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Wednesday, 21 October 2009 19:29

A great observer of the Smokies

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Arthur Stupka (1905-1999) was the first naturalist in the National Park Service in the eastern United States. That was at Arcadia National Park in Maine, shortly before he became chief naturalist in the newly founded Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He held that position for 25 years before becoming the official park biologist for another four years. Upon “retiring,” he continued to write and conduct natural history workshops — his uniquely styled, leisurely paced but intensely informative talks, walks and tours — until the time of his death. During a career that spanned nearly seven decades, he came into contact with hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and enhanced their relationship with the natural world.

According to Rose Houk’s “The Golden Years of Arthur Stupka” (Smokies Life Magazine, vol. 2, 2008) — a groundbreaking and sensitive profile of his life and work that focuses on the nature journals he kept most of his life — he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees at Ohio State University. After taking the position as ranger-naturalist in Yosemite National Park in 1931, he moved the following year to Arcadia, where he spent three years on the Maine coast as park naturalist.

Margaret Lynn Brown noted in The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (2000) that after arriving in the Great Smokies in 1935, Stupka met with J. Ross Eakin, the first superintendent of the national park. Eakin, then preoccupied with overseeing Civilian Conservation Corps projects, exclaimed: “’I don’t need a naturalist because I don’t want any more visitors [until construction is finished].’” And so Eakin advised Stupka to get acquainted with the park: “’This is your baby,’” he said. Stupka spent four years hiking, observing, recording, building the park’s natural history collection, and making connections with scientists before he offered a single public hike or evening program.

Stupka’s energy and methodology attracted the attention of countless scientists and their students who came to the Great Smokies on an annual basis to study and categorize its natural assets. Fellow naturalists such as Edwin Way Teale, James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson also called on him for assistance when visiting the national park.

It was my good fortune to meet Stupka in the early 1970s at the Hemlock Inn near Bryson City, where, after his “retirement” in 1964, he spent parts of every year as the guest of innkeepers John and Ella Jo Shell. We didn’t become intimate friends, but we always had topics of mutual interest to discuss whenever we met. And on several occasions we went for walks in park areas adjacent to Bryson City. At the inn he was a magnetic draw for those interested in natural history in general and in the flora, fauna, geology and natural areas of the national park in particular. His slide programs, nature walks and motor tours were legendary.

Like all close observers of the natural world, Arthur didn’t hurry. He sort of moseyed along — almost, at times, at a snail’s pace. He was interested in just about everything that came into view, from lichens and liverworts to toads and hawks. Unless asked, he never had much to say. But when queried, he became a memorable source of information delivered in a crisp, exacting manner.

Arthur was especially protective of the park’s flora. He summed up the lure of the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage held in Gatlinburg, Tenn., each year this way: “Vegetation is to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park what granite domes are to Yosemite, geysers are to Yellowstone and sculptured pinnacles are to Bryce Canyon National Park.”

His literary output on the flora and fauna of the national park included books devoted to birds, amphibians and woody plants (trees, shrubs and vines). These aren’t identification guides but detailed observations on each plant or animal species as to habitat, seasonal variation and distribution — all based on his careful journal entries or, occasionally, upon observations made by fellow naturalists he trusted.

Arthur was for the most part, in my experience, a reticent man, but he would from time to time express his deep emotional attachment to the natural world in an almost poetic manner. This is most apparent in a sweeping chronicle, “Through the Year in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Month by Month,” he contributed to a volume of essays by various writers titled The Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge (1943). Before launching into his chronicle, Arthur paused to remind the reader in characteristic fashion that, “So omnipotent are nature’s rhythms that any vagaries she may have, if studied carefully enough and over a sufficiently long period of time, will turn out to be orderly enough in the long run.” Here are some excerpts:

“It was a warm day in early March and I was out rambling through the Sugarlands Valley of the Park. (Many Park visitors are acquainted with this long and narrow area which is marked by Chimneys Campground at its upper end and the Administration building at its lower reaches.) The spice bush and shrub yellowroot were in bloom near the stream and the first of the violets appeared in the woodlands. Anglewing, mourning cloak, and the little spring azure butterflies were on the wing, tiger beetles hurried before me in the old road, land fence lizards made for cover here and there. Suddenly the angry cries of a few crows attracted my attention, and, after making way to the foot of the pine-and oak-covered slope from whence the disturbance came, I made out the form of a great horned owl in a tall pine near the very crest of the ridge ...

Since the great horned owl is one of the earliest of the birds to nest, I made my way to the top of the ridge hoping, perchance, to come upon the structure, but before I had taken many steps the bird disappeared into the forest, and my quest proved fruitless. However, on making my way back to the valley, the unexpected discovery of the first trailing arbutus flowers of the year brought ample reward. For me these white and pinkish waxy blooms, as delightful in their fragrance as they are humble in their growth (“gravelweed,” the mountain people call the plant), always serve to mark a significant period in the chronicle of the year ...

Somber habiliments appear to be the lot of mankind in his old age, yet the mellowing year marks its period of decline with a pageantry of hues so varied that it is as Walt Whitman said of the sundown, enough to make a colorist go delirious. Here in the forests of the Smokies, where well over a hundred kinds of native deciduous trees are to be found, the spectacle challenges description; the writer feels humbled and gropes for words ...

Like the crow and the jay, to which he is related, the raven is much more in evidence in October than during the summer months. Against the background of an October sky, I have seen as many as nine of these splendid wary birds together at one time. Occasionally they leave their favored haunts in the higher mountains and appear singly or in pairs at the lower altitudes. Such invasions, however are often contested by the lowland crows who harass the bigger bird much as they do the various hawks and owls. A strong flier, the raven is capable of remarkable performances on the wing. Once, in March, while at Collins Gap, high up on the crest of the Smokies, I watched what may have been a mated pair come into view. Flying side by side, the two performed a series of thrilling acrobatics involving dipping, sailing, rolling (head foremost, as well as sideways), plunging — all executed simultaneously and in the most finished manner. On occasions they uttered a few low notes. A third raven who came upon the scene was disregarded. Through all their evolutions there was nothing which might be interpreted as an act of animosity between them. For fully five minutes I had them in good view. Once they tumbled down together into the dense forest below. Finally I lost them when, in a series of power dives, they disappeared from sight far below.

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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