The New Year has arrived and the great horned owls have commenced their annual “singing” along the dark ridges. These birds don’t sing, of course, in the manner of true songbirds like warblers and orioles — but the quick cadence of four or five hoots (“hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo”) given by the male, or the lower-pitched six to eight hoots (“hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo”) of the female serve the same purpose.
For most living things, winter in these mountains is a time of simple survival. But if you walk the ridges just after dusk, there’s a chance you’ll hear the territorial and mating calls of the so-called “hoot owl,” which, as part of its survival strategy, breeds and lays eggs in the depth of winter.
Aptly known as “The Tiger of the Night,” a great horned owl can stand more than two feet tall with a wingspan of four and a half feet. Its eyes are 35 times more sensitive than those of a human being. The feathered tufts (“horns”) on its head look like ears but aren’t. The real ears are slits hidden among the feathers on the side of the owl’s head. Placed asymmetrically, these admit slightly different frequencies to each of the eardrums so that the bird can differentiate and pinpoint the origin of faint sounds. Specialized wing feathers, downy-fringed like a butterfly’s, enable this predator to move silently in flight. No sound of rushing wings warns the victim of the devastating strike that will be delivered by talons so powerful they can rip through a fencing mask.
The ancient Cherokees were astute observers of the natural world within which they existed. The mountain landscape and all of its plants and animals were a part of their spiritual cosmos. Their system divided the world into three levels: the Upper World of light, goodness, and the everlasting hereafter; the Under World of darkness, evil, and eternal death; and the mundane Middle World within which humans reside. By balancing these realms the Cherokees sought to bring peace and harmony into their daily lives.
There is a great deal of serpent imagery in Cherokee lore, especially that having to do with the Uktena, a giant, mythic snake that haunted their imaginations. But the main portion of their animal imagery was devoted to birds. They were our first ornithologists. For them, as for us, birds were magical. They are beautiful. They often sing. And they can do something that humans can only dream about ... they can fly.
Most Cherokee bird lore is concerned with species they saw all the time: cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, etc. Their bird stories are usually rather lighthearted; at times, however, they associated birds with the negative aspects of the Under World. The most logical candidates for this distinction were the owls, those woeful denizens of darkness, especially the great horned owl, which they knew as “tsgili.”
Anthropologist James Mooney, who lived with the Cherokees on the Qualla Boundary (present day Cherokee) during the late 1880s, observed that, “Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be the embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil omen.” Of the three owls named in Cherokee lore, the great-horned was by far the most dreaded; so much so, that the designation “tsgili” was expanded in meaning so as to also signify “witch.” The great-horned owls and the Cherokee witches were the masters of the night.
I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart. The evil medicine men or “witches” employed the formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. These have been categorized as those used “To Lower One’s Soul.” Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, noted in The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997) that the sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells . . . were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”
Here is a formula of this type that I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. No reader will be surprised to see which bird is invoked:
To My Enemy
Your name is night.
I am the black owl
that hunts the darkness
for your heart and soul.
Your name is the night.
I am the black owl
hunting your soul.
This marks my tenth year of writing a weekly Back Then column for The Smoky Mountain News. In all that time I have belabored neither editors nor readers with my poetry. Brace yourselves. The time has come. It is winter and it is cold and this is when I read and write poems. Herewith are several winter poems, dating back to 1977. Some day, if I get around to it, they might appear with others in a collection of personal essays and poems as well as line drawings by my wife titled “Permanent Camp.” These will depict random aspects of life in a somewhat remote cove situated a few miles west of Bryson City.
That old reprobate told his friends:
“Don’t come in winter!”
But he’d grin his toothless grin
and clap his hands and dance in the snow
way up there in the swirling mists
when anyone came to see him.
Well, we like friends, too.
And we’ll drink your wine with glee.
But what we will look for here in the lamplight
is the sparkle in your eyes.
Windowpanes gleam in winter.
Dark branches and twigs stand uplifted
crosshatched against the blue sky.
Snow-covered mountains emerge from the
swirling mists and move closer,
seemingly within reach.
Forgotten patterns and textures emerge.
Now is the time for seeing.
Solitude is surer then.
The body of the land is laid bare.
Gray boulders await with somber intensity.
Each trail has an entity best realized in winter.
Sitting here at the kitchen table writing this for you
I think of Deeplow Gap . . . a notch in Thomas Divide.
Not far. I go there often, walking or in my fancy.
Oh, I could tell you all about it, how I see it.
But for you it will be different.
Essence arises from the manner of coming and going.
Go light. Don’t walk fast. Savor the cold.
Stones in the creekbed
will speak to you quite clearly
in praise of water.
The creek is frozen.
All this clothing and still I shiver.
The goat rattles loose boarding behind the shack.
A decayed tree on the ridge gives way under ice.
Peering into the mirror by lamplight
I see the mole splotch spreading on my right cheek
and the gray hairs spurting from my nostrils.
There is no occasion for talk.
At 10 below there is a silence that is not solitude.
Frost flowers etch darkened window glass.
The woodstove leaks the light of a million poems.
But you are beyond all words
transported by the cold.
And what a fine thing
to kneel and blow the coals
just to see the embers glow,
when suddenly the kettle boils.
After the long cold siege it warmed today.
Sun in a haze. The surface of the ice slurred
at noon but solidified by 3:00. I spent my day
in the yard, gathering scattered piles
of horseshit into one large pile. At first
I tried shoveling, but the frozen balls rolled
frustratingly away, here and there.
So I scooped them up with my bare hands.
They looked like ... like frozen horseshit.
And that’s the way I feel.
For my wife, Elizabeth, and me, winter doesn’t arrive until the first of each year. From now until spring is our finest season. She doesn’t have to keep her gallery-studio on the town square in Bryson City open all the time. And I don’t have to travel conducting workshops. We spend more time at our place west of town. Keeping the wood fires burning. Catching up with reading. Enjoying the way the pathway winds slowly downstream along the creek. Suddenly noticing a high ridge shimmering with light.
After summer’s haze and the muted tones of autumn, we’re confronted not with the gloom we tend to anticipate, but with a clarity that sharpens the senses. Some part of the effect, of course, is that there is less moisture in the air in winter. We do in reality see more clearly — so much so, that objects appear to be nearer. Have you ever noticed how much closer the mountains seem in winter? You could almost reach out and touch them. Come spring, they will recede.
In the same manner and perhaps due to the same causes, sounds become more clearly defined in winter. What are the characteristic sounds of this season? Paradoxically, they are the ones heard from a distance that seem to be nearby.
From a ridge overlooking our cove, there is a spot where I can sit in the pale early-morning sunlight beneath a rock ledge that provides shelter from the wind. If I shut my eyes, a rooster’s call or the roar of a distant chainsaw or a truck engine starting up seem to be occurring just yards away. Voices carry in the crisp air: snatches of distant conversations can be deciphered. From high overhead the strident cry of a red-tailed hawk pierces the air.
Perhaps the most characteristic sounds of winter are those created by the wind: the rustling movements of air passing through a field ... the monotonous scraping of tree limbs against one another. Or at times, you can hear a patch of icy woodlands roaring in the wind. The poet Robert Burns observed in one of his letters: “There is scarcely any earthly object gives me more — I do not know if I should call it pleasure — something which exalts me — something which enraptures me — than to walk in the sheltered side of a wood in a cloudy winter day, and hear the stormy wind howling among the trees, and raving over the plain. It is my best season of devotion.”
After a lifetime of working with paint, Elizabeth has a keen sense of the colors viewed in a natural landscape. For her, there is almost no pure white light — not even in winter.
“Look,” she will say, “at the lavender shadows on that far mountainside. And see how the clouds are reflecting the setting sun down into the valley.”
Scaled down to essentials, our earthly haven becomes more distinct, more exhilarating. It’s a time for seeing things as they are, for paying closer attention to the world about us while we can.
Happy New Year.
Each season has characteristic features that signal its arrival. Winter is no exception. Two of my winter favorites: mistletoe and sycamore.
Coon Cove — the name assigned to our valley on a late 19th century deed — is surrounded on three sides by steep ridges, the crests of which mark the boundary with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By the time my wife and I get home during the winter months, the evening sun is setting behind the southwestern rim of the cove. This illuminates a stand of white oaks situated along the highest ridge. Globular clusters of mistletoe decorate the bare branches, glowing with pristine intensity. It’s not difficult at that moment to comprehend why mistletoe has for so long been a green emblem of renewal.
Numerous bird species — notably cedar waxwings and bluebirds — are inordinately fond of the translucent white mistletoe berries that mature in November and December. Mistletoe seeds are coated with a sticky substance (viscin) that cause them to stick to the beaks and claws of foraging birds. Birds are tidy critters. When they pause to clean themselves on tree limbs, they unwittingly distribute mistletoe seeds from treetop to treetop throughout the woodlands. These germinate and penetrate their hosts via short root-like structures (haustorium).
Late nineteenth century anthropologist James Mooney recorded that the Cherokees noted that mistletoe “never grows alone but is found always with its roots fixed in the bark of some supporting tree or shrub from which it draws its sustenance.” And so they “called it by the name ‘uda’li,’ which signifies ‘it is married.’”
When the last leaves drop from the trees, it’s past time to get serious about winter and hope you’ve got enough firewood in place. One type of wood, however, that won’t do much in the way of providing heat is sycamore. The stuff is just about impossible to split. Axes bounce off. That’s because the grain of sycamore wood is peculiar. Indeed, everything about the woody structure of the tree is peculiar.
Wood grain is determined by the alignment of the xylem cells within a given tree species. These cells form the woody tissue that conduct water and nutrients and help support the tree. In woods that split easily, the xylem cells lie in a parallel plane. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to pile up kindling from, say, tulip poplar.
Some trees are difficult to split because their cell structures are slightly irregular or even spiraled. But sycamore takes the cake — its cells alternately spiral right-handed and then left-handed in successive years, resulting in an interlocked arrangement that has been accurately described as “an ax-wielder’s nightmare.”
The outer covering of the tree is as peculiar as its inner grain. Go to the base of most any large sycamore specimen and you’ll find bark plates that have scaled off the upper trunk and limbs. The technical term for this is “exfoliation.” Apparently the outer bark isn’t able to stretch as the tree grows and is cast off. It has been theorized, but not proven, that sycamore can gather additional light-giving energy by doing so. At any rate, serpent-like, the species sheds its “skin,” exposing whitish inner bark that catches the slanting evening light and gleams like a beacon, signaling winter.
The economic destiny of a given region is ultimately determined by its geology, flora and climate. That’s certainly been the instance here in the Smokies region, where logging and mining have been supplanted as the major industries by recreation and ecotourism. A casebook example of this transition exists in the southwestern tip of North Carolina. A key figure in this story was Arthur Keith, an early twentieth century geologist who has been largely (if not totally) neglected by regional historians.
The Murphy Marble Belt is an elongated, lens-shaped mass of marble and related sedimentary materials up to three miles wide that extends in a crescent from northwestern Georgia into Cherokee and Swain counties. This lens also contains talc, limestone, soapstone, and calcareous soils. The first two materials are still mined at the Nantahala Talc and Limestone Co. in the Nantahala Gorge. But it was marble that was once the linchpin of the area’s mining interests.
Some extraction of marble took place in Swain and Cherokee counties during the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the arrival of the railroad from Asheville in the 1890s that moving the excavated blocks became economically feasible on a large scale.
Then, in the latter half of the 20th century, the marble industry declined and ultimately ceased to exist in southwestern North Carolina. It was apparently more feasible in economic terms to extract and transport marble mined in the Georgia end of the belt. At about the time the marble industry was phasing out in the early 1970s, the whitewater industry arrived on the scene. And it, too, was based on geology.
In 1904, Arthur Keith of the U.S. Geological Survey observed the abnormal, almost right-angled bend to the east that the Nantahala River makes as it enters the lower portion of the Nantahala Gorge (where the power plant and raft put-in areas are presently situated). Keith theorized that the river originally ran northward from the Georgia line directly through a water gap (just east of present Topton) into the Tulula Creek watershed in present Graham County, and on into the Little Tennessee below where Fontana Dam was built.
The situation represents a textbook instance of “stream piracy,” whereby a small creek eating back westward through the soft, limestone strata of the Murphy Marble Belt in the lower gorge captured the original Nantahala, causing it to change course and flow back to the east, thereby creating the dramatic Nantahala Gorge as we know it today. In other words, a geologic event that took place millions of years ago culminated in a regional economy that went from dependency on hard marble blocks to soft rubber rafts in less than a single generation.
Near the big bend in the Nantahala River there is a state historical marker honoring botanist William Bartram’s excursion into the region in the mid-1770s. A marker commemorating Arthur Keith’s work there in the early twentieth century would not be inappropriate. The National Academy of Sciences published Chester R. Longwell’s memoir titled Arthur Keith (1864-1944) in 1956:
“The name of Arthur Keith is inseparably connected with Appalachian geology. During most of his mature life, over a period of nearly 50 years, his chief efforts were devoted to field study, mapping, and written description of selected areas distributed from the Carolinas to Maine. Sixteen folios of the United States Geological Survey, most of them under his name alone, a few prepared jointly with other workers, are in themselves a monument to his skill and industry ... He entered Harvard in 1881 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1885 ... At Harvard he rowed in the varsity crew, was a letter man in football, and became heavyweight wrestling champion. These athletic activities hardened and trained his naturally rugged physique, and helped prepare him for the strenuous field work in which he was engaged well beyond his seventieth year. Like many others in his generation at Harvard, Keith sat under Nathaniel Southgate Shaler and was fascinated by that master’s eloquence in presenting the fundamentals of geology ... In June, 1887, he became assistant in a field party of the United States Geological Survey, and spent the summer mapping in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. That experience determined the pattern of his later life. He went to Washington at the end of the field season, and became a regular member of the Federal Survey, which was still in the first decade of its vigorous early growth. The Geological Society of America was founded a year after Keith went to Washington, and he was elected to membership in 1889 ... For several decades Keith’s geologic folios in the Southern Appalachians were accepted as models, and three contiguous sheets — the Mount Mitchell, Roan Mountain, and Bristol quadrangles — were widely used as the most satisfactory geologic cross section of the Appalachian belt. His maps published between 1891 and 1907 represent detailed study and description of nearly 15,000 square miles, largely in areas with intricate bedrock structure. For nearly 20 years Keith spent his summers contentedly in strenuous field work, his winters in writing; and his high productivity continued unbroken. But at last he consented to take part in administration, and in 1906 he became chief of the Section of Areal Geology for the entire country. This assignment soon became too demanding for one man, and in 1913 a division was made into Eastern and Western Areas, with Keith in charge of the former ... He served as President of the Geological Society of Washington; as Councilor, Vice-President, and President (1927) of the Geological Society of America; as Chairman (1928-31) of the Division of Geology and Geography, National Research Council; as Council Member and Treasurer (1932-40) of the National Academy of Sciences.”
Five skunk species are residents in the United States: hooded, hog-nosed, western spotted, eastern spotted, and striped. Only the last two reside in the Smokies region.
The striped skunk — which is black with two white stripes running up its back to form a cap on top of its head — is the one that usually comes to mind when someone starts telling skunk tales in this neck of the woods.
The spotted skunk is, in my experience, more common in the higher elevations. Sometimes referred to as a civet, it is black with a white spot on its forehead and under each ear. There are also four broken white stripes along its neck, back, and sides, as well as a white-tipped tail.
Now we get to the interesting part. When provoked, a striped skunk simply raises its tail daintily like a plume and assumes a U-shaped posture that allows its hip muscles to squeeze the odiferous fluids indiscriminately out of its anal glands.
The spotted skunk has perfected that basic strategy. When frightened or angered, it will often do a “handstand” on it front feet. This posture allows the critter to look between its legs and see where to aim the spray.
Many readers of this column will have encountered skunks in the shelters along the Appalachian Trail, especially those situated in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Long before the park was established in 1934, writer and outdoorsman Horace Kephart underwent a typical skunk “invasion.” It took place in the Hall Cabin, a hut situated smack-dab on the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. Kephart subsequently described the incident in his book Camping and Woodcraft — first published in a single volume in 1906 but later expanded to two volumes in 1916.
He somehow identified his visitor as a female but failed to note whether it was spotted or striped. I suspect it was the latter. Be forewarned that this skunk story has a sad ending.
“Another notoriously fearless pest is the skunk. It will turn tail quickly enough, but nothing on earth will make it run. If a skunk takes it into his head to raid your camp he will step right in without any precautions whatever. Then he will nose through all of your possessions, walk over you — if you be in his way — and forty men cannot intimidate him.
Once, when I was spending the summer in a herders’ hut, on a summit of the Smoky Mountains, a skunk burrowed under the cabin wall and came up through the earthen floor. It was about midnight. My two companions slept in a pole bunk against the wall, and I had an army cot in the middle of the room. It was cold enough for an all-night fire on the hearth.
I awoke with the uneasy feeling that some intruder was moving about in the darkness. There was no noise, and my first thought was of rattlesnakes, which were numerous in that region. I sat up and lit the lantern, which hung over my head. One glance was enough.
“Boys,” I warned in a stage whisper, “for the love of God, don’t breathe; there’s a skunk at the foot of my bed!”
The animal was not in the least disconcerted by the light, but proceeded leisurely to inspect the premises. It went under my cot and nosed around there for five mortal minutes, while I lay rigid as a corpse.
Then Doc sneezed. I heard Andy groan from under his blanket: “You damn fool: now we’ll get it!”
But we didn’t. Madame Polecat waddled to their bunk, and I had a vision of two fellows sweating blood.
Then she moved over to the grub chest, found some excelsior lying beside it, and deliberately went to work on making a nest. An hour passed. I simply had to take a smoke. My tobacco was on a shelf right over the skunk. I risked all, arose very quietly, reached over the beast, got my tobacco, and retired like a ghost to the other end of the cabin to warm myself at the fire.
We were prisoners; for the only door was a clapboard affair on wooden hinges that shrieked like a dry axle. The visitor, having made its bed, did not yet feel like turning in, but decided to find out what sort of a bare-legged, white-faced critter I was, anyhow.
It came straight over to the fireplace and sniffed my toes. The other boys offered all sorts of advice, and I talked brimstone back at them — we had found that pussy didn’t care a hang for human speech so long as it was gently modulated.
That was a most amiable female of her species. True, she investigated all our property that was within reach, but she respected it, and finally she cuddled up in the excelsior, quite satisfied with her new home.
To cut an awfully long story short, the polecat held us spellbound until daybreak. Then she crawled out through her burrow, and we instantly fled through our shrieky door. Doc had a shotgun in his hand and murder in his heart. Not being well posted on skunk reflexes, he stepped up within ten feet and blew the animal’s head clean off by a simultaneous discharge of both barrels.
Did that headless skunk retaliate? It did, brethren, it did!”
You’ve noticed how old barns are recognized as special places? When a person says, “I’m going down to the barn,” he or she always emphasizes the “the.” That’s because each barn is a unique entity. They hold special associations. But old barns are becoming a thing of the past.
Over a year ago I clipped an article from USA Today titled “American Landscape Losing Its Old Barns” that reads, in part, “The American barn is disappearing from the landscape. It may not evoke the nostalgia of a one-room schoolhouse or covered bridge. But for more than two centuries, it has stood as a symbol of hard work and a rural way of life. These simple structures that dot the countryside are becoming victims of decay, suburban sprawl, changes in farming practices and a growing trend to use old barn wood in new ‘rustic’ buildings.
“We call them an endangered species,’ says Jennifer Goodman, executive director of the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance. ‘Barns are disappearing so rapidly, I often find myself saying, ‘Ouch. Lost another one,’ when I drive down rural roads.
“Nobody knows how many old barns exist. The Midwest once had 10,000 barns painted with Mail Pouch Tobacco advertisements — a free paint job in exchange for ad space. A few hundred remain.
“Steve Stier, who restores barns in Michigan and wrote a manual for identifying barn styles, says, ‘When an old barn falls, we lose more than a building. We lose a sense of place.’
“In trying to figure out how many barns exist, the National Trust uses the number of farms as an indicator. The United States had 6.5 million farms at the peak in 1920. There were 2.2 million farms in 2000. Including barns that survive on defunct farms, there are roughly 3 million barns across the nation. But that number is deceptive. Barns constructed after World War II are usually built with lightweight poles and metal siding. The design is inexpensive and functional.”
Well, maybe so, but I maintain that any barn is better than no barn at all. I have myself contributed to the modern “inexpensive and functional” phase of barn building. Back in 1977, I built, with another person’s assistance, what may be the most “inexpensive and functional” barn ever erected in the Smokies region. It was concocted so as to maintain Surtees, my wife’s first horse.
All will agree that the design was basic and the materials minimal. With a bow saw we cut down eight black locust trees for poles. Four were placed in holes in the back, four in the front, each spaced at eight-foot intervals, with a three-foot span in the center to allow for a doorway in front. Accordingly, the barn is 19 feet long and eight feet wide. The rear is 10 feet high, while the front is eight feet high. The (used) tin roof has a two-foot pitch back to front. This was done because the barn is situated on a slope. We wanted the water to run off of the roof and away from the barn rather than back under it. We discovered that water goes pretty much where it wants to go.
The sides were framed with eight-foot (used) 2-by-4s placed at four and eight feet above the ground. A neighbor contributed 14 (used) 4-by-8 pieces of plywood siding that were nailed to the posts and framing. We hung an old wooden door on the front side. The floor is dirt. On one end we built a tin-roofed stall for Surtees. Total cost: $100.
Several years ago my wife purchased a second horse, Sochan, so one afternoon my son and I added another roofed stall on the other end of the barn. Then last fall my son was given some building materials that he used to add a small tack room for his mother to one side of the front entrance. The tin for the roofs of the second stall and the tack room probably cost another $100 dollars or so. So, we’re talking about a $200 barn, which certainly falls well within the “inexpensive and functional” category.
Early last winter, Surtees died at age 30 and is buried near his barn. Sochan resides there with Silver the cat. Elizabeth keeps hay in the main structure and has her saddle and lots of other gear, including feed for the horse and cat, in her new tack room.
Some wouldn’t call this juryrigged structure a barn, but we do. It has dark places and rich smells and a lot of memories. When Elizabeth tells me that she’s been “up at the barn,” I know she’s been to a place that is, for her, a special place.
Let us consider the relationship between grassy balds, Tom Alexander and the self-proclaimed “Potato and Rutabaga King of Haywood County.”
Highland sites at about 5,000 feet of elevation in the Smokies region were often given over to potato farming — and rutabagas, too. An example would be Hemphill Bald, where the Cataloochee Ranch resort, riding stables, and ski slope are located above Maggie Valley and adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Most visitors assume that these grassy meadows are a part of the naturally occurring complex of somewhat similar areas known as grassy balds. Found in the Southern Blue Ridge Province from Virginia into Georgia, grassy balds are a mysterious habitat. More ink has been spilt regarding their origins than about any other natural area in the southern mountains.
The word “bald” has several meanings, of course, but when applied to terrain it refers to the lack of “usual or natural covering”; that is, in this instance, to a virtual absence of trees where trees might otherwise be expected. There are two types of balds in the Blue Ridge: (1) grassy balds and (2) shrub or heath balds. In a true grassy bald, the terrain is primarily open, being dominated by mountain oat grass and other herbaceous species.
I suspect that at least some of the initial grassy openings were forged during the Pleistocene Epoch 20,000 or so years ago when dramatic freeze-thaw intervals involving frost heaving and soil erosion occurred. These openings were expanded and maintained by wind, dryness, cold, fire (natural and manmade, starting with the earliest Indians who penetrated the region), and grazing (by settlers’ livestock, as well as by the herds of elk, caribou, and additional grazing animals that once populated the region).
Whatever their origin, these lovely natural areas are apparently not being created at the present time; in fact, those on public lands now being “protected” from fire and grazing are increasingly being invaded by shrubs and trees. They are literally disappearing in our own time.
My guess is that the potato (and rutabaga) farms established at Gooseberry Knob and Hemphill Bald in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were found — in part at least -— where natural grassy balds had existed. It’s difficult to imagine someone venturing into what would otherwise have been a high-elevation, chestnut-dominated forest and establishing such grassy expanses without the benefit of some initial open areas. It’s possible, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem likely.
This leads us to the fellow who had the gumption to establish a vast potato (and rutabaga) empire at more than 5,000 feet along the Cataloochee Divide. His name was Verlin Campbell. He is best described by Tom Alexander Sr., in a delightful book titled Mountain Fever (Asheville: Bright Mountain Books, 1995). Tom Alexander (Mr. Tom) was the founder, along with his wife, Judy, of Cataloochee Ranch in the late 1930s. Mr. Tom died in 1972. His book was edited posthumously by his son and daughter-in law, Tom Jr. and Jane Alexander.
Mr. Tom purchased the initial Cataloochee Ranch properties from Campbell. Here are some excerpts from his description of the self-proclaimed “Potato and Rutabaga King of Haywood County.” His first encounter with Campbell was while driving up the road (if you could call it that) from Maggie Valley (where the Ghost Town parking lot is now located) to the Fie Top and Hemphill Bald areas.
“Halfway up ... I overtook a Ford roadster which had stopped to cool off and water up. The occupants turned out to be Verlin Campbell, owner of Fie Top, and his son, Kyle, who lived in town and was driving his father home.
“Verlin was a huge man, with a face reminiscent of the cartoon character Alley Oop and a voice that boomed across the gorge beside us and rolled off the ridges .... No sooner than I made myself known to this enormous man than he exploded with a startling greeting: ‘Yo’re just the man I’m alooking fer! I’ve got the finest tourist place up here in the world! I want you to see hit!”
After visiting the Campbell’s picturesque residence, Mr. Tom was taken on a tour of the area, including Ned’s Lick, a site where cows were provided salt.
“Ned’s Lick was named for their former owner, Ned Moody, from whom Verlin had acquired the property. Here was a stretch of open land blanketing the gap in the ridge and lapping down into the coves on both sides. About five acres were in beans. The rest of the forty or fifty acres of clearing was in grass except for three scattered one- or two-acre patches of potatoes and a patch of oats. The dirt was black and there were no gullies ... Verlin told me that one year he had raised 935 bushels of produce — potatoes and rutabagas — on one measure acre on top of the knoll. At the time I discounted this statement. Later after learning what that wonderful soil can do, I no longer doubt it.
“Verlin’s agricultural plan was to plow up new patches of grassland each year for his potatoes, then reseed the following spring in meadow grasses and oats. His method of planting was unorthodox. Instead of preparing his ground by plowing, harrowing, and pulverizing before putting in his seeds, he planted as he plowed ... The result was an exceedingly rough-planted hillside field, with great chunks of turf standing on edge or leaning half over. But the turf caught and held the rain, preventing runoff on those steep slopes ... Verlin relied on two-crop farming. On the last, or `lay-by’ working, tender little rutabaga plants were set out by hand between the potato rows .... When the plants were large enough, they were thinned to a stand eight to sixteen inches apart, and the surplus was then set out in additional rows.”
Campbell’s unorthodox planting methods, one might note, also maintained (albeit in a limited fashion) the grassy nature of the setting. Had he not planted in this manner very little, if any, grassland could have been maintained on such a steep slope. So, in part at least, if you connect the dots, it could be argued that potatoes and rutabagas preserved the “essence” of a natural setting created many thousands of years old.
Flowing water is as central to life here in Western North Carolina as the mountains themselves. You can’t have ancient mountains like these without the seeps, springs, branches, creeks and rivers that sculpted them.
The word “creek” — a shallow or intermittent tributary to a river — also means “any turn or winding.” The word may derive from the Old Norse “kriki,” meaning “a bend or nook.”
Bends and nooks are the essence of any creek. They are magical places where the water swirls and threads its way over and among a jumble of boulders, disappears under a cutbank, braids its way through a sluice, purls in an eddy, and glints in the winter light.
Mountain pathways almost inevitably wind down to and alongside creeks, where each bend and nook will have its own voice: the unique set of sounds that arise from the confluence of water — running at a given rate — over a particular configuration of logs and stones. We are attracted when moody or meditative to certain creeks where these sounds become voices that speak to us quite clearly.
For 30 some years now, my wife Elizabeth and I have resided beside a small creek that has its headwaters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just north of Bryson City. From there, it flows southward out of the park, passes through our place, enters the park again for a short stretch, and finally empties into what is the Tuckasegee River part of the year and Lake Fontana the other part. I enjoy recalling from time to time that the waters of “our” creek wind up in the Gulf of Mexico via the Tuckasegee, Little Tennessee, Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi river systems.
We raised our family beside this creek. Our youngest daughter and her partner live up the creek from us in a house they just completed. When our oldest daughter and her brother return home for visits, their children play in the creek, as they did. The creek is a living entity in our lives — a part of the family — the last thing we hear at night and the first thing we hear in the morning.
When I drive home from my office on the town square in Bryson City each evening, I cross the lower bridge over the Tuckasegee. I could take an alternate loop away from the river and get home quicker, but I always turn left along the river. I like watching it flow in the evening light. There are several large islands and rocky shoals. As often as not, I’ll spot a great blue heron quietly fishing one of the riffles. Turning away from the river two miles west of town, I pass over a ridge and wind down to “our” creek, which I cross one more time before reaching our place at the end of the far end of the road.
After settling in, Elizabeth and I often take a walk before supper down the creek along a trail that leads to a little waterfall, where there is a bench. We sit for a while. In recent years, the dry weather reduced the creek to a trickle — a sad shadow of its normal self. In places, it was not more than three feet in width, if that. The sounds it made were feeble. We took very little pleasure in our walks. It was almost as if we were visiting a sick friend.
But the rains that descended upon us in recent months have revived the creek. These days, it has nearly recovered. Indeed, the whole valley has, in essence, come back to life. Earlier this week as we sat there in the pale evening light, a silvery mist hovered over the water, which once gain again glistened as it poured over and around the rocks, murmuring and babbling, talking to us.
One can still see why flatlanders started pouring into the Cashiers-Highlands region after the Civil War. The scenic ridge, valley and gorge country here remains one of the most interesting areas in Western North Carolina to explore.
Some of the most exciting spots in Panthertown Valley, Blue Valley, Whiteside Cove, and the gorge systems formed by the Horsepasture, Whitewater, and other rivers can be somewhat difficult to access. Others, however, can be reached in a matter of minutes. One such is Satulah Mountain, which is located within several miles of downtown Highlands.
Atop Satulah (elevation 4,543 feet) there are panoramic views of the North Carolina mountains surrounding the Highlands plateau. Back to the northeast there’s a splendid bird’s eye view of the Whiteside Mountain cliffs, while out to the west the ridges of the Nantahala range flow northward toward the Great Smokies. On a clear day, one can discern the shimmering outlines of the lake systems in South Carolina.
Satulah is classified as a heath bald since most of the mountain top is covered with a dense — in places impenetrable — cover of heath shrubs (primarily rhododendron and laurel) as well as stunted white oak, chinquapin, and witchhazel. Foot trails cut through the tangle allow one to explore the inner-workings of the habitat.
The potholes in the rock surface are said to be evidence of a fire tower that once stood on the summit. If so, one can only envy the folks who manned the tower in such an idyllic setting.
Botanically, the rock portion of the bald and adjacent cliffs are quite interesting, providing one of the best examples of this type of summit habitat. Here one can find mats of twisted haircap moss (really a clubmoss relative rather than a moss), one of the few stands of mountain juniper in North Carolina, and sand myrtle.
In an informative book titled High Lands (1964), T.W. Reynolds stated that the mountain was “sometimes affectionately called Stooly by the natives, and spelled Stuly in the old town minutes.” Reynolds made a lengthy, convoluted, and unconvincing argument as to how the name “Satulah” may derive from the Cherokee word for “Six Killer.”
Satulah is one of those places in the North Carolina mountains associated with strange quakes, tremors, and smoke. In the late 1800s, Bureau of American Ethnology worker James Mooney collected data on sites where it was thought “volcanic activity ... left traces in the Carolina mountains.” Mooney cited areas in Madison and Rutherford counties where warm springs issued forth while peaks “rumbled and smoked.” He was told by locals that a mountain in Haywood County near the head of Fines Creek suffered an explosion that “split solid masses of granite as though by a blast of gunpowder.” In Cherokee County, a violent earthquake was thought to have “left a chasm extending for several hundred yards, which is still to be seen.”
As to Satulah (which Mooney spelled “Satoola”), the crevices on the sides of the mountain were said from time to time to issue forth smoke. Mrs. Ed Picklesimer, a resident of the Clear Creek community below Satulah, told Reynolds that, “years ago she saw smoke and light there.” If one looks through the older literature about the WNC backcountry, the occurrence of so-called “smoking mountains” is rather frequent. John P. Arthur, for instance, in his History of North Carolina (1913) located a “smoker” at the head of Bee Creek in Buncombe County.
I will note that on certain days one can view the west-facing cliffs of Satulah from Little Scaly Mountain on N.C. 106 and see “smoke” curling up out of the crevices as if the inner mountain were afire. The “smoke” is in reality, however, the mist rising out of the Clear Creek Valley that is being carried into and over Satulah by eastward winds.
Even if Satulah Mountain isn’t active in a volcanic sense, it’s still a wonderful place to visit and enjoy. For online directions and additional information regarding access see: www.highlandhiker.com/Satulah_Mountain.html and www.colonialpinesinn.com/attractions.htm