“It’s like déjà vu all over again,” quipped the legendary Yogi Berra after watching Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris hit back-to-back homers so often it became almost commonplace.

That’s the sentiment many in Swain County are feeling after the most recent twist in the long and tortuous North Shore Road battle. Another broken promise, like déjà vu all over again. But for those who have been involved in this fight, there is nothing funny about the federal government holding up payments it promised to residents in lieu of rebuilding the road. In fact, it’s imperative that this current impasse get settled, and quickly.

The North Shore Road saga is littered with bruised feelings and broken agreements. The $52 million cash settlement was agreed to in a 2010 memorandum of understanding that was signed at Swain County High School in a ceremony attended by 200 people. The payments were intended to resolve the decades-old dispute between Swain County and the federal government over a road flooded during the construction of Fontana Lake back in the 1940s. The government at that time promised to rebuild the road but never did.

But it wasn’t just the broken promise to build the road that has contributed to the emotional turmoil suffered by many in Swain County. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, senators and congressmen from North Carolina lined up on different sides of the issues, cajoling presidents and cabinet secretaries to either build the road or compensate Swain citizens for their loss. Many visited the area, promising to do what they could in Washington. It has been a decades-long seesaw, with momentum swinging wildly with the political winds.

Through all of this, it has been Swain County residents who suffered. Families have been divided and friendships strained. That’s why the 2010 memorandum of understanding was so important, because no matter what side of the issue one believed in — build the road or provide just compensation — there was finally an end in sight.

Now federal bureaucrats, hopefully just temporarily, are foiling that agreement. The short description of the current imbroglio goes something like this: an initial $12. 8 million payment was made in 2010. The 2011 payment of $4 million was lost to budget cutting. This year’s $4 million was included in the Park Service’s budget, but because there was not line-item description in the budget directing NPS bureaucrats to send the money to Swain, it can’t be released, they say.

We’ll call bull on that. The agreement has been signed, and Park Service bureaucrats should not be able to hold up payment on what is owed to Swain County. If Rep. Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville — who happens to be a Swain County native — can’t get this fixed pretty quick, then we’ll have to agree with those who have long insisted the feds had no intention of holding up their end of this deal. We hope the naysayers are mistaken.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

By Gwang S. Han • Guest Columnist

Simply put, I question if there is a problem with the current system at Harris Regional Hospital and Haywood Regional Medical Center, supervised by Carolinas HealthCare in Charlotte.  Since retiring in 2007 after 33 years in Sylva specializing in obstetrics and gynecology, I paid little attention to the hospital’s future. Some old patients share their complaints of deteriorating quality care, emergency room problems, or the lack of good doctors; they never complain about the business structure established in merging two hospitals. However, I wonder why and how they arrived at this business model; what triggered it? Did local hospital management, boards of trustees, groups of physicians elect to merge, or did Carolinas HealthCare offer a deal too good to refuse?

The real problem appears loss of revenue for Harris Regional Hospital caused by a continuous drain of patients mostly to Asheville doctors, as stated by Steve Heatherly, Harris Hospital administrator. This has occurred since 2007 and increased almost 25 percent between 2007 and 2010, according to Becky Johnson of The Smoky Mountain News.  Hospitals do not admit patients: doctors do. Patients are not stupid and can judge the quality of care they receive, especially women.

So what happened in those two years? Can identifiable causes explain the decline of the Sylva hospital? Did the “loss of a few doctors” cause the large migration of patients? Or was deteriorating quality of care at Harris Regional Hospital not the main reason for people to flee to Asheville for medical care? Was the hospital so poorly run that it needed outside help, or were the replacement doctors in certain specialties not providing the same quality of care people received from those few doctors who left?

The uproar from complaints by a few Sylva physicians appears confined to the business aspect of medical practice, as if recently implemented organizational system is the reason patients go to Asheville. Hospitals do compete; doctors also compete in providing quality medical care. Doctors are the main workhorses and hospitals play supporting roles for physicians to carry out their jobs. Healthy competition between hospitals and between physicians does not lead to a downhill path and death: to the contrary.

The two hospitals must have reasons to elect the “big daddy” approach instead of allowing two not-necessarily-close siblings to pool their energy and financial resources and use their combined synergy to retain their deserved market share instead of worrying about the eventual demise of one or both medical facilities. Size of business offers some advantage with its flexibility to maneuver, deep pockets, and ability to negotiate with insurance companies for remuneration. However, “big daddy” doesn’t have a reason to feel charitable toward these two ducklings (not necessarily ugly). It calculated its “take” by offering mighty financial power and business acumen, namely a bigger business market and bigger referral base. There is some truth in old saying that the friendship between two competing entities is inversely proportional of square of distance. This might have been the reason the hospitals chose Carolinas HealthCare instead Memorial Mission Hospital.

To me, the problem seems that the perfect picture doctors and hospitals have drawn is not what they expected to see and is not a perfect one. Is there someone or some organization to blame for the ugly picture or for the unfair deals as claimed by a few Sylva doctors? Let me remind you that these two hospitals have existed in two different business environments in a geopolitical-business sense and have two different doctors’ groups employing different business models. Perhaps Sylva has the advantage of being located in the bottleneck of two major highways and experienced an earlier introduction of medical specialties than in towns west of Sylva. Haywood has the handicap of being close to Asheville, the capital city of WNC.

The population and industry in Jackson County can’t support the hospital and the number of doctors in Sylva unless they are draw patients from surrounding communities. In fact, a lot of patients the Sylva hospital claims to have lost are not from Jackson County, but those from other communities who sought medical care in Sylva because they found better care than from doctors in their local community or it lacked specialists.

As the first board certified obstetrician and gynecologist west of Asheville, I witnessed on the ground level how people sought better care for their needs. Women are smarter, far more discerning, and more selective in choosing their doctors than men, in general, when looking for quality. The majority of medical decisions in the family are made by the woman in the house. They don’t mind of traveling distances seeking “better care.” Sixty five percent of my patients were not from Jackson County, but I doubt I could have attracted so many patients from different areas unless they thought it better. Most patients came by the word-of-mouth from other people, in fact more than 90 percent.

I think the two hospitals should maintain their separate identities and invest strength and financial resources in areas where they provide the best care: internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and the surgical fields. Harris Hospital has taken many missteps wasting its resources with misguided objectives (one example is purchasing spine table so scarcely used). It would benefit from a modern Women’s Center, including a new labor and delivery room with modern, appealing décor instead of using the 1970s ugly, depressing facility. The year I arrived, about 250 deliveries occurred in the Sylva hospital; at its peak, close to 900 deliveries happened in one year (there were many fewer in Waynesville). I believe almost two- thirds of the deliveries were for people outside of Jackson County. Obviously, field of women’s and children’s health care can be a successful enterprise for this hospital.  

In summary I don’t see a problem with the business structure since Harris Hospital has its own boss and administrative system with the help of Carolinas HealthCare. It should work with Haywood County in areas useful for both institutions. The key now is to regain the confidence and trust of people in this area. I kept the following message at the entrance of my office: “Please don’t come to see me unless you have trust in me.” It may take a long time for trust to return, but the two institutions have no other option but to try. Don’t underestimate consumers, clients, or patients and their ability to discern the quality of care or their knowledge of their health issues. Additionally, the residents of Jackson County should be concerned and become more actively involved in this effort. I wish them the very best.

Gwang S. Han, MD, FACOG, is a retired Jackson County physician.

Here in the South, if you are of a certain age, you have two families at least. The first is the family you’re born into. About that, you have no real say in the matter. Your second family consists of the people who, like you, grew up watching “The Andy Griffith Show.” Like you, they believe that Mayberry is a real place, even though they know it isn’t, and yet it still is, really, just as real as the actual place they grew up, perhaps more so in some important way.

If that last sentence makes sense to you, you’re probably one of us. That means you probably know all the episodes by heart, even the ones  shot in color after Don Knotts left for the bright lights of Hollywood. It means that you know the real names of the actors who played the important characters, and just about all of them were important. Andy and Barney were the main characters, of course, but any member of the family knows that Frances Bavier (Aunt Bea), Ron Howard (Opie), Howard McNear (Floyd the barber), Jim Nabors (Gomer), Hal Smith (Otis), Betty Lynn (Thelma Lou), and Aneta Corsaut (Helen Crump) were every bit as crucial to the show as Andy and Barney. These were not just one-dimensional supporting characters but fully realized, vividly fleshed out human beings with indelible personalities of their own. In any given episode, one of them might be the protagonist instead of Andy or Barney. Any one of them could easily carry the show for as many episodes as the writers wished, and each had turns at being “the star.”

Aunt Bea relishing her “kerosense cucumbers.” Opie raising his baby birds. Thelma Lou refusing to be in Barney’s “hip pocket.” Gomer trying to repay Andy for saving his life. We know and remember every episode. In a way, they have mixed in among our own childhood memories, since many of us first saw these episodes as children and have seen them countless times since. Watching reruns of the show is, for us, akin to pulling out the family photograph album and remembering when. We love getting together with other members of “the family” and reminiscing.

“Remember that time when Andy and Barney were trying to help Goober get a girl?”

Ah, yes, Goober Pyle, played by George Lindsey. Goober was introduced to the show in 1964 as Gomer’s slightly less sophisticated cousin (“Goober ain’t stupid,” said Gomer. “He’s ugly, but he ain’t stupid.”). Goober worked at Wally’s filling station and almost always sported a beanie with turned-up edges that made him look like Mayberry’s court jester, which he was, but only at times, because none of Mayberry’s characters were ever that simple, just as real people are not.

As a young fellow, I often identified with Goober, who was shy and uneasy around girls, always relying on jokes and impressions of movie stars like Cary Grant or Edward G. Robinson in an attempt to impress them, always measuring himself against more experienced, worldly competition and coming up short, always awkward, hesitant, and uncertain. In spite of this, onward he plunged into the dense thicket of romance, armed only with the dullest butterknife to try to clear a path and find his way. That’s EXACTLY how I felt as well, inept and awkward, but propelled forward by forces I could neither comprehend nor resist. Over and over I stumbled, but, like Goober, I kept flailing away.

As Barney Fife put it in his pep talk to Goober, “Andy’s got a girl, I’ve got a girl, all God’s children got a girl.”

If Goober could find a girl, maybe I could, too. If Goober could keep trying, why shouldn’t I?

There are a lot of great Goober moments in the show, but my favorite may be an episode late in the series in which Goober forgets his razor on a camping trip, comes back with a scruffy beard, and then becomes convinced that he has become an intellectual because Andy, Floyd, and Aunt Bea tell him he looks “different,” and Goober longs more than anything to be different, to be as wise, successful, and self-assured as anyone else. Heavily influenced as he always is by the power of suggestion, Goober becomes overconfident to the point of being unbearable, pontificating on any and every subject to any and every person until Andy finally explodes (he was more irritable in the colored episodes, I submit) and tells him to shut up. Goober is chastened, fairly limping out of the barbershop in humiliation. But then we see him again at the weekly meeting of the town’s history club, offering a tentative and mercifully brief remark on the industrial revolution, followed by a self-effacing comment and that trademark grin.

Once again, Goober had gathered his pride, courage, and determination, and plunged ahead into the wilderness of human interaction.

Just a few short days ago, George “Goober” Lindsey died after a brief illness at the age of 83. He joins Don Knotts, Hal Smith, Frances Bavier, Howard McNear, Aneta Corsaut, and Jack Dodson, among others, who have gone on to that Mayberry that, in a way, exists in everyone who is part of this particular family, the Mayberry that is permanent and unchanging, the Mayberry where there is always time to make homemade ice cream on the porch on Sunday after church, where you can catch up on the local gossip in Floyd’s Barber Shop, and where on a warm summer night, you can hear Andy strumming his guitar all the way to the end of Maple Street.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The specialty license plates that have provided millions of dollars for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Parkway — and plenty of other needy organizations in this state — may disappear if legislative leaders don’t take action to repeal a measure approved in its last session.

The measure to do away with the full-color plates was originally passed in the last General Assembly session due to safety concerns that law enforcement officials could not read the numbers. However, a highway safety committee has now recommended modifications that will allow the plates to keep their “look.” The state Highway Patrol agrees.

We at The Smoky Mountain News are partial to the Friends of the Smokies plate. Not only have we long supported the work of the Friends and the importance of the park to this region, our Art Director Micah McClure worked long hours with former Friends of the Smokies Executive Director George Ivey to design the plate. We think it’s a beauty, and it works.

The point is that supporters of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park need to contact lawmakers and let them know these plates and the revenue they bring in are important. Supposedly the repeal is in the bag, but anyone who follows politics knows that things can change fast.

•••

This is a short story of two bands. It’s also a way of trying to make up. Corrections in our newspaper get Page 2 billing, but this one warrants a little more detail.

So it was in our April 25 edition on page 24, in the schedule of events for the Greening Up the Mountains festival in Sylva: “3-4 p.m.: Noonday Sun, a Seattle-based Christian pop/rock band.” They were to be the featured band at one of the festival’s stages.

And Noonday Sun is indeed a Seattle-based Christian pop/rock band. Google it and you can see for yourself. But that’s not the band that played at Greening Up the Mountains. That band is the Jackson County-based Noonday Sun, which describes itself on their Facebook page as purveyors of “Aggressive instrumental fusion.”

Let’s see, Christian pop/rock band or aggressive instrumental fusion band. Couldn’t be more different. Kind of like a serious newspaper being mistaken for a shopper.

We pride ourselves in knowing our communities. That means being knowledgeable on who is the county board chairman and what band is playing where. Both very important depending on who’s reading.

To top it off, Chris Cooper, one of the guitarists for Noonday Sun, wrote music reviews for this newspaper for a few years. So, our apologies. I didn’t even know it had happened until running into Adam Bigelow at City Lights, and he couldn’t resist a little ribbing.

More importantly, I keep hearing about the growing Sylva music scene. That’s good for all musicians in Jackson County. And I don’t think many of them play Christian pop/rock. Thank God.

•••

Sometimes the written word is powerful. A beautiful description, a humorous phrase, a concise metaphor or a moving line of poetry can inspire. Martin Dyckman’s letter in this edition (see below) ripping Mitt Romney’s judgment is memorable not for the partisan tone but for its last line. Dyckman has written several books and is a former journalist in Florida. He is talking about Romney, but the line could describe any leader who has done something that proves he has become too enamored of power: “… is to give cause for wonder as to whether any part of the candidate’s soul remains unsacrificed to his ambition.”

•••

The upcoming issue of Smoky Mountain Living magazine (www.smliv.com) is dedicated to mountain women. It hits newsstands and mailboxes the first week of June, but we’ve just wrapped up the writing, editing and design of the summer issue, and it’s worth a read. I’d recommend picking one up or going all in and getting a subscription.

I won’t give away any content, but I will offer up one line describing a mountain woman that came from one of our readers. It’s rich: “You can tell she’s a level-headed woman because she has snuff running out of both sides of her mouth.”

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

With our average last frost date of May 10 or so it’s time to start planting the main garden. Corn and beans can go in, and over the next few weeks, so can summer staples such as tomatoes, squash and okra.

I would not rush to plant these latter plants — wait until the soil is good and warm. The tomatoes will sit and sulk otherwise, plus you’ll get poor germination of seeds planted too early.

One item that is plentiful in my garden now but will soon be a sweet spring memory is lettuce. As soon as the weather consistently grows warm lettuce will grow bitter and then bolt. There are things you can do to tide yourself over until cooler, lettuce-growing weather arrives again, however:

• You can place shade cloth over the lettuce bed, keep the lettuce cut back to prevent bolting and water two or three times a day. Field studies have shown that it’s not just heat that causes bolting — cumulative light levels and low moisture contribute as well.

This seems as good a place as any to define what I mean by bolting. This is simply a natural process of a plant going to bloom in an effort to produce seed to propagate itself. Lettuce, and spinach for that matter, is notorious for prematurely bolting. Lettuce has compounds that cause that distinctive and unpleasant bitter taste via substances called sesquiterpene lactones. The bitterness becomes increasingly pronounced during the growing season. You can minimize the taste by washing the lettuce in warm water.

• You can plant a lettuce selected for slow bolting qualities. My favorite is a loose leaf aptly named Slobolt. Some gardeners enjoy a French Batavian called Sierra, also genetically selected for being slow to bolt. You can find these varieties easily through various seed catalogue companies.

• You can plant a hot-weather “lettuce” mix. When I was a market gardener, I grew a mix that sold like gangbusters once the main lettuce crops had bolted. These I grew as cut-and-come-again crops. I’d seed heavily and then use scissors to shear the plants when they reached several inches in height. The plants would re-grow and I’d repeat the process. You might consider placing an insect barrier over the beds as well; this will eliminate the need to spray. What I mean by an insect barrier is that you use a manufactured lightweight fabric, also available from numerous seed catalogue companies, over your crops. Insect barrier is light enough that it can rest directly on the plants, but if you prefer you can use metal hoops to keep them up and off of them. I use 11-guage lengths of wire available from the fencing section of local feed and seed stores and cut them into four-foot hoops.

My beds were about 30-inches wide and seeded with a generous hand as noted already. The 30-inch width worked well because I could easily straddle the beds and harvest.

The mixes you can plant vary widely. I generally used baby collards, arugula, baby chard, baby kale and beet greens. I’d replant a new bed every three weeks or so trying to keep ahead of the competition from weeds. Other people also have grown kommatsuna (an Asian green), vitamin green, Tokyo bekana, cutting celery and tetragonia.

Do not make the mistake I made one year and seed them all together. My thought was to mix in the field so I would not have to mix later, but this didn’t work well because the plants grow at wildly different rates. Arugula, for instance, grows very fast indeed whereas the beets grow more slowly. It’s nice to keep them separate so you can harvest according to the growth rate of a given plant.

One nifty idea that I read online in a gardening forum which I might get around to doing this year: A fellow who was selling a variation of this mix (which can be cooked or eaten raw) grew his on salad “tables” made of rows of side-by-side hay bales with three inches of mushroom compost piled on top. The tables are weed free and, over time, compost themselves and can be used to regenerate the garden. He noted that it’s important to use hay bales that are bound with synthetic twine to keep them from breaking apart prematurely. For those of us without a lot of space, or who don’t want to engage in a losing battle with weeds, this sounds like a terrific way to grow plenty of green stuff.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

If Amendment One is defeated on May 8, North Carolinians will have made the right decision by refusing to support institutionalized bigotry.

The proposal would add an amendment to our state's foundational legal document that says a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union recognized by law. The wording of the proposal would even strip legal rights from heterosexual partners who live together but aren't married.

My parents never went to college. My father joined the Navy after high school. Mom got married when she was 16 and dropped out. She got her GED when she was in her 40s, after her and my father split up. These traditional, conservative Southerners raised three boys preaching a gospel of hard work and not being uppity.

And that's why they would have voted against this amendment. It's uppity. It would make one person's values superior to another's. In this country, we treat everyone equally no matter what religion he or she may practice. For some, that's no religion. But we are all equal under the laws established by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution.

In almost every case, those arguing for this law cite passages from the Bible and talk about our Judeo-Christian history. That tradition is indeed responsible for much that is good and right in this country, and many good men and women have died protecting ideals that spring from that well.

But it is not the law of the land. Of course, not all who cite the Bible agree on this amendment. A quick perusal of newspapers and websites from around the state will reveal that many ministers who take to the pulpit every Sunday see more harm than good from this amendment.

I would never dare to criticize an individual's religious beliefs. What I have hard time understanding, though, is how some who claim faith as their motivator can justify singling out people because they are different. I can pick up any religious text from any of the major faiths and cite passage after passage that says we should show compassion to everyone.

It wasn't too long ago that women and African-Americans couldn't vote and inter-racial marriages were against the law. That seems ridiculous now, but that was the society we lived in. People were afraid of what would happen if women voted or people "inter-married." Fear. That's basically what this amendment is about.

This early 21st century struggle with gay rights will seem just as quaint and ridiculous in not too many years. Let's let people be themselves and not single out those who may be just a little different. Vote against Amendment One on May 8 and send the right message about North Carolina.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I was fortunate enough this past weekend to be present when a mother goat gave birth to two babies, and even to assist her some, though truthfully I think she’d have performed just fine without me.

My friend and I had been to the farmers market earlier that day. The 40 or so hens are all laying and that makes for a lot of eggs to sell, hence the farmers market on Saturday mornings in downtown Sylva. We were returning after having unloaded a dozen or so eggs when we decided to stop at the barn to check on a very pregnant goat. We arrived to find one small hoof protruding in a very uncomfortable-looking manner from said goat’s backend.

My friend gave a tug or two but the baby wasn’t having any part of leaving that warm cocoon-like place for a brave and cold new world. I found some antiseptic lube, lathered up, and went fishing inside for the other hoof. Once I found it and had both hooves in my right hand, I grabbed hold of momma goat’s tail with my left hand. Then I gave a good strong tug while my friend hung on to the front of the now vastly unhappy goat. The poor momma was bleating in pain but she did finally manage to give a good hard push, squirting the baby out. Once the baby was on the ground we saw immediately what the problem had been with the birthing. It wasn’t complicated: This was simply a big baby goat, probably eight pounds compared to the usually six or so at birth, and the mother goat isn’t particularly large. The next baby came fairly quickly. It was, if anything, even slightly bigger than her sister.

This is the third nanny to birth here at Haven Hollow Farm this spring. And based on a swelling midsection it looks like another goat, one that we didn’t plan on having kids, is nearing a possible due date, too.

Meanwhile, the billy responsible for all this mayhem and gamboling about of baby goats is lounging his time away in the barnyard. He saunters around lackadaisically until feeding time, when he turns into demon goat and bullies the others and eats all their food. In this case it truly is good to be the king: all pleasure and absolutely no pain.

•••

The birthing of goats are a rite of spring. It’s something I’ve grown comfortable with these last couple of years and the delight of newborn babies never wanes. What’s also fun each spring is showing off the goat babies to others.

Kelly and Anna, two young friends, came to visit a week or so ago. They were appropriately taken with the baby goats, as anyone should and would be, given that these little tykes are adorably all legs and fuzz.

We admired the babies for a while. Then I noticed the girls kept disappearing inside the main chicken pen. It turns out they were looking for eggs, which because of a wide assortment of hen types, come in a variety of colors: white, blue-green, brown and chocolate brown. Kelly and Anna’s mother later told me that the girls did like the goat babies but they most enjoyed collecting the hen eggs. It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, I suppose, in that you can never be quite sure what color you are going to find next.

•••

While waiting for Kelly and Anna that day I planted three long rows of potatoes in my garden. This past weekend, in the other sections that are potato free, I applied generous amounts of lime to the soil.

Gardening, like seeing the goat babies being born, is an important part of spring to me. I’ve mentioned previously in this space that I had every intention of not gardening this year. I thought that I wanted to devote more time to other labors. But I realized that I simply can’t imagine going through a year without tending to a garden — at the risk of sounding flaky, gardening, tending animals and other farm chores grounds me. Whatever time farming takes is generally returned to me in terms of a freer spirit and more peaceful mind.  

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Firmly resolute in my desire to set aside more time for my writing I decided not to have a garden this year. Typical of my fickle ways, I now have my largest garden plot ever. I’m terrible with guessing dimensions accurately, but I’d roughly estimate this new garden space is approaching a half-acre in size.

There is something intimidating about such a large blank canvas. I tremble much as Michelangelo must have when he first viewed the huge expanse of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. I am paralyzed by indecision about what to plant first. It is late in the season to be starting. Should I simply focus on traditional summer garden fare or try to sneak in some spring crops such as lettuce and peas?

This deer-in-headlights reaction to emptiness, newness and expectations freeze me as a writer and person, too. As a general rule I have a terrible time starting new work and making beginnings. I have an equally difficult time letting go and moving on. I tend to overwork things, whether it is a column, story or garden. And I never say goodbye easily.

But returning to beginnings:

If I could view a blank page or an empty garden as wonderful promises instead of dreadful challenges things might go more easily in my life. But all the little self-pep talks in the world won’t budge the reality of my reactions when faced with an empty expanse. It shuts me down until I finally make a start and get going with the task at hand.

I suspect I’ll need to do in this garden what I’m forced to do as a writer: I simply sit at the keyboard and begin. I would guess that more than half the time I have no idea what I’m going to write before I start. It’s not “free” writing in the sense that I let my feelings flow onto the page. Somewhere in my head I suspect there are some ideas about what I want to communicate; I do usually have a rough idea of the topics I want to cover. For instance, with this column I knew I wanted to write about my new garden and that I wanted to discuss the irony of my plans not to garden at all this year. But even knowing what I wanted to discuss didn’t make starting a jot less painful or laborious.

Once I’ve finally gotten something on the page it’s generally reworked and changed multiple times. Sometimes my changes are for the better and sometimes not. Often I will expend much time tweaking and tweaking only to find myself, in the end, more or less where I began.

The garden will probably prove no different. I suspect I’ll just have to go to the garden with a hoe and a bunch of seeds and commence to planting and growing, guided by some inner part of myself that is always there and available once tapped. Otherwise winter will find me still leaning on a metaphorical and literal fence staring at this vast garden, uncertain of what to plant first, trapped again at the beginning of a beginning.

One big motivator is that I actually do have a couple of peach baskets filled with seed just begging to be planted. These are leftovers from when I farmed for a living a few years back. Seed well cared for is like money in the bank, it really doesn’t ever go bad: the best place to keep seed is in a freezer. This seed, however, is a little more hit and miss than that. It’s been in and out of various storage areas in a mirror of the vagaries of my life these past couple of years. I’ll probably have to conduct rough germination tests to see what’s viable and what’s not. Or, more likely, I’ll just seed extra thickly in the garden and figure that I’ll get good germination that way, or good enough germination that way, anyhow.

That’s similar to how I write columns, stories and poems.

Jackson Pollock dripped or poured paint onto the canvas in a style of action painting; I throw a bunch of words at the blank screen and then try to swirl them around to create a form. This is a process similar to a kid spelling words in a bowl of alphabet soup. I find the process a bit demented, and frankly would prefer a more crafted approach, but I’m beginning after so many years to despair that I’ll ever make meaningful changes to my writing, gardening and life processes.

Sometimes you have to just accept who you are; beginnings, I know very well indeed, are difficult places for me. But to get anywhere you have to make a start: somehow you do have to begin.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The revelation was at first surprising and then disappointing. So I’ll take a stab here at shedding some light on the surprising part, which hopefully will also mollify the disappointing part.

As anyone who reads The Smoky Mountain News knows, I like to write about media. My fascination with the press and how it reflects society and influences change steered me toward this career path in the first place. My obsession with the subject has been lifelong and unwavering.

For those who don’t know, the owners of this newspaper — with the help of another local investor — bought Smoky Mountain Living magazine exactly four years ago, in March 2008. Maggie Valley entrepreneurs Wade and Beth Reece started the magazine 12 years ago. After Wade passed away in 2006, Beth kept SML going strong for two more years before deciding to sell.

I had always liked the magazine and thought it had great potential to become an important venue for writing about the culture, arts and lifestyle of this region. Wade and Beth had assembled a talented stable of free lancers, and the magazine was good enough to get picked up for national distribution by a company that’s a subsidiary of Conde Nast and Hearst corporations.

CMG is the largest newsstand magazine distributor in the country, handling such titles as Newsweek, TV Guide and National Review, just to name a few. Because of CMG’s reach, SML can be purchased at bookstores, retail chains and even grocery stores throughout the country. We inherited that national distribution agreement when we purchased Smoky Mountain Living.

And that’s one of the cool things about the magazine. It takes our story of life in these mountains to the entire nation. That’s powerful.

But back to the surprise that led to this column. A month or so ago I was talking to someone active in the Western North Carolina community, a well-read man whom I admire. As our conversation weaved through several topics, I was surprised to learn that he had never heard of Smoky Mountain Living magazine. And that’s when the disappointment set in. For four years we’ve been slogging away at producing a quality magazine and still many local people have never heard of it

Hence this column. Smoky Mountain Living has subscribers and readers from all over the country, people who either have connections to this region or simply want to read about this place we call home. But in this region, it seems our competitors — good magazines like WNC and The Laurel — have done a better job of marketing themselves locally.

So the task I’ve put before our staff and myself over the next six months is to get Smoky Mountain Living in front of people in this region. Hopefully you’ll be seeing the magazine around retail shops and other businesses who have subscriptions. Perhaps you’ll hear about it on radio. If you want to buy a year’s subscription — six issues — for $25, call 828.452.2251 or visit our website at www.smliv.com.

Naturally, I think our magazine is a better read than what our competitors are producing. We work hard to incorporate stories that are meaningful, interesting and fun. The staff includes many of same people who work at SMN, along with a long list of the best free-lance writers in this region. Like our philosophy at SMN, we try to go a little deeper into subjects than our competitors tend to do.

Our editor, Sarah E. Kucharski, was raised in Jackson County and worked at SMN for years before taking over at the magazine. Here’s her description of what Smoky Mountain Living is all about: “This magazine is rooted in the mountains, and I never want to lose sight of that. Smoky Mountain Living is not just for those who claim residence in the mountains by address — many of our readers don’t live in the mountains at all. Rather, Smoky Mountain Living is for those who claim the mountains as part of their character, part of their soul. It’s my responsibility to respect and embrace that in a way that appeals to both those who are from here and those who visit here.”

So that’s our pitch. Give the magazine a read, buy a subscription. If you have a friend or family member who lives out of the area but wants to stay connected, send them a subscription. You won’t regret the investment.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Question: How does one come to the conclusion that the upcoming General Assembly short session will almost certainly be an extremely partisan, politically charged couple of months?

Answer: When the political claws come out even in the most benign of settings.

Rose Johnson, president of Haywood Community College, organized a legislative brunch for March 26 so that HCC leaders could discuss challenges and legislative priorities. The food was great and the room filled with about 35 to 40 people on a gorgeous spring morning, the kind of people who don’t live in the mountains can only dream about.

Johnson, who is leaving HCC this summer, has had a successful tenure at the school. She’s brought a steady, wizened leadership that has put the college and its students first.  And she has made a point of getting involved in the community and encouraging her staff to do the same. This brunch was a perfect example, an opportunity for HCC staff to provide elected leaders with information that could prove valuable once the rubber hits the road during budget negotiations.

After Johnson and the staff gave their presentations on specific points, the elected leaders were invited to speak. Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine, was first, and glancing at an iPad propped up in front him for reference, the man who lists his occupation as a statistician spoke knowledgeably about community colleges and their funding. He also said tax collections for the state were running ahead of budgetary projections by about $150 million. However, he added that it appears that this money would be eaten up by budget overruns in health and human services.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, is one of my favorite all-time members of the General Assembly. I’ve been working at newspapers across North Carolina since 1988, and Rapp ranks up there with the smartest, hardest-working legislators I remember. Successful politicians need to know when to vote according to their conscience (party ideology be damned) and when to vote according to the will of the people. Rapp walks that tightrope better than most.

Rapp was second to speak, and he pointed out that in the last legislative session— after the GOP had gained control of the both houses — lawmakers had to make cuts that hurt education, eliminating jobs and opportunities for students. He pointed out that in the two previous years the recession had already forced painful cuts, but what was done last session was much worse.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, was next up, and he did not mince words. He squarely blamed the painful cuts to education on the GOP lawmakers and their decision to sunset a half-cent sales tax that would have brought in $1.4 billion. Haire said that, historically, government spending during recessions helps mitigate the pain from private sector reductions.

Haire has been a co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and, after seven terms, is not seeking re-election. He gave a strong denunciation of the job done by the GOP-led legislature. It was pointed and, for Haire, emotional.

Freshman Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, was next, and he said he could not let Haire’s comments pass. “I didn’t know we were giving stump speeches,” he said to begin his remarks.

Davis said that he and the GOP leadership inherited a fiscal disaster that had been created under Democratic leadership, and that  tough choices had to be made. He said they had promised that the sales tax would be ended — a promise made back when Democrats passed it, by the way — and that the GOP election win proved that citizens wanted it to expire. Davis also used a phrase I’ve heard him use before, that everyone is going to have to share the sacrifice to get the economy and the state’s fiscal situation back on track. He promised legislative leaders would look at education funding in the upcoming session, but he held out little hope for any measurable increases.

It was an unusual and enlightening meeting. HCC’s needs are great, as are those of other education institutions. This is a setting that is usually highlighted by polite talk with few specifics. But this time the swords came out. The political divide is sharp right now, and there is very little room in the middle. I sincerely hope North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and university system don’t continue to suffer as this divide widens.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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