Monday, September 30, 2013

Third Entry of a Long Journey

Yesterday, as I crossed into the Smoky Mountains, almost immediately, I recalled the enjoyable feeling I experienced as a child when singing folk ballads such as "On Top of Old Smoky."  It was one of a number of songs, especially those of Stephen Foster, that I learned  both in school and from my father. On much too rare occasions, he would be relaxed enough to sit down and pick up his guitar, strum a few chords, and sing with my sister and me lyrics which described the Old South. Our family had a historical connection to Tennessee. The Volunteer State had been my parents' first home after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. They had settled in, of all places, Nashville. There, they had learned English with its distinctive drawl and experienced southern style American culture.  As a youngster my parents told fascinating anecdotes of those early years, including one that suggested I had been named after Robert E. Lee, as part of a bargain made with my father's mentor Lanier Merritt, a crusty old Confederate, who taught my dad how to letter signs.

My route, after leaving the mountains, would take me through Eastern Tennessee. I stopped first at Davy Crockett's birthplace and then arrived in Greeneville, Tn, the hometown of Andrew Johnson, Lincoln's vice president, who took over the presidency upon Lincoln's assassination. I spent over an hour hearing the perspective of the National Park service guide of the events leading up to and through the Civil War. I was moved by the sensitivity he showed while talking to other guests and me. It was clear that every day he spoke with visitors whose opinions covered a wide political spectrum: some were passionate modern day rebel sympathizers and others were Northern liberal Yankees who still  blamed the South for slavery and treason. I left feeling inspired and gladdened from listening to well-informed discussions of history.

My ultimate destination was Gray, Tennessee, the home of Eastern Tennessee State University. In 2000 when a bulldozer, while preparing to straighten a road, unearthed some strange bones, a monumental event had its beginning in the world of paleontology in America.  Almost rivaling the La Brea tarpits in Los Angeles as the motherlode of ancient animal finds, the Gray Fossil Site Natural History Museum was built adjacent the dig site. I was able to watch people unearthing Miocene Epoch (5 - 3 million years ago) mammals and reptiles such as jaguars, camels, llamas, weasels, tapirs and lizards  that are so plentiful in the soil that the joke among researchers is that you can throw a rock and hit a bone. While I stood  at the viewing platform outside, I watched a fellow scratching away the earth from an ancient alligator skull. Also indoors, through large windows, guests can watch graduate students, volunteers, and researchers cleaning, classifying, and arranging bone fragments with tweezers and microscopes. Not surprisingly, this museum has had a startling and perhaps a somewhat annoying impact on many of the fundamentalist Christian residents who live in the surrounding area. The second day I was at the museum, I spoke with an older couple who had come to see  the displays. They said the dig was a great place, but the school had lied about numbers. They claimed that the alleged ages of the animal and plant fossils conflicted with scriptures and therefore were false. This error, they attributed, was partially the result of the devil's handiwork.

I have given you a thumbnail's synopsis of my days in Tennessee. I am so full of experiences and so limited by the time and format that I have skimmed over so much. Today I leave for Kentucky and then to Ohio. Yikes! I'm not even remotely half way through this adventure.


  1. Hmmm...Robert E. Lee, and crusty old guy. Yep, I see the connection. Ha, ha, ha!
    All that certainly ties in with old fossils, no matter their age. The devil sure has been busy of late, dontcha think?

    It's a nice road trip, Lee. I'm tripping through the book. Lots of good stuff. I think he gives religion to big a break but we'll see how things pan out in the end.

    Drive safely and don't fall into any tar pits. Most importantly, don't let any Xtn fundies push you into one!

  2. This is such a wonderful upbeat post, with so many fascinating details both biographical and geological. I've been trying to imagine your father singing "On Top of Old Smoky" and other Stephen Foster songs in his thick German accent--and I can't! Sorry, but that's just too surrealistic for my mind to process. I guess you just had to be there, huh?

    Re "Not surprisingly, this museum has had a startling and perhaps a somewhat annoying impact on many of the fundamentalist Christian residents who live in the surrounding area."

    Now that I can imagine only too well. The fundies have been giving me even more grief than usual, and not only the Christian ones. Would you believe we have a few "young earth" creationists on the Judaism forum? These aren't even the regular Orthodox but the lunatic fringe ultra-Orthodox. Like all creationists, they put a lot of effort into a losing battle, or more accurately a lost battle.

    As my Aussie friend keeps telling them, Darwin's Theory of Evolution has never been seriously challenged on a scientific level since its inception 150 years ago. On the contrary, it's been verified repeatedly, becoming more accurate and detailed as more new discoveries are unearthed.

    I've come to believe that professing a belief in creationism (not necessarily believing it) is a kind of loyalty oath for literalist Bible-believing fundies. This isn't the place to elaborate on that, though.

  3. I missed your post before, glad I found it today!! Sounds like such a fun trip and I do love your pics for the day, particularly the first one!! Beautiful! Take care!