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.



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.