The recent heavy rains here in the Smokies region have been a blessing, especially to those of us who like to observe vultures up close and personal. That's because the big birds have to remain in their roost trees well into late morning in order to dry out before they can take flight. In my opinion, there's no prettier sight in the world than a bare tree full of buzzards.
It’s late July and before long summer will be slip-sliding toward autumn. The gap between now and then is often overlooked in regard to wildflowers. The first flaming cardinal flowers appear along the creeks and purple Joe Pye weeds and ironweeds throw up their scraggly heads. The entire countryside will be blanketed in a seemingly endless array of thistle, flowering spurge, evening primrose, mullein, heal-all, mints, goldenrods, asters, and so on.
I write this down in the country again ... seated on a log
in the woods, warm, sunny midday. Have been loafing here deep
among the trees, shafts of tall pines, oak, hickory, with a thick
undergrowth of laurel and grapevines — I sit and listen to the
pine tops sighing above, and to the stillness ...
— Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (1892)
Despite the boosterism (and alliteration) that permeated a front page layout (perhaps instigated by the ever-energetic Jack Coburn, who is profiled in the article) published by the Asheville Gazette-News for July 16, 1910, some of the descriptive content excerpted here provides a lively and interesting accounting of the town and county as they were in 1910.
“Here and elsewhere, bracken is such an aggressive plant that one wonders why it has not taken over the world.”
— R.C. Moran, A Natural History of Ferns (2004)
Bracken fern is said to be one of the five most common plants in the world. Standing up to five feet high, it is the coarse leathery fern you have no doubt encountered in disturbed areas, thickets, and dry open woodlands.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in a May 2009 issue of The Smoky Mountain News.
In the opaque early-morning light outside our bedroom windows, the birds that reside in our woods — or do we reside in their woods? — commence warming up for the day with tentative calls and whistles. The male cardinal seems to take the lead most mornings. Before long, however, the patterns arrange themselves into a tapestry of music.
Two German shorthaired pointers named Maggie and Zeke were our constant companions for years. When we went bird watching along the Texas, Gulf and Atlantic coasts, they traveled along in the back of the truck, their heads stuck through the camper top window into the cab.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2008.
O Cuckoo! Shall I call thee Bird,
Or but a wandering Voice?
— William Wordsworth
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in an April 2003 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
Bears have always held a special attraction for human beings. In a chapter titled “Killing the Sacred Bear” in his monumental study The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion (1922), Sir James George Frazer traced the reverence for bears among the Ainu people of Japan and the Gilyats in Siberia.
Throughout spring the pendent catkins of sweet birch (Betula lenta) will be dangling gracefully in the wind in rich woodland settings below 4000 feet.
Catkins are the male pollen-carrying portion of the sweet birch (Betula lenta), also known as black, cherry, or mahogany birch.
Old-time dentistry as practiced here in the Smokies region wasn’t pretty. All of the descriptions I have found make it seem just about barbaric, but, then again, when you’ve got tooth problems you’ll resort to just about any remedy. John Parris, in a chapter titled “‘Tooth-jumpin’ With A Hammer” in his book These Storied Mountains (1972), provides these insights in regard to a great-uncle who practiced homespun dentistry.
While walking stream banks or low-lying wetlands, you have perhaps had the memorable experience of flushing a woodcock — that secretive, rotund, popeyed, little bird with an exceedingly long down-pointing bill that explodes from underfoot and zigzags away on whistling wings and just barely managing bat-like to dodge tree limbs and trunks.
A chimney standing all alone where a fire burned a house down long ago … a crumbling stone wall overgrown with tangles of vines … a flattened area on a slope above a creek or abandoned roadbed … all are likely locations for a dwelling or outbuilding of some sort.
Editor’s note: This Back Then column by George Ellison first appeared in the Feb. 15, 2012, edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
Olive Tilford Dargan is fairly well known in literary circles as the author of From My Highest Hill (1941), a delightful collection of autobiographical stories set in Swain County, originally published as Highland Annals in 1925. But she is also one of the finest poets the Smokies region has as yet produced.
(Editor’s Note: Readers should be cautioned that several of the descriptions of scalping and related practices presented in this column are graphic.)
When I was a boy, incidents of scalping by Native Americans were a staple in the old-time movies about the “Wild West.” And there is no doubt whatsoever that the western tribes utilized that practice. But what about the Cherokee, Creek, Catawba and other southeastern tribes — to what extent was scalping a part of their warfare and ritual?
Note: This is the second of a two-part series about Christian Priber, an utopian socialist whose beliefs — including free love — caused him in the mid-1730s to “flee” from Germany and eventually into the Southern Appalachians, where he intended with the aid of the Cherokee, to establish a Kingdom of Paradise in which those beliefs could be implemented.
Christianus Gottlieb Priber was born in Zittau, Germany, where he was the son of a beerhouse owner. In October 1722, Priber’s Doctor of Jurisprudence thesis (written in Latin) was published at Erfurt University in Erfurt, Germany, after which he returned home to practice law. In time, he became the German equivalent of a district attorney (Oberamts-Reigierungs-Advokat) for the government in the superior bailiwick that included Zittau. And in 1722 he married Christiane Dorothea Hoffman, with whom he had five children.
Everyone knows what a blue jay looks and sounds like in a general sort of way. Their incandescent blue plumage and raucous “thief! thief! thief!” calls are a vibrant part of everyday life. It is a stunningly beautiful bird with a bag full of attitudes and postures.
People sometimes wonder if the prehistoric Cherokees used any sort of poisons on their blowgun darts. These darts (slivers of black locust, hickory, or white oak) were from 10 to 20 inches long with thistledown tied at one end to form an air seal in the blowgun (a hollowed piece of cane cut to a length of seven to nine feet). The Cherokees were accurate with these weapons up to 40 or 60 feet, especially when shooting birds, but there is no evidence they used poisons of any sort on their darts.
The books have once again piled up in stacks up to three feet high in many corners of the house. It’s time to get organized. Easier said than done. Un-shelving and reorganizing and re-shelving books is tricky business, with multiple options that can be endlessly fascinating and frustrating. But it’s an innocent species of self-therapy that I look to — for the most part.
High-elevation overlooks are one of our finest natural resources. These vantage points allow us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and see the world with fresh eyes. Many of the finest overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the Great Smokies, and elsewhere can be reached directly via motor vehicles.
Late summer has slid into early autumn. The end of summer officially arrived with the autumnal equinox of Sept. 23, when the sun crosses the celestial equator.
One senses this transition in the cool mist-shrouded mornings we’ve been experiencing of late … as well as by the brown-splotched and red-tinged leaves of the buckeye trees. Communal groups of swallows will gather on wires and branches prior to their annual southerly migration. Monarch and cloudless sulphur butterflies will pass with ease over high ridges and through low gaps headed for ancestral wintering grounds.
In the June 14, 2004, issue of The New Yorker magazine, there was an essay titled “Blocked! Why Do Writers Stop Writing?” Therein one of the Romantic poets, Coleridge, was cited as a prime example of a writer who suffered from that peculiar malady known as writer’s block:
Steam and water-powered sawmills were established here in the Smokies region during the 1870s and 1880s. But full-fledged industrialized logging didn't commence until after the construction of the major railroads was finalized in the 1890s. This opened the region for profitable use by big time interests like Champion Fiber Company, Ritter Lumber Company, and others. These companies hired local men by the hundreds to fell, move and process timber.
[Before moving on to the primary subject of this column (yard gardens), I’d like to share some impressions with you of the eclipse, which (as I’m writing this) took place yesterday. For several weeks before the celestial event (as I grew weary of all the commercial hoopla), I shifted into my “Bah-humbug” mode. When asked where I was going to watch it from, I’d roll my eyes and announce: “My bedroom … it’ll be a good time to take a nice nap.”
For the ancient Cherokees and other southeastern Indian tribes, the greatest causes of illness were the spirits of vengeful animals. They were so angered at the killing of their brethren by hunters they convened a great council and devised human illnesses as payback.
Trying to answer that question, the first source I resorted to was, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary. Therein I encountered the following clues, none of which seem unlikely:
Those who read this column regularly are aware of my interest in the early descriptive literature of Western North Carolina. Whenever possible, I like to collect copies — first editions or reprints — of these often rare books. And I like to share some of the descriptions via this column from time to time.
How many naturalized plants do you recognize from your vehicle this time of year as you drive around taking care of business? My guess is that it’s more than you might anticipate. By “naturalized,” I mean those that were deliberately introduced as medicinals, edibles, ornamentals, etc., but have “escaped” from cultivated situations and become part of our regional or national flora. Some of these — like kudzu, privet, multiflora rose, etc. — are so invasive we’d just as soon they went on back to where they came from.
I bless my lucky stars that I’m a columnist assigned the pleasant task of writing about this region’s natural and human history. At a time when the constitutional underpinnings of this nation are eroding at an alarming rate due to the irrational and possibly treasonous shenanigans of a political nimcapoop, I get to consider the burning question: “Are ‘possums finally catching on?”
Systems of mature trees and shrubs are covered with blemishes that signal age: cankers, seams, burls, butt scars, sterile conks, and protrusions in the form of bracket fungi.
On one level, the natural history of a region consists of its terrain, habitats, plants, animals and how they interrelate. I also believe that no full understanding of the natural history of a region can be realized without coming to terms with its spiritual landscape. And when we consider the spiritual landscape of the Smokies region, we enter the realm of the ancient Cherokees.
All this spring, golden birch catkins were dangling throughout the woodlands of the Smokies region. These are the male, pollen-carrying part of the sweet birch (Betula lenta), also known as black, cherry, or mahogany birch.
In the natural world here in the Blue Ridge, there are certain visual images that rivet the attention of human beholders. One such is a timber rattlesnake suddenly encountered in the wild. That sight literally galvanizes the senses. The vibrating rattle-tipped tail sounds its uncanny almost-musical warning … you freeze in mid-step, holding your breath but unaware that you are doing so … the hair on the back of your neck stands on end … the event remains imprinted in your memory bank.
One never tires of discovering special places here in the southern mountains. Through the years, such places readily become old and reliable friends.
I have files in my computer containing articles I’ve forgotten that I wrote until, by chance, I run across them while looking for something else. This one appeared in the Smoky Mountain Neighbors, a weekly tabloid published in the late 1980s into the 1990s by the Asheville Citizen-Times in the counties west of Asheville. It will interest those old enough to remember when Bennett’s Drug Store in Bryson City was the place you went to for drugs and just about anything else you might require.
“The line runs down the meander of the ridge to where Bossy dropped her first calf.”
“The line runs to where a block of ice stood in the road.”
“Proceed for about the distance it takes to smoke two cigarettes.”
The worldwide annual production of “high conductivity copper” had by 1899 risen to 470,000 tons, of which 300,000 tons were used in the burgeoning electrical industry to produce various types and gages of copper wire.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in January 2011.
Are there boardinghouses still operating here in the Smokies region? There are, of course, hotels, inns, bed-and-breakfasts, and motels galore. But I’m wondering about the true, old-fashioned boardinghouse, which flourished throughout the region until the middle of the 20th century.
Editor’s note: This article was first published in The Smoky Mountain News in December 2003.
Tuckaseigee, Oconaluftee, Heintooga, Wayah, Cullasaja, Hiwassee, Coweeta, Stecoah, Steestachee, Skeenah, Nantahala, Aquone, Katuwah, and on and on. Our place names here in the Smokies region are graced throughout with evidence of the Cherokee culture that prevailed for over 700 years. Wouldn’t it be nice if Clingmans Dome was correctly designated as Mount Yonah (high place of the bears)?
Essays and columns are difficult to categorize. Dividing them into the formal and informal is about all anyone can agree upon, if that. In retrospect, I can see that this one is a fine example of a type within the informal category I think of as the “ramblin’ disquisition;” in other words, it doesn’t have a central theme (except that, for the most part, it’s about birds); and it wanders around … here and there … getting nowhere much until it ends of its own volition. You’ll see what I mean.
Like an old man’s face, mature hardwood tree trunks are covered with blemishes that signal age: cankers, seams, burls, butt scars, sterile conks, and protrusions in the form of bracket fungi. Winter is the time to take a closer look at this somber side of the natural world.
Editor’s note: this article first appeared in a November 2003 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.
If you take a walk along a woodland edge within the next few weeks, there’s every chance you’ll discover witch-hazel in full bloom. It sometimes flowers by early September and will persist into late December or early January during warm winters. But from early October into early November is the time to catch witch-hazel in its prime.
Our elementary school primers were populated by robins pulling worms out of holes. They appeared on television screens on Saturday mornings, hopping about in Disney cartoons that represented “the idea of a bird.” We know what a robin looks like in outline, but do we know much about the real thing?
Before the settlement named Charleston became the village named Bryson City in 1889, it was a tract of land known as Big Bear’s Reserve, which was itself located in the same general area as a Cherokee village that had been ravaged in 1761 by a British expeditionary force under the command of Col. James Grant.
Old-time mountaineers often picked their home and church sites according to the location and purity of springs. They were connoisseurs of water.
A large buckeye tree overhangs and supports the swinging gate leading into and out of our pasture. Since we are constantly getting in and out of our truck to open and shut the gate, we have a chance to observe this tree in all seasons. It always has something interesting going on.
“Hay fever: An acute allergic condition of the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract and the eyes, characterized by a running nose and sneezing, conjunctivitis, and headaches, caused by abnormal sensitivity to certain airborne plants ....”
So, you find yourself coming down with the above symptoms? You’ve figured out that it’s hay fever you’re suffering from and have treated yourself accordingly with the help of a physician or non-prescription drugs.
Two well known sites in Swain County were named for Col. Thaddeus Dillard Bryson, a significant figure in Western North Carolina during the second half of the nineteenth century.
One is, of course, Bryson City. And the other is the Bryson Place, now Backcountry Campsite (No. 57) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park situated six miles north of the gated trailhead in the Deep Creek Campground. Here then are some notes regarding Col. Bryson as well as his namesakes.
Lungwort is the leaf-like lichen common on tree trunks several feet or more above ground level. It resembles liverwort but grows under drier conditions. The upper surface is leathery and grayish when dry but bright green when moist, and it is pitted so as to be remindful of the texture of a lung. The undersides are often pubescent.