The Hand of Man

November 11, 2011 by Categorized: Natural Reflections.

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.

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8 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, a painful though valuable corrective, and — I hope — a warning for everyone who reads it. People die every year from what are truly “natural” causes like this — encountering the physical world “in the raw.” And the human correlate is often forgetfulness, as your final line reminds us. I’m grateful you survived to tell the tale, and maybe help us keep respect in the forefront. So often we’ve sanitized the natural world through our supposed dominance of it, our elimination of its hard edges and ready teeth, that when we actually encounter it directly, we don’t recognize our peril. I find myself repeating your words in this comment: forget, peril, anthropomorphizing, raw — lesson received, I think. And your final paragraph vividly brings it all home.

  2. I was wincing as I relived this… event, in the writing of it. It was touch and go, that’s for sure. And then the DOGS on top of it all?! All it needed was for someone to start playing Deliverance and I would have walked on air to get out of there.

    It remains one of the more truly spooky events of my life.

  3. There have been a number of solo hikes I’ve gone on where I’ve been viscerally reminded of how minute I really am, and the importance of respecting the place I’m at. Not “respecting” as in “greet the spirits before starting the trail”, but as in “know when to turn back, how to find your way back, what to do if you get lost, etc.” Just because a place is pretty doesn’t mean it won’t kill you if you’re careless. All the prayers in the world won’t matter if you get blown off a cliff during a storm (which just about happened to me on one of those occasions).

  4. “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.”

    Yep, fewer of us, and less powerful tools.

    Glad you made it back in one piece.

  5. That was incredibly moving. I have had some close to death moments, but something about the way you portray the cold made your experience seem more horrific. The alone-ness too. Not that we aren’t all alone in death, but there is something very different about facing it with a crowd of paramedics surrounding you as opposed to the icy unknown depths tugging at you from below.

    Every year, one or two tourists die in the desert surrounding my winter home. Another dozen or so will be saved by helicopter & rescue teams. I always tsk, tsk people for not taking the natural world seriously, for going out unprepared, for underestimating the surprisingly deadly aspects of the land, but I suppose that is a bit cold-hearted of me. Would I fare any better? Probably not. I just know better than to stumble beyond my limits & even then, that is no guarantee.

    And the dogs… well, I won’t get started on feral dogs.

    Thank you for your comments about how so much of the land is already significantly changed by our hand. There are no places untouched by us, just places that differ in degrees. Even more thanks to you for sharing this story.

  6. ChristopherBlackwellNovember 14, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

    I tell my tourist customers that Mother Nature is a sweet old lady with far fewer rules to follow than they have to follow in their cities. Have enough food as it is needed, have enough water as needed, have enough clothing as needed, have shelter as needed and try not to hurt yourself. Of course if you break any of those rules, Mother Nature may kill you.

  7. Thanks for the comments, folks! I appreciate them.

    When we live disconnected from the earth, we cannot truly appreciate our role in nature. Sometimes it takes that “cosmic 2×4″ across the head to get our attention…

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] essays and explorations of how modern Pagans engage with the world around us. Meical abAwen writes about the “hand of man” in nature,  Crystal Tice discusses the importance of walking outside, and Juniper Jeni follows the trail of [...]