The stuff of dreams: Important 20th century poet discovered in new book

bookAs the poet Yvan Goll lay in a hospital in Paris dying of leukemia, a continuous line of some of the most celebrated artists and writers of the first half of the 20th century formed to donate blood to keep Goll alive while he struggled to finish his final volume of poems Dreamweed. With the blood of poets and painters coursing through his veins, he completed his masterwork and quickly died.

New writer launches a promising literary career

Since the publication of Wiley Cash’s debut novel A Land More Kind Than Home earlier this year, I have been listening to the buzz of conversation about this “remarkable new book” written by a Western North Carolina native. The book seems to be on everyone’s lips. Finally unable to resist my own curiosity, I bought a copy so I could see for myself what all the fuss was about. It only took the first few pages until I was hooked.

Diversity within unity — a book for the ages

bookFrom the foothills of the Southern Appalachians, and in the tradition of such spiritual classics as Gurdjieff’s Meetings With Remarkable Men, comes Carolyn Toben’s Recovering a Sense of the Sacred: Conversations with Thomas Berry at a time that is not only propitious, but providential.

Maybe once every hundred years someone emerges from the shuddering mass of humanity who speaks to us with a kind of clarity and wisdom that is universally profound. Father Thomas Berry is such a figure. He was born and raised in a lush and verdant part of the country where nature and beauty trumped progress and development. In this place and in a special meadow near his boyhood home near Greensboro, the seeds of a universal vision for the earth and humanity were cultivated and nurtured — seeds which grew eventually to become a vision that is biblical in its insights, wisdom and compassion.

Watch out! Bigfoot sighted in WNC

I’d never read a horror-fiction genre book in my life. That is, until I found myself at an author’s event last month at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville talking with Eric Brown about his recent book about Bigfoot (Sasquatch) set “here in the mountains over near Lake Fontana.” Being a sucker for tales of Bigfoot and Bigfoot mythology, I was immediately interested and asked for a copy of the book.

Adding the stories of James Still to the Appalachian canon

For those who don’t know, James Still (1906-2001) is one of the most beloved and influential of all Appalachian writers. He left an enduring legacy of novels, stories, and poems during his nearly 70-year career. He is known formally and to many writers in the region as “the Dean of Appalachian Literature,” or more simply said “the Godfather of the Appalachian Literary Tradition,“

Originally born in Alabama, Still adopted eastern Kentucky as his home during the early years of the Great Depression. Life in Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau became an integral theme in Still’s work, which evokes Appalachian culture, language, and landscape. Although best known for his novels and poetry, Still was also a prolific short story writer whose works often appeared in prestigious journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner, as well as general interest magazines like the Atlantic and the Saturday Evening Post. When Still died in 2001 at age 94, he had secured a lasting reputation among readers of Appalachian literature based on a relatively small number of literary works.

The Hills Remember honors Still with the first comprehensive collection of his short fiction. The book includes stories from other Still collections such as River of Earth but also includes several lesser-known stories as well as 10 stories which have only recently been discovered and that have never-before been published. Ted Olson, who teaches in the Appalachian Studies and English programs at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., will be familiar to readers in Western North Carolina from his reviews, etc., as editor of the Poetry Page of Asheville’s Rapid River monthly magazine. Olson, in his landmark book, writes a comprehensive introduction concerning Still and his work and examines the author’s short fiction within the contexts of his body of work and within the canons of Appalachian and American literature. In his introduction, Olson favorably compares Still’s short fiction to that of other notable American writers as Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Welty and Cheever. Presenting all of Still’s compelling and varied short stories in one volume, The Hills Remember is a testament to a master writer.

Still’s stories in The Hills Remember are distinctive in style and universal in theme. Still’s stories in this collection stand out as evocative and timeless yet remarkably accessible to the general reader. Simply said, these are “tales from the soul of Appalachia.” Not until recently with the writing of Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell and Ron Rash has the spirit of James Still and the mountain South been unleashed to a whole new generation of appreciative readers. And with Ted Olson’s new book of Still’s short stories, we can look for a whole new wave of popularity among a new and larger generation of Still fans — much as he was a household name in Kentucky during the 1960s.

If asked to choose amongst the 53 short stories in this collection, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one as an out-and-out favorite. However, the story “Hit Liked To a’ Kilt Me” stands out in my mind as one that is unique in this book as well in all of Appalachian literature. It is all about how this story is written in the dialect of what Appalachian poet (and friend of James Still) Jim Wayne Miller called “Southern Mountain Speech.” James Still is the only Southern writer, to my knowledge, who attempts to literally duplicate the southern mountain dialect. The title of this particular story being indicative of what the reader will find in his reading of this rich and at times raucous poetic language.

In the book’s title story “The Hills Remember,” a crowd gathers near the bank of Troublesome Creek to watch the villain of their Kentucky hill-town lie back in his own blood after being accidentally shot in the back. In its telling this story thrusts forward the universal themes of good and evil, right and wrong, and fate and chance. On the other end of the spectrum, in the story “Mrs. Razor,” Still gives us a whimsical story about six-year-old Elvy and her fantasy life as a wife and mother. “Mrs. Razor” gives us a glimpse into a child’s world of pretend and offers a heartwarming look at the relationship between father and child. In “Horse Doctor,” a young boy accompanies his father (Still’s father was a horse doctor with no official training) on a visit to a sick mare at a neighbor’s farm. Through stark prose and subtle imagery, the story reveals the naivety of the young narrator and explores the intricate relationship between Appalachian neighbors and families.  

In one of Still’s most loved stories, “The Nest,” a young Nezzie Hargis becomes lost during a snow storm. In a seemingly unfamiliar terrain of isolation, in actuality Nezzie is never far from home. As she painfully struggles to find her way in the blinding storm, we see Nezzie mature from childhood innocence to adulthood. And in the story “Brother of Methuselum,” Still focuses on his character Uncle Mize, who by a strange twist of fate begins to grow young again at the age of 103 — his hair and teeth return, he props his walking stick in a corner, and he tosses his glasses away. “Brother Methuselum” explores the theme of immortality while offering us a story of Appalachian mysticism.

In a book that is endorsed on the University Press of Kentucky’s handsome cover by Appalachian luminaries Ron Rash, Loyal Jones, Gurney Norman, Chris Offutt and Jeff Daniel Marion, this is a must read for anyone who is “from here” or that has embraced the Appalachian mountain region as their own. We will learn more about ourselves than we knew and will be the better for having done so. The Hills Remember rests, as we speak, on my bedside table. It will remain there until I have read it from cover to cover — one story, each night, at a time. There is no better way to read a book of short stories. And this one’s a classic.

(Thomas Crowe is the author of the award-winning memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and lives in Tuckasegee. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still edited by Ted Olson. University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 406 pages.

Frazier’s new novel a fast, good read

In a tale set to the tune of Johnny Ace’s “Never Let Me Go” that’s told as if shown through a vintage Bell & Howell movie projector and with an odor of McCallum’s scotch from a previous century on a Roadhouse floor, Charles Frazier is back. At just the right time of year — when goldenrod and Joe Pye weed are in full bloom here in the North Carolina mountains, just as it is in the book — one wonders if the scheduled (Sept. 27) autumn release of Nightwoods is some kind of publishing coincidence or something planned. Timing is everything.

In what can only be called a dark trip down memory lane reminiscent of Tim Winton’s Dirt Music, or Ron Rash’s Serena, complete with rape, murder, incest, crime and cursing, it might seem callous or insensitively strange to say that reading Nightwoods was “fun,” but it was. And it must have been fun for Charles Frazier to write, as well — going back and dragging up the past of his mountain boyhood — just a ridgeline or two over from where I, too, was growing up at the same time. Reading his descriptions and references sent me straight back to my own boyhood. All the memorable 1950s and 60s references are there: old Nash Ramblers, Cheerwine and moon-pies, bootleggers, illegal bars in dry counties, summer vacations at Myrtle Beach, hand-cranked ice cream, no TV reception, two and three digit phone numbers, The Pied Piper, Jack and the Beanstalk, Royal Crown pomade, rabbit-foot key chains, vast national forests, Hurst shifters with an eight-ball, drive-ins, dowsing sticks, Cherokee fish weirs, Indian trails marked with stone cairns and trail marker trees, swimming holes and swinging bridges, The Stroll, fist fights and drunken brawls, Butternick patterns, “the usual afternoon temperate-rain-forest showers,”  radio stations you couldn’t pick up until dark, The Ventures, Oldsmobile Rocket 88s, straight razors and thick oiled strops, histrionic hairdos …. This book’s characters and props — as strange as they may seem to outsiders — are believable to anyone who grew up in the rural Southern Appalachian North Carolina hills in the early to mid-1960s.

Written in a new voice which is markedly different from his previous two novels — a combination of a foul-mouthed narrator and god-like all-knowing omniscient observer — this book puts Frazier somewhere in the background completing his own sentences. In Frazier’s night woods, “every day is its own apocalypse.” With “dread filling the pages like floodwater rising,” we follow Luce and her dead sister’s two kids, who rarely speak and prefer bread and butter pickles and ketchup to anything resembling a full and well-balanced meal. To say that these two kids are “picky eaters” would be a gross understatement. Frazier’s tale, here, is a kind of Billy Goats Gruff played out in cornfields turned into Brer Rabbit briar patches, full of “big swellings and recedings upturned and downturned sweeps linked in slow rhythms.”

“Living at the ass-end of nowhere” on the backside of a lake (that could be Fontana Lake over in Graham County) in an abandoned and aging old resort lodge (that could be Snowbird Mountain Lodge), we find the story’s central character, Luce, merely “hanging in there, like a hair in a biscuit” and living out a bit of old mountain wisdom that professes to “keep out of sight from the bullshit of everyday commerce and use money as little as possible.”   

What I want mostly, Luce said, is the ability to whistle the song of every bird in the area. Imagine holding every bit of it in your head at one time, this whole place, down to what the salamanders are doing every month of the four seasons.

But her reclusive lifestyle and anti-social philosophies quickly change when she is charged with the care of her young nephew and niece, who have been haunted into a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by their past. As Luce becomes more omnipresent and outgoing, so do the story’s background plots darken — like “a shade of superman black that never grew out of any earthling’s head.”

Like bumblebees take to basil, Frazier is focused on driving this plot-line forward — in an old Ford pickup truck with sideboards — through “weedy pastures in need of cows” and “sad times when heroes pay high money to bootleggers,”  all to the foreboding background music of Jimmy Rogers’ “TB Blues.” As the plot builds and the sky literally darkens overhead, and with everyone in the story pursuing each other (yet running in different directions while often lost), and with the “past looming,” Frazier, out of concern for his characters, wonders “when you’re on the wrong road, don’t you turn around and go back?”  

But there’s no turning back in this tale and the story weaves its way to the end, where it becomes a kind of backwoods version of Stephen King’s The Shining, where “even Jesus, meek and mild, might give payback a passing thought.” Yet, in the book‘s final pages, Frazier writes a scene of an all-male hunting party on the mountain that is so realistic and so Red Skelton funny in its gallows humor that it offers the reader a timely and much-needed reprieve from the deadly plotline, while creating its own denouement.

Somebody says, I never did confidence your blue tick much. Jones says, Can we keep the local-color shit to a bare minimum?

The talk swirls back around to shared memories and other useless bullshit. Baseball games back shortly after World War I, how somebody dropped a fly ball or hit a home run in the ninth inning. Ridicule and glory. Men who weren’t in those particular games doze off sitting up, then come back to consciousness. Deep in the night, the snow thins down to just a wet flake or two falling into the circle of light and melting away.

In this and in other unrelated instances Nightwoods has some surprising, if lovely, Shakespearean moments “where new love’s bells jangled like in a fire engine.” Lovely in the sense of unexpected moments that are show-stoppers, stopping time in its tracks and calling attention to itself. In a similar way, Frazier entertains us with his skill as a craftsman and with language and lines that might be better served as country songs. Lines like “Might as well be carrying a dead body through the aftermath of a flooded henhouse” and “It’s so nasty most of the time at my place, I wouldn’t even eat a walnut that rolled across the floor.”

The person who gave me the advance copy of Nightwoods I read in order to write this review, said it was a “fast read.” I wondered at the time what he meant by that. Now I know. A “fast read” is a good read. It ends too soon. Nightwoods ended too soon … Snip, snap, snout. This tale’s told out.

Nightwoods by Charles Frazier. Random House, 2011. 272 pages.

(Crowe is the author of Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods (non-fiction) and Crack Light (poems). He is Associate Editor for the Tuckasegee Reader and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Poets, writers, musicians and more gather to celebrate book launch, region

There is a core of energy to Thomas Rain Crowe, a get-in-there and get-it-done spirit, evident both in his writings and the man himself.

So it isn’t surprising that when fellow poet and friend Brent Martin mentioned an interesting concept he’d stumbled across — a group, the Center for the Study of Place, reviving that great tradition in American letters, the poetry of place, through the project Voices from the American Land — Crowe was off and running.

“Thomas is Thomas,” Martin said affectionately.

Crowe, Martin said, contacted the nonprofit group involved, the Center for the Study of Place, and got down to business.

The result is a lovely little book, Every Breath Sings Mountains, featuring poems about the Southern Appalachians written by Crowe, Martin and Cherokee scholar Barbara R. Duncan.

The writing is superb, the subjects timely and meaningful, the book lovingly published, the illustrations by Robert Johnson of Yancey County are perfectly rendered.

“For those of us who love these mountains, this volume is a crucial reminder of what we have, and how easily it can be lost. Every Breath Sings Mountains is small in size but large in wisdom,” as author Ron Rash noted of this exquisitely presented book of poems.

A book launch is set for 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 23 at in the community room of the Jackson County library complex in Sylva. The event, however, is intended as more than simply a forum to introduce the community to Every Breath Sings Mountains, as enjoyable as that alone would undoubtedly prove.

Many of the region’s most notable authors will be there to help create a multi-layered event, to create on this night their own Voices from the American Land, through readings, conversations, music and more. The event’s major sponsor is the N.C. Humanities Council.

Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell, Keith Flynn, George Ellison and John Lane will carry on “conservations.” Sylva’s own Ian Moore will perform his unique, Southern-Appalachian inspired style of music. Duncan, Martin and Crowe will read poems from the chapbook. Johnson, the book’s illustrator, will show work from the chapbook. George Frizzell of Western Carolina University, William Shelton, a farmer and former commissioner, and Jerry Elder, a revered Cherokee elder, will be guest speakers.

As Crowe put it, “we’re throwing a party to celebrate the place in which we live. A unique and relatively large group of accomplished authors, Cherokee elders, political spokespersons, scholars, musicians, cooks and bookstore reps all in one place. In this case, ‘the whole’ is greater than the sum of its parts.”

The region’s “uniqueness, diversity and starpower,” Crowe said, all on display, and intertwined with the very serious mission of protecting this area from devastating outside, or economic, encroachment.

“The Great Smoky Mountains is a special part of the world and we, as authors and artists, write and sing about it in order to plant the seeds of sustainability in the public mind so that we, our children and grandchildren, will have a beautiful place to live and prosper into the indefinite future,” Crowe said.

With Frazier’s new novel set for release Sept. 27, the event provides an opportunity for people in this area to get inscriptions in his new book. These personalized books, however, won’t be available for pickup until the actual release day, by orders of the publisher, Crowe noted.


Voices from the American Land

This unusual land conservation program uses contemporary poetic voices to “move the message of the land.” Through chapbook publication, local readings and educational activities, the group seeks to revive and amplify a dominant tradition in American letters: the poetry of place. In this way, it seeks to celebrate and help protect America’s extraordinary heritage of land and landscape.

Voices from the American Land was founded in 2008 by a group of writers, editors, and graphic designers who had worked together for some years on a quite successful series of local poetry readings in Placitas, N.M., taking place every winter solstice.

The organizers met with poets and editors from New York, Virginia, Colorado, California, and other parts of the country to discuss whether the idea of a national program of chapbook publication, and readings, could make its way. The idea of single-author chapbooks was the key feature of the program, since they could be inexpensive to produce, and could concentrate on a single landscape or locale needful of conservation.

Source: Voices from the American Land

“Over rock and gravel bed

Mingus Creek runs fast through the tall trees.

Diverted by a makeshift dam,

It turns to the right

Into a millrace lined with boards.

An ‘Appalachian aqueduct,’

race becomes flume

and flume becomes water’s trestle as

it flows downhill to the mill.”

— Thomas Rain Crowe, from “Mingus Mill.”

“English place names

clatter on our tongues

cacophonous gibberish:




They mean:


They signify:

People were here, now gone.

The names remain, shadows.”

— Barbara R. Duncan, from “Naming Place.”

“Here is where Brush Creek at last frees itself

from State Highway 28

and shouts hallelujah as it races

into the wilds of the Needmore game lands.

Here the creek leaves behind its burden of old sofas,

washing machines, car parts, and garbage.

Here people were once free of the need

for such things; and here things were thrown

after the need was placed upon them. …”

— Brent Martin, from “Homeplace.”

Perhaps the real terrorists are here among us

By Thomas Crowe • Guest Columnist

With the recent rash of mining disasters, oil and gas spills here in the U.S. and worldwide, and the apocalyptic timing of all of these, things have changed. These are not just mere rare random accidents, but coming in such a wave, they are, instead, a kind of ironic epiphany. This is a wake-up call for what has passed for the past two generations or more as the status quo, as “business as usual.”

During the past several years since Bush’s invasion of Iraq, practically all we’ve heard from our government officials and news sources has been “the War on Terror.” Like psychic loudspeakers, this phrase has invaded our sleep. “Terror.” “Terrorists.” “Terrorism.” “Territory.” One would think that there was a terrorist under every bed. Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago when it used to be a communist under every bed. All our focus these days seems to be on a few gypsy bands of renegade insurgents somewhere in the Middle East who have the imagined miraculous ability to show up at any given moment on our doorsteps with incendiary and even nuclear bombs — a threat to our inflated American lifestyle if not our very lives.

But all of a sudden, with the enormous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Massey Energy-Upper Big Branch mining explosions in West Virginia and other similar incidents world-wide, it’s beginning to look like our government’s focus on terrorism is terribly misplaced.

Aside from the one-off major terrorist event of the New York Twin Towers, the vast majority of “terrorist” events have come in-house — from the economic infrastructure of the American capitalistic establishment itself. Most recently from Big Coal and Big Oil, incidents have cost considerable human and non-human life and untold environmental destruction with monumental social and economic repercussions.

Since 9/11, terrorist plots and actual attacks on American soil pale in comparison to these Big Energy incidents. Which begs the question: Who are the real terrorists? Who is the real enemy, here? Who is the real threat to our national stability and security?

It seems to me that the billions of dollars we are spending in Iraq and Afghanistan to combat small, dispersed enclaves of Taliban and Al Qaida fundamentalists, as well as, specifically, the man-power invested there of our National Guard troops, are not only being misappropriated but misplaced, when the real war that we should be waging should be right here on American soil and against American corporate terrorism in the form of Big Oil and Big Coal. Instead of aiming Predator drones at nameless Afghan jihadists hiding in the hills on the Pakistani border, shouldn’t we be “bombing” BP with a trillion dollar fine and mandatory clean up and compensations for their failed offshore drilling enterprises? Shouldn’t we be ferreting out the mining company corporate generals hiding in their mansions in the hills of West Virginia and slapping lawsuits on them for their neglect and hitting them with uncompromising regulations?

But even these efforts, in my opinion, don’t go far enough. The U.S. government needs to step in (like they’re trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan) and shut down these companies — until such a time as they can do their job right and do right by all the people they employ and/or are affected by their erroneous errors and accidents.

As we speak, there are at least 900 offshore wells operating in the Gulf of Mexico. How many more “accidents” like the current BP spill are we going to have to endure before BP is held accountable for its profit-driven and indifferent practices? How many more mining disasters are we going to have to endure before Massey and other companies like them are called on the carpet, in just the same fashion as would any small company or business would be who was responsible for similar kinds of destruction and on a lesser scale?

The U.S. Labor Department or some government agency should shut down all Massey mines and make them install all the safety and pollution precautions that they have obviously ignored (in order to cut costs). Big Energy and Big Energy business are the true terrorists. Where is the “War on Big Oil?” Where is the “War on Coal and CO2?” This needs to be our focus and priority, as Big Business has run its course.

If this sounds like socialism to some folks, then so be it. Peak oil is a thing of the past, and big isn’t working anymore. Something has got to give lest we find ourselves on a wasted and desert planet such as are being portrayed in much of our fiction books and film-scripts these days. These Big Energy moguls want their cake and to eat it too — in the name of free-trade capitalism. They can’t have it both ways. Free-trade means you are also free to fail as well as succeed. If a business fails due to its own bad behavior, then, like any small business, it should be allowed to fail. I’m not convinced that the big corporations are “too big to fail.” (Including, and maybe especially, the big banks.)

Yes, a lot of people would lose jobs, but a lot of people are losing jobs anyway. If the government would get focused and get to work on ramping up a campaign to get green energy businesses up and running and affordable (like FDR did with WPA), then a lot of those people would be able to find work in these new “green” industries. And with the big businesses gone, there would be ample room and need for new small business to start up and prosper.

Meanwhile, and in the interim, we can begin helping each other in our own communities to weather the storm of our failing infrastructure and the rebuilding of a new and more sustaining infrastructure. With the country in the midst of an economic crisis, the government in Washington is spending our money in the wrong place. The money they are wasting on two bogus and very expensive wars overseas against invisible “enemies” needs to be being spent right here at home on our own problems and on much more pressing battles with much more dangerous foes.

These battles with Mr. Big are not only being played out in Washington or in corporate boardrooms in large urban cities, but big business bombs are being directed at civilian targets right here in Western North Carolina. We, right here, have our own corporate “terrorists” wreaking economic and environmental havoc in the name of “free enterprise” and “no regulation free-trade capitalism.” Duke Power is a perfect case in point, with its recent attempt to blackmail the people on the Cherokee Reservation over a proposed substation on sacred land. And then there’s the travesty of the new coal-fired power plant over in Rutherford County, which is going to come at the expense of local taxpayers and their health.

So, it’s time to bring Big Business back down to earth. And if the government isn’t going to do it, then the people must. And the first step is callin’ the bad boys out and to speak up and tell it like it is. If I can do it, anyone can. There are a lot of us who are thinking this way and talking in private, expressing our disgust and anger about our country’s current priorities and what’s being done and not being done to get this country back on its feet. In a crowd, when someone falls, a good citizen stops and helps them up. Our country has fallen, and, as good neighbors and concerned citizens, we need to stop and help our flagging country to its feet.

(Thomas Crowe is a writer who lives in Jackson County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

‘John Muir’ makes a return visit to WNC

By Thomas Crowe


“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful, not only as fountains of timbers and irrigating river, but as fountains of life.”

— John Muir

Depending upon where you live, naturalists and environmental saints appear with different names. When I was living in Northern California during the 1970s, the name John Muir was on the lips of all my environmental movement friends. On the East Coast and in New England, the naturalist canon consists mainly of John Burroughs and Henry David Thoreau. In the Southeast William Bartram is “the man.”

Yet, even with this kind of regional segregation of icons, there is some overlap. The most obvious and interesting of these to those of us here in the mountains of Western North Carolina is that of John Muir. Considered mostly a “westerner,” John Muir is primarily known for his adventures in the Sierra Nevada Range of northern California, his conservation activism that protected Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, and as the founder of the Sierra Club. While the Sierras were his preferred stomping grounds, he did travel throughout his lifetime to many areas of the country, including the Western North Carolina mountains.

As if by some kind of time warp or reincarnation intervention, John Muir will be returning to the mountains of Western North Carolina for the first time since his now-famous 1,000-Mile Walk of 1867. As a walk-in to the body of California-based actor Lee Stetson, Muir will be giving talks in Asheville and Highlands that relate some of his most remarkable adventures in the wild, including a remarkable “tree ride” in a windstorm, a “sleigh ride” on a snow avalanche, his “interview” with a bear, and a face-to-fang encounter with a rattlesnake.

Muir’s true wilderness tales are liberally salted with his wilderness philosophy — all around the theme of the health and invigoration one acquires when one fully and joyfully engages wildness. But even more important to us here in the Smoky Mountains, he will be talking about his time spent here in the Western Carolina mountains.

“Looking out over the mountains of Western North Carolina, the scenery is far grander than any I ever before beheld,” Muir writes in his book 1,000 Mile Walk. “Such an ocean of wooded, waving, swelling mountain grandeur is not to be described — all curves and slopes of inimitable softness and beauty. Oh, these forest gardens! What perfection, what divinity, in their architecture! What simplicity and mysterious complexity of detail!”

Describing our Western North Carolina mountains with such superlatives, Muir sounds a lot like Thoreau in his similar diary entry style of writing in The Maine Woods and like Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writings. But in 1,000-Mile Walk, Muir is not describing the Maine woods or the Highlands of Scotland, he is reminiscing on his trek through our hills at the age of 29 as part of his long hike from Indiana to Florida right after the end of the Civil War while living mostly on stale pieces of bread, almost dying of starvation, camping in a graveyards and encountering “long-haired horse-riding ex-guerrillas who would kill a man for $5.”

Writes Muir of the more pleasant part of that journey through the North Carolina mountains: “My path all today led me along the leafy banks of the Hiawassee River. Mysterious, charming and beautiful, it’s channels are sculptured far more so than the grandest architectural works of man,” Muir muses in his entry in the book for Sept.19. “I have found a multitude of falls and rapids where the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiawassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine a the songs it sings!”

Born in 1838, John Muir was a Scottish-born American naturalist, wilderness explorer, author, and early advocate of preservation of U.S. wilderness. His writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement. In 1849, Muir’s family emigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisconsin which they called the Fountain Lake Farm. Muir described his boyhood pursuits as including fighting and hunting for bird’s nests. As a natural storyteller, Muir taught people the importance of experiencing and protecting wilderness. In 1892, he founded the Sierra Club “to make the mountains glad,” he said. His work and writings contributed greatly to the creation of our National Parks System, or “national forest reservations” as he called them.

In his recently released PBS series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns said of John Muir, “Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. John Muir was lightning. My eyes at times would fill with tears in the editing room as we worked on telling Muir’s story.”

The man who plays Muir in Ken Burn’s PBS series is Lee Stetson, the same man who will share Muir’s amazing adventure stories to the audience at the Crest Pavilion at the Villages at Crest Mountain in Asheville and at the Highlands Playhouse in Highlands in October. Stetson’s Muir shows have toured throughout the country since 1983. He also lectures frequently on the arts and the environment, and spends a considerable portion of his time promoting the performing arts in the national parks. One reviewer recently said of Lee Stetson’s performance: “This veteran actor makes us believe so deeply in Muir that we, too, begin thinking of the plants and trees and wildlife as people. Stetson has done as much or more to acquaint Americans with one of its most remarkable sons than Muir himself in all his writings.”

In his dairy entry for Sept. 20 in his 1,000-Mile Walk, Muir writes, “All day among the groves and gorges of Murphy. Found a numbc er of rare and strange plants on the rocky banks of the river Hiwassee. In the afternoon, from the summit of a commanding ridge, I obtained a magnificent view of blue, softly curved mountain scenery. Among tress I saw Holly for the first time. My companion this day informed me that the paleness of most of the women in his neighborhood, and the mountains in general hereabouts, was caused chiefly by smoking and by what is called ‘dipping.’ I had never even heard of dipping. Their term simply describes the application of snuff to the gum by means of a small swab.”


(Thomas Crowe is the author of the award-winning nature memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist. He lives in Tuckasegee in Jackson County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

From Here: Authors spotlight Haywood County

In an expanding spotlight of regional and national acclaim, three of Western North Carolina’s own have distinguished themselves by penning novels that have shed new literary light on our region. In what must be an unprecedented literary flourish of recent novels all set in the environs of a single western county, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash and Wayne Caldwell have, as the saying goes, “done Haywood County proud.”

Multiple literary award winners all, Frazier, Rash and Caldwell have put place at the center of their fiction writing and have brought national attention to these mountains in such a way not seen since the first half of the 20th century when Thomas Wolfe, a native son of Asheville, took the United States by storm with his brilliant novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

The old post-Civil War adage of “the South shall rise again” has, at the turn of this new millennium, proven to be something of a twice-told tale in the mountains of Western North Carolina. In their novels Cold Mountain (Frazier), Serena (Rash) and Cataloochee (Caldwell), these writers have brought not only accolades and high praise, but world-class fiction to our doorsteps and into our homes here in Haywood and Jackson counties. And what is maybe most remarkable is that in writing about this place, all three are “from here.” Not outsiders who have moved to these mountains from somewhere else, as is usually the scenario concerning literary success and subject matter, but all three of these writers have family roots deep in Western North Carolina soil. In that sense we can all be proud and can truly say that these are “local boys who have made good.”

While, individually, each one of these authors and their books are wonderfully unique, they do all share some common ground. All three of these stories are set in rural landscapes, and in fact are centered, specifically, in Haywood County. All three have to do with the theme of outsiders coming into the mountains and bringing with them the destruction of both place and culture, and in this sense are more epic tellings of the “Beauty and the Beast” story. All three are tragedies in their own way. And all three draw on longstanding classic literary traditions and authors to tell their respective tales.

In the case of Cold Mountain, Frazier’s “beast” is the Civil War and primarily the “northern invaders” who have wreaked havoc upon the hinterlands and homesteads of these hills. In Serena, Rash’s beast is manifested in the large timber companies from the North that have come into the mountains to claim, consolidate and clearcut the land and lives of their inhabitants. And in Caldwell’s wide-sweeping and to-be-extended epic Cataloochee, we are early in the book introduced to the “iron beast” of the railroad, which is symbolic for what is to come and what that “beast” will bring into Western North Carolina from the outside in the form of the federal government and the National Park system, which will, ultimately, uproot and displace hundreds of local families and communities.

As to literary lineage and classics we can connect and compare them to, each of our three authors comes from good stock. In Cold Mountain, Frazier has taken Homer’s Odyssey and re-set it in 19th century Western North Carolina to tell his tale of an epic journey. Rash has gone to the shelves of Shakespeare and found a copy of Macbeth and has written his tale in the genre of tragic drama. And Caldwell has chosen to emulate none other than Tolstoy with his wide sweep of history and characters, his train, and the over-riding theme of social inequities and defense of the local peasantry. All three writers see the local through the same lens as did Homer, Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

In general, we can say of these local-boys-made-good that each of them is a major writer with major New York publishers (Atlantic Monthly, HarperCollins and Random House), and each has written a best-selling book on the world stage. These writers know their fictional characters intimately from the inside out, having heard the essences of their stories from family members, passed down through the generations — all three coming from strong oral history backgrounds and cultures here in the mountains. As I said, and I can’t emphasize this enough: they are from here.

Serena is the most recent of the three books placed in Haywood County to appear on the radar screens of local readers, having been published this fall, while Cataloochee was first released in 2007 and Cold Mountain came out in 1997 (which doesn’t seem that long ago). I can remember talking with Ron Rash after a reading he gave at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva about a year and a half ago — when he was still writing Serena — and asking him where he’d gotten the seed idea for the novel from which he had just read a section to a full house.

“It was when I was up at the Highlands Biological Center in Highlands giving a talk a year or so ago, and I had noticed a cross-section of a large chestnut tree that had been varnished and was on display there. This tree, I was told, had been cut during the big timber boom in the first half of the last century. This made an impression on me, and I immediately began doing some research and reading about the logging industry here in Western North Carolina in order to learn more about it.

“It wasn’t long after that, I was driving through Haywood County in the neighborhood of where my novel would eventually take place, and I had a vision of this woman on a white horse up along a nearby ridgeline. This experience was profound and almost immediately I knew that the woman on the white horse was the central character for my book on the logging industry here in the mountains during the Great Depression.”

Unlike any of his previous three novels, all set in the Southern Appalachian region and borrowing from more traditional Southern writing styles, Serena takes a huge about-face and moves more in the direction of a book parented by the unlikely union of Cormac McCarthy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In a tale as dark and unforgiving as anything McCarthy has entrusted to paper (with the possible exception of his recent post-apocalyptic novel The Road), Rash, in a style which is as much film script and libretto as literary prose, tells the story of an unsympathetic heroine (who is not from here), a “Lady Macbeth,” whose ambition for wealth and power cuts a large swath of death and destruction through the western North Carolina landscape. In telling this tragic tale, Rash draws not only from some great characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, but from his earlier life where he had earned a regional reputation as a poet. The metaphors and similes are literally oozing from Serena’s pages:

He drank again and finished off the bottle. He sat in one of the Coxwell chairs and closed his eyes, waited for the whiskey to take hold. Pemberton hoped the half-quart was enough and tried to help it along. He imagined the thoughts seeking connection in his head were like dozens of wires plugged into a switch-board, wires the whiskey would begin pulling free until not a single connection was possible.

In a few minutes, Pemberton felt the alcohol expanding in his skull, the wires pulling free, one at a time, the chatter lessening until there was no chatter at all, just a glowing hum. He closed his eyes and let himself sink deeper into the chair.

Along with the clinically cold Lady Macbeth-like heroine of Serena, Rash juxtaposes his haunting story against lighter scenes reminiscent of Shakespeare’s servants and shepherds, rogues and ruffians, fools and heralds meant to entertain the locals in the pit of the old theaters. In Serena these scenes are played by members of a logging crew up along the ridges of Cove Creek that is overseen by a man we only know as Snipes, who is a kind of Appalachian Falstaff. Instead of the streets and taverns of London, Rash’s scenes take place in a steep slash-and-burn landscape on Shanty Mountain. We are entertained by exchanges of Appalachian Mountain dialect and wit that Rash surely must have heard from his kith and kin growing up. They are as real and as true to form as anything I heard growing up over in Graham County in the 1950s. These plot-line “asides” by Rash’s band of brigands — Snipes, Ross, Henryson and McIntyre — lend a much-needed levity to an otherwise relentlessly dark tale. Likewise, Rash’s injections of haute language (les mots etranger), a la Christopher Camuto’s Another Country, not only raises the bar in terms of the quality of the writing but lends a bit of spice to the overall taste of the work. Here, Snipes is talking about McIntyre from Chapter 19 in the book:

“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with Preacher McIntyre,” he said. “He growed up in the most way-back holler in this country. He told me once it was so darksome in there they had to use a crowbar to get any light in.”

Similar to Rash’s “creation myth” for Serena, I recall Charles Frazier telling me one evening in the Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville that his second novel, 13 Moons, set over in Swain and Jackson counties and published in 2006, came from a supposedly true story he had heard about Will Thomas. (The model for the book’s central character of Will Cooper is the historically real person of Will Thomas, who was once-upon-a-time Chief of the Cherokee Eastern Band). They say Will Thomas used to sit on his front porch over near Whittier and take pot-shots at tourists as they rode by on the train. (The symbolic train motif, again.) Similarly, Frazier had fashioned Cold Mountain from stories and pictures envisioned from tales he had heard from or about members of his own family and distant relations. While not quite the dark “runaway train” that is Rash’s Serena, Frazier’s Cold Mountain, placed in a setting at the end of the Civil War, is also full of shadowy characters and harsh realities taken from the pages of bygone days here in the Smoky Mountains of the Blue Ridge. Yet Frazier’s American brand of magic realism is couched in a cushion of poetic lyricism that gives the book a more fluid feeling than Rash’s staccato and more theatrical style. Both work marvelously, yet in their own uniquely individual ways.


From Cold Mountain:

An owl hooted from the trees beyond the creek. Ada counted off the rhythm of the five-beat phrase as if scanning the lines of poetry: a long, two shorts, two longs. Death bird, people said of the owl, though Ada could see no reason why. The call was so soft and lovely in the slaty light, like a dove’s cry but with more substance to it. Waldo bawled at the gate, impatient, needin — as so much did in the cove — the things Ada was learning to do, so she took her hands from the ground and stood.

Cataloochee, Wayne Caldwell told me recently over dinner in Asheville, is a long historical work, many years in the making and covering a time span of four generations from 1864-1928.

“It’s the historic prelude that led up to the government’s confiscation of land in Madison and Haywood counties — by hook, crook and eminent domain and displacing hundreds of mountain families, including some of my own people,” he said. “This story runs in my blood, I guess you could say. And it’s a part of regional and national history, like the removal of the Native peoples, that has been largely ignored, forgotten, and I felt was begging (me) to be told. The sequel to Cataloochee, which I‘m working on now, will get more into the politics and the actual displacement of mountain people.”

While Caldwell’s Cataloochee is more realism than the magic realism that the other books are built on, and is dominated primarily by a sense of social history, it is really driven by the language, by dialogue and dialect. This is a language Caldwell knows well, being Western North Carolina born and bred. Caldwell’s is a prose that lingers. Lingers through a clearer picture of everyday domestic family life. In this sense, it is more about detail than high drama. A much kinder, gentler Haywood County than is portrayed by his two contemporary literary cohorts. And the Carter/Banks family, which we follow through four generations, speaks to us through a story of human-scale realities and experiences that is almost timeless in its sense of rootedness and place.

If Caldwell hasn’t lived much of what he writes in Cataloochee, then he surely was paying attention to the stories and the speech he grew up around. Such prodigious passages as this one permeate the 349-page book:

Jack Carter was far from dark-minded, but had inherited a streak of what his mother called “worriment,” along with her conviction that while a body ought not hunt for trouble, nonetheless he should be watchful, for woe walks up and down in the world. It was 1928, the first day of October, the time of year yellow jackets turn ill. Nearly ready for winter — apples and beef cattle sold, firewood stacked in the dry — yet weather too warm to kill hogs. The in-between, a time when man thinks he deserves some rest, but woman knows none awaits.

In many ways, the biblical “Garden of Eden” theme runs through each of these three great books. Each one comes at it from a different angle and perspective. In the end, it’s about what has been lost, what has been taken from these mountains. “Blood crying from the ground,” as Caldwell puts it. Reading the books written by these three authors and set in our mountains of Western North Carolina gives one pause, gives one reason to contemplate (“to study” as one of their characters might say) what has been the price of so-called “progress” during the various invasions that have taken place in these hills in the last two centuries. It began with the invasion of the Europeans and the displacement of the Indian peoples, followed by the Civil War (and the invasion of the Union armies) and the invasion of the “Yankee” logging companies coupled with the incorporation of the National Park System in the Smokies in the first half of the 20th century, and continuing on to today with the recent invasion of large developers and their gated communities for second homes. All the while, as Caldwell’s character Preacher Noland says at the end of Cataloochee, “It’s brother against brother and father against son,” as those of us who remain here, with our great writers Frazier, Rash and Caldwell in our midst, work hard to hold on to what little bit of “Eden” still remains.

(Thomas Crowe is a poet and writer who lives in the Tuckasegee community of Jackson County. His latest book is The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist published this fall by Wind Publications. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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