Six writers participated in a panel on Friday night as the final installment in the three-part Within the Lines: Creative Perspectives on Wilderness. The exhibit and monthly panel discussions, held at HandMade in America’s offices, celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
Friday’s discussion seemed especially poignant as the recent election put a number of politicians in office whose priorities, according to those interested in matters of wilderness preservation, are not conducive to sustainable development and pro-environmental practices. During a Q+A session, the idea of “anti-wilderness resolutions,” recently introduced in some Western North Carolina counties, was mentioned.
For the most part, the panel discussion, though political, focused on a sense of place in writing. Participants included former North Carolina poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer; author Wayne Caldwell; poet and translator Thomas Rain Crowe; John Lane, author and director of the Goodall Environmental Studies Center at Wofford College; Catherine Reid, author and director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Warren Wilson College; and last-minute addition Charles Frazier, author Cold Mountain, among other novels.
Frazier replaced naturalist George Ellison who was recovering from surgery, but sent a statement read by moderator Brent Martin. In those notes, Ellison wrote, “At night I don’t count sheep, I name the mountain ranges east of here.”
In answer to the question, “Do you feel that a sense of place in your writing has a role?” Byer spoke of coming to the mountains of Georgia as a young person and said, “I began to sense that the very trails of the Great Smokies had voices. … I like to think that’s how I became a poet.”
Of writing, Caldwell said, “All the time and years you have to invest in by novel, you better be writing about the sacred. … Cataloochee felt sacred.”
Of the area where he grew up, Crowe said, “What I thought the preacher was talking about when he [spoke of] the Garden of Eden was Graham County, North Carolina.”
Responding to the biblical reference, Lane said, “We always saw it as a spiritual place. That’s why all the church camps were here, we were told. You came up the mountain to get closer to God.”
Frazier, who grew up in Cherokee County, said, “My vision was very honed in on the smaller rather than the larger issues. I find that, in thinking and writing about nature, that’s a very helpful direction.”
Reid spoke of the connection her students have to the acreage of Warren Wilson College: “It’s that kind of claiming of place where your sweat is in the land, where your blood is in the land, that you become part of the story.”
On returning to WNC after living in other areas, Crowe said, “The call of the mountains was stronger than all of the fun I was having on the West Coast.”
Also informed by time spent in other regions, Reid mentioned hiking the Appalachian Trail 40 years ago. “I felt like I was walking myself into an entirely new understanding of what it means to be a citizen on this planet,” she said.
And, as far as how nature in literature or as a topic of conversation is perceived in the rest of the world, Lane said, “I didn’t know that this American idea of wilderness wasn’t universal. It’s not. It changes from culture to culture.”