Oak too small to bother

wildacres limb
Wildacres Retreat Center 3,300 feet in the Blue Ridge under shelter of young oaks left from the clear-cutting a century ago.

Less than a hair, the spider’s thread arched from one heavy oak spar to the branch below catching a glint of light through the shifting fog. Too small to bother when the hills were clear cut and still young as oaks go.  Arching a hundred feet and years above the steep ridge of Wildacres Retreat Center in North Carolina, it shelters writers weaving their craft—and spiders, too.

Dense green now, only a century ago every tree on every knob here was cut to brush. It was a time when the worst swaggered and trash-talked the weakest, bankers laughed about stealing and the children worked the mills. Governor’s mansions and senator’s hallways were safe for the mean, vile and stupid.

Thomas Dixon Jr, a fellow Wake Forest alumni who lent his busy life to the opposite of everything I do. Fortunately, I’m still at it (he died in 1946).

In the early 1900’s, a brilliant Wake Forest graduate named Thomas Dixon, Jr. spun off novels and screenplays as quick as he could type, including one that shifted culture right off the rails: “The Birth of a Nation.” To a soundtrack with the Ride of the Valkyries, the Klan defended White Christian culture, imperiled by racial dilution the government was too timid to do. Dixon and a swarm of collaborators made millions on the film, some of which was invested on Pompey’s Knob in North Carolina, to create a haven for the white thinking class.

Dixon’s whole proud and tottering mess collapsed in the Crash of 29. He defaulted on his $190,000 loan (about $2.7 million today). The bank that loaned him the money for the mean scheme went down, too, so eventually the note ended up in Texas where it was put up for auction. A Jewish radiator company owner visited the mountain after attending an interfaith event in Charlotte, then put in the only bid of $6,500. The Texas bank approved the sale after the judge’s clerk visited the property on a day when the high mountain fog turned the view grey and cold—which I.D. Blumenthal always considered a direct miracle of God. After the horrors of World War Two, Blumenthal and his wife dedicated the 1,400 acres to building bridges across lines of faith, race and class in 1946, the year Dixon died. Nearly 8 decades after Dixon’s short-lived dream dissolved, they are buried next to the auditorium where the patient work goes on beyond them.

Pompey’s Knob when Dixon’s tribe controlled the heights.

Last week SUN Magazine held its annual writer’s conference here at Wildacres. The SUN is everything Dixon hated, entirely given to the humble labor of lending accurate words to the wild ways of humankind, the way we love and weep, the ways we hurt and disregard, how we touch and how we see; our skin and body politic, too. Begun in a what-the-hell kind of moment 45 years ago by Sy Safransky who still edits and writes. The tribe of SUN is still only 70,000 readers, which is less than a spider’s filament in today’s harsh media clear cut. Too small with which to bother.

The old pictures of Dixon’s time show a hill clear-cut to knee-high brush and stumps as ugly as any Klan rally. Only a century later, the oaks and hickory that were too small to bother amid the clear-cutting are teenagers, barely 80 feet high. Yet even while only a couple of feet in girth, they stretch strong limbs out and high above those gathered beneath, working at the modest labor of crafting the language and ideas close to the bone and real as dirt. About half of the writers gathered under the trees were people you’d have very  little chance of having heard of. They are lawyers, teachers and no small number of people working in health and education. People who cared about other people and could not stop trying to capture that astonishing fire in accurate image and voice. Sy Safransky started the SUN 45 years ago. Now 73, he is wry and chastened. He read a piece about blue pills, three marriages and two divorces and reflected on he days he thought that Bush was as bad as it could get. The other four faculty were exquisitely transparent and talented, generously protecting lesser writers like a spider her young.

Wildacres Retreat Center today, in “Little Switzerland,” NC

Most of the SUN writer and reader tribe gathered beneath the young oaks were lawyers and social types, trying to learn how to describe the human way. It is hard to tell the truth about birth, death, sex, mothers bad and sisters lost, longings and hopes that people have along the way of life. We were told to focus on the detail: “go small to go big.”

It is not easy to write one true sentence. Stop tweeting and chattering and try it; just one sentence. It seems so little and surely not in time. You’ll feel the oaks begin to rise.

And with every un-reflected adjective, you’ll feel them fall, a bit of poison at the root. It’s hard to trace all the damage of a bad idea in talented hands. But I’d be amazed if Dixon hadn’t spread some of his venom into the gentle parlors of Winston-Salem, where the powers of industry ended up investing their tobacco wealth into experiments on eugenics, sterilizing “feeble-minded” poor men and women. Other Wake Forest intelligentsia chimed in with scientific not just  literary footnotes. Although it wasn’t focused just on women of color, the legacy of that health system complicity now results in a pattern of dramatic under-utilization of prenatal care.  The problem isn’t ignorance, but accurate memory.  Decades later, the aftershocks of those ugly practices kill another generation as mothers continue to fear getting prenatal care from the hospital that sterilized their aunts. One can almost hear the clicking of Dixon’s typewriter with each needless death.

Spiders only live a couple years, but they invest every minute in the next generation. Maybe you can see the web there among the branches.

Twenty six letters and a handful of years. That’s all we have to work with in our short lives where we try to raise a few children and do the best we can as neighbors and citizens. We may be in a time as ours, when venal idiots run unbridled. We are tempted to rant louder, or curl up and whine.

There is nothing more important and hopeful than telling the truth and doing real work in a time of such untethered artifice. Blumenthal built radiators, so he had $6,500 to buy a mountain, when all the fancy pants finance boys fell apart. I don’t know anything about radiators, but I know the grain and scent of cherry, walnut and maple. And I can type, giving myself to the slender narrative thread bending in the fog, catching the light, giving the young a chance to have their time.

Spalted maple from Adam’s Davie County farm. Real. (Others at Druiddelight.com)


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Professor, Faith and the Health of the Public, Wake Forest University School of Divinity. NC Certified Beekeeper Author, Leading Causes of Life, Deeply Woven Roots, Boundary Leaders, Religion and the Heath of the Public, Speak Life and God and the People. God and the People: Prayers for a Newer New Awakening. Secretary Stakeholder Health. Founder, Leading Causes of Life Initiative

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