Trails and pathways feature heavily in “naught and grief” and in “black bark in winter,” continuing a motif of orienteering that runs throughout the novel. For example, in the previous chapter, “a vow to bear,” Inman returns home by following an old trail into the mountains. Similarly, in “naught and grief,” Stobrod and Pangle search for the path to Shining Rocks. Later, Ada and Ruby plan their own trail into the mountains, and Ruby tells the young man the way to Georgia. In following historic routes that others have trod before him, each character belongs to both the present and the past—each effectively becomes a timeless traveler. Both the men and the women find Cold Mountain covered with traces of an older civilization. Arrowheads, “Indian” trails and stone slabs covered with ancient writing symbolize a lost world that time has placed out of reach. Frazier uses these archeological objects to reintroduce the idea of man as a being who leaves only traces of his presence in the world. This chapter questions whether man evolves or regresses over time, or whether things simply change. Ruby’s philosophy is clear—she thinks that mankind loses and gains as time passes and that men and women will be lucky to “break even” in the future.
Ada’s contemplation of the congruence of heaven and earth, and of the deeper meaning behind seasonal changes, contrasts with Ruby’s philosophy. Ada remembers her father’s tendency to allegorize every feature of nature after consulting a book written for this purpose. According to his book, everything has its own deeper meaning. For example, a crow would represent the “dark forces” waiting to take over a man’s soul. Ada rejects such allegorical interpretations of the world, as she now regards information from books to “lack something essential.” In this way, Frazier shows how Ada has grown to trust her own senses and to intuit rather than reason out truths about the world.
Frazier suggests that Ada equates change with uncertainty. Clearly troubled, Ada stares into fires and has visions in her dreams. For example, she considers whether past inhabitants of the abandoned Cherokee village ever predicted that they would be forced into exile. She remembers lyrics from one of Stobrod’s songs about a mole and the agony of lost love. The wonder and horror of the song unsettle her. Ada seems deeply perturbed by the sliding scale of life’s experiences—its pleasures, pains, and unaccountable changes. Although the female protagonist is happy on the farm, her anxiety for Inman clouds her contentment. Even the landscape suggests this duality as pristine snow falls around black trees. Like life itself, the world is filled with stark contrasts.