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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Pigeon Hill

This simulation by Todd McGrain illustrates what a flock of passenger pigeons might have looked like flying overhead.



 

British historian and philosopher Herbert Read once wrote, “Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines.” 


I am thinking about this quote as I walk up Little Kennesaw Mountain, a familiar hike on a trail that begins just about a mile from my house. I park the biggest machine I own in the lot at the base of the mountain and begin to climb. My most-used device sits in my pocket with the notifications turned off. It is cold, and the trail is mostly empty because almost no one wants to hike in twenty-degree weather. The trail ascends through a landscape of rough-edged gneiss boulders that look as though they tumbled down the mountainside in a great avalanche many centuries ago. Most of the trees are barren of leaves, and their gray trunks slice the view of the mountain into a hundred jagged puzzle pieces. The morning sun is out, and I can see my breath as I walk.

 

I pause on top of Pigeon Hill and survey the steep slope where Union soldiers tried and failed to dislodge the Confederate soldiers dug into trenches on the higher ground. This hill is part of the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, the site of a Civil War battle between the forces of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate General Joseph Johnston. Four thousand men died on these ridges on June 27, 1864, as Sherman tried and failed to power his army up the mountain and its surrounding hills. To this day, there are extensive earthenworks still visible along the forested ridges, including a trench I passed on my way up from the parking lot. There is a wooden plaque nearby with a photo of the trench taken in 1864, with a paragraph describing how Confederate soldiers from Missouri faced off against Union soldiers from Missouri on this hillside, the cruelest of ironies according to the anonymous author of battlefield placards. 


There are other signs along this trail, most of them identifying the various Confederate battalions and their locations on the hill, names and numbers that are meaningless unless one already knows intimate details of the battle. What is the purpose of these signs, absent any context? Only Civil War battle fetishists will be able to unlock their coded language. Maybe these signs provide unconscious comfort for most of us. It is easier and more palatable to imagine entire battalions of anonymous soldiers lined up in a trench than it is to meditate on a single soldier—that terrified boy in an ill-fitted uniform trying to act brave, his heart pounding in his chest as he desperately prays to survive the day. 


Whenever I come up here, I always ask myself, why are the trees all so young? But then I remember that the mountain had been extensively logged by 1864, and the Confederate soldiers cut down many trees to build fortifications. Additionally, the battle was so intense that many trees were destroyed by artillery fire, sliced to splinters by cannonballs and rifle shot, and fires broke burning down others in the days after the initial assault. The trees I see around me are mostly the ones that grew afterwards, nature's gentle, persistent healing power turning the mountain and its ridges green again with loblolly pine, tulip trees, red oak, and white oak. 


I am amazed by the quiet wisdom of trees. Each one has the potential for a life span that far exceeds mine, yet they never move. I am told that travel will make me a more sophisticated, knowledgeable person, but I marvel at the knowledge contained within even the most ordinary tree. These parochial beings sink their roots into the soil and humbly go about their life-giving business, turning carbon molecules and sunshine into oxygen, sharing nutrients with other trees through the mycelial network in the soil, and providing food and habitat for animals, insects, and other biological life forms. There are three silver maples on my property. Each one of these trees produces enough oxygen in one day to support two humans. In a year, each tree will consume 48 pounds of carbon dioxide. Together, these three trees are more valuable to the environment than even the most environmentally conscious Americans I know. 


The sun is up over the ridgeline now, and other hikers have begun to appear on the trail, the fast walkers and runners, some with white earbuds tucked into their ears. The epidemic of multitasking follows people even as they walk in the woods. I pity their inability to disconnect from the hive.


I am thinking about my machines, the phone in one pocket, the keys to the car at the bottom of the hill in the other? What about all of the other gadgets—the iPad, the iWatch, and the many technologies of comfort that surround and envelop me when I'm back in the hive? Can I be trusted with these machines? Probably not, though at least I aspire to this trust. 


My phone is out, and I am aiming the camera at a patch of moss clinging to the side of a big boulder.  One of the apps on my phone instantly identifies plant life by simply pointing your camera lens at it. I use it often when I’m hiking. Some of the trees up here have moss and lichen clinging to them. Many of the big rocks also. Moss is essentially a time machine that allows us to gaze backwards 450 million years through biological time. Moss is older than trees, ferns, and grass, and it has survived four mass extinctions. Much like the boulders all around, they are virtually impervious to the din of human civilization.  


This particular moss is a Sematophyllum.  How wonderful, I think, to be able to learn in this way. Sometimes on a hike, I try to imagine what Henry David Thoreau or John Muir would have done with a cell phone. Would they have hated the technology for its capacity to distract humans from nature? Would they have lost themselves in endless scrolling, distracted from the path of deep attention to the natural world? Would they have found productive uses for social media, to advocate for wildlife conservation for example? I think if Thoreau did own a phone, he would turn the notifications off. The constant bombardment of triviality would rile him. In “Life Without Principle,” he wrote 


Not without a slight shudder at the danger, I often perceive how near I had come to admitting into my mind the details of some trivial affair--the news of the street; and I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish--to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. 

On the other hand, he would love some of my nature apps. I imagine him walking in the woods around Concord, Massachusetts, pausing every few steps to catalog what he sees. He would enjoy my birding apps, especially the one that instantly identifies birdsong. 


Pigeon Hill received its name because it was a roosting place for flocks of passenger pigeons, once the dominant bird species in North America. Passenger pigeons were extremely social birds that traveled in enormous, cloud-like flocks that could blot out the sun. When Thoreau was still a boy, in 1823, James Fenimore Cooper described people hunting passenger pigeons for sport in his novel The Pioneers:  


So prodigious was the number of the birds, that the scattering fire of the guns, with the hurling of missiles, and the cries of the boys, had no other effect than to break off small flocks from the immense masses that continued to dart along the valley, as if the whole of the feathered tribe were pouring through that one pass. None pretended to collect the game, which lay scattered over the fields in such profusion as to cover the very ground with fluttering victims.

There were billions of these birds in North America in the early 19th Century.  By 1914, they were entirely extinct, killed off by deforestation and hunting. Now Pigeon Hill is like the hundreds of towns in America that are named after bastardized words taken from the languages of indigenous people who no longer live there. 


On Pigeon Hill, I can begin to locate myself in time and space. I walk off the trail a hundred feet, and stand beneath a big rock overhang, now invisible to passersby. It is cool and damp standing here, hidden from the sun. I can smell the mountain, that mingling of damp earth, rock, and moss. The trees are quietly breathing all around me. If they had eyes, they would be watching, but I believe that they can sense me nevertheless. Scientists recently discovered that trees share nutrients along a vast underground network of interconnected fungi, which is a kind of biological internet for flora. They are sensitive to everything that goes on around them. 


The mountain is quiet now. I hear something drop from a nearby tree, the pop of an acorn or a pine cone hitting the forest floor. I hear the call of a red breasted woodpecker coming from far off. And then nothing. 


I am alone. The runners and walkers have passed me on the way to meeting their daily step goals. The man with the Russian accent who was in the middle of a one-sided conversation about a tax lien has passed me also, his voice trailing off as he moves further up the mountain. In these moments of silence, the forest is unsettling. I can feel its primordial indifference settling into my bones. 


I breathe in. I exhale. The air is clean and cold in my lungs. There is bracing honesty here amidst the boulders and barren trees, and for a few minutes, I bear the burden of all of it—the scars of war on the land, the mass extinctions, the grinding machinery of the Anthropocene that is slowly suffocating the earth. At the same time, the strange beauty of this place is overwhelming. Here among great boulders that were once chipped by rifle shot from the Civil War, I feel as though I am standing in the center of a great forest cathedral. A red-tailed hawk hangs motionless overhead, caught in an updraft, watching me. It is a privilege to be caught even for an instant in its wandering eye. 

    




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