Friday, June 30, 2006

Man of Character

Charles Kennedy was described to me as a character, so I knew right off I wanted to meet him. About all I knew was that he lived way up at the top of a mountain and that he grew mushrooms and medicinal herbs. That was enough. He sounded pretty interesting.

Getting to Charles was no small feat. Charles place was only about 18 miles away at a place called Hayter’s Gap, but this gap sat at about 3,100 feet and his house was another 1,000 feet above at the top of Powell Mountain. The ride out was pretty. As I wound up the hill, out of town, there were folks hanging around on their front porch and lots of little side gardens going.

When I reached the gap I was determined to power it all the way up to Charles’ house. It was a noble effort, but I finally had to do something I swore I wouldn’t. I got off and walked my bike.

Charles was in a small field on the mountainside tilling weeds when I arrived. I parked my bike, relieved to be done for the day, despite the short distance covered. Charles was a large, strong man, in his mid ‘50’s, with a great peace and calm to him. His short silver hair, slightly receded, created a contrast with his golden skin and blue eyes. Once he spotted me he turned the tiller off, and in a about five minutes we were fast friends.

We discovered that we both hailed from Alabama, had spent some quality time in the Bankhead Forest (he had me licked on this account) and shared some mutual friends (a strong environmental advocate of the National Forest who founded the magazine Wild Alabama). Charles also had a large snake tattooed on his chest that ran from his navel clear to his neck. As we talked we discovered that we also had a common love for Native American tradition and ceremony.

Charles explained the layout of the place and encouraged me to roam about a bit while he finished the days work. He had built two houses atop the mountain, one for him and his lovely wife Alona who is from the Phillipines, and a guest lodge that they rent to weekend travelers. A number of campsites dot the mountaintop and he directed me toward the bathhouse where they kept two hummingbird feeders. The side of the house was literally buzzing with hummingbirds, 15-20 of them coming and going filling the atmosphere with magic.

Before the sun went down, we trekked into the woods for my first lesson in wild mushrooms. Charles has been studying wild mushrooms for the eight years since he moved to this property. He pointed out turkey tails, and described it one the best natural medicines in the woods. When steeped as a tea it can be taken for diabetes, high blood pressure and other disorders. Then, thanks to the late afternoon shower, we find tonight’s dinner, chicken mushroom. Bright orange with a white underbelly, the mushroom resembles cauliflower in its appearance.

Throughout our wanderings, Charles described how he had come to live on this property and the battle he had been fighting ever since. Shortly after purchasing the 150 acres he discovered that the surrounding land owner was a pallatte company that planned to cut all the timber below him and then develop the hillside into a subdivision of getaway homes. No place is safe from such schemes. Charles was alarmed but he had two tools in his pocket. The company needed his right of way to access the property and he wasn’t going to give it to them and on the next ridge there was a geologic formation that was completely unique in Virginia.

The mountain was constructed of sandstone, the remnants of an ancient coast that sat upon this area over 240 million years ago. As the uplifting of the mountains occurred and water and erosion began to carve through the sedimentary rock, great chasms began to form what are now 50 foot tall beautifully carved walls of sandstone. The formations are known as the Great Channels and are breathtaking in their beauty and power.

Charles began a public awareness campaign to bring the plight of the Great Channels to the people. The Nature Conservancy had attempted once before to purchase the property and failed. During the struggle Charles received death threats, gun shots and was even assaulted. His determination to protect this land was unrelenting.

When Charles was born he was diagnosed with a rare blood disease that gives him absolutely no immune system for about 10 days of every month. As a result he was smaller and less athletic than other boys growing up. His family loved the woods and he took to it like a fish to water. His Croation school teacher really understood what Charles was going through and had picked out a book to read to the class that she thought Charles would enjoy. The book was an action adventure set on a mountain top and involved a fire tower. The book changed his life, and he loved fire towers from that time on.

During the middle of his fight for the mountain, Charles came to know a local well-loved community columnist named Jack Kentsler who was in his ‘80’s. The two became fast friends. Jack mentioned to him one day that he had written a book in his younger days that described the mountain and the Great Channels and would he like to read it. Charles said he would and borrowed the book. He was in the height of his battle, he and Alona were facing bankruptcy with legal fees, and the company had pressured them to the breaking point to sell out.

After holding onto the book for three days, he cracked it open and three pages into it he realized, this was the book that he changed his life as a young boy. In the front of the book was a map detailing the locations of the story. The map was of the Great Channels, Powell Mountain, and the fire tower. As Charles told me this story, he points his finger to the next ridge and says, "That’s the firetower."

Upon the discovery, chills went up and down his spine. Imagine the likelihood of ending up on the very mountain that had touched him as a child. The discovery bolstered his resolve to protect the lands.

Today, the Great Channels are owned by the Nature Conservancy and Charles Kennedy was the man responsible for their protection. Whether you believe in God, karma, fate or coincidence, one thing is sure, the world design intended Charles to come back and save the place that had saved him.

Before I left I told Charles how much I admired him. He gave me a big bear hug. "I haven’t had that type of fight that truly tests my resolve and commitment but if I ever do I’m going to remember you," I told him before pulling off down the hill. After leaving, I went and spent the afternoon at the Great Channels.

This entry was posted on 6/30/2006 9:22 AM

No comments: