The Subtle Magnetism of Nature

Powerlines slice through the Appalachians.
Powerlines slice through the Appalachians.


There’s no better way to celebrate nature than a complete immersion like I experienced during a day-hike on the Appalachian Trail in 1989. I share it today as a call to action given another Earth Day approaches next Saturday, April 22nd. Twenty-seven of them have passed since I walked those trails, and while some measures toward conservancy have been achieved, we have not done enough; and I fear we could digress even more given the current political climate.


The Subtle Magnetism of Nature

May I invite you along as I crest the ridges of the Smoky Mountains to see the rounded knobs of peaks protruding into the sky as far as the eye can see? Can you envision the towers hoisting the power lines skyward, the cables dangling above clear-cut swaths that bisect many of the slopes like lethal gashes?


Copperhill Tennessee devastation
A sulfuric acid plant and copper mines devastated Copperhill until the 1980s.


Back then, it was impossible not to feel the poverty. It is said things have improved in the nearly 30 years that have passed and I am heartily glad because I made my way through Ducktown and Copperhill just two years after the last mine had closed and the ravages rambled right up to the roadway then—the craters revealing the hollowed-out hearts of the hills that had been sacrificed to the culling of their metal.


Ducktown runoff from copper mines
The runoff took all of the vegetation with it in Ducktown.


I’d never seen dirt as red as the soil left at the scene of those massacres, which rendered the entire region broken and barren. The bloody-hues spilled into creeks like veins spouting a sludge-y liquid, making quagmires of the soil-clogged rivers. The world seemed incredibly dead and I felt as if I was intruding on nature’s suffering as I made my way east. I wanted to touch the land somehow but it seemed impossible given the immenseness of the damage.

I was as lost as a desperate lover, unable to reach the object of my desire as I sat at a stop sign waiting to ease into a perpendicular line of traffic. As the car idled in place I spied an enormous black crow standing at the hem of the asphalt, head bowed as it contemplated the sparse grass beneath its feet. For some reason, I wondered if the bird in its monochromatic severity was a reincarnated priest who had come to listen to nature’s dirge. He was so intent I was able to fool myself into believing he wasn’t simply readying himself to peck a spec of food from the soil but was bearing witness to the earth’s pain.


water rushes over rocks
Rushing water along a rocky creek bed. Image © Saxon Henry.


I couldn’t shake the somber feeling as I drove along, even when the midday sun washed the rocks along the undulant Hiwassee River in quicksilver hues that magically infused the air with light, the illumination so sublime the thrashing waters of the river seemed lit from within. The churning rapids, the plundered terrain and the mirrored surface of the rocks coalesced to spark a question in me: “There is so much written about man against nature; what of the struggle nature faces against man?”


A Meditation on Nature for Earth Day 2017

Dogwoods blooming in Horse Gap
Dogwoods blooming in Horse Gap. Image © Saxon Henry.


The quandary stayed with me as I parked the car and entered the trails at Horse Gap, my goal to reach Siler Bald where I intended to perch for a good part of the day to read and write. The dogwoods were just beginning to bloom at the higher elevations, their gauzy plumes sprinkling the gaps with whispers of white. It was a challenging hike so I felt I had earned a respite as I spread my blanket and looked out over the dandelion-strewn grass. I knew I’d chosen the right spot as I sat soaking in the view that included a single stone tower rising above the other hilltops in the distance.

A bird caught my eye, flying in circles above me as it put on a show—all powder-dusted indigo and white-tipped arcing wings. I sat completely motionless and forced myself to stare into such an intensity of blue that I had to will my eyes to stay open as my vision swirled. Surrounded by the thin air, I thought about how the Bald seemed very close to the top of the world. The sound of the bees buzzing was so strong in the silence it was as if they had been primed with jet fuel and given extra powers of velocity.


Nature is alive on Siler Bald
The grassy ground sloping toward the top of Siler Bald.


Safety reclined, I thought about how frightened I had been at one point when I was forced to traverse a skinny razorback section of the trail with steep drop-offs on either side of my feet or turn back. I had steeled myself for the ten paces, keeping my eyes focused straight ahead and not daring to look down. I was so intent on remaining on solid ground, I didn’t notice I was walking through a cloud. I looked to the sky as it drifted around me and saw that it seemed to be flying at a precarious speed into the clear air beyond my reach. I felt giddy as it rushed by, and I wondered if birds had similar sizzles of excitement when they skimmed along through a puff of fluffy moisture.

I’d never thought of clouds as fun but having penetrated one, I’d found a new appreciation for the whimsical side of what amounted to atmospheric vapor. I exited the crest of the summit just as the cloud lifted its thumbprint from the mountain and I saw that there was a pattern to the twitching the wind demanded as it disappeared. Warmth began to penetrate my reverie as the sun grew more intense in the little clearing where I’d parked myself, and I contemplated moving closer to a scrim of gnarled and twisted trees weathered by an excessive exposure to the elements but I decided to stay put.


Clingmans Dome on the map
A map showing the location of Clingmans Dome.


Just as I was thinking it was odd that they were still in a state of winter barrenness as not one of them had yet sprout a smidgen of green, I heard a rustle beyond the thickets. My heart was beating so strongly I had to strain to listen, my imagination running wild that something large and hungry was moving in my direction. After a few seconds of virtual silence, I decided I was overacting; that it was merely the last withered leaves of winter still clinging to the tree limbs and the sere grasses skirting the edges of the field chattering in the wind. Just as I relaxed, a young woman blasted through the bushes. Our eyes met in startled uncertainty until we realized neither of us had met a source of danger.  She asked if she could sit and rest before continuing on. I said of course and she lowered her body onto a fallen tree trunk, telling me she was on her way to Clingmans Dome. As if she had read my mind, or maybe she had noticed I was studying the trees, she said they would not be greening because a beetle infestation had killed them. “A blight took out all the chestnut trees several years ago,” she explained in a matter-of-fact tone that didn’t fit her lament. “There will be fewer canopies left this summer; less shade to find as an escape from the sun.”

After a fitting silence during which I paid homage to a struggling natural world for the second time in a span of several hours, she heaved herself from the ground, the twisted branch with its splintered ends she was using for a walking stick making an indention in the moist earth. I smiled politely and returned to my sky gazing as she limped along the trail and disappeared. But the mood had changed and it was as if I’d gone from being a detached observer to an obligated witness.


Demeter Mourns Persephone

I pulled the book I’d brought from my backpack, realizing what an apropos choice the illustrated guide to Greek and Roman mythology had been given the mythic meltdown she had forecast. I turned to the profile on Demeter, the goddess of the fruitful earth whose heart was broken when her daughter Kore was stolen from earth by Hades. It remains one of my favorite myths, the fact he made her the queen of the underworld against her will so rife with reverberations for the significant relationships in my life! Demeter left Mount Olympus and began wandering the earth in such a state of grief she neglected her duties and the fields went fallow when her daughter, who forever became known as Persephone after her abduction, went missing.

“The world grew desolate without its mother goddess,” wrote the book’s author Michael Stapleton. Zeus tried to persuade his sister to return to her duties but she refused “famine or not” until her daughter was returned to her. The task to retrieve his niece from his brother had become all the more complicated because Persephone had tasted the food of the dead, once she had eaten the pomegranate seeds it was impossible that she could ever be completely detached from the nether world.


the painting Demeter Mourning Persephone
“Demeter Mourning Persephone,” a painting by Evelyn De Morgan, aka Evelyn Pickering, an English Pre-Raphaelite painter, 1906.


Zeus was finally able to negotiate a compromise in which Persephone would spend eight months of the year on earth with her mother and four months in Hades with her husband. The kernel of a poem began as I closed the book to fan myself because the sun had begun to warm my body in earnest, teasing out a sheath of sweat that made my skin appear it had been misted. As I lazed in the sun making notes in my writer’s notebook, I wondered how a day presenting evidence of a failing natural world could simultaneously charm me so with its beauty. Is this why we humans are so complacent about taking better care of nature? Is she so good at hiding her distress that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact it exists?


Dying trees as seen from Clingmans Dome.
Dying trees as seen from Clingmans Dome.


Of course, this is the case! In how many other ways is our normal M.O. to let the negativity fall away? Instead of raising the rally cry that we’ve lost too many trees, my natural instinct was to feel heartened that at least the trees were thinning only on the peaks. There were ample healthy stands at lower elevations, I told myself; I had just walked through a number of them in the hollows I had traversed on my way in. In fact, I had felt so swallowed by those great clusters of pines and firs, they had breathed a chilly muskiness down the back of my shirt. The dense life-force they exuded, which caused me to shiver more than once as I photographed wildflowers, proved all was well with the world, didn’t it?


Wild Irises in the Appalachians
An Iris sprouting from a moist gulley near Horse Gap. Image © Saxon Henry.


The ploy would not hold because I knew if I contributed to the indolence by ignoring the signs that the picture wasn’t so lush at the elevation where I rested, I would be just as guilty as everyone else who seemed to refuse to take nature’s cries for help seriously. Unsettled by my train of thought and unnerved by the heat, I moved to a shadier spot and took a seat on a large, flat stone, which was so ample it cupped me like a throne. From this vantage point, it seemed that, once upon a time, the mountains had yawned and stretched their arms to find their rippling muscles forever frozen in a sinewy display.


Talking to the Trees

Powerful nature in the Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains flexing their muscles were frozen in time.


Looking further into the distance where they fell off to meet a series of valleys, it seemed certain that if I were to put a finger on the seam, I would find a pulsing vein, a velvety green channel of life-force that was as alive as the blue one snaking beneath the pale skin on the inside of my wrist. I had heard no people noises for several hours and I found it delightful but also a bit disconcerting. I tried to listen with greater discernment and soon I discovered I could hear natural sounds, such as the groans emitted by the trees. One in particular was decidedly fussy as the wind hassled its contorted form.


Last summer’s grasshopper clings to the woody stalks of dead grasses
Last summer’s grasshopper clings to the woody stalks of dead grasses. Image © Saxon Henry.


It was the saddest of them by far, one side of its leafless profile covered in thick green lichen. I wondered in that moment what the forest must think of the noises we humans make. I mimicked the tree’s sound as closely as I could and was surprised to hear an immediate echo. I said the word “tree” aloud in the best tree-like voice I could muster but it said nothing in return. Hoping it would repeat my word was too much to ask, of course, because it would certainly wait until I was gone before it bragged to its gnarled cronies of the name I’d given it!


A beautiful stand of Bluettes push their faces from under a wide flat stone.
A beautiful stand of Bluettes push their faces from under a wide flat stone. Image © Saxon Henry.


Before long, the sun moved away and the seat grew colder and damper than when it was touched by sunlight so I shifted to see if I could find a warmer spot on its surface. As I moved, I noticed my hiking boot was perilously close to injuring a clump of tiny Bluettes extending their pert faces from beneath the stone’s base. I decided my last act on the Bald would be photographing them, determined to take my role as witness seriously before rushing off to reach the car before dark.


The ecosystem of the Great Smoky Mountains contains some surprising flowers.
The ecosystem of the Great Smoky Mountains contains some surprising flowers. Image © Saxon Henry.


The treacherous razorback ridge behind me once again, I descended into a densely forested hollow and a feeling of peace from a day of being perfectly steeped in nature drove a sense of satisfaction all the way down to my soul. About halfway to the car, just before I turned a bend at the crest of a ridge, I was startled to hear the unmistakable sound of applause. I rounded the corner so curious to see if I was being celebrated for my heartfelt thoughtfulness when a bank of rhododendron bushes slapping their thick leaves came into view. Suddenly I was flanked by two steep walls of them, and the sound they were making was spectacular. I couldn’t help myself as I emulated an actor on stage taking a curtain call!


Walls of rhododendron applauded me as I left my day-hike
Walls of rhododendron applauded me as I left my day-hike. Image © Saxon Henry.


As I unlocked the car, I realized I came away from the day understanding on a deeper level than I had previously known what Henry David Thoreau meant when he wrote that there exists in nature a subtle magnetism which could direct us to do the right thing for the earth if we would heed its call. But I also came away with a sinking feeling that not enough of us were taking his advice, and nature would definitely have the last word, be it an explosive shout, a collapsing whimper or a ferocious keening.


A dogwood blossom I photographed on my way to Siler Bald
A dogwood blossom I photographed on my way to Siler Bald. Image © Saxon Henry.


Would the rhododendron’s thick, shiny leaves be completely gone or too random to touch each other as the wind whispered across them when that day comes? Would the creamy blooms of the dogwood that decorate spring’s forests along its gaps be distant memories? Would we be gone by this point in time or would we be forced to witness the wholesale disappearance of beauty? Will Demeter be asking us from her throne on Mt. Olympus where the hell is our grief?


Dogwoods are doilies in nature
Dogwoods are a forest’s doilies, the creamy blooms enlivening the scene. Image © Saxon Henry.


Footnote: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a number of initiatives to try and help save the beauty of the wilderness the trail slices through, including information about companies not practicing corporate social responsibility. You can follow the link if you would like to know more.

The Modern Salonière and The Subtle Magnetism of Nature © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.

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4 thoughts on “The Subtle Magnetism of Nature

  1. I would find it so interesting to go to these places now & see what the differences are.
    I am sure that it would be alarming! 23 years is a long time in Nature.
    Thank you Saxon. once again, for shining a light on the unconscious self.
    I hope that the alarming current political situation will help shed more light on this
    particular Earth Day…. participate in any way one can, to make Mother Nature
    heard. There is not much time left….parts of her kingdom are already altered beyond
    recognition. Thank You for this post!

  2. I understand that they have spent millions upon millions of dollars re-greening Ducktown and Copperhill, Zina, which is something. I do believe the trees are still dying, though, which is sad. I saw the same devastation in the pines in Colorado–a pine bore took so many of them out. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I always value your feedback and I know what a nature lover you are so the fact that this rang authentic for you is quite the compliment!

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