Sunday, June 1, 2008

Gary Carden Muses on Mountain Changes


Plagued by insomnia, I got up around 6:00 one morning last week and went out to sit on my deck so I could watch the fog rise in my garden. In the dim light, I saw two young foxes playing in the freshly plowed dirt.They reminded me of kittens as they tumbled, wrestled and rolled in mock combat. Then, a plank in my deck creaked under my foot and they froze. They stared at me for an instant and then vanished, melting into the fog and undergrowth.
For a moment, I felt very privileged … even honored, you could say. Last year, while I was visiting a friend on the ridge behind Wal-mart, I came on a flock of wild turkeys standing quietly in a large grassy field. As they moved slowly across the field finally vanishing into the woods, I noted that in the background I could see clouds of dust, and I dimly heard the grind and thunder of bulldozers that were altering the shape of land along#107, converting meadows and farmland into acres ofconcrete. I asked my friend about the turkeys.
“They have no place to go,” she said. “This ridge is completely surrounded by development.”
Recently, another friend of mine told me that he had been vainly searching for “the smoke hole” in the Tuckaseigee community. “It used to be a kind of tourist attraction forty years ago.” He wondered if perhaps it had been bulldozed out of existence and that troubled him.
“You know, it was sacred to the Cherokees who believed that the smoke rising from the hole had curative powers. They said that the smoke came from an underground townhouse belonging to the Nunnihi, the immortal ones who are “protective spirits” of the Cherokees.”
He went on to note that in the old Cherokee myths, hunters who stood near the smoke hole in winter when the warm air melted the snow for a distance of five feet around the hole – those hunters claimed they heard drum beats and distant laughter.
“So, to stand there was to stand on the boundary of two different worlds – the temporal and the immortal.” Finally, he said, “I don’t think you can destroy places like that without paying for it.”
Just across the road, my neighbor has erected a huge sign that announces the sale of 34 acres of land. Who will buy it? What will they do with it? How will it affect my life? Two years from now, will I recognize the ridgeline of the woods across the road, or will it be transformed into condos, summer homes and convenience stores? Will the smell of honeysuckle and the trill of birds be replaced with the aroma of charred meat and the din of traffic?
Sitting on my deck, watching the shift of light from night to day, I have the definite feeling that we are all – foxes, wild turkeys and my neighbors – standing on the boundary between two worlds…. And we are facing eviction. Where will we go?


  1. Mr. Carden

    I totally agree we are standing on the fence line of our future.
    I don't know where we'll go-if you figure it out I want to know.

  2. The face of progress is not always pretty. But, who knows, you might learn to enjoy the early morning view of condos and commuters. The other alternative is to do what your Cherokee ancestors did--go hide deeper in the woods.

  3. No, thank ye, R. C. I've tried living with the condos and the early morning traffic up in Banner Elk and I didn't like it. The run-off from the condos killed the trout, land went to $6,000 a half-acre, the mom and pop stores closed and a hamburger costs $6.00. Where there had been no sounds at night but cow-bells in the pasture, there was now horns, traffic
    and sirens. The local people took your option and faded away, moving somewhere else. What was left was a forest of glittering condos and a puzzled host of new residents who discovered that the very thing that attracted them to the mountains was gone now.

  4. Great story, Gary. Resident Curmudgeon's comment on progress echoes something a Texas politician said a few years ago, “It's a lot like rape. As long as it's inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”

    In both cases, the advice seems a bit glib to me. I think it is finally becoming more clear to most reasonable people that the pursuit of what we have defined as Progress and Success in this culture has sown the seeds of our destruction. But I do believe there's a chance we can redefine Progress and Success. C. S. Lewis said it well, “We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.”

  5. It has always been interesting to me to watch progress destroy the very thing it hoped to possess. In St. Louis many years ago, I had a loft space like many artists in the area, and within a few years this dilapidated part of the city became trendy and artsy and very attractive to lawyers and doctors. Soon the developers saw an opportunity, the prices for space went up as they started rehabbing, and eventually all the artists were gone, needing to find cheaper space elsewhere. This brings to mind a story that is very sad, a story that the famous Carl Jung was touched very deeply by.

    The story follows, from the introduction of Robert A. Johnson’s book, “Owning Your Own Shadow.”

    “The water of life, wishing to make itself known on the face of the earth, bubbled up in an artesian well and flowed without effort or limit. People came to drink of the magic water and were nourished by it, since it was so clean and pure and invigorating. But humankind was not content to leave things in this Edenic state. Gradually, they began to fence the well, charge admission, claim ownership of the property around it, make elaborate laws as to who could come to the well, put locks on the gates. Soon the well was the property of the powerful and the elite. The water was angry and offended; it stopped flowing and began to bubble up in another place. The people who owned the property around the first well were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they did not notice that the water had vanished. They continued selling the nonexistent water, and few people noticed that the true power was gone. But some dissatisfied people searched with great courage and found the new artesian well. Soon that well was under the control of the property owners, and the same fate overtook it. The spring took itself to yet another place—and this has been going on throughout recorded history.”

    In issues like these, I must look toward wiser minds than my own. Chief Seattle stated in his famous address from 1854: "The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?"

    We all, as Americans, subscribe to this issue of "ownership." In that way, we are all responsible, all guilty. In Chief Seattle's closing remarks he makes a most poignant and chilling point:

    "When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?"

    This prophecy chills me. Did we start sowing our fate, this great land's fate, almost 300 years ago?

    A very fine book that reveals an extremely sobering perspective on this very issue, on where we are and where we are going is called, "Ishmael," by Daniel Quinn.

    I can only add to this the words I try to guide my own life by, the words of a great man, Gandhi, "Be the change you wish to see."

  6. I know that many, like Gary, who are natives of this beautiful land here in the Appalachians, must be broken hearted to see what is happening to this once peaceful and quiet place. But if we do nothing to protest this invasion of greed, we might as well move on. Over 45 percent of Clay county property belongs to people who live outside the county and state. Those are big time developers who come and buy up the land from greedy natives who want the money and don't care what will happen later. But those who still care sit back and say nothing and do nothing, and the greed continues to spread like an incurable disease. I overhear locals talking at the family restaurant about selling their land. "If I can get as much for mine as he can, I'll sell, too."
    So while we complain about the developers, the local people who are amazed at the prices offered for their farms, their homes, take the money and run.
    And so goes Progress as it is known in today's world. Not my kind of progress, but the kind material minded people believe in.

  7. Russell Banks tells a similar story..or parable...about a village that was blessed by a giant sacred fish that lived in a lake near a village in China. Anyone who drank the water in the lake was renewed and invigorated. As in the story mentioned by Lonnie, the town began to bottle the water and sell it to the distant city. The demand for the water became so great, the lake dried up and the sacred fish died. What had once been an Eden became a destroyed land filled with bottling plants that had nothing to sell.

  8. And it isn't just here in the southern Appalachians. We lived for nearly 45 years at the other end of this lovely ripple on the earth's crust in the Berkshires, and it's happening there too. Look what it took to make a belated law to protect the ridge lines themselves--that monstrosity in Avery County.

    The older I get, the more I admire the Brits' solution to all this, which has been to force burgeoning humanity to compact its impact and allow the "green zones" to be preserved between villages, cities, developments, and land-grabs. And they have a whale of a lot less space per capita in which to live. Can't somebody influence somebody in a legislature to get going on this? It's a stuggle that won't be resolved within a generation, so the sooner we can start, the better. The Nature Conservancy can't do it all!

  9. I would like to suggest that all of you go to the blog, RUMINATIONS FROM THE DISTANT HILLS. All you have to do is type that phrase into Google or any other search engine and it will take you to what may be the finest blog on the internet and it originates right here. This blog keeps track of everything that is happening (and shouldn't be happening) to our mountains. When you check, you will probably get some surprises since much of the information concerns stuff that is sneaking in under the radar. Please check it out!


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