2016 Creative nonfiction Contest Judge's Choice ~ Christopher Martin

Of War and the Red-tailed Hawk


            The story of the red-tailed hawk roils with my blood, fused with the dirt at Kennesaw Mountain. Kennesaw rises in the suburbs northwest of Atlanta, an isolated ridge—monandock, “lonely mountain”—in the shadow of which thousands of soldiers fell in a battle of the Civil War, June 1864, one of the last battles before Atlanta itself fell. I fell at Kennesaw Mountain, too, one humid morning in the summer of 2015.

            I have not stopped trying to return to that place I fell, to that insignificant spot beside a patch of insignificant wildflowers on a red clay trail between the Dead Angle and Dallas Highway, where I was stroller-jogging with my children just before a hawk walked from the woods.

            I have not stopped trying to return, return to the time this place—Kennesaw, Gahneesah, “place of the dead”—belonged to the Cherokee; back to the Trail of Tears; back to the battle, the boys, old men, fathers, brothers, sons in blue and gray, many dying for powers that cared not a thing for them; back to the time I first set foot on this terrain, not long after I moved here when I was in middle school and walked these trails with my parents, who were battling through a divorce, and I noticed the prickly pears, the fence lizards, the red moss and blue-gray lichen, everything close to the ground.


            I started running again in 2013. My son was three at the time, my daughter one, and, at 30, pushed by a manifest fear, I’d recently stumbled into one of the worst states of depression I’ve ever encountered. This depression never leaves; sometimes it’s just easier to deal with than others. But late summer 2013 was not one of those times.

            I’d grown inactive, downing beer after beer, eating mostly junk, and came within a pound of 230. At 6’1’’, my healthy weight is around 180, 190 at most. Nearly hitting 230 shook me awake, and I started running—mostly stroller jogs, pushing my children along the way.

            On that summer morning nearly two years later, that summer morning of the fall and the hawk, battlefield grass heavy with dew—my son five, my daughter three, myself 32 and a good bit lighter than two years before—we were stroller-jogging as usual, only breaking the normal routine of backroads and sidewalks around our house by visiting a trail at Kennesaw Mountain, one I remember running with ease in high school and college.

            As the most significant greenspace in the suburbs between Marietta and Kennesaw—one with no parking fee, at that—Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park draws a crowd, and that morning my children and I arrived was no exception. We circled the new lot on Burnt Hickory Road several times, finally found a space as a dog-walker was leaving, and, after a prolonged visit to the Port-a-John at the trailhead—an adventure in its own right—we were on our way. I gave Cannon and Opal each a cup of trail mix to keep them occupied in the stroller, which we call the Flyin’ Umbrella, and I took off down Noses Creek Trail, bound for Cheatham Hill and the Dead Angle about two and a half miles south.

            I’ve always had this rule with running, going back to high school, that once I set a destination in mind, I won’t stop, not even to walk, until I make it. Even for the years of inactivity in my late twenties and early thirties, that rule reasserted itself on Noses Creek Trail with my children. Clearly, it was not a rule I formed in a time when I had any idea what it would be like to run a hilly trail pushing 80 pounds of cargo while out of shape. But the rule remained instinct nonetheless. By the time I’d crossed the Noses Creek bridge at a steady clip (the steadiness thanks mostly to the slight downhill grade and the forward momentum of the stroller) and hit the biggest uphill section and obstacle between us and the end of the run, I was grimacing, straining, gasping. Cannon and Opal were spitting raisins from their trail mix at each other. A runner passed us from behind, turned and said “Impressive!” without breaking stride, and continued on her way, soon out of sight.

            I never stopped, and we of course made it. It’s hard, anyway, to dwell too long on physical exhaustion at a place like Kennesaw Mountain. 150 years ago, men my age in those same summer woods through which I dashed with a stroller were wearing wool, digging earthworks that still surround the trails, dragging cannons, fixing bayonets, killing each other and trying not to be killed.

            In a letter to his wife on June 30, 1864, following the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote, “It is enough to make the whole world start at the awful amount of death and destruction that now stalks abroad. I begin to regard the death and mangling of a couple thousand men as a small affair, a kind of morning dash—and it may be well that we become so hardened.”*

            This passage from Sherman has stayed with me and helped form my understanding of what happened at Kennesaw Mountain and the manifestations of callousness as virtue that are with us today. While it’s true that Sherman probably never imagined an out-of-shape, depressed man in a Kennesaw State ball cap, moisture-wicking shirt, basketball shorts, and running shoes winding around those earthworks while pushing a double-stroller holding two kids spitting raisins at each other, that morning run, my “morning dash,” is the kind of small affair he describes—something to get out of the way, over with, nothing too remarkable. A run in the woods, the killing and mangling of people, six in one, half-dozen the other.

            The week of my “morning dash,” a white supremacist went to Charleston and murdered nine black people in a historic AME church—a present-day act of racial terror of the very same lineage as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, 1963, which was of the lineage of Jim Crow, of the so-called Redemption, of the failures of Reconstruction, of the Civil War, of slavery and the Middle Passage.

            The mass has accepted that, too. Horrible, but a small affair, it says. There is no other way, nothing to learn from our history, it says. All the NRA decals and Confederate flags that have always been here but in the wake of Charleston have proliferated around Kennesaw, the South, the country, suggest there’s nothing we can do, just like the powers and principalities would have us believe there’s nothing that could have been done or to be done about any other form of violence. It’s all just a morning jog, and only a fool would think otherwise.


            Even a suburb bears mystery—mystery choked by traffic, sprawled and whitewashed and gentrified and homogenized to nearly nothing, chained by the chain stores, boxed by the big box stores, stripped by the strip malls, worn out, disturbed, overrun, mystery seldom heard or sought. But it is here.

            Consider the fence lizard, Sceloporus undulatus: a copper-plated reptile that, though the longest would only span my wrist to fingertips, recalls the time Appalachiosaurus reigned over these hills millions upon millions of years ago. The rushing, scurrying, scratching of the fence lizards among the split-rail fences and monuments at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is one of these suburban mysteries one must be humble enough to lie down to see. My children love to follow these sounds, metallic flashes, Cretaceous eyes, in shadows cast by statues of soldiers holding guns.

These guns keep me moving in shadows, too. This is Kennesaw, after all, “place of the dead”—the best guess at the Cherokee appellation for this ridge, a name to which I cannot ascribe enough significance—for Kennesaw, incidentally, the suburban town named for the mountain, is also the place of the gun. Every head of household within the city limits is required by law to own one. It’s a symbolic law, sure, not ever enforced that I know of and probably unconstitutional at that. But as is clear—and it should be clear, if it wasn’t before, in the wake of Charleston—symbols cast their own kind of shadow. Wander any parking lot or drive the roads around here, and before too long you’ll see the law referenced on bumper stickers featuring two revolvers and the phrase It’s the law in Kennesaw!

            I welcomed my son into the world—world of the fence lizard and summer tanager, of the oxeye daisy and the deer, world of the creek and meadow, world of the monument, world of the Confederate flag, of slavery, of secession, world of the lynch mob and the ladybug, of white supremacy and the wild iris, world of blood and water, world of war and the red-tailed hawk. 

            During a break from the stroller run, after we’d reached Cheatham Hill, my children had been playing on the footsteps of the Illinois Monument which stands at the crest of the hill and overlooks a field called the Dead Angle, where the heaviest fighting of the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain took place. Union veterans dedicated the Illinois Monument in 1914 on the fiftieth anniversary of the battle, which they lost, to commemorate their comrades’ sacrifices. The face of the monument depicts a Union soldier stoically holding a rifle, two women at his side, ushering him to rest in the afterlife.

            That morning, after the run, after my kids chased fence lizards for several minutes as I sat on a bench and watched them, my son asked me who the soldier on the monument was. One thing led to another and before I knew it I was trying to explain the causes and effects of the Civil War to a five-year-old. After I gave my answer, which I’m sure was quite rambling, my son thought about it all for a second, looked at the soldier again, and asked me if Civil War soldiers used real guns to fight. I told him they did.

            Thus, there at the edge of the Dead Angle, there in the shadow of a bronze soldier, bronze maidens, bronze lizards climbing their feet on the marble monument, there where war loosed fire on the field and forest edges and fallen soldiers burned alive, there by my answer I welcomed my son into the world—world of the fence lizard and summer tanager, of the oxeye daisy and the deer, world of the creek and meadow, world of the monument, world of the Confederate flag, of slavery, of secession, world of the lynch mob and the ladybug, of white supremacy and the wild iris, world of blood and water, world of war and the red-tailed hawk.

            I gave Cannon and Opal some water and a snack—bananas, granola bars. We walked the trails around the monument, cool in shadows, among Confederate earthworks, pines and sweet gums, muddy creeks. We passed what was the grave of an unknown Union soldier, now known and interred in Marietta, his former resting place near the Dead Angle marked by small flags, leaves, covered in coins.  Horses trotted by, their riders stopping to let my children see and pet the horses. My children are shy, though, inward, and just hid behind me, not out of fear of the horses, but not quite sure what to make of the people on them. The riders went on, and we went on.

            Opal stumbled over a root, skinned her knee a little, so I carried her as she sobbed and we looped back toward Cheatham Hill. As I loaded the stroller back up, she picked a few dandelions “for Mommy,” she told me, so I packed those up, too, along with some rocks and sticks and leaves she and her brother had both collected and wanted to take home.

            I would’ve been content to walk, but to get the most exercise out of the morning, and to justify the idea for lunch at a meat-and-three on the way back home, I decided to run both ways. The kids were more or less settled in their stroller seats, fiddling around with their leaves and flowers, sometimes fussing at each other for some small slight—a stolen leaf, a leg or arm in the other’s space—but nothing out of the ordinary. I stopped to refill their cups of trail mix and soon they were silent and occupied by picking through the raisins and peanuts to find M&M’s, and I was off running again.


            The red clay trail between the Dead Angle and Dallas Highway is cut through with runnels, threaded by roots. I’d made it nearly a mile before I hit one root in particular, where woods break to meadow and phoebes hunt in high grass flanked by ghost-green replica cannons, where the highway begins to come into view across the battlefields.

            I’ve fallen while running a couple times in my life, always alone. There was no thinking about those falls; I was on the ground before I realized what happened. But this wasn’t the case that day at Kennesaw Mountain, the day I told my children about war. I’d never fallen while stroller-jogging before and haven’t since, but as a safeguard, there is a strap connected to the stroller’s frame that I always wrap around my wrist. It was wrapped around my wrist that day, so the forward momentum of the stroller kept me from hitting the ground immediately while giving me time to realize I was going to be hitting the ground before too long. There was no regaining control, no keeping my feet.

            After flailing behind the stroller as best I could for three or four seconds that seemed much longer—having lost the handle, held to the stroller only by the safety strap wrapped around my wrist, the world around me a yellow-green blur, my senses anchored only by a blue stroller holding my children, a stroller that would soon be careening and flipping if I didn’t let myself fall—I went down. I collided with the trail in a baseball-style slide, the idea being to slow the stroller and stop it if I could, or if it was bound to fall, too, to let it fall back on me rather than trying to keep my feet and risking us all flipping in a tangled mass, crashing into a tree, or my kids being thrown out if it fell forward.

            Red clay, rock shards, roots bit into my calves, my thigh, my side. The stroller dragged me forward several feet as I held to the strap wrapped around my wrist. Then the stroller fell backwards, on top of me, and we skidded to a stop at the battlefield’s edge. I untangled my leg from the undercarriage and checked on my children, their eyes wide, lying on their backs, feet in the air, covered in M&M’s, peanuts, raisins, sunflower seeds, still holding their empty cups. Opal intimated crying and let out a couple forced sobs. I unbuckled them, picked them up, checked on them, and when they realized they were okay, unscathed, and that I was okay save a leg trickling blood, they started laughing, and I did, too. Shaking, thankful, laughing.

            I lifted the stroller, gathered the water bottles, keys, snacks, everything that had flown out, and repacked it all. I brushed myself off as best I could and cleaned the blood from my leg with a baby wipe while laughing with the kids as they kept repeating, “You fell, Daddy! You fell!” I loaded them back up, too, and the first thing they asked for was more trail mix, given that what I’d filled their cups with moments before now sprinkled the ground like confetti, pickings for mice and wrens. 

            I decided it would be best to walk until we crossed back over the highway and made it to the wider, graveled, more stroller-friendly Noses Creek Trail that would lead us back to the Burnt Hickory parking lot and home. Shortly after crossing the highway, just as I was getting ready to start running again, a red-tailed hawk walked from the understory bramble into the middle of the trail, where it stood still and watched us. I stopped the stroller, crouched beside my kids, and we watched it, too.

            How many years of creation, evolution, regeneration, between that bird and us? How many years of violence and unlearned lessons will we need? How many more years of mournful songs? A hawk emerged from Civil War earthworks, and we watched in silence.

            In my darkness, I remember the hawk. I remember its tail, fan of flame in the understory. In my darkness, I remember the speckled chest, black constellations on white plumage. I remember stopping the stroller, three humans watching the bird walk across the trail. I remember the silence. 

            Soon songbirds began chattering at the hawk, and it lifted from the trail, flew into an old beech tree that burst with colors of fleeing chickadees, titmice, cardinals, goldfinches. In the disturbance of song, the hawk waited on a dead branch.

            We continued on our way, and, despite the fall, Cannon wanted to run beside me a little ways, so I let him. We crossed Noses Creek together, and he even put his hand on the stroller, helping me push it, Opal inside, nodding off to sleep.


            In my darkness, I remember the hawk. I remember its tail, fan of flame in the understory. In my darkness, I remember the speckled chest, black constellations on white plumage. I remember stopping the stroller, three humans watching the bird walk across the trail. I remember the silence.

            In my darkness, I remember my son’s questions about the Civil War, whether or not the soldiers used real guns, my answer that they did. But it is too easy, too given to cliché, to consider this moment a loss of innocence. Perhaps it is something gained—a memory of innocence. A gift of that memory from a child not yet in kindergarten, a gift made stronger by his sister beside him, too young to even consider the question in the first place. After all, it would now never occur to me to wonder if Union and Confederate soldiers used real guns to kill each other. I know they did. And I know they used bayonets, too. And rocks and limbs, too. Bare hands, even, there on that very field where my son asked the question. I know all the shooting set fire to parts of the woods and some of the wounded burned alive where they fell. Some of the dead burned, too. I know what happened here, and I know the violence that sparked this violence: the chains and cradle-robbing, the bullwhips and bloodhounds, the never-ending labor and nooses. And I know that such violence persists even now.

            But in my darkness I remember the possibility, the potential of original thought, the clarity of vision in my son’s question: Somewhere in the human story, in the collective imagination, is the notion—rarely acknowledged, and when it is, only as some absurdity, some fantasy—that the way of violence is constructed, an imposition, an idol, not at all a part of who we are, or at least not who we have to be. There are other verses we can contribute, as Whitman—no stranger to the Civil War’s bloodshed—reminds us. Somewhere in this imagination is the notion that soldiers might not use real guns—which of course means that in this imagination there is no definition for soldier aside from human being, and by extension no meaning for war.

            I carry the grains of red clay from the fall in my blood. I will always stumble, and I will always remember. In this stumbling and memory, my prayer is that we see a new path and walk it, that we emerge from these confining earthworks, that we find a new story and tell it, that in the disturbance of song, we wait on this dead branch together. 


* Quoted in Earl Hess, Kennesaw Mountain: Sherman, Johnston, and the Atlanta Campaign (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).


Christopher Martin is author of This Gladdening Light: An Ecology of Fatherhood and Faith, which won the 2015 Will D. Campbell Award in Creative Nonfiction and will be published by Mercer University Press in July 2017. He is also author of the poetry chapbooks Marcescence, Everything Turns Away, and A Conference of Birds. Chris's work has appeared in publications across the country, most recently in Fourth River and McSweeney's. An erstwhile stay-at-home parent, Chris teaches English at Kennesaw State University and creative nonfiction at the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop. 


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