A friend is a descendent of Colonel Thomas Walker, (of Walker Mountain fame) who documented his southwestern Virginia “frontier” travels in a journal in the mid-18th century. Already by then, the native people of this area had disappeared—whether by disease, conflicts among tribes, or simply a desire to move on remains a mystery. It’s a fascinating journal, full of details about abundant lumber, freshwater resources, and impressive wildlife (probably surging in numbers as a response to a top-of-the-food-chain predator (humans) having recently departed. He writes of great quantities of deer, bear, elk in the thick old growth forests, that were easily hunted all along his party’s route from here into the regions we now know as Kentucky and Tennessee.
Only a handful of trees in this valley still exist that are even 150-200 years old. I guess they survived the hunger for wood by being too much trouble to access and harvest, or had the good fortune to not be desired for fuel or lumber. But the vast majority, like the humans and other creatures, breathed, added to the dynamic soup of the ecosystems as they grew, and in decay returned their energies to the earth. Just as the animal life and plant forms have changed, the precise shape of a river is always evolving. Generally the myriad creeks and streams of our watershed have poured into this river for many thousands of years. The mountains in the distance, eroded over eons, are far older. These Blue Ridge Mountains are the edge of the Appalachians, which once were among the tallest mountains on the planet. Geologic “earth-time” is hard for me to envision; cosmic “galactic-time” is almost the beyond my puny human comprehension.
On a recent walk with this view, I referred to the sculpture of steel cylinders (barely visible along the greenway in the center of this image) as teepee-like. Though the people of this region would have lived in long houses or bark covered round-shaped lodgings, to me it suggests the form of shelter commonly built by cultures in the center of the continent. My walking partner said he thought of it like the pyramidal logs of a campfire — or maybe just a pile of pipes! What we see is determined by our time, our interests, and the focus of the discreet lenses through which we look. I imagine our vision and circumstance also has to affect our memories.
Does the land hold memories; can we tap into them? Perhaps. Sometimes I certainly feel a presence. For billions of years the earth has spun in orbit, and for millions of years the winter sun has warmed the frosty grounds of these hillsides, constantly spurring the micro-organisms of the soil into microscopic activity. For thousands of years this river has mirrored the rays of light bent by clouds into glowing colors. Trees and plants have responded every year by slowly nurturing buds that patiently await spring thaws. During cold seasons, countless people, birds, large and small furry friends, and scaly critters have all sought clearings, perches, patches, and rocks to best absorb the morning warmth. Whether the details were noticed and stored by humans, ravens, turtles, or trout, as the wondrously interwoven dynamo of life churned on, I suspect the generous warm feeling seeped in, became part of each being, and nourished them for another day