Percy’s Love in the Ruins: A Dystopia for Our Time

The 1970s have a curious aura, especially to those of us born in the early 1980s. Not quite far enough before our time to feel like “history,” Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and all the associated malaise were so much a part of our parents’ formative experience that they taste to us rather of a half-remembered bad dream—especially given the relative peace and prosperity we enjoyed throughout childhood. Perhaps it is only natural, then, to associate that 70s vibe with our own grave misgivings about the present.

Facing as we do a national election between a habitual liar under investigation by the FBI (is anyone more Nixonian than Mrs. Clinton?) and a much-married misogynist, racist, and paragon of petty machismo, we see a strong political overlap between the two eras. The nausea goes much deeper too—into sex, race, religion, and society itself. All around, our souls give way, yet no solution presents itself. The exhaustion is palpable, even papered over as it continues to be by our blithe consumption and entertainment.

Into such troubled times, the prophets of old spoke even greater trouble. “On account of you, Zion will be plowed as a field, Jerusalem will become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the temple will become high places of a forest.”[1] This indicts us just as much as it happens to us. Perhaps the prophet we need to hear thunder today is the unlikeliest of anointed men—nearly three decades dead and always unassuming in his own time.

Walker Percy, Louisiana novelist and essayist, keenly felt the dislocation of man in the modern age, and set his face toward exploring and explaining that pain in nearly everything he wrote. In Percy’s own telling, a serious novelist (one as much concerned with plumbing the depths of existence as with telling a good story) is by nature a sort of prophet:

“Since true prophets, i.e., men called by God to communicate something urgent to other men, are currently in short supply, the novelist may perform a quasi-prophetic function. Like the prophet, his news is generally bad. Unlike the prophet, whose mouth has been purified by a burning coal, the novelist’s art is often bad, too…. Like the prophet, he may find himself in radical disagreement with his fellow countrymen. Unlike the prophet, he does not generally get killed. More often, he is ignored.”[2]

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Walker Percy Weekend

You see the pig first.

Smoked and shimmering in all his suckling glory, he leads the way into a church hall set up for a meal considerably more lavish than your average dinner on the grounds. The crowd eases in a few at a time, shaking out their umbrellas, glazed with the sticky cool of a summer night’s rain. As they descend on the spread, the gears of conversation engage (with a little help from the wine) and old friends and former strangers talk long into the night, humidity and horseflies not withstanding.

All this Louisiana cuisine and conviviality could be the scene of a birthday party, anniversary, or graduation. The guest of honor is not here, though, having died 26 years hence. Even so, it was his 100th birthday, and so we came. From all over, we came to St. Francisville for the third Walker Percy Weekend.

Must this not be what every author dreams of? Posthumous recognition such that when people who have been touched and challenged by your work come together to remember you, it is not in self-important tut-tutting about your cultural impact but simply to make merry and rejoice that you wrote.

Between the freely flowing bourbon and the mountain of mudbugs on Saturday night, it just might have been possible to forget this was a literary event (“conference” isn’t quite a fit), but the superb panels by friends and family and Percy scholars from universities around the country, with lots of questions and comments from the crowd, brought out the best for readers. Everything from the collapse of the political center to the depths of despair in Dostoevsky to Springsteen (yes, that one) was on offer. Even the depth of discussion over cocktails and crawfish was a sight to behold.

The civic spirit of this little town in West Feliciana was really on display, too. If the banners lining Ferdinand Street proclaiming “We Love It Here!” were so much boosterism, nothing in the joyful hospitality of the locals I met gave it away. They put on the dog for us all, opening homes, churches, shops and public spaces in one long roving feast for body, mind, and spirit.

I think Walker would be proud of his fellow citizens, and probably more than a little annoyed at being the center of attention. By God’s extravagant grace, in this little corner of “the old violent beloved U.S.A. and of the Christ-forgetting Christ-haunted death-dealing Western world” all was well for a few days. The troubles Percy saw so clearly tearing us apart could melt away, all suffused in the glow of summer sweat and steam from a trailer vat of boiling crustaceans.

 

Into the Woods: Conasauga Lake and Grassy Mountain

Location is everything.

Chattanooga is where it is because of the conveniences of transportation. It’s where the Tennessee River cuts through the wall of the Cumberland Plateau, and the city built up around this natural intersection between boats and rails during the early industrial era. That made it quite the prize during the war between the states, and it’s the crossroads of the South even still—a 2.5 hour drive or less from Atlanta, Knoxville, Birmingham, and Nashville. Much of the traffic between the Southeast and the Midwest passes through here, giving us more traffic woes than a city of this size warrants. Two of the top 10 largest trucking corporations in the U.S. are headquartered here, and we’re still known around the world for a catchy tune about a train ride.

All of that to say, living here makes getting other places a fairly easy proposition, so much so that a drive over to the western edge of the Appalachians for a day hike isn’t much trouble at all. On clear days from certain vantage points around town, you can make out the profile of Big Frog, Cowpen Mountain, and Grassy Mountain shooting up from the valley floor about 40 miles to the east. They are the westernmost “real mountains” (+/- 4,000 ft. above sea level) in the country until you get to the Black Hills.  Continue reading

Into the Woods: Home

Carving out time for hiking, valued though it is, often takes quite the effort. Because of this, I am always very grateful for the Lookout Mountain segment of Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. When you have 3 hours for a hike, 30 minutes (round trip) in the car and 2-and-a-half hours on trail is far preferable to driving a long way for a short walk.

In thick irony, all of the peaceful parkland around our city is only here because the violent deaths of several thousand men on these grounds in 1863. There is room for reflection there (of which more another time) which does not go unnoticed, but we locals love the battlefields for the 9,000+ acres of public land they afford. My kids are growing up with this heritage, and they already probably think it’s odd that you don’t have cannons all over the place where you live.

I’ve trod many a mile around this old mountain, handy as it is (much of it  within Chattanooga’s city limits). Trucks and trains rumble just beyond the park’s edge, and there are two fully functioning towns (Both conveniently named Lookout Mountain—one in Tennessee, one in Georgia) atop the plateau, but the trails quickly open to mature forest.

Yesterday, Rachel & the older two girls had a birthday party to attend, so I “volunteered” (read: begged) to watch the youngest and spare us the experience. It was nice out (this fall as been terribly warm), so we decided to head for the woods.

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Selfies are not my forté, but at least toddlers in backpacks are cute.

We parked over on the west side of the mountain off Wauhatchie Pike  (near the Chattanooga Nature Center), to go upslope via the Kiddie trail (named for someone, not made for kids)/Skyuka Springs Trail/Gum Springs Trail. Time (and the limited patience of strapped-in children) kept us from making it all the way to Sunset Rock, but we were headed in that general direction.

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Kiddie is not terribly scenic, just a steep access path into the rest of trail network. A number of downed trees (probably dating from a bad tornado outbreak a few years ago) left the canopy spotty enough that the lower trail is rather overgrown and weedy.

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Further up, there were still a few fall colors poking through, and plenty of the usual Cumberland Plateau scenery (boulders, oaks, streams, etc.).

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As an aside, this area always makes for some interesting plant finds (like the Japanese burning bush shown below). Homeowners on the brow of the mountain above must toss their yard waste over the cliffs, and enterprising seeds and shoots take root in the woods below. A lot of what you see growing down there does not “belong”.

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A few miles of foot-pounding does a body (and soul) good, but I’m not certain my passenger felt the same. She didn’t cry, though she did hold on to my shoulder for most of the ride; for her first time in the backpack, I suppose she thought she was “floating” behind my head and not entirely confident of her situation. It’s the price you pay for being my kid, I guess.

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