An Autumnal Reverie

That folks are the leaves of my childhood. In Calcutta, when they arrive, they are the auguries of autumn, clear blue skies, gentle breezy days and the night jasmine. These leaves that sway their wise white heads in the wind are called kaash phool in Bengali, wild sugarcane in English. They are also a sigil of the Bengali festival, Durga Puja, when the Goddess Durga is celebrated for 5 days at a stretch with plenty of eating and fasting. The fasting only sharpens the appetite for the feasting that follows and the feasting is naturally followed by indigestion and plenty of digestion supplements.

Durga Puja arrived and went in mid-October and I felt the usual pangs of nostalgia that envelop me annually at this time of the year. It is a nostalgia for childhood I suppose and the goodness of this carnivalesque affair in Calcutta. No other place can measure up to it. Which means that I never go to any pujas around me. Bengali communities gather and celebrate it internationally. I chanced upon doleful version of it in Leicester in the UK once and that ensured that I never made the mistake of going to another one anywhere else. I would rather have the real deal than a pale imitation of it. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes, when a thing is of such significance to you that you have breathed and lived its glory all of your growing up years, you cannot bear for it to be whittled down by any measure.

Here is also one of my favourite season. Autumn. It holds such promise for the end of the year festivities. The chill in the air, the rummaging around in the cupboard for the right wrap and slipping on my favourite pair of boots, travelling and shivering in cold places, looking forward to cups of hot chocolate and mulled wine, pies and roasted meats. Ah, just scribbling about it gets me going. And this entire process of leaves changing colour, shedding their greens for rusts and oranges, makes my heart sing. It makes yours flutter too with deep-seated pleasure, I know.

This year however the incessant rains have given way to rot in the leaves. The trees are transforming their colours in fits and starts here as if confused about how to be. Those by the Hudson have almost turned bald because they cannot withstand the blustery conditions nowadays.

The colours are not as magnificent but I will take what comes my way for who am I to bicker with nature. The other day I stood on the rooftop of my building, the cold wind in my hair, and I marvelled at the way the sun’s dying rays touched everything around me with a tint of gold. I present to you an eyeful of kaansh phool that grows on the rooftop, the changing of colours in the park and the city’s skyline in the dying rays of the sun. It was as beautiful as this process of fading away of the leaves that is a thing of intense beauty. Did Dante Gabriel Rossetti not lay a finger upon the pulse of it when he wrote: ‘And how death seems a comely thing/ In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?’

Meanwhile as they do every year at this time, my neighbours, the squirrels have grown fulsome with their tails like wraps of the lushest sable fur and flocks of geese have decided to take over the racing tracks near the river. All in all, ’tis a joyful affair to go out for a run and hobnob with these delightful creatures of nature that seem to be rather pleased with the touch of cold in the air.






Clingsman’s Dome: The It Place in the Smokies

In the land of blue smoke that the Cherokees called Shakaney, a fine mist cloaks the top of the hills. There is an illusory sheen to this vista. The soul feels transfigured, as if ready to be lifted out of the body, to roam free over those uneven folds in blue that meld in, wave upon wave of them stretched for as far as the eyes can travel.

Now picture this. The sun is ready to call it a day, a stretched out orb of gold gleaming through a break in the clouds, kissing the hills, the white and purple flowers growing wild upon them with golden love. You arrive at Clingsman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail that traverses the length between Georgia and Maine and intersects with the Smoky Mountains here. It is is quite so cold, the body jolted out of the heat it has got used to during the long-drawn summer (to think that it already past us!). You find yourself shivering – wishing you had the foresight to carry a jacket for cutting out the unexpected chill.

‘But where is Clingsman’s Dome?’ asks the husband, worried because this is the holiday of indolence. Does it involve a hike, perchance?

That is how you would have found us on that early September evening when we started walking in the direction of this observation tower named for a 19th-century North Carolina politician and Civil War general, Thomas Clingman. An itinerant soul who spent the latter part of his life climbing mountains and measuring them.

We were in a spruce-fir forest, patches of berries and wildflowers showing up along the way, and then the mighty odd sight of white specters of trees that must have been. Fraser firs, trunk leaning against trunk in parts, so that it seemed like they had thrown in the towel on an unequal struggle with a pest that attacks them with impunity, leaving no survivors upon these high peaks. As we trudged up, passing by a mother with her grumpy little girl, Adi stopped in his tracks as he looked at the sky. ‘It’s raining heavily there — and those clouds are coming towards us, and fast,’ he said.

Sure enough, I had not noticed when the clouds had gathered behind us stealthily, an ominous army on the march. This meant that a frown was gathering too, on my husband’s brows, because this idea of making our way to Clingman’s Dome was mine. Naturally. He insisted, we must turn back. To which I declared, no, we shall carry on. But naturally.

Grumbling husband in tow, in some time, I spotted the dome towering in the distance like a spaceship balanced upon a sky-high column. Hallelujah. A half-mile hike but one which was long enough because it was steep to boot. The beginnings of a mizzle sent us scurrying up a corkscrew ramp which swung around in an arch and brought us wheezing to the top of the dome. Thirteen-odd people hunched beneath the dome which provided insufficient coverage from slanting rain because soon it graduated to a pelter.

The loudest of the bunch, decibels above everyone else, was a group of Indians from the state of Gujarat who proclaimed that they were (gasp) viewing mountains. There were other mind-numbing observations — but the heavens decided that we needed respite. The rain eased up and the gang decided to exit. We could hear them all the way till they had made it to the bottom of the ramp. Then there was silence and white walls of clouds around us, screening out everything except for the closest firs.

A couple, the girl from Minnesota and the boy from New Jersey (loathe to lay claim to it), looked our way and commented that they were holding out for a sunset. Something special. ‘You are an optimist,’ I observed to the guy. Frankly, I thought he was a loon. This was till the time that the clouds that had descended upon us started to dissipate and lift up visibly, so that you could see waves of smoky hills emerge as if in a film. And then before our eyes, played out nature’s live theatre, second by second. Live theatre like we had never seen before. A sunset like we had never seen before. And don’t even know if we will see the like of it again.

There were suppressed gasps from everyone beneath that dome. We were as if woven into one big thread of enchantment by that phenomenon, for that is what it was, a concoction of clouds, mist, firs, greens, blues, greys, pinks, lavender, flaming orange, dirty orange. A strange mélange to escort us into a parallel world of reality.


















Cataloochee Valley

It is the beginning of autumn here on the East Coast. I can feel it in the softness of the sunshine and in the nippy breeze that flows in and out of our home; ’tis in the hint of colour as the leaves on some trees in the park have started to flame out into brilliant reds, others have graduated to lime green, the rest are plain ol’ slowpokes holding onto their sheaths of green; I can feel the change in the simple pleasure of walking a couple of miles to the library, which might not be too a distressing figure at all, but smack in the middle of summer and winter, oh it feels far far away; there’s also the leonine golden retriever who sits with his old master everyday in the park and seems to have turned a deeper russet to welcome the season. Maybe it’s just my fancy, but he looks as happy as I feel. Now how the scenes would change if we were on the high ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, where the woods are dense and human footfall rare, where it is the rutting season for the elks.

As warmer colours seep into the foliage around them, primal instincts (and love?) take over the workings of the animal kingdom in the valley called Cataloochee, where even as I write, the bull elks must find themselves bugling to the cows.

Cades Cove despite its lush beauty and picturesque meadows started to feel like a tourist’s thoroughfare when we hit the dirt roads that winded higher and higher up through Cataloochee that scooches within two main valleys, Big Cataloochee and Little Cataloochee, soldiered by 6,000 foot high ridges. We found a place of gravel roads, switchbacks and old steel girder bridges which together stitched up divides, ridges and narrow valleys.

All in all, it was a cathedral of silence around us. Not a single soul to be met as we passed by water power stations and old country stores, brooks and mountain cemeteries.

We were in ‘Gadalutsi’ of the Cherokees. They hunted and fished here just as they did in Cades Cove. The fertile land around the creeks here attracted the attention of European settlers who trickled in during the mid-1800s and bought the land from the tribes. They started calling it Cataloochee, possibly their stuttering take on the Cherokee name which referred to the straight-backed conifers lining the ridges. It is said to have been an amicable arrangement. The settlers mastered the Cherokee tongue and they co-existed peacefully with the tribes. Some even helped out those Cherokees who did not set out on the infamous Trail of Tears (in 1838 the tribes were forced to move across 1,200 miles on foot to present-day Oklahoma).

It seems fitting then that the descendants of those Cherokees, who clung to their land, should live on a reservation nearby today. At the Oconaluftee Indian Village they showcase their old ways of living to gaping tourists. We caught a whiff of it when we saw a wizened man there jump around in a towering headdress upon his head, a war bonnet. I have no doubt that his audience watched him with rapt attention.

But let me not veer from the Cataloochee which in the late 1800s to early 1900s had a community of just above a thousand people. It was the most lived-in place in the Smoky Mountains. Those pioneers grew corn for a living, set up grist mills, reared cattle for beef, sent their children to two-room schools, crafted shoes out of felt hats, sang of faith and participated in revivals with the arrival of autumn, brewed some ‘wicked’ moonshine, and generally, they lived the rustic life. When tourists discovered the beauty of these mountains and came knocking on their doors, these families boarded and charged them to fish trout in the creeks adjoining their land.

We found abandoned log houses in the valley, their rooms forlorn and empty of everything except for the fireplaces of bricks, bits and pieces of newspapers still sticking scrappily to the walls and reminding us that this was the humble life where people used paper for insulation. You could easily set up home within because you could see that the wood was sturdy.

Yet these people had abandoned their perfect little homes.

It turns out that they were asked to vacate their lands by the authorities when the Great Depression set in in the ’30s. For years, lumber companies had indiscriminately destroyed batches of old forestation with their dastardly business of logging. The mountains were in a bad way. Naturalists like Horace Kephart campaigned for the preservation of this beautiful part of the world, paving the way for the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which also translated into jobs for young men. It was by 1934 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt granted it national park status that a whole mountain community had also lost their homes.

That is how we left it behind, the land which seems to exist on another dimension, as if no one had ever set foot within it except for the legacy of those early settlers which tell a different story. The voice in the video with its Transatlantic accent states succinctly: “National Parks are not built. God made them in the beginning.” But the preservation of this national park would not have got anywhere, it seems to me, without the sacrifice of these Cataloochee folks who could not have found it easy to let go of their beloved mountains.

P.S.: As usual there was no elk sighting in store for us. Not even a bear, and bears love showing up in the valley, they say. Just a fresh pile of bear doo-doo for us.

Waterville Power Station in Cataloochee
Waynesville in North Carolina
Country store, Waynesville
Pigeon River
Gravel roads in the Cataloochee Valley
Driving through Cataloochee


Fresh bear scat
Bridges and brooks
Cataloochee Overlook where the ferns grow waist high and the mountains flow into one another in smoky blue waves
Homes of the early settlers
Processed with VSCO with f2 preset
What would it be like to live here? Just give me a library and coffee shop nearby and I would be a happy bee.
Bunkhouse where the Palmers put up tourists who came fishing in their creek
The Palmers’ barn
Peeking inside the barn
You have an an iconic American architectural style right here in the Palmers’ house. The dogtrot style where a passage divided the home into two sections: with kitchen and dining area in one and living quarters in the other half. In those early times of no electricity, it allowed the passage of breeze through the house.