© Louis Staeble; Blue Merge; photography
Sullen Possum Sabbath
It’s late September. I finish my coffee, pack my army surplus messenger bag, and head out the back door. Walking down the hill to the bottom lands, the fog thickens. Although the morning sun is above the Bullskin Mountains to the east, it does not yet have the strength to burn away the settled fog. Visibility is about fifty yards.
The caffeine in my system brings about nervousness in my stomach. My hands shake just enough to be noticed. I get anxious when heading into the woods alone, but this time I am more tense than normal. I do not know exactly where I’m going.
Above the farm operated by the boarding school where I teach sits the site of a historic Cherokee village called Sullen Possum. Before the American settlers pushed through the Cumberland Gap, this site was frequently occupied for at least a thousand years. Native Americans of the Early Archaic period, three thousand years ago, settled here, and the spot was the home of the family of Red Bird, an important 18th Century Cherokee leader in the region. The area, now one of the poorest counties in the United States, provided its Native occupants an abundance of fresh water, fishing opportunities, large game, chestnuts, salt, and red ochre–a natural red pigment of ceremonial importance. They thrived in the hills of Kentucky where we struggle with what editorialists call a “low quality of life.”
When I first came to work at the school, I went on a hike with some students led by an older gentleman, Marv, who was not from the area. He had lived and served here for only a couple of years. Marv was a good talker and took himself to be a strong woodsman. He had an Appalachian Trail badge sewn on his L.L. Bean backpack, and I asked him if he had hiked much on the A.T. He admitted that once he vacationed in the Smokies and picked up the badge at a gift shop and had never actually been on the famed trail.
Marv took us to the bench top of a ridge, which overlooks Goose Creek. The creek cuts through the bottom land, now mostly cornfield, to join another small creek, and become the South Fork of the Kentucky River.
There, in a small grove of pines, he showed us three distinct burial sites, one only a few steps from the others. “These are Indian mounds,” he said. “The Oneida Indians lived here and built these mass graves. The dead would have been buried with all of their possessions, and there are probably millions of dollars’ worth of artifacts right where we’re standing.”
The students tossed acorns around. I was captivated. There was sullenness to the site which transcended the youthful foolishness of the students. I later found out Marv was mostly wrong about the history of the mounds, but the significance of his incorrectness did not strike me until much later. We were living and working on a part of history that has been completely swallowed by the woods. Few who now live here know about the people that resided here for centuries before them. We frequently hear about the short-lived prosperity of the mining operations, and the way things were before the chestnut blight, but the sacred burial grounds, settlements, and trails of the Natives who claimed this land are largely forgotten.
Sometime after that initial hike, another former employee of the school told me of a grave site separate from the three I had seen with Marv. I hike now to attempt to find the fourth grave.
I climb the rickety swinging bridge to get to the south side of Goose Creek. The bridge is something of a minor tourist attraction in the area, but it’s a practical necessity for us. It allows a twenty-five minute walk to become a six or seven minute walk. The water level beneath the bridge is low, and, when the fog clears I’ll be able to make out the shadows of catfish and small mouth bass in the water. A crow calls out from the corn field behind me.
Stepping down from the bridge, I cut through the school’s farm, past the staring eyes of a dozen black, brown, and white calves, past calico kittens scrambling up an ornamental pear tree, and past the humming air conditioner of the potato storage shed. Like an emerging ghost, I ascend through the fog as the farm road takes me up a steep hill where the school has built ten houses in a flat area called Beech Grove. Beech Grove sits in the middle of a U-shaped ridge. It would be the ideal layout for a large amphitheater. Although the grove was mostly destroyed to build the houses, plenty of beech trees populate the curving ridge along with maples, oaks, and box elders.
Supposing the burial site sits somewhere on this ridge, I go through the backyard of a co-worker and hike straight up the ridge until I hit a fence. The school owns all the houses and land here, and this frees me to wander with no worries of trespassing. My steps are slow and intentional because the ground is leaf-covered and slick. On the other side of the fence is a trail, which leads to an elevated cow pasture. Thoreau hated fences because they were impediments; however, this fence cuts conveniently through the woods. It provides an easy trail to follow through the occasionally thick undergrowth, and I try to keep my sleeves close to my body so as not to get caught on the barbs.
This area of the woods is surprisingly clear of trash. I only encounter a metal fold out chair, the back and seat mostly rusted out. One could only begin to guess the origins of the chair on such a steep ridge, but there it is like so many other imperfections we notice in the otherwise ideal. However, other than the chair, there are no bottles, wrappers, or rotten lumber. This is refreshing.
There is plenty of decay in the dampness of the morning. The fallen trees sprout orange and gray shelf fungus. A distinct leaf mold scent rises up through the fog, and I recognize the familiarity of it though I have never explored these woods. It is the smell of dark hollows that rarely see the summer sun.
A deer trail cuts down from the fence I’m following and zigzags around the larger trees. I follow this trail for several hundred yards until I get to a clear cut strip, which turns ninety degrees up hill to meet the fence line. This section leads up to the boundary of the pasture above, but I choose to stay on the wooded ridge supposing I can always turn around and keep following the fence line if I don’t find the burial mound.
Past the clear strip, the ridge begins to curve into the rounded end of the U-shape. The land flattens out a little. Stepping over several downed trees, I end up on the banks of a trickling spring flowing out of the hill. The weather has been dry the last few weeks, but this spring is still flowing steadily. If not for its relative proximity downhill of a cow pasture, this is the kind of spring that one would have little qualms drinking from without a filter. I think I see opossum tracks along the muddy banks of the stream, but the indentions are faint.
I survey the area and then see what I came to find. Ninety feet from the spring sits a mound, now covered in moss, with a few large stones scattered around its base. The mound is six feet long and three or four feet wide. It stands out obviously against the flat basin. Wanting to experience this spot, I sit leaning against an old beech and face the burial site.
There is little question the placement of this mound is intentional. The spring must be an old water source that sustained the native communities for quite some time. I imagine the grave was meant to be a memorial as men and women came each day for clean water. However, as far as I can tell, no one has visited this site for a while. There are no obvious trails. There is no trash.
When this was still Sullen Possum, the grave had a story. Now the story is gone, or at least forgotten, but this is what the wilderness does. It reclaims and hides whatever it is we try to do to it. Like the opossum that only pretends to be dead but springs back to all vitality when danger passes, so the wilderness is again vital. We try to establish permanence in the wilderness, but the wilderness only temporarily yields to us. Only a handful of people are now aware of this grave’s existence or even the existence of the Sullen Possum village. We move on, while in its living, the wilderness hides the past from us.
All civilizations will be brought to obscurity by the wilderness. It is not a new observation, but we like to forget it. Troy was once the worthy subject of imaginative praise, the remarkableness of which can never be reproduced, and yet after centuries of wind, decay, and natural growth, the great city had to be dug out. Sullen Possum, undoubtedly a humble village, still maintained generations of families who are now nothing more than abstractions of history.
I find my initial anxiety of departing for this hike into the woods growing in my gut. The trees are older at this spot than at other parts of the ridge. There is not much undergrowth as the larger trees block out light. The fog blankets this hollow and dew drips from some of the leaves of the beech trees. I keep turning around when I hear the spatters, half-expecting to find something sinister watching me. There is nothing but the stillness of the fog. Being alone in the woods is a reminder of our vulnerabilities. Cell phones don’t work here. I have no gun, only a pocket knife. I’m not strong, not fast. I am at the mercy of the woods. More than that, I am at the mercy of my own thoughts. Facing a grave, facing the decay, I cannot but help think that I, too, will be swallowed up by the wilderness and become nothing but a historical obscurity in a decayed village.
In going to the woods we face our future decay. Every outcropping of shelf fungus on a fallen log becomes a sacrament of death and dying. It is a tangible manifestation of an unseen, mysterious reality.
In Christian theology the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist have always been connected to one’s mortality. The symbolism of “going under” in a baptism is a reference to death. In Romans, Paul writes that “we have been buried with Christ in Baptism…” which is supposed to remind the Christian of the unavoidable death, but the hope of the rising. There is, however, no escaping the death imagery. A baptism is an embrace of death.
Even the Eucharist, according to Paul, is a means by which we “proclaim the Lord’s death.” As a memorial this is more than the remembrance of a historical event, but to proclaim the Lord’s death is to say that, when we participate in the Eucharist, we are stating a willingness to follow Christ in death. Our body will be broken like the bread, and our blood will be spilled like the wine. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, a second or third century narrative, tells of how the saint is burned at the stake, but that his flesh smells like baking bread, as in the Eucharistic bread. Sacraments are a visible manifestation of mortality; they bring to our mind what we try so hard to push away.
Being cradled by the old beech tree, seeing the ancient grave, stepping over the shelf fungus on decaying logs, and smelling the leaf mold transform a solitary excursion into the woods a sacrament. It brings to mind our inevitable return to dust. Here, I think I could become an anchorite connected to this grave. Retiring away from “the world,” in order to find vocation at this spot seems reasonable. For inasmuch as the wilderness brings to us the realities of death, it calls us to prayer. Perhaps not prayer in the formal structure of “Our Father,” but a prayer, to quote Wendell Berry, that “does not disturb the silence from which it came.”
In theology, God is in the sacraments. He must also be in the wilderness, which acts as a sacrament in the moment of contemplation. Sacraments, although they bring us to an awareness of death, are by definition a means of grace. Grace is an unmerited gift. Here in the damp and the decay of the woods, which reminds me of my vulnerabilities, there is plenty of grace.
In sitting next to a grave, I get anxious about the darkness of death and of the wild unknown, but I also find a peace in knowing the present can be free from anxiety, because redemption is built into the fabric of nature. The clear spring still provides water. The fog will soon lift up and out of the hills. The decayed logs will return nutrients to the rich humus. And in these things is grace, as Gerard Manley Hopkins illustrates, “Oh, morning, as the brown brink eastward, springs/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
I get up from the beech tree and stretch as my back has gotten sore from the rigid seat. My noise startles a cardinal, and the bird flies over the stream and to the other side of the ridge. His bright wings catch a stream of sun breaking through a clear patch of land. I retrace my path back to where the clear strip meets the fence line. This time I walk up with the fence rather than following my same route along the ridge. It is a steep climb but levels out at the top and while the fence goes on around the cow pasture, I am stopped by thorny thicket I have no desire to push through.
At some point, the woods were cleared from this spot, probably for a potato field or pasture land, and then left alone. The thicket will grow and mature and in a few decades it will blend with the surrounding woods.
Here could have possibly been a crossroads for the people of the Sullen Possum village. To one side is a clear spring and the flat beech grove area, and to the other side is the flat ridge top of the cow pasture. A ten or fifteen minute walk along the ridge top from the pasture is the three burial sites overlooking the valley.
I know nothing of Cherokee etymology or mythology to begin to speculate why this is Sullen Possum, but there is sadness on this ridge. The obscurity of the people who once thrived here is sad, and perhaps the name sullen, as much as anything else, is prophetic. Yet, there is also a glooming peace here this morning, for in being forgotten, the ridges, the springs, and the graves are mostly left alone. For this, I give thanks.
I walk down the clear fence line and back onto the wooded ridge. The ground is still wet from dew, and I am careful with my steps so as not to slip. I come back around the deer path and get back to the yard in which I started. On my walk back through the farm, the fog has lifted in all the low areas, though a smattering remains on the mountain tops. The September sky is clear.
I see two eastern bluebirds perched on a fence post. Pokeweed grows in abundance in the thickets in the unkempt parts of the farm, and the bluebirds look for the berries early in the morning.
The sun gets warm, and I roll up my sleeves. The farm is awake now. The hogs are being fed and make ungodly shrieks in anticipation of food. Under the swinging bridge are the minnows, but no signs of their predators yet. A gray heron stands in one of the creek bends, the water coming up to her breast.
Arriving home, I find my wife and son are now awake too. There is freshly baked pumpkin bread and hot coffee. It is not the welcoming smell of leaf mold, but it is grace nonetheless.
Ryan Cordle teaches English and coaches girls’ basketball at a small boarding school in the Appalachian foothills. He is completing an MA in English and Writing at Western New Mexico University. When he’s not teaching and coaching, he spends his time whacking weeds and wrestling with his son. This is his first published work.