Vintage Postcard depiction of Asheville, North Carolina from Beaucatcher Ridge
Just east of downtown Asheville, North Carolina the land rises steeply toward Beaucatcher Ridge and on its other side, as it falls away further east, is the Kenilworth neighborhood where my wife and I lived in the late nineties. It is a lovely shaded place that, while not run down, had not yet been brought to the high sheen of gentrification, so often a potential in such places. It was an eclectic mix of houses—as if the neighborhood had grown in fits and starts. To the right of our ranch house on the uphill side of Kenilworth Road were hints of an old road or wagon path, which coursed back up toward the ridge and about 200 yards further on turned ninety degrees from west to south then continued along the contours of the land, neither gaining or losing altitude. I walked partway down this route after the turn several times before I realized that if I stayed on it just a bit longer, a small red-brick church, St. John A Baptist Church, would appear through the pines, white oaks and heavy underbrush.
After living in Charlotte, North Carolina for a number of years, the discovery of so much unmanaged wooded land less than ten minutes from the center of town and right next to our house was a dream. I walked there often, particularly the first fall and winter after we moved. I wanted to know the area’s boundaries and to see if I could find a way to walk all the way up to the top of the ridge and look westward to and beyond downtown Asheville. I wanted to see what houses might be up there, and I wanted to see if there were any hints as to what may have been there in the past. So much of what I wanted seems connected in my memory to wanting to find my bearings, literally and figuratively.
By the time the first snow came in the first days of December, a bit early but not rare in that part of North Carolina, I had already walked in those woods a number of times, yet with a few inches of new snow, suddenly I was able to see them as if for the first time. My initial surprise was an abandoned and dilapidated cedar shingle shack only about fifty yards off the right back corner of our yard. The angle of the roof, usually obscured by the high green tangle of brush and briar, was now exposed by the snow, making it all at once unavoidable in my sightline. It was embarrassing to know it had failed to register with me for so long. My narrative-obsessed imagination made it ghostlike, an apparition invisible until it was ready to have me spot it.
Walking uphill on the pine needles, leaves, and snow was manageable, but coming back down required concentration, and so it was that at dusk one evening, I started back down toward the house after searching for whatever else might have eluded my sight. I was focused on my feet, and I have a vague memory of slipping a couple of times. I don’t know what made me look to my left…maybe simply the awkwardness of walking downhill on the slick ground made me look in a new direction, but suddenly I saw something that didn’t compute at first—a straight line of regularly undulating ground going back and back until it disappeared in the ivy and bramble probably thirty yards back. Each dip was around five feet by two feet. With both the shack and this new mystery, it was the straightness of a line that made me notice, such things rarely occur in nature without human help.
I had quite truthfully “slipped up on” one of the boundaries of the South Asheville Cemetery, an African-American burial site active from around 1840 to 1943. The undulating ground was the result of so many people, unable to afford coffins, buried in wicker baskets, which later collapsed under the weight of the soil. On subsequent trips I found the row I initially noticed was actually part of a far larger, crowded and loosely organized, grid. It does not take long for such places to show signs of neglect, and this place on the hillside had been suffering from neglect over the course of several decades. Even ten paces outside its borders, one would be hard-pressed to recognize it for what is was. Clearly the natural world was busy taking it all back. After that first recognition made while clumsily stumbling back to my house, the discoveries kept coming: tin nameplates, faded plastic pink and yellow flower pedals, and sections of one foot high iron fences formally marking family plots now pulled up and tangled in the slow tide of ivy and periwinkle. I trod as lightly as I could, touching as little as possible, noticing as much as I could.
While there were some impressive gravestones, many more were marked only with rocks or bricks—more still seemed to have no marker at all. The taller the stone, the more likely it had been knocked over or broken. The scene somehow brought to mind Ecclesiasticus, Chapter 44, which you might know as the “Let us Now Praise Famous Men” meditation:
Because record-keeping was poor and the boundaries of the cemetery hard to identify, estimates vary regarding exactly how many people are buried there–I have heard numbers as high at 1500. My wife and I worked over the next couple of years with a group called the South Asheville Cemetery Association to help clean it up. Both of us took groups of students on many occasions to remove brush and pull weeds. Without an endowment to provide for its perpetual care, however, I feared for the legacy of our work, as well as the work of the many others who put in time there. Part of me was proud of our contribution, while another part wondered if the place would be better preserved by leaving it alone and hidden. I found myself worrying about the safety and integrity of the place now that people knew it was there, for stripped of its verdant cover, it looked vulnerable and exposed.
I had not thought much about the cemetery in a couple of years until we travelled to Tunisia in the summer of 2010. My wife was there as part of a seven-week NEH Institute studying St. Augustine and St. Perpetua in situ, and my daughter Eleanor and I had the good fortune of joining her for about half of that time. Eleanor and I were able to go to several of the archeological sites the NEH group visited, and I found myself reflecting once again on my experience with the South Asheville Cemetery Association.
Many of the finest examples of Roman mosaics existent were discovered in Tunisia, and they are truly amazing things. They made me hyper aware of the stunning level of artistry and craftsmanship present in that area of the Roman Empire. Nejib Ben Lazreg (Chargé derecherche Institute National du Patriminie, a title sort of like Chief Archeologist for Tunisia) joined the group on field trips, and he told us that many more sites were known and remained buried because there was not funding to dig or provide security for the preservation of the finds. There are clearly myriad sites that will have to wait for future generations to find and properly preserve. The idea that the uneasy world of current events should temper our desire to discover what we might learn of the past was placed in high relief for me six months later when Tunisia strode first toward the “Jasmine Spring.” I worried about how The Bardo Museum would fare if the events should take a darker turn.
My anxiety found additional traction as Egypt pulled itself apart early this year because we had also traveled for a week to Egypt on our way to Tunisia–“if we have the chance to travel to North Africa,” Katie had argued to me while we stared out at snow drifts outside our window in Cleveland, “we should go to Egypt…you never know when you will have another chance!” Those words have come back to me time and again since the events of January and February of 2011, never more poignantly than when my daughter became infuriated that vandals had torn the heads off several of the mummies in the Cairo Museum during the height of the revolution there. Only seven months earlier we had paid the extra fee to walk down the stairs and see those very mummies together.
At both the cemetery and at archeological sites, such as Thurburbo Maius pictured above, we had a desire to see and to understand (in the case of the cemetery we also had a desire to serve and to contribute), but I think it is important to recognize the precarious situation we create when we uncover such places. In our effort to discover and to learn from to the past in order to locate ourselves in our own complex world, we also accept a sacred responsibility to take care of the sites going forward. We do not often put the same effort into preserving as we do in the uncovering, and we should.
I find myself thinking today about the shack so close to our house in Kenilworth–“an apparition invisible until it was ready to have me spot it.” Part of me likes thinking of it this way because it taps into a sense of magic and mystery regarding discovery. However, I don’t really believe that shacks, or cemeteries, or archeological sites are like ghosts making decisions about when to be found. We are responsible for what we find.
A couple resources for the South Asheville Cemetery:
added Sunday, September 4, 2011: The following link is to “Libya’s Other Wealth: Archaeological Treasures,” which was posted on CNN on September 3rd. http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/09/03/libya.archaeological.sites/index.html