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POTW: Donald Davidson’s “Sanctuary”

by Donald Davidson

You must remember this when I am gone,
And tell your sons — for you will have tall sons.
And times will come when answers will not wait.
Remember this: if ever defeat is black
Upon your eyelids, go to the wilderness
In the dread last of trouble, for your foe
Tangles there, more than you, and paths are strange
To him, that are your paths, in the wilderness,
And were your fathers’ paths, and once were mine.

You must remember this, and mark it well
As I have told it — what my eyes have seen
And where my feet have walked beyond forgetting.
But tell it not often, tell it only at last
When your sons know what blood runs in their veins.
And when the danger comes, as come it will,
Go as your fathers went with woodsman’s eyes
Uncursed, unflinching, studying only the path.

First, what you cannot carry, burn or hide.
Leave nothing here for him to take or eat
Bury, perhaps, what you can surely find
If good chance ever bring you back again.
Level the crops. Take only what you need :
A little corn for an ash-cake, a little
Side-meat for your three days’ wilderness ride.
Horses for your women and your children.
And one to lead, if you should have that many.
Then go. At once. Do not wait until
You see his great dust rising in the valley.
Then it will be too late.
Go when you hear that he has crossed Will’s Ford.
Others will know and pass the word to you —
A tap on the blinds, a hoot-owl’s cry at dusk.
Do not look back. You can see your roof afire
When you reach high ground. Yet do not look.
Do not turn. Do not look back.
Go further on. Go high. Go deep.

The line of this rail-fence east across the old-fields
Leads to the cane-bottoms. Back of that,
A white-oak tree beside a spring, the one
Chopped with three blazes on the hillward side.
There pick up the trail. I think it was
A buffalo path once or an Indian road.
You follow it three days along the ridge
Until your reach the spruce woods. Then a cliff
Breaks, where the trees are thickest, and you look
Into a cove, and right across, Chilhowee
Is suddenly there, and you are home at last
Sweet springs of mountain water in that cove
Run always. Deer and wild turkey range.
Your kin, knowing the way, long there before you
Will have good fires and kettles on to boil,
Bough-shelters reared and thick beds of balsam.
There in tall timber you will be as free
As were your fathers once when Tryon raged
In Carolina hunting Regulators,
Or Tarleton rode to hang the old-time Whigs.
Some tell how in that valley young Sam Houston
Lived long ago with his brother, Oo-loo-te-ka,
Reading Homer among the Cherokee;
And others say a Spaniard may have found it
Far from De Soto’s wandering turned aside.
And left his legend on a boulder there.
And some that this was a sacred place to all
Old Indian tribes before the Cherokee
Came to our eastern mountains, Men have found
Images carved in bird-shapes there and faces
Moulded into the great kind look of gods.

These old tales are like prayers. I only know
This is the secret refuge of our race
Told only from a father to his son,
A trust laid on your lips, as though a vow
To generations past and yet to come.
There, from the bluffs above, you may at last
Look back to all you left, and trace
His dust and flame, and plan your harrying
If you would gnaw his ravaging flank, or smite
Him in his glut among the smouldering ricks.
Or else, forgetting ruin, you may lie
On sweet grass by a mountain stream, to watch
The last wild eagle soar or the last raven
Cherish his brood within their rocky nest.
Or see, when mountain shadows first grow long.
The last enchanted white deer come to drink.


William Tecumseh Sherman wrote,

“The winter of 1863-’64 opened very cold and severe; and it was manifest after the battle of Chattanooga, November 25, 1863, and the raising of the siege of Knoxville, December 5th, that military operations in that quarter must in a measure cease, or be limited to Burnside’s force beyond Knoxville.”

Throughout the fall and winter Sherman had been lumbering up and down the Tennessee Valley in support of Ambrose Burnside, who was defending Union-occupied Knoxville from an assault by James Longstreet. Parallel to Sherman’s flank stood Chilhowee, a straight ridge running from the Little Tennessee to a steep bluff overlooking Knoxville. Against that ridge the bracing winds of the Valley had chilled Sherman’s back, then his face. He wrote in one of his dispatches that he “had personally nearly frozen.”

East Tennessee was 2 to 1 Unionist; the people across the Holston in Sevier County had supplied Burnside with “generous portions of beef, bacon, and cornmeal.” Sherman could no longer see any reason to support a commander trying to atone for his epic failure at Fredericksburg. After a meaningless victory at Bean Station, Longstreet would have to retire to winters quarters. Sherman was itching to break out from Chattanooga, sack Atlanta, and begin his infamous march to the sea. East Tennessee was no longer worth the effort.

Donald Davidson’s Sanctuary is about a a real place where real people have hidden for centuries. The map he traces in this poem is one with which I am intimate. On the backside of Chilhowhee, across Abram’s Creek, where he urges his son to withdraw, is the place where my Cable and Birchfield ancestors hunted bear and made moonshine. It is a place that tangles the foe, the outsider, the casual visitor. Its trails were my “fathers’ paths, and once were mine.”

When danger comes — as Davidson assures it will — worldly goods become a burden.

[T]hen let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not happen in winter. (Mark 13:14-18)

Like Lot, we are not to look back. Our kindred have passed ahead, leaving “good fires and kettles on to boil,” where we take refuge in the “thick beds of balsam” (spruce). This place is secure from governors and generals, from wandering conquistadors. Empire and imposition have no place here. When the German utopist Gottlieb Priber came to these parts in 1736, seeking to establish an Arcadia in Applachia, the land spewed him out. More precisely, he was betrayed into the hands of the British by the wily Cherokee.

Sam Houston really did read Homer among the Cherokee here, having run away from home as youth and adopted into a local clan. The Cherokees, not associated with the first and now extinct inhabits, denied building the mounds, and never used them for more than council meetings. Theirs were the modest and reverential tales of the raven, the deer, and the Three Fires (yo wa) dwelling in the eternal council above.

Donald Davidson (1883-1968) was the most intransigent of the group of Fugitive poets coalesced around Vanderbilt University in the 1920‘s. He received a classical education at Branham and Hughes in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and later took degrees from Vanderbilt. William Pratt said of Davidson,

“[T]here is an earnestness in his tone, there is a stubborn strength in the hard contours of his poetry that cannot easily be dismissed, and he has a gift for narrative verse that is rare in the modern age… Davidson’s ballad-like style is the result of long schooling in the oral tradition of the Southern mountains, a tradition he has often praised in his prose essays. He accepts isolation stoically, like a man long accustomed to solitude, used to the silence of the mountains and woods… Of all the Fugitives, Davidson has stayed closest to the spoken tradition…”

Those “hard contours” of tradition to which Davidson’s mountain sanctuary alludes are impregnable to the pragmatic and modern mind. Battles may rage in the valley below; forgetting ruin, the moral imagination can take its rest in the created beauty of its Maker. Between here and there, may we go “uncursed, unflinching, studying only the path.”

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