I always have the Narnia feeling when I come across something new in the woods. In this case it was an old quarry filled with clear greenish water and swarming with blue- and yellow-finned fish. Every hike is a journey to the other side — the luminous and numinous world that surrounds us but that we don’t see.
In fact, I have driven past the trail to the quarry hundreds of times. It’s six miles from Reinhardt, where I have worked for twenty-one years. The roadside historical marker explains that the trail begins at the site of the Cherokee town of Pine Log, but it does not mention that it leads to an old quarry built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1940s.
The woods swallow the history. The water covers the history. Nature takes it back, like the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand in Planet of the Apes. In a way, we are always living in the post-apocalypse of somebody else’s world.
I went with some Reinhardt MFA folks to see if the hike was a possibility for next year’s Residency. We quickly concluded that it is not, because the trail is hilly and long. It ascends the smaller mountain to the north of Pine Log Mountain.
I love that curvy stretch of 140 through Beasley Gap. Pine Log Creek bubbles up from the feet of Pine Log and Garland Mountains, and there is a spring by the side of the highway where people still go to fetch the fresh water, as I’m sure the Cherokee did two hundred years ago.
The trail to the quarry follows Pine Log Creek for a while, one of those rich fern-spread and mountain laurel guarded valleys, then heads higher into the woods. The quarry is next to a smaller creek but does not come from it. It has filled with rainwater over the years.
Coming upon the quarry is like coming upon the Blue Lagoon in the middle of the woods, except it is more green than blue. Surrounded by massive boulders and long grass. Butterflies and dragonflies alight on rocks, skim the water.
The most astounding thing is the fish – hundreds of them, with almost iridescent blue and yellow fins and tails. My ichthyologist colleague Keith Ray tells me these are probably bluegill and green sunfish.
A friend had told me this is an old CCC quarry, and a small sign on the trail confirms this. This set me wondering: Why would they dig a quarry here, in such a remote place? What were they quarrying? What was the Civilian Conservation Corps doing here anyway?
My woods quest set me on a research quest – from physical space to cyberspace. It is so strange how short our historical memory is. I could find almost nothing online about the CCC quarry at Pine Log. I thought about these young men, just 80 years ago, hauling heavy equipment through the woods, slashing through thickets of mountain laurel, hacking stone out of the mountainside. Now completely forgotten.
What I did find is something much older, millennia older. In Geological Surveys from the early 1900s, I found out there were slate mines north and west of Pine Log – green slate, good for roofing. The Etowah Valley is rich in minerals – gold, iron, slate, barite – because the Cartersville Fault runs perpendicular to the Etowah. 480 million years ago, two continents slammed together here, and we live on the fault line, which pushes up and exposes eons of sedimentary layers.
The CCC quarry burrows down into the fault line, down through the Mississipian, the Cambrian, all the way down to the Paleozoic. Some of the boulders surrounding the quarry are made of layers of rock that have folded back on themselves, time bent backwards, a warp, a wormhole. Friday Folds, geologists call them. Perhaps the Narnia reference is not so far off – this is a threshold of sorts.
We live on the thin skin of an old earth, like the water striders that skim across the quarry pond. We think we are so powerful and significant, when we are as light and small as spiders. The only thing that matters about us is the souls we forget we have.
At the Bartow History Museum Archives, I find an old newspaper clipping: “First Auto Ever to Top Pine Log Mountain.” It tells me that CCC workers lived in a camp at the base of Pine Log Mountain. They built the first road up Pine Log in 1938. In the photo, the CCC superintendents stand next to a 1930s pick-up truck in front of that rickety old fire tower which I have risked my life climbing in years past and which I now know that the CCC built as well.
Local historian Sandford Chandler tells me that the Pine Log CCC camp became a barracks after Pearl Harbor, when the young CCC men joined the army.
Researching the CCC in Georgia, I find out that during the Depression 50% of young men aged 15-24 were unemployed, and that the CCC mainly recruited local boys and men from rural communities who earned $30 a month, $25 of which they were required to send to their families. I also learn that many of them were illiterate and the CCC camps held classes and taught young men to read.
We’ve forgotten that kind of poverty.
The quarry is hopeful to me because it teems with life. The colorful fish and insects and butterflies testify that rock can bloom. That Dustbowls don’t last because the rain returns and fills them like a chalice.
But it is also a wormhole, the folded layers of rock demonstrating how time bends and how the past persists.
I still think about those young men and the Sisyphean moving of rocks from one hill to another, perhaps for a green slate roof on a now-fallen building. The hacking and heaving in the Georgia heat. How they did not mind the work, knowing it was feeding their families. How they laughed and joked and maybe even learned to read on the top of Pine Log Mountain.
What lasts about them, not the quarry, but who they became in the digging.