Archived Mountain Voices

The rushing of wind through a hemlock

From my window, as I write this, I can see across the creek and down into a pasture where my wife’s horse is grazing. The creek and pasture are lined with trees and shrubs: maple, basswood, rosebay rhododendron, spicebush, beech, tulip poplar, ash, butternut, eastern hemlock and others. The serviceberry and forsythia are in full bloom. It is all very scenic and tranquil, except for the hemlocks, which are dead or dying. The hemlock wooly adelgid infestation that is currently ravaging the southern mountains hasn’t spared our cove.

Eastern hemlock — or Canada hemlock, as it is sometimes called — reaches into the high-elevation spruce-fir country, but for the most part it’s found along ridges between 3,500 to 5,000 feet or on north slopes and in ravines or alongside creeks in the lower elevations. Monster hemlocks almost 100-feet tall with circumferences approaching 20 feet were encountered.

There are two native species of hemlock in the southern mountains: eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), recognized by its flattened, tapered needles that appear to extend in a flat plane from the branch stems; and Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), an uncommon species of rocky woods, dry slopes, bluffs, and cliffs with flat needles that are not tapered and spread from the branch stems in all directions. It is my understanding that the Carolina hemlock is also susceptible to the adelgid infestation.

Hemlocks love shade, rocks, and slopes. You will find them growing in steep “hemlock ravines” straddling boulders in the utmost headwaters. They cool the water, making it possible for native brook trout to thrive.

Red squirrels (“boomers”) are highly dependent on hemlock seeds, and their populations will no doubt decline once the hemlocks are a thing of the past.

Have you ever observed the shelf fungi (bracts) that grow on the trunks of eastern hemlocks? They are kidney- or fan-shaped and look like they have been varnished with a reddish-brown, shiny stain — which is why they are called “hemlock varnish shelf” fungi. Their scientific name is “Ganoderma tsuga.”

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They are sometimes called “Reishi” or “Ling Chih” fungi because they resemble the closely related species used for medicinal purposes in the Orient. Some research seems to indicate that the species found in North America has the same properties as true “Reishi” in regard to bolstering the immune system, as an antitoxidant, and other uses.

Whether that is true or not, I wouldn’t know. I do know that these mysterious fungi are quite beautiful … almost luminous … and that they, too, will soon lose their primary host.

In A Natural History of Trees, Donald Peattie captured the essence of the eastern hemlock:

“In the grand, high places of the southern mountains, hemlock soars above the rest of the forest, rising like a church spire — like numberless spires as far as the eye can see — through the blue haze … Hemlock serves us best [when] rooted in its tranquil, age-old stations. Approaching such a noble tree, you think it dark, almost black, because the needles on the upper side are indeed a lustrous deep blue-green. Yet when you lunch on the rock that is almost sure to be found at its feet, or settle your back into the buttresses of the bole and look up under the boughs, their shade seems silvery, since the underside of each needle is whitened by two lines. Soon even talk of the tree itself is silenced by it, and you fall to listening. When the wind lifts up the hemlock’s voice, it is no roaring like the pine’s, no keening like the spruce’s. The hemlock whistles softly to itself. It raises its long, limber boughs and lets them drop again with a sign, not sorrowful, but letting fall tranquility upon us.”

Peattie wrote that in 1950. For the most part the hemlocks no longer whistle softly and their voices are sorrowful. Through my window I can see their dead spires.          

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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