The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon
Views and Reviews: CHRISTOPHER BLAKE
LETTER FROM THE WILDERNESS
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the nation's Wilderness Act, setting aside portions of wild America to be henceforth "untrammeled" by human impact. North Carolina's Shining Rock and Linville Gorge received this "wilderness area" designation and with it protection from development, motorized traffic, and overuse.
The U.S. National Park Service oversees the Linville Falls Recreation Area off the Blue Ridge Parkway at the head of the gorge. The U.S. Forest Service manages the wilderness gorge proper, now some 21,000 acres located below the park and falls. A Forest Service map guides hikers and campers through 41 miles of official trails. There are over 100 miles of unofficial trails published on the Internet. Living in the woods near Linville Falls, I work together with a group called Friends of Linville Gorge to maintain these trails.
Service to the people prompts many a gorge outing that may involve trailwork: simple (pruning) to moderate (sapling removal) to difficult (dead hemlock removal, 300- to 400-year-old giants killed by invasive hemlock woolly adelgid). The work is breathtaking in more ways than one, so my outings have a rhythm that includes breaking for meditation/contemplation sessions. One of the many insights from these sessions is this one: True wild cannot, by definition, be mediated, reproduced, digitized, substituted or commercialized, for it is yet a major source of the authentic being, the Self, a place where Ego is demobilized and sent to the rear in blissful heeding to Nature’s way.
Aeons ago, Linville Gorge was formed by the tectonic impact of Eastern America colliding with western Africa. In other words, a geological upthrust scooped this canyon between two Blue Ridge mountains: Linville Mountain runs north-south on the gorge's west side; Jonas Ridge runs south from Gingercake Mountain. At the top are 90-foot waterfalls and "plunge basin." Watered by the wild Linville River, bursting from the hoary peaks of one of earth's oldest mountains, called Grandfather, the canyon rears up several eerie mountain peaks from its edge, notably Table Rock and the Hawksbill (named for its resemblance to the profile of that fowl).
This October, the North Carolina Outward Bound School will celebrate its 50th anniversary at the base of Table Rock. Using the demanding terrain of the "wildest area east of the Mississippi" the school develops teamwork and character building in its diverse students. I attended the fourth session after the school opened in June 1967. Asheville High School released me for the month of October to join the all-male (many of them juvenile offenders), Class #4. One of the highlights in the course was the "Solo" in which each of the students was led into a glade of blooming rhododendrons beside a babbling brook and left to be his own lookout for four days.
In the 1967 Outward Bound promotional film Solo, instructor Lance Lee cautions students that if they come away from the gorge back to the city with nothing but map and compass skills, they will have failed. "FEEL the permanence of the stone as you consider the nature of flux and change all around you." He calls for deepening mindfulness here.
I speak of the Linville area because, over the years, I have let it perk down into my psyche. Living so close, I can cook, read books such as The Enchantment of the Wild and watch films such as one on Jung’s The Red Book, examined by Murray Stein, before the next day's trek. Where that will lead is a matter of whimsy.
I am NOT much of an explorer. That archetype flourishes in the wilderness; one gains the right to name the place, a custom that Joseph Campbell connects to the Norse “land-namen.” I have thought about archetypal psychologist James Hillman's take on the Hercules personality viz-a-viz Linville Gorge. Heroic Hercules clubs and wrestles situations into conformance with ego values. I can recollect young Herculean males boasting about conquering wilderness. In a mood of opposition, they pitch their young strength and agility into the wilderness meeting as an agon, or contest. This can lead to a Plains Sioux style of heroism or to Achilles among his Myrmidons: masculine glory, the cultus of conspicuous action. Such a perspective on entering the gorge also can leave youngsters dead or paraplegic.
What I'm saying here is that wilderness gives back what you bring to it. Alpha males and females both aspire sometimes to match themselves against the wild by high-profile, social media-related daredevil stunts like kayaking over the falls. Like the Hindu goddess Kali, the river harvests human lives annually. On the other hand, she is prolific of life; mycologist Pete Whelihan avers that species down in there are growing to abnormal sizes.
Positively speaking, Powerhouse-wild Hercules helps us heed poet Walt Whitman's need to "pull the locks off the doors/tear the doors off their jambs" of routine awareness. Often a mesmeric call bids visitors to strip down in the wild, as I do sometimes in the gorge, or as my friend Pete's neighbor tells of himself way out west in the Great Smoky mountains, sitting there in the buff on a rock in mid-stream.
Dare we be ourselves in the wild mode? Through Whitman’s busted-down doors pour the undomesticated gods and daimones, the numinosity of place: spirits of fresh bubbling springs on the lip of Appalachia and old growth forest with strange mists and silence. Clearly the experience is calling to something inside, some body-knowledge. Another perspective: In the lap of the Goddess Patentia, or Saint Patience, one may, like William Wordsworth with the grandeur of the Lake Country smiting his sensorium, experience a lasting vision through stilling awhile the ceaseless chicken-babbling of daily wakening.
What I love to do is shuffle along in the sunlight and breezes in the spirit of Nietzsche’s dictum, “One has only to be simple and natural to have it all,” while I gather wind-fallen twigs, cones, bark shards, and spread this matt-moss in the trail bed along with fresh green clippings from baby oaks and tall Carolina Pines, cat briar vine or Smilax (named for a character in Ovid’s Metamorphosis) which folks in Georgia and North Carolina call “Wait-a-Minute-Vine.” This vine grows umbrella-like in a leafy web over the laurel and rhododendrons, and though snipped or flush-cut right on the ground, it cannot be killed so easily. To cut encourages growth—a strange kind of nature mulling to do in the gorge. All this detritus builds up the trail bed, which runs between rain bars—like parallel bars in a wild gym—to become a living humus walk. These paths take on a strange, sometimes unsettling Tolkein quality, with curled trunks of shrubbery massed around tremendous old-growth oaks and mountain magnolias, alpine sister of the glossy belle Atlanta variety.
One can introduce some Zen consciousness into the woods by this conspicuous trail-making—little leaf bridges, stone creek fords that pour gushing fresh creek water over a cave formed by the dried cavernous root-ball of a great dead hemlock caught against another some 60 feet above. Percussion and woodwind and rattling instruments lend themselves wonderfully to experience in the wild. The gorge is filled with freshly-ozoned cool air off Lake James (seen in the 1993 film Last of the Mohicans). Year round, the mist tufts hang over the busy little river, then seep through the pines and shrubbery. A Floating World, or the Japanese "Uki-oyi" mood can settle over one confronted with such 19th century woodblock print scenery.
Hunters and fishers have their days in the wild. You can hear dogs baying down the flanks of the canyon in autumn. Other wilderness visitors include fundamentalist Bible readers like the one I encountered while going down the Bynum Bluff Trail chattering with two witty blonde women friends. He told us if we were to be quiet just a while, we might hear the voice of the Lord. I thought of telling him how this place was my own wild chapel where I minded my own business and so might he … but I let the wilderness speak for itself.
Sometimes down in there I meet the lost ones; for example, a man way out on the craggy mid-gorge pinnacle called Babel Tower in winter around 5:00 p.m. by the last smudgy pink of the sun:
"Dammit," he cries, "I lost two hours on that Sandy Flats Trail." I look at his map.
"Dude," I say, "you're using the out-of-date 1985 Forest Service map. That trail's been officially closed for four years now. Unmaintained! This is the end of the Babel Tower Trail; exit here." I had a flashlight to guide me. He risked a broken neck on the boulder fields.
The Joseph Campbell lesson (I nearly wrote lesion) I relearned from that encounter is: "Nature is always reverting to herself. Log footbridges come and go over the decades. There are giant metal eye-pins in rock where the Spence Ridge Trail comes down from the east side. One crosses to the spacious mid-river rocks on the remains of a Forestry footbridge. The log footbeam remains; railings have been torn off. The western side of the bridge now rests miles down the river. When it floods down here, the Linville becomes a vicious brown boa climbing 12 to 15 feet high up the bank and leaving jetsam of river cane, flip-flops, deck chairs, and soda cans high in the tree limbs.
Another time, there was a young woman trembling in the winter dusk; her little terrier was terrified by the lost-and-afraid vibrations she was giving off. She was almost out of the gorge, at the end of the long flat level ridgeline of Bynum Bluff. It was about dark and in mid-winter. She was dressed for July in Atlanta.
"How do I get back down to the river and find my way again to the Pine Gap Trail [next one north and the official top-end of the gorge]?" I could feel dark goddess Kali waiting for another live one out there, in the gloom-gathering abyss. The wild is hungry, "dying to take you away, take you away" on a "Magical Mystery Tour" of Otherness and mind-altering yet neck-breaking possibilities.
"Do NOT go back down in there, miss. Here, you are out of the gorge. This is a clear and wide trail out to a parking lot and the dirt highway where you will take a right." So off she went.
Yet again, two girls hitchhiking the wrong way on the dirt highway got lost in the Forest Service area. I gave them the two-mile ride north, back through the wild hamlet of Linville Falls to the Blue Ridge Parkway and their SUV, lonely sole vehicle in the nighttime parking lot.
You may well be asking by now, "What about bears and snakes?" To invoke once again the shade of the late Joseph Campbell, let me introduce you to the “delicate liminal qualities” of Bobby the Bear. In the Greco-Roman pagan outlook, the bear is sacred to Artemis and thus figureheads the wild, with other power-beasts such as eagle and panther. He would have been licked into shape by his mother, as Pliny would have noted in his "Natural History," that Roman casebook of ancient imaginings about the wild.
I met Bobby one summer evening, coming up a narrow rocky ridge spur that runs from the dirt highway on the gorge's west side to the river. There, under the wheeling constellations around 9:00 p.m., appeared an aperture into the mountainside. I flashed in an instant on Irish fairy caves, the German Venusberg, Peer Gynt's earl-king hall. The three-foot wide depthless black disk shone like anthracite.
Suddenly I heard a loud huff, and it sounded as if a great boss Bull or baby Orca had drawn a scenting snuff. Bobby’s nose says more to him than his eyes. He got my scent. Like Mr. Rogers, I talked baby talk to him: "Hi, there! What's your name?” He rose to his full challenging bear height and his stature was some shiny, giant, pumped-up stuff.
A frightened male bear can clear cut the forest like a small robot German army tank. I once watched a panicked bear go right to left maybe 30 feet higher up the bank, splintering the woods in this way. He scrambled up beside a protruding granite crag to vanish into the forest shrubbery.
Bobby was headed down to grub. The next day, hikers might see the telltale moist patches in the river clay where he would have flipped 50-pound stones to expose newt eggs and other riverbank life. I see baby rattlers when I lift stones—but I digress. This 550-pound lone male brute bruin pirouetted in air over the hollow log he had been standing on and thrashed the jungle of shrubbery to vanish up to his personal turf, known fondly by me now as "Bobby Land," not far from the picturesque little forestry info Cabin on the dirt road.
Bobby calls us to meld with the hunter and fisher psyches; indeed these are gateways to the labyrinths of the wild underworld. They bring back Cro-magnon and Neanderthal imaginings, posturings, dialogues, mythemes to meld with pioneer Americana. Whenever the Friends of Linville Gorge lead newcomers out for their first experience of the wilderness, namely the cliffs' edges, there are signs from Bobby letting us read his menu and proof of his continued existence.
Bobby’s appearance invites us to consider the psychic equipoise attained by maintaining domicile in two adjacent U.S. Federal public recreation areas with critically different usage systems in place. On the Parkway or at the Falls, which compose a National Park, prison terms could await anyone picking a weed, much less killing a snake or bear. North Carolina pays rental fees to the Feds to be able to stock the wilderness forest below the park with non-native trout and, when occasion demands, outside bears.
I once passed a Native American crouching with a pump shotgun in the mythic Borderlands, at the very U.S. geological survey line demarcating the two agencies' lands. What could I say to the bronze hunter but to put a forefinger of silence to my lips (the gesture of god Harpocrates in Alexandrian Hellenistic mythology) indicating I had nothing to say to a "Bobby-Killer.” Waiting for Bobby is the Beckettian drama of life and death played out here every year. For you see, Bobby slips into a nice Hermetic liminality by crossing boundaries and ensuring another year’s avoidance of an archetypal bear sacrifice.
Holding onto my totem animal image, my own bearlike qualities come to the fore in broken dirty claw-like finger and toenails, a tendency to fall on my belly at clear water springs and in slurping, in moving by starlight on the familiar paths, or following the glowworms under arching tunnels of rhododendrons.
For years, I repeated to visitors like a mantra, "It's just the way the Indians left it," until daily familiarity made me aware of so many other things to say. The last time Pete and I went down the 1,200 foot Devil's Hole Trail, there was but one soda can at the massive main fire pit. Here's where we saw the colossal Jack o' Lantern clusters back in the mid-'90s—they glow green in the dark. Pete was stunned at the enormity.
As in Mycenaean Greece, as in Sligo, Ireland, nature everywhere demands personification in human reality structuring, demands her voice and narrative. The gorge abounds in myths, legends, science fiction, paranormal events, Green Beret and jet fighter trainings that I can "pull up on mindscreen." Let me relate briefly here an episode from the history of Linville Gorge.
The leader of the party of long-hunters, old Captain Linville, wakes from a dream in the drizzle of early morning on the river, a dream of the party's imminent extinction by a Shawnee ambush. He says, "Wake up boys, and to arms. We are taken . . . and I have dreamed I am slain," as a French musket ball in the chest flattens him back to the earth's floor. So Linville fell—in an incident I wish had been brought to the attention of J.B. Rhine, ESP experimenter at Duke University.
There are also visitors from other continents, and—who knows—other worlds. The late Bea Hensley informed me back in 2002 that he had seen the famous Brown Mountain Lights darting up the riverbanks; local legends hold that they are visitors from the Beyond, an old slave searching for his master, and even the souls of slain Cherokee and Catawba warriors.
I recall what Allen Ginsberg once said about LSD. "It inhibits the conditioned reflex." The gorge does that druglessly. The cold earth, when you lie on it—as Faulkner writes—is always trying to draw back the life-spirit, the vital humors in the blood, back into the numb ever-mulching earthiness of nature. Thus perceptions are finely sharpened. Doggies' noses moisten and quiver at the unfamiliar spoors. And then, amazingly, one later finds oneself outside the gorge, bonding with the city parks of Atlanta and the green spaces growing in Manhattan. My yard in Linville Falls is a wildlife refuge, but so is an Upper East Side condo balcony or roof with a tree branch and some water. These are wild microcosms we build to remind us of our roots in the natural world.
Nowadays, exploring calls for one to be the first in with the GPS instead of a radiant William Blakean eye. And this leaves me thinking, nowhere on this earth anymore might one gaze at a sky free of jet airliners and cell phone satellites and shuttles and blinking space stations. Living nearby the gorge today does permit me to visit at the times when there are hardly any other visitors, especially winter. I can fantasize I am Saint Francis or D. Boone down in there; but I don't sentimentalize the wildlife as "Grizzly Man" did in Werner Herzog's documentary film. There's nothing hell-bent on killing you per se, but intrusive carelessness brings prompt feedback from mama bears and copperheads.
I don't light fires in the gorge and am so spoiled that I have camped there only once in the last two decades. For those who do, I recommend dousing your worn-down fire with bucketfuls of spring, creek, or river water and then stirring ash and re-pouring. Many wildfires result from unextinguished campfires. Let’s remember that fact as we depart any of the great wild areas including, all over Georgia: Cloudland Canyon, Tallullah Gorge and the Georgia coastal islands, the swamps, and Appalachian Trail. I can only speak of these local places. Anywhere else, I am subject to grossly embarrassing greenhorn lapses in wildcraft.
My peaceful invitation to groove on wild and mazy trails.
Copyright 2017, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.