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Wednesday, 02 August 2006 00:00

The Smokies back then

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Scott Weidensaul, who lives in the mountains of Pennsylvania, is one of my favorite nature writers. His Mountains of the Heart: A Natural History of the Appalachians (Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1994) has become one of the basic books about the natural history of the entire range of the Appalachians from Canada to Alabama. I’ve read most of Weidensaul’s books and was pleased to learn a few days ago that another has been published this year. I ordered a copy immediately via Amazon.com and await its arrival with anticipation.

The new book is titled Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent’s Natural Soul (NY: North Point Press). Therein, Weidensaul described his recent travels across America, during which he retraced the legendary 1953 trek — from Newfoundland’s craggy coastline, down the East Coast and on into the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smokies, then down into Mexico and, finally, up the West Coast to Alaska — made by two of the 20th century’s greatest field naturalists, this country’s Roger Tory Peterson and Great Britain’s James Fisher. The account of that first trek, also one of my long-time favorite natural history books, was published in 1955 as Wild America: The Record of a 30,000-mile Journey Around the Continent by a Distinguished Naturalist and his British Colleague (NY: Weathervane Books).

I will be especially interested to learn how Weidensaul compares the natural setting that Peterson and Fisher described in 1953 in the Smokies with the present day situation. Accordingly, I went back and reread the chapter in Wild America titled, somewhat predictably, “On Top of Old Smoky.” I found it to be as enjoyable as when I first read it perhaps 45 years ago. Here are some excerpts that will hopefully whet your appetite to read both books.

The opening paragraphs in this chapter were written by Roger Tory Peterson:

“The noises of the morning were drowned by wind and rain; our Smoky Mountain view was obscured by a bluster of wet mountain weather. Slowly we climbed the winding grade through the Cherokee Indian Reservation while the southeasterly gale slatted the car’s windows. Murky skies blotted the top of old Smoky; our rising trail led into a mist through channels of rain-shiny fields and woods. New fat streams poured down the hillsides.

“The wind died down by midmorning; the rest of the day was showery and sometimes we were enveloped in cloud. Everywhere, whenever the intermittent sun broke through to light the dripping trees, we caught the flash of some male warbler, but more often we heard their sibilant songs.

“The hooded warblers had perhaps the finest song I heard from a wood warbler. They were brightly whistling ‘sweeten-the-tea-o’ from the undergrowth; the yellow, olive-backed males looked as if they had pulled black Balaclava helmets too far down on their breasts, to stretch a gap through which their yellow faces peered. Two other birds of the undergrowth and the wet forest floor were the oven-bird and Louisiana water-thrush, biggish flat-footed warblers which were more like small thrushes, specially adapted for leading nightingale-lives, walking and leaf-turning on the ground. ‘A voice of the woods,’ wrote Roger in this ‘Field Guide to the Birds’ of the oven-bird, and a voice it remained to me, for I never got a good enough view of it or its cousin the Louisiana water-thrush to distinguish their field marks, clear though these may be.

“To climb the Smokies — or any high mountain range — is a lesson in vertical distribution, a forceful sermon on the relation of living things to altitude. We repeated this experience several times during our brief sojourn. From the gentle Tennessee meadows, with their early flowers, bright at their edges with white dogwood and shad [bush], we climbed nearly five thousand feet back into North Carolina. Gradually spring fell behind us, and the leafy canopy shrank from full broad green to yellow bud. We left the stately tulip trees behind and then the mountain magnolias, their big blossoms waxy white against the dark hemlocks; and eventually the lovely silverbells ... When we reached Newfound Gap, the highest point on the trans-mountain highway, we were among the spruce and fir. Yellow birch and aspen were barely out of bud. Here where the Appalachian Trail crossed the highroad we were in the Canadian Zone, in country almost precisely like that where the trail starts on the flanks of Mount Katahdin 1,800 miles by trail to the northeast. ”

The closing paragraphs in this chapter were written by James Fisher: “Led by Arthur Stupka [i.e., the first park service naturalist in the eastern United States and a naturalist in the Smokies region for most of the 20th century, until his death in 1999] and his wife and the Glidden Baldwins, who are authorities on the big trees of the Smokies, we left the cars near the meeting of two streams which had cut down to staircases of smooth, pebble-worn rock, all overhung by forest hemlocks, and giant shiny-leaved rhododendrons. It was a steamy valley, cushioned with moss and full of the good smell of rotting wood. To our north rose Greenbrier Pinnacle, to our south all 6430 feet of Mount Chapman. As we took the trail up the Ramsey Prong the valley closed in, and the forest grew bigger, and wilder. I began to feel that I was walking in one of those dreams, down interminable corridors, between infinitely high pillars — those dreams in which proportions inexorably change.

“’The first thing I’ve got to do,’ said Alice to herself, as she wandered about in the wood, ‘is to grow to my right size again.’

“But I never grew to my right size again, in all the time we spent in the great stand of trees in the valley of Ramsay Prong ... Leaving the great forest was like coming out of a dream; not a sinister dream, for there is nothing terrifying in the grandeur of Great Smokies’ deciduous woodland. It is just big beyond belief, and benign in its bigness. I thought it was the most beautiful forest I had ever seen.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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