Topography and language

I enjoy using variants on the phrase “lay of the land.” One can “get the lay of the land” in a number of ways. If your hiking partner says that he or she is “going on ahead to get the lay of the land,” that’s one thing; on the other hand, if he or she is your business partner and flies to Dallas to “get the lay of the land” in a business deal, that’s something else. All of us all go through life evaluating “the lay of the land” in order to make it from day to day.

Here in the mountains the phrase is best applied to topography. There’s no other place in the world that surpasses the actual topography of the southern mountains. And there’s no place where the people of the region use a more delightful language in describing the topography of their homeland.

In Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore (1960), the well-known folklorist Joseph S. Hall enumerated some of the stories and phrases he had collected in the Smokies during the late 1930s. Some of the language had to do with “getting the lay of the land.”

Hall learned that a “bald” was “a treeless mountain top characteristic of the Smokies, as in Bearwallow Bald.” Botanists recognize a second species of “bald” they call a “heath bald”(i.e., a treeless tangle of rhododendron and other shrubs in the heath family). Hall found that they were known locally by such names as “laurel bed, lettuce bed, rough, slick, wooly (as in wooly head, wooly ridge, wooly top), and laurel hell.” A “bench” is “a level area, sometimes cultivated, on the side of a mountain,” while a “butt” is “the abrupt end of a mountain ridge, as in Mollies Butt, at the end of Mollies Ridge.” A “knob” is “a mountain top,” while a “lead” is “a long ridge, usually extending from a higher ridge, as in Twenty Mile Lead.” I would add that a “spur” is “a lateral branch leading from a ridge or high top that usually terminates abruptly.

Furthermore, a “sag” or “swag” is a low lying area along a ridge that’s not quite low enough to qualify as a “gap.” A “cove” is “a widening out of a mountain valley, or a meadow land between mountains, as in Cades Cove, Emerts Cove.” Coves are closely related to “hollows” (properly pronounced “hollers”) that are small valleys, “as in Pretty Hollow.” I would add that a “bottom” is flat land, usually along a stream. Hall recorded that a “deadening” is “an area where the trees have been killed by girdling (in order to clear the land for farming). Thereby, “bottoms” would often be “deadened” so as to create a “deadening.” Conversely, a “scald” is “a bare hillside” created deliberately or unintentionally by fire, which becomes a “yellow patch” when it has “grown up with thick brush.”

I am fascinated by the terms associated with water. First, there are “seeps” and “springs” or “springheads.” (If a spring is referred to as being “fitified,” this means that it is intermittent or “spasmodic” and thereby unreliable.) Reliable “springs” become “brooks” and then “creeks” and finally “streams” or “rivers.” “Shoals” are shallow, rocky places along waterways that can be treacherous. When a “branch” passes through “a marshy place” or small ravine, it becomes a “run.”

In a little volume by Allen R. Coggins titled Place Names of the Smokies (1999), we discover that the topographic aspects of the mountain landscape have been immortalized in a manner that is at once descriptive, humorous and poetic. Advalorem Branch in Swain County refers to “a tax based on a percentage of assessed value,” and Arbutus Branch in Cades Cove has that trailing wildflower growing in abundance along its banks. Ballhoot Scar Overlook at Smokemont is a place where logs were rolled (“ballhooted”) down the slope creating bare areas (“scars”), and you already know why an area near Gatlinburg is named “Bill Deadening Branch.”

“Blowdow” at Thunderhead Mountain along the state line in the high Smokies is named for an area where a wide swath of tulip trees and other trees were blown down by a storm in 1875. And there are branches, creeks, mountains and ridges known by the designation “Hurricane,” tornadoes or other heavy wind storms ravaged those areas. “Crooked Arm” is a mountain spur in Cades Cove shaped like an elbow that is drained by “Crooked Arm Branch,” which features “Crooked Arm Falls.”

Another place I’d like to visit is on Mt. LeConte. You already know what a “fittified spring” is. The one by that name on Mt. LeConte is said to have been originally created by an earthquake in 1916. It ran like clockwork with a “seven minute on, seven minute off flow pattern” until 1936 when a dynamite blast set off by a CCC trail construction crew disrupted that pattern. Thereafter, it was “fittified.” I’ve been to Miry Ridge at Silers Bald along the state line. As Coggins says, it is “knee-deep in places” with “black muck.” And I’ve been to “Mule Gap” in the same area, where Tom Siler operated a mule lot. Would you seek out Snake Den Mountain at Luftee Knob where, according to local lore, there is a den (nest) of rattlesnakes? I’d enjoy a visit to the “Dry Sluice” on Mt. Guyot. Coggins describes this as being “named for a small hollow or valley called a sluice, which has a spring-fed stream that sinks beneath the surface for several hundred yards before resurfacing. Hence the upper part of the sluice is generally dry.” But the origins of place names can be tricky. Coggins adds that “This name may also be linked to the early logging industry, when logs were sluiced (moved down the mountain) from timber cutting operations.” One could ramble on and on in this regard. Maybe some day soon I’ll run into you up at the Devil’s Courthouse or Hornet Tree Top or Holy Butt or down along the Boogerman Trail or Dog Hobble Branch, “getting the lay of the land.” Let’s just say, “Howdy,” and keep on moving.

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..

The Naturalist's Corner

Back Then with George Ellison

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