Today, while turning over sod in the vegetable patch to ready the soil for beets, carrots and chard, I unearthed an ancient collection of stones. Each flat piece lay nestled in perfect proportion against its neighbor spreading out in two directions and hidden until today underneath a foot or so of earth.
At first, I was impressed by the seeming synchronicity of my discovery. Decades, perhaps centuries in the past, another farmer had eyed this patch of land and had determined this piece to be the best location for his or her kitchen garden, just as I now do. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the land is relatively level (a rarity in these parts) and collects the sun for much of the day in spite of the surrounding mountainous terrain. My predecessor must have valued these features as I do. Perhaps it was he who erected an old barn that still stands on the property that is constructed of the wood of the American chestnut tree, which has been extinct in the wild since early in the 20th century.
My predecessors would not, I am sure, have viewed an Easter Sunday’s respite in the vegetable patch as the pleasurable leisure I do. Early Southern Appalachian settlers’ lives were punctuated by long, laborious days tending to crops and cattle. After battling thin, acidic and rocky soils and constant challenges from rampant predators preying on flocks and herds, the land generally acquiesced providing enough fruits for the farmer’s subsistence. By attempting to impose the European pastoral ethic upon the land, the early farmer may have imposed unnecessary labor upon himself. Left to their own natural proclivities, the lands of Southern Appalachia are abundant.
Long before white settlers made their way to these mountains, this land, known as “Cartoogechaye” or “new town” was home to the Cherokee Indians (1). While the Cherokees raised the traditional three sisters trio of squash, bean and corn, much of their subsistence resulted from hunting and foraging. The forests and creeks were full of blackberries, raspberries, wineberries, chestnuts, acorns, wild greens, fish, crawfish, deer, rabbit, elk and medicinal plants to cure any conceivable illness. The Cherokee celebrated the abundance of nature, and lived and profited within its confines.
It wasn’t until the white man came to harvest Southern Appalachia’s wealth of oak, maple, chestnut and other commodity woods that the landscape was permanently altered. While the harvest of timber made a few men wealthy, it also caused immeasurable natural poverty. Deforestation on a large scale led to the erosion of soils and biodiversity losses on an epic scale. The introduction of exotic species, foreign to this landscape took other tolls. The chestnuts and elk have all disappeared along with mountain lions, red wolves and perhaps dozens of other species never recorded. But the fittest survived, and upon the debris of the fallen, the endless cycles of death and resurrection continue to bring forth new life from the land.
As I gaze upon my uncovered stones, each one is an intricate work of art, sporting hues of iridescent green, rusty red, gun metal gray and flecks of glittering silver mica. I decide, perhaps, it was nature herself who fashioned this remarkable collection. The crystal clear Cartoogechaye creek meanders by my property across the road. Perhaps thousands of years or more ago, the creek cut its way across this valley through what is now my backyard depositing stone by stone in artful symmetry with the time and patience of a master craftsman.
I draw forth the stones from the ground as other offerings from the earth are reawakening. The calendar has now passed the spring equinox, and the days growing longer and longer marking the resurrection of life after a long winter’s sleep. As I stand in the welcome, warming sunshine, I understand completely the homage paid to this time of year throughout history by cultures the world over.
“Easter” comes from an ancient word “eastre,” which means “spring (2).” Primitive Saxon and Teutonic cultures in Northern Europe worshipped the Great Earth Mother known variously as Oester, Ostare, Eostre, Eostur and other similar sounding names (3). In the Mediterranean, Greeks and Romans commemorated the tale of Cybele and her fated lover Attis. Attis, the god of vegetation, was born of a virgin, died on “Blood Friday” and after three days was reborn on Easter Sunday. Our Greek, Roman and European cultural ancestors practiced ritualized ceremonies commemorating the death and resurrection of nature that occurs each year at springtime. Festivities included paying homage to the fertility of the earth, symbolized by bunnies and eggs, and by engaging in a glorious feast to commemorate and exalt nature’s wondrous and welcome rebirth. Our Christian religious holiday is almost entirely based on earlier pagan myths and rituals.
As I dig my beds, I once again pile the stones to form simple retaining walls to hold the soil and amendments in place. I can think of no other fitting way to pay my respects on this day of resurrection than to continue the cycle of putting new life into the earth, and resurrecting the cycle that nature continues each spring. I pay homage with the hope that some day these same stones will be uncovered again in the distant future and in a world where nature still flourishes.
1- Runningwolf, Dr. John at http://chenocetah.wordpress.com/
2- From the world wide web at http://www.religioustolerance.org/easter1.htm