Between Hiraeth and Vgatenohv

“Hiareth” is a difficult word to say unless you speak Welsh, and there is no direct translation. Lily Crossley-Baxter described it as “A blend of homesickness, nostalgia and longing… a pull on the heart that conveys a distinct feeling of missing something irretrievably lost.”

I can’t say the word properly, but there are times when it resonates with some fragment of my DNA that remembers hearing it. The Cherokee word, “vgatenohv,” may be a good approximation of the sentiment, though no single word can describe the longing and loss that must surely be epigenetic for Native Americans.

It’s in the stories our elders told us, like the memory I carry from my father of a spring deep in the woods when he was a child. The trees are old and their massive canopies darken the moist and loamy duff of the forest floor. Filtered sunlight reflects from the pool, and something else. The water glistens and shimmers. The pool is lined with amethysts, so many that the entire bottom is covered, tiled with lavender, violet and purple.

The decoration serves no practical purpose. It is seen only by a rare traveler on foot or horseback. This thing of beauty is a random act of kindness, of caring, contributed anonymously. The pool has been respected by the community for years, maintained by passing travelers. When my uncle comes home one day with an amethyst in his pocket, it becomes an object lesson. He is vigorously encouraged to hike back to the pool and return the stone to exactly where he found it, and a stinging sensation beneath the seat of his pants reminds him to stay on task.

Slowly, and then all at once, something changes in the characters of the people who live around the pool, and the amethysts disappear. The pool is long gone now. The spring went underground when the old growth trees were logged and silt washed into the cove. It is lost in time with no living memory to reveal it’s location or the place where the gems were found.

Hiareth rises from more recent memories. There was a rock outcropping in a valley where I would hike with my telescope. An almost 360 degree circle of sky revealed the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter on many a chilly night with a heavy coat and something warm in the thermos. The planets are obscured now by the glare of a streetlight which guards a gate where no one lives.

In a hidden cove nearby there was an ancient maple tree that sheltered a springhead. The tree was deeply rooted on its north side where the ground rose to a form a hillock. On the south side, sturdy arms and legs embraced an opening where the sweetest water gushed out, seemingly from the bottom of the tree itself, even in dry years. The flow was so strong that you could hear the water long before you saw it, and when you did see it, it was as if the tree was pulling water from the blue sky and gifting it to the thirsty ground, or a thirsty lad who happened by hunting rabbits.

One day a big man acquired the property. He was small of stature but large of vision and self esteem. He didn’t see a rare gift of clean water, the roots that held the ground, or the salamanders that lived in the pool. He saw a lot drawn on a plat and a need to pay the bank, which would one day have his money and his land. He cut the trees, buried the springs, flattened the hillocks and raped the ground with culverts. The dozers spread the clay and smoothed the ground flat, because people move to the mountains to mow grass rather than rake leaves.

Yes, there are laws against such as this, and the State of Georgia took some more of his money, but it was probably more of an annoyance than a penalty, just another cost of doing business. Too late for the trout stream fed by the buried springs, some silt fence was installed like a band aid on a compound fracture. It’s been fifteen years, and mud still seeps into the creek like the purulent from an infected wound. Nature is doing all it can to heal it, and will manage just fine if left alone to do the job.

We are doing a better job of taking care of our lands than we did before. The county is proactive now in managing violations, and the state is keen to enforce the common sense regulations that are in place , though woefully understaffed to follow up on complaints. While builders don’t seem to mind paying the fines, no one wants a trip to Cartersville to be recertified for land disturbing activities.

Hiareth visited me the other day when another piece of earth moving equipment rumbled over the mountain nearby. This will be the fourth house to be built on ground that held onto its secrets since arrowheads were the cutting edge of technology. Three different builders came and went in recent years, and all three violated regulations. Some were caught and corrected; some were not. One builder piled debris on a neighbors land. One tore up another neighbors driveway loading and unloading equipment. One builder allowed mud to run into a springhead and had to interrupt his schedule for a trip to Cartersville to be recertified.

I personally know builders who go out of their way to avoid damaging land or disrespecting neighbors. I know others who resent to the core of their being any interference, especially from the government, in their right to make a living, as that, and their personal wisdom, outweighs environmental science. When it comes right down to it, we’re all big men, or we want to be.

“Try not to scowl,” Tracey said to me when we we passed a future neighbor on the road. She was right, of course. We’ve been blessed with good neighbors. If they don’t come here already drawn by something precious, fragile and irreplaceable, they are soon charmed by it, changed by it. I know that gratitude is the cure for my scowl, and that will return soon enough. Outside my window raindrops are clinging to budding trees, each one as precious as any amethyst. Jonquils are blooming, and the old maple tree is red in anticipation of the spring. Spring reminds me that somewhere between hiareth and vgatenohv, there is hope.

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