The paving of Lake Powhatan (and other outrages)

There’s a place I go in north Buncombe County where woodpeckers hammer and breezes knock branches together in a forest of naked poplars. On summer and fall afternoons, I often hear grouse thumping in the brush. When I stay overnight, owls punctuate the darkness with their hoots and glide through my campsite without a sound, to get a closer look. It’s a slow place that knows only increments of seasons and moons, where vegetation grows and then subsides, like an annual tide rising and falling.

Over the years of my solitary visits there, I’ve been impressed with its completeness unto itself, and how unnecessary I am to its rhythms and its perennial fecundity. It remains, as yet, unviolated by roads and cell phones. Although I’m sure it has seen loggers and farmers in the last 300 years, this place is the closest thing to natural that I’ve come across in the Southern Appalachians.

Knowing it’s there — and knowing I can make those visits whenever I wish — helps me to carry on my life in a city of barking dogs and parking meters. At my downtown office, I sometimes look out over the streets and try to imagine the time when the city of Asheville, too, was nothing but a series of silent mountain folds — harboring turtles, old-growth chestnut, mountain lions, wild orchids (and, of course, the native Cherokee).

That was a long time ago. Today, we have to search for the natural. I consider myself fortunate when I find it, and unfortunate when I lose even a portion of it.

I hadn’t been to Lake Powhatan since 1992. Last spring, I took a walk out there and was saddened to discover they’d paved the gravel roads and parking lots with asphalt.

Gravel is, at least, a local, earthen material. Local plants and ground cover grow up through gravel, and you can hear it crunch as you move across it. It kicks up dust in the summer, so visitors have to drive even more slowly, if they don’t want to be rude. Sometimes, the gravel is of interest to the young children from the city, who’ve never seen such a thing before.

On the other hand, it’s a struggle to redeem the asphalt at Lake Powhatan. It’s black like oil, hard like cement, fast like an interstate, dangerously silent, and as generic as any other patch of paved earth. I was very sorry to see the gravel buried deep under a petroleum product. It has made Lake Powhatan less like the woods — and more like the city from which we often seek respite.

We’re into progress up to our chops, and we can’t seem to help ourselves. We’re carpetbaggers descending upon the South — two days or 200 years ago. We build our little farm roads with pick, shovel and ax — which through the decades and the centuries, get graveled, then paved, then superseded by interstates that dominate the landscape. Then we find ourselves running to a quiet mountain cove that is still unimpinged, where we feel like we’re in heaven.

I often ask myself why we perpetually wage war on the natural. Then, the other day, I received a flier from a funeral home that gave me a clue to the answer. They were advertising burial vaults, because “above-ground entombment fulfills a heartfelt want — complete and permanent protection against the elements of the earth.”

The marketing pitch assumes that we regard the natural as a kind of criminality: something offensive, intrusive, invasive — something that must be defended against, if we are to achieve our heart’s fondest desires.

So, taking note that these were the ideas of an undertaker, I went back up to the mountain cove, where I kicked up a weathered turtle shell tangled in the dead grass. A large, seed-eating mammal had deposited two piles of purplish scat. I got down on my knees and examined them with a stick — wondering what left them, and when.

I never know what to expect of the place; it always happens of its own accord, without malice or threat — and without any input from the likes of me. I prefer it to the city’s rush, bustle and consumption. I prefer it to Lake Powhatan’s monotonous asphalt. And I certainly prefer it to an above-ground vault.

[Klaus Martin lives and works in Asheville.]

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