Freedom, consciousness, and wildness are all around and ever present as our feet lightly jog across an old, wooden dock. We move gently in the golden light of an aging afternoon sun. With each stride, I sense everything. Blushing coral clouds travel like vessels across a cerulean sky. Brilliant flowers, with their blue, yellow, white, pink, and purple bracts blossom and pop along the sandy lake shore. A full, lush green of developed trees, brush, and ferns sway all around. Their leaves and leaflets, simple and compound, rustle an ovation across a vivid and aureate hour. Tall grass moves, dispersing floating seeds in a light breeze. A bright reflection across our mountain lake dances in brilliant, soft ripples, and shimmers like an apparition of something unexpected and remarkable – a bright Mind Essence unique to this place, this terrain, this floating pale blue rock across all the heavens. The cool, soft wind, the sounds of spring, comfort a warm humidity on a pleasant Mother’s Day weekend in 2016. I feel weightless as my body leaves the Earth, in a leap off the dock, for just a moment, as we seemingly fly. I feel as if I could reach upward forever as I ascend. A sudden splash into the waters of Lake Santeetlah is rejuvenating, grounding.
The water is very comfortable. I open my eyes briefly on my swim back to the surface. Rays of sunlight pierce the oscillating waves above. The sun illuminates a clean, organic-rich mountain lake – like a twilight sword with all the powers of our galaxy. At the surface, Santeetlah feels refreshing and smells of iron. All around me, laughs and giggles are a delight to hear.
“Come on now, boy! Hop in, we got you!” I holler out to my two-year-old.
“Yeah! Jump in Elijah, the water is perfect!” Katie echoes.
The boy just giggles and squeals. He ran the dock with us, in his life vest and all, but stopped short of jumping in the water. With his parents beckoning, he turns back to run again, and again, and again down the dock, each time stopping just short of a jump with hearty laughs and squeals of joy. Katie and I laugh right along with him, enjoying pulses of warm and cool water. We laugh, hoot, and holler, free and in tune with our lives, marveling at the wonders and relishing all the wildness around us.
Lake Santeetlah is surrounded by the wild and mystical Nantahala National Forest in Western North Carolina. The lake, part of the Tennessee River watershed, was created in 1928 when the Cheoah River was dammed by the Alcoa Corporation to produce hydro-electric power in Graham County, North Carolina. Surrounded by the Nantahala wilderness, though, the river, lake, and broader reservoir are still relatively unspoiled. Under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, swimming, camping, picnicking, fishing, boating, and hiking are readily available for public recreation.
Santeetlah, often covered in a cool mist, is beautiful. Vegetation is abundant, diverse, full, encompassing, and musical all around. The lake boasts roughly seventy-six miles of shoreline. Her waters provide necessary habitat to trout, muskie, crappie, bass, and numerous other species of fish, not to mention the algae, fungi, herbaceous and woody plants, along with all other invertebrate and vertebrate communities the system supports. Santeetlah, the raw umber lake bronzed by dissolved organic matter, is so clean and pure, the waters shimmer and reflect the enveloping environment. Surrounded by healthy forest, the compact vegetation provides plentiful organics that steep like loose tea in her waters. The nutrient-dense lake, through evaporation, transpiration from plants, and, with the help of predators carrying off aquatic prey into the nearby forest serves, in turn, as a food source for the ecosystem. Resources are acquired from Santeetlah and distributed throughout the Nantahala.
Our afternoon makes a noticeably slow turn toward early evening’s waning light. The air feels cooler, our spirited colors muter, and our clouds lucent. This change in environment signals our time to get back to camp – we’ve a kindling fire to build and food to cook.
Back at our spot in Horse Cove Campground, I prep and ignite our charcoal tower. As the smell of charcoal wisps around camp, silver grey smoke curls and shifts like a ghost in the breeze when I arrange kindling in our fire pit. The boy plays with his favorite toy, making loud “vroom” engine noises, as his tiny red racecar explores camp. Katie sits at our picnic table, finely slicing an onion and dicing a green pepper. I join her to chop a few strips of bacon into small pieces. We’re having what I like to call our “fancy cowboy dinner” this evening – fixed up baked beans and ribeye steaks.
With the charcoal hot, the fuel has turned from black to ash gray. Time to pour the briquettes atop the kindling. Our fire dances as the grill grate cranks and clashes in a heavy fall over the flames. I add the bacon to our cast iron Dutch oven, rubbed with olive oil. Almost instantly, the meat sizzles. When crisp, I add our onion and green pepper. I stir in garlic powder, celery salt, cracked pepper, cumin, chiles, and mustard seed before placing the food over the fire. Our plants swelter as our spices crust. As the bacon renders, our flames die down, so I crack a can of homestyle baked beans and mix them into the pot, adding more spices as everything blends. Once I see a simmer, I cover the food, leaving just enough of the lid cracked for steam to escape. Now, time to focus on the steaks.
The trick about cooking a good piece of meat over a campfire is to let the flames disappear so we’re left with only smoky, smoldering red embers. Most folks rush the roasting process and singe over a tall flame. One risks charring the food with this method, or, worse, a limb as they move about the fire. Waiting for hot embers provides several benefits. For instance, there’s a much lower risk of injury, burned hands for one, or worse, a burnt meal. Plus, dripping juices and fats create wafts of smoke to flavor the meat. A fire too hot will simply singe this process away immediately.
With the embers just right, I pull our three richly marbled steaks from the cooler. They’re brined in a generous dry rub of kosher salt, cracked pepper, garlic powder, dried thyme, and a liberal coating of butter. The ribeyes sizzle and pop immediately as their proteins unwind and fats sear. Butter, fat, and juice drip onto the embers, causing tiny flashes to dance and puff smoke towards the meat. Another common mistake folks make when grilling is fidgeting and flipping meat far too many times. The goal is a solid sear – best to simply let the cut lay over the heat. After about seven minutes, I flip the steaks and add a dab more butter to the cooked side. Another five minutes pass before I pull the bean pot, then the steaks, from the fire. We then let our meal rest for roughly ten minutes. Finally, time to eat.
I won’t bore folks with savory, smoky, spicy, sweet descriptions – ember roasted ribeyes and bacon-laden beans are damn tasty. My small, speckled, enamel mug, solely used as a vessel for twelve-year-old George Dickel whisky, helps wash everything down perfectly. With our bellies full, and our cleanup routine now down to a science, camp leisure comes together swiftly. The calming afterglow of dusk settles in on our little family. The air, increasingly absent of light, grows cooler. Nearby, the soft pulses of a rushing stream, Little Santeetlah Creek, award hypnotic ambiance – time for a roaring bonfire.
I pull on my Baja and set the boy on my lap as Katie, the fire wizard, gets to work on building our flames. I pull a sweater over Eli and wrap him in my arms as I begin a story to lull our son to sleep.
“Once there was a boy named Eli, and he has started a grand adventure.”
Hearing his name, the boy looks at me with a smile. His eyes droop as he lays his head on my chest. I continue with the tale.
“The boy with curly hair races through the forest; his bearded dad follows. The forest is everything and everywhere.” I gesture my hands calmly but widely all around.
“Their trail is deep within the Great Smoky Mountains. The boy and his dad are on a quest – one hundred miles together in the Appalachian wilderness to celebrate the centennial birthday of the park service.”
With this simple introduction to a bedtime story (another long tale for another time), I look down and find the child fast asleep in my arms. I stand and carefully tiptoe the sleeping boy to our tent. I snug him tightly in his pintsized sleeping bag and return to the fire. Katie and I talk very briefly about our plans for tomorrow – breakfast, then a hike or two. Tired, my wife quietly settles into a book. I pour myself another mug and enjoy the crackling fire, melodies of night, eerie moonlight, and a mysterious Appalachian dreamscape.
Campfire cooking, along with campfire stories, are engrained into our primate brains. Fire and tectonics – heat energy and the power of changing climates to force migrations – bore our unique human linguistics. Fire and good ole storytelling made us human. Our mammal bodies, all things considered, hardly distinguish us from other primate species in any way. We can run long distances, helpful for persistence hunting, for sure, but, other than that, nothing is all that special about our physical form. The mind, however, allowed our hominin ancestors to view signs and listen to sounds in the environment. They turned these signals into thoughts, language, and meaning. When our ancestors learned to harness fire, they cooked and their brains matured.
Around 200 million years ago, right at the end of the Triassic period, when the early dinosaurs roamed the Earth, our distant mammal ancestors first appeared in the fossil record. When we think of mammals, particularly noteworthy evolutionary advancements, many scientists point to the placenta. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time discussing the importance of the placenta in regard to kinship, gestation periods, and our reproductive fitness in my lectures. Another great evolutionary advancement, however, an enlarged cerebrum, paved the way for our intelligence.
An enlarged cerebrum is mostly unique to mammals. Birds, our still living dinosaurs, have enlarged cerebrums as well. This adaptation helped our furry mammal ancestors with social organization, kinship, and care for the young. The age of mammals really began with a bang some 65 million years ago with a bolide impact that finished the big dinosaurs reign. This extraterrestrial impact loaded the skies with a thick dust. Temperatures in the deep-sea, and across a rifting continental world, climbed as greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere. But, with the giant predators gone, mammals explored the world. Our ancestors left their safe havens in the tree limbs, as others left burrowed ground, and experienced a grand development of new forms. Our human place in Earth-system-history was on the horizon.
Geologically speaking, climate change is the norm of our Cenozoic era – an era punctuated by regressive and transgressive seas. The Cenozoic is perhaps most famous for the ice ages and periglacial intermissions. Each progression and recession of glaciers molded the landscapes we experience today. Furthermore, one can argue, these geologic processes allowed for our chance existence, crafting the conditions necessary for human civilization. Some 56 million years ago, plate tectonics isolated Antarctica over the south pole. The other continents continued their tectonic migration toward the geography of today. With Antarctica fixed at the pole a long cooling trend advanced. The conditions were ripe for animal life to continue rather unique genetic mutations. Cloven-hooved herbivores, for example, the early ancestors of today’s agricultural species, adapted to the new landscapes.
A common principle in ecology is that diversity breeds more diversity. This grand radiation of fauna was preceded by an even greater ecological shift in flora. Plants boomed. Angiosperms, the flowering plants, came to dominate the global system. Color erupted across the cool Earth. Radiant yellows, reds, purples, greens, and so much more, appealed to animal species. Nectar filled the air. I am envious of our mammal ancestors, witnessing for the first time in our planet’s history, a true explosion of color. How wonderful a feeling to have breathed deep the sweet, lucid air.
Then, some 36 million years ago, a mutation occurred in one of our primate ancestors – one small part of a single gene changed. This change in our genetic code programed our cerebrum to grow larger still. Another piece of our evolutionary puzzle fell together.
For a species to maintain a larger cerebrum, the whole brain must grow because a large surface area is necessary to support a growing consciousness. This development, in turn, changed everything. The brain became an incredibly hungry organ. The growth of our cerebrum is likely linked to the selection pressures for a higher metabolism. Our brains and food intake increased in unison. This showcases greater cooperation with kin groups for food. As intelligence heightened, so too did social harmony. Mammal groups are social. We need each other. Individuals build a prosperous collective.
Further still, some 125,000 years ago, another mutation allowed a gene to fix in our direct human ancestors. The FOXP2 Gene mutation allows control over thought and tongue. For the first time, our species, Homo sapiens, could translate thoughts into words. Knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. We began using a voice, then writing words to teach ideas. Our species, by evolutionary chance, has built a network of minds that transcend time and space – immortality in the mortal realm.
Human consciousness rises from 100 trillion connections and is fueled by electrical signals from 86 billion neurons. These nervous system cells initially developed as an environmental response for the need to move, to navigate an environment, sense food, and escape predators. Now, neurons are used for thinking, memories, sensations, dreams. We’ve used our brains to explore space, cultivate civilization, produce music, literature, and so much more. We are no longer sole individuals alone in the dark.
This strange rock we float on, our very planet, shapes our senses. Our mammal bodies evolved for planet Earth. Our home has no borders; everything is interconnected. Our Earth is varied and dynamic, same as our populations, communities, and ecosystems. Experiencing life is beyond emotion, understanding, and comprehension – beyond any and all words of poetry, science, or mythology. Within us, the universe found a way to express itself. We’ve a rare cosmic existence in the cold darkness of interstellar space. Beyond imagination, here, together in the 21st century, we continue an odd, grotesque, beautiful, human journey. We are souljourns. We are Earthlings.
“Ha, ha, ha!” I laugh loudly, out of nowhere.
Katie has long gone to bed. I’m surrounded by the sounds of chirping insects, stealthy mammals, croaking frogs, rambling waters, and the ovation of leaves. My fire is but a flicker. The air is cold. I take a final pull from my mug to finish off the “brown water” within.
“The landscape of our origin provides the canvas for our ingenuity,” I mumble to myself. “These are the whisky soaked ramblings of a dreamer. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I should write that shit down.”
I pause for a few moments, and look around at the night. With a sigh and a smile, I acknowledge,
“Time for bed.”
Find out what happens on the Mincy family hike. Look for Part 2 of Nantahala this Thursday!
** Image provided by Grant Mincy via Wikimedia Commons