A Good Poem: The Blackwater

By Jack Slocomb

            I think I first saw the Blackwater Canyon and falls when I was nine years old. That’s when I was living in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and my family and a small herd of their bridge club friends decided serendipitiously to drive up to Blackwater Falls for Sunday lunch. This happened quite a bit with those folks- always a whim that would result in a caravan headed off to God-only-knows-where. People used to do things like that a lot in those days. 

I remember this trip mostly in images and sensations. We ate at the Blackwater Lodge at a big round table with a scenic view of the canyon. I recall something that was very tasty that seemed to be associated with the view, as though I were ingesting the scenery. Ever since then there is always a fleeting hint of that tempting flavor on my lips when I am roaming around the canyon. Funny, I think maybe it was crinkle cut french fries. 

            Anyway, after walking back up from the falls, I have a consciousness of people straggling a few at a time out onto a rock somewhere which seemed to project itself over the chasm. My father held my hand, I believe. My gestalt of that moment is of a late spring day and everywhere the canyon was clean swept, clear, and the plunging timbered slopes on the other side and the brindled gray rock faces seemed almost lucent, ready to jump out at me. In the far distance, specks of turkey vultures heaved and rode up on swells of wind which appeared to billow from the guts of the canyon. And there was a pervasive, ineffable silence over everything and an inviting, unsearchable emptiness which enveloped even the hissing Blackwater River below.

In another place, on a June morning about four decades ago, the legendary walker, Colin Fletcher, stood on the lip of the Grand Canyon many months before he decided to take his first cautious step down into his solo “walk through time”. He wrote later of this split second of first encounter that he “…heard the silence; felt it like something solid, face to face. A silence in which the squawk of a Blue Jay was sacrilege. A silence so profound that the whole colossal chaos of rock and space and color seemed to have sunk beneath it and to lie there cut off, timeless.” I think that it was the same thing for him as it was for me at the Blackwater on that day when I was nine years old:  a geography you settle down into, almost without realizing it, which after a while becomes a permanent expansion of your boundaries. 

This silence was Fletcher’s most loyal companion throughout his whole journey along the mid-escarpment of the canyon, from one end to the other.[1]          I doubt that I will ever match Colin Fletcher’s feat. But I did walk the old road through the Black Water Gorge for the first time a number of years back along with a bunch of other travelers and a very well informed leader. I took in the easy going observations he made along the way about the geology, biota, and cultural history (the beehive of coke ovens at the beginning were especially fascinating), like a hungry, hibernation starved bear. We passed by Pendleton Creek and other cascades tumbling end over end from the upper layers of the canyon. We lazed around by one of the falls and gorged on the lunch prepared by a local Italian eatery called Siranni’s We had juicy, irreverent trail conversations, and I had a very searching parley with a young woman from Washington, D.C., a computer programmer, who was seriously writing nature literature, bringing a balance to her information age career. And, of course, there was the ever present background rush of the Blackwater through the woods, which every now and then came into view when the trail sidled up to it.

For me, that walk was a real decent happiness, as poet Robert Creely would say.

I have poked around the canyon backpacking and cross country skiing and hurrying down for a look at the falls for more years than I care to admit. But I had never hiked through the canyon. This was a first, and it completed a larger picture of the canyon’s environs for me, and I promised myself to return to the trail many times in the future.

Now although I am pretty sure that I will always fall far short of achieving the off the charts high of Fletcher’s Grand Canyon penetration, I think, as I have suggested, that  I can pretty nearly match his experience when it comes to rim gazing around the Blackwater.  You name it. Lindy Point, the lawn in back of the Lodge, and any number of jutting overhangs around the perimeter of the canyon where you can work your way out to. Places where I have plopped down my buttocks for a discourse with the everlasting hush there.

Now here is one way I have found that I can really get the canyon into my system: I pick out a crag with a hearty outlook. I stroll out there very early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid too many gawkers and lens clickers and anyone else who might think that I’ve done gone ‘roun the bend. I bring along my Taos leather drum. I carry it carefully and respectfully. I find a place on the rocks where it looks like I can root myself and then settle myself down. I light my smudge stick and wave the smoke over my body and over the drum. I begin with the heartbeat rhythm. daDah… daDah…daDah… daDah.  Subdued and steady and slow and always in time. I send it out into the gape and space below me where the river threads its way along like a thin dark vein. I keep the beat. I get louder, and the echo of the drum resonates everywhere until it is the very heartbeat of the canyon that I hear- nothing else. I and the canyon and the drum are of one throb, one rise and fall. 

 I shift in an instant to the eagle beat. DahDahDahDahDahDahDahDahDah!  in rapid staccato. Then I am lifting, floating over the deep fissure, staring down into the beaconing depths, spiraling into the center of millions years of history.

            Now I segue to the lodge on the back lawn where I was chatting one time with some folks before going in for dinner. We were taking in the canyon from the corners of our eyes. Beyond us, above the clearing, vortices of insects, probably midges, suddenly hovered, pulsing in the glint of the sunset, being sliced clean though by squadrons of swallows. The shimmering bugs seemed to be rising on drafts right up out of the abyssal yawn of the darkening canyon. 

The whole place was ripe then with eternal, untethered longings.

 Blackwater Canyon is a thing midway in the cosmos. At least on a par with, or perhaps a bit more heady than other eastern cuts like, say, the Cheat River Canyon, the New River Gorge,  Pine River Canyon, and Ausable Chasm. It is not the aforementioned Grand Canyon, but what makes the Blackwater Canyon unique, I have always thought, is an indefinable quality, which at the same time, defines it. And that is that it is a domain of upwelling. There are certain terrains which seem to emanate this rush of spirit and energy from the core. Historically, people have always recognized these special provinces of animate contact. And the Blackwater Canyon is one of them, I believe. It is palpable feeling, a balance point on the earth, an Axis Mundi,around which we somehow must keep whirling to know that we are alive. 

            It is a vital organ.

In addition to the outstanding recreational, economic, and biospheric benefits that are accrued at the Blackwater,  I think that there is a more encompassing intangible framework which contains all of this – and is perhaps the unconscious drive which keeps so many people coming back to it – and that is the pure mythic draw of this place.

One of the functions of myth is to keep us grounded, in check, to remind us not to take the gifts of the planet for granted. Because it seems that the human brain, after the invention of tool use, has taken on some real runaway habits, causing all sorts trouble. Without a publicly declared reverence for places like the Blackwater, without leaping into their mysterious spaces, we seem to become Sorcerer’s Apprentices, letting things go amok on the earth in short order. 

We need beacons. And what better place in the country than in West Virginia where the opposite poles of profiteering individualism and community bond with the meaning of geography and place are so starkly contrasted. That’s why it’s so important to protect the Blackwater, to assure the ongoing mythos of this canyon, this domain, this work of art of water and wind, this testing place of raw, unbridled wills, this dialogue with forever. .

And this brings me finally to a coda. Specifically, to Robert Frost. In a lecture he once wryly observed that, “It would be the utmost of ambition is to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.”

I believe the Blackwater is such a poem.

           And it is damned hard to get rid of.

[1] Read all about it in The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 1968