Gullies on the Soul

In 1942, at the age of nineteen, my uncle died in Copperhill, Tennessee.

Map of copperhill At that time, decades of mining activities had completely denuded more than fifty square miles of land in that southwestern area of the Volunteer State.  What the smelting of ore didn’t ruin by consuming trees, the by-product of sulfuric acid completed.  Due to the ensuing ecological devastation, the Copperhill region acquired the dubious distinction of the largest man-made biological desert in the nation.  Photographs of the landscape in that era portray an alien and foreboding scene with intermittent, stunted vegetation and eroded hillsides. ducktownCompared to the lush, undulating terrain of his home ground in Anderson County, that place would have seemed both foreign and threatening to my uncle.

Majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Junior, as he was called, had gone to Copperhill to co-op at the mines for a semester.  It was his first separation from his family.  For those who would not otherwise know, the date on his tombstone appears to make him an early casualty of World War II.  Instead he died a lonely and ignominious death in a rented room – an untimely demise  wrought by the deadly combination of ignorance and poor health care

I never met Junior as I was born seven years later in 1949.  Yet from an early age, I began to make his acquaintance by fitting together bits and pieces of information.  It did not take words to make it clear to me that his death had created a void of varying depths in those closest to him.  I never heard my father, his brother, speak of him.  His sister, my aunt, was a more vocal source of the sadness that severed the once intact family.  His own father died in 1950 when I was ten months old before we had an opportunity to converse on that or any other matter.  But it was his mother who presented me with the most complete picture of Junior’s brief life.  Her stories gradually lent color to  his enigmatic black and white image that hung on the wall in my grandmother’s dining room.

As fond memories bear repetition, I heard various recollections of Junior several times as I grew up.  One I remember well occurred when he had just learned to walk.  Typical of toddlers, he was prone to put things into his mouth.  Chickens ranged free in the yard and the little fella was ambling around following the birds as they pecked and scratched.  Smiling with the memory, my grandmother recalled grabbing his small hand just as he was about to deliver a fresh blob of chicken manure to his mouth.  Later as an adolescent, he would ask her to wake him before dawn so that he could watch the flock come down from their roosting place in the walnut tree that shaded part of their run.  I can imagine his sense of delight as he observed those ungainly birds gradually rouse themselves at first light and perform their awkward half-fall, half-flight to earth as they began their daily routine of searching for food and taking dust baths.  Along with others, those anecdotes made him come alive for me.  I identified with his pleasure in the simple wonders of everyday nature.

Years ago I discovered his diary hidden over the framing of a closet door in my grandmother’s house.  I assume she did not have the heart to discard it and kept it tucked away in a private spot as she did with many of her own recollections of him.  Tall like all of us Davis men, his lanky frame extended six foot three inches.  An uncle watched one evening as Junior got up from the supper table yawning and slowly stretched his long arms overhead.  “Good Lord”, his relative said admiringly, “If you’d growed anymore you’d have forked again!”  Playing basketball for Clinton High he made notations of what would be very low scoring games by today’s standards.  “We beat Lake City 24 to 22” read one laconic post.  Another entry revealed an incident at school where he gleefully got a chemistry  classmate in trouble who was struggling to remember the names of gases.  Mischievously, Junior whispered answers to his seatmate who nervously repeated them out loud to the instructor: “Fluorine, chlorine, urine . . .”Junior 1

The wide front porch on my grandmother’s house was both a shady refuge from the heat of summer and a dry haven for me as a young boy.  Many times I sat there, cocooned in a handmade quilt, mesmerized by rain.  There in that spacious, safe place, she and I passed hours of quiet conversation traveling back and forth in softly creaking rockers.  Occasionally, in a moment of Freudian absent-mindedness, she would begin a sentence addressing me as ‘Junior’, but then quickly correct herself.  I could feel both her sorrow and her love in that misspeak yet I never felt uncomfortable.  Rather, I perceived that my presence in her life was a poignant reminder of her firstborn.  Our time together on that front porch is my earliest memory of the deep affection humans share when they trust each other.  Those connections provided the warmth that kept me out of the cold in later years.

As an adolescent, I had problems with my self-worth and skated back and forth along the sharp edges of illegal behaviors.  Arrested for shooting out street lights as a thirteen year old, I passed a very unpleasant evening in the Knoxville jail.   Had it not been for my grandmother’s thin, but essential tether, I would have easily slipped into more significant problems.

I felt gifted by not only her seeming confusion in calling me Junior, but countless other examples of nurturing; emotional seeds that would eventually sprout into an unbreakable vine that still binds us.  At an early age, I began clinging with a quiet desperation to the maternal life ring she extended.  Otherwise I would have drowned in the whirlpool of living that existed with my parents.  Built in 1933 for $1,500, her Craftsman Style home and the surrounding countryside became a place of refuge, an island of stability. Cultivating a sense of self-worth for her grandson like the most important of crops, she helped to offset some of the doubts that had taken root like poison ivy in my mind.  For all practical purposes, she became my mother.  Still, it would take her passing in 1976 and long periods of private mourning and introspection for me to completely grasp how invaluable and significant she had become in my life.  Not unlike the seedlings that were planted to slowly heal the soil in Copperhill, it took me years of gradual adjustment after the death of my ‘maw-maw’ to understand that hope could be built on the ashes of loss. Just as her garden flourished under her care, her affirmations amounted to fat raindrops for my drought stricken psyche.

Mirroring the usual curiosity and naivete of a youngster, I asked her more than once how Junior died.  She always said she wasn’t sure and seemed to hold no bitterness to that alien landscape that provided the wretched backdrop for her son’s final hours.  It was left to my aunt to say that the cause was likely appendicitis.  These days such a casualty seems incomprehensible as appendectomies are relatively routine.  I’ve never been certain why my grandmother chose to ignore what seemed to be the apparent cause of his death, except perhaps that his passing was so incredibly hard to fathom that the reason was of little import.  He was gone and she was left to mourn and find solace.

Junior’s landlady had called saying that he was very ill.  My grandmother and grandfather prepared to travel from Clinton south to Copperhill.  But before they could leave, he died and their trip was instead made in the accompaniment of a mortician.  I cannot imagine how heartbreaking and devastating such a journey could be to retrieve the body of a son who was so recently healthy and alive.  What strengths, what reserves, on what assistance does one rely to traverse such a hellish emotional landscape?

Escape was considered.  She told me, “After Junior died, Clarence (her husband) and I talked about just moving away from here.”  But they didn’t, perhaps realizing that transplanting themselves wouldn’t erase the memories any more than abandoning a raped landscape can fill in the gullies.  Few details of that long ago sadness survive, but the series of events were surely connected by broiling pain and disbelief.  Certainly the mortality of the land surrounding Copperhill and my uncle’s death were synonymous calamities as both were deeply scarring.

As a parent myself, I have a glimmer of how incredibly traumatic it must be to lose a child.  I shudder at the possibility of the death of any of my own.  That incomprehensible perspective completes another aspect of understanding revealed by my grandmother decades ago:  loss is not something that one “gets over”.  Her grieving was privately apparent as long as I knew her.  She showed me that the passing of someone loved gradually becomes an event that can be lived with as the rawness and pain slowly diminish.  The sadness and longing, however, never completely dissipate.  Piercing reminders dot life’s horizon whether they are significant dates or fellow humans who constitute a heartfelt remembrance.  As her grandson, I inadvertently occupied for her one of those inevitable connections between life and death.  I am grateful for that twist of fate.

These days, I frequently travel to our mountain property on the Nantahala River in North Carolina, just east of where Junior died decades ago.  Veiled scars are evident there too as in Copperhill.  Lumbermen and their nomadic families denuded those Carolina mountains and valleys over one hundred years ago by logging.  In the early 1900’s a narrow gauge railroad chugged along the Nantahala River going and coming with the business of trees.  Along the roadbed on frosty mornings, a keen eye can still see the shadowy remnants of timbers placed for rails.  Their presence below ground is evidenced by a silhouette of lighter frost on top of the soil.  Crushed lumps of coal that once powered the locomotives occasionally surface in the roadway and the re-growth of vegetation, while beautiful, exhibits none of the multi-centenarians of a virgin stand of timber.  For different reasons, the results were practically identical for each locale in these neighboring states: ecological devastation.Copperhill logging

After my grandmother’s death, my aunt stayed in our beloved house until she, too, passed away in 1998.  Then, my father sold the home place and surrounding acreage.  Although it hurt in a different way, that transaction was almost as sad for me as my maw’maw’s death.  Selling the land placed a somber finality on the physical reality of our bond.  I no longer have a right to visit that former refuge.  Yet I was able to have our own children spend enough time there so that it holds special remembrance for them too and those memories we own without fear of violation.

Now, new homes have replaced the former left to right order of barn, outhouse, and chicken house.  With that subdivision, my grandmother’s home remains as the lone building of the former arrangement.  I’ve driven by the property a couple of times since my aunt’s death.  For me, memories exude from the walls although others now live there.  My inviolable memory insists on its former arrangement and continues to see and feel the loving relatives that bestowed both affection and a sense of place upon me.

It is to our new place in the North Carolina mountains that I carry those seeds of poignant recollection.  With her protection and love, my grandmother gave me a chance to survive.  Significantly, her own gardening skills encouraged my interest in plants and the out of doors, an influence that I parlayed into a career in horticulture.  With some of the fruit of that livelihood, my family has built a log cabin in a wild and private recess on the Nantahala River.  My grandmother’s butter churn, oil lamps and other memorabilia add a meaningful warmth to the rustic interior.

This new place of safety also has a wide porch that wraps around two sides of the structure, a comforting replica of my boyhood shelter at my grandmother’s.  Rockers are in position for accommodating memories for a new generation, both those recalled and those to be made.  There the sounds of water from a nearby creek provide the same joy that the brook did for myself and Junior in my grandmother’s front yard.  There, the North Carolina mountains connect me in undulating ridges of familiarity over the horizon to my home ground in eastern Tennessee not so many miles away.  There I drink water from a spring, pick blackberries and fox grapes, explore the hillsides for wildflowers.  It is a sanctuary too; a place Junior would appreciate with his sense of wonder in nature; a place our mutual mother would love.

In the contiguous mountains along the shared boundary of North Carolina and Tennessee, Nature has healed most of the old wounds inflicted by saws and greed  decades ago.  Yet I’ve been to Copperhill only a few times as the name is associated with familial pain of devastation and loss beyond those inflicted on the land.  I carry some of my grandmother’s sorrow, a burden I sense I helped her share.  From my adult perspective, I believe that my presence in her life blunted some of her grief while renewing an indefinable measure of the promise that Junior’s life created.  In turn, she provided me with the essential elements of love, care, and concerns that were so grievously absent in my own home.

The Copperhill Chamber of Commerce now touts the area as a wonderful spot to live and notes that it is “a great place to open and operate a business”.  Hopefully, the heirs to that previous ecological disaster encourage more responsible commerce these days.  It is true that the mines are exhausted and reforestation has hidden most of the former wounds inflicted on the earth.  I’m glad the land is healing.  But each time I drive north or south on Highway 515, I pass signs pointing to Copperhill and memories seep into my heart of that long ago sadness and the resultant bond that my grandmother and I formed.  She and I were two as one, symbiotic beings, both in need and both the better for the voids we filled in each other.

My own bittersweet recollections and longings appear filled in much as the eroded red hills of southeastern Tennessee have been.  But that’s just to the casual observer who doesn’t take the time to part the foliage and see that the terrain still bears witness to what happened.  Soil is the soul of the earth and while it allows new life and spreading roots to gain purchase in its rested bosom, it doesn’t forget.

Neither are we forgotten as our memory is written by the light of the stars.  In the Nantahala nights, countless diamonds glitter their messages over the pristine waters and land.  Amongst them, my grandmother shines in the wet-black sky – a precious pearl of wonder for a young boy, an old man; a connection of love and hope for any age.hands




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