Yes, to be pagan is to wish to be “one with the land”. But all too often we make the mistake of anthropomorphizing Mother Nature and from time to time we come face to face with nature in the raw, and it isn’t fun. We become aware that for all our aspirations we are just one more species among many. Just one more, and not the most important, either. It happened to me one day, in Arkansas.
As I scramble down the hillside through the twisted brush and oaks, I can see that the valley is small and self-contained: neat in its simplicity, man-made? It is shallow at first, and then descends for a few hundred yards until the valley ends at an abrupt wall of stone. It’s as though a Titan’s hand had thrust a scoop into the Arkansas hills, and lifted all the rock away.
Dogwoods lining the valley walls tell me this area was mined out decades ago, and that there is plenty of water here. Good. This one area will provide all I need to complete my report. I’ll be able to map the layers that the great scoop cut through, and draw the cliff face in good detail. I have been searching all day for an exposure like this.
This morning I packed a light load, and I’m glad I did. It isn’t hot, but there aren’t any roads in this worked-over land and I am worn out. World War II’s great consuming hunger reached even here to northwest Arkansas, hungry for the coal hidden underground. There is hardly a section of this county left that hasn’t been mined out. The surface is pocked with craters, and the streams and rivers have all run crazy.
I’m here to see what impact more surface mining would have on the natural environment. That’s a laugh. There’s hardly any natural terrain here: our hands never lay lightly upon this land.
I am walking along the base of the cliff and not paying attention to my footing, when I walk a step too far. A crust of mixed ice and dirt, leaves and coal over running water gives way. As I fall I throw my arms wide and my field-pack and gear land behind me. The suddenness of my fall and the shock of cold water leaves me gasping. A moment earlier I was standing on a bench of weathered black coal that lay below the telltale sandstone. Now I’m up to my chest in deadly cold water. A strong current tugs at my boots and only my out-thrown arms keep me from being dragged under the crust. I can feel my legs going numb already in the cold, and I twist to look over my shoulder. Where is that tree that was nearby? Are the roots within my reach?
They aren’t, and my turn has caused me to slip further down, and now the cold black water is tugging harder and my legs are swept up. If I move much more I’ll go under for sure. My god, any god, — help me now. Please.
I have one good try in me before the cold claims me: time is running out. The strap on my field-bag is close enough to grab. I try to snag it on the nearest root, my lifeline.
I am able to pull myself up onto the bank, but not to stand. I weep, suddenly, from fear and the horror of almost dying like this. If I hadn’t reached the strap, if I had gone under, the current would have dragged me beneath the cliff-face to die in the dark, cold water. No one knew where I was going to be today. No one would ever have known what happened until they came back to this godforsaken area, and excavated the rest of the coal, and found — me. I would be a bonus, a curiosity in 5 paragraphs in the local paper.
After a while I start again. My notebook is still dry and there is work to do. Best not to get behind, it is a long ways back to my car and it is already late afternoon. There is still more work to do.
The last mile of my hike back lies before me. It is dark, and I cannot see my way clearly. Dogs have been following me for a while, at first just one or two, but now a pack. They are wild. Feral. Town dogs who lost their warmth and security, or the descendants of pets the miners left behind, 40 years ago. I should be afraid, I guess, but I’m not. Just now I can’t feel anything but numbness and the ache of walking for miles in wet boots. My feet are clumsy and I am exhausted. From time to time I lean on the stick I cut, to rest. The dogs come a little closer every time I do. So, let them come and I’ll deal with them. I survived the sucking-dark water: the dogs are not so bad.
I never looked back at them. I never let go of my walking-stick, and never looked back and began to run, and they never came. They just quietly faded away to their hills.
In the old days the hand of man lay lightly upon this land, or so they say. I think there were just fewer of us then. Fewer to take from the land and fewer to fight over what others had. Now we’re like a pack of dogs, always on the move. We cast back and forth across the good earth, ripping up the coal to feed our wars. We forget that we are not the masters here. The stone has its own ways, and its own dark and hungry holes. We forget that at our peril.