George Ellison releases new book, reflects on decades of life lived in nature
The Fourth of July, 1976, was just around the corner when George and Elizabeth Ellison embarked on a hike that would change their lives forever. The two were walking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when their wandering brought them to the park’s edge, a remote and beautiful cove with a bubbling stream flowing through it.
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There was something special about that place, surrounded by the park on three sides with no people for at least a mile around. It spoke, and it spoke loudly. Within a week, the Ellisons had moved in — as renters, not knowing if it would ever be for sale. Until one day, it was, and they didn’t hesitate to buy it.
“Out of the blue things sometimes happen,” George said.
In the decades since, that 50-acre parcel has served as a well of inspiration for the writings and paintings they’ve spent their lives creating. George, a writer and naturalist, has made a niche for himself as a chronicler of Smokies history, both natural and human, while Elizabeth produces paintings suffused with the unique quality of light she can find only in her backyard.
Both George and Elizabeth are quick to agree that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to separate their work from the place they call home. And the funny thing is, their home could very easily have been someplace else. George is from Danville, Virginia, while Elizabeth grew up in Caswell County. At the time they decided to move to Western North Carolina, George was teaching at Mississippi State. They were ready for a change, but neither of them had a firm picture of where that change should take them.
“We could have gone anywhere,” George said. “It was one of those times when it was open-ended.”
“I frankly would have been happy anywhere in the country, as long as it was country,” Elizabeth agreed.
George was in the midst of researching a publication on Horace Kephart, a task that had caused him to travel to Western North Carolina. Afterward, they decided to move here — the plan was that George would get to refocus his career to pursue nonacademic writing, while Elizabeth would dive into her work as a painter.
The decision would prove serendipitous.
Having grown up in what George calls “the middle of nowhere,” Elizabeth had always felt a spiritual connection to the places where she’s lived. “But here,” she said, “it’s stronger.”
Maybe that strength had something to do with the land’s limited human history. No white people had really lived there before they did — the former owners didn’t, anyway. Elizabeth will often visualize the Cherokee people as she walks her dogs through the property, imagining them hunting and fishing this land hundreds of years ago.
“It’s just a feeling of being, and I hate that word ‘connection’ because it seems overused, but being a part of nature — that’s what I truly believe is that all we are is a part of nature,” Elizabeth said.
There is a place on the property where she feels that connection especially strongly — she calls it the “woodland cathedral” because of the way the light shines through the trees in that particular hollow. She’s worked to capture it in her painting.
For George, Lands Creek’s path through the land is where he experiences the property’s essence.
“It has a presence. You see it glinting in the sun. You hear it. And it’s going about its business,” he said of the creek. “You can see that bend in the creek, some areas out in the bend where there are enormous amounts of spring wildflowers.”
He likes to think about the long journey on which the water flowing through his property is currently embarking — from his backyard to the Tuckasegee River to the Little Tennessee River to the Mississippi and, finally, to the Gulf of Mexico.
Built to suit
For somebody who likes to spend time in that sort of contemplative state, the property is set up just right. The porch is huge, surrounding and even dwarfing the house. Firewood is piled high underneath it. There’s a vegetable garden, an arbor leading to a bridge over the creek, and of course the park on all sides but one. A smattering of neighbors have moved in along the non-park access over the years, but the Ellison home at the end of the road still remains fairly secluded.
The house itself is tiny, an early version of a modular house designed during World War II that began its life as worker housing during the construction of Fontana Dam. The Ellisons bought it from Fontana Village, which was doing a massive sell-off of homes in conditions ranging from terrible to wonderful, for $700 and a promise that George would lead a wildflower walk there.
Open the front door, and there’s a futon and swivel-bottomed chair, both draped with blankets, against the wall. A wood-burning stove occupies the center of the room, with a kitchen nook sporting lime green cupboards just to the right of the stove. A small kitchen table sits against the back wall opposite the kitchen, situated perfectly to watch birds pecking at the feeder through the large window beside it. A short hallway takes off to the right of the front door, down which the bedroom, bathroom and George’s office can be found. Elizabeth does her painting in a Main Street studio in Bryson City. Bookcases — all of them full — accent seemingly every piece of bare wall.
“We love it,” George said. “It suits our needs.”
For years, there was no electricity and not even any running water. Water came from the creek and was pumped into a springhouse. Now both 74 years old, the Ellisons maintained their electricity-free lifestyle until 2000, when their daughter and a friend came in to wire the house while her parents were on vacation in Wyoming.
“I wasn’t particularly happy at first, but then I got used to the electricity and found out it wasn’t so bad,” George said.
These days, he even has an internet connection so he can send his columns in over email without having to make the trek into town. That’s not to say that the way to town is that difficult — it’s gotten a lot easier since the road leading from his driveway was paved for the first time in 2001.
George makes sure to point out, however, that they weren’t “trying to make a statement” with their choice of a simple lifestyle. When the back-to-earth movement was just getting going they’d been contacted by a few of those types, who soon discovered they were barking up the wrong tree and “left us alone,” George said.
A life of moments
For George, life at Lands Creek is about capturing moments — those transitory instances when something amazing happens that is, just as quickly, gone.
That’s much of what he writes about in his new book Literary Excursions in the Southern Highlands — the book also features Elizabeth’s artwork — which is essentially a collection of his favorite moments from 30 years of writing about moments.
“We probably remember 10 or 20 percent of the experiences we’ve had,” Ellison said. “But you do have those moments that stay with you, and they usually come as some sort of revelation.”
For instance, the time that he saw a bobcat, eyes aglow from the reflected light of George’s truck, perched on a boulder above the creek. The cat looked steadily onward, without fear or threat, before gliding to the opposite side of the creek and disappearing into the woods — “gone as completely as though he had never existed,” George writes.
Or, similarly, a wintertime mink sighting in the mid-1980s. The sleek creature was perched on a log looking down into the water until he sensed George’s approach and darted away into the undergrowth.
Those kinds of experiences, he said, can be a “breakthrough, just a moment when you get outside yourself a little bit.”
Not all of the 50 essays contained in the book are about sightings of elusive mammals, however. There’s a six-page entry on witch hobble and how the plant changes throughout the year. There’s a piece dubbed “Literary Toads” which discusses treatment of the toad in literature from Shakespeare up through Marianne Moore. Dragonflies, bracken, great horned owls and snails all get their moment in the spotlight.
The pieces have their origins in one or all three of the natural history columns George writes on a regular basis — “Back Then” in The Smoky Mountain News, “Nature Journal” in the Asheville Citizen-Times and “Botanical Excursions” in Chinquapin: The Newsletter of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society. And while personal experience plays a headlining role, the pieces are much more than simple ruminations on moments remembered. They occupy a space somewhere between storybook and textbook.
“I tried to make the information different than just a handbook by the writer,” George said. “Personal experiences and descriptions and things.”
Reading the bobcat story, for instance, would reveal a lot more than just the details of that one night when George and a bobcat happened to gaze into each others’ eyes across a creek. He opens the piece by describing the bobcat as a species — weighing about 30 pounds and measuring 40 inches in length, he writes, they’re secretive but not uncommon — and follows up the anecdote of his encounter with the shining-eyed bobcat by discussing the biological concept of eyeshine.
Animals that are active mainly at night often have an additional layer of tissue behind their retinas, which serves to reflect light back and so double the amount of light entering the eye, improving night vision. The reflection is intensified when a bright light shines — such as a truck’s headlights — causing the animal’s eyes to glow. Different kinds of animals have different colors of eyeshine, George writes — pink for opossums, silvery-white for deer and greenish-yellow for wildcats.
The biological information woven throughout George’s writings is detailed, layered and written simply enough for a layperson to understand. It has the ring of expert knowledge, a supposition backed up by the many awards he has received over his career. In 2012, George was named “Outstanding Journalist in Conservation” by Wild South, and he and his wife received this year’s Blue Ridge Naturalist of the Year Award from the Blue Ridge Naturalist Network. The Great Smoky Mountains Association included him in its 2016 listing of “100 Most Significant People in the History of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
Given the accolades and the obvious depth of knowledge contained in his writings, it may come as a surprise to learn that George never went to school for ecology or biology or anything of the sort. He was an English major turned English professor before he left academia for the Smokies.
“I wanted to be two things. I wanted to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers, or I wanted to be a writer,” George said. “And the Dodgers never called, so I went to school and majored in English.”
He was a voracious reader, though, and always had a penchant for natural history. As a grad student at the University of South Carolina, he writes in a Literary Excursions essay titled “Burls and Cankers and Heart Rot,” when he found himself with a few extra dollars he’d drive to a book emporium in Abbeville to spend most of a day looking through the store’s delightfully disarrayed shelves. One of his favorite finds from those excursions was a 45-page booklet titled Northern Hardwoods Culls Manual, which attracted his attention because of his “interest in nature writing of any sort.”
Meeting and marrying Elizabeth only fueled that fire. He credits his wife’s artistic sensibilities and intuition about the natural world with driving his desire to know more about it.
“She’s got a real joy about the natural world that fortunately for me has rubbed off,” he said.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, says that might be giving her too much credit. Even though George grew up in town, Danville, Virginia isn’t exactly a metropolis and he’d often go out in the country with his uncles to spend time hunting and fishing. He always had it in him, she said, and his affinity for the natural world just got stronger over the years.
Regardless of the answer to that chicken-or-egg question, the reality across the most recent decades has been that George and Elizabeth work in sync, separately driven by the same desires to know and connect that bring their work into constant intersection. Elizabeth’s art often accompanies George’s words, whether in his columns or in his books. She’s an artist, not an illustrator, she said — but her bent as an artist so organically aligns with George’s direction as a writer that her work can easily accompany his, no compromise needed.
“We have that same sensibility, so it’s not difficult to work together,” she said. “If he tells me, ‘I think this week in the paper is going to be a bird,’ I already have that painting or I can do one because I really enjoy doing them too.”
Perhaps that shared sensibility is cultivated by the shared piece of land that they’ve lived on for so long. The way the light moves over the days and the seasons, the birds that parade past the kitchen window, the ever-present feeling that today could be the day that something amazing steps out of the woods — that inspires both of the Ellisons.
And, sometimes, makes them wonder what they would have been — who they would have been — if not for that chance discovery of the Lands Creek Cove back in the summer of 1976.
“It’s been our life,” George said.