mtn voicesDogs have been a part of my life since I was a boy. My first dog — part one thing, part another — was named Rascal. I was a sophomore in college when Rascal had to be put to sleep.

Other dogs have followed: cocker spaniels; a long line of beagles, several named Toby; and more recently German shorthaired pointers. Shorthairs are the best breed of dog in the world. I will allow that they can be somewhat uppity and arrogant, when need be, but for the most part they are companionable, curious, bright-eyed, humorous, and generally reliable dogs.    

mtn voicesGreen used to be the color that caught my eye. Now it’s blue. So much so that I wrote an ode (of sorts) to the color blue that is in my book Permanent Camp. It goes like this:

back thenSome plants like Jack-in-the-pulpit and Dutchman’s-pipe have evolved methods of entrapping insects in their flowers so as to assure pollination. But only a few plant species in North America actually devour insects so as to obtain life-giving sustenance. The carnivorous plants of North America that come to mind are the various pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and butterworts, as well as the infamous Venus’ flytrap, known only from the coastal plain of the Carolinas.

out hempFor 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. For instance, the history of the common roadside plant Indian hemp is, for me, fascinating, while the lore associated with ginseng — which has reached near-mythic proportions — is somewhat tedious. If you have an interest in plants and have lived in the Smokies region for awhile, it’s probable that you already know all that you need to know about ginseng, while Indian hemp is an equally interesting plant that you perhaps know very little about.

mtnvoicesThis is about critters and plants that sting and itch. There are lots of things out there in the woods that can cause discomfort or worse: hornets, poison ivy, poisonous serpents, poison sumac, ants, skunks, no-see-ums, and so on. Two that I experience on a regular basis are stinging nettles and yellow jackets.

mtnvoicesLong before the first Europeans arrived, the Cherokees developed ceremonials that focused on the spiritual power of running water. When ethnologist James Mooney arrived on the Qualla Boundary in the summer of 1887, those beliefs, which he described as the “The Cherokee River Cult,” were still in place.

Mooney observed that purification in moving water was an integral part of day-to-day life and tribal ceremony. Water dipped from chosen waterfalls was employed on special occasions. Even in winter whole families would go to water at daybreak and stand in prayer before plunging into the cleansing element together.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scarlet tanagers, a showy rather common species I assumed most were familiar with. But at least 10 readers emailed or otherwise contacted me to say they had located and seen their first scarlet tanager because I had described their vocalizations. In that regard, let’s see what we can do with rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Season in and season out, one of the more interesting common plants in our woodlands is sassafras, which may be shrub-like or attain heights of 130 feet as part of the forest canopy in rich cove hardwoods.

In spring, well before the leaves unfold, distinctive yellowish flower clusters appear. Like holly, it is dioecious; that is, male and female parts appear on separate plants. Starting in mid-summer, distinctive clusters of fruit appear on female plants, changing from green to blue-black as they ripen.  The stalks bearing the fruits are especially distinctive as they enlarge and turn a bright coral red, no doubt as a way of attracting animals to serve as seed distributors.

In fall, the leaves turn a lovely orange or yellow or red, calling attention to their unique patterns. Four distinct shapes can be observed with relative ease, sometimes on the same branch. There are elliptic leaves with no lobes, tri-lobed (three-fingered) leaves, and mitten-shaped leaves with either right-handed or left-handed lobes.

Most growth forms plants display can be readily explained.  Thorns discourage grazing animals, as do the acrid substances that a plant might contain. Sticky substances on a flower’s stem keep ground-dwelling insects from robbing the plant’s nectar and pollen. The plant “wants” flying insects to serve as pollinators since they provide the best chance of cross-pollination. And so on. But why have has sassafras “chosen” to display four leaf patterns? There wouldn’t appear to be a sun-exposure advantage — as with plants that alternate leaf placement so as to avoid having upper leaves shading those below.       

The first Europeans learned the uses of sassafras from the North American Indians, who as a group rank among the most astute botanical observers of all time. Here in the southern mountains, the Cherokees utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague. A poultice was made to cleanse wounds and sores, while the root bark was steeped for diarrhea or for “over-fatness” (certainly one of the first weight reduction remedies to hit the market).

In Cherokee Plants, Paul Hamel and Mary Chiltoskey provided the curious notation that sassafras flowers were mixed with beans for planting. I have no idea what purpose that would serve — unless it was as a good luck token; or perhaps, they had discovered a nitrogen-fixing agent.

The plant became the first major forest product shipped to the old world, where it was initially considered to be a wonder drug. Indeed, at the height of the “sassafras craze,” colonists were burdened with a governmental requirement that each man produce 100 pounds of the sassafras per year or be penalized ten pounds of tobacco.

According to Rebecca Rupp’s Red Oaks & Black Birches: The Science and Lore of Trees, sassafras tea was thought to cure scurvy, syphilis and other unpleasant maladies. It was served in London coffeehouses with milk and sugar. Ships with sassafras hulls were reputedly safe from shipwreck; chicken houses with sassafras roosting poles were reputedly free of lice; human bedsteads built from it were reputedly bedbug-less; and so on. Eventually, of course, the bottom fell out of the sassafras market as Europeans and Americans moved on to other faddish and trendy panaceas.

In our time, sassafras is perhaps best known as a tea or soup thickener. The young spring leaves are dried and powdered to thicken soups or stews. It is the “file gumbo” of Creole cooking.

According to Rupp, “The active ingredient in sassafras roots is saffrole, which is a chemical found in lesser amounts in cocoa, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, and cinnamon. Saffrole, once used routinely to flavor commercial root beer, was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s, after experiments showed that it caused liver cancer in rats and mice.  

On the other hand, in the “Medicinal Plants” volume in the Peterson field guide series, it’s noted that while the FDA has banned saffrole, “the amount of the substance in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer.”

In Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont (UNC Press, 2011), Clemson Universary biologist Timothy P. Spira offered additional sassafras commentary: “A good seed crop is produced every 2-3 years. Birds quickly remove the ripe high-fat-content (and high energy) fruits … Sassafras is one of several larval host plants for spicebush swallowtail butterfly … Sassafras is an attractive landscape plant in open sunny areas, but is sensitive to ozone.

There you have it … almost everything anyone would ever want to know about sassafras except two things: (1) Does anyone know why the plant “chooses” to display four distinctive leaf shapes?; and (2) Is there an instrumental on YouTube titled “Sassafras” by Timmy Trumpet and Chardy?

Answers: (1) No; (2) Yes.   

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..

By Brent Martin • Contributor

Mention the name George Ellison to most people living in western North Carolina and what immediately comes to mind are tales of neotropical songbirds, Horace Kephart, James Mooney, Cherokee folklore, a dizzying array of plant life observations and of course, the beauty and wonder of the mountains themselves. I suppose that given his elegant and prosaic renderings of these subjects we should therefore find it no surprise that he is also a poet.

His new collection of poetry, Permanent Camp, is a kaleidoscope of poems that began more than 35 years ago when he and his wife Elizabeth, an artist, arrived at their mountain “shack” on Lands Creek in Swain County. The book’s ambiguous title and opening poem by that name originate with Ellison’s rumination on Kephart’s observation that there can be no such thing as a permanent camp – for, as Kephart says, “a camp of any kind is only a temporary hiding place.” Yet what we might imagine within the lines of this tone setting entrée is that Ellison has indeed found his permanent camp here within the folds of these ancient mountains.   

There is no hiding within these poems though, for Ellison bares much to the reader of raw and personal moments surviving harsh winter nights, pondering the aftermath of a destructive fire, looking for a lost horse, the clarity of chickweed, or the instincts of a Kingfisher. Consider the poem, Sleepless:

The creek is frozen.

All this clothing and still I shiver.

The goat rattles loose boarding behind the shack.

A decayed tree on the ridge gives way under ice.

Peering into the mirror by lamplight I see the

mole splotch spreading on my right cheek

and gray hairs spurting from my nostrils.

This is no occasion for talk so I grin

a gap-toothed grin at my new

friend who grins back at me

gap-toothedly so we nod

back and forth time and

again in full agreement

that it’s cold.  

There is a crazy wisdom in this poem, which points to Ellison’s homage and connection to the Chinese poets Tao Ch’ien and Han Shan. Midway through the collections there is a defined break where Ellison places his personal renderings of these two ancient poets in a way that works seamlessly within the subject matter of Appalachia. “Twenty Poems after Drinking Wine” and “Guffawing at the Wilderness: Thirteen Poems by Han Shan” sit boldly within the body of the collection, drawing the reader into the sparse and universal world of Chinese poetry, infused with nature as it is, and somehow completely integrating it into the inner and outer landscapes of Ellison. Brilliant and wonderful stuff, particularly since the two continents share an ancient and closely related plant world.

Along the way, there are also stories of ghost dogs, Cherokee mystics, God’s Horses, and much, much more, but worthy of note and further illustrative of Ellison’s influences, is his acknowledgement of nineteenth century British poet, William Barnes. Barnes was a master of rural verse, and his most persistent theme, as Ellison points out in the notes to his poem “Radiance A-zweep’en (In Praise of William Barnes),” is the holiness of the commonplace.  This poem, originally titled “Crossing,” has as its central feature the onomatopoeia of a horse crossing a stream, a sound which the Ellisons live with nightly as their horse Sochan repeatedly crosses the ford outside their window. With a nod to Barnes, Ellison delivers a poem that translates a restless horse into an agent of radiancy and the crossing a place of illumination. This is no easy task, and the assemblage of word and verse in this particular poem illustrates his own ability to make holiness of the commonplace.

Elizabeth Ellison’s artwork adds an enormous dimension to Permanent Camp and deserves its own review, for it is a critical element in conveying the book’s gravitas. For example, “The View from the Horse Trail,” a stunning work of color that captures Appalachia in much the same way as Chinese and Japanese nature painters, fills one whole page opposite the poem “Seeing You,” a poignant statement on the beauty of two lives spent together in harmonious awareness of the natural world around them. The red home of their many years together sits diminutively in the bottom left corner of the painting, dwarfed by purple grey mountains and stark winter trees, which to me signifies the contemplative awe that they have shared together in so many creative works such as Mountain Passages and Blue Ridge Nature Journal.

Back to the original title poem. In it, George explains to Elizabeth of his next move upon their settling on Lands Creek:

“But the next move,” I say,

“and we’ll just go on home, over the ridge

and into the park, hide out on Peachtree,

up the Middle Fork, where it’s really quiet.

And the stones in the creek bed will speak quite clearly.

And the wind in the treetops will speak softly to the stones.

And without even trying the water will listen and understand.”

If there can be a clearer commitment to the love and power of a place, I’d like to see it. Permanent Camp in many ways represents the oeuvre of the Ellisons, and with its publication, it will find a permanent home within the region’s most significant literary contributions.


Release celebration

City Lights Bookstore will celebrate the release of George Ellison’s new collection of poetry and prose at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 8.

Permanent Camp is a retrospective celebration of living in and observing the natural world of the Smoky Mountains. Through poetry and narratives, Ellison relates raising a family with his wife as they make a life as a writer and artist inspired by the local landscape.  

To complement Ellison’s writing, the vivid watercolor work of Elizabeth is featured throughout the book. To reserve a copy, call City Lights at 828.586.9499.

“The scarlet tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

You can hardly believe that a living creature can wear such colors.”

— Henry David Thoreau


This seems to be a scarlet tanager kind of year. I’ve been seeing and hearing them at my house, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in the Great Smokies. No bird in our region is more striking. Jet black wings on a trim red almost luminescent body, the male is impossible to overlook. And it’s easy to recognize by both song and call.

I almost never encounter the summer tanager (whose entire body is rosy red) in Western North Carolina, but the scarlet tanager is encountered every year — to a greater or lesser extent — during the breeding season (mid-April to mid-October) in mature woodlands (especially slopes with pine and oak) between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation. The bird winters in northwestern South America, where it enjoys the company of various tropical tanagers that do not migrate.

Keep in mind that the female doesn’t resemble her mate except in shape. She is olive-green or yellow-orange in color. Also keep in mind there is a variant form (morph) of the male tanager that is orange rather than scarlet in color. I suspect this variant is the result of something peculiar in its diet. My first and only encounter with an orange scarlet tananger was in the Lake Junaluska area several years ago.

The call note used by both the male and female is a distinctive “chip-burr … chip-burr.” The male’s song is not pretty. He sounds like a robin with a sore throat; that is, the notes in the song are hoarse and raspy. When gathering nesting material, the female sometimes sings a shorter “whisper” song in response to the male’s louder song.

Males in adjacent territories often engage in combative counter-singing and will, as a last resort, go beak-to-beak. On our property, a creek sometimes serves as a boundary — the line drawn in the sand, as it were. The males sing defiantly at one another across the water and sometimes make forays into enemy territory. Meanwhile, the female is busy incubating her eggs. When not squabbling with a nearby male, her mate brings food.  

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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