Voices and Silence

This weekend, Good Lord willing and the Creek don’t rise, the third Bayou Teche Wooden Boat Show will welcome a whole passel of people to Franklin.

Come out and visit us! We expect as many as 50, maybe even more, wonderful wooden boats on Parc sur la Teche.


“I hear there’s trout up there,” I said.

“There’s trout twenty-five feet from where you’re sitting, and better trout still in the mountains at your back. And if you get up on Hazel Creek and go up the valley some nights, there’s voices on the wind.”

Exie Sopwith was right about Hazel Creek — about its trout, its beauty, even about the voices. – Harry Middleton, “Bagpipes on Hazel Creek,” from On the Spine of Time.

Not long ago, but too long for comfort, I stood on a ledge of sandstone some hours north of here, listening for voices. I wasn’t on Hazel Creek; that gorgeous little stream is a thousand miles northeast of me, deep in the Smoky Mountains. You can only get to Hazel Creek three ways: A 20-mile hike, a 16-mile hike — both over very rugged terrain — or a boat service across Lake Fontana, for fifty bucks.

Obviously, I’ve never been to Hazel Creek, but I know the spirit of what lives there. Not by name, of course, or by face. I know the substance and soul of it, though. I know the timbre and pitch of it.

There’s a spot along that creek a few hours north of here that always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. No other spot along the stream does that to me. I don’t know what it is, but sometimes, when the wind’s blowing and twisting the tops of trees in mad dances, I think I know what Harry meant: The voices. The wind.

But I was standing on a ledge of sandstone looking upstream, and the creek twisted away to my right, broad and hurried. The water was gin-clear and moving at a good clip, chortling and giggling happily with spring rains after a long summer of drought and hunger. The wild, frenetic spotted bass I so love were unoblidging that day, but the creek — ah! The creek was like a sonnet.

“Bagpipes on Hazel Creek” is considered by many one of the finest of Harry’s essays, and one of the finest in outdoors writing in sum:

“Mountains are the scribblings of time on the surface of the land, a good place for a man to rub life’s immediacy and it’s Jobaic persistence. Mountains absorb life yet do not hide it, either its fecundity, beauty, or its cruelty. In the high country every ridge seems a lodestone. Touch a great, smooth chunk of granite, wade a river, sink into a heavy sleep beneath hemlock trees — everywhere the feel of undiluted process, motion, raw possibility. And you are just another part of it all. Here man does not matter, does not count. Here he is just another expression of life, neither feared, envied, acknowledged or especially needed. The stream, the trout, the mountains, go on without me, dancing, as they have for so long, to time’s madder music, rhythms older than interstellar dust.”

I think of Harry often on these rare and guarded Louisiana creeks; a kindred spirit, a man I would have liked to share a hard-boiled egg and a root beer with, those being Harry’s preferred lunch on the creek.

So I worked my way upstream, casting futilely to imagined spotted bass that ignored my flies as completely as if they were myth. I could see my feet in the water, though it was mid-thigh on my legs. I tell people, “The fishing is always good, though sometimes the catching isn’t.” I don’t think they get it. Certainly I like to catch fish, catching fish is always good. But I can catch fish in a pond on the side of U.S. 90 down the road from the house. No, while I love those ferocious little critters inhabiting the cool, fast water of the creeks, that’s not why I drive hours to throw flies at them.

It’s the voices, of course. The voices on the winds along a creek in North Carolina and in Louisiana are the utterings of the river, the trees, the stones and the sand, and yes, maybe some old settler or young Indian brave who once climbed down that bluff to my right, searching for fish.

You get away from the parking lots and the highways and deep, deep into the creek and the woods and one of two things will happen to you: Either you’ll be unsettled, suspicious of every sound, wary of the thick forest, anxious and ready to flee. Or you’ll feel the gentle edge of wildness, its inherent dangers, but its prolific solace.

Here the solastalgia — the loss of home — fades from my bones and skin. I am home.

“There’s knee-deep silence up on those creeks,” Allie Carlyle told Harry. “Quiet that hasn’t been broken just yet. Leave some when you go.”

I caught not a single fish that day. But the sand suspended in the rushing water column scrubbed away much of the loneliness in the wake of the diminishing of my native waters here at home; the laughing water soothed the ache for wildness. The dogwoods and wild azaleas were blooming, and far from the parking lot there was a treetop twisting wind that carried voices.

Hear me, friends and neighbors. I have stood 4,800 feet above sea level on a creek high in Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains; I have hopped boulders at Tremont in the Smoky Mountains at a mere 1,400 feet and in the Buffalo River in the Ozark Mountains at only 800 feet.

And at a scant 200 feet a couple hundred miles away from where I now sit, it was just the same. Elevation. Nearer to heaven. Nearer to wildness.

When I pressed the truck toward the Interstate, climbed again to that concrete spine and pointed the grille toward home, I had left behind something of myself on that little creek. I hoped it tugged that part of me along, swirling in riffles, slowed along smooth, level runs and finally passing it over snags of pines and oaks, and at long, long last, to the sea.

2 comments to Voices and Silence

  • Beautiful writing that touches the soul and brings back great memories and emotions from the first time I had read Harry’s books. Thank you.

  • My father and I met Harry Middleton once at the Fontana boat dock across the lake from Hazel Creek. We were just coming off a 2 day trip up to Bone Valley and while I was unloading our gear, my dad was talking to a gentleman for about 15 minutes outside the little store there. When I walked back down to the dock from the car, the gentleman said hello to me and then ambled up the ramp toward his own car. We went in to buy a couple of cokes and the man behind the counter said “That there was Harry Middleton. He’s a pretty famous sports writer”. We had neither one heard of him and assumed he worked for a local paper. it wasn’t until about a year later, when I received a copy of “The Earth is Enough” that I made the connection. When I later asked me dad, who at 72 had been fishing Hazel Creek almost 60 years, what they had talked about, he said Mr. Middleton had talked primarily about one big pool up near the Sawdust Pile on the creek and that he had an interesting way about him. That would have been two years before his death and, having now consumed everything I could of Middleton’s, I realize now just what an interesting way he truly had.

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