Last Saturday, I led a bird identification workshop for the Smoky Mountain Field School. We started out in the morning in a residential area (Minot Park) in Gatlinburg and worked our way into the higher elevations of the national park by late afternoon. The weather at Newfound Gap was perfectly awful: wind, rain, fog, cold, you name it. But it was a good group and we did OK.
Naturalist Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was born in Chicago. In his autobiography The Road of a Naturalist (1941), Peattie recalled his first extended visit to the North Carolina mountains in 1906 as a time when he “saw the world of people fall away, grow small, grow hazy blue, forgotten. In seven months upon that isolated summit of the Appalachians, I began to discover a world older and greater. It is the world now of my established habitation, my working days and holidays, and it lies open to all men, in valleys as on mountains, by any road you choose to enter.”
That’s the news. Our common breeding swallows have always been purple martins, barn swallows, and northern rough-winged swallows. To a lesser extent, tree swallows also breed here, where there are suitable tree cavities or boxes. Cliff swallows are another matter.
Elizabeth and I were sitting on the deck Monday evening when a tiny bird made an abbreviated appearance — apparently just to check us out — and disappeared. It took only a fleeting glimpse for us to know that our visitor had been a blue-gray gnatcatcher. There is, after all, nothing else in the avifauna of the Smokies region quite like the mighty mite. It’s a bird you’ll enjoy knowing once you learn its basic characteristics.
I have two options when driving back and forth from home to town. One is along a river and the other isn’t. The choice is easy. I always follow the route along the north side of the Tuckaseigee west of Bryson City. If asked to name that section of road I’d name it for a tree. I’d call it Sarvis Road because every year that’s where I note for the first time — as I did this past Monday — that serviceberry is in bloom. The showy white flowers with their ribbon-like petals are frequently so numerous on a given tree’s bare limbs they seem to be inundated with snow. They seem even whiter this year.
I’m sometimes asked if the prehistoric Cherokees used any sort of poisons on their blowgun darts. These darts (slivers of black locust, hickory, or white oak) were from 10 to 20 inches long with thistledown tied at one end to form an air seal in the blowgun (a hollowed piece of cane cut to a length of seven to nine feet). The Cherokees were accurate with these weapons up to 60 feet, especially when shooting birds, but there is no evidence they used poisons of any sort on their darts.
Earlier this morning (Tuesday, March 26) I gazed wishfully through my office window here in Bryson City. About all I could see was the fire station across the street just off the town square. Blue-gray snowflakes were slanting down. I was waiting for something to happen that I could write about. And then, as TV comedian Jackie Gleason used to say, “A-way we go!” All a writer really needs is a subject. Just a hint will generally do. The process of writing — and the way different writers go about it — is as interesting (to writers) as what gets written.
It’s just about morel time. By early April (if not sooner), the succulent spring-fruiting fungi that are the most sought after mushrooms in North America will be popping up in woodlands across Western North Carolina.
Like Old Esdras in the Bible, some live in a land of milk and honey. Here in the Blue Ridge, we live in the land of water and rock. Moving water and worn stone are the predominant features in our terrain. Landscapes here were not sculpted by wind. They have been — and are being — eroded into and out of existence as the underlying rock slowly accommodates water.
As you read this it may well be freezing or even icy outside. But before long you’ll be outside working in the garden or searching for early spring wildflowers.
How do I know? Well, for one thing, it always happens doesn’t it? Spring follows winter. Yes, but certain early signs — harbingers of spring — also assure me that things are on track.