But Not of Stillness

The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

from: The Rock by T. S. Eliot (1934)

Being There

Buffalo Mountain from the Blue Ridge Parkway / Digital Photo / Fred First / Floyd County, Virginia<br data-recalc-dims=” border=”0″ height=”502″ hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ width=”333″ />
I’m feeling a bit of grief over taking the path of greatest comfort on Thursday instead of suffering to get the shot. The place my tripod should have been was the spot from which this image was taken back in October. However, on this particular January day–when I was interviewing the Park District Supervisor nearby–the winds were spitting snow sideways and the chill factor was near zero.

In the distance, even from the Park Service office, you could see several distinct snow squalls in the distance, the soft slant of snow a gunpowder blue against steel gray mountains. Patches of sunlight broke through here and there.

But the wind was so fierce, I could barely open the car door. A tripod would have been useless without a cinder block strapped to the central post.

And yet, I should have driven to the half mile to Saddle Gap overlook and sat in the car and at least watched the weather play out from that high place, even if I couldn’t bring home the imagery in the camera.

I shouldn’t let the technology drive the experience. Sometimes, the higher priority needs to be the being there. No pen. No computer. No camera. Just vision. And imagination. And memory. (Click for larger size picture)

Pennyroyal: The Smell of Winter

image copyright Fred First

I know, as recent landscape shots here go, this is a drab little composition–notable neither for color or form. But if posting this non-descript image leads you to discover Pennyroyal, you will share with me one of my deepest emotional connections with these mountains: the smell of winter.

While this “winter” so far is the exception, most Januarys offer little in the way of either color or fragrance. As I describe this in Slow Road, the olfactory landscape–the aromasphere–is a barren place, unless you go looking, or rather sniffing, for the smells of winter.

Along Nameless Creek, on the briskiest days of the cold months, there’s always a spicebush twig at hand to scratch and sniff. And along the Middle Trail, if you know where to look, you can find a stem of yellow birch (or sweet birch) whose inner bark when revealed by a thumbnail scratching staggers the winter walker to another realm of perception–a kind of smelling salts to wake us from our hibernation inside our wraps of wool and down.

But for me, it is Pennyroyal that sends its musty minty tendrils deepest into that place where winter fragrance and memory live together in a way that only smells preserve. This particular plant carries an emotional weight so powerful it made me cry once upon a time.

In 1989, we had left the mountains and moved back to my home town of Birmingham. I was fully immersed in 14 hour days of physical therapy classes and labs, as absorbed in obligation and unreachable to myself as I have ever been, with a singlemindedness of purpose that comes when we know that, if we look down from our precarious balance in all we’ve taken on, we will surely fall.

In a rare moment, I slowed down enough one day to pull from the shelf near my desk a book other than a textbook. It was an old favorite of mine: Maurice Brooks’ book, The Appalachians. It opened effortlessly to a page marked by a pressed plant: pennyroyal from back home–from a place, a time and a personal identity I could barely remember.

I lifted the flattened sprig from between the pages, and crushed a small whorl of drab brown flowers between my fingers, and inhaled, and was undone. How fully and effortlessly it carried me back to place I had made myself pretend had never existed.

So often back home in the Virginia we’d left perhaps forever, I had secretly plucked the dry inverted candelabra of a plant from a stony bank of a favorite trail and later hidden in my cupped hands, and stuck it under one of the kids’ noses. “What is it?” I asked them, pop-test fashion.

They always responded with the name of a bird or salamander or such, just to pretend they couldn’t be bothered to remember such silly lore. But they remembered: the sense of smell and power of memory will see to that. And I remembered as I put the pressed plant back between the pages of that book with tears in my eyes.

So for you, should you discover it now that you have seen it, this plant may offer only a pleasant aromatic instant. For me, Pennyroyal embodies the southern mountains in its chemistry and its magic, and this is just part of the thousand words in the worth of this simple picture.

Gravity and The Flow of Things

image copyright Fred First
I left the feet of the tripod unmoved on the sandy bar beside Nameless Creek where yesterday’s image was taken. Turned ninety degrees, the lens pointed downstream to follow the flow of spring water south. Just beyond where the creek disappears in the middle of this image, it will curve gently to the left following the edge of the pasture back toward the house, then on north and east to join first Goose Creek before passing across our neighbor’s place, then Bottom Creek just beyond the Floyd County line. Together, they form the South Fork of the Roanoke River.

Crossing our little creek in my green rubber boots today, I stepped in water that last night seeped through dark crevices in bedrock underground. And a week from now, that same water will flow into the salty Atlantic by way of the James.

Having creeks in our back yard makes me feel a part of this predictable and regular cycle and of never-the-same-river transience and change. I can sit on the creek bank and think on these things for a half hour a few times each week and never tire of it. Where does it come from? Where does it go: time, memory, and Nameless Creek?