Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

Note: This piece was originally written in September 2016, in the run-up to that year’s U.S. national election.

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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Chocolate Memories

To bring a solid thing to a rolling boil works
Unspoken magic atop the stove. Combining
Butter, sugar, cocoa, oats, vanilla, milk irks
Some with its simplicity, but births such shining
Chocolate gibbosity that even gourmands
Cannot help themselves from begging for a second.
No proper name for such delectability;
“Sludge” we called it, homage to its amorphous glands,
A foul word would disguise tasty heights, we reckoned.
Childhood on wax paper is pure gentility.

Cookies

Into the Woods: Home

Carving out time for hiking, valued though it is, often takes quite the effort. Because of this, I am always very grateful for the Lookout Mountain segment of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. When you have 3 hours for a hike, 30 minutes (round trip) in the car and 2-and-a-half hours on trail is far preferable to driving a long way for a short walk.

In thick irony, all of the peaceful parkland around our city is only here because the violent deaths of several thousand men on these grounds in 1863. There is room for reflection there (of which more another time) which does not go unnoticed, but we locals love the battlefields for the 9,000+ acres of public land they afford. My kids are growing up with this heritage, and they already probably think it’s odd that you don’t have cannons all over the place where you live.

I’ve trod many a mile around this old mountain, handy as it is (much of it  within Chattanooga’s city limits). Trucks and trains rumble just beyond the park’s edge, and there are two fully functioning towns (Both conveniently named Lookout Mountain—one in Tennessee, one in Georgia) atop the plateau, but the trails quickly open to mature forest.

Yesterday, Rachel & the older two girls had a birthday party to attend, so I “volunteered” (read: begged) to watch the youngest and spare us the experience. It was nice out (this fall as been terribly warm), so we decided to head for the woods.

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Selfies are not my forté, but at least toddlers in backpacks are cute.

We parked over on the west side of the mountain off Wauhatchie Pike  (near the Chattanooga Nature Center), to go upslope via the Kiddie trail (named for someone, not made for kids)/Skyuka Springs Trail/Gum Springs Trail. Time (and the limited patience of strapped-in children) kept us from making it all the way to Sunset Rock, but we were headed in that general direction.

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Kiddie is not terribly scenic, just a steep access path into the rest of trail network. A number of downed trees (probably dating from a bad tornado outbreak a few years ago) left the canopy spotty enough that the lower trail is rather overgrown and weedy.

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Further up, there were still a few fall colors poking through, and plenty of the usual Cumberland Plateau scenery (boulders, oaks, streams, etc.).

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As an aside, this area always makes for some interesting plant finds (like the Japanese burning bush shown below). Homeowners on the brow of the mountain above must toss their yard waste over the cliffs, and enterprising seeds and shoots take root in the woods below. A lot of what you see growing down there does not “belong”.

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A few miles of foot-pounding does a body (and soul) good, but I’m not certain my passenger felt the same. She didn’t cry, though she did hold on to my shoulder for most of the ride; for her first time in the backpack, I suppose she thought she was “floating” behind my head and not entirely confident of her situation. It’s the price you pay for being my kid, I guess.

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Into the Woods: Southwest NC

This fall has been one of the busiest seasons of our lives. Both Rachel and I are deeply committed on a number of levels, running on wisps of sleep and doing what we can to keep the plates spinning.

In the midst of it all, though, we were blessed to have a long weekend to ourselves (yes, her parents kept all three kids. Thanks!) to celebrate 9 years of marriage.

We got married in October at least partly because of the color scheme, capping off the wedding with a honeymoon in Downeast Maine back in 2006. Ever since, we’ve enjoyed timing our anniversary travel with peak foliage wherever we go to celebrate. We hit the weather/color jackpot again this year with a trip over to the Highlands/Cashiers area of North Carolina.

I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, but never spent much time in the southwest corner of the state. We had plenty of opportunity to enjoy the sights there this month, though, and we hit the trail. Rachel hasn’t always shared my love of grueling hikes, but we both do enjoy being outside. She let me drag her up and down a number of hills on this jaunt, and I’m pretty sure she even enjoyed herself.

What a treat. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

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The hill behind our condo at Sapphire Valley.

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Whitewater Falls

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Several shots from Black Balsam Knob off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rachel tells me I should just shout “Balsam” whenever I get stressed and think about this day up there.

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Graveyard Fields/Yellowstone Prong Falls is a one-in-a-million spot…unfortunately everyone knows it. We were tripping over other visitors, even on a Monday.

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We took this one from a Canoe on a rather windy lake.

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Whiteside Mountain in Highlands is something to behold. Quite a variety of terrain and views on a moderate 2.5 mile loop.

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Dry Falls on US 64.

Yep, I think I’ll keep her. =)