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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 16:12

The calm of a winter’s night

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It’s Saturday night as I write this .... going on toward midnight. I read the thermometer mounted outside the kitchen through the windowpane with a flashlight. 30-degrees. Not bad. A light frost is forming on the grass in the pasture.

I recall, somewhat vaguely, that Coleridge in a poem titled “Frost at Midnight” alludes to the “secret ministry” of frost. After looking the poem up in an anthology, I’m still not sure exactly what he means by “secret ministry.” I can relate to the sentiments expressed a few lines later, when Coleridge notes his pleasure that all others in his “cottage” are fast asleep, leaving him to “that solitude which suits musings.”

I like being up alone late at night, too, especially in winter. What to do? Plenty. There’s always sports talk on XM radio, so long as I don’t turn the volume up and incur my wife’s wrath. But sports talk, alas, has gone to the dogs since the glory days when you could tune into the Bob Bell and Bill King duo out of Nashville, the irascible Pete Franklin from Cleveland, Larry Munson out of Atlanta, and “Buddy D” (Dilberto) down in New Orleans. Only Bill King is still alive. Those guys were informative and they were entertaining. Buddy D repeatedly vowed to dance down Bourbon Street wearing a dress if the Saints went to the Super Bowl. Too bad he didn’t hang in there a few more years.

Sports talk guys these days, all too often, seem to think they’re sociologists or political savants. The ESPN folks refer to their office building as a “campus.” There’s not much genuine interest out there in who’s on third.

My workspace here at home is in “the spare room,” where most of my favorite books are shelved. Late at night is when I reread them; that is, I usually read just a chapter or several pages — enough to become reacquainted and refresh my memory.

I will brag, however, about having read J. Frank Dobie’s The Legend of Ben Lilly in its entirety at least once every year since 1967. Ben Lilly, as you may not know, was the legendary bear and lion hunter from Mississippi who, in his latter days, frequented the Silver City area of New Mexico, where there is a monument honoring him that I have visited.

Theodore Roosevelt hunted with “Mr. Lilly” in the Louisiana swamps in 1907 and described him in a letter to Ethel, his daughter, as “a remarkable character” and “religious fanatic,” who had slept one night “in a crooked tree, like a wild turkey.” According to Teddy, “Mr. Lilly” had a “a mild, gentle face, blue eyes, and full beard” and was “as hardy as a bear or elk, literally caring nothing for fatigue and exposure, which we couldn’t stand at all.”

“Mr. Lilly” was a champion jumper, who could stand flat-footed in a barrel and jump out in a single bound. Holding a brick in each hand, he once made three consecutive jumps that measured 36 feet, an American record for jumping with bricks. While riding his horse, he would grab an overhanging limb and cavort to other limbs, chattering like a squirrel. I am fairly certain that I am the only person in the world who has read The Legend of Ben Lilly 43 times.

When not tuned into sports talk or reading about “Mr. Lilly,” I sit and listen to the creek that flows by our house. For going on 25 years now, we’ve resided beside Lands Creek, which rises in the Smokies above town and flows perhaps 10 miles into what is the Tuckasegee River part of the year and Lake Fontana the other part. The creek is a living entity, a part of the family — the last thing we hear at night and the first thing we hear in the morning. In the darkness, it purls over and around the smooth stones, murmuring and babbling, speaking quite clearly of its long journey home ... Tuckasegee ... Little T ... Tennessee ... Ohio ... Mississippi ... and on down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Past midnight, now — the frost in the pasture has thickened into a dull-white crust. Everything is very still ... almost perfect.

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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