Monday, October 30, 2017

Beauty from Disaster.

My last two trips to the North Carolina high country were to a pair of areas that are actually parts of the same ecosystem and lie cheek by jowl. The two are at very high elevations with one slightly lower (relatively speaking) than the other.

The first of the two I chose to visit was Graveyard Fields. It's located adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway and is an extremely popular spot on that National Park-administered roadway. The first thing that strikes you about the place when you hear about it is its name: Graveyard Fields. How the heck did it get such a macabre term to describe it? As simply as possible, it got that way due to Mankind's tendency to create ecological devastation.

In the case of Graveyard Fields what we have is an enormous, flat, high elevation valley. The mean altitude there is roughly 5,100 feet above sea level. For eastern USA that is extremely high for a valley of this type. It sits on the northern shoulders of the highlands that are among the tallest in the state. Several peaks of over 6,000 feet above sea level loom over the valley. And the floor of Graveyard Fields is wide and moderately level creating a vast plateau where streams meander in shallow pathways that are almost without banks and nearly forming braided patterns like some western streams down in glacial valleys. did it get that name? Well, we can thank the rapacious timber companies of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries for that. When railways came to western North Carolina and penetrated the high country (thanks to government sponsored tax dollars), the timber firms found that they at last had access to the highest and most rugged territory in eastern North America. Finally, the timber barons could get their mitts on those untold thousands of square miles of virgin hardwood and evergreen forests. And grab it, they did!

Over the course of a few decades those companies turned untouched forests of cove hardwoods and dark spruce expanses into ruined clear cuts. They left nothing but stumps and dead limbs and took out the vast trees that had stood tall and strong since before Europeans had set foot on the continent. Within the blink of an eye they left the forested summits and peaks as denuded, ruined landscapes.

The mountain men who had ended up in the high country after chasing away and killing the native Cherokees looked upon the valley and, seeing no trees but only the shortened stumps of the trunks that had once greeted them, instead saw something else--a gigantic graveyard full of dark tombstones stretching toward the heights. How fitting that they saw death where once had been life.

The same fate befell the enormous mountain peaks that rose above Graveyard Fields, which I hiked a week later. One of the tallest of these peaks is Black Balsam Knob. At 6,214 feet above sea level, it had been named for the dense forests of red spruce and Fraser firs that had clothed it in forests so lush and so dark that from a distance they appeared not green, but black. Black like shadows. Black like the rich, peaty loam that fed and sustained those trees. The timber barons took them all, leaving nothing whatsoever. No patches of forest to replenish the land. No seed stock to repopulate the ridges. For the first time since the last Ice Age these giant eastern peaks were bare of forests and were suddenly just dirt and stumps and the drying trash of wizened limbs lying on the ground like flammable tinder.

And, as was repeated over and over up and down the spine of the high Appalachians, these very tall summits and ridges were struck by drought. Streams dried up. Springs failed. The skies did not give up rain and the remains of the vast forest cuts became like matchsticks, the once moist peaty soil like parched brick.

After that, all it took was a single lightning-generated spark.

Those high lands went up. The mountains became a roaring Hell. The stumps burned. The limbs cast aside like trash were like fuel in a fireplace. Even the soil, once several feet deep, packed with carbon similarly burned not unlike a vast thousand-mile blanket of coal. Yes, the dirt burned until all that was left of the ecosystem that had birthed the forests were mountains from horizon to horizon cooked down to rocks and the most basic of mineral soils.

And, of course, eventually the rains returned. Gully-washers. Cloud bursts. Thunderstorms. Floods vast and powerful swept these great mountains and if there was any soil left to feed any returning vegetation it went flowing down the creeks and valleys toward the lowlands, fouling the waters, wrecking the fisheries, sending the stored centuries of fertility down and down toward the coast where it was wasted in the seas.

After that, there was nothing black at all about Black Balsam Knob.

Graveyard was indeed a fitting term for what remained.

It has been well over one hundred years since the timber barons raped these mountains and scoured away everything of value that was growing in this place. And the winters at these altitudes are severe. The heights are raked with powerful prevailing winds and shocked by ice and snow and temperatures that rival those one would expect a thousand miles to the north. Even if the grasses and shrubs could find some sustenance among the rocks and rubble, the cold adds yet another barrier to the recolonization of these ridges by the forests looted and gone.

These days what one sees in the heights we call the Shining Rock Wilderness is a false kind of alpine environment. Our southern Appalachians--even our highest peaks above 6,000 feet--do not create true alpine zones. But exposed here due to environmental rape and harsh winters and denuded soils we have false alpine spots. Shrubs and grasses have managed to come back, and there is the beginning of a new topsoil just starting to form itself again. The spruce and firs are merely starting to poke their needles toward the skies. It will probably take two or three hundred additional years before the stone and sand of Shining Rock and Black Balsam Knob will be clothed in a dark, green, billowing cloak of verdant forests.

Yes, there's a kind of beauty there in the open vistas and grassy flats. But one must understand that it is there because of a monstrous crime; the rape of Mother Earth.

No balsams these days on Black Balsam Knob.

The soils that have been built up are shallow and fragile and easily eroded.

Foot traffic reveals that just below the inch of so of soil is an even more shallow layer of easily removed sand.

In Graveyard Fields one sees some patches of beeches and spruce trees beginning to make a presence.

In the flat, damp expanse of Graveyard Fields some shrubs and grasses have established dominance.

Hiking in Shining Rock, Part I.

Hiking in Shining Rock, Part II.

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Since Carole's health is pretty much back to normal I went on a one-day hike on Monday. I traveled up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and parked at Graveyard Fields where I wandered around that unusual high-elevation valley to see a couple of waterfalls and to drive up to the Shining Rock Wilderness trailheads to take some photos. After that I drove toward Looking Glass Rock to hike to the base of the cliffs where the rock climbers go to scale the mountain.

Briefly, that filled my day. I'm hoping to head back to the high country early next week. Maybe for an overnight backpacking excursion in the same general area.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Art Imitating Life

When my wife and I were first married we flew up to Maine for a vacation. One day we drove to Lubec to visit an old pulp writer I knew (Ryerson Johnson who--among many other jobs--used to write the old Doc Savage stories). After we stayed with him a while we drove out to West Quoddy Head Island to see the famous lighthouse. As we were driving along the causeway we looked out to sea and noticed a weather phenomenon you would have to have witnessed to believe. It was so visually horrifying that it felt like my guts froze solid. We pulled over on the deserted stretch of road and climbed out of the car to look at it. Trying to describe it is a worthless act. You'd have had to have been there.

Out on the ocean--the COLD North Atlantic--was what appeared to be a solid wall of white, as if sheared off with geometric perfection, flying along the surface of the ocean and extending high into the sky. No imperfections. No iterations. Just this solid wall of white headed for us across the vast, dark sea; as if someone had used a giant ruler to create it.

"What is that?" I barely heard my wife ask.

"Some kind of front. I think. I've never seen anything like that. I've never HEARD of anything like it."

We nervously climbed back into the car and drove on to the island where the lighthouse was located. By then the front had reached us, and by then we were in the trees and so had been spared seeing it actually arrive. We got to the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse parking lot and stopped. The fog was so thick that visibility, even in daylight, was a few feet. We could only see the lighthouse when we got out and walked right up to it along the pathway.

After about fifteen or twenty minutes the fog began to lighten a little. Not enough for it to vanish, but visibility was better and it actually felt like the sun was somewhere above us.

A few years after that I read Stephen King's novella "The Mist". In that story he describes something almost exactly like what we saw on the causeway. I wonder if King was around there that day. If not, then it must mean that this kind of thing happens now and again in Maine.

Frankly, even though at the time I kind of knew what it was, I really don't ever want to see it happen again. It was that disturbing a sight.

(This is where we were headed. I didn't take the photo of West Quoddy Head Lighthouse.)

As a point of silly trivia, the easternmost point of land in the USA is WEST Quoddy Head Island. This is because EAST Quoddy Head Island is in Canada.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


I was recently told that there is a serious movement afoot to make a feature film about the very early superhero character, Captain Marvel. Not the one from Marvel Comics, but the original character once published by Fawcett Publications. DC Comics sued them in the 1950s because the book (and all of its spinoff titles) had become more popular than Superman. DC argued that Fawcett had intentionally copied Superman and so they took the matter to court. They won. Why? Because, under oath, the team of writers and artists who had put their heads together to come up with what were then called "costumed characters" admitted that they had been instructed to do just that: come up with something as similar to Superman as they could make it.

The loss of the lawsuit put Fawcett out of business. At the time they were one of the most successful and popular comic book publishers on the planet. One month their books were on the stands making tons of money, and the next they were gone. DC's win, in essence, gave them ownership of Fawcett's titles and characters. Their wish was to quash Captain Marvel, and that's exactly what they did, burying the superhero for well over a decade.

But that's not what I wanted to cover here, very briefly. The thing I wanted to mention is that one of the creators in that room--the artist CC Beck--was known for using movie stars upon which to pattern the physical appearances of his characters. For whatever reason, at that time he considered that the then-youthful Fred MacMurray was the perfect physical type to be a superhero.

And so, he illustrated Captain Marvel (SHAZAM!) to resemble MacMurray.

The inspiration.

All in color for a dime.

Sunday, October 08, 2017


My wife has been ill lately and so I haven't been able to go hiking as I normally would do. Needing to be closer to home I have turned to reading and watching TV and movies for leisure activities. Thus, I have been able to buy some new books and sit in front of the television and watch some shows.

One TV series that I watched was the AMERICAN GODS show on streaming video. I watched all of the episodes and what held me was not so much the premise or the scripts or any deep characterization or messages, but a few bits of good acting and casting choices.

The series (as was the novel) is based upon the idea of the fading away of the old gods (Nordic, Greek, various African, Asian, etc.), and the rising of newer deities based on the obsessions that modern humans have with technology (TV, computers, iphones, etc.). It's not a terribly clever premise and to tell you the truth I was not impressed with it either in prose or television format.

One of the big reveals in the series is the person of one of the major characters, Mr. Wednesday. We know he is a supernatural being, that he is a very big deal, but the average person is supposed to not know who he really is. Great Jove, I hope that people are not that simple-minded and stupid, but I suppose this is true. Ian McShane portrays Odin/Wotan about as he should be portrayed. It's rather a predictable performance...but you know what? I kind of enjoyed watching him do it.

The main protagonist is a man named "Shadow Moon" played by an actor named Ricky Whittle. He's an atypical liberal wet-dream kind of a cypher and I was not impressed by either that character or the actor doing the role. He's a decent enough performer, but there is nothing inspired in said performance. It's all very workmanlike. I also wearied of Shadow Moon constantly being amazed and bewildered by the things he was seeing when it had already become obvious for anyone else that he was walking amidst various gods and demons and their metaphysical hangers-on.

And this is what bugged me most about the series, and about Gaiman's writing in general (ever since his days penning perfectly precious comic books for goths and liberal goofs): there's nothing original there. It's all a reflection on things that have gone before, created by civilizations great and minor and being hauled out and fluffed up for modern viewing. Nothing new. All kind of tired and pathetic, really.

After a few episodes of this ceaseless copping of various cultures, all while being used to hammer us ceaselessly with the idea that conservative thought is bad and liberal speak is good, I began to grow very, very weary of it. But I kept going, more out of curiosity of how the actors might perform than by being hammered over the skull with one bleeding heart opinion after another couched in the language of the holier-than-thou smirk.

One episode which seemed at first to go completely off-rail--almost like something David Lynch would do--was a flashback to the 1700s wherein we are given some really waaaaay back back-story for Laura Moon (Shadow Moon's wife), featuring her great-great-grandmother hailing from Ireland and ending up in the New World. What this episode was revealed was nothing more than a condensed retelling of The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders penned, it is said, by Daniel Dafoe. Again...this is the kind of thing about Gaiman's work that grates on my every last nerve. The dredging up of classic mythology and classic literature to use as substrate for his modern fiction. There's something there that I find rather dishonest in it all.

Still, that episode did obliquely co-star the character of Mad Sweeney who is actually a leprechaun who features prominently in almost all of the episodes. We see him a couple of hundred years ago and understand a little of perhaps why he keeps showing some amount of guilty attention toward Laura Moon. shouldn't have taken the hijacking of Dafoe's work to do that. Pablo Schreiber (half brother of the more popular and well known Liev Schreiber) regularly turns in the best acting in the show as Mad Sweeney. So there was that.

Later in the season--and I was waiting for it--there was an episode that reveled in its debasement of Christianity and the person of Jesus Christ. While I am not myself a Christian, I am always irked to see how the liberal set like Gaiman and company rarely sidestep a chance to make light of Christianity as rudely as they can. I could almost understand it if it was coming from the pen of an adolescent recently freeing himself from the yoke of tradition and the pedestrian. But this is all supposed to have been written by adults. Well...maybe emotionally stunted adults, or folk with a specific agenda to sell.

As I said, I kept watching because the series does have some good actors putting in some fine work. I never get tired of seeing what Peter Stormare brings to the screen, and his portrayal of Thor is good, with a helping of the humor he generally brings with him. Chloris Leachman is strange and vulnerable as an aging goddess. Crispin Glover is his usual, creepy, demented self as Mr. World, the top of the pyramid of neo-gods. And Gillian Anderson does some good scenes as Media, a kind of Hera to Mr. World's Zeus. Some scenes she does amazingly well, and others she shoots for the stars and falls back to low Earth orbit. But that's better than most actors.

All in all, it kept me from being totally bored when I wasn't reading, writing, or working my part-time job. But given the choice, I'd much rather go hiking or discover a new author to keep my mind busy. I doubt I'll bother to stream the series next season. (I will assume there will be a next season.)

"Mr. Wednesday." Oh my! Who could he really be?!

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Crazy Stuff

Thinking back on my life as a kid, I am amazed that I lived past the age of ten. Daily life sometimes seemed to be a series of near-fatal mishaps. Seriously. The shit little dumbass boys do. How the hell do male children survive? If mothers knew the totally insane and dangerous shit their male offspring do when their parents aren't around, they'd probably all have heart attacks.
One time when I was nine or ten I climbed up this giant granite road cut (in Decatur GA--same granite formation that created Stone Mountain). The engineers had routed a road so that the construction crews had to blast and slice through a granite outcrop and there was then about a 30-foot high cliff beside the road. One of my pals said that we should scale it. Like mountain climbers going to the top of an ice-capped summit.
I liked that idea. Of climbing a mountain and reaching high above treeline where the snow never melted. It didn't matter that I lived just outside Atlanta and it was summer with no hint of temperatures under 88 degrees. To an adult mind the fantasy of snow and glaciers was silly. But I was a kid. Hell, yes, I figured. That seemed like a perfect idea. Let's climb that sumbitchin' cliff!
So, up we went. First there was a grassy embankment that probably sloped up to something akin to a pitch of about 40 degrees. But there was plenty of green blades of grass to hold to keep from sliding or falling down. Enough of a purchase to get us up to the granite where we could find handholds and ledges to put our feet. Just at the edge of the rock I was having doubts (I had looked down--big mistake). But somehow I made it up until I was at the granite and about ten feet above the road.
I looked down again. My pal--a kid named Paul I knew from school--was back at the road on safe, level ground.
"What the heck, man?!"
"It's too steep," he yelled up to me.
"You didn't even make it to the rock!" I wanted to tell him that he was a fucking asshole, but I didn't.
He shrugged.
Hell with it, I figured. I was already committed. So up I went.
At first it was easy. The road crews had left wide ledges from their blasting and jackhammers. You could almost stand on them. Not quite, but almost. I kept climbing. After about ten more vertical feet I got to a point where the places to hold on were getting sketchy, and my tennis shoes were on little outcrops that extended only deep enough for my toes--maybe an inch more. And then I did the stupid thing again.
I looked down.
Paul wasn't only not climbing anymore, he was gone. And I saw that the drop was not like the grassy slope at a disturbing but survivable 40-degree inclination--it was straight the fuck down. Like Wile E. Coyote down. Puff of dust and broken bones down. I could then see myself falling, but not getting up. I felt the fist of mortality squeezing my guts and a voice inside my fragile cranium telling me that I had fucked the goddamned fuck up.
Holy shit.
I couldn't hug the face of the artificial cliff, but I did as near an approximation of that as I could. I pushed up as close to the surface of that warm Georgia granite as possible, trying to meld with it, squinting my eyes and wondering how in the name of Steve Ditko I was going to get down.
The next thing I did was also stupid. I looked up. Holy Jesus. I was only halfway to the top. And the handholds were just as crappy. I squinted my eyes and wanted to scream. Cars below me were whizzing by, oblivious to the dumbass kid clinging to the rock face above them. Or maybe not oblivious, but just terribly amused.
What the hell was I going to do? How was I going to get down?
And here's the thing.
I have zero recollection of how I did get down.
None. Zilch.
All I can tell you is that I did get down, or maybe up. It's possible that I climbed the rest of the way up and bellied myself over the edge of the cliff to the pine forest above. Or maybe I edged to my left, closer to that crazy-steep grassy incline and came down that way. I seriously have no freaking idea how I got down. I seem to have blotted it from my mind.
Sometimes, when I'm half-awake and recalling that moment of extreme but also somehow average moment of male-child stupidity, my thoughts veer off into a dark world created by Philip K Dick and I'll muse that I didn't get down. I'll start to think that somewhere between climbing the rest of the way up, or edging my way to the grass and scooting down that embankment of green chlorophyll vegetation...well...that I fell to my death and that the rest of my life is just a way Death gave me to soften the blow. What if that kid Paul saw it happen and went screaming for someone to scrape his dumbass pal's bloody corpse off of the side of the road? What if that is the way it went down and the Grim Reaper just gave me a confusing dream to make it all a little less cruel?
And so here I am waiting to hit the pavement at some point.

What my spider sense really told me was that I had just totally fucked up.