May, 2002, Volume 9 Nr. 9, Issue 105
Contemplating Dead Warriors and the
Greg BradyFrom "Hiking Trails of the Smokies", description of Caldwell Fork Trail in the Cataloochee Valley:
I walk through these woods almost 137 years to the day this valley held 600 union and an unknown number of Confederate troops fighting for the rights of people, or was it the land, or just an 1860's version of wilding fun or just plain old something to eat? I'll never know, and I don't really care what the reasons were, standing here at the graves of three soldiers. A side trail barely visible, just a 1-foot wide break in the fern, moss and wildflowers that line the trail, indicate something different and the path to the graves.
The graves do not have a sign, but are simply marked by a pile of rocks and a lone Holly tree, with no berries. Hollies need a mate to berry, to produce fruit. I wonder if the families of those soldiers brought that holly to mark the spot. I have not seen any other hollies in these woods. I wonder if the parents of those soldiers were able to come here to see the gorgeous valley their sons were laid to rest in. I am glad there are not 1000 hungry men with rifles in this valley today. It is quiet, birds sing once in awhile, the wind can be heard in the treetops, and as I wind down the trail the sounds of Caldwell Fork fade in and out, a pure mountain stream, cleansing, feeding, nurturing these living things. Salamanders, millipedes, butterflies, snakes, deer, red squirrel, coyote, bear and other beasts still live here. Reintroduced turkey and elk roam around. A ranger said he saw a Mountain Lion in these parts in 1972, but none have been spotted since.
Hard to believe this valley held 1000 or so men at war and has very little to witness that event, just this pile of rocks and an odd holly. Who won that war matters not a rats ass to the wild things left here. Later on continuing up to the present other wars raged here and in other parts of the world. In both the human versus human and the constant war of growing-the-economy versus nature, the victims are often the trees. The deforestation of Vietnam with napalm and herbicide must have been a terrible hell to witness for anyone who loves nature. The ideals of the human manifest destiny over the natural world are hard for a tree hugger like me to fathom.
From "Hiking Trails of the Smokies", description of Baxter Creek Trail located in the Big Creek Valley the next valley north of Cataloochee Valley:
It must have looked like hell with a million and a half feet of spruce rotting on this steep slope. As I walked down the steep trail from Mount Sterling I was amazed by the diversity of the trees, poplar (tulip trees), beech, spruce, hemlock, fir, chestnut, maple, magnolia and still others. So many Rhododendrons a northeast gardener would wet their pants with joy. A few more weeks and these mountains will look like some irradiated florist shop, and I guess that's what it is, naturally irradiated by the sun. At the higher elevations moss covers the downed trees and fir seedlings spring out of the rotting stumps. Topsoil is so precious up here and the earth so bursting with life, even trees that haven't turned into soil yet become a potting mix. Wildflowers, moss and fern lined all the trails I hiked on these warm April days. Trillium, iris and so many others; I am ashamed to admit my ignorance of their names, but I am going to get a book, this type of study is what one should spend their time on. The whole 6 mile long, 4500 foot vertical down hike, while hard on the feet and legs was soft on the eye and mind. I recalled a stanza from a poem Czeslaw Milosz wrote about a city, but I found it so appropriate for the random patterns of nature,
I am always the most amazed by nature in its randomness. Maybe this is the essence of existence artists such as Pollack and Picasso struggled toward.
The diversity of nature is so mind boggling no artist, poet or songwriter has yet captured more than a glimmer of its splendor, and I find that reassuring. Offering a humbling lesson in the limitations of our frail human selves. Why we try so hard to remove ourselves from nature in suburbia where I live is puzzling to me. I find the practice of hiring someone to landscape your yard quite bizarre. The only piece of nature one has to work with is left in the hands of others. Native species are passed up for the exotics in some weird ego trip of land domination. Mowing and growing the grass becomes some twisted form of earth worship. I don't get it. I like weeds, I like randomness, diversity. Uniformity and orderliness are ugly to me, just more signs, like highway billboards of this human ego trip of domination.
But I diverge, just another war, the war of the attention span, and out here in the mountains it is always wonderfully lost. Something catches your eye and the mind is gone in some other direction. The mind absorbs the streams out here and emulates them. The mind becomes a flowing stream of consciousness seeking the lowest level, simplicity. But, as with all streams, swirls, snags, eddies and falls are encountered. Many rocks are bounced off of but the mind like the water just keeps going on.
From "Hiking Trails of the Smokies", description of Boogerman Trail:
I was required to have 2 years of American History to graduate High School, but a class on the natural history or geography of New Jersey was not offered until college and was strictly an elective. We would have a one-day field trip to the beach at Sandy Hook to try to grasp the enormity of the mechanisms that continued to shape where we lived. We consume this world with fervent gusto and waste like so much snack food at halftime of the Superbowl and we still have only an inkling of how the mechanisms in nature make it work. Most of the people I know could name all the major league baseball teams, but not more than 5 types of trees.
On the 12-hour ride home from the Smokey Mountains to New Jersey, we were able to always get a station dedicated to only sports or religion on the radio. There were no shows on nature. Along Interstate highways 40 and 95 in North Carolina and Virginia we passed millions of smaller trees all at least second growth. Lumbering and farming were and are still carried on right up to the 50 foot or less highway buffer. Still the war against the earth rages. Now lumbering consists of machines clear cutting entire fields. The lumber goes to mills the rest is chipped to serve as mulch in suburban gardens. The evolutionized mechanisms of photosynthesis, the trees, the very beings that give us air to breathe, are sacrificed at an unconscionable rate for toilet paper and disposable furniture all over the world. In Brazil the rainforests are cleared for grazing pasture for cattle to make drive-in hamburgers. Bill Gates and Donald Trump have become some bizarre form of urban folk heroes, for amassing extreme wealth. Sports stars are demigods while Euell Gibbons is still the brunt of jokes nearly 20 years after his death and no nature proponent has come along to replace him as a voice for simplicity and connectedness to nature in the concrete confusion of modern times. Rachel Carson is all but forgotten, although the hawks and eagles she championed are again much admired, even in New Jerseys smoggy skies. Our lives are completely filled with gaining and maintaining the safety nets of healthcare and retirement plans and worshipping some crazed runaway economic train. Subdivisions and strip malls with chain restaurants litter the highways. We really need to get some kind of grip on our egos and the crazed human ideals of bigger, higher, faster, stronger and make a better attempt to work more in tune with the natural world, before the wild places are lost forever.
Up here in the Smokies there is still a Garden of Eden. Actually it is better than Eden, because there are risks and therefore adventures to be found, both physical and mental challenges for the mind and body. The wildness is still here, but as with all places touched by humans, the wilds future is threatened. In the valleys and highlands, which were hard to access when logging was carried out here, enormous 6' diameter 150' tall Fraser Firs still tower, although a new human import, the balsam wooly adelgid, a boring worm which bores into and kills the trees at their base, threaten them. Spruce still tower in the uplands too although scientists report their growth and reproduction has significantly slowed and the culprit seems to be air pollution.
The people down in Ashville probably said old Boogerman Palmer was a kook, to live up here like a hermit with his farm way up in these mountains. Not me. He was a hero, a saint, one man who made a difference, who saved these giant trees from the ax and saw for those of us of the future to marvel at. As for those Union soldiers I really don't give a damn about them and their politiricks. Their flesh was consumed long ago by worms and converted to this rich soil, in one of natures timeless cycles. The cycle still struggles to go on as trillium buds are again bursting from the ground this April morning.
Our first day in the Smokey Mountains we walked all day along a stream called Big Creek. At night we slept right by it and it was actually loud. As Steve said to me one time, "What is it about being by the water?" I guess it has something to do with the fact that it makes up 80% or so of ourselves, but we all love to be by it or in it. And flowing water is something I really get off on. I just lay on my sleeping mat on a flat boulder in the stream that evening looking upstream at the infinite variety of the paths and motion of the water for like an hour. The constant yet jagged rhythms of the flowing water inspired this little hip hop number. It will be a good one to read out loud. Nature hip hop, go figure.
© 2002 Greg Brady