An Earthquake, Birds, Turtles, and Something Else
When the mission conference ended, I went about living outdoors again. I had packed up my conference attire and had put my three layers of camping clothes back on. They were nasty – days of sitting in the cold only made my truck smell like body odor and campfire. When I put my fleece back on, a gritty sandpaper texture scrubbed my skin. Smoke squeezed out of the fabric as though I had rubbed a still-smoldering cigarette between my fingers.
I arrived at Kyle’s Landing, set up camp, and watched an armadillo shuffle around for whatever armadillos hunt. The unusually low clouds and canyon-like walls at the Buffalo River made the world feel darker and more incarcerating than normal. I poked my fire with a stick, which kicked up sparkles of light radiating away from the fire like tiny orbs climbing the night sky. But no matter how many times or how hard I knocked the logs, the sparkles suffocated and tumbled back to the ground before they had the chance to take their place in the permanence hung beyond the cloud cover.
At 4AM I woke up with my head screaming. The air pressure changed or the temperature dropped or something else atmospheric, global, and livid. It gripped the corners of my head and set about crushing my skull. I was going to explore more of the Buffalo River, hang around Arkansas longer, search for hidden treasures in the Ozarks, but not with a head racked with pain.
A pocket of clear sky in the west cracked reality. I stood captivated for a moment like a small chick glimpsing the larger world behind shards of a broken eggshell. Skeptical the entire world could be inside the eggshell, I wanted to know what anchored the stars in the heavens, unreachable in their meditations, the dotted shivering’s of a nearly closed aperture. And I wondered if the God of early risers had ripped the cloud cover, allowing this one-time communion; but even this wink from divinity declined any alleviation and was a hurried-up or never mind experience.
I cranked my truck, broke down camp, and headed off for somewhere else, somewhere my head wouldn’t be throbbing. If I had known I was headed into an animal kingdom – a world where nature and society, where the boundary of humanity mingled freely with the world of brutes and beasts, where birds look you in the eye and buffalo block traffic, a world closer to the Garden of Eden or Narnia or Middle Earth than the world of stop lights and grocery stores and parking lots – if I had known I was driving into this mythological world, I wouldn’t have cussed my throbbing head so much.
I pulled through a sleeping town called Jasper, turned east, drove through the Missouri Bootheel, crossed the Mississippi River, and stopped at Reelfoot Lake. The third cup of coffee had worked in tandem with my truck’s heater and quelled the storm in my head. The campground had cellphone signal. The gas station lunch hadn’t been entirely fried. I was back in my State of Franklin. My situation was improving.
Reelfoot Lake is a brand-new, natural lake.
Try to imagine the tectonic forces needed to reverse a river like the Mississippi. At the beginning of the 19th century, those forces happened. The earth rumbled and cracked. Hills fell down and flat land was uplifted. Water broke out of the ground through fissures and craterlets. Log cabins rolled down hills as far away as Cincinnati, Ohio. President Madison felt the shaking earth in the White House. Church bells rang in Boston. The Mississippi roiled and bent, rippling waves up river, capsizing and sinking boats until the braided course reversed direction and flowed backwards. Overturning a river’s downstream flow doesn’t come without long-term consequences, and in the northwestern corner of Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake, a flooded 15,000-acre forest, is one of those consequences.
But there is another consequence that no one much speaks about.
The American South has long been the land of misfits, superstitions, long memories, empty manners, and arguably the birthplace of American fanaticism. The American South is also known for the strength of its religious convictions – the Bible Belt. We have fundamentalist, holy rollers, snake handlers and tongue talkers. The end of the world is always around the corner, and a tent-preaching evangelist will be forgiven 70 times seven for prophesying awry the glorious day of the rapture. Glory, halleluiah, the Lord is-ah coming again, our billboards and church signs read. We rival the intransigent charisma of Pharaoh but celebrate the providing God in the wilderness. We build golden calves but have no other gods. We are a defeated people who will one day be vindicated by an ever increasing apocalyptic, hellfire God.
These commonplace religious convictions give us dirt-farming Southerners a featherbrained reputation. And some of it is true: vast ranges of the American South are intellectually barren and suffer terminal provincialism. But it should be noted that our fatuous appetites are shared in equal measure with any other cultural region of the world. We are not uniquely ludicrous. So why is it then that, in mixed company, once a Southern drawl is detected the owner of the distinguished accent is immediately assessed and ensconced with a mental dunce cap?
It’s because we live in a land where a mighty river flowed backwards. Apocalyptic, end-of-the-world signs happened in the South. Unexplainable flashes of light, ground waves, “the soft soil shook like runny eggs,” one eye witness reported; this stuff really happened and was remembered by Davy Crockett who wrote, “We were now right in the region which had been torn to pieces by them in 1812, and we thought it might take a notion and swallow us up, like the big fish did Jonah.”
But no one else much remembers it. The earthquake that set San Francisco on fire, the Alaska earthquake that caused a tsunami, the 1989 earthquake that interrupted the World Series: people remember these earthquakes. At least one of them was captured on live TV. But the fire-belching, earth-contorting, river-reversing earthquake in the South has been regulated to tall tales and frontier-life exaggerations, like Davy Crockett who was as much invented as he was historical.
Birds, though, migrate to northwestern Tennessee because an earthquake opened up the planet and created a lake. And birds don’t mind that we Southerners embroider stories with a luscious dexterity exempt from normative parlance. And this obliging characteristic is precisely why God made birds a symbol of divinity.
So, I went from bird to bird. Bald eagles, hawks, owls, ducks, white pelicans, herons, egrets, if birds were people, Reelfoot Lake would be one of the greatest cultural centers of the world. I drove a few miles away to the Lake Isom National Wildlife Refuge. Cotton fields and fallow grounds stretched to near the horizon. Hundreds of black birds kept coming down from the air, landing softly in the lot beside my truck. They kept descended, hundreds more, and hundreds more, in giant patches of swarthy, nebulous blurs like wind chased clouds. I opened the door, stepped out of the truck, and made the mistake of shutting the door behind me.
All at once, the birds lifted from the field, striking the air like mallets hitting a drum. These small birds, no bigger than my hand I would guess, in the thousands pushed away from the ground creating pressure waves. The concussed air flowed over me with a surreal thump and drew me closer to the birds. The cloud of birds swirled. They seemed to float and rise above the far-off tree line, the birds in their expeditions, their travels to this land of Goshen, settling for now in this earthquake created kingdom, as they swarmed with a blizzard’s caprice. Red-winged black birds, starlings, common grackles, brewer’s blackbirds, maybe small crows or ravens, these lives were being lived out here in this field, if just for today, and I wondered if any of them would be here had the Mississippi River not flown backwards.
The birds continued to marble the sky. They glided from the sky to the earth to surge again at the sound-proof gate of heaven, in that one, thundering, gesture; I felt for sure they were telling a story: gilded thespians scripted by choreographed poems of stunts and acrobatics. And the thousands and thousands of birds canceled each other like balanced equations allaying extraneous divisions to the simplest number. There were, in fact, not thousands of birds but one.
I went back to Reelfoot Lake and watched turtles. You never see a turtle do much of anything. They just climb up on a log and sit there. I’m sure there’s a turtle expert out there who could explain what a turtle does below water: that they do, in fact, work for a living, clawing and digging at submerged logs. But for me, they trudged out of the water, collapsed on the log, and sunned themselves with a bovine torpor.
They sat there, having risen out of an earthquaked water, as a collection of discarded memories. Each turtle an unrecoverable moment. Then I imagined all the unseen submariners and the thousands of logs around the lake booking turtles like beach hotels. Someday, with the same sort of mystery as a river, these turtles-memories will gather together, each one a juncture, a broken narrative, and as the heaps and gobs of turtle-memories accrete, my story or your story, a life from turtle-memories will stitch together and create an untold story whose type was to be that first story that became frustrated and ruined and never lived.
We are that mysterious. Maybe it is the image of God in us. Maybe it is the redemption we find in Christ. Maybe life is a collection of mysteries and natural events that can only be explained with turtle-memories. We are gods, Jesus tells us, and we participate in the divine nature. When the disease of this world has been ameliorated, when we let go of the turtle-memories of this world, we will discover a new world, a new life too large and beautiful for memories, and it will be turtles all the way down – turtles and birds and a crack ripping open the created order like a curtain torn in two, from top to bottom.
The next morning, I continued on to the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky and discovered Elk and Buffalo. But I was tired. Tired of living outdoors. Tired of sleeping on the ground. Tired of waking up at an insane hour. I started the long drive home, and, after 2,900 miles, I slept in my own bed.
I slept in my own bed for one night before I had to go somewhere I didn’t expect to go.