I spent the first morning of vacation drinking coffee in the kitchen, watching the sun scatter through the tree canopy and reflect in bright colors off of the iridescent plumage of turkeys scavenging on the forest floor outside. It was chilly, so I waited until the sun had time to warm the mountains and illuminate the sky to a brilliant bottomless (topless?) blue before moving outside, to the deck, where I sat surrounded by birdsong and the particular rushing sound the wind makes in the bare branches of the not quite spring trees. It is April. I ate a big, late breakfast and consider a beer, because days like this were meant for beers, for rocking chairs, for things to put your feet up on and just look up into the sky and let your eyes wander in space until they inevitably find the mountains folded up on the horizon, on all horizons. These are old mountains, worn and weathered to the topography of lazy Saturday morning blanket shadows on a sunny bed. They can be endlessly studied, mused upon, the mountains tell stories and hold secrets, but not too tightly. They only ask that you spend some time considering them before they gladly give up their histories, as if they have been waiting for the attention.
So let’s consider the mountains, the Smokies in this case, strangely clear this day, hazed only by distance through the density of air, almost incomprehensible, a mile here a mile there. They hide treasures, valleys and coves, little roads curving beneath the trees. The sky peeks out between branches and narrow horizons. This land impresses us, it strikes us as beautiful not only because it is so big (and that just sitting on a sun drenched deck drinking beer we can see how big it is) but also because it is so obviously old. This land is so much less transient than the marshes where I grew up. The current delta of the river is only a few tens of thousands of years old, the swamps have turned to vanishing marshes in less than a century, but these mountains were born millions of years ago. They exist on a different timeline than the land I know. They seem solid, permanent. Forever.
But a few days later I realize that seeing the mountains and being in the mountains are two very different things. What from afar is still, static, permanent and monolithic turns out to be dynamic and alive in a million different ways on a thousand timelines. From the massifs of stone, water carves valleys, and from the valleys grow moss and trees and from the plants come life, fighting life, astounding life, chirping and scratching and fighting. From the coves, and from the hammock where I write this along side of the windy roar of the rivers I can feel the mass of life bearing down upon me. What does that feel like? Its so hard to describe, this feeling of being a small part in a larger machine, a machine that wasn’t designed for a purpose but organically developed for its own sake. The secret life hidden between the rocks, deep in the valleys and far over insurmountable peaks.
It’s a joy to get in there, to climb the walls into the coves and spend a night or two below the tall swaying trunks of the trees and listening to the rush of wind and water and wondering if the bears are going to find your tent or climb the trees to get your food. It’s an honest nights sleep, a serious bit of business in a place were every day is full of the serious business of survival. Miles down trails crowded with leaves and trees and scattered boulders, the buffer of buildings and roads and electricity gone, you have to come to terms with your place, and it’s small, it’s unimportant, you’re just a part of something bigger.
That’s the secret hidden between the mountains: you don’t matter, nothing matters really. Anthropocene or not, these mountains will be here, this life will grow between their peaks in some form. This soil is fertile, the water plentiful, the walls around this place are high enough that only intentional malice could destroy what has risen on its own. It’s is enough to sit here now listening, watching, observing and knowing that you are not really a part of is but that at the same time you are inextricably linked to it, and to know that I the end this is the fate of mankind: to be a part and apart, nature and not, a passing thing, a thing doomed to be outlived, doomed to be out-evolved, doomed to be just a footnote in a much longer history. Our lives are doomed to be outlasted by the lives of the mountains.