The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Views and Reviews: Barbara Knott


Review of Christopher Blake’s RIVER OF CLIFFS:

A Linville Gorge History

The Linville Gorge area of northwestern North Carolina, comprising some 12,000 acres under the management of the U. S. Forest Service, was designated a part of the National Wilderness System in 1964 and finally expanded to its current size in 1984. Called Eeseeoh by the native Cherokees, the place name was translated into English as “River of Cliffs.” The Cherokee word sounds to me like a great outcry such as might have been given on first sighting the “gorgeous” views of river, cliffs, forest, and strikingly varied mountain peaks.

River of Cliffs is an invitation to enter this North Carolina wilderness, to experience its adventures mindfully and carefully. Here Christopher Blake as editor offers a collection of “American colonial reports, travel writings, diaries, fiction and numerous archival records”—so many recorded pieces of observation and interest (33 in all), from the Spangenberg Diary of 1752 (twenty-three pages from the pen of a Moravian bishop passing through in search of land for the brotherhood to settle on) to his own contemporary journaling—all cultural treasures that gain much in value by being clustered with their kind.

Blake brings to the project considerable skills in writing and research as well as his youthful experience in Outward Bound and military special forces training in the area. He has lived near Linville Falls since 1993. In 2006, Friends of Linville Gorge, a nonprofit wilderness group headed by Blake, based in Linville Falls and “dedicated to Gorge preservation and public safety and education,” contracted with the U. S. Forest Service’s Adopt-a-Trail program to perform year-round maintenance in designated areas. He knows this place well.

In his book, Christopher Blake writes about one of the few remaining locations where humans can be re-introduced to a thriving wilderness, a terrain that has proved too daunting for human “development,” a place where a sense of the sacred still can be felt. A retired college English instructor, Blake does more than edit these texts. Through his own writing, he leads the reader into and out of the Gorge with generous attention to details, with an attitude of respect and reverence. In his Introduction (20-1), Blake tells us:

There is an indefinable quality about the Gorge that lures one with a deep sense of connectedness to wild space. A person quietly attentive to its features may come to feel a deep sense of oneness with nature here, as though the forest and peaks had just emerged from the shaping hands of their Creator.

His personal descriptions are richly poetic: Every encounter with the Gorge and the Falls seems to leave me with a welter of vivid impressions: … Knobby roots of the rhododendrons clutching the black forest loam. Ripples and slivers of milky quartz undulating through the mossy granite. And the sheer monoliths whose smooth sides glisten with spring water or loom high overhead, speckled with hoary olive lichen.

Such writing goes into and comes back from the landscape, creating a vibrant sense of place that still leaves the reader to find the authentic experience of being bodily there. He insists, The collection of pictures and words I have gathered here do not aim to reproduce that unique authentic experience. And he adds this observation:

Appreciation for such experiences, however, can be heightened by an awareness of what others have left in the way of testimonial to their wonder and respect for the place. This collection, then, serves as an introduction to and a record of one of the earth’s enchanted places, forbidding yet delightful: Linville Falls and the Linville Gorge Wilderness area.

One of the accounts, “Gingercake Mountain,” comes from J. Alex Mull in the 1970s, looking back over his lifetime of acquaintance with the landscape and its lore to give us this picture of contentment:

Sitting on the porch of a 150-year-old, hand-hewn log cabin, on the rim of a mountain old as time itself, and looking out into the haze of the distance over a veritable ocean of mountain peaks as far as the eye can see, gives me a feeling of awe and serenity; a feeling of humble faith in something greater than man; a sense of promise for the future that the daily news of man’s actions threatens to destroy, a belief that things will come out all right somehow, sometime, and renewal of the spirit of body and soul.” (201)

That is the perspective of peaceful contemplation from an edge of wilderness. And Mr. Mull tells some intriguing tales.

The more spectacular accounts given by Blake include one entitled “The Lost Airmen of Jonas Ridge,” where we learn about an airplane crash that occurred May 15, 1943, when 18 young members of the Army Air Crops, trained at Ft. Benning, Georgia, were on their way to Cincinnati, Ohio, to join forces for the Normandy invasion of WWII. Their Douglas C-47 D plane known by the men as “Goony Bird” entered the mountainous terrain flying through “pea-soup fog” where the plane crashed and exploded, killing all aboard. The piece includes lots of interesting local lore about that and a personal trip by Chris Blake to the crash site with an investigator many years after it happened.

Blake’s own perspective on the Gorge began to take shape early in his life and can be found in two chapters relating his high school experiences with the North Carolina Outward Bound School. An outline of the solo piece of the training, given in conjunction with a list of minimum and precise equipment for survival alone in the landscape, includes this alert about exploring capabilities in the wilderness:

You must accept the fact that you live in an environment which, unlike a city or town, is not designed for you if you make urban demands on it. However, if you observe what it is and has to offer and adapt your life to its circumstances intelligently, you can live comfortably for an indefinite length of time. You must discover what is possible in terms of the terrain and the simplest and most efficient pattern of life it permits. There is no virtue in being uncomfortable because you did not take the trouble to find out how to be comfortable. Once you accept the wilderness for what it is, you can begin to find your place in it. (185)

One of my favorite pieces is Blake’s story about someone who found her place in the Gorge wilderness much earlier. He writes about the life of Jane Blalock Holtsclaw (1848-1929), a Cherokee wisewoman and healer, one among those who managed not to be removed in the infamous Trail of Tears march to the West, whose story was told to Chris Blake by her great-great-great niece Kayla Holtsclaw Wilson. Blake gives plentiful information about her ways, emphasizing her solitude and her trekking the wilderness for weeks and even months at a time to collect herbal remedies for her holistic work in healing.

He includes related information from his research in James Mooney’s 1891 study, Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, an account of rites attending the ceremonial picking of ginseng, known to the locals now as “sang.” Mooney reports that the healer addresses the mountain as “Great Man” and asks leave to take a piece of his flesh (the plant) … and goes on to elaborate: In searching for his medicinal plants the shaman goes provided with a number of white and red beads, and approaches the plant from a certain direction, going around it from right to left one or four times, reciting certain prayers the while. He then pulls up the plant by the roots and drops one of the beads into the hole and covers it up with the loose earth. According to Blake, Moody’s conclusion is that “it’s likely the bead is to compensate the earth for the violation of tearing plants from her body.” (Blake, 241-2)

With that image in mind, I would like to discuss briefly why Christopher Blake’s River of Cliffs: A History of Linville Gorge is so welcome by The Grapevine Art and Soul Salon. Its publication and launch are directly synchronistic with the mounting of Issue 20 of The Grapevine, where our main theme is wilderness and the wild as seen through many eyes including those of Henry David Thoreau, born almost exactly two centuries ago, on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts, who uttered these words: In Wildness is the Preservation of the World—words selected for the title of a wonderful coffee table book that came to me many years ago, one that combines sayings of Thoreau with photographs of Eliot Porter.

Blake’s Outward Bound project literature from 1967 is a foundational precursor for the work being done nowadays by wilderness mentors who have returned to the landscape with learning from indigenous people, psychologists, ecologists, and even poets to lead group and solo questing adventures designed to find authentic self, to integrate the psyche wounded by separation from its source in Nature. The value of the Blake book can be better appreciated, I think, in the context of movements that today are giving us new vocabulary such as ecopsychology and spiritual ecology.

One such group is the Animas Valley Institute founded by Bill Plotkin whose several books describe in detail the value of taking not only youth but adults as well into wilderness settings for guided learning about self in relation to Nature. In one of them, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche,” he quotes Rilke (33):

If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted like trees.

That tiny detail from Plotkin’s book contains a kernel of vision that serves Plotkin’s mentoring as well as underscoring the need for a book like River of Cliffs We can’t have too many reminders of where we need to go.

Another writer whose work nurtures interest in the relation of self and world is David Abram, author of Becoming Animal, where we find an intriguing reminder (18), “The self begins as an extension of the breathing flesh of the world ….”

River of Cliffs also calls to mind something from Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous where, near the end of the book, he makes the point that we live in a time in which humans are destroying themselves through warfare, the callousness of corporate greed, and rapidly spreading indifference. Archetypal psychologist James Hillman is quoted on the cover of Abram’s book: “I know of no work more valuable for shifting our thinking and feeling about the place of humans in the world.” It is a call to come again to our senses, to become again fully a part of the more-than-human earth, where our flesh begins and where it must return, to find our kinship and reprocity with the many bodies and voices of the world. Abrams gives this encouraging and challenging comment about the growing movement:

Individuals with the most varied backgrounds and skills—farmers, physicists, poets, professors, herbalists, engineers, mapmakers—have all been drawn toward the practice that some call “reinhabitation.” They have begun to apprentice themselves to their particular places, to the ecological regions they inhabit. (271)

Christopher Blake began his apprenticeship in his youth and has never strayed far from it. As writer, professor, mapmaker, herbalist, adventurer, he has this year brought to us a wonderful collection of historical pieces woven with skill and vividness for our enjoyment, for healing, and for the preservation of the world.

Holding my copy of Christopher Blake’s River of Cliffs, I am reminded that books are made of leaves we turn in our hands and caress with our eyes while entering the forest of another person’s mind and heart, and that a tree was felled somewhere to make these leaves, and even further, that this writing and this reading create a reciprocity in which nature may be compensated for its sacrifice of the tree.

If only that could be said of the clear cutting of whole forests throughout the world, driven by need in terms of human population growth, but also by greed, and largely wasted on human products dedicated to urban requirements and whims, where we lay waste to old and new growth alike to create a literal wasted land matched, as T. S. Eliot so memorably described, by a interior wasteland. Increasing awareness of the human tendency to destroy without replenishing the earth’s resources makes me increasingly grateful for signs of movement among humans to bring out what we need to know about living in such a way that we have a place to live tomorrow and a life worth living. One such stirring of movement is this history of Linville Gorge.

Blake ends his Introduction with this praise:

When readers compare the old-time accounts with their own impressions of the Falls and the Gorge, they will be pleasantly surprised at how the area has managed to retain its power to produce emotions of awe and wonder. Ultimately, that is the wild glory of this place, this Land that Time forgot; its primordial tracts await the explorations of generations to come.

Our author speaks with confidence that generations to come, like generations of the past, will be explorers rather than exploiters of this terrain because the challenging Earth will make it so. May it be that the very existence of a few such places and our desire to escape to them when we can will lead us into awareness necessary to turn our direction from destruction to creative and compassionate living that leans toward the good of all species, human and otherwise.

Note: For some big moving pictures of the gorge, readers can take a look at Michael Mann’s 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans starring Daniel Day-Lewis, in which the grandeur of Linville Gorge and environs was selected by film makers to stand in for J. F. Cooper’s western New York State of the French-Indian War era. Blake (#32) is specific about scenes at Linville Gorge that appear in the film.

Copyright 2017, Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.