Bracken among the world’s most common plants

 “Here and elsewhere, bracken is such an aggressive plant that one wonders why it has not taken over the world.”

— R.C. Moran, A Natural History of Ferns (2004)

Bracken fern is said to be one of the five most common plants in the world. Standing up to five feet high, it is the coarse leathery fern you have no doubt encountered in disturbed areas, thickets, and dry open woodlands.

Learning bird songs is an art unto itself

 Editor’s note: This column first appeared in a May 2009 issue of The Smoky Mountain News.

In the opaque early-morning light outside our bedroom windows, the birds that reside in our woods — or do we reside in their woods? — commence warming up for the day with tentative calls and whistles. The male cardinal seems to take the lead most mornings. Before long, however, the patterns arrange themselves into a tapestry of music.

Zeke’s gone, but leaves us a blank verse sonnet

Two German shorthaired pointers named Maggie and Zeke were our constant companions for years. When we went bird watching along the Texas, Gulf and Atlantic coasts, they traveled along in the back of the truck, their heads stuck through the camper top window into the cab.

The forlorn calls of the yellow-billed cuckoo

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2008. 

O Cuckoo! Shall I call thee Bird,

Or but a wandering Voice?

— William Wordsworth

The sacred animal that walks like a man

Editor’s note: This column first appeared in an April 2003 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

Bears have always held a special attraction for human beings. In a chapter titled “Killing the Sacred Bear” in his monumental study The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1922), Sir James George Frazer traced the reverence for bears among the Ainu people of Japan and the Gilyats in Siberia. 

Birch stills were once plentiful in the mountains

Throughout spring the pendent catkins of sweet birch (Betula lenta) will be dangling gracefully in the wind in rich woodland settings below 4000 feet.

Catkins are the male pollen-carrying portion of the sweet birch (Betula lenta), also known as black, cherry, or mahogany birch.

Old-time dentistry just plain hurt

Old-time dentistry as practiced here in the Smokies region wasn’t pretty. All of the descriptions I have found make it seem just about barbaric, but, then again, when you’ve got tooth problems you’ll resort to just about any remedy. John Parris, in a chapter titled “‘Tooth-jumpin’ With A Hammer” in his book These Storied Mountains (1972), provides these insights in regard to a great-uncle who practiced homespun dentistry.

The woodcock — secretive, rotund and acrobatic

While walking stream banks or low-lying wetlands, you have perhaps had the memorable experience of flushing a woodcock — that secretive, rotund, popeyed, little bird with an exceedingly long down-pointing bill that explodes from underfoot and zigzags away on whistling wings and just barely managing bat-like to dodge tree limbs and trunks.

Colorful reminders of long-ago homesteads

A chimney standing all alone where a fire burned a house down long ago … a crumbling stone wall overgrown with tangles of vines … a flattened area on a slope above a creek or abandoned roadbed … all are likely locations for a dwelling or outbuilding of some sort.

One of the Smokies’ finest poets

Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News.

Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical stories set in Swain County, originally published as Highland Annals in 1925. But she is also one of the finest poets the Smokies region has as yet produced.

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