by Vanessa Moss, Resident
On my first retreat at Southern Dharma, I was struck by the old homesite relics punctuating the landscape, using my lunch breaks to meditate near them. Now, I’ve lived at SDRC for six weeks as a resident, affording more time to connect with this land and its history.
I sat to meditate on a moss-covered rock and the final gusts of September blew up the valley, making the leaves quiver. The creek next to me cantered, pulling water down from the mountain into Wooleyshot Branch and then on to Spring Creek, eventually joining the French Broad River at its confluence in Hot Springs. For millions of years, water has lapped away at these Appalachian hills.
A walnut fell from above, crashing through branches before cracking like a gunshot on a thin sheet of tin. The old roof lay flat, hemmed in grass. Trees had fallen through the center of a once one-room cabin, scattering its roof and log walls. The only thing semi-intact was a half-crumbled stone chimney stack. I wondered if walnuts fell on the house when it was lived in; if the sound of them crashing on the roof woke its dwellers as they slept.
These people were neighbors to the Waldroups, if not Waldroups themselves. Perhaps this cabin was the farmhand quarters for the family, if they needed to hire people from town to help with tobacco harvest. This was the family that Elizabeth Kent and Melinda Guyol bought 135 acres from in 1978 to form the Southern Dharma Retreat Center.
These farmers were far from the first in this region. There aren’t records of any permanent Native American communities in Spring Creek, specifically, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t occupied. These hills could be hunted, and the more hospitable bottomlands of Spring Creek likely drew people to grow crops in small settlements.
The Yuchi tribe or Tsoyahá, meaning Children of the Sun, lived in current-day Greene County, Tennessee, about ten miles from Southern Dharma. From 1500-1700, their population split and relocated, changing names and locations frequently, making their history hard to trace. By 1715, they were presumably driven out of the region by European settlement pressures and conflict with the Cherokee. Come the 1830 Indian Removal Act, they were forced from the state of Tennessee and became a distinct group within the Creek Nation of Oklahoma.
Meanwhile, the Cherokee or Aniyvwiya (the “Principal People”) lived mostly in towns to the southwest of Madison County, with the nearest known settlements in Cataloochee and near Lake Junaluska. Today, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians live in the Qualla Boundary of Cherokee, about an hour and a half drive from Southern Dharma.
Both of these tribes were present in this region. And there were many tribes that pre-date them. Twenty miles northwest of SDRC is Paint Rock, where 5,000 year-old pictographs are drawn onto a cliffface. It’s thought that Paint Rock and the nearby Hot Springs was an intersection of trade and diplomacy for tribes. Spring Creek would likely have been a thoroughfare, a route to this cultural site.
Sitting by the homesite, I heard the midday birdsong slow. A tufted titmouse flew from a post oak’s branches and lighted on the uneven rock of the chimney, rising stolidly from the fallen home. The lives here had sparked, rose, and unraveled, then, like smoke, were gone.
I don’t want to think about my own death, or the way cultural changes pushed this rural farming family to abandon their valley, or the mass death and extrication of the historic tribes of these mountains. But it is the nature of our practice to bear witness. It is, in fact, what drew me to practice in the first place. To sit within the discomfort of impermanence, to reckon with the reality that all we love will be lost.
The loss of Native American life and culture in this region points to impermanence, but also the Kleshas, the poisons that Buddha taught propels beings around the cycle of samsara. It was out of greed, hatred, and delusion, the U.S. government forced more than 70,000 Native Americans from the eastern United States. Of the 17,000 Cherokee bound for Oklahoma, around 4,000 died of cold, hunger, and disease during the journey.
This region is part of that gruesome history. As practitioners, we use the present moment to observe the chain of dependent origination and recognize the interdependence of all beings. And, as in the Boddhisattva vow, to dedicate our practice to the liberation of all beings.
As I sat, looking at the lone chimney, I imagined my own home, my own family, my own land grown over and forgotten. What traces do I want to leave of myself, 200 years from now?
To plant more trees. To be more generous. To love as well as I can. To hold in compassion the mistakes of the people before me, and in compassion make changes for the future.
Anicca, impermanence, is foundational to the Buddha’s teachings. It was the Buddha’s first insight, spurring him to leave his life of palace-bound privilege and seek the path of enlightenment. It lends us a sense of urgency: “If I am, then I will one day not be.” And then we hope the urgency of our practice eventually guides us beyond the concept of “I am.”
The wind around me blew harder and a curtain of ochre leaves fell. A single maple leaf landed in a rusted-out washing bucket, another fingerprint of human existence on this land. There are many traces like this to be found. Arrowheads, if you’re lucky, but also faint overgrown carriage roads, an ancient scrap of barbed wire, a broken piece of porcelain. So many lives were lived here.
And there must have been joy. Perhaps, as the adage goes, a whole 10,000 joys–coupled, undoubtedly, by 10,000 sorrows. All of them rising and unfolding, right here in this valley.
Southern Dharma is a part of that unfolding, that experience of joy and sorrow. When we practice on this land, we must bear witness to the injustice and pain of its history. But we also have the opportunity to tap into the joys of this place, and the peace it inspires as a refuge for so many.
Vanessa Moss is a familiar face around Southern Dharma, as were her mother and grandfather before her. When she's not on retreat she keeps herself busy gardening and writing. You can read more of her work here.
Donate to the Yuchi Language Project, “to restore the vitality of the Yuchi language and create a sustainable language community where the fullness of the Yuchi worldview can thrive for future generations.”
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