Betty J. Cotter: Sisters in Exile

Gatlinburg, Tenn.

Monday, July 7, 1947

   She gets a late start. Not until Meredith packs the car, checks out of the motel, follows the traffic snaking up the parkway and stops at the overlook does she remember what day it is. A year later and a thousand miles away, as she gazes at Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, all she can see is Cal’s old car pulling away in the rain.

   Someday, we’ll see the country. The mountains. The valleys. The great big stretch of it.

   The Smokies play hide and seek in the haze. The Cherokee call Chimney Tops Duniskwa ‘Igun’yi, “Gap of the Forked Antler.” Clouds trail over them like a ghost bride, and intermittently the silk rips open to reveal jagged peaks.

   How are Cal and Lenore celebrating their anniversary? She should have sent them a card. They have a baby now. Henry. Cal’s middle name. Born just seven months after the wedding.

   From the car’s trunk Meredith takes out her Nikon and binoculars. Besides being a popular viewing spot, the narrow overlook contains the trailhead for a steep route up Chimney Tops that wends through a forest of hemlock and Fraser fir. The trees interest her less than volunteer wildflowers that might spring up around the guardrails. She has seen stinging nettle here, and rue-anemone, and wild geranium.

   Near the trailhead, a man trains a movie camera on his wife and three girls. The daughters wear identical short sets with strawberries at the hem. If they back up into stinging nettle they will never forget it. Meredith begins walking, thinking to wave them away, when an older man steps across her path.

   “That’s a nice camera.”

   Feathering his cheeks are the faintest of lines; they looked penciled in. Late fifties, perhaps. Handsome in a craggy sort of way.

   Before she can reply he adds, “I probably should have bought a simpler outfit.” He wears a tea-colored shirt and bulky shorts, hardly inappropriate attire, but then he waves his camera in the air, clearing up the confusion. A sophisticated system, a Leica, much more expensive than hers.

   “What are you shooting?” she asks.

   “Birds. And you?”

   “Flora and fauna.”

   “Ah, a flower lady.”

   “Not exactly.” Would he want to be called a “bird man”? Yet she should be used to it. Her major professor, when he thinks she is out of earshot, refers to her as “the girl.” As in, “The girl brought back some interesting specimens last summer.” To her face, she is “Miss Waterman,” with the emphasis on the “Miss.”

   The older man clears his throat. “I’m looking for the Swainson’s warbler.”

   Of course, she has heard of it, but never seen one.

   “Peterson calls the Swainson ‘a voice in the swamp,’ but it can be found in the lower elevations, in the rhododendron thickets, for example.” He whistles three notes, up and down the scale. “You’d know it by its song.”

   Flowers, deaf and mute, make no sounds, at least not for human ears. And his imitation brings to mind not that modest little bird with its gray feathers and white underbelly, but another mouth, another set of lips, whistling like a mockingbird. “I’m sorry. I haven’t encountered it.”

   Across the parking lot, the father lowers the movie camera and gestures to his wife to get closer to the tallest girl. The one in the middle howls at being squished. They aren’t in immediate danger, Meredith decides.

   “So, what’s your ‘Swainson’s warbler’?” The birder’s tone is pleasant but she has not caught up to him, training her ears for a song that isn’t there.

   “Excuse me?”

   “Surely there’s some flower that remains to be discovered in this rich wilderness.”

   Above the treetops swoops a hawk. Meredith peers into her camera’s viewfinder. Stuck in the raptor’s talons wriggles a small mammal – a chipmunk or rat, she can’t tell which.

   “A rarity,” he prompts.

  She looks up. Any number of plants – Gray’s lily, not collected since the last century; Fraser’s loosestrife; Rugel’s ragwort – would make for an exciting discovery, but she has nearly given up hope of finding them.

   “Actually, I’m studying the understory.”

   He nods as though he understands. “The understory. If you do come across something, maybe they’ll name it after you.” His short laugh devolves into a wheeze and then a deep cough. In the awkward silence that follows, he stares at Chimney Tops. “Stopped on a whim. If not the warbler, a Cooper’s hawk. Probably need to take the trail.”

   His body is lean, his arms muscular, but she can imagine him tumbling head over heels into a ravine. How old is he? The clouds part and she spots a hawk take wing, clear the Fraser firs and hemlock, and disappear.

   “Was that a Cooper’s?” But when she lowers her binoculars, there is no trace of the tall white-haired man with the expensive camera, or the family of three girls. They have vanished like a streak of cloud.

   Sampling is a kind of gravedigging. The soil gives off a musty, swampy odor. It piles up beneath the shovel blade. Roots reach out like skeletal fingers. Five feet east to west, five feet north to south, the plot is measured and bounded, a potter’s field of lost botanicals. Whatever she unearths will have to be replanted. Canadian violet, meadow-rue, bleeding heart.

   This is her baggage: A rifle she barely knows how to use. One last warning from her department chairman. Love letters she has no business keeping. If she weighed which had the greatest power, the calculation would be close. She knows what she should leave on Mt. Le Conte but has no idea what the mountain might take.

   Snip, click, snip, click. Meredith samples, sketches, photographs. Her fingers are ringed in dirt. The hemlocks and pines cast longer shadows. Yes, she has gotten a late start, in just about everything. She has led her college supervisors to believe she would have her Ph.D. by now. But last summer was a lost cause – after the wedding, she managed only a few day trips into the mountains. She is far from the only faculty member in the Department of Biological Sciences who is “ABD,” or “all but dissertation.” But as the only woman in that predicament, her job is at risk.

   Yet if she were married, how much more difficult it would be. That’s what happened to most promising women scientists she knew – somewhere between their bachelor’s degree and graduate work, they walked down the aisle, had a baby, and settled into the life everyone expected of them.

   As she daydreams, Meredith’s senses fall asleep. When she finally hears the crackle she has no idea how long it’s been near. Like a footfall on a twig.

   Leaves blur into shadows. Her .22 leans against an American beech (Fagus grandifolia). Yet if she picks it up, what good would that do? She can hardly work with a gun in her hands. What she hears could be any number of natural sounds, from a rodent burrowing to a snag falling (as they might quite suddenly, sometimes killing people).

   Another 25 feet, a new grid. She has done everything she should: Spent summers digging samples, squeezing in writing during the school year. But last July’s wedding threw her off. Then came that awful phone call in September. Mother said, There’s no help for it, my dear. You must not let this derail you. You must move on. But when Daddy fell dead in the potato fields, her world stopped.

   With a spade Meredith extracts a small triangle of soil. When it comes to dirt, the mountain dishes up a new serving every few feet or so, varying in color, consistency, and leaf litter, although the pH is on the acidic side. Here are more examples of Le Conte’s incredible variety – vegetation and tree species, which degrade into organic matter, and rock type, which tends toward the sedimentary, slate and conglomerates. All of it the product of weathering and erosion.

   Peel away the surface, and the mountain would present layers. Beneath her feet, recent time, the Paleozoic era of about 450 million years ago. Then the Devonian epoch, which brought forests and insects. Below that, the Upper and Lower Silurian epochs, where the earliest land plants and fishes came to be. Farther down, the Cambrian, Upper, Lower, and Middle, with their sea weed, aquatic invertebrates, worms, trilobites and brachiopods. And even farther still, the PreCambrian, down to Archaean Time, when Earth was nothing more than a simmering, solid globe, the first rocks formed by fire, pressure, and freezing/melting. When the only life that existed was the earliest seaweed, when the Appalachians had yet to rise up out of the Earth’s violence. When these mountains did not exist, and this land was covered by the sea.

   If she could dig deep enough, if she could core down to the heart of Mt. Le Conte, she would find the evidence: the creepy-legged trilobite, curved mollusk, delicate sponge. She has taught Introduction to Geology, she knows a hunk of granite from a slice of gneiss, but as a botanist, why stand here thinking about rocks and fossils? The sea, always the sea. She thought she escaped it, landing in the South. But now, staring at this pointed hole, breathing the thin mountain air, Meredith realizes she cannot get away from herself. Salt water runs through her veins. She was baptized in water, came of age by the sea. Those letters in her backpack might as well have washed up on the sand, a message in a bottle that traveled a thousand miles. Even now, leaning on her spade in the heat, she feels something at her back, as though she might turn around and find Cal there, watching her. Waiting.

   She turns and says his name. But only a circling raven hears.

   She wanders over to a thicket of tall yellow flowers coated with bees. Impatiens pallida is often mistaken for orange jewelweed. Meredith puts her hand lightly around one pendulous blossom. As she brushes its tiny heart the seeds fall into her hands. She munches them, slowly, more to savor their crunch than out of real hunger.

    She prepares to stand, to stretch her legs, when something brushes her neck, almost a breath.

    Slowly she reaches to touch the nape, where short tendrils of hair, wet with sweat, cling to her fingers. She looks around again. Ringed by hardwoods, rhododendron and boulders, the woods blink back, leafy green and rock gray. She senses nothing unusual but an unpleasant, musky odor.

   Maybe it is a ghost. A friendly one. Her father, say, come to watch over her.

   She pops another seed into her mouth, and another. She does not feel protected. She tastes only fear.

   About 4:30 black clouds scuttle in, obscuring the sun, and it begins to rain. Water slides down Meredith’s sweaty arms as she packs up and heads for Alum Cave Trail. Rain and wind on a mountain mean lightning, and it is never good to be in the open during a thunderstorm. The trail’s jagged rocks turn slippery, forcing her to slow down. She has in mind camping near Alum Cave, but it seems like she’ll never get there.

   Water streaks her eyeglasses. She rubs them on her shorts. Several times her ankles nearly twist. Once she falls, scraping her left knee. Rain mixes with blood and gravel; how it stings. Finally, she bursts ahead, and there it is – Alum Cave, no cave at all but a ledge overlooking the valley below.

   Off the trail, not far into the pine forest, she finds a rocky overhang with a hemlock nearby. She raises her tent and hangs a tarp, then builds a small fire of leaves and sticks. It spits, threatening to blow out, but she is able to boil water for oatmeal and tea.

   Meredith strips off her wet clothes and changes into long underwear and a sweater. Dirt cakes her skin, but tonight there will be no dip in the creek. When they were kids, she made mud pies, slapping the fat, wet cakes on Mother’s old cooling racks. The sisters trudged through the swamp, where Merry  picked cranberries and rolled pine pitch between her fingers. Alice, ever the mother, would tell her to stop; Lenore, afraid for them both, would hang back.

   No surprise Alice has a husband, a family. But how has timid Lenore not ended up alone?

   Thunder booms. Lightning comes again. Her sisters are far, far away – Alice with three kids and a husband in a motel in Florida; Lenore with Cal and his baby, in the pine flats of Rhode Island, celebrating a year of their marriage. Meredith is the one still playing in the mud, high on a mountain in the Smokies, waiting out the storm.

   In the morning, squatting in the mud to relieve herself, Meredith sees the footprints. The front paws are a good seven or eight inches long, the hind about five inches.

   She gets up and follows the tracks. They lead toward the fire pit and her tent. The muddy impressions form a semi-circle around the campsite. Of the ten nails, all but the inside toes press into the mud, pointing like candle flames. Some of the tracks overlap each other, as though an ursine army lately kept watch around the campsite.

   She has seen bear tracks before, but never this fresh: hairs float in tiny pools, and musk hangs in the dewy air. The tourists think the bears exist for their amusement. Visitors snap pictures of them begging for handouts at Newfound Gap or near Clingman’s Dome. On postcards they lumber toward cars, benign and cuddly. But the American black bear, Euarctos americanus, although less dangerous than the Grizzly, Ursus horribilis, is not to be trifled with.

   Meredith scrambles for her gun. Despite her precautions – hanging her food high in a tree, rinsing dishes downwind – sometime last night a black bear visited the campsite, prowling in the rain, only a few feet from where she slept. He might be far down the ridge by now. Or he might be just beyond the trees.

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