Archived Outdoors

Writer and naturalist George Ellison dies at 81

Elizabeth and George Ellison sit outside their home at lower Lands Creek. Quintin Ellison photo Elizabeth and George Ellison sit outside their home at lower Lands Creek. Quintin Ellison photo

George Ellison, a writer and naturalist whose home and inspiration was on Lands Creek in Bryson City, died Sunday, Feb. 19, at the age of 81.

Ellison battled Parkinson’s disease for years and died from double pneumonia while receiving care from Haywood Regional Medical Center and Four Seasons Hospice, according to a Facebook post from his daughter Quintin Ellison. He leaves behind a wife, three children and five grandchildren. 

Born Dec. 15, 1941, in Danville, Virginia, George Robert Ellison II was the son of Ruth and George Robert “GR” Ellison, who was killed in World War II. He and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Bryson City in 1973, following a research trip Ellison took to prepare a publication on Horace Kephart while teaching at Mississippi State University. The Ellisons were ready for a change and saw something special in these mountains. They stumbled upon the Lands Creek property in 1976, and it remained their home ever since. Last year, they placed the property under a conservation easement with Mainspring Conservation Trust, ensuring it will remain undeveloped in perpetuity. 

Throughout his career, Ellison produced myriad books and newspaper columns, including “Back Then,” a nature and local history column that appeared in The Smoky Mountain News from 2000-2018. The paper continued to republish older columns through 2022. Ellison wrote biographical reintroductions for reissues of several Southern Appalachian classics and taught natural and human history workshops for conferences and educational institutions throughout the region. 

Many of his books featured watercolor illustrations from his wife, Elizabeth, an accomplished artist. His most recent titles were “Literary Excursions in the Southern Highlands: Essays on Natural History” in 2016 and “Back of Beyond: A Horace Kephart Biography” in 2019, a seminal work that Ellison co-authored with Janet McCue.  

“Back of Beyond” earned Ellison and McCue the 2019 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, one of many honors Ellison accumulated over the years. In 2016, the Great Smoky Mountains Association named Ellison one of the 100 most significant people in the park’s history, and that same year George and Elizabeth received the Blue Ridge Naturalist of the Year award from the Blue Ridge Naturalist Network. He won the 2012 Roosevelt-Ashe Conservation Award for Outstanding Journalist in Conservation from Wild South. 

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To his family, Quintin Ellison wrote, George was “marvelous, loving and kind.”

“What else can I say?” she wrote. “He died with my brother, his namesake, by his side. He was not always an easy person, but always he was an interesting one, and we loved and cherished him, just as he did us, exactly how he was and how we are.”

In lieu of a memorial service, the family is asking Ellison’s friends consider planting a wildflower garden in his honor or supporting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The family plans to build a small cairn in his memory on the family property. 

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