Owning a car followed by a tow truck and two vultures in the pre-cellphone 1980’s, I didn’t often risk frequenting the park during my undergraduate years and thus visited Cades Cove only twice during my time at Maryville. However, I feel compelled to offer another perspective on the place – a human perspective.
Almost every summer, I leave the rolling hills of the Cross Timbers of Texas and head to the Arrowmont School of Crafts and the Smoky Mountains. On most trips, I drive down the now wider Lamar Alexander Highway and turn into the park on my way. As the white ash, sugar maple, yellow birch and basswood trees close over the road and the sky shrinks to patches of blue, a comfortable, well-worn land wraps around me.
Being a grandchild of the New and Old Worlds, I was born dispossessed of the dominant culture vanity of “wilderness.” Like all of the Americas, those places labeled untouched are in fact storied lands, loved and known, shaped by human hands and hearts. The bones of the ancestors and the shades of mythical creatures shake beneath my feet. I see a land of hunting grounds and homelands, battlegrounds and shrines. All cultivated for thousands of years by ancestral efforts.
Cades Cove is just such a testament to the ancient dance between the land and man. Some estimates date the human arrival in the Smoky Mountains to 11,000 years ago. By 1540, when Hernando de Soto stumbled across the Cherokee, they were already long established in the mountains. Generations of controlled burns, traditional harvesting patterns, farming and travel had already shaped the land within the park and the cove.
To the Cherokee, Cades Cove was Tsiya’hi, the Otter Place, a hunting village along one of the routes to the Overhill Villages. Squint and you can almost see the hillocks of corn, beans, pumpkins and lamb’s quarters or the fields of sunflowers and maybe a little tobacco, to nourish the spirit. Listen for the thump of the mortar and pestle, pulverizing hickory nuts for kanuchi. While standing on the banks of Abram Creek, imagine Cherokee men catching fish, gigging crawfish or, in a more prayerful moment, going to water. In the right seasons, look for ramps, wild grapes or persimmons and let your mouth water at the thought of ramps and eggs, grape dumplings or persimmon bread.
By the time John Oliver, his wife Lucretia and infant child arrived in Cades Cove, the Cherokee were involved in a brave and deadly serious “game” of cultural lifeboat, modeling a national government on the fledgling United States and striving for the cultural accommodations which they hoped would allow them to retain their existence as a sovereign people on the land the Creator gave them. For a desperate winter, the Olivers survived on the succor of their Cherokee neighbors. A year later, the treaty of Calhoun extinguished the Cherokee claim to the Smokies.
Within a couple decades, more settlers were drawn by the promise of land ownership, a privilege they or their antecedents had been denied in their European countries of origin. Others soon joined the Olivers in planting wheat, rye, corn and oats in the rich soil. Like the Cherokee before them, they girdled and burned trees too large to fall. Their cattle, pigs, oxen, horses, chickens and ducks browsed, competing with native species for forage. Peter Cable drained the swamps and encouraged farming techniques designed to preserve the limited arable land within the cove. The new arrivals shaped their treasured land and fed it with their sweat, blood and prayer.
Thanks to Park Service efforts to preserve only the structures that best reflect 19th century life, it takes little to imagine a pattern made familiar to us by countless childhood stories. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the rattle of the oxen’s harness and smell the freshly turned earth following the plough’s blade. Through the mist, you can see a young couple on the porch of a honeymoon cabin, sharing a moment before beginning their day’s labors. On your Sunday drive pause to hear the echoes of a preacher’s exhortations and the congregation’s hymns.
Now we, who are mostly denizens of cities and suburbs, living lives divorced from the land, are reshaping Cades Cove to our demand for a place of pilgrimage. We want an immediate, concentrated connection to nature and demand a place that gives us an essentialist experience of “wilderness.” It takes no imagination to see the traffic jams, the hordes waving cell phones at a confused bear, a hike spent looking at the back of the stranger in front of you… It takes a more discerning eye to see the child who sees a wild strawberry, paw paw, hickory nut, mulberry or fiddle head for the first time and learns gratitude for the bounty the Lord provides, or the seven-year-old who imagines she smells the trickle of smoke rising in the center of the square ground, accompanied by the rise and fall of stomp dance songs.
For good and ill, we humans are part of the natural forces that shape the land. We can be like the lightning sparked wildfire, wreaking havoc, or like the controlled burn, acting to preserve and encourage. Next time you’re in Cades Cove or the larger park, take some time to honor the blood and care that has shaped the land. Whether you follow the rhythms of the dance leader and shell shakers, the fiddle and dulcimer, or whatever beat is pouring through your earbuds, take your place at the end of the chain of ancestors and dance with the land.