There are a number of quarries in and around Knoxville where lanky, dusty men used to blast marble out of the hills before the Depression. In fact, if you read the odd town-centric indie publication here or there, you’ll eventually dig your way into a vein of prose in which some loafered, office-bound journalist will wax poetic about the geological intricacies of East Tennessee’s pink marble. We should all dream so big. In earnest, marble from Mead’s Quarry has made it all the way to New York and the District of Columbia. These old holes in the ground, however, have become the stuff of dreams nowadays. They tend to attract college students and hometown creatures alike to their emerald green waters, beckoning the sweltering and the summer-skinned to the coolness of placid depths. As for myself, though, I go in the deep dark of winter.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t normally brave swimming when it’s frigid outside (though I have before, and you should try it at least once). I go for the echoes. One side of Mead’s Quarry sits low toward the southeastern shore of the lake, where burnt-out lime kilns lie dormant and families of day-hikers prod the trail map for plans. At the other side of the lake, the hulled rock face towers over the water and creates a natural amphitheater. If you swim all the way out there in the summer—which signage advises you against doing—you can glimpse below your feet the unnerving bone-frames of entire fallen trees, pitched whole off the eroded cliffs above. In the dead of winter, though, when the air is thin and not a cricket chirps amid the chill, it’s the perfect place to play the penny whistle.
It has become a winter tradition for me: a single song in the deep of night. I usually play the same tune: “Caoineadh cú Chulainn.” It was composed by Bill Whelan for the Riverdance show, as far as I know. It means “Cú Chulainn’s Lament,” named for the mythic Irish folk hero Sétanta who, after killing the mighty hound of a smithy called Chulainn, offered himself as a replacement guard dog. Like many Irish folk heroes, Cú Chulainn—that is, ‘Chulainn’s dog’—lived a life marked by tragedy. In one tale, he mistakes his own son for an intruder and kills him. In another, he must go to war against his foster father and foster brother. The melody of Whelan’s tune captures the grief of its namesake better than most songs I know. It’s a slow air, marked by a languorous seventh pickup note that bends upward to the tonic before leaping a full fifth. My favorite parts, at least when playing at the quarry, are the pauses. I bend the final notes of the phrases down in the characteristic style before stopping them, and when the curved tones ring across the lake off the moonlit cliffs, their haunting sound more than makes up for the icy air and the late hour.
Why would you do a thing like this? is the question begged by my friends or acquaintances. It’s late; it’s freezing. You could be watching Netflix. Honestly, I often would rather be watching Netflix. A movie, these days, represents a two-hour coma away from the unshakable loneliness and evil that poison the very air of this world. It’s the reason I occasionally endure director Michael Bay’s explosion-by-numbers kits with little more than a shrug and good bowl of cereal. Plus, I’ve been kicked out of the quarry by a police officer because somebody was shooting a movie across the street (no, this is true). This poor man was forced to walk off the set of a horror film into the dark woods to find the mysterious, creepy music sound and tell it to go away. The look on his face could’ve won awards. He asked nicely enough, though, for all that. So I took my leave. So, why indeed? Why should I stay up late and fling myself into the January dim for naught but a three minute song and some aural physics?
It’s because I have to. It takes no great amount of understanding to see that the world is a dark place. I need to do things that remind me of the coming light, the One that has come is is coming soon. In Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the titular character, a framed gulag prisoner under Stalin, takes an almost unaccountable pride in his forced bricklaying work, even to the point of smarting off at his superiors when they don’t seem to care about the quality of the work itself. Out at the dangerously cold job site, where he is but an unjust slave of the soviet, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov laments, of all things, the shoddy workmanship of the prisoner who went before him.
In his mind, he could see the wall under the ice, the outside wall of the power plant that was two bricks thick. He didn’t know the man who’d worked on it in his place before. But that guy sure didn’t know his job. He’d messed it up. Shukhov was now getting used to the wall like it was his own.
Even though, according to multiple sources, this is the keystone piece of literature that undid the Soviet Union, what one reads in it is not strictly political. Over the course of the narrative, one develops a nagging sense of Shukhov’s desire to do good work for its own sake. The labor, you might even say, is a kind of play for Ivan. The prisoners talk trash and attempt to build faster and better than adjacent teams of workers. There is humanity in the game, in the playing.
Of course, we know that play and work are never for their own sake. They are expressions of the Imago Dei, that thing in mankind which will not be squelched. It’s the same thing you find in the field hollers of American slaves and in Chance the Rapper’s gallows humor. It flows forth from the threadbare parquetries of poverty-numbed quilting bees in the South. It wafts upward from a skillet where an old hand stirs gravy out of salt and giblets for lack of something more substantial.
I need it. I need to partake in the making and enjoyment of good things, even alone, even in the biting cold, because my very enjoyment of them bespeaks the name of the Uncreated One. Dorothy Sayers, in The Mind of the Maker, postulated that it is human creativity itself that comes nearest to defining the Image of God in people. Like Ivan Denisovich, finding worth and value amid the frigid darkness of this world somehow makes it bearable for me. Even at the deep gashes in the earth, a song can reflect off the old rock bones of a Tennessee hill. Even in a place where men inflicted their fallen wills to sate the material lusts of a wide-mawed civilization, one can hear something beautiful echo back and recall that all shall be well.