Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ozymandias of the Appalachians



In Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:
"I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,
"The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
"The wonders of my hand." The City's gone,
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.
We wonder, and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
- Horace Smith, Ozymandias

Civilizations come. Civilizations go. That’s just as true here in the mountains as it is anywhere else.

Not long ago I discovered a unique place – several miles of pavement that used to be the primary U. S. highway climbing the Blue Ridge to Asheville and other points west. It’s gated off now. You can’t drive it anymore, although you can hike it. If you’re tired of seeing forests destroyed for roads, you can go there and watch a road being consumed by a forest. I experience mixed feelings whenever I visit, finding the site both reassuring and eerie, and somehow reminiscent of Ozymandias. I even have postcards of what it used to be.


Now and then, a mysterious artifact of a past civilization will become a landmark in our world. Judaculla Rock, for instance. Or Nikwasi Mound. Or Track Rock. Or Fort Mountain. We tend to see these as isolated oddities, rather than viewing them all in some cohesive context. At this point, it’s difficult to connect the dots and see how they form a picture of a whole civilization that occupied the Southeastern quadrant of our continent. We’re quick to call it ancient, but it was the modern civilization of its time, just like we’re the modern civilization of our time.

Whether we can see it or not, the civilization was here and left us some messages. Archaeologist Tommy Charles has found more than 300 petroglyphs in the state of South Carolina. How many more have been destroyed? How many more will never be found? Who knows what once stood where we stand, the forgotten Babylon beneath our feet?

If you're ever headed toward Chattanooga, pull over at Cleveland, Tennessee. Ask for directions to the Great Wall of Chatata, near the Hiawassee River. Tell them you’d like to see the ancient inscriptions carved into the wall. I suspect you’ll be greeted with puzzled looks.

Amnesia has overtaken that place now. But had you gone to Bradley County, TN in the summer of 1891, anyone could have directed you to the farm of J. H. Hooper. You would have seen evidence of a curved wall, seven hundred feet long, comprised of three courses of red sandstone blocks. During his visit to Chatata that year, Dr. J. Hampden Porter of the Smithsonian Institute examined the markings on the wall and recognized animal forms and emblems, the old and the new moon, the destroying quoit, the thunder bird, the serpent and forms like many Old World alphabets. Another visitor compared the Chatata writings to those at Dighton, Massachusetts and with the Hamath Inscriptions.

Subsequent experts would declare the markings to be nothing more than fossilized snail trails and that the wall was merely a natural sandstone ridge. Even if they’re correct, even if Chatata does NOT point to an ancient civilization of the Southeast, plenty of other signs do.

The challenge is to make sense of them when they are scattered in disarray like the statue of Ozymandias.

I think it’s worth a try.

And in case the poem printed above is not the Ozymandias you remember, an explanation is in order. In December of 1817, Percy Shelley and Horace Smith engaged in a contest to write a sonnet. History and the critics would tell us that Shelley won. Smith went on to retitle his poem, "On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below." Whew!

To his credit, Shelley stuck with the one-word title for his sonnet:

OZYMANDIAS
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
"Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

[Illustrations - Top, lacking a photo of King Ozzy himself, the best I could come up with was Josef Stalin; middle, 1930s era postcard along the road also known as Old US 70; bottom, A. J. Rawson drawings of inscriptions at Chatata. ]

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