Wednesday, September 17, 2008

CUMBERLAND MOUNTAINS, CUMBERLAND PLATEAU

When people here at Sewanee speak of “The Mountain,” they use the name alternately with the Cumberland Plateau – a geographical fact that confused me when I first arrived here. The Cumberland Plateau, a tableland that is “lifted up” like a mountain is conjoined with plains country and river canyons. Surface rock up here is sandstone, “The Mountain” rising up almost 2,000 feet above the Valley. At one time, passage “down The Mountain,” as the natives say, was through the Cumberland Gap or along the Tennessee River near Chattanooga.

In my readings about Tennessee, I discovered that the Cumberland Plateau has rich veins of coal and the mountains still show places where strip mines scarred the earth. The Plateau is now a place of deep canyons, sandstone bluffs, caves, and waterfalls, and is covered with oak forests, interspersed with hickory, maple, gum, and tulip poplar trees.

Many of my friends spend time hiking on The Mountain or Plateau and tout such sites as Fiery Gizzard Trail, Walls of Jericho, Dry Hole Trail, Bridal Veils Trail, Shakerag Hollow Trail, and other exotic (?)-sounding names, but I’ve declined to make serious hikes and confine my explorations to car tours through agricultural country where hay, Irish potatoes, and fruit trees abound, as mentioned in my blogs about the Mennonite landscape.

I’m told that the Cherokee Indians once owned most of The Plateau but gave up their claim to it in 1819. In 1838, the remainder of the Cherokees were forcibly rounded up and sent to Oklahoma, most of them moving by foot on the Trail of Tears, 4,000 of them perishing along the way. Many of the arts and crafts I saw in August at the annual Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Fair showed the influence of Indian artisans and added to the color of one of the most eclectic shows of handicrafts I’ve seen anywhere.

This morning on The Mountain, September 17, temperatures dipped to 57 degrees at 5 a.m. At 6:45, I shivered when I got out of the car to attend Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Convent of Sewanee – the bluff is particularly chilly when Fall cold sets in as winds hover there year-round. However, I’ve discovered that I can withstand the chill better than last year at this time. Perhaps I’m finally getting acclimated to The Mountain.

Yellow leaves of tulip poplar trees have begun to fall and skitter across the drive, announcing the end of Summer. Last October, I wrote this snippet for JUST PASSING THROUGH, a book of poetry published by Border Press:

GOING TOWARD OCTOBER ON THE MOUNTAIN

The trees are promised gold, red, brown,
yet only the dogwood acts as though

change is welcome,

accepts the leaf turning, departing green,
shaking out hues of flaming flowers,

embracing the grace of diffraction.
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