There are, as I count them, at least eight different ways to snicker over a river officially known as the “French Broad,” the shallow-but-steady body of water that runs just a little over 200 miles through North Carolina and down into Tennessee. The river gains here in Asheville, North Carolina, where the Swananoa River and numerous named creeks empty into it, where I like to sit on its bank and silently cheer it on as it continues south to Tennessee. Watching it, I wonder if there’s any metaphor we understand better than a silent river passing by.
I’m in North Carolina again. Here in Asheville the night air is cold now, and in the day I wear sweaters and watch the Pisgah Forest go dormant, acre by acre, in preparation for the inevitabilities of winter. In the higher elevations, the Blueridge Mountains have already turned and the trees have gone from stunning to stark. In Asheville, tourists (like me) clamor for the chance to catch the sun as it rises over the ridge lines and casts its first light on the red and yellow treetops. If I lost you with the river metaphor, surely you can see that autumn, as a metaphor, is nearly as strong. And even if you’re not well versed in the concept of metaphor, why else are hundreds of us converging along the Blueridge Parkway this morning, prior to sunrise, stopping at east-facing pullouts to witness what is, after all, just another sunrise? If you are well versed, consider the sunrise metaphor as well.
We humans, I think, hungrily feast on the thousands of metaphors earth provides us, searching for that elusive something we can’t quite name. As I write this I’m reminded of the final line of narration from the movie A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by rivers.”
This momentary convergence of metaphor is precisely why I come to these mountains each October. In the span of two weeks the metaphors collide all at once: the river, the turning trees, the sudden dips in temperature. The earth turns and whispers out: winter is coming. And as I think of it, perhaps winter is the overarching metaphor here, that our lives as we think of them pass in cycles, just as the seasons that cycle around us.
In his book, Winter Garden, Pablo Neruda writes:
I am a book of snow,
a spacious hand, an open meadow,
a circle that waits,
I belong to the earth and its winter.
To a degree, metaphor is one of our most mysterious driving forces. It can be lovely and meaningful, and it can be dangerous. We instinctively need order in our lives, and order includes the rudimentary understanding of where we are and where we’re going. Order. We stack our silverware in separate piles: forks, spoons, knives. Order. Disorder confuses us, and there’s nothing more confusing than demise. I suppose that’s why we’re all out here this morning waiting with some impatience for the sun to bounce its rays against the treetops in autumn. We’re searching for order and meaning.
I am haunted, as the movie line says, but not by rivers. I am haunted by order. That’s why, on this chilly fall morning, I’m about to drive to the Blueridge Parkway and join the haunted others.