My e-mail in box frequently receives outraged, sorrowing communications concerning the state of Stonehenge in England and the Hill of Tara in Ireland. Both have been important cultural markers in my personal spiritual journey, and I’ve been awed and privileged to spend time at each of them. Both are now endangered, say the e-mails, by planned development. A new road is being cut through the valley near Tara, and the historically important plains around The Great Henge will soon be home to a giant Tesco warehouse. To many people, this is a desecration of the sacred landscape that is vital both to the cultural identity of these two sites and to the spiritual identities of modern Pagans all over the world.
I’ve been thinking about the landscape lately—how could I not? Every time I turn around, someone is stripping the trees off a section of fragile hillside and planting a cluster of goofy-looking structures on it. As much as I love Tara and Wiltshire, my own sacred landscape is here, in the mountains that hold my Ancestors’ bones and ashes. I’ve watched the changes here in the last decades, and some of them seem to fit the general pattern we’ve come to expect in Asheville. Pack Square gets transformed periodically, and I feel certain that every generation that witnesses and pays for such a change gripes and grumbles about it. In the 1970s, there were “White Only” bathrooms underneath Pack Square: Losing those was a vast improvement. But the I.M. Pei building? The BB&T Building? Those are matters of opinion, of taste, of history in the landscape.
The last time I sat in my periodontist’s chair, he launched a discussion about the planned Ellington high-rise downtown. Isn’t that always the way? A pair of hands wielding sharp instruments are busy in my mouth, and the nurse occasionally inserts her little vacuum hose, but somehow, we manage not only to have an in-depth conversation about the felling of the Enka smokestacks but even to sing that song about using a baseball bat on your cheating man’s truck.
Like me, the good doctor is a native of this place, and we started reminiscing about the things we miss: the Imperial Theatre, the old Coleman House, Valkyrie Farms in Enka, the Back Alley Boutique. It’s what natives do around here. A few days later, I met with a local author out on the Smoky Park Highway. I had a good view of the former Enka plant, because the coffee shop I was sitting in was right where Valkyrie Farms used to be. We talked about downtown Enka, with its drugstore and gas station. All gone now, the stuff of anecdote.
Natives like to talk about how our granddads used to go to the Man Store or about the Goat Man who lived in Emma. We’re insufferable that way—what must the newcomers think, those people who have no roots and don’t care to have any? My roots make my head spin sometimes, make my back ache with the loss and the turmoil. The Ellington is the least of my worries. There are whole blocks and opera houses and neighborhoods that have been lost from this place.
Lately, I’ve taken to blaming it all on the Baba Yaga. In the Russian folk tradition, she flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder. According to Pushkin, she lives in a “cabin on chicken legs.” In fairy tales, she’s a hag who is mostly avoided but occasionally sought out for her expert advice. Opinionated and inscrutable, as all older women are, she can’t be relied upon to behave as she should. Just ask the Obama campaign about independent older women—and that goes double for the Baba Yaga.
It is somewhat bad form for one Witch to blame another, but I’ve noticed that her houses have sprung up on the west bank of the French Broad River—a sure sign that she’s in residence. There’s a line of them, silhouetted against the evening sky, and they strike terror into the heart of anyone who sees them. Perched on chicken legs high on the bank, they defy gravity, the wind whistling around their steel supports. How do you insulate such a place? Who lives in a Baba Yaga house up on chicken legs, and how much have they paid for the privilege? How much do we all pay for the systematic destruction of our sacred landscape? And once lost, it will take more than the Baba Yaga’s magic to bring back that ineffable spirit that is easy to sense but so hard to define.
As we creep into this time of inflation and recession and campaign ads, I wonder if the faltering economy will slow the unfettered rush of development in Western North Carolina. I also ponder my own role and that of my fellow citizens in retaining some sense of cultural identity in this place and in shaping the hills and valleys of Appalachia.
One question always comes back to me, though: What sort of Witch allows her personal sacred landscape to be destroyed without a fight?
[Bookseller, Pagan advocate, gardener and amateur historian H. Byron Ballard lives with her family in Asheville’s historic West End.]