Healing after Loss through a Relationship with Nature and the Land

by Mark Miles

The month of September was very difficult for me. It was the year-and-a-half anniversary of Bobby’s disappearance, and it seemed there were memories around every corner. (Full story here.) This was distressing because I honestly expected that my feelings for him would have dried up and vanished by now. I thought for sure when we broke up in February of 2016 that it would take no more than six months for me to recover from the loss of our relationship, a year for me to forget he ever existed, and a year and a half to be in another relationship with someone who would treat me as an actual person deserving of love and respect rather than a piece of trash to be discarded at the nearest dumpster.

Yet somehow I find the loss of our relationship still haunts me from time to time. This happens whenever I encounter something that reminds me of Bobby, especially anything to do with skiing, fencing or freerunning, all of which he enjoyed. This also happens when I watch certain movies that remind of him for one reason or another, especially The Princess Bride, Sense and Sensibility, Music and Lyrics, or Howl’s Moving Castle. And most of all it happens when I listen to music that evokes the feelings which I harbored for him for so long, with two pieces in particular possessing the uncanny ability to reduce me to shambles in less than a minute flat.

It was the first of these, “Farewell to Stromness” by Peter Maxwell Davies, that triggered my latest relapse into sadness. I heard it for the first time about six months after Bobby and I parted ways. It’s an immediately hummable tune that many people recognize even if they don’t know the composer. The background is particularly resonant with me because of the way Peter Maxwell Davies used this song to oppose the mining of uranium on the Scottish isle of Orkney, where he lived for many years. “Farewell to Stromness” is intended to evoke the image of townsfolk who are forced to leave their ancestral home forever due to the contamination of uranium mining. It also evokes the sense of leaving behind a loved one who will be forever cherished and remembered, despite the pain of parting ways.

The other piece of music that’s become indelibly linked with Bobby in my mind is a work by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. “Spiegel im Spiegel” means “Mirror in the Mirror” in German, and the significance of this title is immediately appreciable when you hear the endlessly repeating melody that slowly but inexorably builds from the simplest groundwork into one of the most heartwrenching edifices of minimalist music. “Spiegel im Spiegel” is the sonic equivalent of placing one mirror in front of another, standing between them and seeing the repeating likeness of yourself stretching before and behind you indefinitely. There’s also the sense that the two mirrors could be two people, who look into each other and see the love they share reflected back in an endless cascade.

So with these two works floating in the background of my mind, I found myself thinking about Bobby throughout the month of September. It seemed I couldn’t go a day without a piece of conversation, an image of his face, or a snippet of his voice passing through my mind like a ship on the horizon. I was frustrated, sad, and lonely, and I didn’t know what to do.

But then one night in the middle of September, something changed. I was talking to a friend about how I thought I would never be in a relationship again. I am after all thirty-four years old in a small, religious and extremely homophobic town where the dating pool for gay men in their thirties looks like something out of a horror movie. Think Psycho meets Catfish with a side of Mean Girls.

Then I looked at my cat Heidi and my dog Bella. They were in the same room with me, gravitating toward me as if they knew I needed something, perhaps a gentle nudge in the right direction. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then it clicked. I’m already in a relationship, though obviously not of the same kind, with them and with others in my life who mean a great deal to me. It may not be the kind of relationship where I’m seeing stars every moment of the day and thinking about how much I hope we have children, but there is a healing relationship between us nonetheless.

Then I got to thinking about my garden, which isn’t much and hasn’t produced nearly the bounty of herbs and vegetables that I hoped when I installed it. But it has nonetheless provided a sanctuary for rosemary, fennel, zinnia, blackberry, strawberry, gourd, and sage plants who’ve given me a reason to be active in my own backyard. They’ve also given me something to look forward to from one season to the next as they wax and wane in growth, reminding me that it’s ok if I too experience a diminution in my energy and productivity from time to time. Usually it just means I need to rest, allow time for healing, and take better care of myself.

Finally I thought about the places where I hike and the relationship I’ve developed with the land as a result. When I started hiking on a regular basis in 2015, I never imagined it would come to mean as much to me as it has. Without hiking around Occoneechee Mountain, Eno River State Park, or the Hillsborough Riverwalk, I would never have discovered so many amazing places that are practically in my own backyard. I never would’ve come to love the rock formations, the curves in the river, the enveloping canopy of the forest, the musty smell of earth and sweat and all good things. This healing relationship with nature and the land–which has come to me through my animals, my garden, and my hiking trails–may not be the same as a relationship with another human being, but it’s absolutely necessary for a rich and meaningful life.

References:

Farewell to Stromness, piano interlude from ‘The Yellow Cake Revue,’ J. 166,” All Music, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Infinite Reflections: Pärt’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel,’” The Cross-Eyed Pianist, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

Spiegel im Spiegel,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The staggering simplicity that makes ‘Farewell to Stromness’ a work of complete genius,” Classic FM, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

The Yellow Cake Revue,” Wikipedia, accessed Sep. 27th, 2017.

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How Dunnagan Trail Led Me to an Old Graveyard and a Renewed Appreciation for Life

by Mark Miles

A few weeks ago I went in search of a new hiking trail. I wasn’t intent on finding anything more than a few good views and a little peace of mind–the latter of which is increasingly hard to find in our culture of constant bombardment by advertising and social media. In the process, however, I found a forest of emerald green, a lady doing yoga in the middle of the Eno River, a great blue heron swooping through the foliage, an abandoned dam, an old graveyard, and a renewed appreciation for life which results whenever you immerse yourself in nature.

It started when I arrived at Eno River State Park’s Cole Mill access on a Sunday in early August. There was a sizeable crowd–which I’ve come to expect from prior hikes on the weekend–but I nonetheless managed to get a parking spot and soon found myself at the trailhead for Pea Creek Trail, which leads to Dunnagan Trail after a mile or so. There were a few other hikers lollygagging by the river, enjoying the cool weather and peaceful scenery, but I soon left them behind.

The trail was very narrow and somewhat steep as it followed the Eno River on the north bank, giving little room for maneuver. When a group of three guys in their early twenties crossed my path going in the opposite direction, there was barely enough room for us to pass without tackling each other, even though they were walking in single file. After passing the three guys, I then followed the trail beneath an underpass for Cole Mill Road, where an informal access point allows fishermen to park on the side of the road and avoid the occasionally overcrowded parking lot.

After the underpass, the trail divided, with the left branch going uphill into the adjacent forest and the right branch hugging the north bank of the Eno River. I wanted to see as much of the river as possible, so I decided to take the right branch and soon found myself in a floodplain with ferns and tall grasses in abundance. It’s hard to believe how green a floodplain can be, but once you’ve seen that distinctive shade of emerald green you’ll realize how much of the rainbow is missing from our culture of concrete and plastic.

In addition to the ferns and tall grasses, there were sycamores all along the bank of the Eno, jutting their roots into the river with the enthusiasm of children at a water park. Two sycamores in particular caught my attention. Their roots were configured in such a way that they were nearly conjoined at the base while allowing room at the top for someone to descend into them in a kind of giant cradle. Of course I had to check it out and promptly lowered myself down four feet of steep riverbank to do so, but unfortunately I was only able to get a decent photo of one side due to the extremely awkward angle and close quarters.

Climbing out of the cradle of sycamore roots, I continued on Pea Creek Trail. After a short distance, I reached a footbridge crossing a small tributary of the Eno. The bridge was very basic in construction but had no difficulty bearing my weight as I passed over its beams to the east side and found what had brought me to Eno River State Park in the first place, namely Dunnagan Trail.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

There wasn’t much difference between Pea Creek Trail and Dunnagan Trail, but it was plain to see from the minimal level of maintenance and the occasional overgrowth of surrounding vegetation that the area didn’t get much foot traffic. None of this deterred one woman, whom I saw in the middle of the Eno River on a stretch of exposed river rocks, from doing yoga without a care in the world. I thought about photographing her from a distance through the foliage, but there were too many intervening branches to get a decent photo, and I didn’t want to I intrude on her communion with nature.

Heading on once again, I stopped in my tracks when I heard the distant call of an approaching bird. I recognized the call as soon as I heard it and was delighted when I saw a great blue heron swoop through the undergrowth down the middle of the river, showing his distinctive plumage and giving the park a tinge of the wild despite its close proximity to downtown Durham, North Carolina.

Before long Dunnagan Trail reached a point where a stone outcropping intervened, requiring a bit of climbing to surmount it. When I reached the top of the outcropping, I looked south across the Eno River to see a brick and mortar structure that looked like nothing so much as the remains of a dam. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I found out in my research for this article that this was one part of the old pump station, which was built in 1886-1887, and supplied water to the city of Durham, North Carolina, until 1916, when another dam was built on the Flat River to provide the city’s water instead. Regardless of the history, the ruins were quite imposing and provided a nice photographic opportunity.

After passing the remains of the old pump station dam, I continued on my eastward hike, eagerly anticipating Dunnagan Trail’s sharp turn to the northwest. It took a while, but the turnaround came, and when it did I decided to pause for reflection before the Eno River disappeared completely from view. After a few moments, I headed northwest on the return leg of Dunnagan Trail as it climbed a considerable bluff toward the most unexpected part of my hike.

After cresting the bluff–which rose from the Eno River over a distance of a quarter mile–there was a fork in the trail. One branch extended to the north, outside of the official limits of Eno River State Park; the other branch extended to the west, back toward the parking lot where my car was waiting to carry me home. Despite the allure of the northward trail, I took the westward trail and soon found ample reward for my choice.

After passing through a valley and cresting another hill, I saw a pile of stones to my right which looked decidedly out of place. They seemed to be assembled in a pile by design and were sufficient in number to stand roughly five feet tall. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but these were the foundation stones for the family house of the woman after whom the Dunnagan Trail was named, Catharine Link Dunnagan.

Progressing a little further I was startled to find that there was another landmark associated with Catharine Dunnagan, specifically her grave. It was off to the left of the trail and clearly visible to any passing hiker, veritably begging to be inspected. Despite my reservations about approaching a grave in a forest rapidly dimming with the lateness of the hour, I decided to swallow my apprehension and get closer. With as much respect as I could muster, I stepped across the stone ring that surrounded the graveyard and took a good look at the headstone of Catharine Link Dunnagan, who died in 1914 at eighty-five years of age and was buried in the spot where I was now standing over a century later.

It’s hard to say what you’re supposed to feel when looking at the final resting place of someone you never knew who died long before you were born and gave her name to the land where you’re now standing. On the one hand I was apprehensive about being so close to a place of the dead, even if I’m not inclined to believe that the dead are malevolent toward the living. On the other hand I was deeply honored to be able to see a place that must have been profoundly meaningful to the woman who chose it for her burial site.

Wrestling with both feelings, I decided it was time to continue on the return leg of Dunnagan Trail. Walking through the serene forest of oak and pine, I was able to able to reconcile my internal conflict, leaving behind my previous apprehension and carrying in its place an appreciation for the way in which the dead imbue the land with sacred significance. For every piece of land is the final resting place of someone, whether human or animal or plant, who lived and died and gave her flesh back to the soil for future generations to cherish in turn. It is this return to the soil which binds the loved ones of the deceased to the land and which reminds us of the brevity and sweetness of every life, even the life of a complete stranger.

References:

Eno River Park Map,” North Carolina State Parks, accessed Aug. 31st, 2017.

Kueber, Gary, “Durham Water Company — Eno River Pumping Station,” Open Durham, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Schwantes, Jay P., “Pump Station Area,” Eno Trails, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

Southern, Dave and Denny O’Neal, “Catharine Link Dunnagan,” Eno River Association, accessed Aug. 23rd, 2017.

The Music of a River that Flows through the Soul

by Mark Miles

If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably realized I love both rivers and music. This goes back to my childhood, as do most things that are deeply felt and persistently cherished through life. My dad was the one who introduced me to my love for rivers, which was the logical result of our fishing trips on the weekend and during summer vacation. My mom was the one who introduced me to my love for music, which she cultivated by encouraging me to sing in my church choir and listen to classical music whenever possible. Because my parents divorced when I was seven years old, the two passions to which they exposed me were stunted and never fully developed. So it was left to me to remedy the situation, which I only began to do a few years ago, in my early thirties, when I rediscovered my love of classical music through composing and my love of rivers through hiking.

Since that time, I’ve been enamored with the idea of composing music that embodies the spirit of the river. I’m not the first person to have this idea though. Many classical composers have had the same idea, though they’ve adopted different approaches to fulfill it. I won’t be tackling the entire history of classical music regarding rivers in this article, but I will nonetheless be covering four of my favorite works which embody rivers with beauty and majesty, composed by four men of different nationalities and disparate backgrounds who found common ground in their love for the rivers they knew best.

Richard Wagner is one of the most famous operatic composers of all time, renowned especially for his Ring Cycle, a tetralogy of music-dramas about power, corruption, virtue, destruction, and redemption. It follows the story of the Ring of the Nibelungs, a powerful artifact, crafted from gold stolen from the Rhine River, that confers world domination on anyone who possesses it. In the process it gives the synopsis of a heavily mythologized German history and paints an unforgettable tone-picture of the land surrounding the Rhine River. The Ring Cycle is easily the most ambitious and successful work of Wagner’s career, taking fifteen hours over four days to be performed in total and being the product of extravagant funding by King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who nearly bankrupted his country in the process. In short the Ring Cycle is a mammoth in every sense.

My first serious introduction to the Ring Cycle was through a “Best of Wagner” disc which I bought when I was ten years old. I had a passing familiarity with “The Ride of the Valkyries” from numerous movies and televisions series, but otherwise the Ring Cycle was a foreign country to me. Nevertheless this snippet, “Dawn and Siegfred’s Rhine Journey,” absolutely enraptured me. In it, the hero Siegfried bids farewell to his beloved Brünnhilde and sets sail down the Rhine River to make a name for himself in the wider world, thereby forgetting his beloved and assuring his own destruction. It’s intoxicating stuff, and though I didn’t know the story behind it when I heard it for the first time, I nonetheless knew in that moment that I loved classical music.

“The Moldau” is easily one of the most iconic works of classical music dealing with the tone-painting of a river. It comes from a larger body of work, My Fatherland, by the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, and it paints a sonic picture of the Moldau River over its course from the Black Mountain in the Bohemian Forest to its confluence with the Elbe River in Melnik, Czech Republic. The music is thoroughly evocative, conjuring the play of water, land, wildlife, and humanity through its length. From this work I learned that pride in one’s country can enrich the sense of devotion to the land when effectively applied.

Franz Schubert was renowned in his own time for his composition of chamber works that frequently found their way into pubs and drinking halls. This was no different with his song “The Trout,” which he later incorporated into a string quintet by the same name. The work sparkles with the freshness of a clear mountain stream — which may have inspired the setting for the piece — even two centuries after its inception, and it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see in your mind’s eye both the trout and the river of which the trout is a part. The mellifluous vivacity at the heart of this piece confirms that — while many tone-paintings regarding rivers can be melancholy — there’s also plenty of room for sunshine.

“The Swan of Tuonela,” on the other hand, is the song of melancholy incarnate. Telling the story of a mythical swan who patrols the Tuonela River surrounding the Finnish Isle of the Dead, it evokes the longing, sadness, and tenderness of a being who’s seen it all, being witness to every soul that passes from the Land of the Living to the Isle of the Dead. Though the piece is ostensibly about a swan, the river is palpable in the supple string textures that provide the background to the voice of the swan. The composer Jean Sibelius is more widely known for his work, “Finlandia,” which was used as a rallying cry for Finnish independence from the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, but “The Swan of Tuonela” is the gem in the crown that cements the surpassing excellence of Sibelius’s musical legacy.

At the end of the day, however, all of this music is just music unless we, as listeners and creators, take the next step by allowing the music to move us to get to know the rivers where we live. In my case, the river that I’ve been drawn to get to know is the Eno River, which flows through the town of Hillsborough, North Carolina, very near where I live. The Eno has a spirit and a voice too, just like the Moldau, the Rhine, and the Tuonela, and in my composition I aspire to one day be able to capture it and share it with you.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

If you love the land where you live, I urge you as well to find some way to honor the river (or lake or watershed) that flows through your town and gives life to you and many others, whether through photography, painting, sculpture, composition, writing, or some other creative outlet. While it may not seem to be much, it will deepen your own appreciation for the true essentials in life and will give others a model of how to establish a relationship with the river that flows through their own backyard. After all, every river gives us so much; it’s time for us to give back.

References:

Der Ring Des Nibelungen,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Farrington, Iain, “Richard Wagner: Siegfried’s Rhine Journey,” accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Ferrebee, Wayne, “The Swan of Tuonela,” Ferrebeekeeper, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

Götterdämmerung,” Wikipedia, accessed June 2nd, 2017.

Vltava,” Wikipedia, accessed June 3rd, 2017.

How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina. I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.

There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.

Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.

Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail. Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily flummoxed.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

References:

Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rocks at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes in many shapes and sizes, can arrive at any hour of the day, and needs no invitation apart from a receptive mind and a willingness to create. It can show up at a museum, in a forest, by a river, at your workplace, or in bed while you sleep at night. It can nag away at your insides until you feel sick and restless, compelling you to find a way to express it meaningfully. And when you do, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

I’ve been reminded of this since I started composing in September of last year. When I first considered following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Mozart, however, I was absolutely terrified. “Who am I to think I have the skills to create music that could ever live up to the standard they set?” This thought crossed my mind many times, and I still grapple with it from time to time. It turns out, though, that all I really needed to overcome my initial hesitation was an experience of profound inspiration.

That experience came to me when I first visited Occoneechee Mountain in the summer of 2015. Seeing the rock formations there — many of which were formed hundreds of millions of years ago when central North Carolina was much more volcanically active — planted a seed in my mind that ultimately took a year to bear fruit. But bear fruit it did.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to share the rock formations themselves to give you a sense of how incredible they are and how easily they could fill anyone with a sense of profound inspiration. (For the record, I was unable to find official names for any of these rock formations in my research for this article. So, in the absence of official names, I’ve come up with my own unofficial names, which are hopefully amusing and memorable.)

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Elephant Rock is a tor (a free-standing rock formation that juts directly out of the surrounding terrain) that sits on the northwestern edge of the Mountain Loop Trail before the trail reaches the Eno River. Like many of the other rock formations near the mountain, it appears seemingly out of nowhere, towering fifteen feet over the trail and exerting a magnetic pull on anyone with an ounce of curiosity. The weight of the rock is so massive it can almost be felt simply by looking at it. Staring into the grey and green textures along its flanks, it wasn’t hard for me to understand how similar sites were used by our ancestors as places of worship.

Gumdrop Rock is another tor that can be found a little further along the Mountain Loop Trail. It’s not as imposing or grandiose as Elephant Rock, but it has its own kind of quiet sublimity. Standing roughly eight feet tall and ten feet wide, it makes even some professional athletes look dainty by comparison. Nonetheless it’s one of the smaller rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain and may be overlooked because of it.

Sentinel Rock is a promontory (an abutment of land bordered on two sides by water which has progressively eroded it over time) that may also be overlooked by the casual hiker but for very different reasons. This rock formation is reasonably well hidden from sight on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain and takes a little looking in order to find. There are trails that lead to it, but they’re not terribly obvious, and they lead through some scruffy undergrowth that smacks and whacks at every inch of your person on the way. After a bit of manhandling from the plants, however, this forty-foot marvel is a sight for sore eyes and easily the most breathtaking of the many notable rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain. To sweeten the deal, there’s even a mountain stream to the side that gurgles gently down the imposing rock face.

Overhang Rock is a crag (a nearly vertical body of rock formed by erosion and weathering over time) that overlooks the Eno River on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain. It directly borders the Mountain Loop Trail and may leave you in fear for your life the first time you pass by it. While my photo shows that the rock face isn’t quite vertical, when you’re underneath it you may think otherwise. Staring thirty feet up the side of a cliff that probably weighs more than twenty tons is nothing if not an intensely humbling experience, which is only accentuated by the twenty-foot drop down to the Eno River on the opposite side.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

Reverential Rock is a boulder on the north side of the mountain which may have been formed in the landslide of 2001, when more than five thousand tons of debris crashed down the side of the quarry at Occoneechee Mountain. At the very least, it has many more edges and irregularities on its surface than many other nearby rock formations, which would seem to indicate a much more recent deposition. In any case, it’s become something of a shrine for hikers who wish to express their creativity by making small stacks of rocks called cairns, which abound at the quarry. Looking at the attention to detail in these small structures, it’s easy to see I’m not the only person who’s found inspiration in these majestic rock formations.

Despite the fact that these rocks inspired me from the first moment I laid eyes on them, it took me fourteen months before I picked up a pen and wrote my first musical composition to express that inspiration. Though it’s impossible to say for sure how the spectacle of creation must have looked when Occoneechee Mountain was formed several hundred million years ago, I nonetheless had a mental image of massive boulders being thrown around like pebbles when writing this piece. These descending boulders can be heard in the rapid downward scale at 0:12. The thought of lava being spewed and progressively building up the structure of the mountain can also be heard in the rising trajectory of the ground bass passage starting at 0:31.

Though I know mere music can never surpass the mountain that inspired me to compose, I’ve nonetheless tried to capture a faint glimmer of the grandeur of Occoneechee Mountain in this piece. Perhaps just as importantly I’ve tried to create something that may help you to find your own special place in the natural world, where you can find inspiration and share it with others in turn.

References:

Bradley, Phil, “The (Brief) Geologic Story of the Eno River,” North Carolina Geological Survey, accessed April 18th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

McIver, Hervey, “Occoneechee Mountain Dedication,” Eno River Association, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area,” Geocaching, accessed April 20th, 2017.

Turning Paradise into a Parking Lot: a Reflection on Eno River State Park

by Mark Miles

It’s entirely possible that the National Park Service will be eliminated in the foreseeable future. Of course it’s the last thing I would ever want, and it’s one of the worst things that could happen to many wildlands in the United States. There are nonetheless a whole myriad of issues which are threatening the survival of our national parks: 1) increasing corporate interference in the political process is transforming the ethic of government from public service to private profit; 2) declining revenues from decreasing rates of taxation on the wealthy are systematically impoverishing governmental coffers; 3) a ballooning national debt is providing lucrative opportunities for multinational creditors to effectively subordinate national sovereignty; and 4) continued disaffection from a populace alienated and preoccupied by digital technologies is allowing all of this to occur unabated. In short, the days of the National Park Service are numbered.

This has prompted me to start thinking about what my life would be like without those little pieces of paradise called parks. While the ones I regularly visit are managed by the state of North Carolina, they will also be affected by the dissolution of the NPS if and when it occurs. If nothing else, loss of our national parks would set a precedent for the expendability of parks in general and would increase the likelihood that state governments would consider liquidation of their own parks as a short-sighted solution to the increasing issue of budgetary shortfalls at every level of government. This could spell the demise of many state parks, including Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. Without a park designation to protect this land, it’s entirely likely that it would be decimated in the name of profit, reduced to a hollow shell of its former beauty and vibrance.

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With that in mind, I arrived at Eno River State Park a few weeks ago to explore Cox Mountain Trail for the first time. (I only discovered Eno River State Park last summer, so I’m still becoming acquainted with it.) After parking and joining the trailhead, I found myself confronted by the sight of several trees which had been chopped down alongside the trail. There was no apparent reason for it, but it gave the tiniest of impressions of what might occur if Eno River State Park ceased to exist. I don’t know if and when that will happen, but I do know this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a strip mall.

After crossing the suspension bridge leading to Cox Mountain Trail, I passed a small historic cabin in the woods and noticed the land around me gaining elevation with every passing step. I rounded several curves and twists, noticing more and more visibility as I continued my upward transit. Before too long, I came to the highest point on Cox Mountain Trail, where I found this sight of the surrounding land. Though the powerlines obstructed my view, the scope and beauty of the land were breathtaking. From this point I could see for miles eastward, and I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a subdivision.

From the eastward view, I followed Cox Mountain Trail through woodland until the trail began to descend. I hadn’t realized how high I was prior to this, but with the slope of the land in front of me it was clear to see that the estimate of 270 feet in elevation, stated on the park website, was reasonably accurate. The adjacent hillside loomed larger with every downward step, and it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by the shade produced by the late afternoon sun falling behind the opposite hill. Once the trail had reached the level of the river once again, I noticed small creekbeds converging toward the Eno. One of those creekbeds was mostly dry but provided a nice view which I promptly photographed. As I did so, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a convenience store.

With the sound of rushing water in the distance, I knew the Eno wasn’t far away. In less than five minutes I was once again hiking the banks of my favorite river, looking for any and every angle from which to capture its beauty. The Eno is fairly shallow at this point, and it wasn’t unrealistic for me to navigate my way over stones in the river to try to find a good view. Unfortunately, despite wading a third of the way into the river, the photos I ended up with were less than stellar. Nonetheless I did manage to find a decent view of the old dam, graced by the late afternoon sun. Soaking in the beauty of the moment, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a highway.

From the ruins of the old dam I followed the course of the trail on its eastward circuit. Soon enough the trail veered away from the Eno and made its way back into the surrounding woodland, where I found a rich canopy of oaks, beeches, and pines on every side. The trail continued through the woods for a another mile, providing me ample opportunity to inspect my surroundings. Around this time, I stopped to look through the branches overhead and saw the rotund shape of the moon in waxing gibbous phase. Stopping in my tracks to take a photo, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a factory farm.

Trekking through the woods for another half-mile, I passed several small streams and creekbeds before I found myself at the suspension bridge which provides access to Cox Mountain. The sunlight had dimmed considerably and provided much more even illumination at this time, the hour before dusk. I found the perfect angle to frame the bridge and considered how lucky I was to have such a beautiful place within thirty minutes’ driving distance from where I live. Likewise I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of an overpass.

Finally I crossed the suspension bridge, feeling the gentle swaying of the wood planks beneath me with every footstep. While it wasn’t the most stable surface, it provided a lovely view of the Eno to the north and the south. There were no other hikers in sight, so I had the bridge to myself, which allowed me to take as long as I wanted to get a satisfactory shot. Gazing into the serenely rippling waters of my favorite river, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a parking lot.

References:

Hansman, Heather. “Congress just made it easier to sell off federal land, including national parks.The Guardian via Business Insider. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Mitchell, Joni. “Big Yellow Taxi.” Ladies of the Canyon, 1970.

Rowland, Jenny. “GOP Platform Proposes to Get Rid of National Parks and National Forests.Think Progress. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Schlanger, Zoë. “What Can a Donald Trump Presidency Do to National Parks?Newsweek. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Climb to the Clouds at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Hiking is always a good way for me to relax after a stressful week. Not long ago I was tempted to skip my monthly rendezvous with Occoneechee Mountain because of a hectic schedule, but I stuck to my routine and was glad I did. The landscape was barren of foliage for the most part, but the increase in visibility gave a real sense of scope that’s often lacking from the experience in summer and spring.

As usual there was a small crowd when I arrived but nothing unmanageable. I got out of my car and started down the main trail over a few hills on my way to the first fork in the path. Before I reached it, I was greeted by a pleasant southwestern exposure of the sun peeping gently through the branches.

A little further along, I reached Elephant Rock–which is not the official name but describes the formation well nonetheless–and decided that the lighting was too good to miss. I’m not generally one to take selfies on my hikes, but I couldn’t resist in this instance.

After passing by a stretch of the Eno that borders the trail for a quarter of a mile, I came to the ascent that leads to the Overlook. There are a number of stairs in this area that were put in place by an eagle scout some years ago for his community service, and they’re a welcome addition at this point.

On the way up the side of the mountain, the trail passes directly beneath a very large metallic powerline that bisects the land near the quarry. It’s an ugly sight, but I did manage to find a view of it that was at least symmetrical. Standing beneath it and staring directly upwards, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was caught in an oversized game of tic-tac-toe.

Huffing and puffing from the steep climb that leads to the highest point on the trail, I reached the Overlook itself. The view was incredible as always, though there wasn’t the same panoply of color that I would’ve found in late October. Still it was a refreshing end to a much-needed excursion that helps to keep me grounded in my daily life. And the best part about it is that anyone with a little time, initiative and wilderness can do the same.

In Search of Holden Mill, the Historic Ruins at Eno River State Park

by Mark Miles

Last weekend I was finally able to explore the ruins of Holden Mill at Eno River State Park. I’d been wanting to for a couple months, but finding the requisite three hours of daylight proved to be more difficult than finding honesty in a politician. I made an unsuccessful attempt in November which resulted in my turning back before reaching the mill due to lack of daylight. As a result, some of the photos in this article have more autumnal color than others; those are photos from my incomplete November hike. The photos that have more wintry color are the ones that I took last weekend. And while most of this story will be a recollection of my December hike, there will also be minor elements of my November hike interspersed. With that covered, let’s begin.

I arrived at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday afternoon to find that there were a good number of other people who had the same idea. It’s not uncommon to find a crowd here, but I figured the 40° F temperatures would be enough to dissuade my fellow Carolinians from venturing into what’s considered by many southerners to be intolerably cold weather. My assumption was wrong, but I was right in assuming that I’d be the only one not wearing anything on his head. Being the son of two midwesterners well accustomed to blizzards and snowstorms, I’m inclined to regard 40° F in December as a heatwave. Thus headwear was superfluous.

Stone Staircase by the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

Starting northward on Buckquarter Creek Trail, I rounded the curve near Outhouse Ford and continued westward, encountering a few other small groups of hikers who were finishing the trail I was starting. Before long I came to Buckquarter Creek footbridge and crossed gingerly before coming to a fork in the trail and taking the northern course. I had now come to Holden Mill Trail, which consists of two closely linked loops. The first of these is considerably larger than the second and extends from the banks of the Eno to a neighboring hill which provides decent elevation.

Ascending Wintry Hill (Mark Miles, 2016)

Cresting the hill, I noticed how the lack of foliage increased the visibility of the area considerably. When I came in November, there was still enough foliage to obscure a great deal of the surrounding landscape, giving the sense that so much legwork had been for naught. This wasn’t the case last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by how invigorating it was to see so much of the surrounding terrain with the chill December air goading me to breathe deeply of autumn’s last days. The visibility increased further still, however, when I reached a clear-cut of power-lines, which looked as if a giant had used his scythe to scalp the land of her foliage.

Powerlines Scalp the Land (Mark Miles, 2016)

By this time I was getting close. The trail had turned from westward to southward, and Tranquility Creek came into view. The trail continued on a course parallel to the creek for a little way before turning right abruptly at a shallow ford and leading me to the last stretch before the mill itself. I was pretty excited by this time and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’d seen a few photos of the mill previously, but none of them had been particularly detailed. Thus my senses were fine-tuned and ready for anything.

The first thing to come into view was the defunct dam which once blocked this stretch of the Eno. It was very primitive and appeared to extend no more than ten feet in height, though it may have stood taller when it was intact. I wasn’t able to get any decent photos of it, but there wasn’t much to photograph in any case.

Ruins Loom in the Distance (Mark Miles, 2016)

Then came the good stuff. Looming amongst the bare sycamores and oaks was a considerable stone structure that looked as if someone had transposed a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall to central North Carolina. Standing twenty feet in height and leaning ever so slightly forward, it was an imposing sight and lent an air of dubious antiquity to the landscape. In front of it stood two other fragments of the same structure, the first of which was no more than eight feet in height and the second no more than twelve. Together the three stone structures formed a kind of maze that simultaneously invited and dissuaded exploration. On the one hand curiosity urged me to take a look for the sake of posterity, but on the other hand precaution urged me to watch for falling stones from a very old structure that’s clearly seen better days. I adopted the middle path, exploring what looked safe and avoiding what didn’t.

Not-So-Hadrian’s Wall (Mark Miles, 2016)

There weren’t any plaques or signs in the area to indicate what the ruins had previously been, but I have my own ideas. The tallest structure in the back appears to have been the site for the mill-wheel, which was probably considerable in size to provide sufficient force to power the internal mechanism of the mill. The second wall may have redirected water from the adjacent canal to a spillway which emptied into the Eno. The third wall might similarly have provided the means to retain water in an enclosed area without spilling into the river prematurely.

Mill Spillway after Two Centuries (Mark Miles, 2016)

All of this is guesswork of course, but I was also able to find something more substantial than guesswork in my research. As it turns out, Holden Mill was founded as a corn, flour and saw mill in 1811 by Isaac Holden. He owned and oversaw the mill for nine years before passing it to his son, Thomas Holden in 1820. Thomas Holden expanded the mill’s workload to include cotton, oil and threshing before passing it to his son-in-law, John Lyon, in 1851. John Lyon retained the mill until 1868, when the mill was closed due to financial difficulties. For fourteen years it remained shuttered. Then, in 1882, Samuel Cole reopened the mill and changed the name from Holden Mill to Cole Mill. He oversaw the operation of the mill until 1893, when the mill closed for the second and final time. The development of factories had rendered the water-mill obsolete, and its role in the economy had become a footnote in history.

As I began the return leg of my hike, I still had visions of decaying stone structures in my head, attempting to reconstruct themselves into their original form to show me how everything worked. I still don’t know if my guesswork is accurate, but I do know one thing. The river which was the real reason for the operation of Holden Mill is the real reason why anyone should come to Eno River State Park.

How the Eno Stole My Heart (Mark Miles, 2016)

On the banks of the Eno I can hear the running water and the voice of the land, leading me to imagine how our world would be without toxic industries poisoning the water and fouling the air. On the banks of the Eno I can feel the rush of a crisp wind on my face and the sharp pull of nature on my soul, whispering to me to respect all that’s green and good in this world. On the banks of the Eno I can see that beauty is everywhere and that another world is possible, expectantly waiting for us to join in common cause to end the reign of money once and for all.

Meditation on Theme and Variations

by Mark Miles

Over the past few months I’ve started dabbling in musical composition. I’ve been playing the recorder for a little more than three years now, and I’ve finally started to feel comfortable enough with the instrument to take some artistic liberties. I was hesitant about this at first, thinking that I’d never be able to write any kind of music that would be remotely listenable; but I’ve been surprised at how easily it’s come to me. The greatest challenge thus far has been picking up my pen, putting down my excuses, and doing the work.

Putting Pen to Paper (Mark Miles, 2016)

Since I’m obviously a novice at this, it occurred to me that one of the best approaches to learning would be simply to start from the work of other composers who’ve written music I enjoy. With the holiday season upon us, it only seemed natural that I should choose something with a holiday theme. Since I’m animistic in my spiritual tendencies and prefer to avoid reference to monotheistic religions and their authoritarian overtones, I decided to use the reasonably ecumenical song O Here We Come A-Caroling as a springboard for my first finished composition. As such, I’ve decided to call this piece Variations on O Here Come A-Caroling, and it’s now on my YouTube channel.

Composing this piece, however, got me to thinking about the history of the musical form that is variations on a theme. The earliest documented example of this form originated in the fourteenth century. Presumably there have been examples of variations on a theme for as long as music has existed, since there’s nothing more primal than taking something familiar and progressively embellishing it with meaningful details to make something new and unexpected. In a sense, this is the basis of all creativity. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the form had become reasonably commonplace, as evidenced by Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and Mozart’s Twelve Variations on Ah Vous Dirai Je, Maman (better known in English as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star). Since that time, composers as varied as Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Ravel, Glass and Williams have turned their pen to the form as well.

With this track record, it’s clear that theme and variations have have been pivotal to the historical development of music. But they’ve also been pivotal to one degree or another in other areas of human culture. Fields as diverse as architecture, literature, agriculture, seafaring, commerce, banking, fishing, mining, and industry have all been shaped at a fundamental level by the simple principle of variations on previously dominant themes of human culture. The Roman aqueduct, the Greek alphabet, the Viking longship, Chinese gunpowder, Native American corn (or maize depending on where you’re reading this), and Templar banking are just a few examples of variations on preexisting themes of human culture which have been progressively developed and transformed over time.

Fall on the Banks of the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

And so lately I’ve been thinking about how variations on a theme have permeated through our lives in ways both good and bad. Since I love the outdoors and spend a good deal of time hiking around the Eno River here in North Carolina, I’ve begun to think about the variations to the river that have been caused by humans over the centuries. There’ve been dams, mills, drainage-systems, factories, reservoirs, and hydraulic fracturing to name a few. Virtually all of these variations to the river have been bad. Dams have obstructed the paths of migratory fish, mills have dumped residual industrial byproducts, drainage-systems have redirected pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, factories have guzzled huge amounts of water for cooling and cleaning, reservoirs have depleted local watersheds, and hydraulic fracturing has injected a whole host of highly toxic chemicals into the deepest sublayers of watershed to be leaked out progressively over the coming decades and centuries.

Whanganui River on North Island of New Zealand (James Shook, 2005)

But thankfully there have also been tiny victories, tiny movements in the right direction amongst disparate communities seeking to ensure that their variations on an aquatic theme are healthy and sustainable. In New Zealand there’s been recent legislation to recognize the personhood of nature, granting legal rights and protections to features of the land and water that have been traditionally revered by the native Maori for centuries. In New York there’s been a ban on hydraulic fracturing that recognizes the endemic risks of forcing toxic chemicals deep into the ground to slowly seep into the drinking water of millions of people. In North Dakota there’s been principled protection of sacred land and water by the Oceti Sakowin at Standing Rock. All of these are powerful expressions of the pressing need to create new variations on what we do with the themes of nature. All that’s needed now is for us to support these movements and ensure they succeed and proliferate for the sake of future generations who will inherit the legacy of the variations we leave behind.