Archived Mountain Voices

Images etched in memory for a lifetime

I am fascinated by those images from the natural world that remain with us for a lifetime — almost as vivid as when first exposed — while most simply fade away. I have sometimes tried to capture in prose or verse or scribbled notes in a journal those moments when such images are created


I was driving alone south of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A light early morning mist was swirling in my truck’s headlights. As if from out of nowhere, a fox suddenly appeared, moving across the roadway, nimble feet in a dainty trot. On the roadside embankment, it paused, lifted a front paw, and turned to peer at the oncoming vehicle. The animal’s eyes looked into mine without fear. It was simply curious. With heightened awareness, I could see drops of moisture clinging to the hairs that outlined the creature’s silhouette. Then, with a single catlike bound, it disappeared in a graceful flow of movement. That clear image of a fox in the rain remains with me.


The most distinctive feature of the rattlesnake is, of course, its rattle. Poisonous snakes prefer not to waste energy or venom except in pursuing food. The rattle serves to warn off creatures that might disturb or harm the serpent. Some authorities think the evolution of the rattle occurred by natural selection years ago when the rattlesnake’s ancestors were in danger of being trampled by vast herds of grazing animals. Whatever its origin, the rattle is an effective instrument. It’s a sound that galvanizes the senses. The tail vibrates with an uncanny almost-musical warning … you freeze in mid-step, holding your breath but unaware that you’re doing so … the hair on the back of your neck stands on end … the moment remains imprinted in your memory bank.


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August 1982 … Forney Creek-Welch Ridge-High Rocks … rain finally stops … dry T-shirt … a hog bolts out of the underbrush like a goat, head up … lunch where a giant chestnut fell long ago … decaying, blue-gray like a ghost … steep from main ridge to High Rocks … stone steps carved from granite splotched with patches of lichen … rhododendron boughs arched overhead … glistening black muck underfoot … the lush moss glows emerald green in this dim underworld … step after step & finally the top … tower & cabin … we can see almost forever … ridge upon ridge in every direction … no need to talk.


Suddenly sunlight pierced the mist

magnetizing the moist leaf canopy

& filling the glade below Hawk Knob

with blue shadows and bright patches of light.

Down in the tangle at the lower edge of the

spring-fed now radiant glade there was

the faint glow of just one pendant lily.


For days now you have been watching & waiting.

But not till you are least prepared is she suddenly there …

sculling upstream with swift strokes

rattling the morning into being

weaving her territory with sound

painting the air blue-gray and rust-brown

as kingfishers have for so many thousand years.


In the plain light of that long cold winter I saw things more clearly than ever before … it was a revelation … I could see the edges and shapes of things: twigs and branches, stakes and posts, rusty wire and rotting string, thin blue shadows on snow, brown paths curving beside lichen encrusted stone walls … that strange winter provided time to pay attention.


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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