In the early 1900s, churches used to hold Easter services at the top of Pine Log Mountain. Newspaper articles report over a hundred people in attendance. This was back before automobiles, before there was even a good road up the mountain. I can picture the women in their long, lacy white dresses and the men in their dark suits and hats, trudging up the mountain in the early spring chill. It’s usually cold on Easter in Georgia, the trees just budding, violets and anemones and trillium just poking through, first ferns unfurling.
It’s not an easy climb, rocky and steep. What led them to make the journey?
There’s something about a mountain. Part of it is the view. From the summit of Pine Log, you can see all the way south to Stone Mountain, all the way north to the Cohuttas. It’s a reminder how small we are, how big the world is, how green and lush in spring. A 360-degree panorama of resurrection.
There is also a longing to ascend, to get that one step closer to the sky, to where God lives. In the Jewish tradition, Moses saw Yahweh in the burning bush on Mount Sinai, and it was there that Yahweh told him His true name.
Can a place hold spirit? The Cherokee thought so. They were a mountain people, and certain mountains held special meaning. Clingman’s Dome in North Carolina, the tallest of the Smoky Mountains, called Kuwahi by the Cherokee, was a sacred site. The White Bear, the chief of all of the bears, dwelt there and held council. Wounded bears went there to bathe in an enchanted lake that healed them. Medicine men travelled there to receive instructions from the Creator, which they brought down to Kituwah, or Keetowah, the ancient mound where the Cherokee sacred fire burned.
Both Israelites and Cherokee walked a sacred landscape where place, story and spiritual presence could not be separated. In Judaism, not only Mount Sinai, but Mount Moriah, where Abraham brought Isaac for the averted sacrifice. Mount Pisgah, where God showed Moses the promised land but told him he would never enter it. For the Cherokee, not only Kuwahi and Kituwah, but Nikwasi, home to the mythical Nunnehi, the little people, and Chota, town of refuge where no blood could be shed.
The Cherokee who lived in our area must have held Pine Log sacred. It is the last mountain, or first mountain, in the Appalachian chain, depending how you look at it. The White Cliffs have surely drawn worshippers for ages.
I climb Pine Log for the same reason that the Cherokee climbed Clingman’s Dome, the same reason that women in long dresses and men in suits climbed Pine Log. I remember there who I am – a part of this Creation I did not make and could not make. The Cherokee believe that everything has spirit – not just the animals, but the trees, the rocks, the water. Everything is alive and connected.
Easter, in particular, draws worshippers outside because spring is a picture of the resurrection for which we long. Did Jesus really rise in the month of April? Who knows, and it doesn’t matter. Of course it is a melding of pagan and Christian, like Christmas trees and Easter eggs.
I am not a stickler. These are all metaphors. As a poet, I know that a metaphor is often the truest thing you can say.
The thing that makes us climb the mountain is the hunger for resurrection, without which we are doomed. If spring never came, if trees never leafed again and no seed sprouted, if our worst mistakes determined the rest of our lives, if there was no forgiveness, if love were not more powerful than hate. That is the world without Easter.
This Easter was kind of a bummer. Coronavirus kept everyone at home and separate. In Georgia, low clouds loomed all day, and storms rolled in and pounded us all night. Many people sat at home and wondered how they would pay their bills, or if their jobs would still exist.
Easter happened anyway.
One of my favorite passages in all of literature is from Dr. Suess, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. The scene on Christmas morning when everything is gone, every last toy and present, and yet the Who’s all rise and sing.
I have been that emptyhanded – when my house burned in 2012, when I couldn’t have a child, when my 15-year-old daughter moved out last year. Most women I know have had empty arms one way or another, some much more terrible than mine.
I used to think that the meaning was in the first spring of our lives, when our marriages are new, our children are babies, our bodies are young and strong, and everything seems golden and possible.
Now I know that the meaning is always in the After, in the Easter, even if it is stormy and alone.
He is Risen. I call Him Jesus, you might call him the Great White Bear who heals the wounded in his magic lake.
Or a Lion. In the last Narnia book, when the children get to Aslan’s country, there are hills stretching as far as the eye can see.
“Further up and further in,” they cry. And climb.