Study Guide

Cold Mountain Man and the Natural World

By Charles Frazier

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Man and the Natural World

Chapter 1

As Inman sat brooding and pining for his lost self, one of Swimmer's creekside stories rushed into his memory with a great urgency and attractiveness. Swimmer claimed that above the blue vault of heaven there was a forest inhabited by a celestial race. Men could not go there to stay and live, but in that high land the dead spirit could be reborn. Swimmer described it as a far and inaccessible region, but he said the highest mountains lifted their dark summits into its lower reaches. Signs and wonders both large and small did sometimes make transit from that world to our own. (1.64-65)

Even if there's a better world beyond nature, Cold Mountain suggests that nature contains pointers toward it.

Chapter 3

At another time the scene might have had about it a note of the jaunty. All the elements that composed it suggested the legendary freedom of the open road: the dawn of day, sunlight golden and at a low angle; a cart path bordered on one side by red maples, on the other by a split-rail fence; a tall man in a slouch hat, a knapsack on his back, walking west. But after such wet and miserable nights as he had recently passed, Inman felt like God's most marauded bantling. He stopped and put a boot on the bottom rail of the roadside fence and looked out across the dewy fields. He tried to greet the day with a thankful heart, but in the early pale light his first true vision was of some foul variety of brown flatland viper sliding flabby and turdlike from the roadway into a thick bed of chickweed. (3.1)

This is one of many moments when Frazier uses natural imagery to show us how things are going for Inman. He could totally write for The Discovery Channel.

Chapter 5

The road, they said, was a place apart, a country of its own ruled by no government but natural law, and its one characteristic was freedom. (5.127)

What does natural law mean in this book?

How do you know its name is Rigel?
—I read it in a book, Inman said.
—Then that's just a name we give it, the boy said. It ain't God's name. Inman had thought on the issue a minute and then said, How would you ever come to know God's name for that star?
—You wouldn't, He holds it close, the boy said. (5.54-58)

Are there mysteries in nature that humanity just doesn't understand? Though the context of this quote is grim, the imagery of stars suggests that there's some sort of wonder in nature we can't fully grasp.

Chapter 6

When they began planting, Ruby had held out a handful of tiny black seeds. Looks like not much, she said. It takes faith to jump from this to a root cellar filled with turnips some many weeks hence. That and a warm fall, for we started late. (6.2)

Nature's mysterious, but also practical. We bet Ruby appreciates that. She's not too fond of mysteries without a practical outcome.

The crops were growing well, largely, Ruby claimed, because they had been planted, at her insistence, in strict accordance with the signs. In Ruby's mind, everything—setting fence posts, making sauerkraut, killing hogs—fell under the rule of the heavens. Cut firewood in the old of the moon, she'd advised, otherwise it won't do much but fry and hiss at you come winter. [...] Monroe would have dismissed such beliefs as superstition, folklore. But Ada, increasingly covetous of Ruby's learning in the ways living things inhabited this particular place, chose to view the signs as metaphoric. They were, as Ada saw them, an expression of stewardship, a means of taking care, a discipline. They provided a ritual of concern for the patterns and tendencies of the material world where it might be seen to intersect with some other world. Ultimately, she decided, the signs were a way of being alert, and under those terms she could honor them. (6.3-4)

How does Ruby's view of nature differ from Ada's?

But now, as she looked out at the view, she held the opinion that what she saw was no token but was all the life there is. It was a position in most ways contrary to Monroe's; nevertheless, it did not rule out its own denomination of sharp yearning, though Ada could not entirely set a name to its direction. (6.47)

Nature and yearning are pretty connected in Cold Mountain, whatever your view of how the connection works.

Chapter 10

But there we have peace. And though we die as all men do and must struggle for our food, we need not think of danger. Our minds are not filled with fear. We do not endlessly contend with each other. I come to invite you to live with us. Your place is ready. (10.71)

This offer of another world in the Cherokee woman's story doesn't leave nature behind; the other world is still a natural one, but one more at peace than Inman's experience of our world.

Monroe had commented that, like all elements of nature, the features of this magnificent topography were simply tokens of some other world, some deeper life with a whole other existence toward which we ought aim all our yearning. And Ada had then agreed. (6.46)

What does nature do? Point to something else? Or have its own existence? How do the different characters in Cold Mountain answer that question?

Where it ran shallower and slower, then, were the places prone to freezing. Monroe would have made a lesson of such a thing, Ada thought. He would have said what the match of that creek's parts would be in a person's life, what God intended it to be the type of. All God's works but elaborate analogy. Every bright image in the visible world only a shadow of a divine thing, so that earth and heaven, low and high, strangely agreed in form and meaning because they were in fact congruent.

Monroe had a book wherein you could look up the types. The rose—its thorns and its blossom—a type of the difficult and dangerous path to spiritual awakening. The baby—come wailing to the world in pain and blood—a type of our miserable earthly lives, so consumed with violence. The crow—its blackness, its outlaw nature, its tendency to feast on carrion—a type of the dark forces that wait to overtake man's soul.

So Ada quite naturally thought the stream and the ice might offer a weapon of the spirit. Or, perhaps, a warning. But she refused to believe that a book could say just how it should be construed or to what use it might be put. Whatever a book said would lack something essential and be as useless by itself as the gudgeon to a door hinge with no pintle. (16.51-53)

Monroe has a really complex way of interpreting nature. Is that view true in some way in the world of the book? Is Ada right in saying that interpreting nature that way also requires hands-on experience?

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