In discussions of Southern culture, mythic terms like “the land” and “landscape” come up often. Where these terms are usually used in narratives about utilitarian concerns (agricultural, hunting) or about sentimentalized places (family homes), Hettich’s essay discusses the landscape in other terms – naturalistic, environmental, poetic – thus examining it as itself and in relation to life in ways that are less pragmatic.
by Michael Hettich
“He found himself listening, listening, aware of how some shapes in the darkness emitted low sounds like breathing . . .” – WS Merwin
My heartbeat and breath keep me thinking about time as I climb up through the woods along an old path that might have been a road once, too narrow to be a logging road but carefully leveled and banked, to the source of the small creek that runs through our property. Here a faint spring seeps out of the hill’s flank in a trickle that disappears under fallen leaves, to emerge a few yards further down the slope, gurgling contentedly. Though still a mere trickle, it’s now a trickle with purpose, dripping and flowing across stones and boulders, washing pebbles and soil down into pools below. These rainy mountains ooze water in all seasons; dribbles sing along every ridge we bushwhack, every trail we climb. A bit further down, the true creek starts to swell—gurgling pools and tiny waterfalls. Salamanders slink and glow amid rhododendron hells where the sun can’t penetrate, ever. The humid air is pungent with rotting leaves, moss, wet stones and muck. By the time the creek has flowed past the small wading-place we’ve cleared, it’s a chilly sheet of shallow gleaming that chortles in different voices according to the weather.
At the bottom of our property, another little creek merges with ours, and they tumble as one alongside the dirt road, meeting other creeks along the way; this bigger creek, Ferguson Branch, wends its way past a trailer park and a meadow where horses graze, then under a well-travelled thoroughfare and highway where it meets the Swannanoa River, which flows beside a park with waist-deep pools and little beaches where we sometimes take a dip. Though it’s called “river,” here it’s really just a glorified stream; it dances with joy, like a child.
In twenty miles or so, the Swannanoa turns muddy as it meets the French Broad, the commercial lifeblood of this region in the days when these mountains were heavily logged. The French Broad flows west, into Tennessee, where it meets the Tennessee River, which flows into the Ohio and then the Mississippi, which flows down into the Gulf of Mexico.
The French Broad is at least 300 million years old, which makes it the third-oldest river in the world.
The Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico some 100 miles south of New Orleans. By then of course the water from our little creek, which has travelled at least 1000 miles, has been lost in the tumult of that ever-larger flow.
How many miles does a human heart pump its blood in a lifetime, keeping us humming with the light we call ourselves?
Imagine all those waterfalls and eddies, all that shimmering life.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—the largest in history—occurred just 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, spreading outward in all directions, to beaches and marshes in Florida and to the mouth of the Mississippi delta.
At its peak, 60,000 gallons of oil per day surged into the Gulf. By the time the leak was fully capped—87 days later, at the end of September—1,100 miles of shoreline had been polluted by a slick extending more than 57,500 square miles, two million gallons of toxic dispersants had been released into the water, countless fish and animals had been killed, and thousands of people whose livelihoods depended on the richness of the Gulf’s fisheries and beaches had lost those livelihoods.
Less than two weeks after the spill, my wife and I spent a week in a cottage at Grayton Beach State Park, amid the dunes and apparently pristine waters of Florida’s panhandle. We walked miles along the beach, scanning the horizon and grieving for the loss whose evidence we couldn’t yet see; we waited and watched for what pained us to imagine, which was just out of sight but inevitable nonetheless. We knew that everything we looked at, all we’d travelled there to embrace, would soon be lost or irrevocably damaged.
Still, we managed to revel at the beautiful beach with its teeming tide pools and wind-swept dunes.
We swam out and floated like morsels in the cool water; we marveled at the numbers of birds, and at the buzzing life in the marshes; we held hands and talked quietly; we laughed.
We came across huge leatherback sea turtles lying dead on the beach. Their shells had been garishly spray-painted by officials cataloguing the losses of wildlife. We saw dead fish and dolphin rolling in the surf. But, strangely enough – certainly in retrospect – nothing alarmed us too terribly. The disaster, approaching steadily, was still offshore.
After a week, we drove back to Miami and re-entered the tumult of our ordinary lives.
Is it possible to fall so profoundly asleep you seem to wake in some other familiar country and go about your life there, to step beyond sleep’s boundary and walk away unscathed?
Our blood moves through our bodies about as quickly as we walk, through the marrow and organs, secrets and the brain. Of course breath moves through us as well; it’s the breath of trees and all that’s been forgotten, the breath of what you meant to do and what you did without meaning to; the breath of regret and happiness and love, the breath of I told you so, and the breath of never mind. We are tumbling down to the ocean as we live, moving to join the larger eddies and riffles, nothing already and always almost home.
Of course we’re disappearing; there’s nothing else to do. The vast flocks of ladybugs, the insects hiding under bark, the weather inside, where we hardly ever venture.
We tell ourselves the mountains are eternal, we who live amidst these oldest mountains in the world. They were here, we assure ourselves, before anything was human. They’ll be here, hardly changed, when all human trace is gone.
These creeks have flowed down the flanks of these mountains for as near to eternity as anyone can fathom.
But then of course someone else imagines he can buy them, and cuts them up to dig around for the treasures inside. Thus the ghosts of ancient light-forms and animals are lost, the dark caves where silence lived millions of years, the marrow that means we can still dream ourselves into other forms of beauty, love the empty sky, taste the strains of pollen whose names we’ll never know.
I lay down like a twig beneath a waterfall and waited. Soon enough I’d break free and tumble down the mountain, as all of us are tumbling, right now, toward the sea—whether we feel ourselves falling there or not.
And then we turn over and fall back to sleep, to wake somewhere else in the morning.
These creeks and rivers, among the richest ecosystems in the world, are full of brook trout, brown trout, rainbow trout and crappie; minnow and darter, toads and frogs galore; sixty kinds of salamander, lizards and skinks; brown snake and watersnake, rainbow snake and mudsnake; diamondback terrapin, river cooter, eastern painted turtle, yellow-bellied slider and common snapping turtle; crayfish and pigtoes, floaters and spikes; hellsplitters, creepers, littlewing pearlymussels, creekshells and pimplebacks; podlance, wartybacks, spike and riffleshell; mucket, many kinds of combshell, and lance.
That’s not even counting the host of wild animals that feast on these creatures; neither is it counting the birds and the bats and the insects, the molds and the mushrooms, the flowers and the muck; the rocks, the sand, and the mica. There are many creatures living here whose names we’ll never know.
In the bigger rivers: mudpuppy, salamander, tiny softshell turtle, sharphead darter; striped shiner, stonecats and olive darters; freshwater drum, elktoe mussel, banded sculpan, mooneye, hellbender, and red-spotted newt.
And many other species too numerous to count.
But by the time these rivers meet the Mississippi, most of these life-forms have vanished. Big Muddy teems with chemicals and waste, its water strangled by nitrogen and sludge. It’s been rendered merely functional—a highway rather than a living system’s source. Fish that are caught here can be dangerous to eat.
And just off the coast of Louisiana, where the Mississippi lets out into the Gulf of Mexico, an enormous algae bloom, fueled by fertilizer and sewage, creates an area so devoid of oxygen it’s an uninhabitable dead zone. The size of Massachusetts, it’s the largest in the world.
It occurs every summer, and grows larger every year.
It was there before the oil spill, and it’s out there right now—just far enough beyond the horizon it’s easy to pretend it’s not there at all.
We sing silly songs as we walk down to our little creek with our infant grandson, to wade in its cool water and watch it rush and sing. He bobs his head to our voices and the rhythm of the creek. Naked, he crawls through the shallow water laughing.
At least a thousand dolphins died in the oil slicks that followed the Deepwater Horizon spill. Most of those who lived have been ailing ever since.
I wake beside my wife to a morning thick with mist and walk out to examine the silence.
As I walk, I can hear the creek gurgling down the slope, and I think of the little creatures there, naked as I am now, watching for the light.
I was standing in the middle of a huge lawn in Connecticut in a spitting rain calling to the adults, who were in the house, behind the many-paned glass doors that stood along the terrace; I could hear their music and laughter as I stood there in my bare feet, getting slowly drenched, afraid to move across the wet grass for some reason I don’t remember now. My brother came out then; my sister followed. They took their clothes off and ran out across the lawn, past me, hooting at the rain and the cool wetness on their skins. I stood watching as they lay down and rolled around in the wet grass. My brother found a turtle by the stone wall; I watched him pick it up and hold it to his eyes. He put it in the grass near me, got down on his hands and knees and crawled around beside that turtle, which held itself inside its shell. Our parents came out onto the terrace, laughing at a joke someone had yelled out inside the house. They were holding champagne and slurring their words. I didn’t want to take off my clothes, and I didn’t want to move with my bare feet through the grass. I wanted my dad to come out, pick me up and carry me to the safety of the terrace. My little brother and sister watched in delight as the turtle pushed his legs and head out of its shell and started walking off calmly toward the flower garden.
Who were all those perfumed people laughing in the house? And who was that boy, stranded out there in the grass? What was he afraid of? Does no one else remember him?
I can only marvel at the fact that I must have been there, since something inside me remembers, something pure and clean that tumbled from some ancient place and tumbles still toward its destination, that place without language where eternity awaits. All those celebrating adults are likely dead by now. And I wonder if that house is still standing.
“Watershed” was previously published in Under the Sun.
Michael Hettich was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in New York City and its suburbs. He has lived in upstate New York, Colorado, Northern Florida, Vermont, Miami, and Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he now lives with his family. His books of poetry include The Mica Mine (St. Andrews University Press, 2021), winner of The Lena Shull Book Award ; To Start an Orchard (Press 53, 2019); Bluer and More Vast (Hysterical Press, 2018); The Frozen Harbor (Red Dragonfly Press, 2017); Systems of Vanishing (University of Tampa, 2014); The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers, 2011) and Like Happiness (Anhinga, 2010). His work has appeared widely in such journals as Ploughshares, Orion, The Literary Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, The Sun, Witness, and Poetry East. In addition to the Lena Shull Prize, his awards include three Florida Individual Artists Fellowships, a Florida Book Award, The Tampa Review Prize in Poetry, and the David Martinson–Meadow Hawk Prize. He has served on the board of several organizations, including AIRIE (Artists in Residence in the Everglades) and WAIL (Word and Image Lab). Hettich holds a Ph.D. in literature and taught at the college level for many years. He often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and fellow writers.