Part writing memoir, part nature memoir, and part meditation on a life well lived, Bushwhacking draws on McGaha’s experiences running, hiking, biking, paddling, and getting lost across the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina to offer readers encouragement practical suggestions to accompany them on their writing and life journeys. Each essay links one of McGaha’s forays into the wilderness to an insight about the creative process. An almost-failed attempt at zip lining becomes a lesson on getting out of one’s comfort zone. The thrum of a hummingbird’s wings, an autumn sunset, and a hound dog’s bay at a bear on the path are impromptu master classes in finding inspiration in the small, the ordinary, and the unexpected.
With humility, humor, and hard-won wisdom, Bushwhacking honors writing craft traditions and offers fresh insights into how close communion with nature can transform your writing and your life.
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|Publisher:||Trinity University Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.00(d)|
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Why We Write: Searching for Beauty in an Imperfect World
Caesars Head is a granite outcropping just over the North Carolina-South Carolina border. Created by shifting tectonic plates and water erosion, the rock is 3,266 feet above sea level and rests on the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the line at which the Blue Ridge Mountains gives way to the South Carolina foothills. On a clear day, you can see three states from the top—North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. You can buy a map and trinkets at the visitor’s center. You can hike one of the trails in Jones Gap State Park in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, a 13,000-acre forest. What you may not do, at least legally, is enter the park at night. There are too many obstacles to trip over, too many wild animals prowling about, too many ways to, like the dog for whom the outcropping is allegedly named, go tumbling off the mountain.
Nevertheless, on a bitterly cold night in late November of 2016, a few weeks after the election that handed Donald Trump the presidency, my three adult children and I snuck past the signs warning visitors not to enter the park after hours. My husband waited in the parked car, the headlights illuminating the parking lot as the rest of us scaled the gate, then headed into the fog. Using the flashlights on our cell phones, my kids and I navigated a short path, then emerged on the rock face.
Fierce wind rolled up the mountain and stung our faces. To get a full breath, we had to turn our backs to the wind. Huddled together, the cold seeping through our gloves, we tucked our hands in each other’s elbows and surveyed the forest below. It was dusk, just before sunset, and everything below had a dull, grayish hue—the trees, the birds, the mountains. Normally, this state park received about seventy-nine inches of rain annually, but this fall had been one of the driest seasons of the century in our region, and now forest fires raged across the region. In the waning daylight, we could see pockets of smoke here and there, a bit of haze in that valley, a mountain over there obscured by fog. The air smelled of campfires. The world was on fire, both literally and metaphorically, and though I could not yet know exactly how the next four years would play out, watching the blazes, I imagined the devastation in the woods—the terrified animals, the century-old trees exploding, the habitats destroyed, the stench of death—and I was filled with foreboding.
Then, just as we gathered near the protective rail at the rock’s edge, the sun slid behind a mountain below, leaving only fire and shadow—reds and oranges and grays and deep blackness—a stunning display of flickering light. One mountain to the west was backlit with flames, a cinematic feat of nature. What had moments before struck me as tragic had been transformed, and the scene was breathtaking, otherworldly, spectacular. What should have been darkness was light, and what should have been light was darkness, and in that moment, I no longer knew who or what or where I was, from whence I had come or where I was going. Gazing at the blazing spectacle beneath me, I was air—cold, smoky, fiery, permeable, one with the vast expanse before me, part of the fire force that no longer felt malicious or destructive or a purveyor of impending doom but simply was. Light in the midst of darkness. Calm in the midst of chaos. Beauty even in destruction.
In his devastatingly beautiful book about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes about this inherent contradiction between beauty and destructive forces:
How do you generalize? War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metalfire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket's red glare. It's not pretty, exactly. It's astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly. (77)
O’Brien’s exploration of truth stuns me anew every time I read this passage. How does this knowledge of the moral indifference of beauty inform our lives? How does this change how we move in this world? Admittedly, beauty can be difficult to summon at times. In fact, as I write this, during a raging pandemic, following four years of political and social upheaval, just before the next election which will most certainly determine fate of this country, it almost alludes me now. Searching for it, I return again and again to the woods, and, again and again, in every season, both literally and metaphorically, I find it there. In the spring, there are trilliums and May apples and bluebirds and fawns. In the summer, gushing waterfalls and baby bears and patches of wild huckleberries and blueberries and blackberries. In the fall, acorns and chipmunks and buckeyes and brilliant fall colors. And in the winter, profound silences and solitude and miles-long vistas. Such exquisite abundance.
In her 1942 memoir We Took to The Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich writes about this power of nature to shift our gaze away from the hardness of this world, to rock our metaphorical tectonic plates. In the mid 1930’s, Rich moves with her husband to the backwoods of Maine. During her stay there, Rich, who grew up “more or less a lady” (244), has no modern conveniences—no running water, no plumbing, no electricity—and though summers in Maine are mild and lovely, winters are brutal. Early in the book, Rich describes the nightly trek to the outhouse: “This is no great hardship in the summer, but in winter, with the snow knee deep, the wind howling like a maniac up the river, and the thermometer crawling down to ten below zero, it is a supreme test of fortitude to leave the warmth of the fire and go plunging out into the cold, no matter how great the necessity” (17). Even for 1942, this is a rough and rustic existence, a life well outside the mainstream, and thus the pulse, the momentum, of this narrative becomes threefold: Why is Rich here? How does she survive? And what lessons does she learn?
Rich, in fact, names the chapters after questions people have asked her: “Don’t You Ever Get Bored?”, “Aren’t You Ever Frightened?”, “Is It Worthwhile?”, etc., an interesting structural device that demonstrates that she understands that her lifestyle is intriguing, even suspect, to the average person. In moving to the woods, Rich has become an “other,” a feminine Thoreau. Throughout the book, Rich refers to everywhere other than the Maine wilderness as “The Outside” (p. 32, for example). The Outside is always capitalized, as if it is the proper name of a place, and this serves to remind readers that in Rich’s mind, there are really only two places, her world and the rest of the world. However, Rich is no longer concerned with The Outside. It is what she finds on The Inside (my term, not hers) that interests her.
I first read Rich’s book when a friend recommended it to me during our MFA program. A few years earlier, following a series of financial missteps, my husband and I had moved to a rundown, century-old cabin on fifty-three, gorgeous, snake-infested wooded acres. Like Rich, I had grown up “more or less a lady,” and the sudden shift from my previous complacent, comfortable life to one that involved more mice catching and opossum baiting than I had previously imagined possible left me reeling. During this time, Rich gave voice to my experiences in a way I was still unable to do. As I struggled with feeling lonely and isolated, I read about how Rich embraced the challenges of a life spent living close to nature. For Rich, hardship and beauty were one and the same, interwoven and intertwined, changing the narrator in myriad subtle ways.
Describing a winter day, Rich writes, “It was warm and sunny, and the ground was covered with a light fluff of snow, which was blue in the shadows, and gold in the sun, and faint rose and purple on the distant hills” (137). The rich array of colors—blue, gold, rose, and purple—paint a vivid picture of a dynamic and lovely landscape. Again, later on, Rich describes a spot on the river beneath her home: “The river is deep blue and crisping white, and the cut ends of the pulp are like raw gold in the sun. All the senses come alive, even that strange rare sense that tells you, half a dozen times between birth and death—if you are lucky—that right now, right in this spot, you have fallen into the pattern of the universe” (201). This sort of intensified sensory experience, this hyperawareness of sound and color, happens, in part, not in spite of the isolation in nature, but because of it. Her transformation comes when she is no longer of The Outside, and this change is gentle and understated, visible mainly through her quiet reflections on nature. “Looking back through the telescope of the last six years,” Rich says, “I can see myself as I was and realize how living here has changed me. I hope it has changed me for the better” (319). Rich’s life in the wilderness is one fraught with the challenges, but it is also a lively, evocative testament to the transformative power of nature, one that is as intriguing as it is instructive. How did we learn to live our best lives? In what ways might we better meet the challenges of this moment? How and where might we find beauty during these unpredictable and fiery times?
These are questions I have pondered long and often since last March when the COVID lockdowns began. In many ways, my family has been lucky during this metaphorical dead of winter. My husband and I have kept our jobs, and though our three adult children have suffered job losses and setbacks, we have all been healthy, and we have enjoyed many hours together we would not have otherwise. We have gone hiking and running. We have hosted family and friends for socially distant gatherings outside. We have read books and watched all six seasons of Schitt’s Creek and held, in our living room, a makeshift Banff Film Festival, complete with outdoors adventure films and nature-y snacks and free giveaways (Here, take this Cliff bar and these Smartwool socks I never wear!). We have done more Peloton yoga sessions that I care to admit. Some evenings, we have lingered for hours over a simple meal, soup and homemade bread and wine.
Life has not been the same, and we have been constantly aware of the grief of others and the chaos happening in the outside world. Still, for us, out in this wooded hollow, we have existed on the Inside, so to speak, not untouched or unmoved but aware of our relatively good fortune, and it is in this quietness and familial solitude that I have begun to be aware of my own heightened sensory experiences. The thrum of a hummingbird’s wings as I sit on the patio. The gush of the waterfall just after a storm. The first, hoarse crows of our rooster. The shift in the pitch as my hound dog bays first at a white squirrel and then at a deer and then—oh, my!—at a bear passing through.
Nature has taught me this. The woods have taught me this. Of course, the idea that communing with nature is good for the writerly mind is not a new idea, but it is a good one and worth repeating. In the wilderness, we find solitude. In solitude, we encounter the full breadth of human experience—death and destruction and hope and despair and beauty and ugliness, all of it at once—and therein lies the essence of a life fully lived and a story fully expressed. If you sit long enough and still enough and quietly enough, something beautiful will find you.
On November 13, 2016, five days after the election and a week or so before our family adventure at Caesars Head, my husband and I headed to Asheville to see Mavis Staples perform at The Orange Peel downtown. Smoke and haze hung in the air, and as the implications of the election began to sink in, we were increasingly despondent, both about the fires and about the undoing of our country as we had known it, or, perhaps, as we had imagined it to be. As we left the parking garage and made our way up Biltmore Avenue, dread clung to my hair, my clothes. Everywhere I turned, I smelled the cloying, acrid scent. Inside The Orange Peel, I ordered a beer and stood in the back near the bar.
“I don’t know how long it’ll last,” Mavis said to the audience, “but we’re gonna make you feel good now.”
And she was right. I had seen Mavis perform a couple of times before, and she had always been spectacular, but that night, she was on fire. In a performance that was more tent revival than concert, more sermon than song, Mavis was powerful, majestic, true. You’re not alone, she sang. You’re not alone. And over a thousand hippies and used-to-be hippies and hippie wannabes raised their glasses and drank and cried and cheered and sang and drank some more. Through her songs, Mavis gave voice to our collective sorrow, and something about her performance caught me by surprise, as if I had, in the five days prior, forgotten that such beauty existed. Even still, when I think of that time, of the fires, the election, the growing sense of despair, I think of it in tandem with that moment, of the way Mavis saw our pain, absorbed it, validated it, then sent it hurling back to us in great, compassionate waves. We were not prepared to go there, but she took us there anyway, and we loved her for it, loved that she believed in beauty when we no longer did.
Since that night when Mavis sang to a grieving, sold-out crowd about the change we have yet to see, I have had to work extra hard to root down, to seek beauty more and more often. Some days, I don’t see it at all, except in hindsight. Oh, look back there, I say to myself days or weeks or months after the fact. Look at that beautiful, moss-covered rock that was there all along. Look how the snapping turtles swim along the dock looking for handouts. Look at the red eft crossing the gravel road. See how amazing and strong he is, how determined.
Perhaps it is like a bit like training a hound puppy to sniff out a bear. I personally do not hunt bears, but I do have a couple of hound dogs, and they have the attention span of a flea, so I would imagine that it takes a bit of work to keep them on task. No, not the squirrel. No, not the bunny or the snail or the pile of ants. Yes, that. The big, smelly thing. Good boy. Perhaps, if I practice regularly, I can train myself to sniff out beauty more often. Perhaps if I can learn to appreciate beauty more often, I will begin to believe there are beautiful things I cannot yet see. Perhaps if I believe in beautiful things I cannot yet see, I might even be able to will them into being. Poet Ross Gay discusses a similar phenomenon in his book of brief, poetic essays titled The Book of Delights. For most days over the course of a year, Gay wrote about one simple thing that delighted him—a praying mantis, an odd turn of phrase, garden fresh carrots, an airport encounter with a stranger, Mitch McConnell’s smile/frown, of “someone whose penis is in a vise” (125). In writing these essays, Gay suddenly finds his life to be, well, more delightful. In conjuring a thing, in tending it and cultivating it, his delight radar had grown more precise or perhaps larger, more encompassing.
When my thirty-one-year-old daughter, who had lost her job in Costa Rica due to COVID and had temporarily moved home, first told me about Gay’s book, we debated at length over the distinction between joy and delight. Then, once we had agreed on a definition—joy refers more to a state of mind, we decided, where delight implies transience and surprise—we made it our habit to name a special delight we encountered each day. Some days were tough. In our small, quarantine bubble, each day felt much the same as the one before. More than once, when we came up empty at the end of the day, we even stayed up late just to see if something else might happen. Maybe the cat would curl up in the empty Hoka box that had been sitting on the coffee table for weeks. Maybe we would get a shoutout from one of the Peloton instructors. Maybe one of us would save the other one the last few bites of Jeni’s Gooey Butter Cake ice cream. Maybe the sixteen-year-old dog who shared our quarantine quarters wouldn’t poop in her bed at exactly 10 p.m. that night.
Eventually, we realized we had it all backwards. Whereas we were staying up late waiting for a delight to run us down like a linebacker, we soon found a better approach. We learned that in order to rack up our tally of delights, we had to start early, so we woke up looking for our delight, and we did not let up until we had found something. My special coffee mug was actually clean. Butterflies flew in my daughter’s shadow when she was running. A bear walked across the road in front of me on my way home from the store one day. Our new crested hen, Moira, laid her first egg (and, there, another delight, Schitt’s Creek!). Before long, it was all we could talk about—this delightful thing, that delightful thing. It became a sort of competition, who could find one first, who was more delighted.
“You know,” my friend Karen said when I told her what we were doing, “what you have found is a spiritual practice.”
But, ever the religious skeptic, I was hesitant to label it as such.
“No,” I said. “No way.”
But Karen, who is a poet and knows much more about such things than I do, insisted that naming delight is a form of gratitude, which is, or so she says, akin to prayer. I suppose, then that, using her reasoning, searching for beauty in the midst of mayhem, or at least being open to receiving it, is a form of prayer as well.
In the darkest, most hopeless moments of this past year, while I have sniffed out tiny delights to stave off despair, I have thought often of O’Brien’s words, of artillery fire and cancer under the microscope and of savage, breathtaking wildfires charring great swaths of land. Before the 2016 drought was over, twenty wildfires had burned close to 60,000 acres of western North Carolina forest land, a fact that amazes me even now as I ponder the devastation this pandemic has leashed on our world—all the lives lost, all the people trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of COVID, all the people whose lives can never be fully rebuilt. I do not find meaning in this destruction. I would not go that far. I see no silver lining, no lemonade to be made of lemons, whatever metaphor you want to use. But there are moments of staggering beauty in the midst of so much pain, and in those moments when life is hardest, I have come to believe that beauty and grace exist side by side, that in one, we find the other, beauty with grace, grace with beauty. Still, when I consider how to move forward, I am often overwhelmed. Where do I begin? Where do we begin?
For me, as for Rich, the answer lies in the woods and on the page, where mystery and certainty, desolation and beauty live in harmony, where scorched forest floors give way to hillsides full of lady slippers, and wildfires morph into brilliant psychedelic displays. I may not be able to fix a single thing, to ease anyone’s grief or abate anyone’s fears, but perhaps if I keep showing up and doing the work of writing my truth on this page, you will see that you are no longer alone, and then you will write something I will read, and I will see that I am no longer alone. The destruction will not be less, you see. But we will be beautiful in spite of it.