A Song for St. Mary’s
A Poetic Map
No roads lead there, they merely pass it by
ignoring a river’s empire contained
by blue walls that guard a hidden fastness,
and blue blazes scream noli me tangere
with axe or saw or bags of lime.
Even the roads remember, though many
passersby forget. They are appareled
in its stones, older than the petroleum
tar that binds them one to another.
The foresters and miners have left it
now to those few, hikers and fishermen
mostly, stumbling over the boulders,
detritus scattered by Camille’s great tide
back in ’69.
Back in the gorge,
dry leaves rattle on trees desiccated
by gypsy moths, the bells of St. Mary’s.
They will only later drift to the slopes
where gravity’s grip pulls them to water
jumping through quartzite, a vibrant stream.
The rivulet begins just below
granite crests to fall heedless to valley
below, to level and find its polite
name at Pkin, a mountain’s untamed
last stand before agriculture prevails.
Stream and mount nurse the daughter of the stars.
Even in a dry season, water still
runs from its original granite home,
becoming the Conococheague South in
confluence just north of Vesuvius,
farmers a generation removed from
Montebello and the Tye River.
What and where is Green Pond exactly?
Above Big Levels, the last limestone foothill
jammed against the mountain’s toe so seamless
only geologists can differentiate
between it and the granite thrown over,
fruit of the Appalachians rise.
The crest of the Blue Ridge and Green Pond.
An anomaly just above the levels,
perched water on perhaps the finest perch,
emerald jewel sunk in blue haze looking
outward to Shenandoah and downward
over long miles to Chesapeake Bay.
The bog seldom holds much water here
in this accidental aquifer lying
over a shale depression uncommon
in this range where igneous usurps
sediments with the tumult forgotten
(Only the Atlantic’s deepest knowledge
recalls Iapetus closed and plates crash).
Down a bit, orogenically tossed strata
still predominate the union of gullies
and springs into stream, the birth
of a saint.
Epochs of less resistant
rock carried grain by erosive grain
to seas past and present sculpted its course
even at this height. Hydrologic cycle:
it repeats and repeats anew: rain falls
and follows tracks long established–
drops cleave together to make a river
anew, for other waters are flowing on.
On the western shoulder of Flint Mountain–
elevation 3,400 feet
thereabouts–the prospects are gentle,
a good nursery for a nascent stream.
Mountain laurel and rhododendron hem
either side, their blossomed limbs arch over
to meet just above the bed, entwined
fingers forming a newly leafy
canopy shading water, temperatures
plenty cool for brook trout fry to find home.
Before the branch is too old, while it jumps
over the smaller outcrops, Hogback Creek
leaps to join it from many feet above
cascading over outcropped charnockite,
a fall unheralded by any map,
and the river enters into the light
fully for the first time since its head.
It acquires its own flung branches; they meet
the St. Mary’s in downward succession:
Hogback Creek runs down into
Which in its turn meets another,
(at mines) then tames to marry
Mine Bank Creek
Joined at first crossing by
waters mingling with each next confluence.
And after the river has fled the gate
of Cellar Mountain’s stony crest
and the grand prospect from Little Spy
a last thrall pays fluid tribute,
as it sneaks into the Shenandoah
shedding its name after such a journey
for a longer pilgrimage in older streams
past Buena Vista and Glasgow. Lynchburg
then Richmond and Williamsburg passed.
Jamestown, Portsmouth, and the mouth of the James
at last steal by, and the waters parade
under and over I-64
to Chesapeake Bay only to mingle
with brethren born but one ridge north.
III. The Collect
These 10,000 acres form a funnel
to collect rain let loose before
loaded thunderheads roll over the ridge–
Collects and brings together to make one.
Each raindrop finds its way by paths beyond
remembrance to join, taking greater homily
into the desert to live among men
until it passes into the primordial
sea, from whence it came, ascending,
evaporating to hasten yet back
across the fields to gather once again.
No water is ever truly still, but
it will collect again unto itself.
IV. The Word (I)
Mr. Surber walked by these waters
carrying his eponymous device,
and he found 5,000 fishes (tuna
not among them) to go with his bread:
brookies, rainbows, and browns, fry and adult,
and blacknose dace all fed by nymphs and flies.
Trout unlimited plied this stream, to rise
to mayflies from the first warm May morning
and lurk on winter streambeds just alive.
Mr. Surber walked and saw them all,
again looking below the surface
of mere utility to see resources
unmatchable by crowded hatcheries,
the web of life over and above ores
that had briefly drawn profit from this spot.
Native trout fed on a diet of larvae
and flies, their short lives spent inches
above the plane separating them from
the copious life below.
flowed out of the gorge into the past
for this is not the same stream Surber saw.
Acid poisons borne aloft from the west
pour down on depleted soils
their buffering capacity long
shot, leached out with each passing shower.
Native alkalinity subsided.
The mountain’s blood has become leukemic;
some infection has sent its tendrils through
its black skin to weaken its life, limestone
marrow found lacking to stem life-crushing
tide. Endangered species cannot be seen
until their lack endangers visible life.
What disease lurks beneath placid surface?
Genus Ephemerella has become
too ephemeral–all the mayflies are gone.
Rainbow’s end, and brookies are on the decline.
V. The Word (II)
Sandstone outcrops over the edges
of the soft folds, curves rubbed too long by air–
Cumulus clouds piled above the mutely
sharp jagged horizon, more steel wool than cotton
swab, soon to scour thin flesh further away.
Now it’s hard to believe what these were once
the highest mountains ever known, Appalachia
now worn through the hard work of millennia
by rain and wind and just plain age. Water
rubs these callouses raw, collecting high
in a channel of an ancient seabed.
What creatures walked or swam over the mud
millennia ago? Sea mud became rock,
a metamorphosis of volcanic heat
to uphold the many ambulations
(a process glimpsed in million-year spans,
too slow for all but godlike eyes).
Still water is not at home even now,
but is always pulled by higher power.
Though the water sings a song of freedom–
water clashing syllables together
to enunciate lisping foreign sounds
and voice the word written in a slow hand
in the flowing mud of ancient sea floors.
Stones are the tablets that carry these words,
a geologic cuneiform beneath.
VI. Prayers of the People
I look expectantly upstream, where the
river bends upon itself around an
obtruding volcanic rock outcrop on
one side and the quartzite cliff above it.
I’m fishing backwards, because the
waters loop just right and the light opens
from a mid-morning sun.
And there they lie—
two brook trout facing away and feeding
and waiting for my nymph. The latter notes
and rises and strikes. It would make a nice
meal, but I let it slip back to its home
and wet abode after marveling at
its iridescent brilliance—perhaps we’ll
meet another day. No nets are required for this
miracle of waters providing peace.
VII. Confession and Absolution
The water from the falls crashes down and
baptizes all in its path. Three
times does it fall, at least according to
most maps. And the rocks older than the ones
just downstream—relics of that upheaval
eons before Pangea’s fall—whisper.
VIII. The Peace
Rivers leave the mountains only to return
anew, and other waters are flowing on.
How often have shovels scraped these stones,
picks busted them to dust–millennia’s
work in instants crushed by mortal sweat.
And the detritus still piles in slag heaps
parklike above artificial green veneer
that lacks the old growth that would abound
had it not impeded the rails to haul
the marrow that long dwelt beneath the skin.
This is my body, broken here for you.
That damage now hides, healed scars of mines past,
unlike open sores, red clay exposed to air
far above the stream and easy access
to the ransom of the mountain’s joints.
More vacant lot than meadow, despite small
stands of flowers that grace its dusty plain,
A camper’s paradise coke-bottle strewn.
Take this, eat in remembrance of me.
Every body has fluids that course
through veins beneath, but their walls are now
thin, manganese remnants run down to flow.
Even in a dry season, it falls low
to gather yet again, and it is free
in gravity’s fall from heights to the sea.
And this is my blood, running here for you.
Every visit and rumination
is a re-creation. Do this in a
remembrance of the life we live within.
Estuarine tides push the water back
and forth polluted by their passage
political–all rivers lead eventually
to capitals that decide their fate
based in the moment and on
diminishing returns. But the droplets
ride together, from James and Potomac,
each’s journey different though born
on land mere miles apart.
Go these waters to where you belong and
thence return again as it always was.