A portion of this Back Then column appeared in SMN in August 2004 as “A Box to Call Your Own.” It has been rewritten and expanded. The notes regarding ancient (pre-Cherokee) burial practices can be found online: www.handsontheland.org/HistoryExploration/cultural_comparison/archives.cfm?cl=death&site=&period=0)
When I was a boy growing up in Virginia, there was a very old man in our neighborhood who was was eccentric; or, at least, his neighbors judged him to be so because he was reputed to have built his own coffin in the work shed behind his house.
His immediate neighbors boasted that they had watched him doing so through the hedges. This made an impression on me. I used to wonder what it would be like to sleep in an open coffin that you had yourself constructed.
Great Britain, for whatever reason, has for centuries specialized in eccentrics of all varieties. Naturally enough, that island nation has produced numerous coffin-building tales. Jemmy Hirst of Rawcliffe was one of Yorkshire’s most eccentric characters during the early 18th century. For one thing, he rode a bull rather than a horse when foxhunting. For another, he made a vehicle equipped with sails and a carriage of wicker-work that housed his bed and was drawn by Andalusian mules.
Jemmy, of course, constructed his own coffin. It had windows and shelves. When he died in 1829, aged 91, 12 pounds from his estate was set aside to pay a dozen old maids to follow his coffin to the burying ground. Two musicians were also engaged, a fiddler and a piper, who, as a final salute, played Jemmy’s favorite tune “O’er the Hills and Far Away,” which I also like and have placed on my tentative song list.
This country has turned out its fair share of “original characters” — as eccentrics were known in the 19th century. One day a man named Warren Snow, who Moffit didn’t care for, entered his place of business. Seeing the coffin hanging over the checkout counter, Snow dared to inquire as why it had been made so far in advance of his likely death. Moffit looked up and replied: “I want everything dry and light so I can go over Hell just a-flying, so I won’t have to stop down and see you.” All of us could do worse than be “light and dry” so we can “go over hell just a-flying” when the time comes.
Closer to home, Sylva native John Parris noted in These Storied Mountains (1972) that “Many a mountain man has made his own coffin. But old man Eddie Conner is the only man I ever heard of who planted the tree that provided the lumber for the one they laid him away in.”
In May 1885, Conner had as a young man planted a walnut sprout at his sister’s home place in the Smokemont area of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 1918 he suffered “a slight stroke of paralysis” and decided it was high time to get “busy making my preparations for the last go-round.” By this date, the walnut sprout had grown into a tree that measured two feet and seven inches in diameter.
With the help of two Cherokee Indian men, Conner felled the tree and they drug it to a nearby rail line, where it was loaded up and freighted “to the big band sawmill at Ravensford where the lumber was cut for my casket.” A carpenter by the name of Jim Ayers assisted Conner in the construction of his casket.
This wasn’t your ordinary run of the mill casket. It featured “a heavy walnut panel on the lid to make a round or oval-shaped top.” It was “trimmed in three-inch cherry molding, cut in mitered squares like picture frames, leaving a two-inch black walnut margin clear around the top, the sides and the ends.” The brown and red colors highlighted the casket’s appearance so much that, in Conner’s eyes, it “truly gives a beautiful combination beyond compare.” And to top it all off, the lid was constructed from “two pieces, joined together with hinges near the bulk of the breast, with a face glass reaching almost back to the joint hinges, well counter-sunk, to prevent the heavy lid from smashing it.”
When it was done, Conner gave his creation a test drive, as it were, by putting in his pillow and laying down in it “to see how good it fit.”
The coffin was then stored away in the attic of Coot Hyatt’s home above Bryson City. Upon passing away in 1951 at the age of 87 — 33 years after finishing it — Eddie Conner was laid to rest in his masterpiece.
During the prehistoric Archaic Period, 10,000 to 3,000 Years Before Present, people usually buried their dead in shallow graves in a flexed or semi-flexed position. These were sometimes lined with stone. In regions where bedded limestone occurred stone box graves were constructed for both elite and commoner. Burial items for a 16-20 year old high-status female in the summit of a mound included a short neck painted water bottle, marine shell beads, and turtle shell rattles on each ankle. Accompanying a child in a separate burial “were two marine shell ear pins and copper beads” as well as “preserved fragments of cordage and red and yellow textile.”
A person I know claims there are “no dogs in heaven.” We used to argue about this over the Internet. To my way of thinking, heaven wouldn’t be heaven without dogs. The early Indians and then the Cherokees apparently felt the same way as a favorite dog was sometimes buried with his master so they could make the journey into The Darkening Land together.
When walking a trail in the Smokies (or Nantahalas or Great Balsams or wherever) here in the southern Blue Ridge, I sometimes pause to observe the landscapes and flora and imagine that I’m in the mountains of northern Japan or eastern China. Botanists are familiar with a concept sometimes known as “The Asian Connection.” In Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: An Appalachian Ecology (1994), George Constantz devotes an entire chapter to this topic.
“Here’s a claim that might surprise you,” Constantz noted. “The forests of eastern Asia and southern Appalachia are so similar that if you were swept from one to the other you would be hard pressed to tell them apart.”
He went on to explain that, “At the genus and species levels this similarity involves more than 50 genera of Appalachian plants that are restricted to eastern North America and eastern Asia and, except in fossil form, are absent in between.”
The ginseng trade was, of course, established due to this connection, with the North American species being closely related to the various Asian species and supposed to have similar medicinal virtues. And, as Constantz also pointed out, “More than two-thirds of the total orchid genera of temperate North America are related to orchid species in eastern Asia,”
In The Woods of Time (1957), Rutherford Platt listed other plants that have exact or very closely related genera and species, one residing in eastern Asia and the other in the Appalachians: oak, elm, basswood, beech, hickory, maple, birch, hemlock, persimmon, yellowwood, sassafras, tulip poplar, sumac, bittersweet, columbine, hepatica, Dutchman’s-breeches, dwarf ginseng, skunk cabbage, wild geranium, May apple, partridgeberry, sassafras, silverbell, witch hazel, stewartia, and Hercules-club.
In A Natural History of Ferns (2004), Robbin Moran noted that, “These two regions share more genera and species than any other two regions on earth.” Of the 120 or so species found on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, 47 of them are found in eastern North America, including maidenhair fern, slivery glade fern, interrupted fern, and marsh fern.
Why do we have an Asian connection? Here’s the short answer, as I have pieced it together from various sources. When the giant super continent of Pangea was being formed between 300 and 250 million years ago, numerous plant communities were contiguous across a circumpolar landmass that included Asia, Europe, and North America. When Pangea split up some millions of years later, the vestiges of this plant community died out in Europe, western Asia, and western North America, leaving the Asian and Appalachian communities intact but widely separated.
In turn, these remnant communities survived various climate changes. The most dramatic of these, by far, occurred during the Ice Ages. (The last truly cold interval, the Wisconsin epoch, reached its apogee about 18,000 years ago.) The southern Asian mountains and the southern Appalachians escaped being glaciated because both terrains have north-south conformities that impeded the oncoming ice sheets.
I do not know how far south glaciation extended in Asia, but in the Appalachians there was no true glaciation any farther south than northeastern Pennsylvania, although it was, of course, very cold here in the Blue Ridge and adjacent upland terrains. On the other hand, in the Mississippi River valley, where there were no uplands capable of resisting glaciation, the ice sheets extended much farther south to the outskirts of present day Cincinnati.
Platt explained that this trans-world plant connection wasn’t revealed until after trade was opened with Japan in the mid-19th century and plant hunters like E.H. Wilson of the Arnold Arboretum began to return to America with extensive collections that matched our southern Appalachian flora.
By this time, the European-born glaciologist Louis Agassiz had journeyed to American and announced “the sensational discovery of the Big Ice visit to the United States.” Asa Gray, this country’s first great botanist, “put together the Big Ice story and the discovery of the same flora, separated by half the world, and announced in a sensational address, in 1858, that the Big Ice had arranged the world that way.”
Identifying ferns is an entirely different process than, say, identifying wildflowers or trees. They don't display flowers, showy fruits, or bark patterns. What they do display are myriad leaf (frond) forms and highly distinctive, if minute, spore cases. Once you learn how to hone in on these features, you're on your way to identifying the 70 or so native species in Western North Carolina.
Perhaps a third of these are so unique in appearance there’s nothing else you can confuse them with. For instance, along the trail that leads down the creek from our house I’ve located, to date, 17 species: Christmas fern, ebony spleenwort, marginal wood fern, rock-cap fern, hay-scented fern, sensitive fern, cinnamon fern, maidenhair fern, New York fern, lady fern, broad beech fern, bracken, rattlesnake grape fern, blunt-lobed grape fern, rusty woodsia, fragile fern, and silvery glade fern. All but the last four are easily recognizable after initial identification.
Perhaps another third of our 70 native species are so rare or inaccessible (sometimes only behind waterfalls) that the average fern seeker probably won’t encounter them. Now comes the fun part. The remaining 20 to 25 species are similar enough in general appearance that their sori (clusters of spore cases usually located on the underside of their fronds) require examination under magnification. A 10-power lens will do just fine. The arrangement, shape, or other features of these clusters will be diagnostic as to species.
In the workshops I conduct, we first review the fern life cycle and then the language utilized in field guides for fern parts. Afterwards, we visit sites where participants can work on their identification skills, using a non-technical field guide. By the end of the day, everyone is up and running in regard to ferns.
Occasionally, a natural history book will come along that breaks new ground.
Timothy P. Spira’s Wildflowers & Plant Communities: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, & Georgia (Chapel Hill: UNC Press) introduces readers to the diverse plant communities one can seek out and explore in a systematic fashion. But the concept has never been systematically delineated in a non-technical format for the non-professional plant enthusiast. In a section headed “Plant Community Profiles,” Spira describes in some detail communities found at various elevations in the mountain and adjacent piedmont regions: spruce-fir forests, grassy and heath balds, high-elevation rock outcrops, red oak forests, northern hardwood forests, rich and acidic cove forests, spray cliffs, rocky stream sides, mountain bogs, river bluff and alluvial forests, forest edges, and others.
For example, the high-elevation rock outcrop community is described in pages 119-123 as to distinguishing features, vegetation, seasonal aspects, distribution, dynamics, and conservation aspects. Sources are cited for Suggested Reading about the community. Forty or so Characteristic Plants (trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, spikemosses, ferns, and lichens) are listed in a table. Six rare species one might encounter in this specific community are enumerated: spreading avens, mountain golden heather, granite dome St. John’s wort, Blue Ridge ragwort, pinkshell azalea, and three-tooth cinquefoil. A set photographs illustrates most of the plants associated with each community. two-hundred and fifty pages are devoted to Species Profiles of each of the hundreds of plants associated with the various communities. Throughout this section, the entries are packed with tidbits of information about plants, including ferns, I had never before encountered.
• I knew hayscented fern as a common species resembling lady fern that often forms dense stands. From Spiria, I learned that “Established plants spread rapidly into open areas as buds at the base of leaves develop into long, creeping, underground stems … Apparently, a dense organic mat of roots, rhizomes, and dead fronds, coupled with a dense canopy of living fronds, inhibits seed germination and seedling establishment of other plants. Chemicals such as coumarin that leach from the fronds or rhizomes of hayscented fern also have an inhibitory effect on seeds and seedlings.”
• Christmas fern fronds, which are evergreen, reorientate themselves to a prostrate position in winter so as to conserve energy during cold months. The warmer ground increases leaf temperatures, promoting photosynthetic activity during relatively mild days.
• Cinnamon ferns are called “living fossils” because the forms we see today are much the same as they were more than 200 million years ago. Individual clumps can be quite old as the fibrous rootstock can persist for years.
• Most plants die after losing more than 15 percent of their water content. Resurrection fern, which curls up during dry weather, can lose up to 97 percent of its water without irreversible harm.
Most of us don't find it absolutely essential to know the name of every plant and animal we encounter, but it is a quiet joy to know the more common ones on a first-name basis. This has been especially true for me in regard to ferns. They are, after all, our most graceful plant — things of beauty, providing forms that delight the eye and add harmony to our woodland and garden settings.
NOTE: George Ellison will teach a “Native Fern Identification” workshop for the North Carolina Arboretum from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11. After an introductory morning session, participants will car pool to habitats along the Blue Ridge Parkway where various species can be found. Walks will be short and easy. Materials required are bag lunch, rain gear, hand lens (any household magnifier will do), and the 2001 second edition of "Fern Finder" (Nature Study Guild Publishers) by Anne and Barbara Hallowell. Copies of Fern Finder will be available for purchase at the North Carolina Arboretum. Each workshop will be limited to 15 participants. For additional information call 828.665.2492.
The elevations of the southern Blue Ridge province above 4,000 feet can be thought of as a peninsula of northern terrain extending into the southeastern United States, where typical flora and fauna of northeastern and southeastern North America intermingle. Through a combination of processes, the province has evolved into the mature upland landscape we know today. It has become especially diverse in two regards: plant life and distinctive natural areas.
According to B. Eugene Wofford’s Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Blue Ridge (1989), the province presently features upwards of 1,500 vascular plants: trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, sedges, grasses, ferns, horsetails, quillworts, and club-mosses. Many are considered to be showy plants when in flower. There are 130 species of trees, whereas in all of Europe there are only 75 or so species. The primitive non-vascular plants include countless moss and lichen species. And the province is one of the epicenters in the temperate world for mushrooms.
Before the introduction about 1910 of a non-native fungus that decimated the American chestnut trees, the prototypical forest here was “chestnut-heath;” that is, chestnut was the dominant canopy tree, with an understory mainly made up of shrubs such as rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel, and other members of the heath family. Before the arrival of the fungus, 30 percent or more of the deciduous forests in the province were made up of chestnut. Almost all of the trees seen in the province now are root sprouts that persist despite the fact that their main trunks have died back to ground level. Within a few years, almost all of these sprouts succumb to the fungus before they can flower and fruit. Today, the prototypical forest of the province is “oak-heath.”
The Blue Ridge is a mosaic of varied habitats, large and small: grassy and heath balds, marshes and bogs, periglacial boulderfields, beech gaps, seepage slopes and cliffs, oak orchards or wind forests, and more. The forest types of the present-day southern Blue Ridge include the spruce-fir or Canadian zone above 5,500 feet. It shares characteristics with evergreen forests in eastern Canada and features the most boreal-like climate in the southeastern United States. The conifers that predominate are red spruce and Fraser fir. The latter is being infested and killed by the balsam wooly adelgid, an introduced aphid pest.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 feet, the northern hardwood zone shares characteristics with the “north woods” of New England. But note that Michael P. Schafale and Alan S. Weakley in their Classification of the Natural Communities of North Carolina (1990) made the point that there are clear differences between the two zones:
The name ‘northern hardwood forest,’ traditionally given to these communities, implies a similarity to hardwood forests of the northern Appalachians. Many tree, herb, and shrub species are shared; however our Northern Hardwood Forest has evolved under different climatic regimes, with a different [geographic] history, and has many plant and animal species endemic to the southern Appalachians. It is clearly not the same natural community type as the forests of the northern United States.
Yellow birch and American beech are indicator species for this southern version of the northern hardwood forest, which also features hobblebush, yellow buckeye, and mountain maple.
In Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Natural History Guide (1993), Rose Houk described the forest that sometimes appears below the northern hardwood forest in this manner:
In a place outstanding for diversity of forest types, one type, unique to the southern Appalachians, stand out as the richest of the richest. It is the cove hardwood forest, the forest primeval, one of the most diverse plant communities in the world. The word cove, when used with hardwood forest, refers generally to a sheltered valley, sometimes flat and sometimes steep, below 4,500 feet elevation. Cove soils are rich and deep.
The largest and most famous of the cove hardwood forests is Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest near Robbinsville, North Carolina, just south of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Located on U.S. Forest Service lands, the 3,840-acre tract is an amazing site. In A Directory of North Carolina’s Natural Areas (1987), Charles E. Roe provided this description:
Massive Canadian hemlocks dominate the forest along the stream flats … but farther upstream give way to mixed hardwoods … Hemlocks measure up to 70 inches in diameter, tulip poplars 76 inches, and oaks 72 inches. Rhododendrons prevail in the forest understory on the flats and ravine bottoms as well as on the ridge top heath balds or ‘slicks.’ Green carpets of mosses and liverworts cover boulders, old logs, banks and tree bases in the damp, shaded environments … This classic primeval forest is an exceptional research and recreational source.
Below 3,000 feet, various pine, oak, and hickory species predominate. This type of “pine-oak-hickory” habitat — often made up of Virginia pine, pitch pine, or Table Mountain pine, red oak, chestnut oak, and pignut hickory — can also appear in higher elevations along exposed slopes and ridges that are relatively dry.
Along streams in the lowest elevations and on moist mountainsides up to 4,000 feet, eastern hemlocks form forests called “hemlock ravines.” Rosebay rhododendron and other shrubs sometimes form a dense under story. The eastern hemlock along with the endemic Carolina hemlock are both being infested and killed by the hemlock wooly adelgid, another introduced aphid pest.
I’ve always been interested in the processes by which we discover things. Being a naturalist, I’m most interested in the processes by which entities like birds, plants, special places, etc., are located.
I’m a firm believer that preparation generally pays off. That is, if you study up on something — say a bird — and anticipate where you might locate it, your chances are considerably enhanced that you will encounter it. Last year, for instance, I spotted my first-ever Swainson’s warbler in this manner.
Wanting very much to see one, I read the literature regarding the bird’s range distribution. The nearest place where they have commonly been encountered in North America during the breeding season is the headwaters region of the Chattooga River. That was handy enough. Before driving down the Bull Pen Road southeast of Highlands, I studied the bird’s image in several field guides and listened to its call notes and song on tapes.
My first stop was at a pullover above the old Iron Bridge that overlooked a rhododendron thicket, their preferred habitat in the Southern Applachians. After about 45 seconds, I heard a bird singing. Could it be? Yep, it could. I trained my binoculars on the singing bird and there was a Swainson’s warbler, considered by many to one of the most elusive and reclusive birds.
I also think one can almost “will” things into existence. That is, if you want to find something badly enough, you probably can. I have located many very rare plants by putting on my blinders and looking for and thinking about nothing else. Sometimes it takes months, but I’ve never come up empty-handed. If it’s out there, I believe you can locate it if you really and truly want to do so.
And then there is what I think of as my “blunder method.” That is, you simply go out and see what you happen to stumble upon my pure blind luck. Sort of like the proverbial blind pig that stumbles upon an ear of corn now and again. I employed this method last week while camping at the Evins State Park just off the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau northwest of Smithville, Tenn.
On Thursday morning I picked a trail and went out with no particular objective in mind except to observe the extensive stands of Goldie’s and glade ferns reputed to be distributed along the first half mile or so of the trail. After passing through the ferns, I followed the trail down a steep ravine to Center Hill Lake.
It started to get hot and buggy. I was thirsty and hadn’t brought any water. This is the point at which one either returns to the campsite or pushes on to see just what can be blundered upon. I pushed on and somehow got off the established trail. Not wanting to backtrack, I decided to hump it up the ridge in the general direction of where I’d parked my truck. The ridge slope was really steep; so much so, that I had to stop and rest every few minutes.
“Well now,” I thought to myself, “this is going to be really good. No telling what I’ll find having gotten lost and ending up climbing the side of a mountain.”
Sure enough, just as I reached a road near my truck, I saw chestnut husks littering the ground. Looking up, there in full bloom was an American chestnut tree. I examined the leaves to make sure it wasn’t one of the disease-resistant foreign species that might have become naturalized at the park. Nope, it was the genuine article.
I have seen American chestnut trees flowering and fruiting at several places here in Smokies region, most notably near Wayah Bald above Franklin. But all of those were small and obviously already blighted by the fungus first introduced to America about 1910 in New York City.
This tree showed absolutely no signs of blight. The bark was firm without any of the fissures that indicate infestation. The leaves were bright and glossy. And it was covered with snowy-cream, spike-like flowers.
Later on, I roughly measured the tree. At breast height, it was nearly 60 inches in circumference and about 18 inches in diameter. I’d estimate it stood over 50 feet in height, and it displayed a nice wide canopy spread in spite of being crowed by several adjacent trees. What a sight!
Carl Halfacre, the manager of Evins State Park, was just as excited as I was to learn about such a tree on the park’s grounds. Along with cerulean warblers recently discovered breeding there, this wonderful tree will no doubt become one of the park’s claims to fame. Many people would travel a goodly distance just to see a healthy American chestnut in full flower.
I did, however, fail to mention to Ranger Halfacre that I’d been employing my “blunder method” of exploration to make the discovery.
Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison was first published in July 2003.
There’s a fly in the window
A dog in the yard
And a year since I saw you …
Feeling fine on elderberry wine.
Those were the days
We’d lay in the haze
Forget depressive times
Round a tree in the summer
A fire in the fall …
The bottle went round …
Passed on from hand to hand …
— excerpted from lyrics by Elton John
Those who’ve participated in my natural history workshops know that I’m not a very good source for information regarding either edible plants or propagation. For the most part, I obtain vegetables at the grocery store or, in season, from our gardens. Propagation I mostly leave up to my wife. But there are exceptions.
One flowering wild plant that always gets me to thinking with my stomach is common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which is just now coming into bloom in the lower elevations throughout Western North Carolina. You probably know it already; if not, look for white flat-topped loose clusters of flowers up to six inches or more broad that appear on a shrub 3- to 10-feet tall.
The flowering heads resemble several of the shrubs in the Viburnum genus, but elderberry has compound leaves that are divided so as to display five to eleven Leaflets. Vibrunum leaves aren’t divided.
Growing naturally or planted in full sun in moist soil (alongside seeps, ditches, or streams), the shrub makes a nice appearance. I have seen it on display in the zigs and zags of a rail fence. It catches the eye when placed in a woodland border
Various ornamental varieties have been developed in recent years. These display various leaf colors and patterns, as well as fancy names like “Aurea” and “Argentomarginata,” which features white-edged leaves. To my way of thinking, however, our plain old native homegrown elderberry species does just fine. It’s showy enough.
In the fall, the plant bears deep purple or black fruits that sometimes weigh their branches to the ground. Many use them for making sweet breads or jam, but, in my experience, they are very irregular to taste when eaten directly off the shrub. Some fruits on a given plant can be delightfully tasty while those on an adjacent branch will be insipid.
Elderberry blossoms, however, never let you down. The entire flowering head fried up in a fritter batter makes a crunchy summertime treat that more than repays the effort of harvesting and preparation.
American Indians were (and are) the real experts on using plants as economical food sources. If a plant wasn’t worth their time, they didn’t fool with it. In Native Harvests: Recipes and Botanicals of the American Indian (Vintage Books, 1979), E. Barrie Kavasch provided the following recipe for Elder Blossom Fritters:
“Prepare a light batter, beating together 2 cups fine white cornmeal, 1 lightly beaten egg, 1 cup water, and 1 tablespoon of maple syrup. Heat 1/4 cup corn oil on a griddle and drop batter by large tablespoons onto it, immediately placing 1 elder-blossom flower-cluster in the center of each raw fritter and pressing lightly into the batter. Fry for 3 to 5 minutes, or until golden. Flip and fry for 3 minutes on the other side. Drain on brown paper. Serve hot, sprinkled with additional loose blossoms and maple sugar. (This amount of batter is sufficient for preparing 16 flower clusters.)”
My wife, Elizabeth, makes a similar batter, substituting fine white flour for the cornmeal and beer for the water. She sometimes uses daylily or squash blossoms in place of the elderberry clusters.
I almost forgot to mention yet another positive attribute of this plant. I wonder who made the elderberry wine that inspired Elton John?
Rural residents know the yellow-billed cuckoo as the “rain crow” or “storm crow” because its guttural “ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” seems to be sounded just prior to a late evening thunderstorm. (The distinctive “kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” portion of the call sounds something like a small dog barking.) The cuckoos on our property often sound a single “kowlp” note rather than the full vocalization.
Most scientific observers have dismissed the association of yellow-billed cuckoos and imminent rainfall, but the authors of Birds of the Carolinas (UNC Press, 1980) do note: “There may be some basis for this bit of folklore, because cuckoos apparently adjust the timing of their nesting effort to the temporary local abundance of suitable prey, which in many instances coincides with periods of rainfall.”
Or it might be that since they tend to call more on hot humid days, the rain crows are most often heard when rainfall would occur anyway. In this regard, ornithologist and artist George Miksch Sutton observed that the bird doesn’t call only when it’s about to rain or is raining. His theory was that when a summer storm is imminent people become apprehensive and pay closer attention to sounds; thereby, they tend to hear cuckoos calling at a certain time and associate the bird with specific weather conditions.
A second cuckoo species that nests here in the mountains, mostly in the upper elevations, is called the black-billed cuckoo because it lacks the yellow lower mandible of its cousin. I’ve never seen a black-billed cuckoo, but I have heard its rythmic “cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu” calls on several occasions, most notably in the region of Blue Valley near Highlands, the Rainbow Springs section of the Nantahala River, and on the Balsam Mountain spur road of the Blue Ridge Parkway above Cherokee.
Both species winter in South America. They arrive in our region during the last week in April and usually depart by late October.
If you see a yellow-billed cuckoo in flight, the most distinctive feature will be a double row of large white spots beneath the tail. The reddish flash of wing against the brownish body is also diagnostic. The sight of the bird in flight or perched on a limb staring at you is one that’s worth pursuing. As Henry David Thoreau observed, “The cuckoo is a very neat, slender, and graceful bird. It belongs to the nobility of birds. It is elegant.”
There are certain sounds that haunt the southern highlands. Wind sighing in the spruce-fir. The ongoing ever-changing yet eternally-the-same murmurs of a creek. A little less than a century ago one could still hear from time to time the blood curdling howls and screams of timber wolves and panthers. And then there are the resonate “kowlps” of the yellow-billed cuckoo. No bird is more secretive. Seldom leaving the shrouding foliage, the cuckoo sits motionless. When it does move, it creeps about with furtive restraint. Seeing one is possible but unlikely. For the most part, this is a bird that you hear … a “voice” in the distance. In my experience, it is a “voice” heard just before raindrops begin to patter softly on the tin roof of my house.
Serpents are among the world’s most storied creatures. We are at once attracted to and repelled by them. Many view them as the “personification” of evil.
The ancient Cherokees portrayed the close relationship of good and evil in several of their myths. One of these related the legend of the Mythic Hawk, which represented the Upper World, and the Uktena, which represented the Under World. The Uktena was a monster 30-feet long and as large around as a tree trunk, with horns on its head and a diamond-like crest in its forehead. The light that blazed from this crest attracted humans to sure death like moths to a flame. On the other hand, by evoking the powers of the Upper World, the Cherokees could slay the monster and extract the crest, thereby obtaining visionary powers that enabled the tribe to balance good and evil.
The serpent that inspired the Uktena myth was, of course, the timber rattler. Our other poisonous snake here in the southern mountains is the copperhead. Cottonmouth moccasins are reported, but that species is, in fact, found no farther inland than about the fall line. Those reporting what they suppose are cottonmouths here are actually encountering northern water snakes, a species that is aggressive in and around water but not poisonous.
Insofar as poisonous snakes go, the rattler and the copperhead are sufficient. Nothing else quite focuses your attention and sets all your nerves on end as suddenly encountering a rattler. My family remembers the time when I set the world record for the standing broad jump. We were camping in the remote Rainbow Springs marsh in the Nantahala Mountains. To make a campfire so as to prepare breakfast, I pulled a limb out of some underbrush that had a timber rattler on the other end approaching 50 inches in length. To this day, I recall the serpent’s powerfully muscular near-black body, which showed just the slightest bit of yellow, and the gleaming totally fearless eyes. Coiled with tail buzzing an alarm, it was in every sense the wildest and most beautiful creature I’ve ever encountered. It was also the most ominous.
The great 20th century naturalist, Alexander Skutch, an American, lived most of his life in Costa Rica, studying birds and recording their life histories. An otherwise gentle soul, Skutch detested any human or wild animal that preyed on birds or their eggs. He made these observations in A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm (Univ. of California Press, 1980):
“Why have serpents been deified by some races and regarded as the embodiment of evil by others? … Is it because a snake has so few attributes of animality that it hardly seems to be animal, but rather a creature of unique category? … It is the only large, widespread terrestrial animal that moves without limbs. It has no evident ears and cannot close its lidless eyes. Its only sound is a hiss, and, although sometimes gregarious … it is never really social. With few exceptions, including certain pythons, it is devoid of parental solicitude, never caring for its young ... The serpent is stark predation, the predatory existence in its baldest, least mitigated form. It might be characterized as an elongated, distensible stomach, with the minimum of accessories needed to fill and propagate this maw—not even teeth that can tear its food … It reveals the depths to which evolution can sink when it takes the downward path and strips animals to the irreducible minimum able to perpetuate a predatory life in its naked horror. The contemplation of such an existence has a horrid fascination for the human mind and distresses a sensitive spirit.”
I don’t agree with either the essence of the Cherokee legend or with Skutch’s observations. Serpents are a life form that epitomizes terrestrial grace. Their body patterns — rings, stripes, hourglasses, spots, etc. — are often as intricate as fine jewelry. They represent a modality of intentness beyond ours. If a serpent strikes, he is fulfilling not a premeditated obligation but a space in his existence that you entered. He does not mind that you exist. He would not mind if you did not exist. He simply does not care one way or another. But he isn’t evil.
Mention magnolias and images of plantations and mint juleps come to mind. But here in Western North Carolina we have an array of magnolia species that thrive in an upland hardwoods setting. These trees are most noticeable, of course, in spring or early summer when they produce the showy flowers that have made them famous, but they lend a graceful touch to our landscape year round.
In the southern highlands from southwestern Virginia into north Georgia there are seven species belonging to the Magnolia family. The very common tree we call “tulip popular” actually belongs to this family but is classified in a separate genus from the “magnolias” proper. Two evergreen species introduced from more southern climes that might rarely appear around old home sites in the mountains are the “sweet bay” (Magnolia virginiana) and the “southern” or “bull bay” (M. grandiflora).
A species that might rarely appear in WNC is the “big leaf” (M. macrophylla). A 1981 publication issued by the University Botanical Gardens in Asheville reported it to be “rare in the mountains, its range being sparse and spotty in range. A stand along the French Broad River near Asheville is reported.” More recent surveys locate the species in east Tennessee, north Georgia, and the piedmont region of North Carolina, but do not report it from Western North Carolina per se.
So, that leaves us with three native species that we are likely to encounter while tramping around in rich woods and coves: “cucumber tree” (M. acuminata), “umbrella magnolia” (M. tripetala), and “Fraser’s magnolia” (M. fraseri). All have deciduous leaves and bloom in April and May.
They are readily distinguished by leaf shape. Fraser’s has prominent eared lobes at the base of the leaf where it joins the stem. The other two have leaves that join at the stem without lobes. The umbrella species tapers rather sharply to the stem, while the cucumber species leaf is more oval in appearance as it joins the stem.
The cucumber tree is so-named because of the clasping greenish-yellow petals it produces that tend to blend with the leaf and stem colors. It fruits — often in exotic asymmetrical forms — in August and September.
Umbrella magnolia came by its name because of the broadly elliptical 18- to 20-inch leaves clustered near the ends of its branches. It fruits into October and is therefore the woodland species you’re most likely to observe during the fall color season.
Fraser’s magnolia is named for the Scottish plant hunter, John Fraser, who also discovered Fraser fir and purple rhododendron. It is an upland tree that rarely strays out of the highlands region and is therefore also called the “mountain magnolia.” It produces fruit from late July into early September.
Magnolia cones are attractive scarlet to rust-brown aggregates composed of numerous pod or pocket-like follicles, each containing one or two crimson seeds the color of nail polish. When the cones reach the stage whereby seeds are ejected from the fruit pockets, a curious scenario ensues.
Instead of falling immediately to the ground, these seeds remain suspended in the air attached to slender, almost invisible threads. These are called “funicular outgrowths” in botanical manuals. (“Funicular” means anything operated with strands.) Look closely at these with a pocket lens and you’ll find they are rubbery in consistency and vary in length. Indeed, as the seeds come out of the follicles they do so in a spiderman fashion, with the threads elongating according to the weight of each seed.
If you take a cone that is just beginning to exude seeds and place it upright on a sunny windowsill, this process can be speeded up and readily observed. Some will hang on threads up to nearly three inches in length before the link is finally severed. And some seeds remain suspended for many days, if not weeks, before falling.
Why? The most obvious explanation would seem to be that this tree has adapted itself to cater to animal dispersers capable of distributing seeds at a considerable distance from the parent. Birds are the obvious choice. And they can best locate the bright red seeds dangling in the air rather than on the ground.
More than a few readers of this column collect books associated with the Smokies region. A friend who spends most of his waking hours either fishing the backcountry trout waters in the Smokies or plotting ways to do so brought what he called “an interesting item” by my office. He had obtained at local auction the first edition of a softbound, 142-page volume titled Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Asheville: Inland Press, 1933). Having worked in the park himself some years ago, he has an ongoing interest in its history.
I’d spotted the book in various library collections through the years, but had never had an opportunity to peruse one at leisure. It makes for some interesting reading; indeed, both as a historical artifact and as an information source, it deserves to be reprinted.
According to the title page, George W. McCoy and George Masa compiled the “Guide.” McCoy was born in Dillsboro. He attended the University of North Carolina, 1919-1922, and the University of Chicago, 1926-1928, and was editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times from 1955 to 1961.
Masa was the noted Japanese photographer who helped promote the formation of a national park in the Smokies via photographs published in the national press during the 1920s and early 1930s. He was the subject of a documentary, “The Mystery of George Masa,” by Paul Bonesteel.
Masa’s photo studio was located in Asheville, where he first worked at the Grove Park Inn while teaching himself photography. But he was reputed to spend more of his time in the Smokies than in his studio. In recent years, he has been recognized as a great photographer, renowned for his patience in waiting hours, even days, for just the right light.
The Guide my friend had lucked into contains numerous photos by Masa depicting various scenic spots on both sides of the park, as well as a number of historical photographs that the compilers were able to obtain permission to reproduce.
A Masa study captioned “Sunlight on bed of giant ferns on Big Creek” is a beautiful study of light effects, while another captioned “Camping at Three Forks in the Great Smokies” depicts an idyllic tent camp in the backcountry.
The text consists of a number of motor tours and guides to hiking trails in the Smokies region. It’s full of bits of information such as the fact that, “Andrews Bald is believed to have been named for Anders Thompson, one of the first white men to hunt and camp there.” Or that the name of the vast and infamous heath thicket named Huggins’ Hell in Hazel Creek, which contains nearly 500 acres of tangled rhododendron and laurel, came about, because “Irving Huggins, who lived in the Hazel Creek section, was herding cattle on Siler’s Bald one day and wanted to reach another knob. He thought he could cross the intervening ‘slick’ but was trapped there for a number of days before he could find his way out.”
Also included are sections devoted to hunting and fishing, plants and flowering seasons, Cherokee mythology, geology, native mountaineer and Cherokee culture and more. Keep your eyes peeled and maybe, like my friend, you’ll be fortunate enough to happen upon a copy of this little gem.