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Posts Tagged ‘Great Smoky Mountains National Park’

Tonya and Roseann found them: wings scattered beside the river bank. Dozens and dozens of wings, bright yellow with stark black bars and fingerprints of orange and blue along the margins. Where had they come from?

Our entire class trooped over to observe. Leaf sized wings strewn on boulders at the north point of Girl Scout Island, Middle Prong of Little River, weekend naturalist skills course, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, perfect setting for our mission: not to know an answer but to learn to question. “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why were they here?

Only wings, no butterfly bodies. Had they congregated here to die? No dark females’ wings — were the males puddling, gleaning minerals for their spermatophores, and then attacked? Or had some devious predator collected the wings and brought them here to mystify us?

We crouched beneath the sycamore and hemlock while the mountain stream raced and chattered beside us. We parted the grasses, looked under rocks, collected a few wings and peered with our hand lenses. We paid attention. We were astonished.

Swallowtail wings

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The naturalist method and poetry have something in common. We want truth but we want to experience it directly. We make connections. We let light shine in dark places. And if we discover an answer it will likely bring with it not only a dollop of new knowledge but more than a dollop of wonder.

Susan Laughter Meyers has been a person and poet who has filled me with wonder. When her ultimate collection, Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, was published this year, two years after her untimely death, its poetry opened my heart and my mind again to the mystery and power of words. She was a fierce observer of the earth and all that is in it, the heron’s plume, the subtle change of hour, of season. And she was an uncompromising naturalist of the soul. In subtle phrase and in lancing stab she uncovers the dark places within us.

And lets in the light.

Oh, and as she reminds us, and as we beside the river finally remembered, besides looking back we must not forget to look up.

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If Not Birds Dodging Loneliness

The bluest ones in an open sky
fan reveries with their wings.
Dream time, that’s what they inhabit —
fabulous as the past and its dingy veils

I wore in a favorite childhood game:
dress-up with the girl whose father
ran a funeral home. The newest shroud
had no holes to trip us, one a princess

the other a bride. The least breeze
and the shroud would ripple, barely
kissing the skin. Wasn’t that a dalliance
to wish for? On days when birds soar

toward light, when they tip and wheel
and turn until they silhouette,
you’d think they’re being chased.
Or if not birds dodging loneliness,

then memories loosed into view.
Like the ones of a blindfolded
child with stick or pin-and-tail in hand,
steering toward a prize, when to win

the game is to break something
or make something whole again.
Fringed and fleeting, such remnants,
though the world is full of them.

There are moments in my life
when gravitating toward feels the same
as ducking from. Moments when,
for recompense, I look back. Or up.

 

Susan Laughter Meyers
from Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, Press 53, 2019

Smokies - Tremont

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The quotation “Pay attention . . . ” is excerpted from the poem Sometimes by Mary Oliver, from Red Bird, Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, page 37.

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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June 1, 2012

This is Dan Lawler at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  May I speak to Bill Griffin?

Hi, I’m Bill.

Listen, Bill, it’s about your back country permit.  You’re not going to be able to stay at Cosby Knob Shelter on June 9.

What is it? Too many hikers?

No, too much bear activity.  A bear tore up a couple of hikers’ . . . packs.  We’re closing the shelter for a month or two until he gets the message and moves on.  Those Cosby Creek bears – ha, ha – they give us problems every spring.

Ah . . . well . . . that’s fine.  I’m not all that fond of sleeping with bears.

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July 23, 2000

Today Mary Ellen and I embarked on the Great Sibling Bonding Adventure.  My sister and I spent a week backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mtn., GA to Deep Gap, NC, something shy of 100 miles.  Growing up separated in age by six years we never spent much time together, never had a lot in common.  Now we’re sweating up every steep ridge together, eating out of the same pot, sleeping in the same little tent.

Along the way we count the birds and name the wildflowers, and make up names if we don’t recognize them.  We make supper in pitch dark at Gooch Gap.  We make up funny songs (“Nothing Like a Log” to the tune of “Nothing Like a Dame”).  We make it to Muskrat Creek Shelter on our last night and celebrate Mary Ellen’s thirty-eleventh birthday with a stale cake I’ve stashed in my pack all week.  We make friends.

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June 8, 2012

Now it’s Friday morning and we’re cinching up our hip belts at Big Creek ranger station to head into the back country again.  Last month Mary Ellen called me and said she was overdue for some big brother quality time.  We broke out the trail maps and chose a non-old-guy-destructive three-day loop in GSMNP.  Since we’ve been shut out of Cosby Knob by the bears, we’ll hike 5 1/2 miles to Walnut Bottom and spend both nights there, Big Creek chuckling beside us.  On Saturday we’ll hike a ten-mile loop that takes us up to the AT and right past the bear-haunted trail shelter (and while we fill our bottles from the spring there we’ll keep whistling the entire time).

We’ll name every flower, tree and shrub — in twelve years damn if Mary Ellen hasn’t learned them all, right down to the Latin binomials.  After supper we’ll hang our food up high, and while dusk settles into Walnut Bottom we’ll sit on mossy creek boulders, sip mint tea with powdered milk, and wonder if the bears have discovered unattended dinners on the Tennessee side of the ridge.  Or if at this very moment they’re watching us from within the dog hobble and rhodies, just waiting for full dark . . .

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Bear

If you hear me, it will be a nut falling
from the buckeye.  If you hear me,
it will be a dry branch
seeking earth,
it will be slender fingers
of mountain ash waving praises
to the ridgelined sky.

If you see me, it will be a shadow
only one breath deeper
than twilight.
If you see me, it will be the twist
of heart that skips
a beat, the stark
of pupils gone abruptly wide.

I am mist that enfolds the laurel.
I am stone that reclines beneath black hemlocks.
I am a rumor at Maddron Bald,
a tremor at Mt. Guyot.

Raven is mistaken – this Ridge is mine.

And if you hear me, it will be the rising chest
of the mountain and its timeless slow
exhale,
and if you hear me
it will only be because
I didn’t hear you first.

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Afterword

In some twenty years of backpacking the Southern Appalachian mountains and Great Smokies, I’ve encounered a bear exactly once.  Mike Barnett and I were hiking without the noisy accompaniment of teenagers.  We’d set up camp one evening and I had walked back up the trail to spot some birds.  I’d been standing completely still for about twenty minutes, waiting for a Pileated Woodpecker I’d been hearing to show itself, when I heard a soft crack behind me.  I figured it was a buckeye falling.  Crack again.  I turned.  Slowly.  Twenty feet from me a large black mass with a pointed nose was staring towards camp where Mike was fixing supper.

And where did that happen?  Cosby Knob shelter.  That night I wrote the first draft of Bear in the AT log book and next morning left it in the shelter.

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and a p.s. . . .

Hey Sister — I’m looking closer at all the wildflower photos we took and I believe we saw BOTH lesser and greater purple fringed orchids!   (Platanthera psychodes and grandiflora).    —    your Bro

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[Bear first appeared in the journal Cave Wall, and was the first poem I wrote in the collection Snake Den Ridge, a Bestiary (March Street Press, 2009.]

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