On the magnificent, incredible, glorious day that was Saturday, a day deserving all three of those adjectives and then some, a birds-singing blue-sky spring-green soft-breeze plants-in-bloom day in middle May, a day so amazing it made you smile for all the people having weddings and graduations and birthdays and barbecues that day and be extra thankful for the people working indoors in grocery stores, hotels, hospitals, and the like – on that day, Saturday, eleven of us went for a hike.
We were hiking along Shope Creek in the Pisgah National Forest, a beautiful trail just five miles from our house. We have lived near this trail for almost fourteen years, but only recently have we learned of it – it’s unmarked – and it’s a bit like learning that the person who’s been your next-door neighbor for fourteen years went to high school with Joni Mitchell, or grew up in India, or published a book of poetry, and you had no clue — there was hidden treasure right next door! — but now that you know, all you want to do is go next door and hear about it. That’s how we are about this trail, which is why there were eleven of us walking it together on Saturday morning.
I fell in at the back, along with Jerome, Meg, and Win. These are three wonderful people. Jerome is an engineer and possibly the most competent person on the planet. He’s one of those people who know something about basically everything, yet somehow he never comes across as a know-it-all. When I’m with Jerome, I feel totally at ease, because I know that whatever comes up, whatever decision needs making, whatever problem needs solving, he’ll know how to handle it. If I were on a flight with Jerome and the right wing fell off the airplane, I don’t think I would worry, assuming the pilot would let him in the cockpit.
Meg is the person you want to be around if you’re in for a long and arduous task and need a partner with talent, determination, generosity, and good cheer. I’m also thinking, though I haven’t exactly seen this part of her, that you’d want on your side if you ever get in a rock fight with the kids across the street. You wonder how she developed all those virtues, and then you learn she almost swam in the Olympics. Oh.
Win gardens, talks with me about great books he’s read, and does tai chi. He once kept a tragic situation from becoming even more tragic by tackling and subduing a gunman, keeping man and gun pinned until the police arrived. Plus he actually did grow up in India.
I should add that Meg and Win are married (to each other) and are both physicians. She’s a gerontologist. He’s a nephrologist. They’re the couple you want to know if you keep forgetting where you left your kidneys.
I speak of their professions mainly to say that if any of them ever loses their day job, I’m confident she or he will find work teaching biology at the high school or giving tours at the botanical gardens. No kidding. It was like I decided to hire a wildlife interpreter for the day, but I was feeling extravagant and hired three. They knew the names of plants I did not even see until they pointed them out to me.
Since it is May, the wildflowers were blooming. In contrast to towering things like trees and humongous things like boulders, wildflowers are small and easy to overlook. But I had guides to help me see, and the wildflowers were the most splendid creatures in the forest that day.
Crested iris. Wild geranium. Bloodroot. False Solomon’s Seal. Apparently there’s a movement to rename that plant so it has a more positive identity. Showy orchis, which, according to Meg, like acidic soil, and that’s why we saw them beneath hemlock trees. May apples. Violets. Pink lady slippers. And three kinds of trillium: painted trillium, large-flower trillium, and nodding trillium, whose flower you won’t see unless you know to look under the leaves. Which of course one of them did.
At one point Jerome and I got even more separated from the group, and I’m sure it won’t surprise you that Jerome wanted to talk about Martin Buber. I’m guessing this happens all the time when you hike with an engineer. Specifically, Jerome wondered whether seeing a wildflower but not knowing its name is a more pure I-Thou encounter, whether the act of naming introduces an element of detachment and makes it more of an I-It relationship. I allowed that naming could shift our attention from simply noticing and appreciating, but all in all I saw it as a mark of respect and reverence. We learn the names of those we love, I said. Jerome then said that when you know someone’s name you know their family, you know the relationships they’re part of, the connections that make them who they are, and for this reason he thinks knowing the name deepens his encounter with the plants. That Jerome. Such an engineer.
We I-and-Thou’d our way along and finally caught up with the rest of the group at the parking lot. Then we came back to our porch for lunch: burgers from Hickory Nut Gap Farm beef, salad from Win’s garden, strawberries from Hendersonville, the best rice salad I’ve ever had in my life – although I’m not sure where the rice was from — and Leady and Alejo’s leche asada (roasted milk) for dessert.
Leady and Alejo are close friends of our friends Greg and Susanne. They’re from Bogota, Colombia, which is where Susanne and Greg met them, and have been in Asheville since January, studying English at the community college. I have been around them a few times, but Saturday at lunch was the first time I had heard certain parts of their story.
As you may know – though I did not — Colombia is home to probably the longest running war in the world: fifty years now and counting. There are four “sides,” none of them “good guys,” all funded by the drug trade or the drug war, and all perpetrators of violence and extreme violations of human rights:
- FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). These are the guerillas that began fighting the government in 1964. Originally FARC had Marxist-Leninist ideals and stood for agrarianism and anti-imperialism, but they are now discredited for their involvement in the drug trade, illegal mining, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and attacks on the energy infrastructure.
- The Colombian government. The government’s armies do the bidding of Colombia’s powerful families and industries. Since 2000, the United States has contributed almost $10 billion to the Colombian military to “fight the drug war,” but in actuality, these funds are often used in the government’s fight against FARC.
- Paramilitaries. These are private mercenary armies, comprised mostly of formerly government military personnel, hired by multinational corporations, large family landowners, and the government itself to do the dirty work of protecting their interests. Dirty work in this case includes intimidating poor farmers off their land, then stealing it by creating official legal land titles. Seven million Colombians, roughly 15% of the population, have been internally displaced from rural areas to urban slums by these means.
- Criminal drug-running gangs. These groups have no particular ideology. They do whatever horrific things are necessary to protect their very lucrative trade routes with North America and Europe.
I’m not great with the names of things, but I believe the technical name for what’s happening in Colombia is clusterfight. Or something like that.
There’s probably no more greed in Colombia than there is any place else, but the scope of suffering there is staggering. Some things are measurable – there were ten times more union members murdered in Colombia the past decade than in the rest of the world combined – but others are immeasurable — things like grief, fear, and a sense of powerlessness – and these add greatly to the hardship and tragedy.
In the midst of all that, Leady and Alejo are doing courageous and important work. And somehow, as they speak of it, they smile and display a sense of joy.
Leady is a social worker and most recently worked with the National Center for Historic Memory. There she worked with individuals and families traumatized by the decades-long war, helping them tell their stories and expose the truth about past massacres and human rights abuses. Alejo most recently worked on a project for the Catholic Church’s Community Development arm, helping human rights workers who were under death threat move to Argentina or Uruguay. Prior to these jobs, they lived in the jungle of Choco, the poorest and most Afro-Colombian state in Colombia, doing church-based community projects with people being forced from their land.
Alejo is hoping to study sociology in a doctoral program here in the states. His interest is in mining, particularly the social and economic impact mining has on a community. When multi-national corporations do large-scale extraction of minerals, the economic benefit to local communities is negligible and the environmental damage significant. Alejo believes local communities can do mining on a smaller scale, with greater economic benefit to the community and lower environmental impact.
I read last week about a car-bombing in Baghdad that killed several people, and shortly after, a cellist came to the bomb site, sat down, and began playing. It is mind-blowing and heart-filling to read stories like that, stories of people whose dignity becomes stronger in times of suffering, whose capacity for love expands in the presence of evil. And on Saturday, it was good to be in the presence of people like that, magnificent, incredible, glorious people, people whose lives grow to greatness in the presence of death, people who can see what others do not, people whose lives are like wildflowers.