Noticing the little things of winter

Editor’s note: George Ellison, like many in the mountains, was snowed in and unable to get an internet connection. This column was first published in The Smoky Mountain News in 2005

I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s the little things that, in the long run, mean the most in life? That’s a time-worn cliché if there ever was one. But as of now, I prefer to believe that it’s true.

And furthermore, I’m of the opinion that the little things are more important during the winter months. Here in the mountains, winter slows life down almost to a standstill, especially if you live in the country. In the country in winter, one tends to pay closer attention to the everyday world.

One of my best times for paying attention is in the morning just after I’ve cajoled myself out of bed and before I crank up the truck, scrape the frost off the windows, and drive the three miles to my office in Bryson City. After dressing, I pour myself a cup of grapefruit juice and, sometimes, a half of a cup of coffee. Then I position myself in front of the wood burning stove in the living room, with my backside situated as close as is feasible to the stove. From that secure position, I have a clear view out the front windows and across the creek to a far pasture. My wife, Elizabeth, almost always joins me. We usually don’t bother to talk much.

Sometimes her horse, Sochan, will be standing in the pasture. Preferring to walk all of my life, I have no inclination to ride a horse. But I like watching them. As someone once remarked, “A pretty horse completes a landscape,” or something like that.

Most of the time, however, Sochan is waiting up at the barn for his food and can’t be seen. My eyes then wander to the jagged ridgeline above the cove southeast of our home. Beyond that ridgeline in winter are the lower reaches of the Tuckasegee River, several miles below town. In summer, the river valley fills with bluish-green water and transforms itself into Lake Fontana.

From the ridgeline, my eyes wander downward to a bend in the creek just below the house. I’ve been watching that bend for over 30 years now and will never tire of doing so. A hardening in the ridge at that point, perhaps hornblende gneiss, diverted the water abruptly into a dogleg left, as a golfer might describe it. The water cuts under a small rock overhang, purling and glinting in the winter light. That bend is, for me, a magical sort of place. It was there when the first Indians walked this creek thousands of years ago.

My eyes follow the creek below the bend to the dark, almost black, vase-shaped outlines of several large slippery elms situated on the far bank. All elms are darkish looking from a distance. But slippery elms are a lot larger than winged elms. And they’re usually more vase-shaped than American elms. They display a gracious symmetry that’s always a pleasure to study. The splayed limbs look as if they’d collapse under a heavy snowfall, but they don’t. The Cherokees and the early settlers peeled the bark from slippery elms in long strips, shaved off the outer layers, and converted the mucilaginous inner bark into poultices that were applied to old sores, burns, and wounds. Watching the elms, I like to think about such long-ago things.

Below the elms at the far end of the pasture, is a footbridge, level and true. It gives Elizabeth and I not a little satisfaction to come back up the trail on the west side of the creek and be able to cross into the pasture on the far side, wander around, and view our home from that perspective. A creek without a footbridge is incomplete.

Come Christmas morning, Elizabeth and I won’t exchange gifts, just hugs and a kiss. From the windows we’ll be able to see the looming ridgeline, a sharp bend in the creek, the dark outlines of elms, a footbridge in the distance, and maybe a horse.

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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