Language Meets Landscape
Postcard from Hiwassee Island
If you come, come in winter. January is best. And bring warm clothing—the hills of southeast Tennessee have cold spells with occasional snow, ice, and frost. Bring a telescope, too, if you have one, or possibly a friend with a telescope.
Past, present, and future intersect in this place, and you will want to see the geography scarred by the passage of time. In the distance, Hiwassee Island is visible, right at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers. The island has a long archaeological history going back to the Mississippian Era and earlier.
The ancient people of these lands are believed to be the ancestors of the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole tribes, traditional enemies of the Cherokee who departed before the Cherokee passed through. The US Government removed their descendants to Oklahoma, like the Cherokee Removal on the Trail of Tears.
Perhaps as many as two-thirds of those Cherokee travelers passed through here, removed by a growing nation whose ways they had emulated. They had printing presses, log cabins, a constitution, and treaties. They published The Phoenix, the first Native American newspaper, now in its 186th year. Some owned slaves. Their assimilation did not save them.
Like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, a series of walls at the Cherokee Removal Memorial bears these travelers' names. Replicas of implements common to Cherokee life are also part of the wall, and a small museum in a log structure holds displays that illustrate local wildlife and Cherokee culture.
When the state of Tennessee planted corn on the nearby Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to attract Canada geese and goose hunters, they may not have foreseen the arrival of cranes, a bird sacred to some tribes. As many as 20,000 sandhill cranes now pass by each winter.
The refuge is a stopover, a staging area for the birds to rest before heading further south. On any given day, you may see as many as 5,000 sandhill cranes and even an endangered whooping crane or two. Only about 600 of the stately whooping cranes remain in the wild today. They are pure white, except for their black-tipped wings, and they stand over five feet tall.
On a foggy day, you may hear the rattling call of the sandhill cranes and imagine thousands passing through. The mystic call of a whooping crane may set you to imagining an ancient village on Hiwassee Island or a line of Cherokee people boarding boats for a long trip westward. The great Wisconsin naturalist Aldo Leopold said he could imagine the Pleistocene when he heard the call of cranes.
Lately, pelicans have begun overwintering here—the large white ones, not the smaller brown ones. I’ve seen as many as 300! They always passed close by en route to Yellowstone in the spring and the Gulf Coast in the fall, but warmer winters now encourage them to stay.
Wear boots, for the grandeur of the area is offset by muddy trails.
A slightly different version of "Postcard from Hiwassee Island" appeared in the online journal Cagibi: A Literary Space. They publish one short essay per issue in the Postcard section. It's a great read. They seem to be open to submissions from new writers. For guidelines, see cagibilit.com.
To read some of my freelance journalism, check out my articles in Hellbender Press, a Foundation for Global Sustainability publication (sustainably.org).
I composed the following poem in October 2013 at the Scarritt Bennett Center in Nashville. While I attended the Southern Festival of Books, I stayed at the conference center and walked their labyrinth several times. I combined the poem with one of my photographs and published the work as an 11x17 broadside with design by Terrance Chouinard of the Wing and the Wheel press and printing by Wonder Press of Chattanooga.
Walking the Labyrinth
The path of the soul is not linear.
It spirals like the turns of this maze,
outlined with bricks on sides.
Like time, it circles back
passes by starting points.
I turn left one hundred eighty degrees,
not exactly the way I came, this path
to the center, where there is no Minotaur.
My dragons are all in my heart,
slain or otherwise.
The first wall outlines a square
which no paths cross.
Is this square sacred ground,
reserved for shaman, priestess,
and holy man?
If I stepped inside, where
no tracks appear, would I
transport to another place or time,
reappear burned to ash
by sacred geometry?
A friend asked a transit driver
in Nashville's less sacred geometry,
Is this my stop? Her simple reply:
"Either sit back down or get off the bus."