The Summit

File:Mount Pisgah from NC 151, Oct 2016 1.jpg - Wikimedia ...
Mount Pisgah (Wikipedia)

There is a little tunnel of plants leading all the way up almost to the top after passing through the meadow. I always felt like it was the final approach towards the castle, and we were a ragtag group of rebels preparing to sneak in and defeat the usurpers. One of my favorite narratives, and this ties in pretty well with ‘sense of place,’ was the narrative of a place being taken over by an outside invading force, and the people whose home it was taking it back using trickery and their knowledge of the space. (I’m thinking both of Odysseus and of the Star Trek TNG episode where Ferengi take over the Enterprise [and the DS9 episode where the Dominion takes over the space station and the Defiant gets “Honey, I shrunk the kids”d].)

Anyway, mainly I wanted to share this recurring dream I have about the summit. Whenever I think about the summit of Pisgah (and now the biblical / ‘flood’ connotations are becoming apparent to me) I think about a dream wherein I’m on what feels like the summit of the mountain, but it’s rocking back and forth like a sailboat and I’m clinging on to the radio tower, which you’re not supposed to climb. The dream shifts, and I am standing on a boat. 

I can feel every sensory detail of it, even though I’ve really never been on a real ocean-worthy vessel in my life. I can taste the brine on the air and the particulars of the ocean wind in my hair.

Other than the rocking of the waves out of the night, there’s nothing. No crew. No sails. The ship isn’t moving, but it isn’t anchored either. The ship is completely dark, and all I can see are the stars. There is no moon, but I can still see the masts given a skin of starlight like a layer of ice.

I realize then that my grandmother is standing beside me with an arm out testing the wind. Somehow, I know that the wind is coming in warm from the south, and that there isn’t quite as much import on where the wind is going, as on where it’s coming from.

“Where are we?” I ask.

“Given everything? Right where we need to be,” she says

I say something like: “The sky in the sea?”

She says: “They sing their hymns of water and we sing ours of rooted trees and cattle. It might sound dissonant, but it just has to do with the refraction rate. Look—” She points and I peak overboard.

The ocean is viscous black and reflects the sky like a mirror. A perfect, circular mirror so big you can’t even tell it’s a circle, if you didn’t know already. So big it loops around on itself—as big as the universe.

I realize, then, that the ocean is the universe, and grandma and I are looking at it from above. From outside. The sky above our boat, a tawdry reflection of the ocean below, the source of the starlight. Like a small vanity mirror put up too close to the ground.

With this realization also comes the understanding that I cannot breathe the air above the ocean. I feel a thinness in my lungs and I start gasping.

My grandmother points again into the sea, and I see a bright light, like the moon rising up out of the ocean. The water becomes bright light blue, and, rising up out of it, is the figure of a woman who I know somehow to be my sister (I don’t have a sister), glowing like a jellyfish. She reaches out a hand, and I accept.

She pulls me down into the warm, bright water of the world and I take a deep breath; the water is heavier than air, and comforting, she holds my hands in hers and nods her head and we swim down, into the light, towards the mountains.

The Meadow

The mantis shrimp has the most sophisticated eyesight on the planet. How would our worlds change if we had the perception of the mantis shrimp?

Our perceptions can be misleading, what we would assume from our sense data is far removed from what we know through other forms of scientific observation: that our thoughts are chemical signals and our world is atoms resounding in boundless void. We can know this, but we don’t think about it every day. If we could suddenly see the world with the opsins of mantis shrimp, we would be forced to consider more often the truth that we are not the center of the universe— that we are just another animal which has filled a specific ecological niche. But more interestingly, we would be able to comprehend hundreds more of the invisible languages of nature, the languages of insects and plants. Changing our perceptions can be challenging, but it’s always, always worth it to experience the world in a different way and see the world from another point of view.

The collision of the Andromeda galaxy with the Milky Way five billion years from now will be an incredible light show for inhabitants of both galaxies. Tied together by the inevitable pull of gravity, our local group will eventually become one dense amalgamation of stars. I would like to see how humans have shaped this environment, how we have grown and interacted with the other beings of these galaxies. I want to see what humans are capable of when we have abandoned Capitalism, when avarice has died away. I want to explore the streets of a civilization which I have no foundation to understand, no schemas with which to judge what I see. I want to experience utopia, but be awed by the fact that it is incomprehensible to me. I want to see our kindest world, where somehow, against all odds, we made things work out just fine.

The Nose Tree

Right after the small boulder, along the same ridge where both sides offer opposing views of each side of the mountain, there is a tree with a massive burl on it. My dad said it was probably the result of some infection or insect’s ingress into the tree long ago. I was amazed, in the way of the child who has no words to express their amazement, by how history was physicalized. That burl was the tree’s response to physical trauma, like our scar tissue is a mammalian response to the same suffering. It’s horrible how long scars and burls last. An act of violence that can occur in an instance will be remembered for decades and, for trees, potential centuries to come. The persecutor isn’t forced to remember the violence, but the victim is. Every crime is two-fold. I hate that.

My friend Jordan is taking a Hollocaust theology course, and they’ve been thinking about how groups remember things in the same way that individuals do. Collective memory and generational trauma work in much the same way that our bodies physicalize our past wounds. We become scar tissue. We become more closed-off. The walls grow taller. And the price of those protections is the loss of the ability to be vulnerable. The oppressor has the luxury of forgetting the wounds of the past, because they are not left with scar tissue. Even though the insect that infected the tree has long since died, its offspring live on, unaffected by the burl on the tree. But the tree remembers, because it has no other choice, and it will, for who knows how long.

The laurel canopy & the small boulder

The first record of the land’s ownership is associated with a man named Thomas Clingman. The Clingman name, although I was never taught anything about the man himself, is associated with all sorts of places in Asheville: the Clingmans dome (sic, the apostrophe has presumably been ellided by time), the clingman cafe, the clingman lofts, (where my friend-from-middle school’s dad lived) etc. Clingman was a North Carolinian politician in the 19th century, which is really all you need to know about his politics. Seeing him in his thin wool suit in black and white is strange, because I’ve always associated the name Clingman with hiking and rock-climbing. Clingman doesn’t look very athletic at all, he just looks wealthy. 

Hon. Thomas L. Clingman, N.C - NARA - 528409.jpg
The man himself (Wikipedia)

Did Thomas Clingman hike through the same canopy of laurel bushes that my dad and I did? Did he place it among the landmarks of the mountain, same as the small boulder that marks the top of one of the ridges about a third of the way up the mountain? If not, did he allow others to hike, establishing those first trails up the side to the top? Or, perhaps, during the time he owned it, it was totally deserted, or used only for occasional hunting.

Did Clingman really own this mountain? Can you really even own land at all? Let alone a mountain? I say this with the same slightly self-effacing tone of mystique that a horse girl might use when saying “Can anyone really ever own a horse?” A cliche, and a non-question, but also an important point about what land ever is. No one ever owned mount Elseetoss. (I don’t know that for sure, but, given the contrast between western land use practices and Indigenous land use practices, I can fairly confidently guess that no one individual ever looked at the mountain and said “I am the sole owner of that peak, the dirt, the stone, every tree along its sloping mass, every single one of the scurrying creatures in its caves and crenulations, the wind that passes through it in the summer and the view that spans for miles from it in the winter,” because that would be ridiculous.)

Constructing the Blue Ridge Parkway in Mt. Pisgah (1953)
Construction of the parkway, Driving through Time (1953)

But Clingman did own Mount Pisgah, inasmuch as the colonists’ law allowed. (If I were Christian here, I might talk about how man’s earthly laws attempt to supplant the heavenly law of the divine, but I am not Christian.) To own land in the way that the settlers did, and the way that we still do, is to use it to the point of abuse. The view that one is, as an individual, the sole arbiter of what they do with the plot of land they stand on is a categorically harmful view. It ignores the fact that the land is connected, both in time and in space. The earth will feel the effects of misguided land-use for centuries, if not longer, and those effects will permeate not just to surrounding plots of land, but also deep below, and miles out in the watershed, and out to sea. As Wendell Berry said, “Whenever greedy or thoughtless men have lived on [the hill, it] has literally flowed out of their tracks into the bottom of the sea.”

The Climbing Rock

The climbing rock is perhaps the most important landmark on the mountain. To child-me, and my friends from Westwood when they came along on hikes, it was a mountain of its own. With all the trappings of an ordinary mountain, but miniature, and therefore domestic. The rock was just to the side of the trail, on the right going up and on the left coming down. It was at a steep slant, at the perfect angle to be easily climbable if you knew where to put your feet, but much too steep to walk up normally. I can still picture the contours of the rock, which are like landmarks themselves (literally marks in the land, in this case).

My friends Gaiva, Lila, and Jyothi and I would have races to the top, starting with our hands almost touching the rock with our feet firmly on the trail, waiting for the signal from my dad, who would wave a scarf or a hat and send us rocketing up the slope. I usually won, because, even though my friends were a little older than me, I was a good climber and quick to make split-second decisions about what perturbation in the rock made for the best hand hold. Maybe it was growing up as a boy that made me usually win those races, or maybe it was my level of knowledge of the rock itself which allowed me to climb it so easily.

At five years old the climbing rock seemed like a mountain of its own, but a fun mountain: the difference between living in your childhood house and playing ‘house’ with your friends on the playground. You can’t race your friends up a whole mountain, at least not as a five-year-old, but you can race them up a rock face that’s only thirty or forty times your five-year-old height. Size is an important element of Play. If something is too big, it ceases to be play and becomes real life instead, whatever that means. Play is a small area inside Life, demarcated by certain rules which make the game fun, or at least make the game a game. 

Gaiva and me at the top of the climbing rock

Pictured above are Gaiva and me at five and six years old at the rounded top of the climbing rock. I’m not sure who’s taking the picture here, I’m guessing either my dad or hers. Absolutely obsessed with how smug I look in this photo. I think that’s just how I looked in photos back then.

The top of the climbing rock is not really a top at all, it is simply where the rock stops being a rock and starts being dirt, dense with foliage, impermeable to even a determined five-year-old. The top of the climbing rock rounds off so that you can no longer see your father standing on the tiny trail below with his hand shading his eyes from the glare. There is a little island of dirt before you reach the real top, a false summit of sorts, a little barrier of rhododendron.

The Hollow Tree

No more than a thousand steps along the trail there is a hollow tree the width of a wide-shouldered man. It leans off the path with a precarious laziness that is somehow intriguing still now as it was when we first hiked this path years and years ago. When I was about ten years old I could still fit in between the arms of the wide-shouldered man, cram my body into the hollow tube of what was once its core. Sound is different in a hollow tree, the whole world closes in around you in a woody hug and the reverberation of the world is dampened by the loving carapace corpse of the tree.

Death is a form of love, too. Humans are busy every day trying to ward it off with whatever they have at hand, but this is perhaps not as noble of a cause as we think. Perhaps Saul was right in driving the necromancers away from his city, almost certainly Briar Rose’s father destroying every spindle in the land was a futile thing to do, if not an ultimately harmful one. There is peace in death. If anything we should pursue death on our own terms more than just the erasure of death all together. A dead tree is a great thing for the forest. A dead whale brings nutrients from the surface of the ocean to the great deserts of the floor, which allows new life to trickle upwards and enrich the entire ecosystem.

I remember my dad reading me a bedtime story around this time where a boy’s life was tied to the lifeforce of a candle somehow, and instead of burning it his mother hid it in a box, but every time she checked on it the candle was smaller and smaller, as if it was burning by itself, a kind of flameless, heatless burning, and her boy grew sicker and sicker, until he died and the candle was nothing but a stub of wax. I’m not exactly clear on the moral of this story, but it seems like it has something to do with not trying to artificially prolong your life by avoiding life altogether. That it’s perhaps better to live a full, short life than a long, but unadventurous life?

This mountain was originally called Mount Elseetoss by the people who lived here before European colonists. The Cherokee people who were familiar with this mountain no doubt had entirely different landmarks than I did as a child. Probably the meadow at the top wasn’t a meadow, the trees that seemed special to me were not yet seedlings, the rock stairs hadn’t been put in by trail crews, and there certainly wasn’t a radio tower extending out of the mountain like an exponential continuation of its peak.

A view of Mt Pisgah
The summit viewed from along the parkway, by Linda Wolf (2014)

Perhaps though, the laurel canopy was still a laurel canopy, the large slab of stone we climbed on was still accessible, and (certainly) the peak was still the peak. I’m not sure if it was accessible hundreds of years ago, or if anyone knew about it until the hiking trail was widened, but I love to imagine children playing on the rock seven hundred years ago the same as I did seven years ago.

The Trailhead

There is a sharp, translucent clarity on the side of the mountain. The only sounds are the immediate yet invisible sounds of insects, either bees or flies, the distant combustions of the motorcycles, and the wind, voiceless, given voice by trees. It’s almost as if the silence is its own valence, one of the fundamental forces of the mountain, working in tandem with the wind and the fragrance of the mountain laurels. This is not the dampened silence of new snow, but a silence with a bite to it. The silence of those cheap plastic crystal prism things that you get as a fourth grader from natural history museums—made all the more beautiful for all the life parading in a predetermined sweep down the mountains.

Mount Pisgah is the most prototypical mountain on the horizon of my childhood. It is present in the background frame of every memory—that massive signal tower peak visible for miles as a hazy spire. I would see it riding my bike down Clingman avenue, on the skyline past the Bowen Bridge riding the bus home from highschool for those exhilarating few highway-onramp seconds. What made the mountain more than just a recognizable backdrop was personal experience. When you can see a peak and say “I know what all this looks like from all the way up at the top” it changes the perception of the mountain and its neighbors. It stories the geography.

For years my dad and I would drive south from West Asheville past the Arboretum we used to visit for school trips, up into the Blue Ridge Parkway. As we drove through each of the eleven tunnels that had been carved through the rock decades ago our headlights would flick on and off, and I would hold my breath as we entered and keep it in my cheeks until the tunnel spat us out. My friend Raminta once told us that if you hold your breath in a tunnel all the way through with your eyes closed that a penny would fall on your head. I felt the need to test this empirically very often. 

In the Tanakh, the name Pisgah is mentioned in reference to Mount Nebo, a peak on the Abarim range in Jordan. The mountain lies east of the Jordan river and northeast of the Dead Sea, and is apparently where god showed Moses the “whole land from Gilead to Dan, all of Naphtali, the territory of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Mediterranean Sea, the Negev and the whole region from the Valley of Jericho, the City of Palms, as far as Zoar.”

Pisgah translates literally from the Hebrew as “summit,” so in all likelihood, some schmuck heard “Pisgah” and just assumed it was a proper name, adding it to the litany of mountains named “mountain” and rivers named “river.” From the summit of Pisgah — our Pisgah — you can see the promised land of Asheville, which is certainly how I felt about it as a kid. The forest opening up briefly to allow the city to poke through. The Biltmore Estate sprouting up from nothing. The parkway winding down the ridge into the city like the Jordan river into the Galilee, concrete flowing to concrete. Every time we hiked the Pisgah summit and saw our promised land, we would pass through landmarks with which we storied our environment. There were about ten of them, and we built a mythos in the milestones.