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Wednesday, 15 November 2006 00:00

The natural order of things

While observing your backyard bird feeder this winter, you may be startled by a blue flash that suddenly rockets into the scene and snatches one of your resident cardinals, nuthatches, chickadees, or titmice. The “blue flash” will have been either…
Wednesday, 08 November 2006 00:00

Interrupting irruptives

Some winters there will be an influx of northern bird species into the southeastern United States. Here in the Smokies region of Western North Carolina, it’s been a few years since this has happened. Early reports indicate that this winter…
Wednesday, 25 October 2006 00:00

Ancient animals of the Blue Ridge

Names of places throughout the Blue Ridge country pay tribute to the familiar wildlife of the region: Bear Wallow Stand Ridge, Beaverdam Creek, Buck Knob, Fox Gap, Wild Boar Creek, Coon Branch, Wildcat Cliffs, Possum Hollow, Polecat Ridge, Raven Rocks,…
Wednesday, 18 October 2006 00:00

Cold weather and deep sleepers

This past weekend’s sudden drop in overnight temperatures into the high 20s (26 degrees and 28 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, at our place near Bryson City) was unprecedented in our experience. That is, during the 33 years my wife, Elizabeth, and…
Wednesday, 11 October 2006 00:00

A beech for winter

“... the mellowing year marks its periods of decline with a pageantry
Wednesday, 24 July 2013 14:27

Water has a magical draw on us

We are attracted to water. Mountain paths always wind down to water — springs, branches, creeks and rivers. Water is the essence of our very being here in the mountains.   
Wednesday, 04 October 2006 00:00

The peculiar grace of the mink

“On a morning in October, when a light mist hung over the pond, a mink appeared following this path beside the water’s edge. It ran in little spurts this way and that, alert, intense, tracing a weaving trail, turning aside,…
Wednesday, 27 September 2006 00:00

Nuts about acorns

Acorns are elegant. They are one of our most beautiful fruits, sometimes produced in such numbers by the varied oak species here in the Smokies region that we tend to take them for granted. This year, however, may be a…
Wednesday, 31 July 2013 14:31

Another eventful day in Bryson City

The whistle of the excursion train on the far side of the river shrieked three times. From where I sat in the graveyard on the knoll overlooking Bryson City, I could see tourists waving from their windows the way travelers…
Wednesday, 07 August 2013 13:28

The ultimate revenge: yellow jacket soup

The yellow jackets are back. They inundated my home office this morning. First they gnawed through the ceiling from a nest site that allows access under the eaves. 
Wednesday, 14 August 2013 14:09

Rabbit gums and cold, windy mornings

While perusing the shelves in a used bookstore recently, I spotted a title that was irresistible: From the Banks of the Oklawaha — Facts and Legends of the North Carolina Mountains. Pulling it out for further examination, I discovered that…
Wednesday, 21 August 2013 14:14

A favorite time to watch the home garden

This time of the year is perhaps the best time to enjoy flowering plants in a home garden. Many of the larger and showier species are just now coming into full bloom and will remain so into fall.    Several…
Wednesday, 28 August 2013 03:55

Deep Creek offers a great taste of the Smokies

We are attracted to water. Mountain paths always wind down to water — springs, branches, creeks and rivers. Water is the essence of our very being here in the mountains.    Deep Creek on the North Carolina side of the…
Wednesday, 04 September 2013 15:46

Liverworts — a unique bridge in the plant world

Some years ago, when I first became interested in plant identification, I became curious about liverworts. They are one of the distinctive plant groups (like fungi, lichens, mushrooms, etc.) without advanced vascular systems.
Wednesday, 11 September 2013 14:41

Buckeyes still beguile nature lovers

A large yellow buckeye tree overhangs and supports the swinging gate that accesses our property. The tree has started to drop the unique fruiting structures for which it is named. Year around, it always has something interesting going on.
Wednesday, 18 September 2013 14:44

Kephart's life after Hazel Creek

Horace Kephart left the cabin site on the Little Fork in the fall of 1907, spending considerable time in other areas of the Southern Appalachians, comparing life there with what he had observed here in the mountains of Western North…
Wednesday, 25 September 2013 15:39

The crossroads of humanity and nature

I like visiting those sites here in the Smokies region where there is what I think of as an “overlay;” that is, places where both natural and human history commingle. At such places, one encounters the confluence of all or…
Wednesday, 09 October 2013 03:06

The secret ministry of frost

It’s early October as I write this column. The first frost hasn’t, as yet, arrived. But it won’t be long coming.
Wednesday, 06 November 2013 15:07

Strawberry wine and its place in Smokies lore

Jack Coburn was a regional entrepreneur who had come to the Smokies in the 1890s. Jack liked to laugh, drink, tell stories, and fight. He was an expert boxer. With an unlit cigar stub clinched between his teeth, Jack rode…
Some steam and water-powered sawmills were established in the Smokies region during the 1870s and 1880s. But full-fledged industrialized logging didn’t commence until after the construction of the major railroads was finalized in the 1890s. This opened the region for…
Wednesday, 04 December 2013 16:41

Cherokee homes were warm and smoky in winter

“Two or more Families join together in building a hot-house, about 30 feet Diameter, and 15 feet high, in form of a Cone, with Poles and thatched, without any air-hole, except a small door about 3 feet high and 18…
The walnut family is relatively small, but it contains some of the more interesting and valuable tree species found in Western North Carolina. In WNC there are only two genera, the walnuts (Juglans) and the hickories (Carya).
Wednesday, 08 January 2014 15:07

Bringing in the new year naturally

Some musings on the New Year, from one who never cared much for noisy midnight celebrations of any sort, but I have always enjoyed New Year’s ceremonials. 
Wednesday, 12 February 2014 18:25

Remembering the glory of sports radio

Let’s talk some sports radio. I began thinking about this piece the afternoon before the Super Bowl. The Panthers were out of it … but I still listened. I’d listen to the play-by-play of a ping-pong match, so long as…
Wednesday, 26 February 2014 16:11

Gypsies conjure memories of the past

When I was a boy growing up in south-central Virginia during the early 1950s, my home was situated near a wooded area, one side of which was traversed by a narrow dirt road beyond which there was a natural spring.
Wednesday, 12 March 2014 13:37

A bear hunter for the ages

John Baker (Little John) Cable Jr. is one of the prominent figures in Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders (1913; revised and expanded in 1922). He steals the show in Chapter 4 (“A Bear Hunt in the Smokies”), which most everybody…
Wednesday, 26 March 2014 14:43

Another storyteller to add to the list

For years I’ve been enjoying and sometimes writing about a group of old-time Western North Carolina storytellers I think of collectively as “The Mountain Humorists.” These weren’t professional storytellers in the sense that they made formal appearances for pay or…
“Eagles, as they still do, lived on the creek. One day in the 1890s, an eagle dropped a piglet into the yard of Orville Welch, who was living on Ecoah Branch on Eagle Creek. He kept this strange gift from…
Wednesday, 23 April 2014 14:19

Behind the ballad of Kidder Cole

Judge Felix E. Alley (1873-1957) was a native of Whiteside Cove, near Cashiers and Highlands. During most of his legal career as an attorney and superior court judge, he resided in Waynesville and served, on occasion, as the attorney for…
Since the year 2000, I have written going on 750 Back Then “columns” for The Smoky Mountain News. I am enormously proud of that association. Many of the “essays” in my books have been filtered through SMN to their benefit.…
Wednesday, 21 May 2014 14:43

The black sheep of the blackbird family

2014 seems to be a banner year for cowbirds. I saw them in large numbers in southeastern Arizona two weeks ago. And this past weekend they were also prominent around Bryson City and along the Blue Ridge Parkway here in…
Wednesday, 20 September 2006 00:00

Fine features of a familiar footpath

An ancient Chinese philosopher once admonished his listeners to “Study the familiar!” Ancient Chinese philosophers were always admonishing people to do one thing or another. That was their job. Sometimes they even knew what they were talking about.
Wednesday, 13 September 2006 00:00

Nighttime navigators

Usually I sit on the front deck of our house for a while after getting home from work. Then, before dusk, I normally retire to the kitchen area to listen to the radio while eating supper. One evening last week,…
Wednesday, 06 September 2006 00:00

Expect the unexpected

When writing about the natural world, I prefer to write about specific natural areas, plants, and animals here in the southern highlands. But from time to time I do like to pause and consider the philosophical aspects of comprehending the…
Wednesday, 30 August 2006 00:00

The oil nut’s curious little green fruits

For me, the fall season is one of the most invigorating times to get out in the woods and prowl around. Many of the most beautiful wildflowers found in the Blue Ridge, especially the lobelias and gentians, are then coming…
Wednesday, 23 August 2006 00:00

Chinquapins a hardy, unusual shrub

Do you have chinquapins growing on your property or in your vicinity? If so, you’re fortunate. For my money, “the little brother of the chestnut” (as it’s sometimes called) is one of our more graceful and interesting plants, especially during…
Wednesday, 16 August 2006 00:00

The turkey’s role in Cherokee culture

The come back of the wild turkey in the southern mountains in recent years is one of the notable success stories in wildlife restoration. Thirty or so years ago, the sighting of a flock of wild turkeys was a rarity.…
Wednesday, 09 August 2006 00:00

A legacy of lookers

From time to time, I like to reflect upon the plant hunters, botanists and horticulturalists that first entered these mountains during the late 18th century to survey, collect, and propagate the unsurpassed floral riches of the region.
Wednesday, 02 August 2006 00:00

The Smokies back then

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…
Wednesday, 26 July 2006 00:00

A perfect time for a visit in the park

Now is the perfect time to plan a mountain getaway excursion in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the drives favored by many is the Blue Ridge Parkway to Balsam Mountain Campground Road and along Heintooga Ridge to…
Wednesday, 19 July 2006 00:00

The mountains tumultuous past

To myself, mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery; in them, and in the forms of inferior landscape that lead to them, my affections are wholly bound up; and though I can look with happy admiration…
Wednesday, 12 July 2006 00:00

Indian hemp for the long haul

For me, those plants found here in the Smokies region that have verified practical human uses are, in the long run, of more interest than those with often overblown reputations for sacred or medicinal uses.
Wednesday, 05 July 2006 00:00

Careful of the jimson weed

“Jimson Weed is featured in a set of mystic books recently popular, Carlos Castaneda’s tales of mind expansion with the Mexican Indian shaman, Don Juan. Seeds of this common weed do indeed contain an hallucinogenic component, but, as is so…
Wednesday, 28 June 2006 00:00

Purt, nigh Lizabethan

I’m no expert on regional linguistics, but through the years I’ve delighted in the dialect English still spoken here in the Smokies region. One sometimes hears or reads that it dates back to the Elizabethan era — that is, to…
Wednesday, 21 June 2006 00:00

Medicinal uses of black cohosh

“The first large, successful American business run by a woman was said to be the Lydia E. Pinkham Medical Company, founded in 1875 by Lydia Estes Pinkham. Her main product was Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a patent medicine to…
Wednesday, 14 June 2006 00:00

Living inside the box

Five turtle species reside in Western North Carolina: snapping, musk, and painted turtles are primarily found in streams, lakes, and ponds. The elusive and rare bog turtle is found in the habitat for which it’s named. The eastern box turtle…
Wednesday, 07 June 2006 00:00

Battered berries

Those who’ve participated in my natural history workshops know that that I’m not a very good source for information regarding edible plants. For the most part, I obtain vegetables at the grocery store or, in season, from our gardens. But…
Everywhere you go in Western North Carolina there are secluded places reputed to have been used as hideaways by the 500 or so Cherokees seeking refuge during the removal era of the late 1830s. Most of these legends are oft-told…
Wednesday, 31 May 2006 00:00

A world without end

Two weeks ago, we reviewed current theories about the uplift of the Appalachian Mountains about 250 million years ago, as well as opinions about how high the Appalachians might have been when originally uplifted. Last week, we took a closer…
Wednesday, 24 May 2006 00:00

The ridge named blue

Last week, we reviewed current theories concerning the uplift of the Appalachian Mountains about 250 million years ago. And we also reviewed several theories about how high the Appalachians might have been when originally uplifted. Opinions among various authorities range…
Wednesday, 17 May 2006 00:00

Everything old is new again

The inter-related geologic and geographic heritage of the Blue Ridge Province is a complex but fascinating and rewarding subject to consider. As part of the introductory portion of my natural history workshops, I give a presentation called “Where Are We?”…
Wednesday, 10 May 2006 00:00

The honest little bird

On one level, the natural history of a region consists of its terrain, habitats, plants, animals and how they interrelate. I also believe that no full understanding of the natural history of a region can be realized without coming to…
Wednesday, 03 May 2006 00:00

Hepatica — a thing of beauty and lore

Nothing is fairer, if as fair, as the first flower, the hepatica. I find I have never admired this little firstling half enough. When at the maturity of its charms, it is certainly the gem of the woods. What an…
Wednesday, 26 April 2006 00:00

Wild, mysterious and sometimes a bit sly

In the natural world here in the Blue Ridge, there are certain visual images that rivet the attention of human beholders. One such is a timber rattlesnake suddenly encountered in the wild. That sight literally galvanizes the senses. The vibrating…
Wednesday, 19 April 2006 00:00

Stuck in a stinky situation

Hopefully, any encounter you have with a skunk will be a sighting, not a spraying. Neither my wife nor I have ever been sprayed by a polecat. But our dogs have — and they were pitiful creatures for days afterward.
Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Squirrel stories

It seems to me that the general reputation of squirrels has declined within my own lifetime. I don’t recall hearing negative remarks about squirrels when I was growing up; indeed, most folks that I encountered back then seemed to hold…
Wednesday, 05 April 2006 00:00

Cast out the castor

The gardening season is upon us. Many gardeners here in the Smokies region are familiar with mole bean plant, also known as castor bean. The first name is derived from the fact the plants are often placed strategically at the…
Wednesday, 29 March 2006 00:00

The doghobble’s claim to fame

Whenever I’m conducting a native plant identification workshop, I try to note several regional plants — one each in the fern, shrub, and tree categories that participants might utilize effectively in an ornamental setting. I usually recommend cinnamon fern (Osmunda…
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 14:22

Confederates pushed road over Newfound Gap

On Jan. 12, 1864, a Confederate battery of artillery and about 650 men under the command of Gen. Robert B. Vance crossed the Smokies at Indian Gap — situated at 5,317 feet between Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap along the…
Now is sourwood time. From late June into mid-August sourwood trees will be flowering throughout Western North Carolina, from the lowest elevations to almost 5,000 feet. Here, then, more or less at random, are some notes from my sourwood file:
Wednesday, 15 March 2006 00:00

The Asian connection

I’ve never been to Asia, but ever since I was a youngster I have, from time to time, fantasized about doing so. For years, I read every adventure-travel book I could find about the region. And I still love happening…
Wednesday, 08 March 2006 00:00

Mountain lion lore

I frequently hear from people who have spotted a mountain lion in Western North Carolina. Or at least they think that’s what they saw. I’d guess that about 95 percent of these sightings are of something else. But the other…
Wednesday, 08 March 2006 00:00

The Underground Panthers

A hunter was in the woods one day in winter when suddenly he saw a panther coming toward him and at once prepared to defend himself. The panther continued to approach, and the hunter was just about to shoot when…
Wednesday, 01 March 2006 00:00

Table Mountain pine

Have you ever been walking one of the wind-swept, sun-bitten, high-elevation rock outcrops in the Smokies region when you suddenly encountered a grove of strange, almost stunted looking pines with outlandish cones? As described by Donald C. Peattie in A…
Wednesday, 22 February 2006 00:00

Gilfillan’s Burnt House to Paw Paw

Several weeks ago I was perusing the used bookstores in Asheville, where there are, somewhat surprisingly, at least four excellent establishments in the immediate downtown area. I always check out the sections featuring Western North Carolina and southern Appalachian titles.…
Wednesday, 15 February 2006 00:00

Lyon was among WNC’s notable botanist

Andre and Francois Michaux, and John Fraser, and soon to be followed by Thomas Nuttall, Asa Gray, and Moses Ashley Curtis, among others, John Lyon was among the intrepid plant collectors who first penetrated the mountains of Western North Carolina…
Wednesday, 16 July 2014 14:08

Getting at the nitty gritty of history

Regional histories are my favorite literary genre. It’s in them that the nitty-gritty of everyday life is most clearly portrayed. Dr. H.G. Jones’ Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State (Charleston SC: The History Press, 2005, soft cover,…
Wednesday, 08 February 2006 00:00

Civil War in the Smokies

The war in the Smokies proved to be an intensely personal conflict. A curious conjunction of terrain, history, politics and culture bred in the Smokies ... a tragic division of loyalties and a brutal partisan conflict between supporters of secession…
Wednesday, 01 February 2006 00:00

Mystery of the coveted mad stone

Last week’s Back Then column described a deer hunt conducted by Quill Rose and his relatives and neighbors in the Great Smokies during the very early 1880s. My source for that event was the long-neglected and exceedingly rare book by…
Wednesday, 25 January 2006 00:00

The thrill of the chase lives on

Through the years, I’ve written at every opportunity about Aquilla (Quill) Rose — Civil War veteran, fiddle player, storyteller, moonshiner, and hunter — who was surely one of the more picturesque characters ever produced in the Smokies region. As an…
In a letter to the editor of the Smoky Mountain News published several weeks ago, Gwen Franks Breese took exception to a Back Then column of mine originally published in SMN in November 2013.  That column went into considerable detail…
Wednesday, 18 January 2006 00:00

A locust by any other name

I’m fairly good at the identification of deciduous trees during the flowering and fruiting seasons, when one can observe bark, leaves, general growth habit, and flowers or fruit. I’m less adept during the winter months, when one can observe just…
Wednesday, 11 January 2006 00:00

The grumpy traveler department

From time to time, I’ve contemplated compiling an anthology of travel writing from Western North Carolina. Such a volume would commence with the descriptions of the region compiled by the Moravian explorer Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg in the early 1750s.…
Wednesday, 04 January 2006 00:00

Time to think about gardening in ‘06

Have you started making your 2006 gardening plans yet? It’s time. The garden catalogs started arriving in the mail several weeks ago: Johnny’s, Burpee’s, Pine Tree, Park’s, Shumway’s, Seeds of Change, etc. Folks have been studying these sorts of publications…
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