Thursday, July 14, 2011

Oldest writing in the Appalachians

As I have a talk today plus must keep burnishing on A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage, I'm posting a picture of the oldest known writing in the Appalachians in lieu of having to think about anything more than talk, scouring, and progeny--the items on today's list. When I was in high school in Cullowhee, my friends and I jaunted out to Caney Fork a few times and puzzled over the Archaic-period petroglyphs of Judaculla (or Jutaculla) rock. They have suffered from carousers and mountain cows and whimsies of weather, but when I saw them a year or so ago, they were as mysterious and fascinating as before. Evidently there may be more such petroglyphs buried close by, as there are recorded mentions of two other such rocks, now nowhere to be seen. Perhaps those are better off hidden in the earth where they can't be handled by teens or used as a scratching post by itchy Carolina cows.

The Cherokee had their own ways of explaining these strange signs that pre-dated their own time and thrust mystery into the landscape. The obsessed ethnographer and collector of Southern native lore, James Mooney, whose records I made use of in my two children's novels, The Curse of the Raven Mocker and Ingledove, wrote that the slant-eyed Judaculla or Tsul 'kalu was a giant living on the Tuckaseegee (I lived there for many years and never saw him.) A famous hunter and weather-worker, Tsul-ka-lu made the many-toed footprint on the rock when he jumped from his mountaintop and landed near the river. His stories are sometimes connected to Bigfoot legends, although what always strikes me is that his courtship tales are parallel to Psyche and Eros and various fairy tales in which a more-than-human lover appears only at night and vanishes after he is finally disclosed and fully seen, usually because his sweetheart's family members insist on the revelation.  Alas, he proves to be a kind of monster, as the girl's mother must have feared.

And here's a poem I loved in those long-ago Judaculla-rock days... It says something about men, monsters, and the desire to make the beautiful. Oh, to be a "suitor of excellence!"

 --Richard Wilbur
Beasts in their major freedom
Slumber in peace tonight. The gull on his ledge
Dreams in the guts of himself the moon-plucked waves below,
And the sunfish leans on a stone, slept
By the lyric water,
In which the spotless feet
Of deer make dulcet splashes, and to which
The ripped mouse, safe in the owl’s talon, cries
Concordance. Here there is no such harm
And no such darkness
As the selfsame moon observes
Where, warped in window-glass, it sponsors now
The werewolf’s painful change. Turning his head away
On the sweaty bolster, he tries to remember
The mood of manhood,
But lies at last, as always,
Letting it happen, the fierce fur soft to his face,
Hearing with sharper ears the wind’s exciting minors,
The leaves’ panic, and the degradation
Of the heavy streams.
Meantime, at high windows
Far from thicket and pad-fall, suitors of excellence
Sigh and turn from their work to construe again the painful
Beauty of heaven, the lucid moon
And the risen hunter,

Making such dreams for men
As told will break their hearts as always, bringing
Monsters into the city, crows on the public statues,
Navies fed to the fish in the dark
Unbridled waters.

Note from Steve ZeltThe first line of Wilbur's poem, Beasts, reads "Beasts in their major freedom / Slumber in peace tonight." In an out of print book called TALKS WITH AUTHORS from the early sixties, Wilbur says "I mean various things by that word 'major' but the expression, 'major freedom,' comes from one of the church fathers -- I forget which one. He distinguishes between major freedom and minor freedom and says that the saints enjoy major freedom because their wills are at one with God's will. They don't have to choose anymore. In this poem of mine I attribute that kind of freedom to the animal creation."


  1. How amazing that Wilbur poem is. Would you believe that though I have thumbed through most of Wilbur's work with attention, I have missed that one. It tells me I must return to that writer and read again.

  2. I can remember the sensation of reading that one for the first time as a mere kid and being gripped by the power and authority and the sheer loveliness of the sounds.

  3. Marly, thanks for this post! I'd never seen or heard about these petroglyphs, and the poem is a stunner. Also appreciated the note about major/minor -- would that we all enjoyed "major freedom!"

  4. ...and it's an appropriate day to ponder what we really mean when we say "freedom."

  5. Is it... Bastille Day?

    July 14. Hmm. Maybe! The memory is going. No, I was never any good with dates.

    I think I must have grown up thinking that everybody had petroglyphs in a nearby cow pasture...

    Okay, off to get ready for the noon talk. (And to look forward to meeting Beth on Monday--we've moved to Monday, right?)

  6. Marly, thanks for your comment on my blog, though I was unable to publish it as yet for the server is down - apologies! Hope all will be restored soon.

    This sounds like a fascinating petroglyph, how lucky to have known it personally in your youth. The poem is indeed powerful. Interesting how these have affected your own developing vision and voice as a writer.

    Have googled and bookmarked Judaculla, including your post - thanks.

  7. You know, Marja-Leena, I meant to just post the picture with a line or two, but I see that I have--in a hastily dashed-off piece--somehow balled up Cherokee materials, my books and poetry, writing, mystery, mythic figures, and growing up as a young writer in a place where writing is symbolic and endures in stone.

    How strange!

  8. Those petroglyphs sound amazing! Excellwent poem too and a new poet for me!

  9. This picture shows them filled with chalk--they're not quite so bold.

    But you musn't miss Wilbur! He's still alive, too: 90 this spring.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.