Saturday, May 15, 2010

Anhedonia in Turner Falls, Oklahoma

"The tempered light of the woods is like a perpetual morning, and is stimulating and heroic. The anciently reported spells of these places creep on us. The stems of pines, hemlocks, and oaks, almost gleam like iron on the excited eye. The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year. How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures, and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind, all memory obliterated by the tyranny of the present, and we were led in triumph by nature."

- Emerson, in his essay "Nature"

Turner Falls is a small park and camping ground in southern Oklahoma, in the Arbuckle Mountains, about two and a half hours by speeding vehicle from Dallas, heading north on Interstate thirty-five. It located close by the small township of Davis, in the midst of south-central Oklahoma's heat and fire-blasted lunar landscape. This article specifically refers to the sensations and thoughts inspired by my recent journey there. The photos were not originally mine, but because they do not actually belong to anyone (how can you own land?) I am making full use of them.

In the midst of Summer, or even at this time at the beginning of Spring, all vernal fluxes and the rising sap within one notwithstanding, all feelings of freshness and renewal, the fevers of a land returning to life (which I seem to be becoming more sensitive to as I age) ignored, Turner Falls sits beneath the white sun of Southern Oklahoma and dreams of the desert she will one day surely become. Located in a valley between two over-reaching hills, and placed deep in the shadow of these protective barriers, this park is, except for the hottest hours of the day, perpetually in darkness. Because of this, the sun rises later than a mile north from here, and the moon appears later as well. Both disappear early, as one would expect. In the middle of winter, which is the true rainy season for north Texas, Oklahoma, and much of the South, the Earth's far rotation at aphelion produces a unique situation of almost complete gloom, and the pale sun struggles to pierce over the top of the eastern hill (which is nameless, as far as I know), through the lowering clouds and down into the black alleys and grottoes carved throughout the rocky ground. At these times Turner Falls is a graveyard of twisted scrub oak, mesquite trees, crumbling limestone, and spine-riddled cacti, and one feels the timeless urge to bury one's self into the mouldering leaves, as gray as the sky above, and just sleep...sleep forever. It is very difficult to struggle upwards from dreams at these times, and as you lay in your sleeping bag by a chanting stream and listen to the wind howling through the deadwood, along the ground, over the tops of trees, your face soused by morning's frost, how close are you to death, to the spirits of those who are buried here? For every landscape contains graves, every hill is a mausoleum, even in this relatively new land.
Every single time that I have traveled to Turner Falls it has been under the pretext of escape...a truly strange notion. For a day or two, or even longer, I tell myself I can flee the city and nestle down in the 'bosom' of nature (which, in Texas and Oklahoma, means shouldering aside the rattlesnakes and shivering on the hard ground), a nature that I still regard with distrust as well as love, and which returns to me messages just as ambiguous. I believe that one can only learn from nature - the lessons that must be learned in order to feel in 'harmony' with the Earth, or to derive any kind of emotional impact at all from the experience - when one is completely alone. And so it has been difficult for me to feel anything at all pleasurable when I take these trips, which are inevitably planned and executed in the presence of others, which means the other, those with whom I have to share...everything. Even experiences...

It is also important to understand at this point that when I say I feel, at times, in sporadic bursts, almost as a gift, a dream, a memory, a certain harmony with nature, this is not a hedonistic impulse, or a pleasure sensation of any kind...rather it is a grim message to my spirit, and it carries within it the taste of death. I have never, ever traveled into the depths of untamed, unharnessed nature without feeling, at one point in the proceedings, that I was hated by the land itself - hated and loved - and that my true function here under the sky, in the wind and rain and blistering sun, was only to spill my blood, and let the Earth drink it...

I mean this quite literally.

I instinctively feel, as well, that this drive, this hidden urge, is a counterpoint to the same feelings that drive men to plant crops, sowing seed, or in young fathers, to start a family. One is driven to...make an impact on reality and nature through the body, through the basest reflections of animal behavior, through fundamentals...
For 'fundamentals' are what travelling to find nature is all about, isn't it? As the sun fell and my friend and I scoured the ground, searching for firewood, dry brush to first tinder the blaze and then smaller twigs, branches, limbs gleaned from deadfalls, building a beacon underneath the mesquites, my back seizing up, my hands scratched and torn, I couldn't help but reflect on this...here I was scrounging in the near dark for cast-off wood to light the night so that I wouldn't be alone with my thoughts in a vale of impenetrable blackness, before the rising of the waning moon. My only thoughts were of finding the right shapes and sizes of wood, and, coincidentally, not reaching down and grasping a snake by mistake...

I usually pick exactly the same spot to set up camp when I travel to Turner Falls...not exactly out of habit, or based on 'aesthetic' reasons, or for practical purposes, knowing that some sites are immeasurably better than others, but because I have had the most far-reaching experiences in one site, surrounded by the same land, the same hills, the same trees. I want to repeat these experiences, and I proceed towards this solipsistic enterprise with my eyes wide open. I know what I am getting myself into...

"Our eyes are holden that we cannot see things that stare us in the face, until the hour arrives when the mind is ripened - then we behold them, and the time when we saw them not is like a dream. Not in nature but in man is all the beauty and worth he sees. The world is very empty, and is indebted to this gilding, exalting soul for all its pride."

- Emerson, in his essay "Spiritual Laws"

Of course the landscape of Turner Falls is unique, not only because it is sheltered in a series of valleys in a region of the country that is almost uniformly flat, as an avenue for the winds that scour the plains all the way from Canada to Texas, but because of its varied terrain, its flora and fauna (most of the time eerily absent), its cold streams and brooks, its deep reservoirs which, in the summer, are like a descent into another world of dark water. One can walk around the grounds of this treasured park for hours and hours without encountering another lost soul, or, wandering on one's own over crumbling cliffs (many of which are absolutely treacherous, deadly to the novice) and through twilight groves, happen suddenly upon a gathering of others, or, perhaps, a couple finding shelter in the shade of a redolent, peeling oak. Feeling completely lost, the next second you will stumble into a circle of travelers, or perhaps the private rituals of a small family, and you will feel...even further lost. That is, among these trees, this dry, dusty ground littered with ankle-breaking rocks that have fallen from the out-reaching heights above, feeling completely alone, you want nothing else but to remain...alone...I, for one, want to be surrounded by a hundred miles or more of wilderness or desert, and face the sky, the sun, the moon, all alone...

Turner Falls is bordered on the north by a private ranch, which ties down its land with rusty barbed wire fences, and on the south (on the other side of a hill or Oklahoma 'mountain') by an extension of the interstate and the dwindling path of highway 77, which runs all the way down to Corpus Christi - the Body of Christ - on the Gulf of Mexico. From my campsite, to the immediate northeast, there is a near-vertical cliff face and a path to its right which, once climbed, allows one access to a plateau and lookout from where you can glimpse the entire range of the park. Climbing this in the middle of the night, the moon high above, only two days waning past full, I was able once again to sit at ease and view not only the beautiful silver valley beneath me, in which our fire burned brightly, but also the innumerable stars above, their constellation shapes unmarred by the lights of a city. Laying on your back, your head stretched all the way to full extension over the side of the cliff, you can peer down, as it were, into the night sky, feeling as if you were floating over an abyss which dwarfed your own frame. On this plateau there are only a few hundred yards of due-North park land to cover before one comes to the fence line I mentioned before, but which is easily negotiated...on this other side of the hill, crossing over into unknown territory (how many times has this fence represented the wall between life and death to me in my own dreams?), you descend again into a steep valley, from which you can see a red abrasion on north face of the hill, a scar or gouge worn from the rock at least a hundred yards long and twenty or thirty feet high, a sort of extended cave front. In the day, two hundred yards away on the east side of the descent into this valley, this cave (which does not have a name) appears as if it is filled with an arcade of onlookers or the gathering of a tribe, who are only mineral deposits on the rouge stone of its interior. The illusion of having an audience, however, is uncanny.

This plateau and descent are very dangerous at night, not only because of the outcroppings and strange mounds of rock that thrust themselves out of the ground, but because of the high-walled circles of cacti. This phenomenon, which I first read about in Robert Howard's story 'Red Nails', that great tale of Derketa, walled cities, horrible claustrophobia, inherited madness, darkness without end - which, by the way, remains my favorite story of his - is analagous, I am assuming, to the 'fairy' circles of mushrooms in Great Britain or other parts of Europe, or other such geometrical formations of nature's products. The broad-leaved cacti that grow here form walled circles, at the height of three to five feet, completely impenetrable to a man unless he can gain access by a peeling aside a decayed/diseased portion of this structure, or slip through a hole that has been created by another animal. Once within these strange plant houses, the floor of which is usually five to six feet in diameter and covered with the yellow sand of the region, one is completely protected from the outside by a two-inch thick circle of spines and barbed spikes. The perfect place to avoid other humans (which I have done), or the approach of predators...but beware the serpents...

Robert Howard, who lived in Cross Plains and ventured to the small university in Brownwood, could have seen these bizarre cactus fortifications on his walks through the fields, on his climbs through the desert hills and dry wells of northern Texas. A few years ago I travelled to his house in Cross Plains and camped, later that night, in the state park which is directly south of the northwestern arm of Lake Brownwood, and as I walked through the terrain there I couldn't help but wonder if Howard had also seen the same sights...that night, at a time of the new moon, I awoke at four in the morning, shivering and wet with dew, and gazed upwards to see the most amazing collection of stars I have ever witnessed...the entire sky was milky white with a swirling mist of constellations...

Turner Falls proper is a cataract created by the erosion of a tributary of either Wildhorse creek or the Washita river itself, a long, thin, winding ribbon of chilled water that runs in a southeastern direction from the Texas panhandle, finding a source in Foss Lake in western Oklahoma and transversing almost the entire state's latitudinal length before it opens into the Red River, the natural border between the two states. Whatever season, whether the scorching eternal late-afternoon of perihelion's solstice or the opposite extreme of Winter's slate clouds and hail storms, this river is clear, chilling to the touch (in November it is freezing, the only river I have felt to be colder while maintaining a rapid flow is the source of the Colorado in Rocky Mountain National Park, which also flows down through Texas and ends up perpendicular to the Gulf as a tepid, sluggish sheet) , and wonderfully refreshing to one's extremities. Because it mainly flows through pasture and herd land to the north of the Arbuckles it is not wise to drink of its waters, unless one wants to risk bacterial poisoning or cyst-forming organisms. On top of the waterfall there is a series of stepped grottoes falling from the plateaus (remember, the entire park is a valley deep in the earth, once has to climb up out of it) above, which form, when not clogged with deadfalls, a staircase of descending pools. The submerged rocks here are covered with a thin layer of algae, and are extremely difficult to negotiate when the water is high. Crossing from the east to the west side of the river here is almost impossible, and a guide wire has been strung across the very edge of the falls not only to catch larger branches or the dead trees that have fallen into the rain-gorged stream, but also as a last resort escape possibility in case one is swept into the current...I suppose the thought is that just before you are sent posthaste over the falls and dashed to your death below, you might be able to throw an arm or leg up and catch this wire...but I don't really see how that could be possible, unless one were an acrobat...no, my guess is that the common occurence is that a person goes over the falls at full speed, breaks their legs on the rocks below, and then drowns in the shallow water...I wonder how many people have fallen there, or in this park? Not just in the literal sense, but in every sense of the word...

The last grotto, Acheron, just before the cataract precipice, is probably my favorite. There is another shallow cave here, deep down in the rocks on the northeastern side of the falls tower that, on the other side, houses the Cave of The Winds. It is possible to climb down here into this reflecting pool while the river tears and rages just above, and because the descent is so steep, the way so dangerous, the rocks filled with scorpions and poisonous red millipedes, one is almost assured of being alone, unless someone actually crosses from the other side. This last time I went the access to the western tower of the falls boundary was blocked by an enormous deadfall, and so there was virtually no way anyone could come down into the grotto unless he or she descended the way I did. I spent a blissful quarter hour here completely alone, my eyes closed, the waters roaring in white mouths around me...I felt, almost, as if I had died. It was very peaceful. In fact I can't think of many other places in which I would prefer to die - by this I mean places, times, and situations that I have actually experienced, not just read or heard about...in my life, reduced to its barest facts, its evidence, its obvious particulars, was this not one of my greatest moments of peace?

Both the difficult ascent of the eastern tower and this descent into Acheron on the other side are remarkably evocative of the first two cantos of Alighieri's poem, and down here in the grotto, as I said above, there is a cave, the sheer vertical entrance of which I can not help picture as the mouth of Erebus. To sit here and read the poet's words is to feel, if only for a second, a strange concurrence of times and locales, especially since the terrain of northern Texas and southern Oklahoma can be likened to the dry hills and wide valleys of southern Italy, beneath the lemon trees.

'The day was now departing; the dark air released the living beings of the earth from work and weariness; and I myself alone prepared to undergo the battle both of the journey and of the pity, which memory, mistaking not, shall show.'

- Dante, lines 1-6, Canto II, Inferno

I chose this quote for two reasons: both because it features that famous triple cadence of The One ('I, myself, alone'), and because it more than adequately communicates both the weariness of the ascent and descent of the tower as well as the soul sickness that I feel when coming to this place...if I could have only been the first to discover it, and not one of the original settlers' heirs!

The man who originally owned these square miles, whose name I have forgotten, visited at some point in time his 'ancestral' lands in Europe, and came back to southern Oklahoma filled with a passion for transforming this dead landscape into a reasonable facsimile of what he had witnessed there. Texas and Oklahoma are both home to the descendants of settlers originating in Teutonic lands. Because of this, Turner Falls has a 'castle', crenelated stone walls, and another revered catacomb, which can be found on a path that runs southwest from the Falls themselves - a chasm in the cliff overlooking this path that has been christened the 'Crystal Cave', referring to the Arthurian or Grail legends. This cave is ludicrously difficult to enter: one has to climb straight upwards about eighty feet or more from the bed of a small stream, up the wall of a hill, progressing at a diagonal, often falling to one's knees, scrambling through tree roots and large shelves of limestone that suddenly pull out in one's hand, before you break through into a clearing and face a two-foot wide path hugging the side of the hill and ascending at a 45-degree slant to the mouth of the catacomb. One false step on this path and you would fall, bouncing and breaking, to the forest floor below. Once you arrive at the end of this smooth stream of stone, before the mouth of the cave, you have to somehow lever yourself into the cave itself, the entrance of which is at least seven or eight feet above the path. My friend almost hanged himself from the guide rope that some kind soul placed here...there is no other way up, as the wall of the cliff is as slick as hot plastic, and in the noon sun the rock seems to melt away any purchase your boots can afford...

This cave is worth entering, however, as it is an amazing repository of graffiti (including mine), stretching back a number of years, and the knife-carved or painted love declarations and initials of what must be hundreds of people. All these people, coming together in the stream of time in this small room, hearing each other's ghosts, touching on the very edges of each other's lives...

And I am amazed, as always, how we instinctively return to caves to shelter ourselves, or to hide, under cover of darkness, illicit acts of 'love' or passion, or to enact rites of transcendence. Even though I made a point of saying to my friend that sitting there, once again, in that cave, I didn't feel a single stirring of my ancestral blood - the way that I feel my veins boiling when I gaze upwards at the iron granite of snow-covered mountains, for example, or as I view the swelling tides of the oceans...but I am not sure I wasn't hiding the truth...perhaps, deep down, in an abyss of the self, there is that man of the cave who in nightmares feels the nameless urge, over and over, to defend the entrance, to push back the external, to hide away from the world...

Cool and dark, the Crystal Cave is a welcome place to rest from hiking, and it affords a beautiful view both of the hills opposite and the floor of the valley below. As the echoing catacomb narrows towards its back wall, two perpendicular tunnel mouths open up on either side, about the size of a small child, neither of which I have been brave enough to struggle through. A flourescent orange sign is painted above the one on the left, which says 'Follow here', with an arrow, but I have never been persuaded by it. Doubtlessly it leads to a den of blood-drinking murderers, and its gloom is impenetrable...

The small 'castle', which I mentioned above, crowns the top of a hill on the path from the entrance of the park to the falls. It is incredibly strange, almost a reply - albeit a minor one - to that famous 'Temple of the Moon' built by one man in Florida out of pure unrequited love and solo-quarried rock. Climbing directly upwards from the river bed along a curling stone stairway, one enters a two-room house built entirely from poured concrete and the gray top-rock of the region, with crumbling plaster walls and burnt out electrical sockets. Graffitti covers the walls, dead leaves are piled up in the corners and stuffed into the grates of the two hearths, and all the windows are broken. Wet mud is tracked all over the floor. It is desolate...above this on the hill, almost at the top, there is a sort of 'jail cell', a stone mirror image of the cactus circles that I have already written about, complete with a rusting iron door and tarnished lock. In the silence of the night, surrounded only by the sky and the swaying trees, one can swing this door back and forth, producing remarkable groaning sounds...

Why did this man built this house? Did he actually hope to live here one day? Did he die before it could be completed? I don't know the answers to these questions...did he mourn for a dead wife? Alone here, in the darkness and this stone cell, self-created, before a pale fire, listening to the wind howling through the hills outside and the black waters rushing by below, he must have felt so close to his dreams, and to death. As it stands, this house and it aborted construction appears to me as a monstrosity, a sort of ruin half in this world, half in the next. It couldn't transfer itself completely onto the Earth...and the man who built it with his own hands could not quite spirit himself out of it...

And so, all of this...all of what I have come to know in my short life as the 'messages' of nature, of that which is so hostile to us and yet holds out so many immediate lessons, so many uniques experiences, so many beautiful sensations stirring one's latent possibilities, all of this...coalescing in my memory to swarm around the focus point of Turner Falls, awakening memories that I had thought were forever forgotten, forming new associations between seemingly contrary ideas, all of this out of a few hours, a night and day, in one of my favorite parts of the world, even though it is so painful to me and even now its valleys are filled with the shades of regrets, of loves and hates never to be felt again...but here it sleeps, inviolate as of now, alive in my memory as it stands, breathing under the burning sun one hundred and fifty miles north of my body, and I lay here and dream and think of the stars, the dusty ground, the cold water of the streams, quietly whispering...

U. Amtey
18 May 2001