By: Raymond Greiner
A vast forest spans Western North Carolina, one of the largest tracts of forested land east of the Mississippi River including Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests extending into Tennessee. In the hamlet of Clear Creek, adjacent to this forest, Jonathan McLean was born July 1, 1930. Jonathan lived in a small frame house built by his father and grandfather, who gifted the family property to build their house. Jonathan’s grandmother lived nearby on a 5-acre homestead. Jonathan’s grandfather died in 1928 after retiring from the railroad leaving his wife Edith the house and land plus a small pension from his years of service with the railroad. This was the scene of Jonathan’s early life.
Jonathan was the youngest of four boys. He had carrot red hair and also afflicted with a birth defect. His left leg had not developed properly causing him to limp, unable to run. All four boys slept in the same room. Jonathan’s father Hank worked at a sawmill but money was scarce because a large portion of Hank’s pay went to the local moonshiner. Hank came home from work each evening with a Mason jar of the backwoods hooch to get him through the night. Daily life was repetitive; the boys were assigned chores and if not attended to properly Hank used his razor strap as a reminder.
Brothers Horace, James and Fred intimidated Jonathan because of his impairment. Jonathan found a pocketknife on the side of the road, he treasured this knife, then Horace took it from him but Jonathan re-possessed it. Horace was furious but never retrieved the knife. Jonathan fought for his rights, and even though his brothers were bigger and would win the fight they learned the gain was unworthy of the effort. Jonathan’s mother Judith defended him, but yielded to Hank who dominated the family with alcohol-fueled, iron-fisted rule.
As Jonathan came of age he attended elementary school. His inability to run created a target for schoolyard bullying. The bullies would push him down laughing as he struggled to regain footing. This was an everyday event. Jonathan came to hate school with a passion although a standout in the classroom, which served to intensify the bullying. Each day was pure misery.
Jonathan survived elementary school entering junior high school; his academic achievements continued but the bullying was unrelenting. One morning he told his parents that he was not going to school and if they tried to make him he would run away. Hank quickly fetched his razor strap and Jonathan told his father:
“You can beat me all you want. I am not going to school.”
“You worthless piece of shit, we will see about that.”
The beatings were frequent and severe until Jonathan’s grandmother intervened. Edith had power over her son. He knew she accumulated some wealth, saving over the years and was counting on his inheritance. Edith told her son never to beat Jonathan again; he can live with her and she will teach him.
Edith was truly Jonathan’s savior in every way possible. His daily life made a complete reversal; he could not get to sleep quickly enough anticipating the next day. Edith taught Jonathan to recognize wild ginseng plants, harvesting the roots selling them to pharmaceutical companies. His favorite chore was to hike to the ridge in mid-summer and pick a bucket of wild blueberries. This new life was like a miracle. Edith organized a study curriculum and was astonished at Jonathan’s learning capacity. One day she noticed a drawing he sketched on a brown paper bag of a fern uncurling. The perfection of this drawing revealed a gift.
On Edith’s next trip to town she asked the storekeeper if he could order an artist’s sketchpad and a box of drawing pencils. The storekeeper said he knew where to order these items and they should arrive next week. The art supplies arrived the following Saturday and Edith presented them to Jonathan. He was delighted to receive this gift and began drawing plants he had seen in the woods. This opened new dimension to Jonathan’s life. His art expanded, making a series of magnificent pencil drawings of woodland floras. Drawing became an obsession, eventually advancing to pen and ink in addition to pencil sketches.
Entering his teen years Jonathan’s life was joyful, sharing abundant love with his grandmother. Blessings continued to unfold, which seemed hopeless in earlier years.
At breakfast one morning Jonathan’s grandmother spoke of their life:
“Jonathan, it has been wonderful having you live with me. Sharing homestead chores and your youthful energy has rekindled my life. When your grandfather died I felt hollow and loneliness overwhelmed me. Your grandfather Joseph was truly an exceptional man; the kindest, most giving person I have ever known and I miss him deeply. It’s difficult to understand your father’s lacking of compassion and love, such contrast to his father.”
“Limitations caused from your birth defect expose to you a major human flaw. Intimidation toward those afflicted with disabilities is commonplace in our present culture. You are gauged socially as weak but I know you are not weak. Your impairment instills strength opening diversity to your life, exemplified by your art and love of nature. Some argue that taunting reflects natural selection, citing the code of ‘survival of the fittest’. The fittest emerge from a deeper, spiritual place without desire or need to injure others. Jonathan, our time together has taught us that life’s far-reaching values are more vivid when each day is embraced simplistically.”
The year is 1990. Susan Willoughby is a grad student at the University of North Carolina studying for her doctorate in biology. On off days she drives to the mountain region to explore and collect specimens for botanical research. The forest is an enchanting place for a student of biological sciences. She has a special interest in mosses, which are abundant throughout Appalachia.
One day, while hiking a trail following a spectacular, fast flowing creek with moss-covered rocks she encountered a man walking in the opposite direction. The man stopped directly in front of her looking coldly into her eyes:
“Hello young lady. What are you doing out here in the wilderness?”
“I am gathering plant specimens to study at the lab at UNC, where I am a grad student.”
This man had a sinister look, disheveled, causing Susan discomfort.
“Would you mind if I hike with you for a while?”
“Yes I would mind. I do not know you and you are making me feel uncomfortable, and I would appreciate it if you would continue on your way.”
“I think you are very sexy looking and this is no place to be uppity. You are alone in an isolated place. I suggest you be more co-operative. I think I will walk in your direction, see what you do.”
Susan was now very nervous and feeling fearful of this man. Down the trail came another man, shorter with a distinct limp using a walking staff, appeared to be in his 60’s stopping next to the two. It was obvious something peculiar was occurring and he knew the other man.
“What’s going on here Jeb are you giving this young woman a hard time?”
“That’s none of your business Red, she don’t need rescued by an old coot who can barely walk. Keep on walking and try to pick up the pace.”
“This man is causing me to feel very uncomfortable, making sexual comments and asking to hike with me.”
“Well Jeb, up to your old tricks again, you better move along right now.”
“You just try to move me old man and see what happens.”
Jeb had a menacing stare, put his hand on the handle of a big knife on his belt. Red made a low whistle and from out of nowhere bounded a big German plot hound, stood next to Red snarling at Jeb. Jeb pulled his knife moving toward the hound, but this was a big, male bear hound bred to hold a bear in place. The dog jumped like a flash to one side his jaws coming down on Jeb’s wrist with full force and a loud snap was heard as Jeb hit the ground screaming with pain. The hound was Kyler, he stood over Jeb growling, showing his teeth. Jeb got up quickly and ran down the trail as fast as he could.
“Hello, my name is Jonathan McLean most people call me Red, but some call me Ruby Red. Sorry you had to run into Jeb. He’s a bad one, been in and out of prison his entire life.”
“Thank you so much. I was quite frightened. I am Susan Willoughby a grad student and research scientist from UNC. This is such a magnificent forest for plant specimens.”
“Are you parked at the trailhead?”
“Kyler and I will walk with you back to your car.”
“I would be very appreciative. ”
“Kyler is much smarter than most hounds he can sense a situation and he knew Jeb was trouble. Normally he is the most mellow dog you could imagine, sleeps on the porch of my cabin.”
As Red and Kyler accompanied Susan back to the trailhead Red explained his life, telling Susan of his troubled childhood, then living with his grandmother. Red’s grandmother died when he was 21 bequeathing him the homestead, angering his father, but she willed her money to his parents and three brothers. He worked at the sawmill for a while, but the boss said he was too slow moving about because of his limp and fired him. He then rented the homestead and purchased a small plot of land on the edge of the Pisgah National Forest and built his cabin. He lives off income from the rental and harvesting ginseng roots. His brothers moved away and both parents died. As they neared Susan’s car they passed a small offshoot trail.
“My cabin is about 100 yards up this trail. If you decide to hike in this area again stop by Kyler and I will hike with you. My grandmother taught me many wild plants and flowers. I may be of assistance to you gathering specimens.”
“Why do some call you Ruby Red?”
“When I was 13 years old I roamed the hills bringing home unusual rocks. I found one that was very unusual and red, my grandmother said it was a ruby. She told me to keep it secret where I found it and rubies were very valuable. I told one of my brothers I found a ruby, he told my father, and they tried to persuade me to tell them where I found it but I wouldn’t tell. Word got around and people began calling me Ruby Red.”
They arrived at Susan’s car and she thanked Red again for saving her from that creepy Jeb, and said she will return next Sunday and they can search for moss specimens.
The following Sunday as Susan approached Red’s cabin Kyler came bounding down the trail barking a greeting with his big tail sweeping back and forth. Red was sitting on the porch and a smile appeared on his face as Susan arrived.
“How about some coffee?”
“Oh yes, I would enjoy that.”
As they sat on the porch Susan noticed several shoe boxes lined next to the cabin’s wall, each had a lid in place.
“What’s in those boxes Red?”
“Last week Kyler and I gathered mosses in the area thought you could make use of them.”
Susan was surprised and began looking inside the boxes; a different species of moss was in each box.
“This is astonishing Red. I can definitely use these for a paper I am preparing as part of my dissertation. I am so grateful, such a thoughtful gesture.”
Red then showed Susan his cabin. Inside things were in perfect order, over a hundred books on a wide range of subjects, a small table with two chairs, an icebox, kerosene lanterns, wood stove and a fold down single bed. A photo of his grandmother was on one wall with many pen and ink drawings of plants and wildflowers on the opposite wall.
“My goodness Red, your cabin is so special, I can see you are a reader. Who did the pen and ink drawings?”
“I have been drawing plants since I was a child, it’s a passion I have. I also keep a journal describing living within the forest.”
Susan and Red formed a bond. When Susan was able to get away for specimen hikes Red and Kyler accompanied her.
One day when Susan visited she was obviously distraught and Red questioned her emotional state.
“I am attracted to this region for reasons beyond academic pursuits. I feel a personal alliance with the forest. Present day culture is developing into glut oriented social disorder. Earth sensitive transformations are occurring ignoring consequence intensity risking irreversible environmental loss. Population expansion, mostly wealthy retirees seeking to live in this unspoiled area are inundating Western North Carolina. Land developers symbolize an infestation of vermin seizing opportunities to purchase forestland, exploiting local landowners, profiteering building expensive, luxurious homes so the wealthy can sit on their overlooking decks soaking in the vistas. A recent proposed land purchase has angered me. It involves the purchase of a 1000-acre section adjacent to the Pisgah National Forest. The patriarch of the family who owned this land has died, but before taken ill was preparing to gift his land to create a nature preserve, passing before he could implement the deed change. This section has many old growth trees and is a haven for abundant wildlife species. I have seen bear tracks in this area. Development is pushing bears further and further into the forest. Streams are in jeopardy, and for certain the land will be heavily logged, with roads ripped to gain access. A few of the university’s staff and prominent local citizens have formed a committee to explore options seeking to allow this land to become a preserve as was originally intended. The heirs are driven solely by fiscal gain; and it’s apparent the land will go to the highest bidding developer.”
“Red, the committee has appointed me to meet with the family, a brother, sister and their lawyer to discuss the situation. It was decided I should go alone and calmly discuss options intending not to overwhelm this meeting. I would like you to attend this meeting with me, offering input based on your understanding the dire necessity for natural preservation.”
The meeting took place at the law office of Walter Huffington, but the heirs were not present. Huffington explained they lived in Pennsylvania and asked him to convey results emerging from this meeting.
“Mr. Huffington, it is impossible to effectively persuade the heirs to consider our proposal if they are not present.”
“Ms Willoughby this situation has already progressed. I am willing to listen to your presentation but must advise you concerning its relevance. A prominent land developer has offered my clients two million dollars in a single payment for the purchase of this land, although this is not absolute. I have advised them to allow ample time for additional developers to come forward with bids.”
“Are the heirs cognizant of the environmental destruction developing this land will create?”
“They are aware their father’s intension was to gift this land to the Nature’s Conservancy and this issue was discussed; however, neither share their father’s passion for preservation. They are quite materialistic with aspirations to own homes on the mountainside capturing the splendor of the valley.”
Red: “What time limit is in place before the decision is finalized?”
“Realistically 90 days would be a maximum. We have contacted several major developers highlighting this area’s appeal for a luxury home development. I am available to you and your committee if you are prepared to counter the current offer. Perhaps you can locate a philanthropic source to escalate the present bid.”
Susan and Red departed the law office disappointed.
Huffington called his clients:
“Hello Joe, this is Walter. I concluded my meeting with the tree huggers. I don’t think they have a dime; the woman is a dreamer and the old guy with her looks like a genetic mistake. Nothing’s going to come of this that I can see.”
“OK Walter, we want to clear this up soon, no more than 90 days. Any counter offers come in?”
“No, nothing so far.”
“Well Red it looks pretty hopeless. I will present to the committee what transpired, but the idea of a philanthropist is a pretty slim.”
“Tomorrow is Sunday, good weather predicted, come up we can discuss this conundrum more thoroughly. I have a new section to show you.”
It was a magnificent spring day. May apple were opening, mixing with a carpet of wildflowers creating a spiritual tonic alleviating anguishing thoughts of bulldozers knocking down trees destroying the mosaic of a majestic wilderness. Humanity’s covetousness seems boundless. Habitat will be eradicated, dens destroyed driven by greed manifested by the vanity of wealth. Susan felt a sense of relief as she hiked the trail to Red’s cabin hearing Kyler’s familiar bark bounding toward her. Such wonder living in this place. The volume is turned down here, but the quiet is clearly audible. Sighting an owl’s silent flight seeking roost in subdued morning light. The woodpecker’s rhythmic beat, blending with the caw of a distant crow. This is a place of nature, a coalescence of life functioning within its own design displaying infinite splendor, a cosmic place.
“Hey Susan, glad you made it, what a grand day this is. A spectacle of new life emerging.”
“So Red, where is this new area you want to show me?”
“It’s not far, but we must climb a bit.”
The two departed in a different direction than previous treks. About 20 minutes down this trail Red turned off the trail heading up a steep hill. No obvious trail just up the wooded hillside.
“This is a tough climb Red hope it’s worth the effort.”
About half way up the hill Red stopped, moved a large brushy windfall aside exposing a small cave opening.
“OK Susan, now we must do a bit of crawling.”
Red took a flashlight from his pocket and the two crawled into the small cave opening. The cave opened up quickly and they could stand. Red located and lit a kerosene lantern. Susan followed Red deeper into the cave and they came to a rock basin someone had obviously built covered with small tree branches. Red removed the branches and Susan was shocked to see the entire basin was filled to the brim with rubies.
“I mined rubies for years. I’m certain there are several million dollars worth of rubies here.”
Susan was speechless.
“This is the cave I found my first ruby when I was 13 years old, and my grandmother told me to keep it secret. You are the only other person that knows this mine exists. I have never sold a single ruby, accumulating them thinking someday they would serve a purpose. My grandmother was a spiritual person; she believed that events occur for unknown, mysterious reasons. My birth defect and struggles as a child, eventually living with my grandmother, building my cabin and moving to the mountains has led to the day we met on the trail and had to contend with that fool Jeb. Now we are given opportunity to save a threatened wilderness from exploitation and destruction. I am gifting these rubies to form a foundation, which you will become the chief executive and director organizing the purchase of that precious property.”
Susan became dizzy, felt faint and weak. She sat in silence for a few minutes on a nearby rock trying to absorb this experience.
“Red this is so amazing. I am lost for words.”
“The first challenge is to locate a reputable jewel appraiser to learn exactly what we have. How and where to market these rubies allowing negotiation with the heirs.
“Red, I need to gather myself. I cannot think clearly, but this is certainly a miracle of some form. Let’s go back to the cabin, have some coffee and think this through. Formulate a plan, discuss priorities.”
“OK, good idea, but first I must express to you my thoughts. During my lifetime I have been judged negatively, with the exception of the years with my grandmother. She loved me dearly. I would have surely died without her. All human interaction toward me after her death has been degradation based upon my appearance and impairment, especially during these later years of life. The exception has been your bonding with me; it felt like the first warm day of spring, fresh and joyful. You say this discovery is a miracle; you are my miracle, allowing me to share this good fortune to save a treasured land. It is a miracle we share. This will work, the heirs, lawyer and the bidding developer worship money.”
Again Susan felt weak, unable to speak, sitting quietly, taking a drink from her canteen, staring at Red, grasping for words, searching for a manner to respond. Nothing appeared. She put her hands over her face sobbing quietly, trying desperately to control herself. Such emotions are untypical of her demeanor. She had no control. Red sat quietly. After a few minutes, they walked toward the cave opening, crawled out the passage, covered the entrance and began walking in the direction of the cabin. As they neared the cabin Kyler greeted them with his welcoming bark and the three friends entered the cabin. Red put the coffee pot on.
The next day Susan was on the computer searching for jewel appraisers, located one in Knoxville, Tennessee and called. He asked her to bring a few samples and he could estimate dollar value. She drove to Knoxville and the appraiser was impressed at the quality of the rubies. Red and Susan then counted the rubies estimating their value the best they could, gauging size and purity based upon Susan’s Internet research and discussion with the appraiser. Their estimate was between 5 and 6 million dollars. The next step was to sell the rubies for the highest dollar amount. Susan searched the Internet for jewel brokers. Now the pieces were in place to begin negotiations with the heirs and their lawyer.
“Mr. Huffington this is Susan Willoughby. Mr. McLean and I would like to meet with you again concerning the matter of the land sale.”
“Oh, hello, fine. I’m open anytime after 3PM this week. The heirs are getting uneasy about the sale and are seriously considering the present offer since no new bids have come forth. Did you find a philanthropist to assist you in your effort to purchase the property?”
“Yes, we feel things can go in our favor and satisfy the heirs beyond the present bid.”
“Can you be here tomorrow?”
“Yes, we will be there at 3PM.”
Susan and Red entered the law office.
“Come in, glad to see you again sit down. I am eager to hear your offer.”
“We have located an anonymous benefactor. We offer 2,500,000 dollars to purchase the 1000-acre property. We can deliver a cashier’s check to you when the deed is prepared for transfer. The deed should be made out to The Ruby Red Foundation, of which I am the chief executive and director. We will obtain counsel to advise and represent us regarding clarification and legality to implement proper deed transfer.”
“I will inform the heirs immediately, you can call me tomorrow and I will update you on where things stand. Thank you for coming.”
Susan and Red departed.
“Hey Joe, we have a counter offer for the property, the tree hugger and the old guy returned, they found a benefactor, formed a foundation and they have offered 2 mil 5 for your land. I will call the developer and present this information to him to see if he wants to increase his bid.”
“Good news Walter, I will inform my sister. Let me know right away what the developer says.”
Huffington called the developer, who was angered from being outbid.
“Look Huffington, those two dragged their feet, my offer is way over a realistic price for their land. I’m strung out financially; the banks are already edgy concerning another project I have in the works. The two million I offered is out of my pocket. I am passing on this one.”
So, The Ruby Red Foundation owned 1000 acres of pristine property adjacent to the Pisgah National Forest. There will be no bulldozers, roads or uprooted old growth trees. The bears keep their home and this will become a wilderness forever, the Ruby Red Wildlife Sanctuary.
Susan received her PhD and became a biology professor at UNC, bought a modest house near the campus, which also served as headquarters for The Ruby Red Foundation. Susan put her heart and soul into the foundation. Other universities invited her to speak about the foundation’s goals. Susan visited Red less often but looked forward to each visit.
One sunny day as Susan walked the trail to Red’s cabin she was surprised that Kyler did not greet her on the trail in his usual manner. As she approached the cabin she noticed Kyler lying on the porch. His tail thumped the floor as she walked onto the porch remaining in place. Susan thought he must be getting old, or not feeling good for some reason. She walked into the cabin and Red was on his bed. She felt a surge of fear overcome her. Red had died in his sleep. Susan completely broke down, sat at the table weeping with a depth of pain she had never experienced. The anguish was overwhelming, destroying her emotional strength, a complete meltdown deep within her soul as if her heart had been torn out. Here was a loving man that gave everything he had to life, fought demons brought forth to him, transcending it all, centering purpose on connection with his beloved mountains and the life that thrives among them. He saved a wilderness that seemed far beyond his ability, was spiritually connected to his forest, never wavering. The legacy of Ruby Red was solidly intact.
“The vistas in these mountains reach the limits of spectacle permeating beyond visual, creating benevolence. One can become completely enthralled by these mountains. Stepping on wet stones as I cross a creek my heart rejoices my good fortune to live in such a blissful place.” Jonathan Maclean
Susan kept Kyler and he became her trail companion during weekly treks in the Ruby Red Wildlife Sanctuary. Kyler accompanied Susan when she was invited to speak. She tells the story of Red’s life during her talks. She posted a website describing the foundation’s goals, the sanctuary’s location and an invitation to visit and hike the trails within the sanctuary. Each week she includes an excerpt from Red’s journal and a few of his wild plant and flower drawings. The site inspires comments from around the world, a source of joy for Susan to read.
Red willed everything he owned to Susan. Susan had Red cremated and scattered his ashes in selected places within the sanctuary. Red’s cabin became a marshaling place for student volunteer trail crews and for special meetings regarding the sanctuary’s management and future, also a soul spot for Susan. A few times a year Susan visits Red’s old ruby mine. Rubies are no longer mined here and the mine remains a secret. She sits on the rock where she listened to Red open his heart, reflecting on the emotion of that moment.
Most often when Susan thinks of Red she remembers that pivotal day when Red and Kyler rescued her from danger on the trail. Red’s spirit lives in Susan’s heart, an eternal presence.