Lojah of the Turtle clan

Artwork by Janice Barrett Moore for Lojah series 
Lojah of the Turtle Clan of the Warrior mountains tribe

by Lamar Marshall

This is part one of a series written by Lamar Marshall in the mid 1990’s for Wild Alabama Magazine in order to attract attention to one of the few last wild places on public land in Alabama. The historical setting is in the Warrior Mountains of north Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest which is located on the northern border of the region claimed and hunted by the Muskogee Indians. The Tennessee River Valley lies adjacent to the north slope of the mountains. Hundreds of  miles of bluff-lines rim the canyons found here. The Sipsey Wilderness consists of 24,922 acres of designated wilderness within the 181,000 acre Bankhead. In the 1960’s, The US Forest Service began implementing intensive timber-driven plans  that included the conversion of old-growth ridges into loblolly pine plantations by using industrial forestry practices that included clearcutting, herbiciding and burning. The old-growth ridgetops were poisoned by helicopters and by trucks with Agent Orange mixed into diesel fuel (2,4,5-T + 2,4-D) in conjunction with clearcutting prescribed by U.S Forest Service management plans that now have been replaced. But not until  after a fifteen year long battle in which I participated. In order to fully dedicate my energies into the effort, I quit my corporate profession to do this full time.

In 1990, I bought a 100 acre inholding in the Bankhead National Forest and later an inholding joining the Sipsey Wilderness. For those that don’t know, an inholding is a private tract of land within the purchase boundary of public lands such as a National Forest. My family had horses which we rode from our farm to explore the forested ridges that joined our land. I had begun making expeditions into the Sipsey in my teenage years where I hunted and practiced outdoor skills including building fires with hand drills and cedar fiber, and tracking animals. My base of operations was in a remote canyon I called Deerskull, after finding an intact skull with antlers.  In the most remote and rugged dead end of a maze of cliffs and house-sized rocks, I discovered a place I designated as my “Earthcamp”. Several years later I was leveling my bed place next to the rear rock wall and found an intact, gray flint knife blade about 4″ long. I realized that I was not the first to inhabit this natural rock house. It was in this bluff shelter that I kept my wilderness tools hidden and waiting for my next journey. I often wondered about the person or persons who came here is such a remote place and time.  The Tennessee River Valley that lies north of the Warrior Mountains is much more suitable for Native towns and villages. This range of mountainous canyon country was also a boundary between the Muskogee, Chickasaw and Cherokee. A small spring emanated from the mountainside and provided my drinking and cooking water. I went alone over the years and no-one ever, to my knowledge, ever found my hideout. 

Little did I know that after moving into the Bankhead I would be wading into a grass-roots war that had been ongoing for more than a decade. Victories had been won by devoted and persevering women and men and a few elected officials who worked tirelessly to secure legislation that led to the first Wilderness East of the Mississippi, the Sipsey. The designation of the Sipsey preserved an “island” within the Bankhead, but the balance was being butchered  before my eyes. Thousands of acres of ridgetops with old beeches and oaks were not only being cut down but all other species such as dogwoods were classified and destroyed as “trash trees” and “undesirables” (their words) in order to plant a genetically-superior crop of commercially-farmed loblolly pine trees.

I won’t go farther into this lengthy history now as I just want my readers to know what led to the idea of writing the story of  Lojah.  But to summarize, the “old-school” Forest Service in Alabama, now replaced, desecrated one sacred place too many when they clearcut, bulldozed and burned the hallowed Indian Tomb Hollow and exposed the graves of Indians buried under the bluffs to pot-hunters who swiftly followed the swath of charred stumps and logging roads to loot the graves in Indian Tomb’s rock shelter. The most excruciating and painful part of that history is that the looters left human remains, including a jawbone (and others) neatly lined on a rock ledge above the muddy pile of dirt strewn with pottery pieces. 

Existing laws were violated by the agency regarding archaeological surveys prior to ground-disturbing activities. The result of this was a long-lasting grass-roots campaign that brought together a thousand Alabamians to stop to the damages ongoing in the Bankhead National Forest. We who engaged called it “Fighting for the Last Wild Places.”

The story of Lojah is fictional yet based on my life experiences and observations in the woods practicing skills and woodcraft learned from my elders and records of the Native Americans of various southeastern tribes. Several early naturalists including Earnest Thompson Seton who was a bounty trapper in the West in the 1890’s recorded native skills he learned first-hand from some of the tribes still practicing the “old ways.” He wrote dozens of books in order to teach young people what was called woodcraft. 

 Wild Alabama Magazine 1991 -2000, publisher and editor, Lamar Marshall, founder of non-profit Wild Alabama

Photo of the desecrated graves as they were left by the looters. The skeletal remains were left on the ledges. The Bankhead National Forest contains many miles of bluffs that were systematically looted. This event made me so angry that I quit my career corporate job to stop the rampant destruction.
These logging roads into Indian Tomb crossed the pristine streams and encouraged an easy access to the graves by pot hunters. When Native American descendants arranged a meeting with the District Ranger, he told them he did not understand why they were upset. There were now good roads in there and they had toilet paper from the trees.
The Decatur Daily read the first edition of the Bankhead Monitor and began following our ongoing struggle with the USFS in Alabama. Life became dangerous fast as the Forest Service utilized the private timber industry to oppose our efforts.

lojah of the turtle clan - part one

Shaded relief map of Southeast. Note the location of the Tennessee Divide small letters

The eastern sky appeared like an encroaching wildfire as the rosy dawn slowly forced the dark of night into the day.  The first light began to filter through the gnarled branches of the giant oaks and beeches that gripped the land with sinuous roots. These towering masters of the forests had ruled unchallenged among the Warrior Mountains from time immemorial.

The wiry figure of a brown man was already awake and fanning the smoldering embers of his fire into life. Limber as the willow shoots of the river-bottoms, he was as at home squatted by his fire as the laurel that grew nearby.  The forest was noisy with the myriad calls and cries of the birds that filled the spacious gaps among the limbs and vines of the old growth trees. Ravens, hawks and eagles seemed to reign over the tribes of the smaller songbirds. The shrill laugh of the pileated woodpecker rang through the canyons.

Behind the wiry man a massive, overhanging rock defined this particular bluff shelter. It was his temporary home and one of his favorites. The ninety-foot cliff rose above the tiny fire, barely visible amidst the jungle-like limbs of the three-hundred year old trunks whose tops mingled with the laurels that hung over the bluffs. Several hundred feet below the shelter was a fern-smothered branch that wound through the center of a glade. 

Every forest sound was intuitively analyzed through the ears and mind of the man; the ordinary against the extraordinary. The sounds of disturbance, a sound that might interrupt the norm and be interpreted as a threat, or a sound that might mean that food was near; a faint rustle of leaves that must be determined to be a deer, a man or a foraging squirrel.

Only keenly-trained and attuned minds survived in this uncivilized and unsettled land of this era. This land that was home of the bear, the grey and red wolf, the lion and occasionally, the most dangerous of all, human predators. That this man had survived for sixty winters was testimony to his training and level of skills.

The year could have been 1600 or earlier as buffalo still crossed the divide and were hunted by all regional tribes. He was a Muskogee scout stationed in a hidden base camp in the Black Warrior Mountains which are found today along the Tennessee Divide in north Alabama and the south end of the Cumberland Plateau. Springs that originate in these canyons and ridgetop flow both north and south. depending on which side of actual divide one might stand. The southerly flow into the Black Warrior River, then into the Alabama River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. The springs bubbling from the divide only a quarter of a mile to the north fall northerly down the ridge into the Tennessee Valley.

In the old days, the Tennessee River in north Alabama was a mile wide in places and could be crossed on foot and horseback before it was dammed. Flowing in a southwesterly direction from the Cherokee Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, the region here was known as the “Big Bend” of the Tennessee because of the geography.  Leaving Alabama and the Big Bend, the river flows north nearly 200 miles before arriving at its conjunction with the Mississippi. The Muscle Shoals in the Big Bend was an ecological as well as geographical treasure that the Chickasaw and Cherokee fought over from before recorded history. The number of mussel species in the rocky shoals is among the most numerous in the world and multitudes of ancient shell mounds or middens along the river attest to the abundance.

The mountains and a river bore the Muskogee words for Black Warrior or “Tuscaloosa.” The oral histories of the tribe tell of a black slave who escaped from a Spanish ship before the time of DeSoto. He was adopted into the Muscogee tribe and one of his descendants was large and powerful. His leadership against the cruel Spanish invaders under DeSoto are recorded in the original journals.

Lojah was the name given to this native man by his parents. When small, he examined every object and pondered every experience he was involved in with methodical intrigue.  He “moved like a turtle,” his mother said. Even today, as then, young naturalists are admonished to sit still, slow down, observe and learn the ways of the wild. The perception of time in the forest is greatly different than that in a bustling town. A life of forty years in the forest might have been more fulfilling than one of a hundred years in the modern world. Thus, he became Lojah, the Turtle. Over time, and through the renown of his abilities and the wisdom of family elders, his family became called the Turtle Clan.

His base camp here was in the most remote and rugged part of modern Alabama.  Like a shadow, he stealthily moved like the box turtle he was named for. Following deer paths upright and along twisted rabbit trails underneath thick brush on all fours. As their most proficient tribal scout, his intelligence-gathering provided valuable information pertaining to the location and actions of Chickasaws and Cherokees. This dividing ridge between the Black Warrior and Tennessee Rivers was the boundary of tribal claims. Watersheds were the defining natural geographical units of the land before modern roads and arbitrary state lines. 

When he was alerted of danger by the language of the bird people who flitted from limb to limb in the trees or in the Muskogee language “e-does”, he became as motionless as a stump and as aware as a deer. Anyone who has stalked a deer, especially a wary buck, knows that when alerted by a peripheral motion, a faint whiff of odor, or an unnatural sound, he or she will face the direction of origin and freeze in mid-air. If hoof is in midair, it freezes in midair and the deer becomes as motionless as a rock. So were our ancestors trained by their acute emulation of the animals around them whose survival depended on identifying predators. 

While one might hesitate to compare the majesty of the Warrior Mountains to Appalachians or Blue Ridge, the labyrinth of canyon fissures exposing the hearts of sandstone and limestone mountains are a world of uniqueness unto themselves. Shining rock walls separate the upland ridges from the riparian waterways in stark contrast. The canyons are filled with hemlocks choking with rhododendron. The ridges were predominately American chestnut, red and white oaks, and beeches with scattered pines. 

Before the human race became so numerous, every global region in every latitude, climate and zone, or continental separation, had a unique composition of plants and animals. The tribes who inhabited those varying regions survived by mastering the use of the plants, animals, fish, rocks, and other natural materials at hand. Natural technologies and human populations that did not exceed the carrying capacity of the land created a balance that continued for millennia before modern technologies transgressed the natural laws. Simplicity and independence vanished over the centuries as technology, industries, and human workers succumbed to comfort and convenience. At the same time arose those who would control the technologies of dependence and the natural resources of the earth. Multitudes of people gradually fell into bondage as power-hungry kings, land barons and lords enslaved them as peasants or serfs. I insert this historical reminder to illustrate the stark contrast between the world of our ancestors and the world of today. Ultimately, modern technology will enslave the world by monitoring all people and punishing those who do not conform to the rules of those in power. 

Much can be learned by from grandparents whose personal experience includes the cumulative experience of centuries of observations and wisdom that was passed down. I recall that many times my grandmother would say to me:  “When I was growing up….” and continue in order to instill an important truth in my childish mind.  The surviving Native American languages are invaluable in that they encapsulate historical perspectives that are frozen in time by that language and will be lost if those languages are not recorded and carried on. 

Natural technologies long abandoned by European civilizations still reigned supreme in North American when Europeans relocated here. There were fibers for strings, ropes, mats and cloth; medicines for sickness; vegetables, meat and fish for food; barks for shelters and baskets; canes for shafts, and flints for razor-bladed knives and points. The basic industries of gathering and processing these materials under the sun and the moon, in the wind, rain, and seasons, defined a natural lifestyle.

There might have been a point in time where a balance might have been struck between technologies too primitive and technologies too technical. But the nature of technology is it is evolutionary in nature and one technology mutates into a higher level of technology. Time-saving gadgetry requires that time be traded for money  to buy the gadgetry. But to leave a philosophical discourse and return to 1600 A.D., I will transition with this important fact: people born and raised close to nature and the land have or had an awareness lost to  metropolitan Modernica.  An intangible, innate sense that is connects to natural affections, values and awareness of life itself is unplugged and leaves humans with a dulling of the senses and the inability to hear the sounds and read the signs of the natural world around them.

Lojah stretched. The old must be kept young with exercise. He stretched a moccasined leg out across the earth and slowly bent over until he could lay his cheek on his knee. Then the other leg. He rose with bent knees and allowed his center of gravity to shift from forward to rearward, back and forth.  When he walked, his entire body moved smoothly, not bobbing up and down, but like a panther across the ground.

The curse of modern society is the fear of the natural elements rather than the embracing of the circle of life. A striving against the natural laws of the universe rather than flowing with them. Somewhere in the distant past, civilizations split  with one segment pursuing science and technology and another content to live day by day with food, clothing and shelter. This is called by some observers “the old ways” and others “the old beloved path.”

Lojah knew only the old ways. The white race was only slowly beginning its march across this vast wilderness continent and was still in it infancy far to the northeast. The great Odo-ubee, the chestnut was yet to be made practically extinct by the Europeans who slaughtered the buffalo by the millions, and poisoned the wolf, decimated the forests and fouled the crystal rivers. This man knew only the total immersion of his being in and among the living world around him. The world as far as he knew it was one living organism – all living things living in unison within the well-oiled operating engine of the universe. Had not the Creator made it to be so?  To him, the streams and the rivers were the blood veins and arteries of the earth.  The herds of deer were put there by the Great Creator-Spirit for food and utility. He took what he needed. The deer provided not only meat, but clothing and moccasins, awls and needles, strong sinews, glues, and tools for chipping flint. The deer was the equivalent of a complete mart of goods. The buffalo even more so.

Lojah's favorite hideout deep in the Sipsey
1882 detail of a small stretch of the Muscle Shoals in the Tennessee Valley north of the Warrior Mountains
Old photo of the Muscle Shoals - over a mile wile in places

It was the deer that Lojah was thinking of this morning, as the light came into the wilderness of the Warrior Mountains.  First light. The expression hardly arouses serious thought unless you have experienced the phenomena yourself in the chill of an early morning.

First light. You cannot see it appear at a given moment. It creeps in so slowly that the inky black of night lightens and grays into a ghostly world of mystical images. The forms of the trees that were so invisible in the blackness materialize in spirit tones. The sounds – the cry of the morning birds begin to fill the void of silence with life but unlike the light, life awakens in the forest abruptly.

The deer move and the motionless trees suddenly began to move with the morning breezes begin as though they are conjured up with the sun as it rises along the endless circuit it follows around the earth through the circle of the seasons.

For an unskilled person of today, a lone trip into a and vast expanse of wilderness for an extended time could be as painful as the proverbial “running a gauntlet.” Battered by the elements of cold and exposure to sun and heat and insects, poisonous plants, taxing terrain, unbearable. Severance from the addictions of modern life might leave that person miserable. Nature can appear cruel, drowning some in rivers, torturing others with disease, insect bites, snakebite, freezing cold or blistering heat, starvation or thirst?

On the other hand, with the training of an elder or a teacher, a person can become mentally and physically conditioned, acclimated and trained in essential and practical life skills. The basics are food, clothing and shelter and fire building. Every particular ecological region contained a variation of source materials. Some commodities such as salt was either traded for or procured by annual trips to salt springs.

All the ancestors of all peoples who lived before the industrial and modern technological age practiced these principles. As individuals, they lived within the bounds and context of natural laws. (Moral, spiritual and political laws are not within the bounds of the story of Lojah even though, historically, they are salient.)  

This day, for Lojah, there was no discomfort and no longing for the delicacies of the untasted. This was the way of life and the reason he was among the living. 

A poet observing life in the wild Canadian and Alaskan wilderness at the end of the nineteenth penned these words:

“For I think you are one, with the stars and the sun, and the wind and the wave and the dew; and the peaks untrod, that yearn to God, and the valleys undefiled, men soar with wings and they bridle kings, but what is it all to you? Wise in the ways of the wilderness and strong with the strength of the wild.” 

In nature (as in the darker side of New York City or L.A.), the unskilled, the weak, the naive, the foolish, and the unprepared fall prey to the stronger or swifter or craftier.

Lojah remembered the teachings of his father who taught him the ways of the wilderness world. The Great Spirit created the way of life. The power of life is in the laws of the creation. The law of the universe is the circle. All of life runs in circles. The water runs in the stream to the river to the sea to the cloud to the earth again as the rain. The earth itself is a circle that circles the circle of the sun. Life is born in the spring in resurrection; the summer is a time of growth and youth; the fall the time of fruits and harvest and the winter is death. Truly the life of a human is patterned after the seasons of the earth. Spring is a time of renewal and birth and youth – summer is a time of life and experiences – fall is a time of reflection and gathering the experiences – and winter is the time of cold, death and departure from this world.

To Lojah, life was a path not unlike the paths that were like the continental spider-web of travel ways. There were stumbling stones, pitfalls, snares, and enemies lurking in the shadows. The world was a dangerous place and well-scattered with enemies and dangers. The white path was associated with peace, the red path represented war and bloodshed. This was why Lojah was scouting the tribal borderlands as a silent and unseen observer and gatherer of intelligence. 

In modern society noise is the norm and silence is unusual.  When people were few, silence was the norm.

As Lojah walked through the forest, his eyesight was trained to see the entirety of his peripheral vision as one image in front of him, much like a widescreen computer. Instead of focusing on the trail in front of him, his brain was processing one broad image and searching for a single out-of-place motion, color, or shape and at the same time listening for anything behind. 

“Secular history is a record of humanity alienating itself from the natural creation and its laws.”

Lojah moved silently on. One moccasined step might take ten, twenty or a hundred seconds frozen in midair. He might have reminded us of a pat of butter on a hot skillet.  Or calm water moving so slowly down a gentle slope that it appears motionless. All around him the emerald forest teemed with life of a paradise lost to a world of seven billion who are lorded over by international corporate kingdoms, the gods of technology and the enticement of humanity to consume.

In those days, the forests were much more light-filled with grasses growing tall as they were fertilized by the clouds of passenger pigeons that passed through annually. Browsing on these grasses that grew in the openings of a ridge was a prime deer with head down and tail twitching.  He did not sense that he was stalked. Lojah was flanking the deer carefully to remain upwind. When the deer’s head rose with broad ears attuned and nostrils flaring, Lojah froze. When assured he was safe, the deer returned to browsing. Lojah drew his arrow back as naturally as he drew breath. The feathered shaft bulleted through the air and by the time the buck heard the dull twang of the bowstring, it was too late. The arrow pierced its heart and the deer became the prey of the predator. This was the way of the forest and the law of nature and of the circle of life. This was food but more importantly, calories to fuel the Native American’s body. The deer was a storehouse of  tools, sinews, and leather. Lojah was rich with all the essential materials he needed. He was content. 

He dressed his game, packed it back to the bluff shelter and began smoking the meat and drying the buckskin. He would now be prepared to venture off of the Tennessee Divide and spy on the neighboring Chickasaws and Cherokees.

A once wild and beautiful landscape forever ruined to satisfy consumers
Lamar Marshall about 1996 in the Cohutta Wilderness of northern Georgia