Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Advice from an Acorn

Brian Buckley

As my fiftieth birthday approached, I was powerless over the urge to take stock of myself and plan for the next fifty years, and what better place to adjourn to, I thought, than the oldest mountains in the world. Maybe they would share some of their insights and survival techniques implicit in their longevity. Maybe they would even remember me from my many summers at camp on Lookout Mountain and forgive my California license plates.

The Smokies are not exactly like they were 250 million years ago, at 22,000 feet to 6,000 now, but they still present the welcoming, lush, diverse landscape that captivated me forty years ago and that has drawn to its comfort over the years a vibrant and unique community.

Where I have rented a cabin, in Western North Carolina, I am at 4,000 feet, up a steep gravel road with no neighbors anywhere in sight, and from my porch I have a long view to the mountains in the distance that accommodate the Blue Ridge Parkway on that part of its route between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park - by far the most visited of our national parks - and Asheville. It is fair to predict - without taking away anything whatsoever from those who built it - that the parkway will not come close to matching the lifespan of these mountains and will instead ultimately share the fate, though surely not the reputation, of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Throughout the area, there is everything from bourbon to bluegrass to Baptists to clogging to rafting and everything in between. But mostly there are trees. Millions of trees.

At a local Wilderness Day seminar, I learned that the extraordinary age of the Smoky Mountains has also yielded a concomitant diversity of plant life. There are 120 separate species of trees in Western North Carolina, for example, compared to just 80 on the entire continent of Europe.

I have walked and walked my seven wooded acres during my few months here and have found that the trees will speak to you if you will just listen respectfully. They have plenty of time, but not for wasting. And they thrive by a practice of community nurturing that nonetheless respects independence.

I came to this knowledge, this fiftieth birthday present really, sitting alone against the broad trunk of an oak tree near a creek that courses through my property. And as I observed my surroundings, I heard this story:

Leaning against the exposed root of a nearby tree, which had both initiated and halted its unexpected and sudden descent, the acorn - time on its side - waits and while waiting takes the measure of its arrival: the treacherous fall, the unforgiving earth, the carom and tumble after impact, the predators at large. How could Nature be trusted, it wondered. And from its new perch it witnessed similar befallen fates for one after another kindred seeds.

And yet in accordance with the codes carried deep within its protective mantle, it began carrying out the commands of its mission - one day reaching out through its casing to explore the soil below, even taking nutrient from it, then rooting, then metamorphosing, discarding its spent shell, and reaching up, up, up - time on its side - as it retraced an old journey and made the marvel of a tree.

In time, it forgave hastily judged Nature as it recalled the vigilant safeguards - at work but unnoticed - that had always watched over it: the shell that absorbed the impact of the Fall, the nutrients that lay below waiting to sustain it, the rain, the sun, the seasons, and on and on. In particular it recalled the exposed root that halted its roll and put it in its place.

And when the time came to loose its own acorns, it passed on the coded messages and commands, as required by the Maker, and left its progeny to their new independence and uncertain fate, but with a knowledge that all would fulfill some purpose, whether as food for winged or four-legged creatures, or compost for the soil that allows rooting, or as the next generation of Oak, in which case an added measure of silent pride could be forgiven regarding those in particular that found their first safe harbor nestled against the numerous and versatile roots of its own that it now beheld.


Brian Buckley, a native southerner, graduated from Dartmouth in 1976 and from William and Mary Law School in 1979. After practicing law and teaching first grade, he now spends his time writing. He has a poem in the online journal Chantarelles Notebook.

© Brian Buckley

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012