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Ghosts above the Falls
Prayers for the builders of a bridge. And cicadas, always cicadas
My second hike along Falls Lake was essentially backtracking, walking up the west side of the flooded Honeycutt Creek to where I could see the dam again, maybe a mile downstream as the water flows but a good five miles of trail away. All this winding about reminded me of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, making his way home around the backwaters of the Kentucky River flood in January 1937:
I have been watching the stages of this river for most of my life. I know how easy it is to suppose that you can sight a line across the valley floor and know everywhere the water will be when it gets to that line, and I can tell you that most of the time you will be wrong. It is almost impossible to sight a level line, to begin with. And then it is almost impossible to imagine how perfectly the river seeks its level and fulfills itself. In the time of a big flood, a road that you think of as an upland road may get to the bottom of a hill and all of a sudden disappear under water where the river has backed up into a creek valley for several miles…. It is only forty-some miles from Frankfort to Port William, but it took me better than two days, and hard to tell how many miles, to get there.
I said last time that where the creek ends and the lake begins is a judgement call, but I might as well have said that there is no lake, only a permanently flooded river backed up into creek valleys. Water laps the shore in little wavelets, but further out the ripples always have a direction: downstream, towards the dam. Or perhaps it is all lake. It is both, and neither, like the old optical illusion of the duckrabbit. A creeklake.
If you’re scoring at home this is Segment 10, Westbound miles 3.6 to 6.2, Day Hike B.
A quiet morning in a quiet stretch of woods, a short hike for a day rapidly warming. I saw only one other person, a woman setting out for a run with a giant yellow labradoodle as I was returning to the trailhead. A lot of sweetgum, beech, holly, maple, hardwood forest maturing to oak; it may have been clear forty years ago when the dam was built. Muddy streambeds at the end (one hopes!) of a hot dry summer. Side trails to the lakeside, shimmering water. Blue sky with occasionally dramatic cirrus clouds.
A bench overlooking a muddy and shrunken pond fed by a trickle of a creek. The trail, wide enough to have once been a proper road, runs on an embankment perhaps ten to fifteen feet above the pond, twenty above the creek on the other side. A dam. The trail guide says this was a farm pond; the land beyond it must have been meadow.
The bench says, rest awhile! Enjoy the view, such as it is; wait long enough and a duck may arrive, or a heron. Meanwhile enjoy the quiet of the woods. But the formation on which it perches speaks so clearly of labor, of commerce, of agriculture, of human activity that the quiet begins to make me uncomfortable. It is as if I am resting on graves.
Quiet is a relative term, perhaps. No woods are really quiet in August when the cicadas are singing. But their racket reads to me as a kind of silence, perhaps only because I’m used to it, or because it is nonhuman and nonmechanical, or because it is continuous and omnidirectional, a high white noise that differs from birdsong as the low chatter of a busy café differs from a barked cellphone conversation. Leaf blowers in concert make a similar drone, and yet: they annoy me.
These woods were not always so quiet. Cicadas aside, their silence is not even natural. When John Lawson explored this part of North Carolina in 1701 he recorded spending the night “at the Falls of a large Creek, where lay mighty Rocks, the Water making a strange Noise, as if a great many Water-Mills were going at once. I take this to be the Falls of Neus-Creek.” If you have toured a reconstructed gristmill you know the rattle and roar of the wheels, the gears, the stones. Interesting that Lawson found an industrial simile for the falls—or perhaps prescient. By the middle of the nineteenth century every running stream had its mill: grist mills, lumber mills, paper mills, powder mills, each with its dam, its mill pond, its traffic and its clatter of machinery. Parts of this lakeside trail were once roads for wagons and carriages that were quieter than a pickup truck but louder by far than a Tesla.
An 1871 map of Wake County shows the landscape dotted with mill ponds, as well as an unnamed road just south of the river. (Honeycutt Creek, along whose flooded banks I have been walking, was then called Fall Creek.)
The biggest mill is harder to spot on the map, for it took advantage of the falls themselves, and needed no pond. What became known as the Falls of the Neuse Manufacturing Company was from 1855 to 1896 the largest and best producer of paper in eastern North Carolina. Its dam spanned the river, 400 feet wide and 6 feet tall, built of quarried stone blocks. So there was a dam here even in the 1850s, and likely some time before that. The power of falling water was too valuable to waste.
An abandoned mill may be as picturesque as a forgotten cattle pond, but those pictures hide an awful lot of work. Someone built the mill and ran it; someone built the road and the dam. To quarry rock for dam and mill meant the pick and the hammer, calloused hands and bent backs; work done anywhere by those who had fewest options, and here by those who had none. Slaves, assuredly. They toiled in the empty spaces on the map, too, between the neatly labeled houses. Just southeast of the falls is a little black square marked “Crenshaw House.” Its owners called it Crenshaw Hall. In 1860 their plantation spanned 1400 acres, held 42 slaves, and produced 14,000 pounds of tobacco; it continued producing tobacco after the war, presumably by sharecropping, perhaps with the same men and women who had been slaves.
The map, of course, doesn’t name the men who worked the mills or the sharecroppers or tenants who grew the tobacco. Nor the men before them who built the mill, who raised the dam, who quarried the rock. Now even the signs they left on the land are mostly gone. Sic transit labor mundi, even faster than the gloria.
Much work still survives in the landscape, of course, and for its intended use. Any hiking trail was built by some and maintained by others. And there are bridges, mostly simple wooden spans over creeks and gullies. For them I am grateful, and for the park rangers or volunteer crews or Eagle Scouts who built them. It’s an easy sort of gratitude. Likely they enjoyed their labor, at least in some measure. Certainly they valued its purpose. Still I’m in their debt, and gratitude shouldn’t be too easy.
In The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner gives this matter-of-fact narrative of a pair of fourteenth-century nuns journeying from their convent to a cathedral city:
They had come to the bridge over the Waxle Stream, and there were tolls to be paid. Dignified with a bridge the familiar river looked quite different, its current more determined, its waters more brilliant. The two nuns said a prayer for the soul of the bridge builder.
The two nuns said a prayer for the soul of the bridge builder. Warner gives no more emphasis to the prayer than her nuns would have done in life; it is routine, the contemplative’s awareness of what lies before, beneath, and beyond her, sharpened by distance from home. It seems to me the form gratitude ought to take, humble and specific: an acknowledgment of particular debt to a particular person, someone no less particular for being unknown, and a particular blessing asked or offered.
What words would be appropriate? God bless and keep the builders of this bridge would be enough. I want to add may their hands be ever busy and their souls ever at rest, though not everyone thinks busy hands are a blessing. Something ritual but flexible: you never know when you’ll find yourself in the debt of a ghost.
As for those longer past, I stand in the old road and think of them, and in my mind they are not quiet. I imagine the crash of hammer on rock and the rhythm of a work song, the clatter of gears and wheels and millstones turning at all hours, the rattle of wagons and the cursing of drivers. I can imagine it all well enough. But you’d never hear any of it over the cicadas.
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Notes and further reading
The quotations are from Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow (Counterpoint, 2000), p. 84, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Corner That Held Them (New York Review Books, 1988, orig. 1948), p. 382.
John Lawson journeyed across much of North Carolina in 1700–1701 and wrote about what he found in A New Voyage to Carolina. I’ll cross paths with him again.
The description of the Falls of the Neuse Manufacturing Company and its dam are from the nomination form for the National Register of Historic Places for the mill buildings, dated 1983. Additional photos of the mill are available from the Library of Congress. On the Crenshaw family see “Crenshaw Hall will be funeral home,” Wake Forest Gazette, September 2, 2015.