Tag Archives: hemlock

My own medicine

Well, I have been asked to take a dose of my own medicine. In accepting her nomination for the Liebster Award, BeKindRewrite  requested that I answer my own five questions. Considering her thoughtful answers, this request is perfectly fair. She didn’t even tack on any new questions of her own! Yet. Maybe I shouldn’t give her ideas.

For the purpose of answering these questions, I am going to exclude anything Tolkien. This should make my answers less predictable.

1. If you could walk into a book and make a home there, where would that home be, what would it be like, and what sort of people/creatures would you try to befriend? Specifics would be fun and you can give more than one answer if you like.

I would love to live in Brockhall, from Brian Jacques’s Redwall series (I have not read them all). First off, it is in a tree and partly underground. I’ve always wanted to live in a tree and underground. It is located in a woodland, it sounds quite comfortable, and contains delicious food and talking badgers. Sure, one has to face the occasional violent hoard passing through the woods, but that’s life. The world contains squirrel militia, friendly moles and hedgehogs, and playful otters.

I would also like to see P. G. Wodehouse’s stylized 1920’s, but I am on the fence as to whether or not I would like to live there. It might be just a bit too silly.

2. Name a food you have read about, but never eaten, that you have since wanted to try. It doesn’t have to actually exist. What, in the reading, piqued your interest?

Deeper’n’Ever pie. A savory pie made of veggies. It’s fairly mundane, as far as food from a book goes (it is from the above-mentioned Redwall series), but it always sounds so homey, comforting and satisfying.

3. Do you have a favorite plant? If so, what is it and why do you like it so much?

I do. I have several, in fact.

My favorite tree is the Eastern Hemlock. No, it did not kill Socrates. That was a different Hemlock. The Eastern Hemlock is not poisonous. In any case, it is shapely, feathery, smells like spicy, piney heaven, and has pinecones the size of a penny that open or close depending on the humidity. Magnolia Grandiflora and Juniperus Virginiana come in at close seconds.

It is hard to decide my favorite flower, but I will go with the old fashion daffodil. Early, bright yellow with a long, narrow trumpet and a smell unlike any of its compatriots. Sweet, but with just enough bitterness to avoid being sickening. This particular flower, whose cultivar I do not know, is tough as nails and it opens just when I really need some brightness and sweetness after the winter gray.

My favorite non-flower, non-tree, is the Venus Fly Trap. It is kind of creepy, but awesome. I wish #@$#$%#s would stop harvesting them from the wild, else we might lose them all together. If you ever think of buying an insectivorous plant (fly-trap, sundew, pitcher plant) make sure you know where it comes from. Buy only from dealers who make it clear that they propagate their own stock.

4. What fictional character is your favorite hero (male or female), and what villain really scares you and why?

Barring anyone from the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, I would have to say Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. She may not do much that is “heroic” in the story, but she is telling the story, and that is a kind of heroism. I probably love Scout because I can relate to her. I was a similar mix of tom-boy, thinker and impulsive foot-in-the-mouther as a child.

Another hero of mine would be Henry V from William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. I know little about the real man, but the way he is portrayed by the Bard has oft caught my imagination. In his titular play, he shows a wide range of character, sensitive, thoughtful, courageous and stern. He makes decisions that are personally painful to him, because he believes them to be right.

As for a villain who truly frightens me, I would say Jack, from Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. It is telling that I read the book so long ago that I had forgotten his name, and the name of the protagonist. What I have not forgotten is the manipulative, violent, and vicious nature of this boy, that grows worse and worse as he deteriorates, carrying most of the other boys with him into murderous barbarism. Yes, he is only a child. In that sense, he may not be much of a threat, but the inhumanity within humanity that he represents is not to be taken lightly.

5. There is a crossroad at your feet. Behind you lies the path back to home and hearth (wherever that might be). The road directly ahead leads to a city, blue in the distance, settled among hills and on the edge of a bright inland sea. To your right lies a steep climb into old, low mountains clothed in forest and fern. To your left is rolling farmland that eventually flattens out into broad plains dappled by the clouds overhead. You can go as far as you like on any of the roads (even farther than you can see), including back home. There’s no wrong answer, only the where and why.

Ah yes. I know a little more about this theoretical place than the poor people I inflicted it on. It matters little, though, because ignorant or informed, I would go to my right. Mountains you say? Low, old, and covered in fern and tree? That is the road for me. I bet there are even hemlocks higher up, and staghorn lichen and moss.


Mountain Song

When I die, if I do so before the coming of my Lord, bury me in the sandy loam of the Smoky Mountains.

Golden sand worn from the peaks fills gaps between fallen leaves and makes  patterns in impatient creeks. Touch the stones, run the sand through your hand and you will hear them whisper in the language of mankind before the Tower of Babel, the tongue from before the breaking of words.

I have heard it said, usually by folks from the West where young, fractious mountains reach skywards, that the Smokies are too low, too unimpressive to be “real” mountains.  I can only laugh. Certainly the Rockies, the Cascades and their western siblings possess the energy and power of youth.  Just so, the Smokies once were young, volatile, and dramatic. In the way of all ancient things, they traded the glory of youth for the majesty of age.  Aeon echos in the hollows and the coves, and shows in the sand and on the smooth-worn stones. Mountains endure.

If slanting, many-hued boulders, chunks of quartz, caves and sand were all of the Smokies, the mountains would awe, but not renew me. Far from withering in their age, they are covered with life as with blizzard snows, layer on layer. As I walk, a hemlock tree dusts my shoulder, a pine rises, scaly and straight, and an  oak holds its branches, like frozen lightning, over me. Mosses and lichens coat stone and soil, save where mushrooms break through, or leaves lie too thick. A dogwood spangles the understory, answered by a partridgeberry creeping across the loam. Aster, firepink, trillium and indian-pipe hide around corners to surprise me, while dark rhododendrons and laurels weave their branches into nests for the ghost of Noah’s raven.

I can sit with my back against the fossils of the long-lost sea and watch an island colony of grasses and flowers thrive on a boulder mid-stream. Across the water, a low cliff recalls the violence that tore it from surrounding bedrock and left it tilted with its flank bare. That flank is veined with quartz and streaked with iron and coal. The gravel of the stream below looks like sunken treasure with rocks for gold and bronze and fish for silver and jewels. Then there are the dragonflies.

There are footprints of animals in the muddy places, feathers and bones here and there. Often enough, the creatures themselves can be seen, despite their wary quickness. The birds converse noisily and the streams are quietly full of life. I know of a place where an old truck lies moldering, doubtless used by log-poachers venturing into the park, and abandoned for reasons forgotten. There are bullet holes in the cab, but whether from target-practice or a shoot-out, who knows? The engine sits beside the truck, rusted and covered with leaves. There is a bird’s nest in the cavity of one headlight.

That is one part-hidden thing about the Smokies. Their history is interwoven loveliness and brutality. Human suffering has not been absent, nor the ravaging of beauty and plenty in ignorance or greed. Both have visited often, and visit still. The mountains shrug. The signs of anguish and destruction are assimilated. For all our destruction, even smashing the mountains’ heads with explosives (what crimes humans commit for profit), Time is on the mountains’ side. Perhaps their history is so long and deep that our short time on them encompasses only a few lines in a book of many volumes. Insignificant.

The mountains have a brutality all their own, the natural cruelty of the natural world. Their allure would shame Helen of Troy, their gentleness comforts many a forlorn heart, and their caprice has often broken and killed. Many believe that there are ghosts in the mountains. If so, there is good reason. Yet I love the mountains enough to haunt them myself, at least while I live.

There are secrets as closely hidden as ghosts. I have learned some, and shall never learn all.  In a certain season, under right conditions beneath the thick trees at night, the blue-ghost fireflies wake. They are will-o-the-wisps, faint points of steady, cold light drifting a foot or two above the forest floor.  I have seen them more than once, and every time I feel I am in a world between worlds and beyond time.

And then there is the world below, with graceful creatures born in profound darkness. Into narrow passages, muddy pits, cold depths and palaces of lonely glory, life has made its way. The mountains are so riddled with holes and running water that it is a wonder they stand. No one knows the full measure of those caverns, caves and chasms.

There are as many secrets of the light. Flowers, rarely seen, bloom along the high trails and in what remains of the old-growth forests. Trees with more character than the most colorful human are not difficult to find, nor are rock-faces that bend and buckle to make mosaics more fascinating than the Byzantines.  Salamanders in jewel-colors hide among the rocks and leaves. There are sheer walls thick with colonies of moss and flower, and streams that curve and tumble through labyrinthine channels in long-suffering boulders. I know a place where reindeer lichen and thick moss wage a quiet, endless war.  In short, there is no inch of sameness, no possibility of monotony.

Old and young are seamlessly interwoven in these mountains, and memory and present life merge.  But in the end, they are just mountains, aren’t they?


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