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Wednesday, 30 May 2007 00:00

Just looking around

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I’m rediscovering that it’s good to just slip out of the office and amble around town for a few minutes. The semi-urban landscape here in Bryson City — or any of the other little mountain towns — provides an interesting admixture of human endeavors with a teeming population of wildlife and plants that have adapted to our ways. And even if you don’t spot any interesting plants or animals, the walk will do you good.

Railway tracks, bridges, stream banks, and back alleys are my favorite haunts. A 15-minute outing generally turns up something unexpected and almost always brings me back to this word processor somewhat clear-headed.

The Tuckasegee River this time of year, as viewed from the town’s main bridge along Everett Street, is always alive with the most common swallows that nest in the Smokies region: barn swallows, rough-winged swallows, and purple martins. Periodically, these graceful fliers arc out over the river hawking insects and skimming the surface to slake their thirst. You can spot the immature birds by their clumsy splash landings.

Later in the summer, they will begin preparing for the long journey back to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. At that time, the three species gather together on a long utility cable that crosses the river adjacent to the new county administration building, chattering excitedly as if comparing notes on the best routes home.

One unexpected morning, the air over the river will be quiet. All the swallows — as if by some mutual agreement — will have departed. The river and town will be less alive.

Railways are natural thoroughfares for invading plants. I’m confident a slow train ride allowing for wildflower stops along the passenger line from Dillsboro to Murphy would turn up, say, 25 species never before reported by botanists from Jackson, Swain, and Cherokee counties.

As it’s not likely you’ll get the railway people to stop upon demand, the best bet is to examine nearby sections on foot. On such an outing, false aloe (Manfreda virginica), an agave family member with succulent basal leaves that look like those of a lily, turned up in masses on rock outcrops along the railway just east of town.

But it’s the common animals and plants that bring the most pleasure day-in and day-out: rabbits, muskrats, starlings, skinks, grasshoppers, house sparrows, house finches, pigeons, phoebes, mice, squirrels, grackles, mockingbirds, toads, slugs, mallards, honeybees, inchworms, chicory, box turtles, daisy fleabane, Cherokee rose, mock orange, bream suspended in a deep pool, poke, yarrow, trumpet creeper, mullein, crows, sour-grass, foxtail grasses, dayflower, belted kingfishers, evening primrose, nut-sedges, pepper weed, lambs-quarter, dock, chickweed, horse nettle, plantain, dandelion, morning-glory, thistles, cockleburs, bedstraw, pigweed, Virginia creeper, and so on.

In neglected corners and along less-frequented byways within minutes of your office or home, these entities that we sometimes label “pests” or “weeds” thrive and are diligently going about their own complicated business. Only by getting out afoot from time to time and slowing down to take a closer look will we be able to comprehend just how fully are they a part of our everyday lives, and vice versa.

If someone stops you and asks what you’re up to, you can, if you wish, do as I do and say, “Just looking.”

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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