by Christopher Martin
I guess you could say I’m scared. Not so much because it’s nightfall and I’m lost in the Smoky Mountains backcountry in a downpour, but because come December—just six months away—I’m going to be a father.
I’ve got five miles or so already behind me, no telling how many to go, no map, wondering whether the ranger I spoke to gave me bad directions to the campsite or if I just misunderstood her. Didn’t I pass that rock already? And how do I plan on raising a child if I can’t even follow simple directions in the most frequently visited national park in the country?
A strap on my pack breaks, and the sudden shift in weight sends me stumbling through a rising, root-woven rill. The rain picks up with the rumbling of a charcoal sky. I’m going to be a father.
I let those words soak in with the rainwater soaking my shirt and socks and pack and everything else. I stop to fix the strap, cussing, fumbling around in the mud and darkness. I’m going to be a father.
Tradition tells that the ancient Christians of Jerusalem kept a lamp burning in Christ’s empty tomb, and at times of worship and celebration, they would venture out to the tomb, light a candle by the perpetual flame, and use it to illuminate their gathering place. They called this flame phos hilaron. Gladdening light. Hilarious light. But there’s no such light here on this night in the Smokies—just an unseasonably cold rain, a worry in my heart, and a dense darkness settling among the hemlocks.
It strikes me that I should’ve thought this through a little better. There were ambulances at the trailhead, for Christ’s sake. When I pulled up earlier, just before the rain set in, rangers were stationed in the parking area orchestrating an emergency rescue for a park visitor who’d injured herself while tubing down the creek.
About a quarter-mile in I passed the convoy of trucks that had gone back far as the trail would allow to rescue the tuber. She was in a stretcher in a truck bed, accompanied by a number of paramedics perched on the wheel wells, heads ducked to avoid the outstretched rhododendron branches. Several rangers were leading the way back to the graveled parking lot where half the Bryson City fire department was waiting. I didn’t get a clear look at the tuber or hear exactly what happened, but I saw the swollen, rocky, deadfall-snagged creek, and could imagine.
Lowering my gaze in an awkward expression of deference for the injured party, I stepped off the trail so the cavalcade could pass, just as the rain began splattering through the forest canopy. That’s when a rosy-cheeked, baldheaded ranger caught sight of me.
“Where you headed?” he grunted from his window, stopping his truck and halting the procession.
“Campsite 60,” I said. “Ranger back there told me it’s about three miles up the way, right at the fork.”
“You by yourself?”
“Got a permit?”
“Yessir,” I said, fumbling through my pockets for my receipt. “I dropped it in the box back past the trailhead.”
“So you’re all by your lonesome?”
“Yessir,” I said again, still digging in my pockets.
“So you’re camping out all by yourself—on a night like this?”
“Yessir, I am. Everything okay?”
“Okay, I guess.”
He glanced at the driver of the truck behind him and gave a little nod, as though signaling he’d approved my clearance. Then he nodded at me in the same manner, easing off the breaks, preparing to lead the injured lady back to civilization.
A few miles, mud puddles, and mountains later, I come upon a familiar rock, veiled with the same mosses and ferns I admired the first time I passed, and soon realize I don’t know where the hell I’m going. But just as I’m about ready to pitch my tent in the middle of the trail and risk a citation should any ranger pass by, I notice a signpost through the mist.
Deep Creek Trail, reads the sign, with an arrow pointed to the right. A couple hours ago I bore right onto Indian Creek Trail, which I now understand was not the fork I was supposed to take.
I head up the mountain alongside Deep Creek, sloshing all through the muck, surveying the dusky woods around me for a place to camp. Before too long I spot a clearing in the middle of a rhododendron thicket adjoining the creek. Stepping off the trail to get a closer look, I see a fire ring and a nice level spot for a tent blanketed with pine needles. The only thing missing is any indication that this is Campsite Number 60, but at this point I don’t much care. I pitch my tent in the rain and sit down on a log, hoping to gather my thoughts before settling in for the night.
The chill and the weather and the unfamiliarity of this place lead to a somber mood, which leads to worry. I begin to think about my wife, who is back at home just north of Atlanta, two hundred or so miles from this rainy Appalachian hollow in western North Carolina. I am on my way to Vermont, and this is the first of many nights that I’ll be away from her and our unborn child.
This realization brings misgivings about my trip north, and I begin to feel sorry that I ever left home in the first place. This sort of self-doubt and its attendant fear are quite familiar to me, and now that I’ve set camp and no longer have to worry about hiking around in the sodden darkness, I have time to mull them over. In doing so, I realize with a child on the way—no, with a child here, just hidden and protected behind layers of muscle and bone and skin—that these wisps of doubt and fear are much more acute. How am I, who still so often feels like an insecure, scared child, going to raise a child to be secure and unafraid?
I find the moment overwhelming.
Soon my child will come into a world that, so I’ve been told, is fallen. That the world is fallen is a belief I am shedding, but to do so in light of daily exposures to violence—whether firsthand or through the various media outlets—is a difficult thing indeed. Because I worry so deeply about the world—a world I love and find essentially good, though it is being overrun by people bent on poisoning and destroying it—I worry all the more about my child who will soon enter it.
I’ve read that about two in a hundred babies born each year in America could have been exposed to enough mercury in utero to cause lifelong brain damage, and that, in my child’s umbilical cord right now, there are likely to be traces of hundreds of industrial chemicals that have invaded the sanctuary of the womb, some of which may have disabling or life-ending potency.[i] I do not understand how some cannot find it within themselves to care about even this, let alone the murdered mountains just northwest of here, razed for coal to fuel power plants from which mercury seeps like blood, and into the blood of fish, the blood of human beings, the blood of mothers, the blood of unborn children.
If this will all be redeemed by Christ’s blood, I don’t know. I’ve already been told that I should accept what I once so readily did—heaven and hell, lost and saved, and all the other old dualities—to prepare myself for fatherhood. They wonder how I’ll be able to raise a child of sound spirit when I am so unsure of my own spirituality. They ask what I plan to teach my child. Yet these wet woods speak, too, and in hushed tones still the waters speak.
On my mossy seat, with Deep Creek murmuring on by, I settle into the rain, chewing on these thoughts and a granola bar, having given up altogether my attachment to a good night’s sleep. I figure I ought to hang up my food so bears won’t raid my camp later, but I have no rope in my pack, and, as this is probably not Campsite 60, there are no lines or posts for hanging food. So I take the bungee cord from around my sleeping pad, find two white pines about five feet from one another, and rig my food sack between them in such a way that’s probably good for nothing but to give the bears a better view of it. The sky opens up again, and what was a steady rain becomes a deluge.
“The rain I am in,” wrote the Trappist monk Thomas Merton from the porch of his hermitage in the Kentucky hills, “is not like the rain of cities. It fills the woods with an immense and confused sound…And I listen, because it reminds me again and again that the whole world runs by rhythms I have not yet learned to recognize, rhythms that are not those of the engineer.”[ii]
I remember hearing my baby’s heartbeat for the first time, the day we went in for my wife’s first sonogram. An unexpected feeling came over me when I heard it, a feeling of needing to cry but not being able. Whether I was unable to cry because the sound came amplified through an engineered machine, or because a nurse who I did not know was in the room with us, or some other reason, I cannot say. But I do know that I heard my baby’s heartbeat, which, like this rain, is a rhythm I have not yet learned to recognize. Like this rain, it tells me to be still and know. I will spend the rest of my life learning to hear it for what it is.
Presently the rain eases and I return to my log seat to finish off a peanut butter sandwich before calling it a night. From the woods beyond the trail, I think I see the flash of an approaching headlamp, and immediately recall my encounter with Ranger Fife back near the trailhead. I rattle off all my sins in my mind—setting camp in an unauthorized spot, improperly storing my food sack, camping out all by my lonesome on a night like this—trying to summon a defense for each. But then I see another flash, and another, and soon the misty forest is filled with the pale green light of blinking fireflies, like holy ghosts emerging from the hollows.
Soon I notice another light, this one emanating from beneath a cluster of ferns across my camp. I stuff the last bite of sandwich in my mouth, leave the log for a closer look, move the ferns to the side, and there, atop the rotting forest floor, illuminating her fern canopy with an emerald radiance, I see one of the strangest and most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen. It is a larviform adult female of the family Phengodidae—a glowworm beetle of the same tribe as the fireflies lighting the woods all about me. But unlike the blinking fireflies of the thickets, she is curled around tiny eggs, protecting them from nocturnal predators, and her light is unwavering. To this creature, taking her light from beneath a bushel is not so much an exercise in preaching or a means of saving souls, but a measure to stay alive, and to keep her unborn children alive. It is an instinctive act of belonging to the world. Had I a small enough book, I could read by such a light.
Minutes pass before I realize that I’m on my hands and knees on the damp earth watching this glowworm. Of course I know it’s just an insect, however radiant it may be. I have seen plenty of insects in my life that I did not pause to consider. And of course this particular insect—though I’m sure she’s aware of my presence—knows nothing of the wonder she’s stirred in me, much less of how she’s got me thinking of parenthood and religion, of how I find her literal light far more gladdening and practical than much of the artificial light spread by industrial Christianity. Whether I’m a ridiculous man lying on the ground or a hungry skunk snuffing through the underbrush probably doesn’t matter much to her—I’m a potential threat and I’m sure she wants me gone.
But still something vital is happening here. No longer am I the troubled man on the log dreading a long, cold night away from my pregnant wife; rather, I’m acting somewhat like a child, nestled among dripping ferns looking at a creature I’d only read about before, not so much oblivious to the chilly mist and the grubby forest floor as part of them.
After awhile I retire to my tent for a little reading. A couple chapters later, I set the book aside and turn off my headlamp, settling into my sleeping bag and the cadence of chattering insects, the psalm of the gurgling creek. It is cool and damp but soon the tent warms and the possibility of sleep seems less remote. I wonder what Christ meant when he said that to enter the kingdom of heaven we must become as little children—an idea drenched with new meaning for me as a soon-to-be father. If we take heaven to be a supernatural realm dotted with mansions and crisscrossed by golden roads that we’ll get to in the next life (so long as we say some version of a “sinner’s prayer” in this one), I don’t suppose crawling like a fool among a ferny creek bank is going to get anybody any closer to it. But if the kingdom of heaven is within us and in our midst, a thing to be relished here and now, I imagine becoming like children in a very pragmatic sense is the only way to fully enter it. There is heaven here beneath the hemlocks.
Every so often I look out the tent flap to see if the beetle is still aglow there beneath her ferns; I will be in dreams by the time her lights fades. Droplets from the needles and leaves of the treetops above gather and descend in intermittent patters upon my tent. I rest unhindered at the doorstep of a sanctuary, as does my child in the timbre of his mother’s heartbeat, miles and miles from these mountains. The clouds diffuse into milky wisps, like estuaries for the foundling stars, and I sleep. Truly there are lights in this world the darkness has not understood.
[i] I first encountered these statistics in Erik Reece’s “Notes from a Very Small Island” (Orion, Nov./ Dec. 2008), and later in Sandra Steingraber’s “The Story about the One” (Orion, July/ Aug. 2009).
[ii] Merton, Thomas. “Rain and the Rhinoceros.” Raids on the Unspeakable. New York: New Directions, 1966. p. 9.