A Place of Green Things
Forty years on Big Creek Road
This is Wednesday morning the fourteenth of August 2013. I park myself down here by the creek in a very comfortable red wooden slatted chair this morning with my drawing pad and notice a large amber colored boulder poised in the middle of the creek. It is just about equal distance between what we think of as our property and that which belongs to the people who own directly across the creek from us. The rock has been there since the last heavy rain fall and will likely be there until the next one. The ice-cold, crystal water races past the rock massaging it on all sides, slipping down time worn paths gravity has resolutely determined eons ago. It is the easiest most convenient way for the water to get to a lower point somewhere down hill, out of sight, amalgamating with rivers and lakes further down the mountain. The sun, when it hits the plane of the rippling, rushing water causes ten thousand diamonds to sparkle and dance across its surface. The light conceals the deeper, darker parts where secret, microscopic phenomenon occur and aquatic life changes and goes on with its own agendas, unknown and unknowable. There is however, little sun this morning because a large grey cloud bank filled with the promise of more rain later today moved into the area about sunrise. The tendril of a wild Muscadine vine reaches out and tickles the surface of the creek as it runs past in a sort of perpetual, repeated motion. The assorted water irises, growing in the marginal areas of the creek are long past their robust, blooming stage of midsummer. Now they turn yellow and bend towards the stream ready for nature’s repeating cycles. They exist now in a depleted state. Their roots, like fingers knotted in thick wool grip the muddy banks, already primed with stored energy for the spring resurgence.
We cannot really own the creek because you can’t own something which constantly moves away from you and never stops its desertion? You can only own the banks which contain the creek and even that is in a state of continuous alteration. The water passes in alacrity between the two abutments and quickly moves out of sight. Yet it remains constant. It’s here and it’s gone, all in the same moment! In the same way that you can’t own beer; you can only rent it. We only rent the creek. It is ours just for a moment always leaving but constantly there, raging in the rain storms trickling in a drought. We share this creek with the water birds that have primary rights over it, the king fisher and the Great blue heron. The kingfisher flies just above the creek at amazing speeds dropping and dipping, like a bolt of lightening to snatch an unsuspecting small fish out of the water for a quick meal. It makes a shrill cry that always alerts us that they are around and hunting for food. The heron comes in on enormous silent iridescent cerulean wings like a burglar, to settle softly in the shallow parts of the creeks and the ponds and steal the unsuspecting fish from the water.
When we first bought this piece of land, before the boys were born, I loved to put on an old pair of tennis shoes and follow the creek for as far as time, energy, private property and chiggers would permit. A quarter of a mile away, downhill the creek passes beneath the road through a series of interconnected concrete pipes we call the culvert. It is a dark tunnel filled with spider webs and branches shed from the countless surrounding trees. The water in the creek compresses into the constricted area of the tunnel beneath the road and ejects itself on the far side of the thoroughfare in a raging frothy cascade, aerating the water with white foam. Native trout gather there in the highly oxygenated run. At one time, years ago our sons, Bric and Peyton delighted in sitting on old inner tubes and shooting through the scary tunnel beneath the road to be shot out of the other side like a projectile. The creek broadens after a brief transit through a short wooded area and passes in front of two small cabins. It then again runs through another forested area only to widen once more and traverse a pasture in front of the former James Neal home place and passes under a recently rebuilt foot log, (small bridge).
James Neal was a man, born in the North Georgia Mountains, lived and grew up on the banks of Big Creek, here in Gilmer County. We met James during the first year we spent as property owners here. We went down to his house most every weekend we came up to the mountains. He was a thin, very interesting man who usually wore coveralls and a well worn baseball type cap on the back part of his head. He rolled his own cigarettes and smoked them with great relish. Without exception he had an opened jug of what he referred to as white lightening, sitting adjacent to his wooden chair. The chair, with James in it was always tilted back on the rear legs with his feet in partially laced shoes, no socks, propped comfortably up on the rail surrounding the open porch. No matter what time of day or night, the ever present jug of white whiskey was there. He never insisted that you imbibe but never minded if you did. The plastic jug was in frequent motion as it passed from person to person sitting on the front porch. To say the least it was an extraordinary liquid. Immediately after swallowing it your pharynx and esophagus felt as though it was going to spontaneously ignite and possibly detonate. Your sinuses felt as though they had done back flips and might too, incinerate at any moment. When the fiery liquid reached your stomach there was a sort of back lash that resounded through your entire system. You felt the hot liquid circling the inside orb of your stomach, causing shudders and what felt like small implosions. It was delicious!
If you sat on the front porch of James’s house and looked towards the south west a juncture of perfect smoky blue purple mountains covered in old growth forest collided just above a vast viridian cornfield. The view was enough to take your breath away. Late one afternoon as my wife, Linda and I sat there with no one else but James I commented on the view, “James,” I said, “That’s the most spectacularly beautiful view in the whole of north Georgia, don’t you think?” He looked up at the view like he was seeing it for the first time and commented, “Well I guess it is right pretty.” Bric and Peyton were busy out in his open yard chasing the chickens and shelling corn from a few of the many dried ears in the corn crib to feed the tiny chicks. The occasional Brown Swiss cow would wander past observing complacently the activity of the little boys. In the barn intermittently James would have a fat black pig which fascinated the boys to no end. They fed him much of the corn as well.
One of James’ favorite retorts when someone asked him to go somewhere with them was, “No thanks, I guess I had better stay here and hold this porch down!” His humor and unusual stories always tickled and entertained us incalculably. On one of our early visits I noticed that there was a small round pond over to one side of his house and I asked him, “Do you have any fish in that pond, James?” He responded by holding his hand up with his thumb and fore finger measuring a space between them of about two inches and said, “Oh there are some in there about that big,” looking at the space between his digits. “And then there are some small ones!” He was laughing as he spat out the words! James was a character for sure! In his yard were always a number of hound dogs, most of them red or orange colored. They had names like Red, Redder and reddest. Hanging from one of the upright posts he always had a fly swatter and when the yard dogs sauntered up onto the porch seeking the shade, he would suddenly grab the swatter and lightening fast smack one or two of the dogs on the back end. A small riot would then occur as the other dogs would trample each other in an effort to escape before James smacked them as well.
There were always a few people sitting around on his front porch with the dried, skeletal deer heads hanging from nails above the chairs with ropes tangled in their antlers watching silently. Everyone enjoyed the free liquor, playing guitars and banjos and sometimes singing. It was a trip to just be there soaking it all in. At the time I knew we were participating in something extraordinary and very rare and special. We didn’t exactly comprehend it then but we were involved at the very end time of something out of the past, whose days were tapering away, just barely hanging on, almost at their end, and so it was.
Ellijay is an Anglicized form of a Cherokee word, perhaps meaning "place of green things"" or "many waters."