Scenes on St. Stephen’s Day

It was a white Christmas in Knoxville this year; the third snow of the season, which is a lot for this part of the world. The high country to the east of the city has been snowed under now for the better part of a month, give or take a few days of warming spells. While we have promise of warmer weather come New Years (and perhaps a less frigid Epiphany than the last couple of years, which made for very chilly Blessings of the Waters), the snow is still lingering even under the radiance of the sun.

 

 

Fall Comes to the Mountains

Fall is nearing the peak of color here in the Southern Appalachians this weekend, or at least we suspect it is. Despite spending the day in the Smokies, my comrades and I caught very few glimpses of the mountains themselves, other than the bits (wet and muddy!) beneath our feet, as the hills were living up to their name and sat wrapped in mist and cloud all day. Still beautiful, as I hope you’ll judge from the photos below.

This fall is cooler and wetter than last year; it was nearing freezing in the highcountry when we left this evening, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the year’s first snowfall occurs this weekend. Even here in the Tennessee Valley we are supposed to reach near freezing for the next several nights. Winter is looming up close by; last winter had some bitterly cold (spectacular in the mountains) stretches, and we imagine this winter will be even deeper and colder.

If you do feel compelled to visit these mountains in the fall (the loveliest on the continent, by my lights, but I’m biased), do be warned that the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge entrance to the Smokies is absolutely hellacious this time of year. The other entrances, and the rest of the Southern Appalachians really, are comparatively decent and less congested.

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On the way up the Trillium Gap Trail, on the slopes of Mt. LeConte.

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The trail along Brushy Mountain, a spur of Mt. LeConte covered in dense heath bald; some days with lovely views, but today socked in with cloud.

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Grotto Falls, on the way up the Trillium Gap Trail.

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Spider web up on Brushy Mountain.

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Grotto Falls from the other side of the creek; the trail passes behind the falls and stays fairly dry in the process.

The Light and the Fish

Down a dark, narrow little side street in the Fes medina there is a tunnel, old solid cedar beams straddling overhead holding up whatever structure stands above- what exactly is not clear when coming down the street from Tella Kabira, the main drag through the medina. Upon emerging on the other side, if you look back and up, you can see one of the most remarkable little architectural gems in Morocco, in my opinion, the Ayn al-Khayl Mosque, which dates back at least to the time of the 12th-13th century Muslim mystic and esoteric philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi, and is presumably older than that. While I know of at least one other mosque in Fes that straddles a street- it’s way across the valley in the Andalusian quarter- this little mosque also stands out for its octagonal minaret (I only saw one other in the rest of Morocco), and the evocative flame-shaped moldings around the tiny windows that march up the minaret towards the sky. That, and it was in this mosque, its tiny prayer hall perched above the street, that Ibn ‘Arabi spent much of his time while sojourning in Fes, and where he experienced repeated mystical visions. It is also home, within its elevated courtyard, to a spring- the Ayn of the name- in which, it is said, a mysteriously large fish appeared one day, some thirty years ago. And while there’s no word of al-Khidr having shown up in the area, there is a wonderful vegetable and fruit market a couple blocks over.

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Summer Around the City

The following are a few shots I took while biking around Knoxville a couple afternoons ago, most of them within a mile or two of my house. Back in the late forties an American travel writer dubbed our fair city the ugliest in America, which words spurred the city notables to action. In time the beautification, if that’s what we want to call it, of Knoxville would include the Sunsphere (see below)- a structure that is- well, let’s just say it’s charming in a kitschy-I-see-it-everyday-so-I-have-to-like-it way. Maybe. At any rate, the scruffy little city- another epithet it was given in the later half of the twentieth century (in the first half it was known as the Underwear Capital of the World, for what that’s worth)- is actually a quite pretty little city, if you know where to look.

Maybe even including the Sunsphere.

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I had driven by the old- built in 1905- Louisville and Nashville depot nearly every day since moving to Knoxville and had been telling myself almost every time that I needed to stop and have a look. I finally got around to it- the delay mainly caused by the awkward location the depot is now in, with the construction of a major intersection hard against it; it’s no longer in the route of too many people on foot or bike, so it has to be searched out. But it’s an absolutely beautiful building that deserves greater use than it’s currently getting (the city’s main public library may be moving there, I’ve heard).

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Overpass in the Old City; while the ridiculous tangle of over-sized highways slicing through downtown is agravating, I still find the interplay of the stark lines and colours of overpasses with the sky.

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The infamous Sunsphere. As mentioned above, our giant disco ball on a stick does start to grow on you after a while.

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Flowers at the roadside: left, primroses in the Island Home neighborhood;  right, wild parsnip (?) in the Old City.

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Wonderful house and garden over here near Morningside. The glass-block mail box is just brilliant.

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Primroses again.

Below: sort of posing cat atop a car in Island Home, and the Gay Street Bridge, looking back at downtown.

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Finally, a piece of roadside art/graffiti I seredipitiously chanced upon in Island Home. I’ve had a project of sorts in my head for a few months now: to document all the religiously-themed graffiti I come across, and if I can- though this is much less likely- find people who have actually inscribed religious graffiti. The stuff is pretty ubiquitious down here- and elsewhere, and has been for a long time, whether in the simple ‘Jesus Saves’ stencils that dot the interstate from here to New Orleans or in the prayers of pilgrims in medieval shrines East and West. Anyway, this particular instance is interesting not just for the seeming contradiction of religious graffiti- it’s still technically vandalism and all that- but also the fusion of religious imagery, in this case Scripture reference (and maybe the cryptic, to me anyway, words ‘1st Nature’), with nationalist American imagery. It’s also a pretty impressive piece of street art- even though it’s pretty well hidden down a retaining wall.

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Palimpsests, Contested Land, and Spring Comes to the Mountains

I love every season in the mountains, and if you asked me what my favorite season to be in the hills is my answer would probably be whatever season it is at the time. Spring is probably the most exhilarating season though, particularly after a harsh winter: you can feel the life springing up out of the ground, the woods and peaks starting to stir and throb with new life. This weekend the hills are just starting to show the signs of spring- the ice is almost all gone from the high country (just a few icicles and patches of frozen ground left in the shadows), wildflowers are blooming up almost to the high peaks, and down in the valleys the patches of new green and blooms are covering larger and larger spaces.

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Early spring is one of the best times of the year to trace out the vast array of palimpsests that lie under the forests of the Southern Appalachians, before the thick growth of summer temporarily buries them yet further under the resurgent forest. Up almost every little valley and cove, if you look hard enough, you can find the traces of the people who once dwelt here, who pushed into the mountains up from the Piedmont of the Carolinas or down from Virginia, and cut and slashed their way into the often harsh and unforgiving landscape. In the Smokies, and in many other ranges and valleys, there are no more people- none at all in the Smokies, thanks to Federal policy that bought up and ran off (or let die out) the land owners. In other parts of the Southern Appalachians there are few or no people thanks to the hardscrabble nature of this land- after a century or so, the attraction of outside work was too strong, and the valleys and coves emptied out.

There are a variety of forms of writing, to continue my metaphor of the palimpsest, that still show up under the trees. Piles and rows of stones are the most obvious, usually- stone walls in various states of disrepair, disheveled stacks that mark old chimneys, disorganized piles along old fields, testaments to what had to have been back-breaking labour of digging up and clearing out the product these hills grow best. Occasionally bits of structures remain- spring coverings, foundations, less ambiguous signs than the often random-looking rows and piles of rock. Here and there are the stone marking graves, some of them still tended by the descendants of the people buried there, the names on the stones the last link of individual persons to the land in which they now lie waiting the Resurrection.

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There are other signs- day-lilies and ivy, rose bushes and periwinkles, living markers descended from the plants brought with the people who once dwelt here. If there were no other records, we would know this much- whoever dwelt here cared about the appearance of their farmsteads, hardscrabble as they might be. You don’t eat ivy or day-lilies- they make your home more civilized, more settled. They are markers- though doubtless whoever planted them didn’t have this in mind- that persist, that have struggled against the return of the native forest: the day-lilies and roses have themselves become native, as the people who lived here had been, slowly, settling into the landscape. And like everything else in this landscape, they are in flux, rising and falling with the seasons, spreading and retracting, struggling, living.

The old fields and roads show up too, more subtly than the above signs, but clear enough if you’re looking for them. In cove after cove, even-aged tulip poplars grow like the corn stalks they’ve replaced; in some places the furrows of the fields are still visible under the fallen leafs and new humus. All through the hills old roads and paths still wind through the valleys and over ridges, appearing and disappearing; here and there modern trails lie on top of them, as people with very different lives and intentions follow them. But we leave eventually, returning to our homes elsewhere, in a different world, a different land.

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Finally, this is contested land. The signs of the Cherokee, and whoever might have come before them, are almost entirely invisible now. A few names of streams and mountains, mutated under the hand of English, survive on maps; in some of the lower valleys more tangible traces appear, or used to appear. But otherwise there is little left but the absence. The people who displaced the Cherokee are more visible, who wrested control of the land and gradually too became native to the place. The lumber companies who fought their way up the valleys- contesting the land perhaps most of all- still speak through the hills, but their traces are even more ephemeral than the settlers, now reduced mostly to railroad beds and bits of cable and a few scattered cinders; the forest is largely healed. The farmers themselves were challanged and driven out by the combined power of economic difficulties and the force of the Federal government; the transposition of old roads and modern National Park Service trails are testimony of this struggle. The signs of the Park Service often overlay the old signs- reused trails, place names, old cabins and houses marked by interpretive signs and tourist grafitti. One day, no doubt, these signs will also be subsumed by mountains, as the forest- enduring in its presence if not its form- swallows up this latest assembly of signs, and new ones- or perhaps none- replace them, and our contemporary presence recedes into the scattered memory of the hills.

Comparative Spaces, Sounds: Frogs, at Fes and at Seven Islands

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The road here passes alongside the big green liminal space that lies between Fes al-Bali- the oldest part of the Old Medina- and Fes al-Jedid, the rather newer (fourteenth century) construction that once housed the Sultan and Fes’ Jewish community. Today the King still has a residence but all that remains of the Jewish community are a couple synagogues and the white-washed cemetery.

The region between the two halves of the city is mostly covered in green space, with the old water channels- the restructured pieces of the streams that made Fes a desirable city in the beginning. Now they are home to at least a few frogs, who start to show up as spring evenings warm and lean towards summer. I passed through one evening as the crowds along the avenue were thinning out and the frogs starting up, down in the warm, mucky green water of the canals, fresh and vigorous against the late medieval bulwarks behind. I thought- here, at the edge of the desert (the dust was already starting to intrude, coming in through the open window of my bedroom, and the shopkeepers beginning their war upon dust in the streets), under the weight of the centuries of the city, are frogs, singing, as they have no doubt been singing under these walls for centuries, as the mulberries come into leaf. Kids run by, one chasing a ball (maybe they are the same kids I would see climbing the mulberries gathering fruit and leaves?); a single car mumbles by, the crowd moves along, laughing, calling, the snatches of Maghrebi Arabic ring in my ears. Frogs, children, the vigorous clip-clip of Maghrebi, spring over all- life, wonder, the ancient, the eternal, what I know, and what I can only listen to, and feel.

Frogs, near Fes al-Jedid. Spring, 2008.

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A few weeks ago the weather briefly- it’s now turned back cold- warmed, the sun came out, and the weeks of bitter cold passed into memory. It was warm enough that, for a few days at least, the frogs came out along the banks of the French Broad River at the Seven Islands Refuge, a Knox County park east of town. I was coming down the big limestone ridge towards the river when I heard the frogs singing, filling up the still wintry looking woods and fields. I scrambled down to the edge of the little flood-water pond, its quiet waters having swallowed up part of the trail and the clumps of weeds and brush. This also is a sort of liminal space, stuck between the wooded ridge behind and the river banks beyond, the pond precarious and temporary, the frogs unexpected- frogs in February? Where did they come from- I suppose frogs hide in the mud during the cold- what woke them?

The frogs seemed to be spread out in a line up and down the little pond, rising and falling in their song. I squatted beside the water and listened, closed my eyes, breathed the spring, the return to life, the womb of water and the song, all things bright and beautiful and alive.

Frogs, Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge. February 2009.

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Fire From the Mountain

Winter has descended with a vengeance on the Tennessee Valley; the weather report from the Smokies informs me that snow has been hanging around up in the high country for a few weeks now. This morning my car door was frozen shut. More cheerfully, sunsets lately have been spectacular. Down on the terrestrial level the leaves are off the trees and most of the herbaceous plants are dead and dried out. But those things also are beautiful.

Also: it is the middle of Advent Fast, the school semester and the year itself are near their end, the economy is on the rocks, and snow is supposed to fall in a couple of nights and the seasons will swing around again and it will be Advent again and again until the End.

First the sunset, from House Mountain just north of Knoxville. These are colours to think the Apocalypse in:

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Now, the wintery weeds and other things, from the Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge:

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Oh: and for a bonus, some appropriate wintry music: Horse Feathers, Curs in the Weeds. And Fleet Foxes, White Winter Hymnal.

Rainy Day in Sefrou

Sefrou is a fairly small town south of Fes, placed between the grand valley of Fes and the Middle Atlas. One approaches Sefrou from Fes through rolling groves of olives, mostly, the citadel-shaped mountain that stands guard over the town drawing closer and closer. The town itself sits in a little valley, with the rolling expanse of the Middle Atlas spreading behind; a stream drops down from the hills alongside, over a lovely little (and much locally celebrated) waterfall, and through the Old Medina (where it serves pretty much as a garbage chute, unfortunately). The entire time I was in Morocco this little river was full of water, and Sefrou and its surronding countryside was incredibly green. Walking around the edge of town I was always struck by how incongrous all the greenery- oaks and ivy even!- was in comparison to the usual image of North Africa as all desert and barren mountains: a far cry from reality.

Nor is it all sunshine and heat, as this set of photos relates. I took them on my first full day in Morocco- a wet, cold, and continually rainy day. I had spent the night in Fes after taking a plane to Tangier and then train to Fes; after checking in with the Arabic institute in the morning I trudged through the rain, down the street past Fes’ regal McDonalds, and confidently got in a grand-taxi bound for Sefrou. When I arrived, the rain that had harried me on my trek to the grand-taxi stand in Fes was still pouring down, so I sat in my little hotel room and looked out the window, wondering if had in fact ended up not in North Africa but perhaps England or Ireland. After a while I could stand no more sitting about, so I put on my raincoat and set out into the little medina, where I got lost (not for long- it’s hard to stay lost in Sefrou’s diminutive medina) and thoroughly drenched. In the meanwhile I took these photos, which are a bit drab, thanks to the rain, and work-a-day in their subject matter, I suppose. However, as I was looking back over this set today- inspired by the advent of cool, rainy weather here in Tennessee- I thought that they give a nice snapshot of ordinary medina life, and all the wonderful colours and shapes you can see, and perhaps a hint of the sounds and tastes and smells and feelings attendent to the seen things: the marvelously rich- moreso than any other urban place I’ve visited in the world- sensory experience of the Moroccan medina.

This is probably in the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter- Sefrou’s old Mellah takes up nearly half the Medina, though only a handful, if any Jews, now live there.

The robes some of the men in the photos have on are jellabas, the traditional, and quite functional, Moroccan outerwear.

In the always wonderful and aromatic (particularly compared to the meat sellers stalls…) vegetable and herb section of the suqs.

Along the outside of the walls, on the north side of the Medina.

In the evening, in one of the ridiculously narrow streets of the Mellah part of the Medina. It was rather cold by now, and I did not, alas, possess.