Kenilworth residents know they live in the city: It’s just five minutes to downtown, and a convenient bus route runs right down Kenilworth Road. On holidays, you can hear the fireworks at McCormick Field. On a sadder note, I once saw a discarded crack pipe among the leaves at Kenilworth Park.
An urban neighborhood with some beautiful old houses and trees, it’s also blessed with a mountain and a lake—both of which now show the negative effects of urban growth. The trees are being decimated, and when it rains, the slopes of Beaucatcher Mountain run red.
Kenilworth Lake knows oil slicks, road runoff and a strange green sludge that appeared out of nowhere one fine summer day. According to a flier I received, the level of pollution is alarmingly high. The water contains something called blue-green algae, along with seven times the amount of human and animal waste that’s deemed safe.
Last summer I saw a young couple, the man bronzed and trim in swim trunks, the slender woman wearing a bikini. As I watched from my deck, they took a paddleboat into the middle of the lake and jumped into the water. Definitely not locals: Anyone familiar with the lake’s shore, particularly on a day without wind, wouldn’t put one toe in that water.
My friend Alex gave me a postcard of a painting by Corot titled “The Boatman of Mortefontaine.” “Mortefontaine,” Alex wrote on the back, “means Dead Fountain, not unlike your pretty-but-deadly lake.” I sigh. How has it come to this? Is Kenilworth Lake really a dying fountain? Is Beaucatcher a dying mountain?
In my three years of living by the lake at the foot of this little mountain, I have seen with my own eyes how this land is still wild and very much alive—though it’s in grave danger of overdevelopment. Construction. Destruction. Are they opposites or, in fact, the very same thing? Patches of the wild persist here and there, in the iridescent beauty of the mating dragonflies, the purple stems of pokeberries, the jewelweed and the big, old trees. A hawk swirls upward in our little cove, gaining altitude, then flies away. A water snake wavers in a strange, serpentine dance. A gray fox pauses by the little bridge, ears pricked, feet swift. It brings me great joy to observe this little piece of the wild, so close to the city. The weeds and the grasses thicken, and the land finds its way. Life continues.
Last fall there was rumor of a bear in the neighborhood that rifled through a friend’s trash over on Buckingham Court. I tell my landlord. “Oh, yes,” she says. “There’s a bear every year. They come down the mountain to drink from the lake.”
I try to imagine a black bear ambling through the yard and plopping down on the banks to take a long drink of greenish bilge water as a Coke bottle floats nearby. There was truth in this story as little as five years ago, but now I’m beginning to think it’s just a legend.
I think of the song, “Oh, the Bear went over the mountain to see what he could see.” But what would he see in Kenilworth? Trees dying; red, upturned earth; a fancy sign, “Beaucatcher Heights,” for a community that doesn’t even exist yet; a mountain ravaged; a lake filled with water that’s unfit to drink. “This isn’t a mountain,” the bear would say. “This is a suburb,” and promptly turn to Dumpster diving.
And if the land continues to be molested, the flora, fauna and fungi that still choose to reveal themselves in unexpected ways will soon be lost. Everywhere I look there’s a new house being built, a new lot lined off, a tree down, a sign proclaiming, “Danger Hard Hat Area.”
This little, wild patch of our city—the magnificent old tulip poplar with its sprawling, handsome crown; the tiger lilies in the summer; the papery moths; the jewellike hummingbirds; the solitary heron; the cardinals, chickadees and velvety voles—is going, going, gone.
On my daily walks with my dog and my baby, I try to memorize the trees. “Trees,” I tell my daughter. “Trees, leaves, branches. Hear the wind rustle through them, the crinkle of the leaves beneath us; breathe them in, remember them, love them like I do.”
On a silent, gray Sunday, I stoically hike Beaucatcher Mountain, looking down on the brand-new Ingles, the old Innsbruck Mall, the Blockbuster and the long line of neon-lit chain restaurants. Continuing up to the peak of the hill on Windswept Drive, I admire the view of downtown Asheville in the distance. It’s all there: the old, blue, sloping mountains, even that godforsaken Staples. The wind chimes on the porches up here don’t move; I crest the hill and start down, past the Volvo digger, the hacked torsos of the trees.
In Trees of the South, Charlotte Hilton Green writes: “It is a long story, this listing of the gifts of the trees. Since [man’s] first appearance on earth they have been his friend and protector … and let us hope it will be so until his end. Will we, in return, ever learn to cease sacrificing them needlessly?”
Surely the bear and the lake, the mountain and the heron, would all agree. Meanwhile the phrase “dead mountain, dead mountain,” echoes in my mind. I can’t see the lake from this vantage point, but I think about its toxicity, its stagnancy. I won’t let my dog drink from it. It is indeed a dead fountain.
[Former Kenilworth resident Kristin Macleod recently relocated to east Asheville.]