Time: the River’s Work and the Stone’s Burden

Old Stone Fort SAA, Blue Hole Falls, marking time
Blue Hole Falls

Everywhere I turn is a stunning new view. I’ve descended a somewhat steep path into the woods behind the museum at Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park in Manchester, Tennessee. A cluster of dozens of waterfalls combine to cut a craggy, descending amphitheater, its gallery facing downstream, where the water glides, tumbles, and creeps along on its way to Tennessee’s central basin. Broad slabs of limestone–five feet thick, fifteen or twenty yards long, and wide as a highway–angle toward the riverbed, lying just how they fell, however many eons ago. Here, the river’s work is obvious: it carves its gorge incessantly, and as it cuts into the bases of its bordering cliffs, the rock above loses support and falls like stacks of dishes off the edge of a counter. And my mortal brain can’t fathom the time this all takes; the brevity of my life is clear in this spot, overlooking Blue Hole Falls, and yet I feel connected to it. Many of us return to nature for psycho-spiritual realignment, and this makes the most sense of just about anything I can think of: rivers, woods, mountains, deserts, and oceans realign us because they’re the stuff we’re made of–they’re the stuff of our origins: water, clay, minerals, viscera, and mystery.

I’m standing (as I write this) on a shelf of limestone that juts out over the gorge, several yards down-trail from where the photo above was taken. Here, the riverbed’s at least a hundred feet down. And I suspect that this ledge, too, will break off in time–it will fracture away from the bluff behind me with great, terrifying cracks that echo like rifle shots, and then it will slide with a many-throated roar to the river’s edge, where it may rest for ten-thousand years, propped at a forty-five degree angle against the steep hillside–a giant stone plate, snapped in half, with the back half tilted against the rock wall from which it fell and the front half lying flat in the riverbed. A tree might arise and thrive in the break. The river will have altered its course accordingly.

At some far-flung future time, this stone that supports me will remain, either in its present place or at the bottom of the ravine. Long after me and my offspring and their offspring are lost to time, our names no more remembered than those of the citizens of ancient civilizations, the stone will exist. Nature carries on without us, but also it is us. This is a great mystery, and I’m past the point where I think anyone alive understands it or is even capable of understanding it. But that doesn’t keep me from searching.

Alan D. Tucker: content blogger, essayist, & novelist
Alan D. Tucker
content blogger, essayist, & novelist

**Here’s an earlier post in which I grapple with time: http://alandrue.com/nashvilles-current-time-warp/.

***Here are more images from Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park:

Imagine a Life without Notions

Close-up of van Gogh’s “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.”

Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.

It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.

Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Nashville’s Current Time Warp

Roman portrait bust

Are you ever confounded by the passage of time? Not the simple passing of hours that segments each day, but significant time. Like when you look out over the ocean and remember that those waves have been meeting the shore for untold millennia; or when you find a tombstone from the 1800s; or when you hear a favorite song and realize it’s already twenty-five years old. In those moments, a type of soul-inertia can set in, a simultaneous smallness and weightlessness of spirit. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, a feeling of insignificance slips in.

My quest for solitude—a scant commodity, given that we have three kids (which I’d never, ever, ever give up for any reason), and I have a full-time job (which I can’t give up, at the moment)—often leads me downtown, to Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It was there, very recently, that I was confounded by time. The current big-ticket exhibit, Rome: City and Empire, is filled with dozens of art objects from antiquity, and wandering among 2,500-year-old marble sculptures can definitely cause that soul-inertia to rise.

But unlike standing beside the ocean, no feelings of insignificance beset me. And I think it’s almost entirely because of the portrait bust pictured above. I wasn’t diligent to record its title or provenance—a rare lack of meticulousness on my part—yet I remember its impact. Note the scar on his cheek. And the deformity of his ear. He is imperfect, and also there is something common about him (though I know only the wealthy could afford the extravagance of a marble likeness). He’s flawed in ways that the nearby bust of Octavian is not. I remember reading that the portrait above was produced at a time when realistic representation was the standard, whereas the sculptor of Octavian would’ve been more interested in rendering the emperor godlike. It’s understandable that a dutiful sculptor should render an emperor godlike. After all, Romans believed their sovereigns divine. However, it’s the flawed old man with a gashed cheek and a crinkled ear that resonates as human. It is he who helps ward off feelings of insignificance in the face of unfathomable time.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist