Black Balsam

written in North Carolina, 2010. 

Memorial Day in the Mountains

It is listening that puts the world right again. When I listen to the wind, gently rustling the grasses, a feeling of peace pervades my being, as if I am absorbing the motes of tranquility that float in the air.  Occasional large flies and bees drone past, overlaying the background murmuring of grasses with percussive buzzes. An eastern towhee calls, moving further and further away, a penny-whistle of startling clarity. Crows caw dryly from among the mountains behind me, harsh sounds against the omnipresent breeze. They ride this wind, watching over places I’ll never see. But here, up on the top of the world, everything that I can see is enough.

I’m sitting on a rocky outcrop at the top of Black Balsam, a mountain just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. The rock under my hand is dark, shot through in some places with quartz, in others sprinkled with bits of mica that shine in the almost-setting sun. The rock is rough but worn, and I wonder how many years have passed since it first felt the warmth of daylight. More than I can fathom. Thousands of feet have passed this way, but this evening the perch and view are mine alone. My rock is an island surrounded by waves of bristling golden grasses, a bald above the tree line. Exposed to the world and the elements, I sit and breathe. The crickets have begun, their sounds the string section hidden among the dried grasses. The towhee still calls, now beyond the far ridge. It has found a partner and the two duet quietly, eventually fading into silence.

I like the mountains

I open my eyes and look up into the pure blue that is the sky. There are clouds, small puffs of cotton over distant mountains, too far away and wispy to be of concern. The moon is a translucent orb, suspended in the lightest blue above the darker mountain-defined horizon. All around me, as far as I can see, are mountains. Their smoothly rounded profiles deceptively hide distance and rock, making the world look soft. I imagine tracing their shapes with my hands, but it takes more than touch to know a mountain.

I glance up and a kestrel flies toward me, the only moving creature I can see. It disappears below the crest behind me, only to climb high again before eventually disappearing, a black speck absorbed into the sunlight and the blue of the sky. I wish to follow, but my mind is drawn back by the large, startling green katydid that lands on my bare leg. It takes a few hesitant steps on feet so small I can’t feel them before wiping its antenna and hopping clumsily away. It lands on the rock nearby, and as I watch it scrapes a wing against its back leg, beginning a solo not intended for my ears. I move closer but it leaps madly away, just out of reach. I don’t try to follow. I look back up at the moon and at my shadow on the grass, which remains still no matter how the grasses dance in the wind.

I sit and listen to the moon and the mountains, and, sometimes, I think I understand what they say.

I like the mountains

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