Archived Mountain Voices

The creek outside my window

I write this from my “office” (a spare room) at home. Looking out the window, I can see the creek that passes through our place. As a general rule, I spend more time watching the creek flow by my window than I do writing.    

We have lived beside this particular creek for 34 years. During the last 10 years, it has been mentioned with some frequency in this column. I often hear from readers who also feel attached to the creeks they live beside or seek out. This is for them … and any others who might feel the same way.

In a collection of essays titled Mountain Passages (2005) I observed: “Creeks are as central to life here in Western North Carolina as the mountains themselves. You can’t have mountains like the ones found here without the seeps, springs, branches, creeks and rivers that form them. Flowing water was the primary agent that sculpted the landscapes as we know them today. The word creek, in addition to being defined as ‘a small stream, often a shallow or intermittent tributary to a river,’ means ‘any turn or winding.’ The word may derive from the Old Norse kriki, meaning ‘a bend or nook’ … Mountain pathways almost inevitably wind down to and alongside creeks. They are irresistible. Each bend and nook has its own voice: the unique set of sounds that arises 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.”

The creek I watch is named Lands Creek. Some say Land(s) was the last name (with or without the “s”) of the original settler … others that it was a general designation scribbled in the soiled notebook of the first surveyor who ventured up the creek after the Cherokees were forcibly removed.  

Be that as it may, Lands Creek rises far upstream within what is now national park from a hubcap-sized swatch of pebbly dark-stained seepage tucked in just below a grove of pitch pine and boulders. You can sit back out of the wind in that grove and consider the rhythmic repetition of nearby clearly-defined ridgelines as they fade westward into the distance toward Tennessee.

Have you ever noticed how paired ridges meander downward in measured patterns that mirrow one another across shared creek beds?  

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Once out of the park the creek slows to a near stop as it filters though the system of reservoirs and dams that until the mid-nineties provided Bryson City with drinking water and then flows through the upper Lands Creek community into lower Lands Creek via a culvert under the so-called “Road to Nowhere” just east of  the park boundary.    

Here it is freed again to braid its way through remembered channels beneath overhanging rhododendron and laurel into sunlit openings. After surging over fallen hemlocks and boulders it suddenly flattens into a silver ribbon and flows past my window before darting under Shorty’s Foot-log.

I smile whenever I think about Shorty’s Footlog because: (1) Shorty isn’t short; and (2) to his way of thinking anything he constructs that reconnects the far sides of a branch … creek … river … bay … ocean … whatever it might be that ordinary people walk on to get from one side to the other without getting wet is a “foot-log” because that’s what it always has been “Up on ‘Larkie.” And it always be — even if someone says it’s the Brooklyn Bridge — because Shorty doesn’t give a damn and is easily aggravated. So henceforth the four-foot wide, thirty-five foot long, pressure-treated structure he calculated to reunite our pasture and yard for only $806.11 will be known as Shorty’s Foot-log.

The creek passes one last time into the park and down to a small waterfall without a name. Here you might sit and watch the water as it pours over the wafer-thin lip of rock … forming and reforming in falling patterns of white lace that dissolve in the dark pool below—and descends into what is the desolate landscape of the lower Tuckasegee in winter or placid Lake Fontana in summer.

Before the rivers of eastern America were impounded the waters that pass by my window flowed unimpeded nearly 2000 miles from Sharp Top in the Smokies down Lands Creek to the Tuckasegee … Little Tennessee . . . Tennessee . . . Ohio . . . Mississippi . . . and the Gulf of Mexico.

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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