Photo by Louise Pilgaard, low country

Part I: I live in a village with a Cherokee name at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, surrounded by natural beauty ,and entangled in technology. This land was once rich Indian hunting grounds and all its streets bear Indian names.  Daily, I use technology and my expertise to send complex research and technical files, meeting agendas, and presentations to virtual teams nationwide. Through Skype, these teams see my face, and behind me, a wall of trees. I see most of them bunched before a video cam or at a conference table. Backgrounds often consist of tall buildings amid clouds and smudged skies. I like to think I’m one with nature, but I’m not so different from those who work and live in skyscrapers.

How many of us escape to mountains, meadows, or quiet lakes when we can, and too often, bring creature comforts with us? Is your idea of an adventure a trip across Route 66; a spa staycation; an island booze cruise; or an exhausting seven countries in seven days sprint? To disengage and rediscover the overt, natural beauty of the woodlands, I’ve taken many wonderful adventures. As I edit the final chapters of my book Interpretation of Death, I am reminded of a foolish, fabulous trek I took a decade ago, accompanied by my intrepid dog Aengus, the Laird of Loudon, a lover of scented woods and a soft, warm bed at day’s end. Jo, Cailleach Bhur Caer, Loudon, Tennessee

Intrepid adventures are like rainbows—enchanting from a distance, filling our vision with the art of the possible. Up close, it disappears into a druid deep mist of artifice. At least, those were my thoughts hours after Aengus and I ventured off trail, off season in the Smokies, armed with an overloaded backpack, and outfitted with a pocket bulging goose feather filled safari vest, and an over inflated sense of backwoods survival aptitude. Until that trip, I hadn’t grasped the nature of nature. Except for a nasty late autumn dose of poison ivy, having foolishly grabbed a hairy vine wrapped round a tree, all my mountain outings had been fabulous—an interesting word choice in hindsight—derived from the word ‘fable.’ Wasn’t I a child of nature, ready for a one on one authentic experience? Hadn’t I eschewed citified living for a chance to experience primeval paradise?

This wasn’t a journey I viewed as an escape from reality, nor have I ever viewed nature as ‘motherly or nurturing.’ Even when this ‘trek into the wilds’ was just a glimmer of an idea, I consulted the Internet Oracle, and considered risks I might face on a long, solitary hike into the dense geography of East Tennessee’s mountains. I evaluated the challenges, including personal injury—everything from a twisted ankle to a ‘permanent dirt nap;’ encounters with feral, ravenous creatures—boars, bears, cougars, and two types of venomous snakes; and compiled a list of poisonous plants to avoid (other than Chernobyl) should I feel the need to feed. I remained undaunted, inspired by words of nature fanatics like John Muir, who said “the clearest way into the universe was through the forest,” and Thoreau, who reminded we must “learn to reawaken” and have “an infinite expectation of the dawn.” I wasn’t naïve, OK perhaps a sparkle short of starry eyed about the stamina and knowledge required to penetrate into old growth forests, however, I was well equipped—or so I thought.

Never mind I had no license to hike, and no business to tramp through woodland sanctuaries. I only knew I was bored following trails someone else had forged, and ready for nature to instruct and enlighten me. Before I took one step off path, I sensed that these ancient, worn mountains—still terribly formidable—would be paradoxically indifferent and accommodating to me, whether I took a Rip Van Winkle nap, or attempted to Paul Bunyan a 200 year old tree. These mountains wouldn’t pass judgment, nor help me blaze a trail. These dark woods would watch and wait, and perhaps have a good chuckle at my expense.

As a practicing herbalist and lover of regional folklore, I’d read and amassed an eclectic collection of books about the trees, shrubs and medicinal flora and fauna of North America. I poured through hiking and off road guides, historic accounts of pioneers and trail blazers, and war diaries from both blue and gray uniformed civil war soldiers who’d hidden in the Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains. I devoured tall tales, urban legends and books about the sacred medicine wheel and the Creek, Cherokee, and Pee Dee Indians, who had lived here, in harmony with nature, for thousands of years.  

One guide book reminded there were no social class distinctions in these mountains; there was only the prepared and the unprepared. Perhaps the Cherokees had been unprepared for the white man’s greed and ruthlessness. Perhaps today’s global warning problems are happening because we didn’t prepare for tomorrow by providing stewardship and showing reverence for earth. We bowed to the minor gods of commerce and technology. The wise words of Chief Seattle, leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes, still echoed. He said we didn’t “weave the web of life—we are merely a strand. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.” Perhaps I only thought I was prepared to engage nature face to face.

If only I’d packed for this trip like Hemingway wrote—lean, tight, unadorned—making every article count. Instead I’d brought thick paper back books, a bottle of wine, change of clothing, a silvery space blanket, bag of trail mix, smore ingredients, dog kibble and treats, a mini first aid kit, bladder of water, aluminum mess kit, two packs of handi wipes, a flashlight, digital camera, sketch pad and chalks, two types of Swiss Army knives, freeze dried ice cream, 20 feet of nylon rope, twine, a pocket sized hand warmer, tins of pate, and a small wheel of hard cheese.  I forgot the compass, left my wallet in the car, and had written no note regarding my intended plans. My family lived many states away. We were lucky if we heard from each other every few months. My friends were used to me ignoring their phone calls and emails for days—sometimes weeks—when I was engrossed in a research project, or trying to finish an article or chapter.

In this state of mind, I embarked upon my solitary hike. I chose a cool, clear day. It was partly cloudy, bracing weather, mild for the season. The forecast predicted clear skies for the next two days. By mid-morning, my dog and I had wandered over five miles off trail. The woods were darker than I’d imagined, fragrant with scents of evergreen resin and the peaty rot of decaying leaves, and a smell I couldn’t quite place. Ah yes, it was my very own no longer fresh from the shower scent—one part exertion mixed with two parts anticipation and a dash of trepidation. Was I down wind or up wind of predatory animals?  I adjusted my pace, and walked cautiously where the ground was uneven or slippery with wet leaves, and poked around me with a birch walking stick. The heavy backpack made my shoulders ache. I wondered if I could persuade Aengus to carry a few items. Where was he anyway?

Wait, was that a yellow bellied sapsucker to my left feeding on hardwood tree bark? Was that small pile to my right, all but hidden by the dark, spongy moss—opossum scat? This was exciting. It was time to feast, commune with rustic spirits and make an offering to the green man; this setting was perfect. Not so lucky was the green man of the British Isles, who retreated to dwindling woods, until those too were gone. Light slanted though gaps in the tall trees without bending, and spotlighted a feathery cinnamon fern and a smooth, oval shaped, mossy granite boulder. This would serve as rustic furniture.

This forest was a study in chaos and symmetry. I suspected there was a complicated math of ecology being taught here. It determined which plants, trees and wildlife flourished, and which did not. The speckled brook trout, the only fish natural to this area, has been edged out by artificially introduced rainbow and brown trout. The American Chestnut, once one of the most abundant trees in eastern forests, was wiped out by an oriental fungus. Did any Cherokee survive the white man’s attempt at diaspora? Did they still act as forest guardians? A few virgin forests remain in North America, according to the Greenpeace organization. The number of intact ancient woodlands in South American is slightly higher. Europe’s old growth forests have all but disappeared. In America, over 30 million acres of forest are lost every year. Despite many technological advancements in recent years—from sheep cloning to genetically altered foods—we can’t speed up the decades of time it takes to grow a forest.

Halfway through a handful of trail mix, a tin of pate spread on thick slices of brown bread, a hunk of cheese, and a bottle of wine, my dog returned. I poured the last drops of wine on the ground, offering it to the earth in thanks. I watched my thirsty dog lap up two cups of water from the bladder and beg for more. He gobbled up the rest of my bread, cheese, and pate. Using implements from my multi-talented utility knife, I fashioned a cascading wind chime from the tin. I couldn’t resist etching my initials. Using bits of loose vine, I hung the chime and the empty bottle from a nearby tree branch that I’m sure had never witnessed one of its siblings being axed, and knew metal only in its mineral form. Was I a woodland version of Martha Stewart or a litterbug? Didn’t the trail sign say “fine for littering?” This, I mused tippsily, is a place of healing. It was hard to leave this sheltered space of virgin forest. However, there was much more to see before heading back, and the temperature was dropping. I needed to walk and get the blood pumping.

The views from atop the rises I scrambled up during the next few hours were magnificent—views unobstructed by phone lines, neon signs or visible pollution. Although I had no words adequate enough to describe what I saw and felt, I wanted to telegraph nature and open up new lines of communication. I wanted to establish a Chautauqua. Aloud I said, “This is where the people of the forest clans lived. This is a sacred place.” I shouted my name, and asked the mountain its name. In Ireland, the home of my ancestors, every place had a name or a title or both. Many spots had multiple names, pronunciations, and guardians. All places have a ‘genius loci.’ Via names, what is foreign becomes familiar, becomes known. The Cherokee called these mountains Shacanoge, the place of ‘blue smoke.’ Cades Cove, located at the entrance to the Smokies, was called Tsiyaha, the ‘place of the river otter.’ It was a favored summer hunting ground, where elk and bison once gathered. According to Chippewa Medicine Man, Sun Bear, the river otter was my totem, though I’d never encountered one in the wilds. The sun, perhaps in embarrassment at my outburst, ducked behind a gray cloud.

“We should be ashamed,” I thought, “for all the forests we’ve destroyed, all the people we’ve evicted from their native land.” I had read tales about strange symbols being found on old growth trees here (if you knew where to look), and in crevices between rocky outcrops. The symbols may provide clues to where Cherokee treasures, left behind by those forced to leave their villages and ancestral homes, is buried. The carvings may also reveal secret knowledge, or simply indicate where treasured items were placed—an arrowhead, a shell necklace. The Cherokee, evicted at bayonet point, were only allowed to keep intangible things: handed down tales of their heritage, stories of their relationship and emotional connection with the land, stories not of ownership, but of kinship. I turned and climbed down the hill. It was time to start back. I could sense I was intruding, but which way was back?