Standing on the stone ledge of Blood Mountain, I have to check a foolish impulse to fly. I put my hand to my eyes, surveying a blue that looks pristine simply because it hangs above a horizon line that is so far away, and see a soft blanket of treetops a half mile below spread in lumpy folds to a misty horizon, promising me a safe landing somewhere in Tennessee. I inch closer to the edge and plant my feet, drawn by the power of the panorama and buoyed by an unearthly feeling of calm. The urge to spread my arms, lean into that emptiness, and yield to infinity is hard to resist.
Just a step, I think. It would be easy.
“Go to the mountain top & cry for a vision,” an ancient Sioux poem says. Blood Mountain is a place where that can happen. It looms above the Dahlonega Plateau, forming one of the last great peaks at the southern tip of the Appalachian chain where mountains give way to the wide, flat expanse of coastal plains. The poet Byron Reece, who grew up near here, liked to lean his “elbows on the sky” that the mountain delivered to him daily and contemplate life. A convenient guardian spirit of the place, Reece farmed a field in the mountain’s shadow, the surrounding peaks marking off what he knew of the holy. “My heart is native to the sky,” he wrote in one poem, thinking about the hilltops of his home. “I feel,” he added, the “wide sky entering my heart.”
And that is how I feel as I hover at the tip of all I know about the here and now, perched on the rocky outcropping at the edge of forever, the wide sky entering my heart.
I hold my breath and close my eyes. Oh, yes. I want this.
The long path to this mountain precipice began at Walasi-Yi, one of the last outposts on the Appalachian trail, the path winding uphill through hardwoods. My older boy, Matt, and I have hiked it several times, and once, when he was seventeen and his brother, Sam, about ten, the three of us walked it together, one of those events that sinks a spike deep in the shifting sands between fathers and sons. When we drove from our house to the trail head that day we rarely saw Blood Mountain itself, even when we were right up on it. Unlike Brasstown Bald, the tallest peak in Georgia which stays in view along much of the highway, Blood Mountain remains hidden shyly behind a ridgeline of smaller hills that hug up to it. The tallest peak on the Georgia portion of the Appalachian trail, it is formidable, if for nothing else than its history. According to legend, Creek and the Cherokee battled here, the blood of the dead making the streams run red, consecrating the place and giving the mountain its name.
Starting at the marker dedicated to Reece, my boys and I headed deep into the woods, the path winding wide and flat through thickets of laurel and rhododendron. When we crossed a steam and began our ascent, the path narrowed into a sequence of switchback trails that, clearly visible in winter, stitched their way up the mountainside. At no point could we see the mountain top, our vision obscured by the canopy of tree limbs, but I could feel our upward movement in the tug of gravity on my legs and back. The universe was calling.
I answered with heavy breathing.
My sons didn’t seem tired at all. They hopped from rock to rock, leapt small streams, dashed ahead and waited, laughing and talking. I paced myself. My eye wearied of verticals. Once old growth poplars and towering chestnuts shaded this landscape, and several times the boys stopped on the path ahead and gazed into the rotted circle of an enormous stump. Blight and lumbering had killed the old trees, so we trudged an uphill trail surrounded by a young hardwood forest, oak mainly, stretching ahead like an endless series of mirrored images, vertical lines as far as I could see. A disorienting monotony sunk in and my universe shrunk to the narrow path, the rhythm of my footsteps, and the rasp of my breath. By the time we crested the foothill, our walk along the ridgeline relaxed into a saunter, my legs happy for the flat path, and I longed for an overlook so that we could see what we had left behind.
Eventually we found one. My boys and I stepped onto the enormous rock slabs near the summit of Blood Mountain, and I walked to the ledge where I had my insane vision. Crows flew below me, and a small Cessna buzzed into the distance at eye level. A hawk cut a lazy circle overhead, dragging a flittering shadow across the treetops. Fly—yes, it looked so easy. I saw the universe spread before me, not just mountains and streams and a blanket of trees, but the whole mighty thing, and even when I reached my hand out tentatively to break the plane of this apparition of infinite depth, I could not put the vision in perspective. The lesser hills seemed to emanate from me, the topography of the land wrenched into submission like a supplicant at my feet by a grand trompe l’oiel, even though I knew that the view was not created for my eye. I was created for it. I stood on the porch of the earth, and holiness held me. The sun and moon paused high above a world lit as far as I could see.
Only when Matt shouted “hey Dad, it’s over here,” his voice the call of the familiar, did I step back and, reluctantly, turn away.
Matt had found the trail and was waving us on, but as we picked our way through boulders and gnarled, wind-stunted pines along the last stretch of path, my mind still clung to the ledge. What is the pull of holiness? No God had spoken to me—of that I’m sure. When I stood at the brink of a hundred-mile view, tracing the light blue humps of hills in the distance, I did not see the hem of God’s sleeve in the ridgeline and imagine, in the spume of clouds gathered in the sky, his face leaning benevolently my way, and if I had I would have dismissed it as an illusion of my own making. Okay, no God spoke to me, but clearly I felt something. What exactly?
The word ‘holy’ offers a clue. It shares the ancient root word kailo with the word “health” as well as a host of words we associate with well-being: “wholesome,” “heal,” “hallow” (as in bless) and “wassail” (as in cheers!). In its most ancient form ‘holy’ meant uninjured in the sense of complete. Built into its earliest meaning was the idea of wholeness, the word ‘whole’ being yet another word that shares a root with the word ‘holy’. Until we are in a holy state our lives feel fractured and undone, but in holiness we are made whole and no longer yearn for completion.
I envy those who can feel a deity’s love in such holy moments. St. John of the Cross wrote that on “one dark night” when “fired by love’s urgent longing” he left his quiet house, his only light being “the one that burned” in his heart. With the sky moonless and the path dark, the glow within lit the way, a guiding light, he called it, more lovely than the dawn. Eventually the radiance led to God—“Him I knew so well”—who appeared as a lover waiting at the end of the path. “I abandoned and forgot myself,” he wrote, as he kissed his “Beloved” and lay his head on God’s breast. Gender no longer mattered—the pronouns become confusing here—and his old sense of himself was suddenly shattered. At that moment, “all things ceased,” he wrote, and “I went out from myself.”
All things ceased, yes, but who would not trade all he had to brush up against the lips of God?
St. Teresa, a friend of John of the Cross, suffered the stabbing pains of Christ’s lance at her breast. Sometimes in her visions Jesus wore a crown of thorns and showed her his wounds, and once he took her rosary into his hands and recast the stones into diamonds that no one else could see. Her visions of Christ flashed so vividly before her eyes that she feared they might be from the devil, and when she explained what she saw to her superiors they agreed—and chastised her. At their request, she snapped her fingers in the face of the next apparition of Christ, trying to make the sight go away. It did not work. Jesus spoke to her and gazed at her with sublime sympathy. Afterward she could not put what she saw into words—she could not tell the color of those eyes—but she knew they watched her lovingly. The look, the divine gaze, was real and, eventually, she came to the conclusion that these visions could not be illusions.
Who, I wonder, would not gladly suffer steel under the flesh to see the colorless all color of the eyes of God?
There was a time in human history when God spoke to everyone. The primitive mind made little separation between itself and the rest of the universe. Much of the lives of the ancients was spent, as the aborigines put it, in “The Dreaming.” Able to set aside consciousness, they passed through the world the way we do through dreams, each object animated in a way that we, who understand history and are adept with language and science, cannot imagine. In this state their lives unfolded, much as the lives of animals do I suppose, with little intention. It is not that trees spoke to them or the wind whispered any more than trees speak to us in our dreams. Rather, they were the trees and the wind, in much the same way that all the characters in our dreams are actually us in disguise.
A vestige of this dream state clings like trailing clouds of glory to our purest religious mystics. Jesus learned God’s will at Gethsemane. Sioux cries for divine visions were answered. Allah delivered the Koran to Muhammad. Moses did hear the voice of God in the burning bush—of that I am convinced. I believe these holy scriptures. Modern minds, by trance or intoxicants or flagellation or fasting—by myriad devices to transform consciousness—can hear God as well. The exhausted can hear God. The desperate and zealous can hear God. Even the insane can hear God.
But I can’t.
At the top of Blood Mountain, a stone sanctuary lies nestled among enormous slabs of rock that rise, cantilevered, out of the mountain’s summit. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, it shelters hikers who need a resting place along the trail. Ever since my first trip up the mountain, the stone cabin has held some inexplicable allure for me. Now that I was past the precipice, it stood squat before me like the answer to some question I had been trying to formulate all of my life. My boys and I looked through the rough window openings and saw a fireplace against the wall, a small broom, some firewood off to the side, and a doorway to a back room. During a sudden blizzard here in the eighties, we heard stories about hikers who weathered the storm in the cabin until a helicopter crew could rescue them, and, I realized, looking inside, what a blessed haven this must have been for someone buried deep in snow.
The boys lost interest in the drab stone interior and ran off to leap the high rocks, but long after they went their way I kept looking. Shafts of light, sprinkled with dust, cut heavy triangles into the stony space, carving out several shades of ochre in the darkness. Light puddled on the middle of the floor revealing ridges and textures in the stone, but the corners remained hidden in shadows. Yes, if God could visit me, this stone cabin would be the place.
What if I told the boys to go back without me, and I spent the night here alone? Would God visit me in this chamber? What would he look like? The gash of a sunbeam would cross the floor, I suppose, and glow briefly on the far wall while the shadows of broom handle and firewood grew long in the soft light. Later, as I huddled in a corner, awaiting the divine presence, the light would dissipate and the darkness in the room would spread like an oily puddle, filling the cabin. Wind would whip through the rocks offering a sad, inhuman moan. A rat might scuttle along the far wall and squeal. Would God call my name? Would the Beloved appear in the cold to warm me? Would the eyes of God look down on me with loving sympathy? When God visited the cabin, would he stand regally before me, his countenance shining, or would he come dressed in nighttime and cover his eyes behind a cloak of spectral moonlight?
Turning away from the cabin, I felt incomplete and yearned for that kiss against my cheek. I saw bright blue above the thrusted rocks and wanted to gorge myself on the sky.
When Reece claimed that his heart was native to the sky, I think he was admitting to himself that he wanted to go home. I don’t mean his home in the valley. He was, by all accounts devoted to his family, taking care of both his mother and his father who contracted tuberculosis, the disease that plagued Reece and contributed to his death by suicide. He always called himself a mountain farmer, firmly rooted in the earth. “These hills contain me as a field, a stone,” he wrote in one poem. When asked by a correspondent why a poet struggled to farm when “anybody could plant potatoes,” he replied that “nobody is willing to plow mine but me.” Much of the way he saw and dealt with the world was bound up in his strong sense of place. So, when he searched for a metaphor for the title of his poem, “Elbows on the Sky,” he found the familiar posture of philosophical farmers who “lean their weight upon a wall” while looking over their fields ripe for harvest, as they attempted to “dicker with close-fisted fate.” No doubt Reece himself spent a good deal of his time leaning against stone walls, too, grumbling at the sky, a man driven to farm and write poetry who could support himself with neither.
But, being married to poetry as well as farming, he knew that his earthbound view was not enough. To complete himself he had to lay claim to his birthright in the heavens, relinquishing other claims on his heart and following the lonely path of the poetic line away from the familiar. Reece’s poetry asks for a wrenching change in perspective, a celestial vision that draws on the imagery of the land but sees our accomplishments on earth as ultimately insignificant and fleeting. Like the crops he planted, it grows out of the soil but stretches toward the sky. So, after the break in his sonnet, Reece asked his farmer to turn the telescope back on earth and, taking a God’s eye view of himself and his world, find relief from earthbound suffering:
Yet if he leaned but once upon a star
And saw his earth, and himself fugitive,
As long as breath could keep life’s door ajar
He would be happy but to breathe and live,
With little care for what he shall be when
Of death’s gray waste he is a citizen.
Notice the phrase “but once” hammered into these sturdily crafted lines. “Yet if he leaned but once.” It doesn’t take much. A door left ajar is enough. When Reece surveyed the world from this lonely celestial perch, the wide sky entered his heart through the opening door of his true home where he could be “happy but to breathe and live,” and death itself was irrelevant. A glimpse was all it took.
Reece toed the poetic line on the ledge of the world that “contained him,” looking longingly at the crack of light before him, and then, when he couldn’t stand it any more, he took a step. He was teaching at Young Harris College when he died, the same college where I teach, living in the dorm. After he shot himself, anxious students ran to his rooms. Mozart was spinning on the turntable and graded exams were stacked neatly on his desk.
The boys and I looked around a bit, tossed a few stones into the vast open scenery about us, and decided to head back down the mountain before darkness fell. Along the way we came across the stone ledge again, my launching pad into holiness, the rock slab facing now on a dusky sky. The sun hung low, and I knew that we had to get down the hill in a hurry, but I paused anyway. No longer tempted to fly, I felt instead the planet’s slow turn, as its enormous penumbral shadows spread over the land, and I imagined what this scene must look like at night when the darkness above filled with a spray of stars.
It was time to go home.
That night long after the family had gone to sleep, I walked out on the porch of my house and thought about my moment at the precipice. Stepping up to that stony edge, I had felt an impulse urging me out of my familiar—my familial—world. I am not suicidal or depressed or heaven-haunted. But something happened up there. Trying to shake the thought, I stepped out from under the porch to look at the stars, but a mist had fallen over the valley obscuring the sky. So I closed my eyes, imagining myself again on the precipice but at night this time, a map of the night sky forming above me, marked off with those familiar dotted line-drawings of godlike heroes including Orion, Cassiopeia, and the Twins enshrined in the zodiac and gliding eternally through the milky way. Why do we fill the empty spaces with pictures of ourselves? Why do we hunt for a familiar face in the stars? What would happen if I erased the lines?
In the end, I did not spend the night in a mountain sanctuary isolated from those I love. My wife slept beside me as usual in our warm and comfortable bed. For now, at least, I live my life in the valley enveloped in work and job and family. I harvest my own tomatoes and grade my exams. When my son calls my name, I turn to him and cannot imagine a day that I wouldn’t. I am no saint, to be sure. I keep my elbows planted firmly on the porch rail and leave heaven to others. It is the universe I feel on my cheek—not a kiss. “Yet,” as Reece liked to say in the double vision of his poems, the hike offered a moment of aboriginal dreaminess, a glimpse of a reality on the mountain top that cannot be dismissed with the snap of the fingers. It was a crazy impulse to fly, but I can return to it any time that I close my eyes, look hard at god walking toward me dressed as the night sky, and, yielding to infinity at last, disconnect the dots.