In June of 2000, I went on assignment for CNN.com to Andrews, North Carolina, to write about the manhunt for Eric Rudolph, the terrorist whose bombs in Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama, in 1996 and 1998 killed two people and injured 120 others.
But after finishing the Rudolph story, I returned several more times to write about the people and their devotion to what seemed like a dying town.
After one of my visits, I called Jane Brown, an instructor in anthropology and history at Western Carolina University, for perspective.
“It all has to do with the sense of place,” she told me. “You need to experience it. Otherwise, you can’t relate to the things they say or what Appalachian life is like… It has something to do with the mountains.”
Not Alone In This World
Andrews is in a valley 1,700 feet above sea level that is encircled by heavily forested Smokey Mountains. Although they lack the formidable, snow-capped splendor of the Alps or Rockies, the Smokies have a comforting presence, a strength and a permanence that captivated me every time I visited.
On one of those visits, I had an unusual experience that I’d forgotten about until recently when reading a poem in an issue of TIME magazine.
In “An Orchard at the Bottom of the Hill,” Maurice Manning writes about an apple tree with “bees meticulously/attending every blossom there, and you think the tree is kind of sighing./Such careful beauty in the making,/and then you think, it’s really quiet,/but I am not alone in this world.”
After dinner one evening in July of 2000, it was too early to go back to my room, so I went for a drive. It had been raining most of the day and although it had finally stopped, the sky was heavy with clouds.
A Tattered Banner
I drove out of town on Fairview Road headed roughly southwest and turned onto Pisgah Road, which runs south between two ridges. High up on the ridge to the right a long streamer of moist gray cloud hung like a tattered banner.
I passed modest, well-kept homes and small pastures that sloped up toward the mountains behind. In some places, smaller ridges worked their way down toward the valley, creating the “hollers” of Appalachian lore.
About a mile up the road, this pastoral was broken by a cluster of dingy mobile homes, sheds and garages. Junked cars, tools and agricultural oddments lay in the weeds and underbrush, as if someone had been cleaning out a barn and forgot to finish the job. The air of sullen neglect indicated otherwise.
Beyond, however, the countryside reclaimed its rural beauty. After another half-mile or so, I pulled off onto a gravel road and turned the car around. I coasted over to the left side of the road, lowered the front windows and shut off the engine.
Directly ahead, across the paved road, a wet green field sloped up past a low shed and a weathered gray barn to a thick stand of trees. To my left and right were empty fields. Mist hung in the air like Spanish moss.
I still wasn’t sure what exactly I was doing there, and it took a few minutes to let everything settle. There wasn’t anything to do or see or, for that matter, to hear.
I live less than two miles from a general aviation airport, 500 yards as the crow flies from commuter and Amtrak rail lines, three blocks from a fire station and two blocks from the busiest street in Atlanta. I’ve got a sound track of planes, trains, automobiles and fire engines every day, all day, and often at night, too.
Here it was … still. Silent. Peaceful.
Deep breath. I’m still coming to terms with the stillness.
A Bird Call
Then, from the field across the street, drifts the call of a bird: “Fwhee-to-whee.”
Splat — a raindrop hit the roof.
Splatter — another on the windshield.
The silence isn’t just the lack of sound, it feels real … an enchantment.
Becalmed and Serene
Eyes closed, another breath. With the exhale I feel tension release in my neck and shoulders, the pressure of city life floating off into the mist. Becalmed and serene, I slip away.
In this curiously expanded state I hear something familiar and yet not possible. I lean forward slightly, eyes still closed, listening intently.
There it is again.
From the very edge of awareness, the faintest of sounds, a whispering sigh.
The Kiss of Life
The gentle exhalation of the earth itself. Untouched by man, unhurried, unspoiled, the planet breathes the kiss of life.
I sit stunned and wondering. Such a gift, such a moment. I had never thought of the earth as breathing, as being alive; now I want to tell someone, but who?
Who could imagine something so unlikely, that amazing sense of connection and wholeness? The sense of being part of something so vast and reassuring?
Scientists know that plants communicate with each other. Native Americans honor “Mother Earth” and call “our cousins of the plant kingdom Standing Ones or Standing People.”
Exposed and Vulnerable
But I’m out in the gathering dark, and suddenly I feel exposed, vulnerable.
I sit up and turn the key. The wipers surge and whine, clearing the mist from the windshield. I start the car, feeling the need to get out of there before someone drives past and laughs at the city slicker sitting in the dark and rain, doing God knows what.
I drive back to town.
Eighteen years later, I value that experience more than ever, especially for the reminder of how healing and restorative nature can be. And it’s pretty cool that Maurice Manning got an opportunity to spread the word.