The tears of yesterday set aside, with reflections upon language and leadership already considered, I can speak perhaps of but two final topics–the first I shall address tonight, and the other tomorrow.
It’s another special day today actually. It is the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s novel Silent Spring, the book that has been credited with the start of the modern environmental movement. Now, I’m not going to speak about the environmental movement today, but it will suffice for a wonderful starting point–and if before this you hadn’t heard of Rachel Carson, I encourage you to learn more about her.
After you read this, of course.
After our visit to the Kituwah Academy on Friday, we hiked along the Oconaluftee River Trail. This adventure began in Cherokee and ended somewhere in the Great Smokey Mountains. It wasn’t a hard hike, quite enjoyable actually, and it gave us an opportunity to get to know each other even better–outside of vans, outside of casinos, outside of language academies. Just each of us and all of nature.
I took photographs. I took many. It’s part of what helped me become such great friends with one of our other attendees, since she and I often hung back a bit to get that perfect shot of the sun falling through the leaves or to capture that interesting texture of moss covering wood.
When we stopped on a small shoreline for some rock skipping and Tarzan-inspired picture-taking, I felt inspired to sing songs from Pocahontas. Perhaps wildly stereotyped, but the message of not being able to step in the same river twice was suddenly very clear to me. Here was this river, and even if I should wade into its rushing waves, I would never be able to repeat the action more than once.
On some macroscopic level, it is possible, but in a metaphorical sense, what has flowed past us is already past and only new things persist. In this tumultuous time of life, this recognition of inherent chaos was somehow calming and even more so relaxing. Here I was presented with something of which I could never wholly grasp. And the lack of needing to try to control, that lack of ability to even warrant an attempt, was somehow rejuvenating as the wind washed over us and the leaves rustled.
On Saturday afternoon I got the chance to step into that river a second time. Some of the other guys and myself went for a swim, or what could be called a swim, considering the river’s depth. It was a lot like slipping into a pool of ice–not slipping over it, mind you, but into it. The water swelled up around you and gripped you with its cold-blooded hands, and yet it was not an insulting grasp.
It was quite beautiful actually.
Something of the cold reaches deep inside you, and in this pure unadulterated mountain stream, the purity is cathartic. The cold saps you of all power and places you squarely amid the open world itself. Towering over us were trees and river cane, and around us, leaves fell through the wind and splashed into the moving water before being swept aside. It was like dipping myself into the sacred springs of ancient cities, into the purifying hands of a god I could not see.
If only for a few minutes, I felt renewed and returned to my body. Perhaps it was the cold speaking. Perhaps it was the numbness rising up through my legs and into my torso. Perhaps it was the mountain air and excitement of the trip. Perhaps it was just me. But no matter the reasons, it was invigorating on many levels.
One of the most amazing moments was actually a trip we took after nightfall on Saturday up into the Blue Ridge Parkway until we found a rest stop where the vans pulled off and we poured out.
We gathered in a circle and our guides told us stories about the woods at night. If you watch long enough, you could see lantern lights floating through the trees, echoes of spirits from long ago. And then they told us a darker tale, of Spear Finger, an evil witch who stole the livers of the Cherokees and could disguise herself as anyone.
We took a few moments to stand in silence and watch the darkened mountains, which under the moon glistened in waves of spectral silver. After a moment I saw a light upon the horizon, near the top of the mountain. I shook my head in disbelief, looked elsewhere and looked back, and still saw the light until it vanished a moment later. I thought I saw a few others, but I chuckled to myself and insisted my eyes were just playing tricks on me–I was just seeing what I wanted to see.
Then our second guide asked us if we’d seen the light–and she and others pointed straight to where I had seen it myself.
Maybe it was a spirit we saw. Maybe it was something more rationally explained. Or maybe some great chance caused us all to see the same end. I like to think the first. It makes for a greater story to tell, and it makes for a deeper connection to the trip–a memory no one else could ever have or recreate. Something we all share with no reprise.
Sunday morning we drove all the way to the top of Water Knob, a mountain in the Blue Ridge, and then we hiked twenty minutes all the way up. And this wasn’t merely a scenic walk. It was a hike: at times we were walking almost vertically, and with every step we took, more and more of the mountains fell beneath us into oblivion.
We took pictures. Of course we took pictures.
At the very top, we could peer out and see everything. I should think the angels in heaven have a similar view of the earth, close but at a distance, near enough to see the details, yet detached enough to embrace the whole. It was beautiful and moving, and the fresh air filled my lungs with warmth and freshness. It was indescribable.
I wish I could put more deeply my emotions and awe into words here, but nothing I can say could ever truly capture all of the wonder that proliferates the mountains of North Carolina. I had no idea our state held such amazing sights within itself, and it makes me prouder than ever to call North Carolina my home. It also frames my year wonderfully: After graduating Guilford Tech in May, I got to visit the beach, and now having begun my years at N.C. State, I was given the chance to see the mountains. From one end to the other, from one place in life to the next, it could not have been better planned if it had been intentional from the start.
It’s worth finishing with another remark on diversity–but this time diversity of a different nature: the diversity of nature itself. There is so much earth to see, so many wonders of the world to discover, that no one should stay inside and forget the world around them. The Cherokee believed plants could offer us a cure for all diseases, and modern science has shown us this is very nearly true–if only we would nurture nature instead of nurturing an army against it.
Take some time to step outside. See the world with new eyes. Watch a butterfly or a bumblebee, and observe the leaves as they change from green to red and fall to the earth before they grow again.
The world is beautiful and diverse, but we often forget its beauty because we see it every day and become blind to its wonders. So let’s take this chance to open our eyes and see the world for all it is–not all it was or would be, but all it is. You may be surprised to find it’s so much more than you realized and remember.