- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Many hikers on the Appalachian Trail take books as companions, in spite of the extra weight in their packs, but Ian Marshall carries the habit to new literary, ecological, and spiritual heights. In the more than twenty years he's been hiking the trail, Marshall, known on the AT as Evergreen, has practiced what he likes to call "an ecology of reading," exploring America's past, its landscape and national experience, through literature inspired by places in the Appalachian chain: "a literary heritage," he writes, "of interest to scholars and hikers alike, both seekers of a sort."
As he walks the trail from Georgia to Maine, Marshall brings together his own stories, heard and experienced along the trail, with the stories of those who, famous and otherwise, are part of the literary geography of each region—William Bartram, Annie Dillard, Thomas Jefferson, Whitman, Melville, Frost, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. Like notes left behind for other thru-hikers, their writings, seen through Marshall's eyes, plot a fresh "story line" of America's literary and ecological history. As he passes through the Great Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge, the Delaware Water Gap, Greylock, the Greens and the Whites, to Ktaadn, Marshall takes us on a vision quest into our national character, from Native American myths through colonial America's economic and theological preoccupations, the aesthetic of Manifest Destiny, to our contemporary ecological awareness. This is book talk taken out of the classroom and onto the trail.
University of Virginia Press
THE PLEASURES OF GEOPIETY
Cherokee Myths and the Pleasures of Geopiety
ON MY THIRD DAY of hiking, descending Justus Mountain, anticipating agood long foot-soak in Blackwell Creek before climbing again, I meet asouthbound hiker. He sticks his hand out, introduces himself—he'sWayne Wright. We exchange the usual information—where ya headed?where'd ya start? I ask where he stayed last night, and he says, "Oh, Istayed in a great place! And have I got a story for you!"
Two days before he had stopped to chat with a woman who escaped arainstorm by camping under a large overhanging rock about fifty feetoff the trail near Henry Gap. She heard voices all night long, whichshe attributed to "Indian spirits." We are, after all, in what hashistorically been Cherokee country. In fact, for about its first fourhundred miles or so, from northern Georgia up through western NorthCarolina and eastern Tennessee and into southwestern Virginia, theAppalachian Trail travels through Cherokee country. Alone among thenative peoples of eastern America, the Cherokee were mountaindwellers.
"She struck me as a religious fanatic," says Wayne Wright, stilltalking about his encounter. "Me, I'm a retired Green Beret and I'mnot the kind to hallucinate." I wonder for a moment why an ex-marineshould be less prone than anyone else to having visions or why a"religious fanatic" would be attuned to Cherokee spirits. Then Irealize that tome the term connotes Christian fundamentalism, whileto Wayne Wright it suggests new age spiritualism. While I'm figuringthat out and while I'm trying to remember what a wainwright is (amaker of wagons, a dictionary tells me much later), Wayne is tellingme about his own stay under that rock. He not only heard voices—"asif they were close by, but just out of earshot, so you couldn't makeout the words"—but all night long he kept thinking he sawflashlights, as if someone was coming up the trail. But nobody evercame.
I reach the rock early next afternoon. It's immense, maybe thirtyfeet in diameter, with the front lip a good ten feet high, theoverhang slanting back another ten feet. I sit by the remains of acampfire under the overhang, leaning back against my pack, eatinggranola bars, listening, listening. I hear birdsong, but I can't tellwhat kind of bird, and I hear occasional rustles of leaves beingstirred by the breeze, but I can't say that they sound much likewhispers. After a while I take from my pack the book I've chosen tocarry for the first few weeks of my hike—James Mooney's History,Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees, a recent reprint of twoworks first published in 1891 and 1900. In the section headed "LocalLegends of Georgia," there is a reference to a "Talking Rock," butit's about a different rock, one in a streambed that sends out echoes.
I tell Wayne's story to several hikers for the next few days, butthey've all heard it already, from Wayne. His voice, at least, hasbeen heard.
* * *
Later that afternoon, on the way up Blood Mountain, the shadows oflarge birds keep crossing my path. Each time, I look directly overheadto find the source of the shadows, but of course I should have lookedtoward the sun. By the time I correct my eye-aim, the birds areusually lost above treetop foliage. Only once do I actually see thebirds—vultures, as it turns out. I was stopped at a spring, talkingwith a middle-aged couple from New Jersey, Art and Sue, who had justsold their house. Art was out of work, and they were hiking the trailuntil they decided what to do next. Homeless, but they seemed quitecontent with their lot. The bird-shadows crossed the clearing, and wesaw three buzzards. "One for each of us," said Art, and we alllaughed.
That evening I find several references to buzzards in Mooney.Unlike me and the Jerseyites, the Cherokee admired vultures,considering them "good medicine." Since vultures can eat carrion, theywere assumed to be immune from sickness. A buzzard's flesh was said toprevent smallpox, and gunshot wounds were treated by blowing medicinethrough a buzzard quill onto the wound and then covering it withbuzzard down. A buzzard feather above a door was believed to keep outwitches. Like many pharmaceuticals, though, it had side effects. Ifworn, its feathers were thought to cause baldness. In the buzzard'sown baldness lies a story warning against excessive pride. Long ago,says Mooney, "the buzzard used to have a fine topknot, of which he wasso proud that he refused to eat carrion." He told the other birds thatsuch fare was not good enough for him. To teach him a lesson, theyremoved the buzzard's head-feathers. Mooney comments, "He lost hispride at the same time, so that he is willing enough now to catcarrion for a living" (293).
The buzzard plays a crucial role in the Cherokee creation myth.Once, all the animals lived in Galunlati, their abode in the heavens.These animals were larger and in every way superior to those that weknow, since the animals of earth were mere imitations of the animalsof Galunlati—just as modern humans are inferior to the hero-gods ofCherokee myths. The earth itself, at the time, was water, until awater beetle dived down and brought up some mud, which began to spreadover the surface. Since Galunlati was crowded, every so often anemissary was sent down to earth to see if there was enough solidground to support animal life yet. On one of these missions, a buzzardflew so low that his wings touched the muddy ground, leaving valleyswhere he flapped downward, creating mountains on the updraft. "TheCherokee country remains full of mountains to this day," says Mooney(239).
In some more recent versions of the story, the Creation Bird is aneagle. I wonder, though, if that change does not reflect the influenceof Euro-American sensibilities. I mean, after all, the eagle is thenational bird—proud, strong, soaring, emblem of freedom. Tocontemporary eyes, the vulture is a harbinger of death, a scavengerwithout respect for the dead. Is it not the height of incongruity tomake the vulture a key player in a creation myth? Besides, seen upclose, with its bald head and face of crinkled ruddy flesh, it's aremarkably ugly bird.
* * *
The trail up Blood Mountain leads through Slaughter Gap, site of afierce battle between the Cherokee and the Creek long ago. BloodMountain itself is a reputed home of the Nunnehi, the immortals, who,explains Mooney, "were invisible except when they wanted to be seen"and who cared for wanderers lost in the mountains (331). They werefriendly to the Cherokee, and fought for them on occasion. Once, alegend goes, four Nunnehi women attended a dance and impressed all theyoung men. When the women left, the young men followed to see whichway they went, but the women mysteriously disappeared near a river,"although it was a plain trail, with no place where they could hide.Then the watchers knew they were Nunnehi women" (332).
The Nunnehi are said to drum at night on Blood Mountain. I stay in afour-sided stone shelter up there, a cabin really, complete with fireplace,built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. According to the trailregister in the shelter, nightly visits are made by numerous mice, animmense rat, and a skunk. My fellow hikers and I draw up baffle plans.We close all the shutters and doors and lash them down with nyloncord. We hang our packs from the rafters. We agree not to shriek ifthe skunk gets in—we don't want to scare it. I sleep with aflashlight and my hiking stick next to me, ready to beat away whateverrodent shows his insolent face. Only one does—a rat (not as large asrumored) in my boots, dangling from a nail in the rafters over myhead. Before dawn I hear a thumping and squealing from the front ofthe shelter. I think skunk, and have trouble sleeping. But by dawn'searly light we figure out that it was just the wind pushing on thecreaky door.
Nobody mentions anything about immortals or spirits.
* * *
Coming off Blood Mountain, the trail descends into Neel's Gap, crossesa highway, and then goes through the archway of a building, a campingsupply store and hostel called Walasi-yi—Cherokee for "Frog Place."The story goes that on a mountain near here a hunter once saw a frogas big as a house. I resupply at the store, call home, then head upthe trail to Levelland Mountain. Fully laden with five days' worthof food, my pack is too heavy. It rains like hell that day, and it'swindy and cold, with sleet up on the ridge. I put wool socks on myhands to try to keep warm. It's weather only an amphibian could love.But me—I'm miserable. And I'm ready to leave the cold and rain to thehouse-high frogs of legend.
* * *
I suppose one could say that I'm just not getting it—"it" being thespiritual belief system of the Cherokee. True, I'm having some funlooking up stories in Mooney's book that have something to do withplaces I've passed on the trail or wildlife I've seen. But I can viewthe stories only ironically, as amusing but inconsequential taleswhose supernaturalism is very much at odds with the actual experiencesof my day. Mine is, I suppose, the skepticism of a rationalistconfronting the mystical. I discount what is not demonstrable based onthe evidence of my senses. That's the sort of empiricism we consider"down to earth." But so-called primitive peoples, those who live awhole lot closer to the earth than us "civilized" folk, are anythingbut averse to the mystical. Why then do we consider our rejection ofthe supernatural "down to earth"? Why do we consider nature the realmof the empirical? How is it that science has laid claim to the wild?
I could learn something from James Mooney's story. As a young man,an aspiring anthropologist from Indiana who was fascinated by AmericanIndian cultures, Mooney applied for a job with the U.S. Government'sBureau of Ethnology three times over the course of three years, andwas rejected each time. Finally, in 1885, he showed up at the bureau'soffice in Washington, D.C., and managed to arrange an interview withthe bureau's founder and director, Maj. John Wesley Powell, famed forhis river trips through the Grand Canyon. Powell was impressed withMooney's ten years' worth of notes and maps on American Indians, butasked him to work as a volunteer for a year before hiring him in asalaried position. Mooney first visited the Cherokee of western NorthCarolina in 1887, and he returned several times through 1890, thenagain in 1900. Seeking to preserve traditions that were already beinglost, Mooney learned to speak, read, and write Cherokee (using thesyllabary invented by Sequoyah in the 1820s), and he conductednumerous interviews. Most of his material came from Ayunini, or"Swimmer," whom Mooney describes as "a priest, doctor, and keeper oftradition.... a genuine antiquarian and patriot, proud of his peopleand their ancient system." Much of the rest he heard from Itagunahi,or John Ax, a centenarian "authority upon all relating to tribalcustom ... of a poetic and imaginative temperament" (236-37).
What impresses me most about Mooney's rendering of the myths toldhim by Swimmer and John Ax is his respectful attitude. There is noirony or rational skepticism in his treatment of these men or thelegends they passed on to him. Instead, there is sensitivity, empathy,admiration. Mooney claims that his collected material demonstrates that
the Indian is essentially religious and contemplative, and it might almost be said that every act of his life is regulated and determined by his religious belief. It matters not that some may call this superstition. The difference is only relative.... Christianity itself is but an outgrowth and enlargement of the beliefs and ceremonies which have been preserved by the Indian in their more ancient form. When we are willing to admit that the Indian has a religion which he holds sacred, even though it be different from our own, we can then admire the consistency of the theory, the particularity of the ceremonial and the beauty of the expression. (SF, 319)
Such overt pleas for cross-cultural understanding are but one wayMooney makes apparent his esteem for the Cherokee. Even moreconvincing is the language he uses to record their stories. TheCherokee myths as told by Mooney are conveyed in the language of anintelligent adult, not the childlike pidgin of Hollywood Indians. Whilethe stories are fantastic, in Mooney'streatment they read more like parables than fairy tales.Brought up in an Irish-Catholic home, Mooney must have doubted theirliteral truth. But there is no hint of any disbelief or valuejudgment in his renderings of Cherokee myths. There are stories, goodstories many of them, well told.
Mooney's career ended unhappily, in large part, ironically,precisely because of his ability to set aside and see beyond the normsof his own culture. When he studied the Plains Indians, he took twounpopular stands that ran counterto the beliefs and values of white America—and to thepolicies of his governmental employer. First, he contended (correctly)that the ghost dance movement of the 1890s was a religious revival,not preparation for war. Second, he defended the Plains Indians'ritual use of peyote as a religious sacrament. Mooney argued that thegovernment's attempt to squelch these practices was misguided. For theseheresies, the Commissioner of the Bureau of Ethnology forbade Mooneyto do fieldwork on any Indian reservation. For the last few years of hislife, from 1918 to 1921, Mooney's work with the bureau was restricted to thestudy of manuscripts.
* * *
It takes a while, but Mooney and the Cherokee stories and the Cherokeecountry have an effect on me. The process begins with my choice of atrail name.
Most long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail go by some nameof their own creation. The names range from the cartoonish ("GreenLantern," "The Heroes of the Beach") to the literary ("Puck,""Piglet," "Tigger," "Ancient Mariner," "The Lorax"). They can bedescriptive about one's appearance("Daddy Longlegs," "Bill the Hat," "Lady Di") or background("Catoctin Nomad," "Dixie Dynamite," "Tom the Vet," a guy named"Nurse without Purse"), or they can be whimsical ("Weathercarrot,""Thunder-spoon," "Zen Bootist," "Tuna Finch," "Forest Gimp," "Danceswith Skunks"—and a dog dubbed "Worthless Bert, the Emergency Stew"),or evocative ("Foxfire," "Riverwind," "Moonchild," "Moonflower," "NightSprite"). Flora and fauna are often the source: "White Pine," "Thistle,""Indigo" (a guy whose last name is Bunting), "Turtle," "Snake," "Human."The names, I suppose, serve several functions. A trail name is part of theprocess of self-discovery or self-(re)invention that so many hikers engage inon the trail, akin to the naming ritual that is part of the rite ofpassage in many cultures. A chosen name can reflect one's characteras it is or as one hopes it will become. Trail names also helpseparate the hiking community from the "real world"—where a name isneither earned nor selected and so does not serve as an indicator ofpersonality or accomplishment.
I started hiking with several possibilities for a trail name inmind, among them "Muck," an old nickname that seemed appropriately andunpretentiously down-to-earth. Ultimately, though, I decided to let mytrail name emerge from my experiences on the trail. The day I wascaught in the rain and sleet coming out of Neel's Gap, I reached theshelter at Low Gap (aptly named in light of my spirits) in the lateafternoon. I was shivering so much I hadtrouble lighting my stove. Wrapped in my sleeping bag, I cookedhot chocolate, soup, and a noodle dinner, but still it took me hoursto get warm. It was not just the cold and rain getting me down. Myfeet had erupted in blisters, I was lonely, and I was disappointedabout seeing so little wildlife—just those buzzards, a salamander,and a bluebird after four days of hiking. I thought about packing itin and going home. Then I read Mooney's version of the Cherokeeaccount of "How the World Was Made":
When the animals and plants were first made—we do not know by whom—they were told to watch and keep awake for seven nights, just as young men now fast and keep awake when they pray to their medicine. They tried to do this, and nearly all were awake through the first night, but the next night several dropped off to sleep, and the third night others were asleep, and then others, until, on the seventh night, of all the animals only the owl, the panther, and one or two more were still awake. To these were given the power to see and to go about in the dark, and to make prey of the birds and animals which must sleep at night. Of the trees only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, and the laurel were awake to the end, and to them it was given to be always green and to be greatest for medicine, but to the others it was said: "Because you have not endured to the end you shall lose your hair every winter." (240)
I'd found my trail name—Evergreen. I wanted "to be always green,"with its connotations of environmentalism and still-growing youth. Butmostly, like the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, and thelaurel, I wanted to be able to endure, even through a hard season—ora cold and rainy day. And I began to understand what these Cherokeemyths are all about, and what they're for.
* * *
In a 1966 book called Human Nature in Geography, John Kirtland Wright coinedthe term geopiety, which he defined as "pious emotion evoked by the wonder andthe terror of the earth in all its diversity." Wright focuses on earlyAmerican Christian versions of geopiety, whereby geography is seen asevidence of God's glory, and "geoteleologic forces" (geographic forcesthat reveal God's purposes) serve humanity in three possible ways:"awardatively," by rewarding virtuous behavior either in advance orafter the fact; "punitively," by punishing immoral behavior; and"correctively," seeking to change behavior via awards andpunishments. Wright gives many examples from early Anglo-Americantheologians, scientists, and philosophers who found cause forreverence in geographical forces. But I'm struck by how abstract theirgeography is. They describe mountains in general, not any specificmountain. One sign of their reverence was the frequent drawing ofparallels between New World topography and biblical terrain—Americaas Eden or Canaan—but that's exactly what makes their descriptions solacking as geography. They impose on the land their preconceptions,seeing what they've read about rather than what's right before theireyes.
I'm also troubled by the limited kind of piety expressed. The termgeopiety suggests a form of nature worship, but in the examples fromearly America given by Wright it is not nature itself that is reveredbut its Creator. The word piety comes from the Latin pietas, whichtranslates as "dutiful conduct," but the examples in Wright expressonly reverence and devotion to God and make no suggestions about humanconduct in regard to anything other than God. The only "corrective"function geography seems to have among the early Anglo-Americansquoted by Wright is to remind us, through punishment, to be moredevout. But does not piety involve being good as well as devout?
Wright himself anticipates that there is more to the concept ofgeopiety than he outlines, saying that his examples "fall far short ofrepresenting all of the many kinds of geopiety there are and have beenamong different religions." Yi-Fu Tuan expands the dimensions ofthe concept, in part by considering the root connection between thewords piety and pity. Piety requires reverence for something that isstrong—a God, for instance, capable of rewarding or punishing humanbehavior, or interested in correcting it—while pity calls forcompassion for something that is weak. Among its many connotations,piety involves reverence for one's parents. But when parents grow oldand weak, they need our compassion and service as well as ourreverence. According to Tuan, geopiety demands recognition of theneed for reciprocity, as illustrated by the Roman temple erected tothe goddess Pietas: "The story goes that on the site of the temple amother had been imprisoned and was kept alive by the milk from her owndaughter's breast." The lesson in ecological terms: "nature nurturesmen and men owe it reverence"—and care.
In moving beyond Wright's original exclusively Christian conceptionof the idea of geopiety, Tuan suggests that geopiety should consist ofcompassion as well as awe, virtue as well as reverence. He tells ushow we ought to treat the land, why we should respect it and care forit. But both Wright and Tuan remain rather vague about the other sideof our reciprocal arrangement with our environment. Besides giving usphysical sustenance or aesthetic pleasure, how does nature make usbetter? How does it teach us proper behavior?
Though he never uses the term geopiety, Keith Basso, in an essayentitled "`Stalking with Stories': Names, Places, and Moral Narrativesamong the Western Apache," gets to the heart of this element of theconcept. Basso explains that "losing the land is something the WesternApache can ill afford to do, for geographical features have served thepeople for centuries as indispensable mnemonic pegs on which to hangthe moral teachings of their history." Quite literally, their landtells the Apache how to be good, how to behave, how to be. Storiesassociated with particular features of the landscape—a tree, a rock,a mountaintop—become a means of relating Apache history andconveying moral lessons. A spring where a man drowned aftermistreating his wife, for instance, serves as a constant reminderabout proper marital relations. The landscape, then, becomes a text,not just because it is the work of a creator, but because it tells, orat least initiates, a story.
The metaphor of the land as a sacred text is a notion I've read aboutin reference to the Puritan settlers of the New World, those whoreverenced the land, as Wright describes, as God's creation. Theirpurpose seemed to be to read geography in order to discover God'smeaning or intent—what formalist literary critics used to call the"intentional fallacy," since guesses about an author's intention maydistract readers from the evidence of the actual text before them.Such an approach to landscape makes sense in a culture that prizesliteracy. A people accustomed to the written word, after all, are usedto respecting authority, he who controls the wor(l)d. But here's theirony—if the world is a form of scripture, why did devout Christiansin early America, and since, do so little to preserve it? Is itbecause they had God's word intact in another form, the written word,page-bound and typeset? Ultimately, through the word—and not theworld—lay the Christian's path to God, the way to spritualunderstanding.
But there's another explanation for the Christian's lack of respectfor topographic scripture in America. Geopiety may be inherent in theorigins of all religions—but perhaps it is the distance from itsplace of origin that has made Christianity so spectacularlyinsensitive to natural values in America and, sometimes it seems, soineffective a moral guide. The sacred sites ofChristianity are in the middle East. Americans can't look up at Mt.Sinai every day to be reminded of God's immanence and his decalogicalguidelines for appropriate behavior—principles so firm, about whichGod is so unyielding, that they were written in stone.
Amid the arid climate of the middle East, perhaps the ritual ofbaptism made special sense, for water was viewed as a blessed thing, agift of God occasionally withheld in time of drought to show hisdispleasure. And in the middle East, perhaps the Old Testament's viewof wilderness as hostile makes equal sense. If the land is anantagonist, it needs to be converted, made into something useful. Oneway to do that is to read the land as parable, a clue to the author'sintent. Another is to make it arable, symbol of God's approbation.Thus the misplaced land ethic of early European settlers in lusheastern America, worshipping the geography of a distant and differentplace.
I'm leery of suggesting that the Cherokee view of nature isprecisely that of the Apache, as described by Basso. I don't want tocommit the common error of assuming that all native American culturesare alike. But, as Joseph E. Brown argues, they have in common "ametaphysic of nature ... a reverence for the myriad forms and forcesof the natural world specific to their immediate environment." J.Baird Callicott contends that the shared "metaphysic of nature" amongnative Americans was incipiently ecological. The lush southernAppalachians and the arid Southwest could not be more different, andthe Cherokee and Apache developed very different cultures in responseto their particular environments. But the strong attachment of apeople to their place is the same, and so is the attachment of storyto place. For Cherokee and Apache both, for Iroquois and Sioux andLenni Lenape as well, scripture is all around us. Mooney notes that"almost every prominent rock and mountain, every deep bend in theriver, in the old Cherokee country has its accompanying legend. It maybe a little story that can be told in a paragraph, to account for somenatural feature, or it may be one chapter of a myth that has itssequel in a mountain a hundred miles away. As is usual when a peoplehas lived a very long time in the same country, nearly every importantmyth is localized, thus assuming more definite character" (230).
This is akin to what Basso was told by one of his Apacheinformants: "All these places have stories."
* * *
The Appalachian Trail through northern Georgia passes through longtunnels of overhanging rhododendron. A few days earlier I had noticedonly that the rhododendron were not yet in bloom. Now, recalling theorigin myth about how conifers came to be ever green, I ponder the rhododendrons'hardiness, I savor the welcome cool they offer on warm afternoons, andI notice the twisted grain of their stalks. Each day as I walk, eachevening as I read, I see how the myths of the Cherokee, and in turnthe values they held, are products of the particular piece of landthey inhabited—or, to use a less manufacturing-oriented metaphor, howtheir stories emerge from the land. Not a "product" of the land—morelike a plant from a seed.
Mooney recognized the importance of their bioregion to theCherokee, saying that
their old country is a region of luxuriant flora, with tall trees and tangled undergrowth on the slopes and ridges, and myriad bright-tinted blossoms and sweet wild fruits along the running streams. The vegetable kingdom consequently holds a far more important place in the mythology and ceremonial of the tribe than it does among the Indians of the treeless plains and arid sage deserts of the West, most of the beliefs and customs in this connection centering around the practice of medicine.... In general it is held that the plant world is friendly to the human species, and constantly at the willing service of the doctors to counteract the jealous hostility of the animals. (420)
The friendship of the plants is demonstrated in a story about theorigin of disease. "In the old days," says Mooney, "the beasts, birds,fishes, insects, and plants could all talk, and they and the peoplelived together in peace and friendship." But then humans became many,and arrogant, and they devised weapons with which they slaughteredgame, while "smaller creatures, such as the frogs and worms, werecrushed and trodden upon without thought, out of pure carelessness orcontempt" (250). Among the retributions devised by the animals werevarious diseases. The deer demanded that hunters first ask pardon ofthe deer before killing one; failing to do so, hunters would bestricken with rheumatism. The birds, insects, and small mammals, ledin council by the grubworm, invented the numerous other diseases thatafflict human beings; one even proposed that menstruation be fatal, athought that so tickled the grubworm that he fell over backward, and"had to wriggle off on his back, as the Grubworm has done ever since."Upon hearing what the animals had done, the plants got together andvolunteered their services as cures. "Thus came medicine," writesMooney, "and the plants, every one of which has its use if we onlyknew of it, furnish the remedy to counteract the evil wrought by therevengeful animals. Even weeds were made for some good purpose, whichwe must find out for ourselves" (252). Sounds like the premise for the1992 movie Medicine Man, a not-so-subtle plea for the preservation ofthe Amazon rain forests in which the character played by Sean Connerydiscovers a cure for cancer in the flora and fauna of the junglecanopy. But the Cherokee story brings the lesson closer to home.
A few days earlier I had complained in a trail register that Iwasn't sure if rhododendron or poison ivy should be the Georgia stateflower. While I'm still wary of anything with three leaves, I feelproperly abashed for my fear and loathing of poison ivy. The Cherokee,I learn, propitiate poison ivy by addressing it as "my friend" (425).Perhaps its "medicine" is to discourage those who are untutored in theways of the woods, so that the woods receive less trampling underhuman feet. Despite my general ignorance about botany, I begin tonotice more of what's growing—those delicate little blue and yellowflowers that I'd first seen on Springer Mountain, some upturned leaveswith purple veins running through them, a flower with a fleshy spikeoverhung by a flaplike leaf. From talking to other hikers and, later,riffling through a guide to wildflowers, I even learn names to go withwhat I've seen—bluets, rattlesnake weed, jack-in-the-pulpit.
A phrase from the 1960s comes back to me, invested now with newmeaning: Flower Power.
A trail guide tells me that in the southern Appalachians there aremore species of plants than in all of Europe.
* * *
I don't want to pretend that I somehow became steeped in Cherokeephilosophy or spirituality in any sort of life-changing way—even ifI did one day find a hawk feather and stick it in the back of thebandana wrapped around my forehead. Along the ridge just beforedescending into Bly Gap at the North Carolina line, I see a knee-highpile of stones out on a ledge about twenty feet off the trail. I'mhungry and thirsty and the view is nice, so I stop to rest on theledge. The stones look like a small, trail-marking cairn, pyramidingfrom large stones to small. I think about leaving an M&M on top, a redone. It might make a nice decorative touch and amuse or puzzle thenext hiker to come along. But something tells me not to.
That night I'm standing around a small fire with David, a Georgiapolice sergeant who is part-Cherokee. He asks if I saw the prayerstones, and I remember the cairn. David explains that the stones aretypically placed high up on a mountain. The stones hold the prayer,uttered aloud, so winds can later carry it to the spirits. I tell himabout the candied chocolate contribution I had thought about adding tothe stones. "That would have been sacrilege," says David. I protest,"But wouldn't I have been making an offering? And of something prettydarn valuable, too, at least in a hiker economy. I mean, I was thinkingof leaving a red M&M!"
David doesn't laugh. I'm glad I didn't desecrate the prayer stones,and not just because I have no M&Ms to spare. Especially red ones.
* * *
Our fire is built primarily of dead rhododendron. Mooney points outthat the Cherokee never burned rhododendron or laurel, because firewould destroy the medicinal properties of those plants and would bringcold weather. The legend arose, says Mooney, because the hissing soundthey make when burning is "suggestive of winter winds and fallingsnow" (422). That night we hear a grouse thumping. One story aboutdrumming grouse is that during a winter famine, a grouse found a hollytree loaded with red berries. He called the other birds, and theycircled around the tree, "singing, dancing, and drumming with theirwings in token of their joy" (290). As part of the greencorn dance ofthe Cherokee, dancers imitate the grouse's drumming with their feet.
After several minutes of the drumming, we hear a new sound, thecall of an owl, sonorous and haunting. Then we hear a loud, outragedsquawk, and more hooting. But no more drumming. Next morning it'scold, in the thirties.
* * *
While I'm climbing Standing Indian Mountain, rain threatens. I don'twant to get caught on top in a lightning storm, so I move fast. TheAppalachian Trail Companion for 1994 gives this explanation for themountain's name: "According to Cherokee legend, a great winged monsteronce inhabited the mountain, and, during the monster's reign, warriorswere posted on the mountain as lookouts. A tremendous bolt oflightning shattered the mountain and killed the monster. During thestrike, a lone Cherokee sentinel also was hit by the bolt and turnedinto stone, supposedly for being a poor sentry."' This seems to be apowerful topo-lesson about attention to duty, but I suspect somethingbogus in the story. Attention to duty, after all, is more a virtue inthe eyes of the American WASP, imbued with the philosophy of the workethic, than to the Cherokee. Mooney hints at the spurious legends thathave grown up around this mountain. He says, "The name is a renderingof the Cherokee name, Yun wi-tsulenun yi, `Where the man stood,'... givento it on account of a peculiarly shaped rock formerly jutting out from thebald summit, but now broken off. As the old memory faded, a tradition grewup of a mysterious being once seen standing upon the mountain top"(409). The legend in the Trail Companion is more romantic thanMooney's matter-of-fact account, and I suppose even if the TrailCompanion's story is a recent creation, it tells us something of thecontinued vitality of the oral folktale. But I don't know—it soundslike a story designed to tell mainstream America what it wants tohear. I'm put off, too, by the "supposedly" in the Trail Companion'srendering of the story. It sounds snide, like a polite, verbalizedsnicker. Not that I believe in the literal truth of the stories inMooney, but I am willing to suspend disbelief in order to get at thegist of the story, the moral meat, in the same way that many goodChristians ultimately don't seem too concerned about whetherevolutionary science calls into question the Bible's literal orhistorical accuracy. It's still a good book, one you can live by, evenif a few scientific or historical facts are askew.
If the moral lessons of Cherokee myths are not about duty ordevotion, what are they about? Mostly, it seems, about respect forother living things and regretful humility for human separation fromthe natural world. In his introduction to his section on "QuadrupedMyths," Mooney explains:
In Cherokee mythology, as in that of Indian tribes generally, there is no essential difference between men and animals. In the primal genesis period they seem to be completely undifferentiated, and we find all creatures alike living and working together in harmony and mutual helpfulness until man, by his aggressiveness and disregard for the rights of the others, provokes their hostility... Henceforth their lives are apart, but the difference is always one of degree only. The animals, like the people, are organized into tribes and have like them their chiefs and townhouses, their councils and ballplays, and the same hereafter in the Darkening land of Usunhi yi. Man is still the paramount power, and hunts and slaughters the others as his own necessities compel, but is obliged to satisfy the animal tribes in every instance. (261)
The Cherokee version of the Fall stresses the need to recognize ourseparation from the natural world and to try to repair it. Fear of thewild does not preclude respect.
Copyright © 1996 New York University.All rights reserved.
|Introduction: Walking the Line||1|
|1||Cherokee Myths and the Pleasures of Geopiety||10|
|2||Puc Puggy in the Nantahalas: The Turning Point of William Bartram's Travels||35|
|3||Mary Noailles Murfree: Ecofeminist of the Great Smoky Mountains||51|
|4||Horace Kephart's "Man's Game" and the Community of Our Southern Highlanders||70|
|5||Pilgrim at Tinker Cliffs||88|
|6||From Imperialism to Nationalism: The Knights of the Golden Horseshoe Cross the Blue Ridge||103|
|7||Confluences: The View from Jefferson Rock||120|
|8||From Wind Gap to Water Gap: On the Trail of Edgar Huntly||131|
|9||Where the Open Road Meets Howl||151|
|10||Greylock and the Whale||162|
|11||Synecdoche and Ecology: Frost in the Greens and Whites||180|
|12||Democracy and Ecology: Hawthorne's White Mountain Stories||203|
|13||Contact! Contact! A Walk to Thoreau's Ktaadn||226|