The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

“Leaving Lawson's Fork”

Saturday, May 10, 2003 From Glendale Shoals to Goldmine Rd.:

"The process of reconstructing and immersing ourselves in our own specific
places at times resembles the effort to recreate the memory of a victim of
amnesia." (Freeman House, Totem Salmon)

I left the hotel in Columbia at 6:15 AM and drove I-26 much the way I had some five years ago when I lived in South Carolina, half-asleep and with abandon. I was here for my niece’s graduation and wanted to take advantage of my proximity to my old home and take in a river trip.

I had made arrangements to meet John and Betsy at Broadway Bagel at 8 and loathe being late. We needed an hour or so to gather the boats, catch up on friends and books, and talk about their very involved and active lives in Spartanburg. I wanted to paddle Lawson’s Fork again, as I had so often when I lived in Sparkle City. I didn’t really care to see my old home, school, or haunts—just the river. John and Betsy had arranged the kayaks and trucks in which to haul them. We put in at Glendale Shoals to take in the last few miles of Lawson’s Fork before it meets with the Pacolet.

Three years before I had finished a book about Lawson’s Fork. In fact, the book was a collaborative effort with a co-author Gary Henderson, an artist Helen Correll, photographers, and poets (children and adults). It was community project and was released during a four-day environmental arts festival along the Lawson’s Fork during which 1200 people came out to its banks. The festival was success and spawned a community river watch group Friends of the Lawson’s Fork and helped raise awareness of the river’s place in the history and culture of Spartanburg. All involved hope it will be a preservation success too.

When I was writing the book I had imagined I would always live in the watershed of Lawson’s Fork. I had settled into a tenured job, had a nice home, and was beginning to teach my four-year-old how to paddle. For over a year, I lived with some thought of the river every day, whether by going to it, reading about it, or imagining and musing on it in my writing.

I came to recognize where the dividing grounds were for this watershed from the others and how they had shaped our community. I knew where the centuries-old grist mills had been and why they had been there. I knew its aquatic health and problems. I had found where former recreational parks had been, were abandoned, and now were lost in a privet thicket. I knew the secret places where long-time locals still came to fish and swim. Over that year, I inhabited Lawson’s Fork, the way we can live in a place—aware, knowledgeable, and vocal. Then, I moved.
I moved to Texas to be nearer my daughter. I had stayed in Spartanburg another year after the divorce but knew my obligations as a father and love for my daughter pulled me westward. The last thing I did in Spartanburg before I left was go to the river, sink my feet in, and apologize for leaving.

On the drive to Texas, I had thought about this, moving, leaving, arriving. Statistically, most of us move every four or five years. We pack our things, grab the kids, leave a house or apartment we had “belonged” in, say goodbye to neighbors, friends, and co-workers and make a home anew. Did we have the chance to make a place a home?

Among environmentalists, it is a common question—do you know your place? The bioregion, the watershed, the trees, the animals? How things get by here? How it might differ from other places? The assumption is that in knowing it we will live on it more wisely. This idea has led in part to a relative groundswell of environmental education initiatives across the nation. Ecology, environmental science, or some kind of earth science has become a significant portion of the curriculum of virtually every elementary, middle and high school. Students are taught the basics of how to approach a place scientifically, how to test its waters, soils, and wildlife numbers. They are given tasks on how to quantify, recognize, and note. While scientific knowledge is a transferable skill, it does not teach them how to make a place a home.

In other words, emphasis is placed on the skills necessary to understand a place, not be in a place. I’m not underestimating the value of empirical study; it is a part of human understanding. What I am saying is that it isn’t the only way we make a home, maybe not even the most essential.

When we make home, we make a story. We fit various forms of knowledge into a whole, give them voice by placing them next to and in context with each other—I know this river by its name, where it comes from, how it would flow naturally, how it flows now, what lives here, who has lived on it, how have we shaped it, and last, when these parts have been told and heard, how it shapes us. This notion of story making too is a transferable skill, but one rarely taught.

Now, though, as often as most of us move, being able to integrate these knowledges about a place and our selves is more important than ever. We are in part the places we’ve been and we can no more ignore that past as a part of the story of where we live, than we can immediately integrate ourselves into a new one. Of course, these are individual stories, but the science, the shared names, and the community histories are shared forms of knowing. In making and sharing story, we corroborate it with others in a place, have the verifiable parts verified or rejected, and the individual parts acknowledged.

After one moves memories of that previous life are pared down to the few that matter—the artifacts of pictures, a few friendships deeper than distances, and place-things that became a part of self. I can ruminate on the photos and call or write old friends, but the sensory connections with a place—a place that has hard-wired itself into one’s being—that’s the something you miss without fully knowing what it is you’re missing. The individual roar of Glendale shoals, the rosy flashes of mountain laurel in the pale greens of late spring, the scent of carcasses, the singular feel of riding over Little Five Falls, rock shaping its personality into the pull of water—these are the things that once you feel, hear, see, taste, and smell them again you realize what you missed. As place does if you’ve been close to it, it gives you bearings outside and in. You knew where you were, having named it or knowing its names (personal and scientific); and in a way I cannot fully describe here, it named you no less. The trip passed with John and Betsy jostling and joking with place names, reminding me the names I had forgotten, teaching me the new ones.

John says I wanted “to make contact with the stream and see how it’s doing.” He’s absolutely right. My old place is doing OK for now; I’d like to see more done to protect it, especially on these lower parts we paddled. For now, though, it just needs more folk spending time with it. As for the “contact” part, some portion of my self indelibly flows from Lawson’s Fork, recognizing that and physically interacting with the river again is not so different than waking.

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