Tom Sawyer’s Tree Farm: A slice of Christmas with your choose-and-cut experience

Christmas tree farming is nothing new in Western North Carolina thanks to the perfect climate, perfect soil and preponderance of mountainsides — terrain that leaves farmers with few options for cultivating crops suited to slopes. Tree farms run the gamut, from a dirt farmer plunking down a half-acre of trees on the hill behind his house to massive wholesale tree dealers with thousands of acres in production.

Tom and Myra Sawyer of the Glenville community in southern Jackson County, however, have taken the traditional WNC Christmas tree farm and turned that concept on its ear. The Sawyers transformed their chose-and-cut tree farm into a little slice of the North Pole, complete with a visiting Santa and a cadre of elves.

In doing so, the couple has tapped into the growing agri-tourism niche. Plus they’ve provided scores of their Glenville and Cashiers neighbors with sorely needed seasonal employment. Up to 50 people work on the farm this time of year — not counting those employed through their wreath-making shop, year-round tree farm operation and the four retail Christmas tree lots they operate in Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. It also doesn’t take into account the large number of family members Tom and Myra Sawyer also provide jobs for. Or the burgeoning wedding-destination sideline they’ve recently started.

Tom Sawyer, in a quiet way in a remote section of the region, is putting a whole lot of folks to work.

 

Elves abound in Glenville

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm & Elf Village is simply not like anything else you find in the region. There are Christmas trees for the choosing, a Christmas-themed shop, rides on horse-drawn wagons, an elf village and a whole lot of “elves.” Thousands of people make the curvy, challenging drive here each season, Sawyer said, from as far away as Atlanta and Upstate South Carolina.

The story, as Tom Sawyer relates it, is that Santa Claus sometime in the 1940s crashed his sleigh in Glenville. The elves opted to stay in this location, hence the elf village that resulted. (It wasn’t clear how this many elves — scores of them, in fact — could have squeezed onto that small sleigh with Santa, but facts shouldn’t stand in the way of a good story.)

There is a small elf chapel, an elf outhouse, an elf naughty-time out-hut and much, much more. Once Sawyer, a former certified public accountant from Florida who started growing trees here in 1982, gets an idea you’d better watch out. Because what he conceptualizes he makes happen.

The youngest child of older parents, Sawyer said that in many ways he grew up more as a little adult than an actual kid.

“I guess I’m now reliving my childhood somehow that I never had,” Sawyer said, gesturing toward the elf village.

From the looks of it, the entire community is doing the same. Take Debra Adams, dressed in her elf costume greeting people as they arrive at the farm. Adams’ two nieces also work at Sawyer’s Christmas extravaganza, one doing face painting, the other storytelling.

Adams is a professional photographer who made the move here from Mississippi to be with her sister and nieces.

“I came up, and decided to move the business here,” Adams said. “In the meantime, this is really helping pay for Christmas. (The Sawyers) have really helped with jobs in this area during these slow periods.”

That makes Sawyer very happy.

“We’ve been able to put a lot of people to work,” Sawyer said. “It’s pretty amazing. Especially in this recession, it brings tears to your eyes the people who call and need jobs  — there’s just no economy here this time of year.”

Until recently, Sawyer kept a herd of reindeer on the farm. For a variety of natural reasons, he said, the herd dwindled out. Sawyer wants to restart the reindeer portion of his business, but a state quarantine on importing the animal has prevented that from happening to date.

Reindeer didn’t just attract additional visitors. A few years ago, Sawyer took a cell call from his daughter, who reported a really huge animal was hanging out on the 80-acre farm. It turned out that one of the reintroduced elk from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had made its way from Cataloochee Valley in Haywood County all the way to Glenville. Apparently missing the camaraderie of fellow hoofed beasts during its wanderings, it took up residence with Sawyer’s reindeer.

Rangers came, and with some difficulty, captured the elk and took it back home.

Visitors, particularly the youngest ones but adults, too, seem to enjoy this not-like-any-other Christmas tree farm.

“It’s very nice,” said Michael Atkins, who was at the Sawyers’ farm on Saturday picking out a Christmas tree with his wife, Suitlana. The couple live on Big Ridge in Glenville for eight months of the year, and the rest of the time they stay in sunny Florida.

 

Getting there

Tom Sawyer’s Christmas Tree Farm and & Elf Village is open through Dec. 24, and is located at 240 Chimney Pond Road in Glenville, off N.C. 107 on the way to Cashiers from Sylva. There are ample signs in the community to help you locate the farm once you get to the area, or call 828.743.5456 or 800.662.7008.

Forum encourages Smokies tourism players to band together for the greater good

Niche marketing and regional cooperation were the reoccurring topics of this year’s Smoky Mountain Host meeting held in Cherokee last week, an annual forum that brings together the major tourism players of the Smoky Mountain region.

“Our greatest customers are our neighbors,” said Mary Jaegar-Gale, general manager of Chimney Rock State Park, during a panel discussion at the stakeholder’s meeting.

Matthew Pegg, head of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, agreed that Western North Carolina businesses should work together to attract people who live in the region to be tourists in their own backyards.

“There are a lot of people here who don’t know what we have,” Pegg said.

Throughout the meeting, David Huskins, the head of Smoky Mountain Host, encouraged those in the room to stop competing against each other for tourists and instead band together to help brand the Smokies region as a destination, in turn benefiting all the tourism in the region. By pooling their money for advertising, tourism attractions can get more bang for their buck, Huskins said.

Several panel participants discussed creating a map of activities or an a-la-carte itinerary that helps visitors pick and choose what they want to see and do.

“It is very important to get information into their hands before they plan their trip,” said Ed Phillips, executive director of the Burke County Tourism Development Authority.

An itinerary or regional events are a couple of ways in which businesses, towns and tourism authorities could work together to appeal to niche markets, including fishing and motorcycling.

Cherokee alone hosts six fishing tournaments. But, a regional fishing tour could keep visitors in the area, spending money at local businesses, for three or four days, Pegg said.

Speaker Berkley Young, a tourism marketing specialist, emphasized that towns should focus on their niche experiences to draw in tourists rather than trying to offer something for everyone.

People need to ditch their “build it and they will come” mentality and focus on unique experiences, said Young, president of Young Strategies, a tourism research and strategic planning firm based in Charlotte.

While “uncertain” has been the buzzword used to describe travel and the economy during the past few years, businesses are expected to see moderate, 1 to 3 percent, growth in 2012, Young said, and people have not stopped traveling or spending.

The need to get away will always trump other considerations, such as the price of gas, he said. People are taking shorter trips, closer to home and are participating in fewer but more engaging activities.

By promoting unique opportunities, regions are more likely to draw in those vacationers.

Businesses must also get back to the basics of hospitality.

The first words out of a hotel employee’s mouth should not be ‘Do you have a reservation,” Young said. A simple ‘Welcome! We’re glad you are here’ can improve the experience of a visitor, who is likely tired and annoyed from traveling, and increase the chance that they will return, he said.

Close encounters of the bear kind

The battle has been an epic one, but Wolfgang Restaurant in Highlands might have finally gotten the best of a bear addicted to a nightly feast of its trash.

The bear had gotten into the unfortunate habit of visiting the restaurant’s trashcans, which were kept in an alley out back, in the wee hours of the morning.

“They would drag the garbage bag across Village Square and there would be piles of garbage and bear poop everywhere,” said Cynthia Strain.

Strain, an expert and leader of a bear education group, suggested ammonia.

“The nights they sprayed their garbage cans and bags with ammonia, they wouldn’t get into it. But the nights they forgot, the bears would get all over it,” Strain said.

That worked for a while, but the bears hankering for trash eventually got he better of them. They overcame their distaste for ammonia and began their nightly trash forays once more.

“They finally worked out a deal where Wolfgang gave the back door key for the town garbage men and would leave the garbage inside the backdoor,” Strain said. The deal was forged just last week, in a win-win deal for everyone, except perhaps the bears.

“The garbage men were happy to do it, because they wound up spending a great deal of time cleaning up the garbage from the street,” Strain said.

While getting into trash is one of the top bear problems faced by mountaintop islands of Highlands and Cashiers, bears have started to find their way into people’s homes.

“If they smell food they will come right in the screen door of the house,” Strain said.

“One fellow had a bear rip his screen door off three times trying to get to the bird seed on his porch,” Strain said.

Strain realized that conflicts between bears and people, particularly in the Highlands and Cashiers area, would only continue to rise — as bears became bolder and people more plentiful.

“Over the years we started hearing more and more and more problems with bears. People just didn’t know what to do. We thought someone needed to step in and educate the public,” Strain said. “There wasn’t anyone in a position to help these people with information and guidance”

So Strain helped start a nonprofit called B.E.A.R., which operates under the WNC Alliance, a regional environmental group and stands for Bear Education and Resources.

“They call and say they are having a lot of problems with bears in their community and want someone to come talk to them and tell them what to do and what not to do,” Strain said. “When bears do things like come in to your house and up on your deck, they are losing their natural fear of people. It is a lot easier to prevent problems than solve problems.”

Inadvertent carelessness, such as leaving out birdseed and dog food, is the biggest challenge Strain is trying to combat. But sadly, she has heard stories of people making and feeding the bears peanut butter sandwiches and coaxing them into yards.

Two groups in the Highlands-Cashiers area are working to teach residents there — and across WNC — how to better co-exist with black bears. Bear encounters are particularly frequent on the plateau area of southern Jackson and southeastern Macon counties where the two communities are situated.

Feeding bears is the biggest mistake a person can make, said Strain. Bears that lose their fear of humans to the point of showing aggression often get put down.

“It’s a bad year for bears, but that doesn’t mean you should feed them,” she said. “Because then you create serious problems that could end up causing the death of the bear. Once bears become accustomed to food, they associate humans with food — and lose their fear. And the more conditioned they get, the more aggressive they become.”

John Edwards, the founder of Mountain Wildlife Days and who lives in Sapphire Valley Resort, helps represent the interests of black bear enthusiasts. This is done with the help of the Bear Smart Initiative sponsored by the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Wild South and other experts.

“There is pretty much a constant bear issue here,” Edwards said of Sapphire and that community. Like Strain, Edwards warned against feeding bears.

“That can create a problem in a hurry,” Edwards said. “If one person throws food off a deck to a wild animal, they come back.”

Strain has heard a few stories of people being swatted by bears.

A man in Highlands walked out of his house at night and nearly stumbled into a bear.

“He turned and ran, and it triggered an instinct in the bear to chase him. He was running up the stairs of his house and the bear swatted at his leg and scratched his leg before he got inside, so those things will happen,” Strain said.

In a similar story, a lady flipped on her outside lights to see why her dog was barking. She saw a bear cub in her yard and stepped outside for a closer look.

“What she didn’t realize is she just stepped out in between the cub and its mother. That’s something you never want to do,” Strain said. “The mother swatted at the woman and scratched her.”

Stories such as these have led to a fear by some to go out in their yard at night.

“I would not be afraid, but I know how to read a bear’s behavior. The only time to be afraid is if you startle a bear — if they don’t hear, smell or see you coming,” Strain said.

How to act during a bear encounter is another of the bear topics Strain and her group cover during their talks and programs. Chiefly, speak to the bear gently, don’t make eye contact and back away slowly. Don’t, under any circumstances, run.

“If they do charge you, it is a bluff charge,” Strain said.

 

A mother bear’s finely honed biological clock

Bears have to pack on serious pounds in the fall — three to four pounds a day, or about 25,000 calories — in order to make it through hibernation.

It’s especially critical for the females. They give birth while hibernating and sustain their cubs in their den until spring arrives.

Baby cubs are born in January weighing less than a pound. Essentially born premature, the cubs latch on to their mothers and nurse around the clock for the rest of winter. The mother converts her vast fat stores to milk, producing up to 50 pounds of milk despite taking in no food or calories herself. Cubs weigh eight pounds by the time they emerge from the den in April.

A mother bear calibrates the number of cubs she has based on how well she can nourish them. While bears mate in June, development of the embryo is delayed until fall. A bundle of fertilized eggs simply sits in the mother’s uterus, waiting to see how much weight she’ll gain during the pre-hibernation feeding frenzy. When — and if — she hits the target weight gain, the bundle of eggs pops open and implants in the uterus.

Last year was a great year for acorns, bear’s chief food source, resulting in more cubs than normal. The large number of cubs born in spring has made matters even worse during the acorn and food shortage this fall.

Forget the birdfeeders and dog bowls, this bear went straight for the kitchen cupboard

Steve Hewitt of the Villages of Plott Creek in Haywood County already has a pretty good idea about the concept of live and let live when it comes to bears.

There have been a number of bear sightings in his community, and one very close sighting indeed for he and his wife. About two weeks ago, at about 4 or 5 p.m., his wife thought she saw the couple’s black dog walking around outside the house.

It wasn’t — it was a bear and her cubs, “and they weren’t concerned” at all about human interest in their movements, Hewitt said.

The couple doesn’t keep bird feeders in the yard, though a neighbor had bird feeders torn down by bears. Hewitt also isn’t terribly worried about his dog tangling with a bear.

“He’s not a real courageous dog,” he explained. Hewitt believes people just need to live with the reality of bears, and leave them alone to go about their bear business.

Along with many other subdivisions and residential areas in Western North Carolina, the Villages of Plott Creek has sent out warnings to residents about the increase in bear activity.

Last week, in a newsletter, it was noted: “There have been several black bear sightings within and around the Villages of Plott Creek in the past four months. We are sending this notice to inform all residents to use caution with your children, pets, bird feeders and other food items in yards, walking and driving in the Villages. To date, none of the sightings have shown aggression other than damaging bird feeders and searching for natural food in yards.”

Bear sightings and bear visits are also taking place, of course, in other communities. Ray Daniel, who lives in the Cashiers community on Breedlove Road with his wife, Janet, has replaced three window screens torn out by bears.

The bears have actually made their way into the couple’s house on at least two occasions. Three or four weeks ago, the Daniels awoke to discover a bear had ripped through a screen and gotten in the kitchen — forensic proof, in the form of a perfect imprint of a bear paw, was discovered on a stainless-steel kitchen appliance.

The bear apparently ate chocolate chips, crackers and cookies, plus peaches and bananas.

“It didn’t like the oatmeal — the bear left that,” Daniel said, adding that peach pits and banana peels were left on the porch. Not long after that particular break-in, a bear got into the couple’s basement where trashcans were stored. Trash was strewn over the yard.

A helpful friend told the couple that they understood bears dislike the smell of Clorox. And, in fact, after Daniel scrubbed out the trashcans with the cleaner, the bears haven’t been back. But they’ve been seen around the community by neighbors, leaving the Daniels to keep a wary eye out for their unwelcome breakfast guests.

Civil War crossing of Smokies was memorable feat

The war in the Smokies proved to be … a curious conjunction of terrain, history, politics, and culture ... a tragic division of loyalties … a brutal partisan conflict

where men left homes and wives and children and trekked north in cold and rain … where still others served in nearly forgotten units to protect border and home.

— Noel C. Fisher, The Civil War in the Smokies

 

One of the remarkable “nearly forgotten” events that took place in the Smokies region during the Civil War occurred at Indian Gap, situated at 5,317 feet between Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap along the high divide between North Carolina and Tennessee. On Jan. 12, 1865, a Confederate battery of artillery and about 650 men under the command of General Robert B. Vance crossed the Great Smoky Mountains at Indian Gap in an attempt to secure provisions, screen the main approaches to North Carolina, and guard the left flank of Longstreet’s main Confederate force at Greeneville, Tenn.

The primary military objectives failed for the most part, but the crossing itself — accomplished under the most severe conditions — deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. Described as one of the more “heroic episodes” to take place during the Civil War in the southern mountains, the crossing has been likened to “Hannibal crossing the Alps in miniature.” It involved the Thomas Legion, one of the most colorful forces in the Confederacy, which consisted of a unit put together by Will Thomas made up of both mountaineers and Cherokees. The Indian component of the Legion was initially comprised of 130 Cherokees. Used primarily as scouts, their role in the war involved alleged “atrocities” of scalping made by the northern press. And the crossing took place over the old Oconaluftee Turnpike, sections of which can still be located.

The road was commissioned by the N.C. General Assembly more than three decades prior to the war. Tom Robbins (a now-retired park historian stationed at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center for years) has a long-standing interest in the history of the road. In “Summit Magazine” (Summer 1986), Robbins provided an account of the road’s early history:

“The valley was Cherokee land for hundreds of years before it was given up in a treaty in the 1790’s. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the first permanent white settlers were occupying land along the banks of the Oconaluftee River. Like many areas throughout the mountains, as the population of the valley grew, so did the need for roads to provide a better means of trade and communication.

“In 1831, the N.C. General Assembly authorized the formation of the Oconaluftee Turnpike Co. to build a road through the valley to the top of the Smoky Mountains. Road commissioners were selected from the local community and authorized to sell stock and collect tolls.

“Construction of the road was difficult and time-consuming. Cliffs and the river had to be avoided, thus lengthening the route. Blasting involved hand-drilling holes in rocks and packing the holes with black powder. Large rocks were sometimes split by burning logs on them, then pouring cold water on the hot rocks.

“The road, completed in 1839, followed an older Indian trail along much of its route. It crossed the Smokies at a point called Indian Gap. Initially, the principal traffic on the turnpike was livestock being driven to market. But not long after the road’s completion several men living in the valley formed the Epson Salts Manufacturing Co. in an attempt to tap the mineral resources [at Alum Cave] on the southwestern side of Mount LeConte in Tennessee.”

Robins believes the turnpike gate was probably situated beside the Oconaluftee River about where the present boundary is situated between the national park and Cherokee lands. He has walked the old road up the north bank of the river from the visitor center to the Smokemont Campground area and on to the Kephart Prong trailhead, where it “sort of gets lost” in the old roadways cut there during the CCC days of the 1930s.

Two of the most visible and accessible sections of the Oconaluftee Turnpike are to be found alongside U.S. 441: (1) at the Kephart Prong trailhead cross the footbridge, proceed 100 yards along the main trail, then follow a side trail (to the right) where the old trace is obvious as it is worn up to five feet deep; and (2) at the Oconaluftee Overlook (just below Newfound Gap), where a clearly defined section winds up from the overlook area toward the Clingmans Dome road along the main ridge.

Accounts differ as to just when Thomas started improving the road. The version published in 1914 by John Preston Arthur in Western North Carolina: A History from 1730-1913 is perhaps the most accurate. Arthur states that Thomas obtained “an order from General Kirby Smith in the spring of 1862 to raise a battalion of sappers and miners ... and put them to making roads, notably a road from Sevier County, Tennessee, to Jackson County, N.C. This road followed the old Indian trail over the Collins Gap [another name for Indian Gap], down the Ocona Lufty river to near what is now Whittier, N.C. [ten miles east of Bryson City].”

In January 1864, the 58-year-old Will Thomas and 125 of the Cherokees joined about 100 infantry, 375 cavalry, and one section of artillery Vance had marched from Asheville to acquire provisions and take up positions in Tennessee. By all accounts the winter of 1864 was unusually cold with considerable snow in the higher elevations. According to William R. Trotter’s Bushwackers! The Civil War in North Carolina (vol. 2, 1988):

“The Indian Gap road that … had been hacked through the mountains toward Sevierville was passable as far as the crest of the Smokies, but beyond that the route was little more than a mule-path: steep, rocky, and too narrow even for an ox cart. But what oxen could not do, men could. At the crest, Vance’s men dismantled their artillery. Teams of men carried the wheels, axles, rigging, and ammunition. The gun barrels themselves were harnessed to ropes and rolled, pushed, or dragged down the far side, gun metal screeching on naked rock. The march was characterized not only by Homeric physical exertion, but also by vile weather; Vance and his men did all this into the teeth of savagely cold winds that scoured the mountain tops like a sand-blaster ....”

After reassembling their equipment at the base of the Smokies, Vance’s men had initial success on Jan. 13 with the capture of a Union caravan of about 30 wagons. But shortly thereafter, flushed and cocky by his “little victory,” Vance was smashed at Schultz’s Mill on Cosby Creek by Col. William Palmer’s 15th Pennsylvania Calvary.”

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..

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:

Soco

Oconaluftee

Tusquitee.

They mean:

Nothing.

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.”

Report will provide benchmark on health of WNC’s natural resources

A sweeping status report on natural resources in the mountains is being developed by a regional task force, serving as a tool for decision makers to understand the ecological context of issues they face.

The Mountain Resources Commission plans to issue the WNC Sustainability and Vitality Index by the end of the year.

“It is going to be a report card for Western North Carolina,” Jay Leutze, a board member on the Mountain Resources Commission. “This sustainability and vitality index is giving us that snapshot now of how we are doing.”

Leutze said the index will provide a benchmark that the health of the region’s natural resources can be measured against in the future. It is a massive undertaking, funded with a $140,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of the data already exists, whether it is endangered species surveys by the Fish and Wildlife Service or imparied waterways by the N.C. Division of Water Quality. The breadth of ecological data on the region is enormous.

“We live in on one of the most progressive places in the world for understanding its natural resources,” Leutze said.

But it doesn’t reside in one place. The Sustainability Index will change that.

“It is going to be a major, big organic living document,” Leutze said. “We want to be a resource people can access across the mountains where people can get standard data sets.”

The Mountain Resources Commission was formed in 2009 by the N.C. General Assembly and got to work in 2010. The 17-member commission was tasked with studying environmental issues facing Western North Carolina, particularly those brought about by growth and development.

The bill creating the Mountain Resources Commission narrowly made it through the General Assembly that year.

“It was the last bill that passed in that session of the General Assembly,” Leutze said.

It was well into the night on the last day of the lawmakers’ session when it slid through.

“They are bound by law not to go past midnight unless they climb up on a ladder and literally stop the clock. That bill passed with the clock physically stopped, and it was a miracle it got through. Mountain legislators are the key to it passing,” Leutze said.

Joe Sam Queen, a former state senator from Waynesville, was integral in the formation of the Mountain Resources Commission, helping to give birth to the idea and providing the heft to get it passed, Leutze said.

“There were a lot of fears raised over who these people were going to be and are they going to come into our communities and tell use how to be,” Leutze said.

That’s not the case, however.

“We are not regulatory,” Leutze said. The commission may recommend policies and other solutions to safeguard natural resources, but would have to convince state lawmakers or county commissioners to take them up on it.

Leutze spoke about the Mountain Resources Commission during the annual conference of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area held at Lake Junaluska Conference Center this week, bringing together players in the tourism industry from across WNC.

“A very important part of our mountain culture is agricultural and natural heritage,” Angie Chandler, executive director of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, said by way of introduction. “It is vital we sustain that so we can continue to reap the benefits of being able to live and work in Western North Carolina.”

Leutze showed a series of maps depicting development over the past four decades. What was a thumb-print sized patch over Asheville in 1970 had spread like a ink blot over the map by the last slide.

“It is a challenge to us to handle well what is coming our way,” said Leutze, who is also on the board for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, a land conservation trust.

Those from this area on the commission include Tom Massie of Sylva and Bill Gibson of the Southwestern Regional Commission.

Dairymen struggle for footing, but milk regulations limit their options

Farming is not an easy life — the hours start early, the labor is pretty backbreaking and success often depends on the vagaries of weather. One factor, however, that’s been working in the farmer’s favor is the recent trend in local food.

With farmers markets popping up across the country, and campaigns like Buy Haywood and the statewide Farm-to-Fork initiative encouraging consumers to patronize local growers, small farmers are tapping local markets where they can share their bounty. The Center for Environmental Farm Systems estimates that they’ve funneled $6.6 million dollars back into local farms in the last year alone through their 10 percent program, which urges people to buy 10 percent of their food locally. And they’ve only got 324 businesses signed up.

But there’s one segment of the farm population that isn’t jumping as readily on the local, straight-to-consumers bandwagon: dairies.

It would seem like a natural progression, especially in this area. The Southeast drinks more milk than anyone else in the country, so why not buy it from the dairy next door?

The simple answer is cost. But the factors that play into that are far less simple.

“It’s just a lot more complicated once you get into it,” said Ronnie Ross. He runs Ross Dairy in Haywood County, and the farm has been in his family for 45 years. “The equipment is really expensive, and you would have to have someone full time, someone really competent full time, to manage the other end of that, the marketing and the selling. Unless you went into it in a big way, I don’t think it would be cost effective. I think you would be losing money, a lot of money.”

For a regular farmer to sell their produce to neighbors or friends or farmers market customers, the regulation is pretty low level. In fact, in North Carolina, it’s nearly nonexistent. If you want to sell your produce, you can set up a stand and do just that.

For a dairy, the regulations are infinitely greater.

Diaries on the whole are heavily regulated, requiring testing and licensing and paperwork at the state and federal level. But those selling to the public require a whole other raft of costly licenses and equipment.

Peter Jackson has seen that problem firsthand. He is the executive director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, and he’s been working with and surveying dairy farmers in the region for years.

“You know, we’ve been losing those dairies. That used to be a really big industry in Western North Carolina,” said Jackson. “The cost of processing it yourself is just huge if you weren’t already, if you were sending it away on a truck.”

And because of that high cost, that’s what most dairies in the region do.

Ross sends about 16,000 pounds of milk — almost 2,000 gallons — each day to Milko in Asheville. Milko is what’s called a milk pool; they buy from farmers and then process and package it for sale. At Milko, which is owned by Ingles and produces their Laura Lynn brand, around 80 percent of the milk comes from a 120-mile radius.

“We have the most local milk supply in the Southeast,” said Buddy Gaither, the plant’s manager. “But there’s not enough milk in Western North Carolina to supply our needs.”

Because, in recent years, dairy farmers in Western North Carolina have found it hard to compete with farms in the east, where contiguous, arable land is much cheaper and easier to procure. And where regular farmers might be able to turn to their local markets to boost sales, it’s hard for dairies to do that.

According to a 2007 study done by Jackson’s group, dairy farmers had dwindled by 70 percent in the region since 1985.

“Most of the 68 who were left said they weren’t going to be there another decade,” said Jackson.

In WNC, there’s only one dairy that sells its own milk, the Spring Ridge Creamery in Otto, just before the Georgia line in Macon County.

And their business isn’t hurting. They’ve got a pretty steady milk trade and they also process it into cheese and ice cream that sells fabulously on those hot summer days to travellers traversing U.S. 441.

But Jim Moore, the dairy’s owner, got into the business when startup costs were lower and second-hand equipment was much easier to come by.

Jackson said he now knows of farmers who would love to get into the business, but can’t afford the tens of thousands required to get going.

Of course, there are always under-the-table sales, which, Jackson said, are likely happening around the region.

With the recent trend in raw milk — milk that hasn’t been pasteurized — he posits that there are probably farmers selling to folks on the side.

Although raw milk has a wide interest base, it’s still illegal to sell for human consumption in North Carolina. After a spate of sicknesses last month caused by raw milk smuggled back over the border from South Carolina, it doesn’t seem like the law will soon be changing.

But while the outlook for local dairies may not be particularly bright, it’s not quite apocalyptic just yet.

Yes, it’s costly, but it is possible, especially for farmers who get into just cheese, rather than milk. That doesn’t require living up to the more onerous grade A standards.

Jackie Palmer is proof of that fact.

Palmer is the owner of Dark Cove Creamery in Cullowhee, and hers was the first licensed goat dairy in Western North Carolina. She’s been running the business for about 15 years and started it by depleting her savings.

“I’m the sort of person that doesn’t like to have debt, so I just worked a little at a time and it was paid off as I worked,” said Palmer. “I just bought the equipment that I needed when I had the money. It took me a number of years to make it happen. I just was lucky I guess.”

But she was also smart, making sure not to place a larger financial burden on the dairy than it could handle.

“The dairy is a huge part of this farm, but I find for sustainability purposes it’s good to diversify,” said Palmer.

The goat business is probably the main breadwinner, said Palmer, but she keeps other enterprises running because she wants to keep the dairy small. That’s part of what makes it successful.

“I believe in a tiny business,” said Palmer. “I think I can produce a better product if I can stay small. It’s a cleaner product, a more consistent product and something that I’m really proud of.”

And that’s essentially the conclusion Ronnie Ross and his family have always come to.

“We’ve thought about it, and it would be a nice thing to do, but it’s just so much work and stress and we’re pretty much loaded up as we are,” said Ross. It can work, said Ross, if you go really big or really small. But you’re heart really has to be in it, and even then it can fail.

He tells a story of a Buncombe County dairy that tried producing their own products and went under, despite valiant efforts.

So for those who get their produce from the farmer next door, finding the dairy next door might not be as easy.

But they’re still out there, like Palmer, you just have to know where to look.

Paddling on the decline, but still alive in WNC schools

In North Carolina, it’s illegal to hit a prison inmate. You can’t hit a child in a day care center. Military officers can’t hit their subordinates. In workplaces, nursing homes, hospitals and elsewhere, hitting is forbidden. It is even illegal to hit an animal.

But in the state’s public schools, there’s no ban on hitting, because North Carolina is one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment to be used in schools.

The practice, once common, has fallen out of favor, but there are still 38 school districts out of 115 in North Carolina that allow kids to be punished with the paddle.

Only 17 used it last year, and only a handful of times compared to some other states, but the option still exists for teachers and administrators who find it effective. Haywood, Macon and Swain are among those that use it. Jackson and the Eastern Band do not.

Starting this school year, however, the choice falls into the hands of parents, who will be able to opt-out of corporal punishment for their child.

A bill just passed by the N.C. General Assembly requires school districts to get parent permission for corporal punishment at the beginning of the school year, a right already given to parents of students with disabilities last year.

Before, the only parental involvement required was notification. Schools had to let parents know they’d done it, but not necessarily before, and they certainly didn’t have to ask permission.

Allison Best-Teague of Waynesville is one parent who will be taking the state up on that offer.

She doesn’t use that kind of discipline in her own house and is glad she can now have a say in what happens to him at school, too.

“I’m actually against it for the school system overall, so I’m very glad to have the option to opt out for my child,” said Best-Teague. “I really think the bigger problem is that the state is still allowing it.”

Best-Teague now runs Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville, but she was once the director of KARE, a Haywood County anti-child abuse organization.

In her role there, she helped parents learn how to deal with disciplining their children. In all the methods she worked with, she never saw corporal punishment listed as an option.

The new state law is a win for groups such as Action For Children, a statewide policy group that advocates for the eradication of corporal punishment in North Carolina schools.

“It has helped that the legislature has voted on this, it has changed policies,” said Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow with the group. “It means that the school district’s that are still allowing it will have to reassess their position on this.”

And in Haywood County, that’s certainly true. It has been used extremely sparingly in Haywood — only 16 times out of student population of more than 7,000 between 2008 and 2010. This past school year, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte estimates fewer than 10 instances of paddling in the county’s schools.

“It’s just not used very often and when it is, it’s by parent request,” said Nolte. None of his schools, he said, ever suggest it to parents. But they might comply if a parent asks for it.

Now, however, the new state law might lead Haywood to end corporal punishment all together for fear of sending the wrong message to parents, Nolte said. The school system would have to send permission forms to the parents of all 7,000 students, creating the false public perception that corporal punishment is commonplace, Nolte said.

Nolte said the decision will be up to individual principals. But he doubts many will choose to send that paper home.

“It’s not worth the trouble or the message to have that option available for five students,” he said.

The result will likely be a de facto end to corporal punishment in Haywood.

The issue is expected to be on the agenda at Macon and Swain County school board meetings this month, if not to look at a ban, at least to discuss the new regulations.

To what end?

In Western North Carolina, there are a number of districts that still allow corporal punishment. Haywood, Macon, Swain, Graham and Transylvania counties are still on the list, as are Burke and McDowell. Jackson County banned it in 2001, and Cherokee and Clay counties have stopped over the past three years. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians school system does not use corporal punishment, either.

Even among chronic users, however, the numbers have dropped precipitously in recent years.

Burke County, for example, paddled 325 kids in the 2008-2009 school year. The next year, it was only 93.

Macon County was much the same: 71 in 2008-2009, but just 30 the following year.

School officials and advocates such as Vitaglione chalk this up to increased awareness and changing times.

“I really think it’s probably a form of discipline that has aged out,” said Nolte. “It’s probably timed out in terms of its broad scope effectiveness.”

Dan Brigman, Macon County’s superintendent, concurs.

“Based on historical data, that’s what I’m seeing,” said Brigman. “I think corporal punishment is effective somewhat on a few students, but in most instances it’s a temporary disciplinary measure and if it impacts long term behavior, that’s a question.”

And that view is essentially a watered-down version of what groups such as Action For Children have long been saying.

“Over the last two decades, study after study has come out regarding school discipline, and none have found that corporal punishment is effective, and by that we mean in ongoing student behavior,” said Vitaglione. “Whatever indicator you use, there’s no correlation in using corporal punishment and improving any of those other outcomes that you’d like in schools.”

And the literature seems to back up that outlook.

Studies in places such as Psychological Bulletin and the Journal of School Psychology have noted little if any long-term changes in how students act because of paddling.

The debate over corporal punishment, though, is unlike other contentious issues in one notable way: it’s pretty difficult to find a strong advocate on the other side of the ideological divide.

There are plenty who have taken the findings as ammunition for their vocal campaigns against the practice. The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a position against it. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch teamed up in 2009 on a study and subsequent campaign that decried the use of corporal punishment on students with disabilities. Urban clothing pioneer Marc Ecko has launched a crusade called Unlimited Justice, a play on his Ecko Unlimited label, that seeks to ban physical punishment in all 50 states. There are numerous regional and local groups who have set up opposition.

But on the other side, it seems that there are only a few school administrators who will make a defense for it, and even then it’s half-hearted and with some pretty strong caveats.

“It works on some occasions, on other occasions, that’s not the answer for it,” said Bob Marr, Swain County superintendent.

It could be, as Nolte said, that the practice is just trending out, fading in deference to a more modern perspective.

The touchy legal ramifications probably don’t hurt, though.

While North Carolina hasn’t really faced court challenges over corporal punishment, it is also pretty low in the numbers rankings.

Take Mississippi. In 2009-2010, Action For Children estimates there were 38,000 instances of corporal punishment in that state’s schools. Fellow Southern states Arkansas, Texas and Alabama were similarly inclined, their numbers reaching into the tens of thousands. In comparison, North Carolina’s approximately 700 instances are hardly in the same league.

In Mississippi, however, three suits were brought against school systems for corporal punishment in 2010.

One, a gender discrimination suit brought by a male high schooler, is still working its way through the courts. Two others were money damages suits brought against a single district. The students in those cases were 11 and 6.

In Tennessee, a high school basketball player brought a case against his coaches for what the player said was excessive use of paddling. He lost on appeal, as the court said the action was disciplinary.

That sticking point is one of the key objections of anti-corporal punishment activists.

In North Carolina, teachers and administrators are immune from any prosecution over practicing physical discipline unless the child needs medical attention.

Even then, said Vitaglione, he’s not encountered a parent willing to prosecute.

“There have been a few instances where we’ve heard of a child being injured, but we have not had a family who was willing to participate in filing a suit,” said Vitaglione. “In part they feel intimidated, in part they feel guilty on their own. We, frankly, are loathe to get into that as well. We would prefer that the decision be made in the school board room or in the legislature.”

The legislature, however, is unlikely to enact an outright ban anytime soon. Bills with such proposals were defeated in 2007, 2008 and 2009. This most recent bill leaves the choice in local and parental hands, and both lobbyists and legislators anticipate that it will stay that way.

“Probably not,” was Rep. Ray Rapp’s, D-Mars Hill, answer, when asked if he saw a blanket ban coming anytime soon, although Rapp himself does not support corporal punishment. “I would say that most legislators may have strong feelings one way or the other on it, but they’re content to leave it to local jurisdictions.”

Action For Children says they’ll take what they can get, but statewide elimination is really what they’re pushing for.

One of the main reasons is oversight. There really isn’t any. The state has hitherto not required any reporting of corporal punishment statistics, nor have they handed down any guidelines on how, when or why the discipline can be meted out.

In Haywood County, it’s a principals-only policy. In other school districts, teachers, teacher’s assistants and even substitute teachers are allowed.

Without more careful oversight, say advocacy groups, some sections of the student population may be getting a disproportionate share of the corporal punishment.

Nationally, that ACLU-Human Rights Watch study found this to be the case for students with disabilities. They found those students twice as likely to be hit than the general student body.

Rapp believes that’s partly why it’s on the decline, and why lawmakers were spurred to action on the issue over the last few years.

“Without the strictest supervision and care, you can easily find yourself in court,” said Rapp.

In North Carolina, the districts that allow spanking and paddling are quickly dwindling. Gaston County eliminated it a few months ago. Vitaglione expects Greene County to follow suit at their school board meeting next week. The issue came up at Monday’s Swain County School Board meeting, where the board decided to send the forms to parents this year and revisit the question later.

Macon County’s school board is scheduled to discuss it later this month, if not to consider a ban, at least to look at new regulations.

Nationwide, the trend is also towards extinction for the disciplinary tactic. Most major urban areas have long since outlawed it — New York City schools have had a policy against it since the 19th century.

States that still allow it are mostly in the South, with a few dotted around the rural west.

Internationally, the United States is alone among developed nations in still allowing it in schools. Many developing nations — Iran, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Malawi, Namibia and many others — also forbid it.

Though a nationwide ban seems as unlikely as a state proscription, it’s more plausible that de facto bans will become more widespread, as legislation like North Carolina’s recent bill become more commonplace.

Locally, school administrators say most parents think it has already long been phased out anyway.

“I do think the new law probably makes it impractical to even have as an option,” said Haywood’s Bill Nolte. “Do you want to sent home 7,000 sheets of paper for something you may or may not even do? What’s the practicality in that?”

The mystery of mountain ferns

Identifying ferns is an entirely different process than, say, identifying wildflowers or trees. They don't display flowers, showy fruits, or bark patterns. What they do display are myriad leaf (frond) forms and highly distinctive, if minute, spore cases. Once you learn how to hone in on these features, you're on your way to identifying the 70 or so native species in Western North Carolina.

Perhaps a third of these are so unique in appearance there’s nothing else you can confuse them with. For instance, along the trail that leads down the creek from our house I’ve located, to date, 17 species: Christmas fern, ebony spleenwort, marginal wood fern, rock-cap fern, hay-scented fern, sensitive fern, cinnamon fern, maidenhair fern, New York fern, lady fern, broad beech fern, bracken, rattlesnake grape fern, blunt-lobed grape fern, rusty woodsia, fragile fern, and silvery glade fern. All but the last four are easily recognizable after initial identification.

Perhaps another third of our 70 native species are so rare or inaccessible (sometimes only behind waterfalls) that the average fern seeker probably won’t encounter them. Now comes the fun part. The remaining 20 to 25 species are similar enough in general appearance that their sori (clusters of spore cases usually located on the underside of their fronds) require examination under magnification. A 10-power lens will do just fine. The arrangement, shape, or other features of these clusters will be diagnostic as to species.     

In the workshops I conduct, we first review the fern life cycle and then the language utilized in field guides for fern parts. Afterwards, we visit sites where participants can work on their identification skills, using a non-technical field guide. By the end of the day, everyone is up and running in regard to ferns.

Occasionally, a natural history book will come along that breaks new ground.

Timothy P. Spira’s Wildflowers & Plant Communities: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Carolinas, Virginia, Tennessee, & Georgia (Chapel Hill: UNC Press) introduces readers to the diverse plant communities one can seek out and explore in a systematic fashion. But the concept has never been systematically delineated in a non-technical format for the non-professional plant enthusiast. In a section headed “Plant Community Profiles,” Spira describes in some detail communities found at various elevations in the mountain and adjacent piedmont regions: spruce-fir forests, grassy and heath balds, high-elevation rock outcrops, red oak forests, northern hardwood forests, rich and acidic cove forests, spray cliffs, rocky stream sides, mountain bogs, river bluff and alluvial forests, forest edges, and others.

For example, the high-elevation rock outcrop community is described in pages 119-123 as to distinguishing features, vegetation, seasonal aspects, distribution, dynamics, and conservation aspects. Sources are cited for Suggested Reading about the community. Forty or so Characteristic Plants (trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, spikemosses, ferns, and lichens) are listed in a table. Six rare species one might encounter in this specific community are enumerated: spreading avens, mountain golden heather, granite dome St. John’s wort, Blue Ridge ragwort, pinkshell azalea, and three-tooth cinquefoil. A set photographs illustrates most of the plants associated with each community. two-hundred and fifty pages are devoted to Species Profiles of each of the hundreds of plants associated with the various communities. Throughout this section, the entries are packed with tidbits of information about plants, including ferns, I had never before encountered.

• I knew hayscented fern as a common species resembling lady fern that often forms dense stands. From Spiria, I learned that “Established plants spread rapidly into open areas as buds at the base of leaves develop into long, creeping, underground stems … Apparently, a dense organic mat of roots, rhizomes, and dead fronds, coupled with a dense canopy of living fronds, inhibits seed germination and seedling establishment of other plants. Chemicals such as coumarin that leach from the fronds or rhizomes of hayscented fern also have an inhibitory effect on seeds and seedlings.”

• Christmas fern fronds, which are evergreen, reorientate themselves to a prostrate position in winter so as to conserve energy during cold months. The warmer ground increases leaf temperatures, promoting photosynthetic activity during relatively mild days.

• Cinnamon ferns are called “living fossils” because the forms we see today are much the same as they were more than 200 million years ago. Individual clumps can be quite old as the fibrous rootstock can persist for years.

• Most plants die after losing more than 15 percent of their water content. Resurrection fern, which curls up during dry weather, can lose up to 97 percent of its water without irreversible harm.       

Most of us don't find it absolutely essential to know the name of every plant and animal we encounter, but it is a quiet joy to know the more common ones on a first-name basis. This has been especially true for me in regard to ferns. They are, after all, our most graceful plant — things of beauty, providing forms that delight the eye and add harmony to our woodland and garden settings.

NOTE: George Ellison will teach a “Native Fern Identification” workshop for the North Carolina Arboretum from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 11. After an introductory morning session, participants will car pool to habitats along the Blue Ridge Parkway where various species can be found. Walks will be short and easy. Materials required are bag lunch, rain gear, hand lens (any household magnifier will do), and the 2001 second edition of "Fern Finder" (Nature Study Guild Publishers) by Anne and Barbara Hallowell. Copies of Fern Finder will be available for purchase at the North Carolina Arboretum. Each workshop will be limited to 15 participants. For additional information call 828.665.2492.

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..

Smokey Mountain News Logo
SUPPORT THE SMOKY MOUNTAIN NEWS AND
INDEPENDENT, AWARD-WINNING JOURNALISM
Go to top
Payment Information

/

At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.