At the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, silt swamps and rich farmland attract tens of thousands of sandhill cranes on their annual migration from the upper midwest to the Gulf coast. In recent decades, a sizeable population overwinters there instead of continuing further south. Just downstream from this merging point is Blythe Ferry, the site of the final forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their lands, where some 9,000 men, women, and children were held in camps for weeks before floating downstream or being carried across the river to walk what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
From the air, a river’s course is plain— No surprise waiting around the bend On this map for migrating sandhills. Life is carried effortlessly as silt. The flock pauses to dig mussels or Pillage a farmer’s unreaped corn Rejoicing in rattling trumpet calls.
From the ground, a river marks an edge A line of knowing and not knowing One side from the other as it flows. Death is carried down cold and aloof. Blood, waste, and tears washed along with mud From a people massed and waiting for The flood of pain to crest and recede.
A week of rain swells the runoff creek, Its muffled roar suffusing the woods As the blank-blue sky of Northern air Sidles down the plateau to cradle Our valley in momentary chill Fixing in time every splashed droplet.
Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum.
Ice grasps rocks and branches, layer by Layer accreting into crowds of Overnight stalagmites and a lone Ephemeral agate at the end Of a string dangling from a footbridge That sways with each splash, marking the time Till warmth rushes back, which the ground knows Well, watching an Iris bloom too soon.
Winter in Tennessee is a pendulum
Yellow light bursts from a stem, calling January’s bluff for a moment, But it dies—a raisin in the frost, Hoping for a slice of spring before The long flat note of summer goads it To try for glory again next year.
Life in Tennessee is a pendulum.
Image: Ice pendulum, Glen Falls, Hamilton County, Tenn., January 2020