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Wednesday, 20 February 2008 00:00

Highlands plateau still a world of green hills

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Several years ago I wrote about Bradford Torrey’s A World of Green Hills, which was published in 1898 by Houghton Mifflin and Co. The book is divided into two parts, equally devoted to Torrey’s travels in Western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia (Pulaski and Natural Bridge). The North Carolina portion was set primarily on the Highlands Plateau, which he accessed from Walhalla in upcountry South Carolina via a horse- and mule-drawn wagon.

Torrey (1843-1912) was born in Weymouth, Mass. From the late 1880s until his death in Santa Barbara, Calif., he traveled widely in the United States to North Carolina, Virginia, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Florida, Arizona, and California. These journeys and his observations regarding natural history were initially recreated in articles written for Atlantic Monthly and other publications. After revision, the materials re-appeared in the thirteen books of nature writing published during his lifetime.

In an insightful overview of Torrey’s life and work published in North American Nature Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2008), Kevin E. O’Donnell noted that as, “A close observer of nature, and a master of the ‘ramble’ when that literary form was at the height of its popularity, Torrey blended the ‘nature ramble’ with travel writing and ornithology, to introduce readers to emerging vacation destinations in the United States ... just as vacation travel was becoming more affordable for middle class Americans.”

In a letter cited by O’Donnell, the great 19th century naturalist John Burroughs described Torrey — a lifelong bachelor — as, “a fine-souled fellow [who] suggests a bird with his bright eyes and shy ways and sensitiveness.”

In my previous Back Then column about A World of Green Hills, I focused on Torrey’s observations regarding bird life and various people he encountered. I re-read the book last week with considerable pleasure. This time around, I was struck with how closely Torrey observed the plant life in and around Highlands. And I was amused at how surprised he was by the level of botanical knowledge the residents of the area displayed. He even exclaimed at one point that “botany and Latin names might almost be said to be in the air at Highlands.” In my experience, this keen interest in plants still prevails on the Highlands Plateau more than a century later. I have added some notes in square brackets to supplement Torrey’s narrative.

•••

“The human interview to which I look back with most pleasure was with a pair of elderly people who appeared one morning in an open buggy. They were driving from the town, seated side by side in the shadow of a big umbrella, and as they overtook me, on the bridge, the man said ‘Good-morning,’ of course, and then, to my surprise, pulled up his horse and inquired particularly after my health ...Then, after a word or two about the beauty of the morning, and while I was still trying to guess who the couple could be, the man gathered up the reins with the remark, ‘I’m going after some Ilex monticola for Charley.’ ‘Yes, I know where it is,’ he added, in response to a question. Then I knew him. I had been at his house a few evenings before to see his son, who had come home from Biltmore to collect certain rare local plants — the mountain holly being one of them — for the Vanderbilt herbarium [part of the Biltmore House estate in Asheville]. The mystery was cleared, but it may be imagined how taken aback I was when this venerable rustic stranger threw a Latin name at me.

“In truth, however, botany and Latin names might almost be said to be in the air at Highlands. A villager met me in the street, one day, and almost before I knew it, we were discussing the specific identity of the small yellow lady’s-slippers — whether there were two species, or, as my new acquaintance believed, only one, in the woods round about. [Most botanists currently recognize two forms (small and large) of the yellow lady’s-slipper species: Cypripedium calceolus variant parviflorum and C.c. variant pubescens.]

“At another time, having called at a very pretty unpainted cottage — all the prettier for the natural color of the weathered shingles — I remarked to the lady of the house upon the beauty of Azalea vaseyi, which I had noticed in several dooryards, and which was said to have been transplanted from the woods. I did not understand why it was, I told her, but I couldn’t find it described in my Chapman’s Flora. [A.W. Chapman’s Flora of the Southern United States was published in 1860.] Azalea vaseyi, pink shell azalea, now classified as Rhododendron vaseyi, is a Blue Ridge endemic found in a few counties in western North Carolina and no place else in the world.]

“Oh, it is there, I am sure it is,” she answered; and going into the next room she brought out a copy of the manual, turned to the page, and showed me the name. It was in the supplement where in my haste I had overlooked it. I wondered how often, in a New England country village, a stranger could happen into a house, painted or unpainted, and by any chance find the mistress of it prepared to set him right on a question of local botany.

“On a later occasion — for thus encouraged I called more than once afterward at the same house — the lady handed me an orchid. I might be interested in it; it was not very common, she believed. I looked at it, thinking at first that I had never seen it before. Then I seemed to remember something. ‘Is it Pogonia verticillata?’ I asked. [The large whorled pogonia is now classified as Isotoria verticillata.]

“She smiled, and said it was; and when I told her that to the best of my recollection I had never seen more than one specimen before, and that upwards of 20 years ago (a specimen from Blue Hill, Mass.), she insisted upon believing that I must have an extraordinary botanical memory, though of course she did not put the compliment thus baldly, but dressed it in some graceful, unanswerable, feminine phrase which I, for all my imaginary mnemonic powers, have long ago forgotten.

“The same lady had the rare Shortia galacifolia growing — transplanted — in her grounds, and her husband volunteered to show me one of the few places in the neighborhood of Highlands (this, too, on his own land) where the true lily-of-the-valley — identical with the European plant of our gardens — grows wild. It was something I had greatly desired to see, and was now in bloom. [American lily-of-the-valley, Convallaria majuscula, is larger than European lily-of-the-valley, C. majalis. Commonly referred to as Oconee bells, Shortia is found only in several locations in North Carolina, primarily in the gorges along the North and South Carolina line several miles southeast of Highlands.]

“Still another man — but he was only a summer cottager — took me to look at a specimen of the Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), a tree of the very existence of which I had before been ignorant. [Another Blue Ridge endemic that displays larger cones than the common eastern hemlock, Tsuga canadensis.] The truth is that the region is most exceptionally rich in its flora, and the people, to their honor be it recorded, are equally exceptional in that they appreciate the fact.”

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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