Holy Daybreak

or “Aaron’s Beard Redux: Psalm 133.5

The sun seeps contently across a thousand “heads,”
Spits of earth bathed gently by precious light that spreads
From the ocean inland down on cornfields, swamps, woods
And then, as on command, dawns to wake neighborhoods.

Above false light-rings snuffed by rising of the day,
Soft pink cloud-beards, puffed, shine back above the gray
About mountain collars transformed by the first rays
That hit peaks and hollers to Appalachian blaze.

Here beyond hills glowing, I watch the red-orange ooze
Spill down, slipping, slowing, toward misty valley blues,
Now casting blades of grass bowed with drops of dew
As countless beads of glass making the scene brand new.

Tomorrow they’ll reset and pull it off again,
Cycling without regret nature’s unfeigned amen.
Each day cries out wonder, sprouting what joy we’ve squirreled.
Blessing rends asunder the darkness of the world.

The Woods Never Give Up

Rodgers and Hammerstein notwithstanding, I’ve always known the hills are alive.

At 14, my family moved from the sandy pines of South Georgia to a high Appalachian town in North Carolina. Our house there, nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, did not have air conditioning. We only missed it a few days each summer. Something in my internal thermostat must have permanently re-set in the years I spent there, leaving me pining for the mountains whenever summer begins to creep into the Tennessee Valley, where I’ve lived since college.

Once the temperature hits the mid-nineties, I often give up and flee to the hills. Seeking refuge in the lush shade of temperate rainforest or ridgeline breezes is a family tradition, though I suppose it hasn’t helped me re-acclimate to the rest of the South. Blessedly, I still live close enough that a 2-hour drive and quick mile hike can take me to another world.

Learning to Look Up

Old-growth cove forests seem designed to lead to self-forgetfulness. I know I can always find rest there leaning on the shoulder of a tulip poplar, rocketing to heaven from a vast fan of creekside roots. Six, maybe eight, feet thick, one hundred seventy-five feet tall, it has carried the weight of the world for five or six hundred years. The propped frame of a passing hiker is no added burden.

The Cherokee called these woods “Nantahala”—roughly translated as “the place of the noonday sun”—because the high valley slopes only let light reach the forest floor for a brief while in the middle of each day. With the thick summer canopy in full flush, it’s not all that bright even then. The understory is not thick, owing to the dark shade, with small shrubs and groundcover gobbling up what light they can, leaving much of the ground open for mushrooms, millipedes, and microbes to slowly work through rotting branches and centuries of leaf-litter.

Though the Cherokees’ original name persists for the National Forest encompassing this area, the U.S. Forest Service selected a particular cove to rename as a memorial to poet Joyce Kilmer, best remembered for an untimely demise in World War I and one particularly sentimental poem (“Trees”) that ends with the line, “only God can make a tree.” 

Such divine provenance certainly hasn’t stopped people from trying to make trees. Looking up a bare trunk that punctures through all competing foliage before its first leaf, it is not hard to see cathedral columns of Gothic imagination. Perhaps stone temples bathed in stained-glass light were attempts to recapture the world as it was before it was  “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil,” as another poet—Gerard Manley Hopkins—phrased it in “God’s Grandeur.”

Death and Rebirth
Not many such vaulted glades remain today even under the putatively watchful eye of the USFS. It protects a few wilderness spots like this while managing millions of acres for timber contracts. What becomes of a sacred space when the pillars come down? 

At Joyce Kilmer, across the creek from the main grove of outsized poplars, there are scars. A swath of the cove was devastated by the one-two punch of a tornado during the 2011 Southeast “Super-outbreak” and a forest fire during the exceptional drought of 2016. What grows on that slope today bears little resemblance to pre-storm flora. A tangled mass of hydrangea, mountain laurel, loosestrife, blackberry canes, and saplings of maple, birch, hemlock and even the next generation of tulip poplars have rushed into the breach—all interspersed with a handful of older trees that survived the upheaval.

In spite of the temporary overabundance of sunlight and the changes in soil moisture it brings about, this is a forest in recovery. In 2-3 more decades, it will look more like a typical, healthy cove forest again, shading the creek again and allowing the ground and micro-biome to bounce back. Barring other catastrophes, in another 40 or 50 decades, it will be as majestic as its antique neighbors further up the cove are now.

Destruction and Restoration

Just below the summit of Huckleberry Knob—a 5,560’ peak barely 5 miles west of this poplar grove—another story is told in a clutch of 14 Fraser firs. These evergreens (of Christmas tree industry fame), only grow in the wild atop the highest reaches of the Southern Appalachians. What makes this tiny forest stand out is its isolation, a sort of reverse-clearing within acres of grassland.

Huckleberry Knob is one of the fabled “balds” that draw hikers from all over the country for their sweet-smelling wildflower meadows and 360-degree views. Originally, it’s likely that the whole summit was forested with firs and red spruce, like many neighboring peaks to the north and east, but only this patch remains. Why balds exist at all, no one really knows. Most speculate that they were created either by timbering or lightning-sparked wildfires, but ended up being maintained “artificially”—maintained by the Cherokee as sacred sites or berry harvesting centers, later used for summer grazing land by European settlers weary of valley heat.

Today, most are protected by overlapping state, federal, or private land-management entities. Some balds are in various stages of reverting back to forest, the laws of old-field succession operating as predicted. Others are kept in grass by mowing or grazing by lightly-managed herds of semi-wild ponies. Others seem to persist by new natural forces, a shift in soil chemistry and species balance running deep enough to effect a permanent alteration.

In any case, each of these mountaintops is wholly different from its original landscape. Instead of dark, evergreen woods shading out all underbrush, there are prairies of abundance—where strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries invite human and animal foragers to partake. A ring scrub—a sort of high-altitude savanna—often buffers the fields from more dense woods typical of a region receiving 80-100 inches of rainfall each year.

A few hundred miles to the northeast, the balds atop the Allegheny Plateau of West Virginia are referred to as “sods” in the local vernacular. Many of these have better attested origins, the largest a direct result of massive fires following clear-cut logging in the 19th century. Intense heat fueled by heaps of stumps and branches scoured humus down to bedrock. Amid the bare stones, grasses and lowbush blueberries stake a claim, with a few krummholz spruce in damp spots that retain some soil. In October, as the blueberries’ leaves flush crimson, thousands of acres of open space appear to burn again. To me, there is hardly a more lovely sight on earth, literally beauty from ashes.

Spacious Delight

All these places—pristine, healing, or permanently altered—speak of resurrection. Their message is not the twinkling-of-an-eye fix of all the sad things that ever took place, but the slow, almost imperceptible mustard seed growth of new life in the shadow of the old. It doesn’t make itself known right away. But it is there, hidden, waiting to outlast the destruction with unimaginable flourish.

Later in his poem, Hopkins concludes, “for all this, nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” The woods never give up. The truth and goodness of creation speak plainest in their beauty. The Holy Spirit, brooding over the bent world, imparts wisdom by the wonder of what God has made. 

Perhaps wonder feels like wisdom because it is a gift from the one who brings us out into spacious places because he delights in us (Ps. 18:19). There is a sense in which God has chosen to communicate both His power and the favor in which we walk as His beloved children though creation. ​​All God’s works speak. Even without words, “ their voice goes out into all the earth” (Ps. 19:3-4). As we consider our own creatureliness, the rest of creation shows us a God who is not embarrassed by our frailty but has ordered a world to sustain and fill us, even walking amid his hills and trees together with us for a time.  

The grandeur of Creation, in large and small incarnations, lifts our heads, telling us that all that crushes and wearies us is yet part of a different, better story. Beauty represents God’s attunement to us, confirming the reality of truth and goodness when so many facts on the ground call them into question. It wraps the Lord’s love and glory and wrath and power into a form that cannot be apprehended, but only received.

When I go to the mountains, I remember.

Under the loud silence of a canopy of birds, in the steamy green darkness of an Appalachian cove, with silver-spotted skippers licking sweat from my forehead, I feel fully present in His world. My heart and mind are pulled back into curiosity and hope. I am held fast in my limits, sustained in abundance, and called to worship.

Featured Image: Poplar in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, June 2022.

The Resurrection of Irises

The specificity with which Easter falls in the year, tracking with the prescribed dates of the Passover festival, convinces me that God is delighted to have the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection be in the midst of the turning of the seasons. It is spring for us in the Northern Hemisphere (as it was for Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem), autumn on the other side of the world, and often in the midst of the shift from dry to rainy in the tropics. The jarring reality of defeated death is timed to catch our attention in some visceral way. Violent shifts in weather, the transitions of plants, even the behavior of insects, participate in this liturgical choreography.

Something is coming. Something is passing away. Everything is different now. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ is alive. Christ is coming again.

In John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” (which I love), he says that Christ’s resurrection “was not as the flowers, each soft Spring recurrent.” The fundamental uniqueness to the second person of the Trinity being revealed as the firstborn from the dead can’t be captured by simple metaphors of life re-emerging from winter dormancy. The flowers weren’t dead, just waiting. Yes, we mark Christ’s resurrection every year, but it is on a whole other level than the guaranteed return of seasonal vegetation. But I don’t want to rush past the floral metaphor with the same hand wave Updike gives, on botanical or theological grounds.

Here in Tennessee, irises are the grammar of spring. Irises of every shade and shape imaginable. They love it here, and we love them (it’s the state flower). This one (pictured below) is my favorite, both for its outlandish style and its understated resilience.

When we bought our house in 2007, the grounds were a portrait of neglect, unkempt shrubs protruding at odd angles from knee-deep leaves killing the grass. That first spring, these irises came up all over the yard, without rhyme or reason. Not wanting to cut them down when I mowed the grass, we gathered them up, transplanting them all into one bed. They kept growing, but did not bloom again for at least 5 years. But they did eventually come back to life.

Irises have pedigrees, records of centuries of cultivation to produce minute variations, all catalogued by institutions like the Royal Horticultural Society or American Iris Society. As near as I can tell, these are a variety called ‘Fabian’, first attested by an English gardener named Salter in 1868. They were listed by the AIS as extinct in 1939. But here in 2022, beside a house built in 1960, they bloom with reckless abundance in April—a testament against exaggerated reports of their demise.

Once hybridized to a gardener’s specification, irises are set and shared by propagation through the multiplication and division of rhizomes—every iris that is a distinct varietal is a clone, a continuously living part of a part of a part of that first plant that some gardener thought was just perfect. Our “resurrected” Fabians are a testimony to this long-dead Mr. or Ms. Salter looking at the first bloom of their new variety and pronouncing it “good.” I do not know how they made it to our corner of Tennessee, or who else along the way thought they were “good” too, to keep passing them on, but they are a gift.

I could have the ID on these wrong (they didn’t come with papers), but whatever cultivar they are, they speak a testimony to life and love bursting forth from long ago. And this is where my tweak on Updike rests—most plants are not merely “recurrent”, but continuous, connected to past years’ growth by a continuous chain of DNA and stored sugars. They are kept alive year after year in the complex dance of ecosystems, or by the loving hands of nursery workers.

In this way, the wonder of Jesus’ resurrection points to ours as well. According to the Apostle Paul, Christ’s resurrection was how, through the spirit of holiness he was declared with power to be the son of God. The body of the man Jesus Christ that died was raised to life and is seated at the right hand of the Father—that part is the miracle, the point of Updike’s poem. At another level (what Paul is getting at, I think), of course God almighty could never die, so the resurrection of Christ is in some sense “expected” once we recognize his divinity—it the proof that Jesus is God. This speaks to continuity of life, such that Paul can say in another letter that all things hold together in Christ. The power that raised Christ’s body from the dead is the same power that gave his body life in Mary’s womb. It is the same power that gave Mary life as well; the same power that made the world; the same power that brings flashes of purple and yellow from a starchy underground tomb in my yard each spring. It is the same power at work in every moment of every day of every life, upholding the universe by a word and working it toward final glory in the midst of every unspeakable brokenness wrought by evil.

I need these flowers at Easter as a ritual reminder of new life, a sacramental blow to my retina each time I walk out the door that engages the gears of theology with the churning mass of thoughts and emotions that overflow my heart and mind and mouth. I need the unsought abundance of wonder packed into each blossom because I can’t make it through a day of reading the news, listening to the pain of friends, or cowering before my own rage and inability to control even the process of getting the kids out the door to school without it. 

God knows I am weak, and he sends flowers. They speak of his goodness in such a way that I can’t help but remember all of it. It’s often considered unbecoming of men in the violent culture of the United States to be moved to emotion and action by beauty, but it is how God made us. I can’t stop fawning over irises and every other created thing that crosses my path because I refuse to be “embarrassed by the miracle” as Updike cautions. The God who raised Christ to life is the God of irises and springtimes, because He is pleased to be so. He said, “I am making everything new!” and lest we forget, He makes it new in small ways every day. I’m trying to write this down as instructed, because these things are trustworthy and true. And all creation is groaning in participation.

Into the Woods: Allegheny Front

In 2012, my wife and I spent our anniversary exploring a corner of the Eastern U.S. that we’d never visited before. We found it so delightful that we hoped to return soon. A few years (and a couple of kids) later we were able to return this month with the whole family to Tucker County, West Virginia.

I’m sure this place is beautiful in other seasons, but having only ever visited in October, I can confirm that it is positively magical then. The quality and quantity of fall foliage is blinding—thick forests of maple, birch, and aspen punctuated with the deep green of spruces and firs, or open plains of knee-high blueberry bushes, each outstretched leaf turned to a crimson candle in the setting sunlight.

This time around, because we had a toddler with us, the hiking was limited in both speed and distance, but we still spent plenty of time outside. A few of our favorite spots are listed below.

Canaan Valley State Park and National Wildlife Refuge

This is where we landed when we first visited the area, and we were still taken by it this year. Canaan Valley is a geological curiosity, a nearly perfectly flat depression (give-or-take, 8 miles long by 3 miles wide) on top of a high plateau. Given this, the valley floor is still over 3,000 feet above sea level, which, coupled with its location at nearly 40° north latitude creates a biome more akin to Minnesota than the Mid-Atlantic. Its flat topography lends itself to swampy terrain, with numerous ponds, sphagnum bogs, and tall-grass wetlands lining the meandering headwaters of the Blackwater River.

The state park has a fine network of trails (and cabins and a nice hotel, to boot) along the river and into the hills on the west side of the valley. In the southeast corner of the valley, the park also operates a small ski resort with a respectable 1,000 ft. vertical drop and an average of 200+ inches of natural snow each winter. If you’re there in October, you can ride the chairlift (which we did) to look at the leaves and enjoy great views of the valley.

Much of the remainder of the valley, apart from one other privately owned ski resort and scattered houses and farms, is occupied by a national wildlife refuge, preserving the boggy wetlands for migrating waterfowl. There is an excellent boardwalk for birdwatching in the heart of the refuge, circling through a fir forest, meadows of cotton grass and swampy tangles of wild spiraea. Quiet gravel roads snake through the refuge into Monongahela National Forest, with opportunities for hiking, wild cranberry picking, camping, or just country driving.

Blackwater Falls State Park
If you follow the Blackwater River to the northwestern end of the valley, it drops over a lovely 50′ waterfall and then dives into a canyon on its way down to the Monongahela River basin. The spectacle of fall foliage in the canyon rivals any show I’ve ever seen anywhere (and, seeing as our anniversary is in October, we’ve witnessed peak fall color in quite a few parts of the country over the years). You just want to sit and soak it in for hours.

We didn’t do any real hiking here this time around, though there are plenty of trails. The kids found some trees to climb and made leaf piles to jump in and throw at one another, and we enjoyed the (rather crowded) walk down to the falls.

Dolly Sods Wilderness and Bear Rocks Preserve
The thing that drew us to WV in the first place was Dolly Sods, which I’d read about on other hiking blogs—a place of mystery (including unexploded WWII training bombs!) above the clouds, a vast plain where the virgin forest was clearcut and fires seared the soil so that the trees may never return fully. Whatever the origins, the current state of the place is sheer, inexpressible beauty.

We only had a fleeting moment to visit this time (due to a sewage issue that forced us out of our AirBNB and cut the trip short, another story altogether—par for the course on our family vacations!), but happened to be there near sunset. All I can say is that the pictures speak for themselves. For someplace so close to civilization (ca. 2.5 hours from Washington, D.C.), it is as otherworldly as any spot this side of the Rockies. There are dozens of miles of trails zigzagging the wilderness, some of which we hiked last time, but we took a toddler-paced, restful amble this time.

Seneca Rocks
The only spot we hit on this trip that we didn’t last time was Seneca Rocks, a tourist photo-op standby and rock climbing Mecca. We managed to hike to the observation platform (a steep trail gaining 600+ feet in 1.3 miles) with the whole family, and then the older two girls coaxed me up to the knife-edge ridge for a better view and a dose of adrenaline. Well worth the visit.

We’ll be back again sometime, I’m sure. I’ll leave you with one obligatory New River Gorge Bridge shot to invite you to try it out as well. This is a state hard hit by centuries of environmental destruction and decades of economic devastation (it’s the only state in the U.S. with fewer people than it had in 1950), but there is a wealth of beauty and sparks of resilient community around the state. We’ve grown to love it, and hope others will, too.