ succinct biographical note takes a brief measure of the man: “James Salter was born in 1925 and grew up in New York City. He served 10 years in the Air Force, but resigned in 1957 with the publication of his first novel A second novel vanished, Salter said. “Without a trace.” He was then 40, with four children and “did not know what would happen.” Seven years later, he published one of the great literary works of our day. The story of a young American’s affair with a French Girl, “A Sport and a Pastime is a tour de force of erotic realism and displays the sophistication and brilliance that are now his trademark. Throughout his career, Salter has been more appreciated by more serious literary authors than has any other modern American writer. His writing slips almost mysteriously in and out of various characters’ points of view, creating not a single effect, but by the end of each story a multiplicity of effects that carry the reader deep into the meaning of human experience.”
Jenks was right about the other writers’ praise. Richard Ford, Mr. Rock Springs, the Sportswriter himself, would declare: "It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today."
As Susan Sontag observed, “Salter is a writer who particularly rewards those for whom reading is an intense pleasure.”
James Salter of course is an invention. He was born Horowitz, to a successful Jewish family living in Manhattan. He followed in his father’s footsteps, a cadet at West Point, but missed the second World War. He became a pilot in the then Army Air Corps. And once crashed into a suburban New Jersey house on a training mission, the only causality being his pride.
He hankered after the fame he saw in Jack Kerouac, a year or tow ahead of him at the prestigious Manhattan prep school, Horace Mann. When choosing a pen name, he wanted to make a statement, cementing his place in English letters. He wanted to call himself at first "Psalter" with a "P" as in the Psalms, but fortunately was persuaded that may be over the top.
Salter seems like Hemingway without being a jerk, a heroic writer who writes of beautiful lives, of jaunts through Paris and the French countryside, of elegant lives in the best haunts of Manhattan. His first novel turned into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. He would go onto to write screenplays himself, direct movies, pal around with the likes of Robert Redford.
Any summary of Salter’s career makes him sound like the older brother of The World’s most Interesting Man, the tongue-in-cheek shill on the Dos Equis beer commercial, “Stay thirsty, my friends.” The kind of guy, you want to go drink with him or sleep with him, depending on your own predilections.
That impossible resume, the irresistible lyricism spoke to me. In his Esquire note, Jenks didn’t quite come and say it, but I knew I had found my “writer’s writer” in Salter. A “writers writer” is a the left-handed complement, code for someone who can’t sell commercially, only a step away from the cult writer with his feverish fanboys, easily forgotten.
But in joining the sect of Salter, I was making an unconscious bet that I could be a writer as well, even if I failed and fame eluded me as it had Salter for so long. In the intervening 30 years, I would attempt to read anything and everything this man would write.
At Malaprop’s, I found the North Point paperback of “A Sport and Pastime, which Reynolds Price lauded as “nearly perfect as any American fiction I know.” Hard to go wrong with a loose episodic theme: couple fucks their way through France, It remains the most sensuous book I've ever read on sodomy. yet something else more mysterious is going on than scenes glimpsed through a vaseline-smeared soft porn lens. This torrid affair is filtered through the imagination of a first-person narrator who acts as more than just a voyeur, but like a detective of a hidden reality, a shimmering essence underneath flesh. We see a clue in this passage to Salter’s method as a writer, and his effect on the reader:
“Some things, as I say, I saw, some discovered, and some dreamed, and I can no longer differentiate between them. But my dreams are as important as anything acquired by stealth. More important, because they are the intuitive in its purest state. Without them, facts are no more than a kind of debris, unstrung, like beads. The dreams are as true and manifest as the iron fences of France flashing black in the rain. More true, perhaps. They are the skeleton of all reality.” (ASAAP, p. 58)
“A Sport and a Pastime” could be dismissed as a tour de force, a one-off, high class Henry Miller, but his 1975 novel, “Light Years” made me an acolyte at his bright altar of crystalline sentences. I found a first edition in the old Captain’s Bookshelf in downtown Asheville and devoured it, then reread it, then pushed it on all my friends. In 1985, I would write my very first annotation of this book in my application to Warren Wilson, seeking admission into the MFA, following after Salter into this priesthood of prose.
Salter said the book was inspired by a line from Jean Renoir: “The only things that are important in life are those you remember. That was to be the key. It was to be a book of pure recall. Everything in the voice of the writer, in his way of telling. I had a list of sufficiently inspiring titles, Nyala, Mohenjodaro, Esturial Lives. I was writing to fit them, though in the end none survived.”
The story is the close dissection of a marriage, a successful, higher income family living on the Hudson River, making forays into the city. Their daughters grow up, their friends come and go, their love for each other slowly dissipates.
Here, Salter had reinvented himself once more, no longer the military man. In interviews, he said the invention was largely conscious. He had come from such an exclusively male domain, a masculine life, he cultivated in his writing or attempted, a more feminine side.
“Writing is filled with uncertainty and much of what one does turns out bad, but this time, very early there was a startling glimpse, like that of a body beneath the water, pale, terrifying, the glimpse that says: it is there.”
Again that elusive narrator hovering in the background, the first-person observer, the creator, mysterious as Jehovah, that still sure voice, a man invited to their dinner parties, a dining companion, a neighbor, a voyeur, but always a witness to the brilliant wreckage of the years.
There are passages that linger, like Viri shopping for hand-tailored shirts, the lilt of bright dinner conversations, the clink of champagne flutes, the good life to be envied, but the restlessness of love slowly draining away from these relationships. The world is made of bright things, shimmering, but somehow infinitely sad in how it slips away from our warm hand.
"Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco. Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.”
Salter can sometimes read like a sensual litany. There is a romance around the aura of detail he summons. Like well-placed ad for Pottery Barn. But then Salter can sound a note not readily seen in contemporary literature, or at least not since wisdom. Something out of Emerson or Ecclesiastes.
But that easy elegance can be mistaken for a shiny superficiality, and Salter was stung by nasty reviews. The Times Book Review called it "an overwritten, chi-chi, and rather silly novel." Anatoyle Broyard deplored the character's arch names. Viri and Nedra. Salter made the cardinal mistake of answering his critic with a letter. "Come on, Anatoyle.”
The book, which Salter had seen as his bid for a breakout, did not do well, only 8,000 copies or so, even in those halcyon days when novels were still at the culture’s center. E.L. Doctorow would find commercial success, with 200,000 copies sold of his breakout “Ragtime.” And do not think that Salter, a man among men who once painted their kills on the sides of their fighter jets, does not keep score. Salter is that rare writer who takes on ambition and glory, and of course the bitter taste of ashes int he mouth, the toxins of failure, envy, disappointment.
If the American outlook can be summed up in Howell’s observation: Americans love tragedies with a happy ending,” then Salter seems foreign, almost French in his sensibility. Rigorously unsentimental like Colette or Celine, Salter casts a hard clear look on life, rearranging the players into his art. Salter has always insisted that his method is not to invent, but to take from reality. He works from extensive notebooks of what he has seen and heard, in a sense preying even on his closest friends for his art. I was troubled by the New Yorker profile that appeared last year. How much of the detail for Nedra and Viri was lifted from a real-life couple, the Rosenthals, that Salter had known and attended their dinner parties in his Hudson Valley days. “The Rosenthals were amazed, appalled, flattered and offended. Salter had said nothing to them about his work. Had he been writing it all down, discreetly taking notes?”
Yes, he’s made a habit of that. “It makes people nervous sometimes,: said his friend Peter Matthiessen. “You see him writing away under the table.”
How much is stolen or lifted from reality, how much is invented and embellished, these issues concern me as both one of the last surviving American journalists and as a novelist? How much allegiance do I owe to the private lives of others? Does the artist become somewhat of a parasite, a vampire, sucking the shiniest bits of soul from the people around him to serve his art? But those are topics for another paper, for the conversations around the dinner table. (Keep an eye on me. I may be taking notes under the table.)
The literary life of course is not solitary. Writers need other writers, as much as they need readers. Henry James talks with Turgenev, with Howells, with Edith Wharton. Hemingway drinks with Fitzgerald in Paris, talks with Gertrude Stein. Franzen and DFW. Just as this gathering of Wallies has been crucial to my own survival as a writer for half my life now. We rarely hear from readers, but other writers tell us who we are.
In his memoir, “Burning the Days,” Salter pays his tribute to Irwin Shaw, the writer he befriended in Paris, the first real writer he had met.
Salter writes that “the truth was in the beginning, he saw in me the arrogance of failure. I had written two books, but the power I had was that I had accomplished nothing. My strength, like the evil-tempered dwarf’s, was that my name was unknown. He, on the other hand, was a writer of magnitude.”
Shaw would warn his protege, that Salter perhaps relied too heavily on his lyrical talents, while Shaw was a narrative plowhorse.
"Burning the Days” is his memoir, an elliptical account of what he considers worth saying about his life and career. It's been a kind of scripture for me on how to write and survive the writer's life.
I keep rereading over long conversations with the critic and editor Robert Phelps. They met when Phelps had sent him a note in admiration of “A Sport and a Pastime,” intelligent praise. They met and began a correspondence that has been collected in the 2010 book “Memorable Days.”
Phelps would guide his reading, introducing him to Isaac Babel, to Henry Green while downplaying others. “Faulkner is a terrible writer. He may be a genius but he’s a disgraceful writer.” Phelps would say.
According to this critic, the 19th century novel had died with Ulysses, the writer pretending he is invisible, above all his characters.
“It was the voice of the writer, Phelps insisted, that was the first and definite thing. Joyce and Proust with their forays into stream of consciousness and memory, commentary on character’s motivations, instead of portrayal of action, had pushed the novel form into a cul-de-sac.
A second form is the writer speaking through character, inhabiting them, Henry James or Fitzgerald in Gatsby, or John Berryman Henry in the Dream Songs.
The third form of the novel is the confessional, the first person, the writer standing before you.
Salter quotes Phelps: “The original form of storytelling is someone saying, I was there and this is what I beheld. We are coming back to that. The mainstream was story, like the Bible, like Homer.”
Somehow, Salter seems to inhabit all three forms, shifting easily in a third-person omniscience above his characters, diving deep into their psyches, while standing off to the side as a physical witness. He is everywhere and nowhere.
Despite a long life, Salter has not exactly been productive. He turned a screenplay for Robert Redford into a 1979 novel “Solo Faces” about the heroic lives and failures of mountain climbers in Europe’s Alps.
His stories came out as “Dusk” in 1988 and won the Pen Faulkner award.
He revised his early flying novels “The Hunters” (reissued by Jack Shoemaker at Counterpoint in 1997) and “Cassada,” which was published in 2000, a rewrite of his 1961 sophomore flop “Arm of Flesh.”
Then there was the inevitable cookbook, “Life is Weather,” written with his second wife, Kay Salter, an elegant book of days drawing on reminisences and favorite recipes.
Salter has waited his turn, as an apprentice in Paris and the Hudson, as a teacher himself at Iowa Worksop, the writer’s writer waiting for readers. And at age 87, publishing his long awaited novel, his summary of a career. “All That Is.”
You can see Salter combining all of his world, both the military career and the bookish world, the pursuit of both war and women, in the character Philip Bowman, who drifts through New York’s publishing world for a lifetime, from the 1940s up into the 1980s.
The criticisms have followed him, afraid to ever again be accused of writing a silly, superficial book, he toned down the lyricism, what Irwin Shaw had cautioned him against way back in their Paris days.
In its loose episodic blow, the book actually builds to a shocking sexual betrayal that provides the emotional climax I am still ambivalent about.
Bowman is betrayed by a lover with whom he had bought a vacation house in the Hamptons. In revenge, he seduces the woman’s daughter, whisks her away to Paris, has of course the rear entry lovemaking, and abruptly abandons her.
I believe I put the book down, my jaw dropping.
I corresponded with Robert Boswell, my last teacher during my Wally sojourn. He and Toni Nelson had just hosted Salter in a writer’s visit to the University of Houston.
Me: “ I’m not at all sure what I think about Bowman's betrayal of that girl in Paris. A little too cold and cruel, French, maybe, for my Puritanical tastes, and I'm not sure the novel ends so much as fades off. But other than A Sport and a Pastime, I'm not sure that Salter has ever nailed an ending in a novel.”
Boswell’s reply: Salter: Her mother had not only messed him over in matters of the heart, she'd taken his house. Of course, he wants to get even, but I wasn't thinking that way at all when I went with them to Paris. I was just as duped as the girl--one of the most thrilling episodes I've ever read.”
But unlike his protagonist, Salter doesn’t just dump the character. In the penultimate chapter, we see the girl, Anet, later at her wedding day in 1984, then again in Salter’s strange mastery of time, a flashback to the dramatic confrontation of mother and daughter back from Paris, having slept with her mom’s former boyfriend. “He wanted to show you were a little slut. He didn’t have to try very hard. You know, he’s 30 years older than you. What did he do tell you he loved you?”
The novel’s final chapter finds Bowman with yet another woman, frolicking in the sea. But later on land, tending his garden, he catches himself with the realization that under his tennis shorts, he has the legs of old man.
“He was too old to marry. He didn’t want some late, sentimental compromise. He had known too much for that. He’d been married once, wholeheartedly, and been mistaken. He had fallen wildly in love with a woman in London, and it had somehow faded away. As if by fate one night in the most romantic encounter of his life he had met a woman and been betrayed. He had believed in love - all his life he had - but now it was likely to be too late.”
The book trails off with Bowman looking ahead to a trip to Venice, maybe in November. Which leaves me ambivalent. Is that truly “All There Is”?
Bowman, though he fought in the Pacific, is no hero. Nothing seems to deeply change in his personality, which may be Salter’s exact point. No heroics here, only survivors for a time.
And in his last novel, likely his last, this faithful reader saw at last the pattern, a disturbing figure in the carpet. Following the writing of one writer obsessively gives a sense of the more unconscious, unsavory obsessions. Salter is no fan of the mere missionary position. Every woman we see from behind in most every sexual scene. The obsession with anal sex starts raising unsettling questions about Salter. Yes, he is a master of prose, but with that subtle confusion of narrator, character and author, Salter is seen by more than a few female critics as an antiquated throwback to the Rat Pack days of a man’s man’s world where all women are taken not in love but in lechery, and always from behind. (See the online debate between Roxana Robinson and Katie Roiphe “Is James Salter a Sexist.”)
I am aware in writing this essay, in going through my collection of Salteralia and revisiting his influence, that I have fallen prey to hero worship. There’s always that masculine insecurity, the eternally adolescent need for role models: Am I doing this manhood stuff right? Let alone the anxieties of a writer: Will I ever find fame, perhaps a little fortune. Will I be loved and admired?
This sounds blindingly obvious, but I’m not sure that Salter, or for that matter any other writer, or another human being, is a reliable guide for how to live your own life or write your own books. Salter sings of himself, of what he has seen in the world. He is a survivor. I can admire his sensibility, but I cannot steal it through imitation. Writer’s lives serve as warnings. And we can only envy the shiny surfaces of others.
Heroes are by definition, fallen. The flutter of flags, the beating of the heart, in what is a lost cause, a hopeless battle, a last stand. The golden age of the novel is long gone, if there ever was such a mythic realm. We are living in the ruins of Dickens London, Proust’s Paris has crumbled like the madeline cookie, Yoknaptawapha has been paved over with Super Walmarts and Chick-fil-A’s. In “All That Is,” Bowman, who has made his career in publishing novels, reflects: “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened. It had happened gradually. It was something everyone recognized and ignored. All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it. The glory had faded, but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be a part of it, to be in publishing, which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shed shoes owned by a bankrupt man.”
But Salter says this still matters, that amid the faded glory that the literary life is heroic.
“When was I happiest, the happiest in my life? Difficult to say. Skipping the obvious, perhaps setting off on a journey, or returning form one. In my thirties, probably and at scattered other times, among the weightless days before a book was published and occasionally when writing it. It is only in books that one finds perfection, only in books that it cannot be spoiled. Art, in a sense, is life brought to a standstill, rescued from time. The secret of making it is simple: discard everything that is good enough.”
So in keeping with Salter’s method, let me trail off here, rather than end with any grand conclusion. I’ve gathered my episodes, polished them, flung them at you, the audience, suggesting this is “All That is.”
Perhaps what I should say is that James Salter has shown me not how to succeed as a writer, but how to fail and still persist. Following his example has taught me the long toil in this work we do, to encase the fine detail of the world as in amber, to bring out a brilliant shard that suggests a lost wholeness. The life spent trying to make meaning, make literature can be rich and rewarding, but also full of failure and frustration. We drink from a bittersweet cup, ashes always mixed with wine, and we are forever thirsty.
In his memoir, in the chapter titled “Forgotten Kings,” Salter writes of his friend and mentor:
“Somewhere the ancient clerks, amid stacks of faint interest to them, are sorting literary reputations. The work goes on eternally and without haste. There are names passed over and names revered, names of heroes and of those long thought to be, names of every sort and level of importance. Among them is Irwin Shaw’s” he writes.
And I would add among those heroes the name of James Salter.
Mangroves – the name comes from the Arawak people who once thrived across the Caribbean. It means “mangle” in that indigenous tongue. Once you’ve paddled past a million of these mangroves, what the Seminoles called walking trees, sending their arms down into the salted water to take root, to multiply and create thousands of islands out here, you begin to appreciate the seemingly endless maze that is the Everglades.
Two nights out on the water, three days from setting foot on dry land, pitching your tent on platforms known as “chickees,” roofed docks, you begin to feel unmoored, unplugged, off the grid, fingers no longer itching to swipe a screen, to check the email, Facebook and Twitter for the latest tasty tidbit of useless information. You begin to settle into your life.
The charts before you, the mangroves reflected in the perfectly still water, a mirror image of the clouds puffing over the end of Florida.
Then we get lost. It starts with a wrong bearing off the Lane Bay chickee, heading southeast across the bay in search of the close channel that leads to Hell’s Bay. At least that was the plan we had with our friend and guide, Anne.
You get lost by degrees “I think that may be it,” you call from the bow. So Anne rudders the Mad River canoe into a narrow passageway, a few twists and turns and you’re heading steadily northeast, rather than any southeasterly bearing. The sun gets hotter, you keep paddling. You check your charts.
When you come out on a bay again, wondering if this is Hell’s Bay, then off to the north, you see the Lane Bay chickee, its portajohn visible on the dock, we all laugh hysterically, in dismay. We have spent all afternoon, wandering in a big circle
Then we lose sight of the chickee and paddle into another bay. The sun is setting.
Mangrove islands are no friends, their knees high in the water, with nothing but muck for men to step into. What Anne looks for is an island out here in this nameless bay with a mahogany, a tree that needs high ground to thrive. We paddle toward the island, aiming our bow into the overhanging underbrush, toward what looks like a gator slide, a shelf where one of the Everglades’ residents will sun himself, wait for dinner.
I step up onto dry land, and crash in-land, through the thickets of laurel, poisonwood, fern. There’s just barely enough space beneath the mahogany at the center of this small isle to pitch a small tent. My wife and I will spend the night here, while Anne sleeps in the canoe.
We do not sleep well. At night, you can hear a great munching sound outside the tent; we imagine a gator chewing over the remains of some large dinner, the cracking of bones. By daybreak, we can see the water only a few feet away from our perch, lapping at the little dry land here.
We are 24 hours lost, but Anne has sent out satellite transponder signals to her padding partner back in the world. Standing up in the stern of the canoe, Anne is able to get a few bars on her cellphone and call Holly. We have a location point from my Garmin watch, a point of reference, but unable to find our abstraction on any map. Holly is able to pinpoint us and chart us a way back on the map. We are not exactly found, but we are not lost now. We have directions. We are saved.
Getting off course is how discoveries are made, Getting lost is how you find things. Our knowledge, our maps are finite, we expand when we explore. We keep our heads, even when we lose our bearings.
Names are foreboding but important in a wilderness like the Everglades. Hell’s Bay doesn’t sound inviting. “It’s hell to get into and hell to get out of.” One early ranger said.
Figure it's a purgatory even getting to Hell’s Bay.
But there is a paradise in what others would see only as a watery wasteland.
There is now on the nautical charts that Anne paddles by, a new penciled name of a small island in a unnamed bay, west of Lane Bay and north of Hell’s Bay.
Welcome to Neal Key, where we were the first people to camp in the endless maze of mangroves, the labyrinth of bays and lakes and channels, that is the Everglades.
Florida has never been my favorite place, where America seems to drain down, gator farms, and fake mermaids, citrus stands and Anita Bryant, hanging chads back when the 2000 election hung in the balance. The Sunshine State seems to have more than its share of shady business, huckster and con-men, get-rich-quick schemes, dreams of retirement, buying time, cashing in our Golden Years, where we go to wait out death in Amercia.
Down I-95, clogged with RVs and ancient men at the wheel, beyond Disney and its sanitized fairy tales, past the miasma of Miami, driving hard to Homestead, then further down the Florida Turnpike to Highway 1, past the Dade County Correctional Institute, beribboned with razor wire, the washed-up and incarcerated of America’s underclass, the irrigated fields of produce give way to wilderness, you enter the Everglades, the U.S. Largest wild region east of the Rockies. You are in another place - the limestone shelf as Florida’s peninsula turns into the million-acre sponge and land starts drowning.
It’s easy to say there’s nothing here but space and sky and the brown grasses stretching seemingly forever to either horizon. This is salt prairie and if Google Maps hasn’t gulled you completely into a false sense of security, you start thinking Kansas, the fat, flat midsection of America, even as you drive to the end of the East Coast.
The Everglades got its start as a national park in 1947, protected for its ecological importance rather than any striking view. No sublime Grand Canyon, no Old Faithful going off on the hour, no majestic Half-Dome in the distance. Here is water. Water everywhere, flowing a river of grass, always in motion instead of any stagnant swamp. Here is a harsh landscape teeming with life that has learned to take this place on its own terms. Amid the salt prairie, springs up the dwarf cypress forest. Trees that are century old, bonsai’ed, and silvered in the white sun, their roots barely clinging to the limestone shelf that undergirds all of the Everglades, keeping this in the realm of land rather than the Gulf of Mexico.
A roadside sign signals the Park’s 3-foot high mountain, more molehill than any serious peak compared to the Southern Appalachians we’ve driven from, or the younger, rugged peaks out west.
Here, the trees begin cluster into domes out on the prairie, engineered by the alligators. Caught out in the dry season, the reptiles will dig with their front legs and their powerful tails down to the water table to hunker down. Birds come in for a drink and turn into dinner. Trees begin to sprout and take root around the perimeter. An ecosystem takes shape. Trees grow taller around the doughnut while the gator sleeps at the center with dreams of her ancestors, the ancient dinosaurs who swam the shallow sea that once covered this land. Perhaps something deep in the small reptilian brain even remembers the vague age when Florida was a handle to Africa in the supercontinent Pangea, when the Earth was in its infancy.
Our guide Anne said she had started to weep, driving across this landscape for the first time. Perhaps reminded of the marsh land where she had grown up around Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, or the savannahs of Africa, a genetic memory that says you are home, even in a harsh environment where fresh water is at a premium, where hurricanes come to land, and thunderstorms are hatched on the horizon in summer. You are more likely to be eaten alive by mosquitoes at dusk than any alligator.
We have come down to paddle the Glades, four days into the waterways, the mangrove mazes, the bays named and unnamed, to be lost and to lose our civilized shells, to go off the grid. Pioneers had slogged their way here to hunt birds and gators, to fish the ten thousand islands. The Indians before them, Seminole who never signed any peace treaty with the duplicitous United States government, and before them, the midden shells of the Calusa, the fierce people here when the Spanish had washed ashore, sinking into the muck with diseases and epidemics, the ethnic cleansing that had wiped out whole villages, towns, populations and cultures before the white men even came claiming everything for God and greed.
We have come here to lose ourselves, but more of that tale in our next installment.
I came across Ted Solotaroff's essay "Writing into the Cold" way back in my grad days at Warren Wilson College. It was of course news that I didn't want to hear, truths I didn't want to believe – that there are not shortcuts in writing, and that the path I had chosen was not an expressway into any fame or applause. It takes much of a lifetime to even hope for a little mastery in making fiction. And Solotaroff's timetable was eerily accurate for me. Twenty years almost from graduating from Warren Wilson and publishing my first novel.
But I've come to treasure all that time – the reward has been in the writing itself, word after word, page after page, day by day. It does change you.
"The writer's defense is his power of self-objectivity, his interest in otherness, and his faith in the process itself, which enables him to write on into the teeth of his doubts and then to improve it. In the scars of his struggle between the odd, sensitive side of the self that wants to write and the practical, socialized one that wants results, [the writer] is likely to find his true sense of vocation. Moreover, writing itself, if it is not misunderstood and abused, becomes a way of empowering the writing self. It converts diffuse anger and disappointment into deliberate and durable aggression, the writer's main source of energy. It converts sorrow and self-pity into empathy, the writer's main means of relating to otherness. Similarly, his wounded innocence turns into irony, his silliness into wit, his guilt into judgment, his oddness into originality, his perverseness into his stinger. Because all this takes time, indeed most of a lifetime, to compete itself, [the writer] has to learn that his main task is to persist."
-- Theodore Solotaroff, "Writing into the Cold"
Whenever I fret about writing fiction as a worthwhile pursuit for a grown man, or whether journalism will survive another decade, I go back and read Andre Dubus on what's at stake when we sit down and write:
"An older writer knows what a younger one has not yet learned. What is demanding and fulfilling is writing a single word, trying to write le mot juste, as Flaubert said; writing several of them, which become a sentence.
When a writer does that, day after day, working alone with little encouragement, often with discouragement flowing in the writer's own blood, and with an occasional rush of excitement that empties oneself, so that the self is for minutes longer in harmony with eternal astonishments and visions of truth, right there on the page on the desk, and when a writer does does this work steadily enough to complete a manuscript long enough to be a book, the treasure is on the desk.
If the manuscript itself, mailed out to the world, where other truths prevail, is never published, the writer will suffer bitterness, sorrow, anger and more dangerously, despair, convinced that the work is not worthy, so not worth those days at the desk. But the writer who endures and keeps working will finally know that writing the book was something hard and glorious, for at the desk a writer must try to be free of prejudice, meanness of spirit, pettiness, and hatred; strive to be a better human being than the writer normally is, and to do this through concentration on a single word and then another, and another. This is splendid work, as worthy and demanding as any, and the will and resilience to do it are good for the writer's soul.
If the work is not published or is published for little money and less public attention, it remains as a spiritual, mental and physical achievement; and if in public, it is the widow's mite, it also like the widow, more blessed."
Andre Dubus, Meditations form a Moveable Chair
I wrote the following piece back in 2010 just as winter was wrapping up, but the recession was still hitting our region hard. This op-ed essay took on a life of its own, handed around workshops by Erin Stalcup out at Warren Wilson College, and even finding mention in Mars Hill Universitiy professor Kathryn Newfont's prizewinning study "Blue Ridge Commons."
Four years later, it's sad how little has changed.
A long hard winter is finally over if you simply count the days of the calendar, but hard times haven't ended in our country.
I was reminded of that when I took to the woods recently. With the first Sunday warming into the '50s in between our seemingly endless snowstorms in January and February, my Golden Lab, Pearl, was eager to get out, and I'd been feeling the cabin fever, trapped indoors far too long.
Climbing the Daniel Ridge Trail in the Pisgah National Forest, Pearl and I made steady time through the mud, then higher up into the melting snow. Continuing up the adjoining trail to Farlow Gap, the drifts got deeper and I stopped to strap on some gaiters to keep the snow out of my boots.
Pearl and I weren't alone. I could see a series of footprints pointing out the trail underfoot.
We soon found him coming down the trail, a man in a thin coat with a green canvas sack on his back. He had
on boots, but his jeans were soaked to the knees. In broken English, he asked if Pearl was friendly.
My Lab has no bite, just all bark, and she was licking at his hand by this time.
"Seen any galax?" he coughed, evidently sick with a cold.
"Seems like you got the wrong season," I said.
All around us, the ridges were draped with white. Galax was out there, but it was anyone's guess where under
eight inches of snow.
We parted, and about a mile up toward the Art Loeb Trail, I came across his partner, another Hispanic man with soaked jeans and an empty sack. "Your partner's just ahead," I pointed back down the trail.
Both men seemed a little scared of my dog, but even more rattled by the unfamiliar woods they found themselves in. I had to wonder what deeper anxiety drove them up the mountain that day, perhaps fears about a family going a little hungry or without warm clothes or paying the bill to keep the lights on in a little mobile home in a trailer park.
That was the last we saw of them that day.
I don't know if those two men had a permit to pick galax, which is now required in the National Forest. I don't know nor really mind if they had legal papers to be in our country. All I know is they seemed desperate enough to hike miles through the snowdrifts for a few plants that would pay only pennies per leaf, if they could find them.
Later, I called up Jeanine Davis at the North Carolina Horticultural Research Station in Fletcher, the area's premier expert on most every herb growing wild in our mountains. The payoff isn't that much, she confirmed.
Galax, an evergreen perennial used as decoration by florists, only fetches about a few pennies per leaf on the wholesale market. Some dealers may pay as much as $1.85 for 25 leaves, Davis said.
But Davis sees more and more folks are taking to the woods, trying to scrounge a few dollars. "They're underpaid or unemployed, so they're going back to old traditions. The only problem is where people are pulling up the whole plant, instead of just picking the leaves. They're causing a lot of damage," Davis said.
Those old traditions and the desperation that sometimes drives them came up again for me, reading Ron Rash's story collection, "Burning Bright." In one story titled "Hard Times," set in the Great Depression, Rash spins a tale about a mountain family gathering galax to keep food on the table. The story's main character catches one of the starving children stealing eggs from his henhouse. How he catches her provides
the hook and sharp horror of Rash's story.
In the end, the man lays himself down to a restless sleep. "He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was."
The calendar may have turned to spring, but the hard winter of our American discontent and the effects of the Great Recession aren't past for many folks. When I think of the Great Depression, I automatically see Walker Evans' searing portraits of Alabama sharecroppers, their worn faces showing the toil of poverty, of hard times.
In the Great Recession, I'll carry the portrait of two galax gatherers, poorly clothed against the snow, coming back down empty−handed.
Novelist, journalist, backpacker, aficianado of all things Appalachian.