As I sit at a picnic table overlooking the Tennessee River, just below the Raccoon Mountain Pumped Storage Plant, the ripples of the river exude power. The ridge on the far side is marked by two cliffs, one above the other, which run most of the length. Each is tall and clearly visible above the trees. The river is quite deep here, with Nickajack dam not far below, but this flooded valley was once home to a much shallower river with rapids and shoals.
I cannot write much of that flooded valley, short of a time machine to go back and visit it. I know that boats leaving Chattanooga encountered “The Suck,” a place where the river narrowed and objects, sometimes even people, were pulled into the water below. Submerged objects came to the surface further downstream at “The Pot,” where water bubbled up to the surface from those deeps. Further down, an obstacle known as “The Frying Pan,” caused more havoc for river traffic. To tell the full story of this section of river though, I would have to have visited it.
Years ago, Kentucky author Wendell Berry fully explored a place before writing of it. He hiked, canoed, and waded the Red River Gorge, and wrote a book titled The Unforeseen Wilderness
The Army Corps of Engineers planned to flood this gorge, displacing a few scattered farmers and ending its natural state. Ironically, the dam which would flood the valley was proposed in the name of “Flood Control.”
Berry visited a farm only accessible by foot path or tractor during high water, and recorded the people’s connection to the land. He also recorded the beauty of the landscape with the insight and acumen his readers have come to expect in his writings about his rural homeland. He spent five years on the project, and may have originated the term “place based writing.” His words, and the photographs by Gene Meatyard, tell a story of incredible beauty.
I may someday visit the Red River Gorge, which remains without submersion, thanks to its designated status under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Protection of the gorge was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Even if I visit, I cannot write its story, for this land is not mine. I would write as a man who viewed the gorge as scenery, or photograph it as one who stops at a scenic overlook and takes a snapshot. Berry warns of the dangers of scenery in his book.
My own experience of place based writing came about with a poem titled “Glen Falls Trail.” Glen Falls is near my current residence on the side of Lookout Mountain. I have lived in this area for years, and hiked the trail numerous times. One day I noticed the graffiti, “George Loves Lisa,” painted on the rock face in an archway above the falls. I wrote my poem about the beauty of this place, but included a speculation on the various possibilities of that relationship:
I wonder, did he ever tell her?
Did she know or think of him at all,
raise a brood of screaming children?Did they kiss near wild ginger
above the stony apse?
The poem won a prize from the Tennessee Writers Alliance, including a substantial (to me at least) cash award. It was later included in the Southern Poetry Anthology: Volume VI, Tennessee (University of Texas Press).
I am convinced to this day that the success of this particular poem resulted from my association with the place where it is based. I am no Wendell Berry, nowhere near his phenomenal success of more than fifty books in print, but I agree with his belief that the best writing is placed based.
Ray Zimmerman is the Senior Editor of the anthology Southern Light: Twelve Contemporary Southern Poets, and author of the Poetry Chapbook, First Days. His poetry, nonfiction, and photography have appeared in regional and national publications. He has appeared as a storyteller and a performance poet in numerous Chattanooga area events. He is particularly pleased that his poem “Glen Falls Trail” received an award from the Tennessee Writers Alliance and appeared in The Southern Poetry Anthology: Volume VI, Tennessee (University of Texas Press).
The full text of the poem “Glen Falls Trail” appears At http://rayzimmerman.weebly.com