The Etowah is an unsung river.
It’s a slow, modest river winding its way out of the southernmost Appalachian mountains and across the northern perimeter of metro Atlanta. It provides a significant portion of metro Atlanta’s drinking water, hoarded in Lake Allatoona and other reservoirs. Its most recent claim to fame is as a player in the Southern Water Wars, with Alabama suing Georgia over water rights.
Like about half of Atlantans, I’m a stranger here, or I was when I came here in 1997. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. I could hear the Beltway from my bedroom. Now I live in a 175-year-old farmhouse in North Georgia, and I spend my time walking the hills and valleys near the Etowah River.
What am I looking for? Early white settlers came here searching for the gold in the river bed. I am searching for a different kind of gold: treasure, unseen and forgotten. I’m searching for the people who lived here: the Native Americans who lived here starting in about 10,000 B.C., culminating in the Cherokee sent on the Trail of Tears in 1838. The white settlers who came for gold and stayed to farm and manufacture. The slaves who never chose to come here at all, but whose descendants still live here.
I’m searching for the river itself, where it winds through the landscape unseen. The damage that has been done by mining and development, the species that are endangered or gone. I am searching for how two small rivers (the Etowah and the Chattahoochee) can (or can’t) sustain a metropolis.
My search touches upon some of the issues of commemoration now troubling the South. Who deserves to be remembered, and why? This is not a simple issue for me. I believe that Civil War monuments erected in the 1950s and 1960s as segregationist statements need to go. But I am most interested in the memorials that need to be put up, as the stories of the Cherokee and the slaves who lived here are brought into public space. I think that we should know and say their names.
More than anything, I am searching for how to have a relationship with the land, in a culture that has ceased to value that relationship. Physical place does not matter much anymore in the age of cyberspace. I see the irony in writing a blog, flinging out into cyberspace, a plea for a return to the experience of physical place.
I call what I am doing a pilgrimage because the connection I seek is spiritual. Both the Cherokee and Christians in this valley have understood the connection between place and spirit. Half the churches in North Georgia are named after a body of water, the rivers, creeks and springs where they baptized, or a site in Jewish sacred geography – Rowland Springs Baptist church, Mt. Zion Baptist church. As every mountain, desert, hill, grove and river in Israel held a spiritual significance for the Jews, each creek and mountain in North Georgia held a spiritual significance for the Cherokee and their predecessors.
Even more so now, the land holds spirits – layers of memory of people who gave birth, who married, who danced, who grieved, who suffered, who died. You can do the physical archaeology, and a lot of people have in this area. The arrowheads and pot shards tell us where the people lived. But what about their names, their stories, their songs? The song of the river itself, which they knew and sang, far better than we do.
The Etowah is not an unsung river, it’s just an unsung river now. I am searching for its song, and the people who sang it.