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Crossing Wildcat Ridge: A Memoir of Nature and Healing

Crossing Wildcat Ridge: A Memoir of Nature and Healing

by Philip Lee Williams


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I am a country man, raised in the fields and woods of north-central Georgia. I do not care for cities, and so I live in the forest on a ridge over Wildcat Creek, a bold stream that flows, half a mile away, into the Oconee River. . . . Our house is halfway down the ridge, just before it plummets sharply to the creek. I have found archaic chert scrapers on our property, more recent potsherds with intricate decorations. I say that we own these seven acres, but we’re really just passing through.

With his opening lines Philip Lee Williams defines the territory of this intricate and lyrical memoir: life with his young family on the ridge, his coming of age, and the legacy of his southern family. That legacy, which includes a love of literature, a passion for music, and an insatiable curiosity about the natural world, also includes a defective heart valve.

Crossing Wildcat Ridge combines the drama of Williams’s open-heart surgery with contemplative essays on the natural world. The gentle counterpoint between the two elements illuminates both in remarkable and profound ways. Confronting his mortality, the author struggles to determine his place in the world. His sober consideration of things left undone is juxtaposed with the contemplation of a mound of fire ants: “There is no uncertainty in that world; each knows his job, doesn’t know why, can’t ask. None knows he will die.” As the author slips into depression during his postoperative recovery, he studies the flora and fauna of the ridge, its lights and shadows, the dunes beneath the waters of the creek. With poetic imagery, he shares not only his crystalline observations of nature but also their healing effects—how he learns to receive the gift of a mockingbird’s song, how the tracks of elusive woodland creatures bolster his faith in the existence of things we cannot see, how sensory memories reconnect him to the boy he was and the man he hopes to be.

All thinking, feeling adults search for the right path to self-discovery. Philip Lee Williams’s luminous account of his journey is one satisfying and effective road map.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780820320908
Publisher: University of Georgia Press
Publication date: 03/01/1999
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

PHILIP LEE WILLIAMS is the author of eleven books, including The True and Authentic History of Jenny Dorset and Crossing Wildcat Ridge. His novel A Distant Flame is winner of the Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. Williams lives with his family near Athens, Georgia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Wildcat Ridge

I am a country man, raised in the fields and woods of north-central Georgia. I do not care for cities, and so I live in the forest on a ridge over Wildcat Creek, a bold stream that flows, half a mile away, into the Oconee River. The ridge has a reputation for its rattlesnakes, but I've never seen one. There's a dirt road across the creek called Wildcat Ridge, but I think of all the high land along the creek by that name.

    Our house is halfway down the ridge, just before it plummets sharply to the creek. I have found archaic chert scrapers on our property, more recent potsherds with intricate decorations. I say that we own these seven acres, but we're really just passing through.

* * *

    It's midsummer today, the solstice. Rain falls pleasantly. When storms come, the forest seems to hiss, and Wildcat Creek changes. I have cut paths down to the creek, and I take Megan, my daughter, to splash and walk there. The sandbars change, pottery washes up, driftwood is beached. I understand that the creek is not a metaphor, means nothing, but I impress meaning upon it. The changes in course, the bank undercuttings mean this or that.

    I take as much comfort sometimes in belief as I do in knowledge.

* * *

    In July the blackberries come into bloom. My brother Mark teaches anthropology at the University of Georgia, and he once asked a class if they'd ever picked wild blackberries in the summer. The students looked at each other. They hadn't.

    I grew up scouting the blackberry patches, picking a hatful, and then eating them until my face was smeared blue-black and I was drowsy in the pine shade. I take Megan walking on the dirt road where we live, and we check out the blackberries to see if they are ripe. She doesn't care for them, but she pretends to because I love them so much.

    The last time we went up there and walked along the road at the ridge crest, we saw a tom turkey and his hen, along with their twelve young. The adults waddled off into the woods, and the babies curled up in line and followed them single file, like a marching band executing an elaborate maneuver.

* * *

    Wildcat Creek is on Civil War-era maps. This part of Oconee County was very secluded until several years ago, when the county paved Oliver Bridge Road, the main route out here. Now they've paved just about everything except our road, which is a private lane for us and maybe five other families who have turned away from neighborhoods. We live apart from each other, speak rarely, live quietly.

    Wildcat Creek is strong and lovely, and in the winter you can see it from our back deck. Come summer, the white oaks fill out, the underbrush of polk and wildflowers, other greenery. Our house is at the edge of what was once farmland, and down in the woods you can still find strands of rusted barbed wire woven into the trees, which have grown over the barbs, healed the wounds, and spread their canopies.

    The creek in flood is awesome, a sudden reminder that even the stones and the native azaleas have no sinecure.

* * *

    Red-tailed hawks nest here, and in the winter a vast flock of flapping turkey vultures overwinters for several weeks. Sometimes, high in the sky over what was once pastureland half a mile away, small, indistinct birds high up harry the red-tails, refusing to let up, to back away.

    There is a kind of sublime indifference to process in the forest. Some animals are faithless lovers, others mate for life.

* * *

    We have fire ants. My neighbor goes around sprinkling white powder on the mounds, but we ignore them as we can. Stories about the ants killing livestock seem to be untrue. I ran over a small mound with my lawn mower, and the workers had the mound rebuilt in less than an hour. I am envious of that prodigious and instinctive energy. There is no uncertainty in that world; each knows his job, doesn't know why, can't ask. None knows he will die.

* * *

    The blue jays were shrieking, and my wife Linda said, "Is there a snake out there?"

    I went out on the porch at dusk, and the birds were harrying an enormous owl that flew defensively from one pine limb to another. More than two feet tall sitting, with a wingspread approaching three feet, the owl sat and ducked, then flew off, the shrieking jays following him into the dark forest.

    Blue jays have an unfortunate song, but they are the sentinels of the avian world and warn of intruders. The owl was mature, hungry, a predator. They are difficult to see because they become active only after dark, though we can hear them.

    It is odd to me that we see so little of the world at work. Well more than half of the photosynthesis on earth is done by algae, for instance, but no one has ever raised a celebratory pyre to algae.

* * *

    It's easy to see which part of the ridge was used for farming. Everything that was in cultivation for many years is covered in pines, the first succession in this part of the South. At the ridge-break, where it suddenly plummets to the creek, there are only hardwoods—the climax forest. At the water's edge there are enormous beech trees with their leaves that turn toasty-golden in the fall. They have smooth, even bark that invites the biological graffiti of visitors. Years after a name is carved, the bark breaks out in a pattern of healing, and the words begin to fuzz and fade.

    I try to imagine the pine slope bare and rutted with plowline and cotton plants, but my imagination fails me. In the time marked by geology, the agriculture carried on here for two centuries is less than an eye-blink. There are people who remember when this land was used for farming, but no one seeks them out to ask about it. That cultural memory will fade. The remains of barbed wire in the forest will fall away and leave only the forensic bulge of scarred trees.

* * *

    Bats hang close to our house, get inside sometimes. One came into our son Brandon's room one spring night, and as a quiet and tenderhearted young man he captured it and took it outside in a shoe box. The bat, too overwhelmed to come out, had to be coaxed, and in the process it bit through the glove Brandon wore. So: rabies shots, gamma globulin shots, a tetanus shot. He bore it well, not complaining or wishing he had not rescued the wayward bat. Doctors give rabies shots in the arm now, not in the stomach as they did years ago. The gamma globulin shots go in the hip and make you terribly sore.

    Creatures out here are curious about the house, an anomaly in their world, and they come to the porch or inside as they think to. A wayward mouse does not get far in here because we have three house cats, one of whom is a frustrated Great Hunter. It's hard now to feel benign about even a mouse because we know they harbor hantaviruses.

    The creatures and plants around us do not kill or poison us by design for the most part. Salmonella is looking for a host, not a victim. The bats are seeking out shelter for their sleep. They need protection as they sleep hanging from their feet with their wings wrapped around them like clerical robes.

* * *

    Our porches crawl with anoles, tiny green lizards that vigorously display a red wedge of skin beneath their throats while performing push-ups in the sunshine. From their behavior, I suspect it is more to threaten intruders than to attract mates.

    Our cats do the same thing: an autonomic response of fluffing up in the presence of danger or fright. They appear larger, signal their willingness to engage. I am less autonomic as the years unwind, more prone to hesitate, to dodge. I do not know at what age the anole is middle-aged or what threats it must face after its days of territory and mating have passed.

* * *

    Last night I walked to the creek and scared off a large doe drinking the clear running water. She bounded away, across the stones and into the flat marshy floodplain beneath the heavy shade of elms and oaks.

    Her hoofprints were deep and fresh in the mid-creek sandbar, already filling with water, losing their shape. I often find the tracks of deer, raccoon, turkey, and wandering dogs. After rain or a few days' exposure, the tracks begin to shift their shape, as if made by creatures who do not exist.

    My tracks do the same thing. They fill in. The concave shape of my hard bare feet becomes soft and light, as if a boy had run in the sand and disappeared down the water line.

* * *

    A yellow-orange shelf fungus has taken over the forest floor. I tracked it from the creek up the sharply rising hill, a distinctive smudge that is spread like butter on a biscuit. I lay on my stomach and tried to smell it, but its odor is that of the forest, muted and loamy, indistinct and offering nothing of itself to a hungry mammal. The pulpy heads of the mushrooms are irregular, like a metastasizing cancer, but somehow calming. Fungi can spread for yards, part of a single enormous organism that sometimes pops up to try the air and water.

    I have looked for the poison ones and haven't found any, but I suspect my taxonomic skills are weak. The pulpy yellow petals stop short of my yard, where the conditions for their growth are obviously poor.

* * *

    I have been feeling wayward lately, as if I were planning a trip without a destination. Why do we feel we have to journey to see a new world? All my life I have been a mental traveller, though I have been few places.

    A friend told me of her sister's wedding that took place in Atlanta over the weekend. Her grandfather came—the first time he'd ever left the state of North Carolina. I had an aunt who never saw the ocean. And yet I feel as if I know nothing whatever of this ridge, these woods, or the creek. I lack nomenclature. I believe that when I walk away from the house I am going to and will return from, but I shrink from such terms. At any moment, there is only one direction, one presence, one line of sight.

    I pushed over a dead tree last night and immediately worried I had destroyed a habitat. When things are ready to fall, they will. When creeks are ready to rise, they must.

    I suspect I am old enough to know there are no directions, no fate or agonies of life that we feel: they are our impositions on the world, our time when we must move, because one day that motion will stop.

* * *

    I think about bark. You can pull it off in shingles from the white oaks and can scrape it (with difficulty) from beech. Pine surrenders easily and is prone to beetles that bore beneath that armor and begin the process of degradation. Bark protects only selectively. Millennia of learning to be a genial host have given it a symbiotic role, straining out most insects who will harm the tree and letting in those who make their homes, reproduce, and die but do not bore too deeply to kill.

    When trees die, they shed their bark. When I see piles of bark at the foot of a tree and the leaves browning or gone, I know that soon pileated woodpeckers will be knocking holes in the softening wood. I like that process of becoming useful to others as you age and die. The closer a tree comes to death, the more insects, birds, snakes, fungi, lichens, and such make it their home. It is comforting to think that when the tree lies down in the forest to rot away, it is among friends.

* * *

    Brandon has cut the grass, and it smells wonderful. I am curious: Why has evolution led us to enjoy the aroma of mown grass? Why do certain compounds smell so foul to us? If the latter is to warn us away, is the former to attract us? Does that mean we may have originated as grass eaters instead of omnivores?

    Our canine teeth argue against the theory. Science is the art of doubt. The time we have not believed in spontaneous generation is a finger snap. I am always amazed that people do not understand the difference between the factual and the speculative.

    Most of life to me is speculative, from the purpose of aroma to the muscles of the heart. Our books argue that we know much. Our history as a species argues that we know nothing at all, and remember little of what we have been taught. We learn best the lessons that have moral lessons attached, the kind that bear warnings.

* * *

There is evidence on Wildcat Ridge of things unseen.

    I have not yet seen a raccoon, but their sharp-toed tracks make a highway to the creek. I often hear the hoot of a woodpecker but cannot find the bird with multiple scannings of the limbs. In winter, mice clatter about in the walls of our house, keeping warm and speaking to each other. I find pottery but I cannot adequately imagine the Indian woman who made these cooking vessels.

    And yet I believe them. I believe that what I cannot see can exist, just as I know the birds that have not seen me recognize my presence. I know there are raccoons because of their tracks.

    I have asked God to leave tracks in the mud, but I have seen none, unless God is a small forest-dweller who washes his food. I try to recapture innocence, but it eludes me, though it does not mock me and it does not condescend.

* * *

    A fat spider outside the window of my study hangs by a strand, having taken in her web for the night. I assume she has fed. The breeze makes her tremble, dangling like a trapeze artist.

    Now the art begins once more, the symmetry of spun silk. A fly caught in that web struggles to death, but I find it elegant and purposeful. We can watch that act with little passion and great interest, but we cannot see the weak deer hunted down by feral dogs with anything but disgust. We react to the death of Mammalia so differently from that of other classes. Even belonging to Chordata does not make us familiar. The distance from kingdom to species is the distance from curiosity to fright.

    The little spider with the plump abdomen does not frighten me.

* * *

    Natural selection is amoral and lovely. Those who are weak, who have genes that can weaken future generations, are weeded out. Nature is in the business of eugenics, and we can do nothing about it in the long run. A gene for albinism will ensure that wild creatures who are born white will be easy prey (unless they have selected for it, like polar bears or snow hares). A trait for dwarfism in a plant may leave it in better reach of animals who graze. Thus: the line dies.

    I spent fifteen years as a newspaper editor before my first novel was published in 1984. In 1985 I came to the University of Georgia as a science writer, and since then I have published seven more novels. I suppose I have evolved, but I never thought I would succumb to an early illness, much less serious depression.

    I love the picture that has come down to us of Gregor Mendel, the determined and endlessly curious monk, making crossings in his garden. We have carried that further, and now we can discover the genetic traits that kill us early, may even be able to correct them in adults.

    I look in the mirror and see, in that light, a man who should be dead and buried.

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