Growing the connection between farms and consumers

Friends of mine in the Jackson County farming community have launched a joint CSA, which is short for Community Sustained Agriculture, under the name Living Earth Farm Shares CSA.

Ron and Cathy Arps, Stephen Beltram and Becca Nestler, Laird and Penny O’Neill, and John Beckman teamed up over the winter, envisioned this venture, and are now making it happen. They’ve sold about 20 shares so far to folks in the local community who want organically grown vegetables, Ron told me while dropping off a pack of lettuce seed last week at the office here in Sylva.

The Arps pioneered the CSA concept in this corner of Western North Carolina. They’ve run a successful one for more than a decade, serving a small and select (and lucky) group of people in the Sylva area. A couple of years ago, William Shelton started another CSA down in the Whittier community, and we have at least two more in Jackson County, one by Vera Guise (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and the other by Curt Collins (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

What’s a CSA, you ask? They vary in exact details, but essentially a CSA is simply a buy-in to the farm by customers. In the case of Living Earth Farm Shares CSA, you pay (or split with another family) $500 “per share,” plus give back four hours of farm work. In return, the farmers hand you a box of vegetables each week from May 1 through Sept. 14.

Steven and Becca will be selling shares in meat, too: chickens, pigs and Thanksgiving turkeys.

Ron was frank in our discussion about the challenges of a joint venture such as this — there’s not a clashing of personalities or anything like that, but a variety of timing issues to resolve. Vegetables have to be grown out and harvested on a more-or-less predictable schedule. Since farming is inherently unpredictable, that can create some interesting dilemmas.   

I steered clear of the CSA concept when I farmed for a living because of that very difficulty. I instead sold through farmers markets, or occasionally to a few customers who liked to buy directly at the farm. That’s easier because if you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it — no broken promises, no disappointed customers, no explaining that you simply didn’t get the beets planted in time because of the weather.

CSAs, particularly on this scale (Living Earth Farm Shares CSA is offering up to 72 shares), requires intensive planning, scheduling and communicating amongst the growers involved. I imagine, however, that there is much joy in return. You have the ability to share failures and successes, as well.

If you are interested in a subscription, email Ron at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. William can be reached through


This seems like an excellent opportunity to clear up a few misconceptions about farming, local farms and farming practices. I don’t know why I feel compelled to venture here, because I’ll surely regret it. Every time I’ve written a version of what follows, it’s as if I took a stick and poked it into one of my beehives. But, being a slow learner, here I go again:  

A CSA (or vendor at a farmers market) isn’t necessarily organic — ask the grower(s) involved what methods they use. This is demonstrated in the two CSAs listed above: Living Earth Farm Shares CSA is selling vegetables grown without the use of synthetic chemicals; William uses chemicals.

This does not make William bad and Living Earth Farm Shares CSA good — in fact, William is one of the most responsible growers I know, and he’s very upfront about his farming practices. I’d eat (and have, in fact) the vegetables William grows any day over those grown by some ostensibly “organic” farmers — the world is made up of good people (such as the people listed in this column) and some others who, unfortunately, are liars and cheats.

Dirt under one’s fingernails from farming does not make a person inherently trustworthy. Ask about growing practices and visit the farms you patronize. The honest farmers will welcome your questions, and respect you for taking time to visit their farms. William and the folks who launched Living Earth Farm Shares CSA can be counted on for honesty, openness and transparency in their growing methods. You should look for those same qualities each time you go to the farmers markets, or buy directly from a farmer.

A quick word, too, about the word “organic.” Technically, if you make above a certain amount ($5,000, I believe), a farmer can’t call herself “organic” unless she is certified — so when I called Living Earth Farm Shares CSA organic, that was my word, not theirs. I have no idea what words they are using, because I didn’t ask. Any others seem so forced and bulky — “naturally grown” isn’t terrible, but it doesn’t really mean anything, either.

“Without the use of synthetic chemicals” is a favorite of mine, but it doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

You can thank big business for co-opting the word organic and taking it out of the hands of, well, small organic farmers. Soon as there was money in it, “organic” became a brand instead of a method. That’s a load of bull, in my book, and I believe farmers (the organic ones, anyway) ought to push back and reclaim their word. What’s the worst that can happen? A lawsuit? Phooey — none of the organic farmers I know make enough money to be worth suing, frankly.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Welcome to the club, and my sincere best wishes

There have been times in my life I could rightly have been described as competitive. When I was in music, and later, as a young reporter, I took myself very, very seriously. I wanted first chair or no chair when I was a musician; The New York Times, I was sure, would be my ultimate landing place as a news writer. It was simply a matter of time.

Well, I ended up with no chair when it comes to a black-and-white summing up of my musical career — I departed that path for writing years ago. As for The New York Times, it seems unlikely editors will come knocking on my door. And, if they did, I’d probably just laugh — I like what I’m doing fine: being a little fish in a little pond suits me well.

You see, as I’ve grown older, my competitive spirit has waned. These days I find myself sincerely wishing others in the news business well, even when they are technically “competitors.”

There’s a feeling of being in it together — or, perhaps, it’s a shared feeling of going down the tubes together as an industry. I am more bully on newspapers’ future than many, particularly my friend Giles Morris at, who a few months ago boldly asserted print was dead. That came as surprising news to those of us still busy printing stories in traditional, hold-in-your-hands newspapers, you can be sure — “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” as my all-time favorite humorist Mark Twain said so famously after hearing the New York Journal had printed his obituary.

In general, I like reporters and editors and people who put together newspapers (or, these days, we must include news websites). They are usually smart, funny, passionate people. I don’t want to sound overly sentimental, so I hasten to add that those same people also are usually neurotic, annoying and often arrogant. Since I resemble many of those characteristics, not unnaturally I find even the most puffed-up news people rather endearing.

So — not to insinuate they are puffed-up because these two are not — I was delighted to see, in the hands of two former Asheville Citizen-Times colleagues, enter the fray.

Angie Newsome and Kathleen Davis launched the news website earlier this month. promises to cover the state’s 17 westernmost counties with “in-depth, investigative and independent reporting.” I don’t doubt they are sincere about that last part, but the territory outlined seems ambitious.

And unlikely, given that even the Citizen-Times has retreated over the years to only an occasional venturing west of Asheville.

But I wish Angie and Kathleen the best of luck trying to cover 17 counties — the more reporters out here the merrier, I believe. There are a million-and-one stories to tell, and we’re lucky at The Smoky Mountain News and at the other news organizations in the west to catch even a small percentage of those meriting coverage.

(I hope Angie and Kathleen will not do what, during my tenure at the Citizen-Times, we used to hear upper management dub “regionalizing.” This is daily newspaper-bullshit for publishing an article that’s really about Buncombe County, but with passing mentions of Swain or Jackson counties or other places outside of Asheville in order to “regionalize” it. Much cheaper and far easier on the bottom line, you see, than paying real reporters to work in actual bureaus covering real stories in the western counties.

Here I go, digressing into a rant again. You’d think I’d know how to stay on point better).

What’s most interesting about is that it’s set up as a nonprofit. Some newspaper experts believe nonprofit news organizations such as will prove the industry’s future. I hope not, because I’m inordinately fond of for-profit, real newspapers. I am interested in seeing, however, whether Angie and Kathleen can make and this new financial model work. And, I’ll be curious to note whether they really cover 17 counties as advertised.

A few coverage tips for my old friends, who best I remember never worked the far-western area: Cherokee, the Indian reservation, is not the same as Cherokee County, though confusingly for newcomers there are tribal lands in Cherokee County; oh, and people there do not like to hear funny references to Eric Robert Rudolph. He was actually from Florida and moved to WNC and they are very sensitive about that fact; the Skeener community in Franklin is pronounced that way but spelled Skeenah, and don’t even try to say Cartoogechaye until you’ve practiced a lot first. People in Cherokee know your grandmother was Cherokee, wasn’t everybody’s? That’s not a good warm-up line, in other words. Whichever spelling of Tuckasegee/Tuckaseigee you pick, someone (probably my friend Lynn Hotaling at The Sylva Herald, who wrote an entire column one time on this very subject) will claim it is wrong; “Smoky” isn’t spelled with an “e” unless you are the famous bear or the elementary school (officials have a long excuse for why they misspelled the school’s name, don’t ask).  

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Books are an end unto themselves

Books are one of the greatest delights of my life. I don’t need many excuses to buy new ones, frankly, but when I do feel the situation is spinning out of control (my third trip in a week, say, to the Friends of the Library bookstore in Sylva), my book-buying ways are justified as “building a research library.”

While I openly admit to self-deception on this score, there is a strong argument to be made for owning a good selection of reference books. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it doesn’t replace owning books — the information nicely supplements them.

Last week, while ostensibly on assignment interrogating Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Development Commission for a couple of transportation-related news articles, our conversation soon wandered off into much more interesting territory: vegetable gardening.

Sherby, who lives in the Alarka community in Swain County, has turned the earth and prepared the soil for a Very Big Garden this year. I farmed for a time in Bryson City before moving to Sylva, so it seemed entirely natural to segue from road building (b-o-r-i-n-g) to discussions about much more vital issues, such as planting dates, vegetable varieties and so on (endlessly riveting). I’ve promised to unearth my seed-starting calendar and email it to him.

Ryan’s and my discussion led me into a consideration of the books I rely on as a vegetable gardener. These books are as well used as my favorite hoe, and as important to my growth as nitrogen is for the growth of plants.

That said, here’s a few of my favorites:

• Four-Season Harvest, Eliot Coleman: A Maine organic farmer who has led the charge for growing yearlong. His books — there’s others, all of them worth owning — form the basis of my approach to gardening, which I’d sum up with the truism, feed the soil and not the plant. Coleman’s other books are: The New Organic Grower and The Winter Harvest Handbook.

• The New Seed Starter’s Handbook, Nancy Bubel: Everything you need to know for growing your own transplants, and more. This is an excellent go-to reference that should be on every gardener’s bookshelf. I learned a lot from this book about the importance of soil temperature when it comes to germination rates. In fact, Bubel’s book inspired me to purchase a soil thermometer, which if I could locate said thermometer would, I’m sure, prove very useful and interesting.

• Root Cellaring, Mike and Nancy Bubel: As the title indicates, this book is about building and using a root cellar. That’s handy, but also tucked inside is a terrific little growing section on vegetables that keep particularly well in the root cellar.

• The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, Edward C. Smith: the subtitle is “Discover Ed’s High-Yield W-O-R-D System for All North American Gardening Regions,” which has a breathless irritating quality that is repeated in places throughout the book. But if you can overlook the over-hyping of his method — which is simply using wide rows, organic techniques and so on, sound gardening methods but not exactly revolutionary — this is a fine guide. Like so many of the good vegetable gardening books, this is geared for the northern part of the nation, so you have to tweak information for the Southeast. I loaned my copy out and haven’t seen it since, a reminder to me not to make loans, only gifts.

• The Essential Earthman, and anything else written by Henry Mitchell. This book is adopted from Mitchell’s “Earthman” column in the Washington Post. He died in 1993, but not before penning some of the most delightful, witty words every written in America on gardening. Many of his columns are on flowers and not vegetables, but that’s a petty point. Flowers are plants, too, are they not? And some flowers are even edible. Anyhow, buy and read Mitchell. You won’t be sorry.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Spring dawns, a time when optimism and reality co-exist

We spend winter anticipating spring. But, when warmer weather arrives, we often rob ourselves of enjoyment in the rush to complete tasks. We think of what needs to be done but hasn’t been. We see what’s undone instead of contemplating how much has been accomplished.

Most of us, particularly those who farm or homestead or who simply love to garden and be outside, have long lists of things we want to do. We compiled these tasks in our heads, or perhaps even on paper, during the winter. We watched the snowfall outside and yearned inside for warmer weather to arrive, begging mentally for the cold to pass so that we could work in the sunshine again.

Spring is the season of doing. Tilling. Seed starting. Transplanting. Mulching. Dividing and moving perennials. Building pens to safely contain newborn lambs and kids, preparing brood boxes for the chicks that will soon arrive by mail, culling old hens and young roosters. Planting new flowerbeds, reviving older ones. Building beds in the garden. Buying and planting seed potatoes and onion sets.

Now that spring is really here and I’m checking off one-by-one these listed tasks, I’m warning myself: don’t waste this. Don’t waste the beauty, or pass unseeing through this brief, precious span of life. Slow down and enjoy what spring brings — beginnings, of course, such as the arrival of Nickolai, the lamb, and Dandelion, the new kid. More babies are on the way, more joy to come.

But spring brings sorrow, too. And I tell myself to allow for grief. Because time should be given to mourning the losses, which come as inevitably as new life arrives. Death is simply part and parcel of the great rebirth that takes place in spring; an amazing cycling that is truly cosmic and wondrous.

So I grieve for three kids who died. They were born prematurely. The kids’ mother, bereft and not understanding her loss, cried aloud for them day after day in the barnyard. Feel that, I urge myself. Spring is about joy, but it’s about sorrow, too.

Difficult choices loom with each kid born. Which should be kept, which not. An important part of good husbandry, I must continually remind myself, is to keep only the number of animals that the land can support. Overcrowding brings disease and general ill health. In trying to keep every animal we fall in love with, we can be very cruel in the name of this love. There are limits. I continue to learn my limits, and the limits of land that I work.

Spring, too, is time for examining the honeybee hives. This is when beekeepers learn the fate of their charges, when the tops come off the bee boxes and assessments of the overall health of beeyards take place. As a beekeeper you hope, each time a colony is examined, for evidence of a strong queen. This means eggs being laid and new bees born. Sometimes, however, a colony has died. Sometimes, all your colonies of honeybees have died. Then one must decide — start over, or give up?

I know a beekeeper who lost 30 or 40 colonies of bees some years ago, when mites first made their way into this region. He lost his entire beeyard, which had been built not only by him, but also by his father, and perhaps even his father’s father. Years and years of work, gone. Heartbroken, the man swore off beekeeping.

That, however, apparently wasn’t his decision to make. Sometime later, on a late spring day, a swarm of bees took up residence in an abandoned hive on his property. He was hooked in again, and today tends as many bee colonies as ever. This time around, though, the beekeeper is older and wiser to the ways of the world. He understands life and death go hand-in-hand. This beekeeper isn’t cynical, because a cynical man would never keep bees — it’s too dicey a proposition, and the odds are simply too great for cynics. Only optimists can survive beekeeping.

This beekeeper, however, knows that one fine spring day he could raise the hive lids and find all his honeybees have died again. He’s evolved into an optimistic realist, you see, like all good farmers and gardeners do if they farm and garden long enough. And if they slow down, feel deeply what happens and really consider what they see.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Planting the seeds for sustainability

A few weeks ago, as part of a magazine assignment, I visited Sow True Seed in Asheville.

Carol Koury and Peter Wakiewicz, cofounders of the two-year-old company, took time from their busy schedule — and I do mean busy, this is the time of year that makes or breaks a seed company — to give me a tour of the business and chat for a while.

Sow True Seed is located in a small, undistinguished building on Church Street near downtown Asheville. The company specializes in untreated, non-hybrid, open-pollinated seed.

In plain language, this is what that means: you, too, can save seed after growing plants using Koury and Wakiewicz’s seed. Hybrid seed, in contrast to open-pollinated, does not grow true: the next generation of plants grown from hybrid seed might be wonderful, it might be terrible. There is only one certainty when you save seed from plants that were grown from hybrid seed — variability.

Why? Because the parents of hybrid varieties are from distinct lines that have been combined for very specific reasons. Perhaps plant breeders have discovered this particular combination, say type A and type B, produces progeny with three favorable characteristics. We’ll designate this hybrid result as being type C. Type C is resistant to disease, it’s productive and it tastes reasonably good.

Here’s the problem. If you buy a pack of type C, grow the plants out, and then save the seed, you will not get type C when you grow them out the ensuing year — type C only occurs as the first generation result of crossing type A and type B.

Instead, you’ll get something we’ll call type X. There is no predicting what qualities type X will exhibit. As emphasized a few paragraphs ago, type X might be the best-tasting vegetable you’ve ever had the pleasure of sinking your pearly whites into. Or, more likely, type X tastes terrible, or perhaps it is prone to certain diseases and produces poorly.

Hybrid seed isn’t inherently evil; open-pollinated seed isn’t inherently good. They both serve certain purposes. Hybrids can give farmers an edge when it comes to productivity, or shipping (some are bred to be tougher in transport). Open-pollinated varieties do have a reputation for tasting better than hybrids. But, in reality, any loss of taste is simply a variable and is not, by definition, what makes a hybrid — breeders emphasized the selection of certain other traits, perhaps, over that of good taste.

Super sweet corn, for instance, is a classic example of selective breeding. Many people prefer the taste of really sweet corn. Not me, but this is America and people should be able to eat sugary, icky corn-candy if they want to, shouldn’t they? Give thanks to hybrids, then.

Genetically modified seed, which people sometimes confuse with hybrid seed, is an entirely different matter. I won’t go so far as to assert GMOs are actually evil, but the verdict is still out in my opinion — and on the companies producing them. GMOs are varieties that scientists have genetically tinkered with. My personal opinion is there are entirely too many unknowns regarding GMOs, our health and the overall wellbeing of our world. That, however, is a subject for another day.

Be all this as it may, seed saving is fun. And, if you are even the slightest bit interested in sustainability and self-reliance, it’s a must-have skill. Which brings me back to Sow True Seed, and the potential importance of this company to gardeners and farmers here in the Southeast.

First, plants adapt to conditions over time. Garlic is famous for this — you start with a variety that thrives (I’m personally having good success with Russian Red), and after a few years of saving and replanting cloves, your garlic actually adapts to the specific conditions of your garden. It improves in size and quality. Other vegetables aren’t as obvious, but adaptability still occurs over time, just much more subtly. Sow True Seed is selecting from plants that do well here. If the company does this season after season, eventually it will create and own a bank of seed specifically geared to perform well in this region. That has not happened before — many of us order from companies located in Maine, California or other far-flung places. The seed we get might be great, but it isn’t specifically adapted to our growing conditions.

Second, Sow True Seed is working on preserving older varieties. The company doesn’t have a lot of these yet, but flipping through the catalogue reveals greasy beans, sorghum, creasy greens and some older tomato varieties. Here’s hoping local gardeners and farmers provide the company additional tried-and-true favorites — the more people who cultivate these garden treasures, the better chance they stand of surviving.

Third, Sow True Seed is local. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other seed company of this size anywhere in the region (meaning WNC and the piedmont, north Georgia, east Tennessee, upstate South Carolina). I’m a little hesitant to over-hype buying local, because it has turned into such a buzzword and my tendency (probably a genetic trait specifically adapted to the conditions I was grown in) is contrarian. But I happen to truly believe that buying from small, local companies is critical to this region’s sustainability.

(Quintin Ellison is a Smoky Mountain News staff writer and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Just look around, and cultural pursuits abound

After high school, I moved downstate to attend music school. I lived for a number of years in Greensboro and then Winston-Salem. While a resident of these two cities I fully enjoyed the wide range of cultural perks urban life brings. Museums, dance performances, poetry readings, concerts in the park, opera, independent films and musicals — on any given weekend, the only choice was what to choose.

I initially felt bereft of high culture and haute couture when I returned to Western North Carolina. There was fantastic bluegrass, of course, which I adore; and clogging, which I love to watch. Many of the nation’s greatest basket makers, potters and craftspeople are here, too.

As for the rest, I accepted leaving those experiences behind as the price one pays for living in the Southern Appalachians. No more great classical music. No more pretty boys warbling happily together in university glee clubs. And no more funky, odd performance art to discover in strange little out-of-the-way places where one could enjoy that fantastic combination of good drink and dinner, coupled with entertainment.

I was, of course, wrong, as you might already have discovered. It requires some detective work to find the performers — and sometimes quite a bit of driving to get to them — but we are truly blessed in this region: not only with great natural beauty, but also with a vast reservoir of creative and talented people.

Last weekend, a friend and I ate dinner at Mad Batter restaurant in Cullowhee. Jeannette Evans, the owner, sets up fun dinner-and-event nights, and this one — both food-wise and entertainment-wise — was truly special. I couldn’t have found anything I’d have enjoyed better, anywhere, not even in a great big city.

Kjelsty Hanson and her husband, Glenn Kastrinos, who together make up Whimzik, put together a unique mask-and-music performance. The word “unique” is often overused, but in this case, I mean it: I’ve never heard or seen anything quite like Whimzik.

Glenn teaches recreational therapy at Western Carolina University. He played guitar and flute, plus sang (not all at the same time, I hasten to add, he’s not a one-man band). Kjelsty (think “chelsty,” I do) played a bhodran Celtic drum, moving her hand inside — sort of like a French horn player does — to change tones. Additionally, Kjelsty danced to Glenn’s music, wearing a variety of masks and costumes she’s made. I was most struck by her animal masks. Quick, birdlike movements accompanied her bird masks; slow, pensive movements were paired with turtle masks. The effects were unusual, beautiful and captivating.  

Another mesmerized audience member, Chris Blake, an English professor at WCU who sat at the next table enjoying an evening out with his wife, asked the couple to talk about the origins of their art. And make no bones about it — Kjelsty and Glenn are creating a living, fluid art form.

Kjelsty explained she had seen and been influenced by the theatrical European ensemble Mummenschanz when she was a little girl. The memory of the group, and its use of costumes and masks to create a dialogue with the audience, stuck.

Fast forward to adulthood: Kjelsty studied indigenous art in Costa Rica, she majored in ceramic sculpture, she attended an art camp in Sitka, Alaska, and learned to make theatrical masks from mask artist Beverly Mann.

She met and married Glenn. They lived together in New Zealand for four years, performing at folk festivals together. Glenn’s mother was a classical pianist; he was trained to play classical guitar. Glenn later became entranced by ragtime guitar, and he ventured to Ireland in the 1970s, learning Irish flute and whistles while there. Glenn also started competing in — and winning — Irish music competitions.  

Put Kjelsty and Glenn together and all of their varied musical and art experiences and you get … Dorian, their young son. You also get Whimzik.

Look for an opportunity to see these two perform. I promise it will be a wonderful, unusual experience. And I suspect they’ll serve as a reminder to you, as they did me, to keep on the watch in WNC for those opportunities to enjoy fantastic art, dance and music. Because those artists, dancers and musicians are indeed here, waiting to entertain and enthrall us all. And sometimes they come in one tidy package, as is the case with Whimzik.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Greenways are pretty good all the way around

One of the nicest things about Franklin is the town’s greenway along the Little Tennessee River.

The greenway has become a uniting feature in Macon County. Work started on the project in the late 1990s, and seeing it through to completion required the partnership and labor of many. As a result of all this hard work, today there are five miles or so of trail, bridges over the river, shelters, playgrounds and more. The greenway is something folks from many different walks of life enjoy, and on any given day, you’ll find old people, young people, runners, walkers and picnickers.

I have jogged on Franklin’s greenway. I’ve gone bird watching along it. I’ve paddled a kayak up and down the river by way of the beautiful and convenient put-in that’s been built. I’ve sat many a time by the Little Tennessee and eaten lunch under one of the greenway shelters. These shelters are my preferred dining halls whenever I’m working on a Macon County-based news article.

I do regret the greenway wasn’t available when I lived and worked full-time in Macon County. Before it was built, accessing the river in Franklin was a mucky, muddy affair. The only people who usually bothered were a few stalwart fishermen and the town’s winos. They (the winos, though maybe the fishermen, too) nipped and napped under the bridges.

Having designated greenways in such a nature-abundant region as Western North Carolina seems nonsensical, perhaps. A waste of taxpayer dollars and a waste of land that might be better put to use in more practical ways — for jobs, or for homes, or for other similar utilitarian-type uses that aren’t so, well, airy-fairy and urban-sounding.

I admit to feeling a bit that way at one time.

These days, however, thanks to the Little Tennessee River Greenway in Franklin, I embrace the whole concept of greenways. The more the merrier, including one I hope in Jackson County, where I’m living now.

During a recent work session held by commissioners, the greenway folks in Jackson County warned that it could take years to pull the project here together. Right-of-way issues seem to present the biggest, time-delaying obstacle.

So, if you own land along the Tuckasegee where Jackson County wants to build its greenway (there’s apparently 10 or 12 of you, most of whom have shown a willingness to participate), please hurry up and sign the papers: for me, and for you.

For you because my understanding is a greenway will enhance the value of your property. I’m certainly envious — not so much about any increase in land values you’ll enjoy, but because of the enjoyment you’ll get from access to county-maintained trails built near your homes. There they will be whenever you feel the urge to run, to walk, or to easily and safely get down to the river for fishing and boating and picnicking — what could be better, for me and for you?

If, as a property owner or general resident of Jackson County, you still harbor doubts, take a short drive over Cowee Mountain and stroll along the greenway in Franklin. I believe, like me, you’ll become an instant convert.

(Quintin Ellison is a staff writer for The Smoky Mountain News and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Hate by any name is still hate

Back in the day, say the late 1980s through about 2000, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map featured Western North Carolina prominently. In fact, along with a few states such as Idaho and Montana, in many ways this section of North Carolina was the group’s hate map.

I found our notoriety depressing. I’m proud to have grown up in this area, but I certainly wasn’t proud about what some of my neighbors were up to: hate mongering, intimidation and nutty-over-the-edge political shenanigans.

Such as, a shadowy White supremacist printing press in western Swain County, with the post office in Bryson City reportedly (unknowingly, mind you) serving as a hub for the sending forth of hate-spewing books on the “intellectual” reasons why Whites are superior to other races. I’m not sure there was ever much news coverage on that fellow, who has since gone to meet his maker. He wrote under a pseudonym I no longer remember.

In the Otto community of neighboring Macon County, Ben Klassen stayed busy penning other contributions for the we-hate-anyone-different literary world.

Klassen wrote five books. Members of the neo-Nazi The Creativity Movement still use Klassen’s The White Man’s Bible as their main text, and adhere to his calls for RaHoWa, or Racial Holy War. Klassen originally dubbed his group the Church of the Creator. Members had to change the name in 2003 because of a trademark dispute. There’s something humorous about that, but The Creativity Movement is so violent and over the edge nutsoid, I can’t summon even a faint attempt at a joke.

Klassen, a former Republican state representative in Florida and early inventor of the can opener, didn’t just write about hate, he taught it — at the School for Gifted White Boys outside of Franklin. He killed himself in 1993 with an overdose of sleeping pills. Not out of guilt, mind you, but apparently because he was severely depressed following his wife’s death.

In the mid-1990s, after Klassen mercifully and permanently went away, common-law courts became all the rage. This wasn’t so much about hate as evading taxes, in my humble opinion. Plenty of WNC residents who’d probably rather I didn’t mention their names in print happily jumped on the bandwagon, declaring themselves “sovereign citizens” and refusing to give the government its annual due.

Members held pseudo-courts (Waynesville and Franklin were hotspots), and placed various government authorities on “trial.” These fine men and women pushed for a return to gold as the main currency (still a hot topic among some right-wingers), and filled up local register of deeds offices with pages and pages of their “court transcripts.” Complete, thoughtfully, with members’ thumbprints as proof of identities. Which no doubt came in handy when the FBI got interested, as ultimately occurred after Peter Kay Stern, another fine Macon County resident who styled himself chief justice of a common-law court, was charged with threatening real U.S. judicial authorities.

The so-called patriot movement kept going strong until Eric Robert Rudolph took the fun out of wearing camouflage and saying ugly, threatening things aloud about the federal government. Rudolph lived in the far northwestern corner of Macon County. Which, I’m sorry to say because I’m very fond of Macon County, keeps popping up in this account. I truly can’t figure out why, but Macon County gets more nuts per capita than anywhere else in WNC.

Mentioning WNC’s very own convicted serial bomber triggers remembrances of Nord Davis in Cherokee County (Nord lived just a few miles away from Macon County. I figure his car must have run out of gas near Andrews when he was moving to this region). Davis was a longtime anti-government and Christian Identity member, which is a particularly virulent strain of hate. Davis was leader of the 130-acre North Point Team compound and possibly had ties to Rudolph.

Regardless of whether they really knew one another, Davis is dead now and Rudolph is enjoying the rest of his life in a federal jail cell. Just down the hall, in fact, from unabomber Ted Kaczynski. (Both Rudolph and Kaczynski were represented by lawyer Judy Clarke, who has been tapped to represent Jared Laughner — he of the Arizona-shootings, kooky crazy-eyes mug-shot fame. Clarke, in it’s-a-small-world-after-all note, was born in Asheville and attended T.C. Roberson High School)

Mark Potok, who heads the watch on extremists for the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed “things have quieted down” in our neck of the woods since Rudolph bombed the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga., and two abortion clinics.

A lot of the militia activity, Potok said in a recent conversation, appears to have moved over the border into neighboring South Carolina.

But there is still some activity in WNC, at least among the so-called “patriot” groups. Waynesville, it seems, has its very own N.C. Citizen Militia. Don’t you feel safer in Haywood County knowing this fact? Interestingly enough, learning about an armed pseudo militia in Waynesville has exactly the opposite effect on me. Probably because I’m suspicious I’m the very sort of person they are “protecting” themselves from.

Efforts to contact the group and ask what they are up to weren’t successful. But it looks like the same old junk to me, just, this time, not based in Macon County … though I’m sure some link to Franklin will surface soon.

From the N.C. Citizen Militia webpage:

“While government continues its decades long effort to diminish and otherwise disavow the role and identity of the unorganized militia, (and continues to abdicate their Constitutional responsibility to support it), in fact the authority, duty and responsibility of armed citizens as the unorganized militia has never changed. The ultimate responsibility of maintaining a free nation has always and must remain in the hands of America’s citizens.”

Fortunately, the N.C. Citizen Militia states it disavows violence and aggression, and is a self-described “defense-oriented organization,” whatever that means.

The overall language sure sounds familiar, though — like a tune we’ve heard in WNC too many times before.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A few hopeful signs of spring

I detect signs of spring. Whether this is fantasy or reality, that’s for you to decide, but I choose to cling to these wisps of hope. Just this past week I grew heartily tired of winter, after cheerily pretending to myself since November that I enjoy snow and cold. Which I truthfully did like for a time, but enough is enough: I’m sick of it now. Here are my signs:

• White-breasted nuthatches are starting to hang out together. My recollection is they stay paired more or less all year, but the males and females grow less fond of one another after the mating season, and pursue individual interests until January or so. Then they grow amorous once again, and the male decides it’s not such a bad thing after all to allow his beloved first crack at the sunflower tray instead of chasing her away and greedily devouring said seeds himself without sharing.

Or, that might not be exactly how the bird-behavior experts describe the nuthatch-mating ritual, but I enjoy my version enough that it would be a shame to look it up and find truth and reality is otherwise, which so often is the case in life. I do remember for sure and accurately (I think) that white-breasted nuthatches are the earliest of our year-round birds to begin the mating process. And mine do seem to be visiting the feeders together; or rather, one flies in to feed while the other patiently waits a turn, and they are making “yank, yank, yank” or is it “hank, hank, hank” noises at one another (that would be “I love you” in nuthatch speak, by the way. See if you get a True Fact like that in a run-of-the-mill nature or birding column).

• The garlic bulbs I planted in November have sprouted through the heavy layer of straw mulch placed on top. Now that’s not really a sign of spring — they probably sprouted on a warm day shortly after being planted — but it is pleasing to me, so I note it here. Seeing the sprouts trigger a warm self-congratulatory glow when I pass them, because I actually got them in the ground when I was supposed to — this instead of letting them molder in a paper bag tucked away somewhere in the corner of the shed or garage, which is often the fate for bulbs in my care.

• The hellebores are budding. I believe it was Elizabeth Lawrence, one of my favorite garden writers, who so accurately noted the earliest flowers are the most important. (That might not be exactly what Lawrence wrote, but the sentiment is close enough, and her books are out of reach on a shelf about 5 feet away from where I’m writing. It would be a hardship to actually get up, walk over there, and hunt down the passage I’m referencing.) Lawrence, as I recollect, was writing about the delicate spring flowers, which if they bloomed in summer would be overshadowed by the great drama queens flowering then. The delicate whites and pinks that charm us early on would be lost in the bawdy colors of summer.

• The tips of the maple trees seem to have developed a slightly reddish tinge. That is good — maples are one of the important early sources of nectar for honeybees in Western North Carolina. My journals indicate they usually start flowering about the first of March, at least down in the lower elevations along warm, sun-facing slopes. I believe the three stands of honeybees I’m nominally supervising have survived the winter. On the few warm days we’ve had, I’ve seen them fly, which surely they wouldn’t do if they were dead. These next few weeks are the most dangerous time of all for beekeepers and their charges, because honeybees could well starve if not fed sugar water between now and when the maples actually bloom. In fact, it would be a good thing if I heeded my own warning and fed them this afternoon.

• Like the maples, Sophie the ewe is swelling, too, the good and excellent work of her mate and ram, Leo. I’m looking forward, for the first time in my life, to seeing lambs gambol, just as they so often gambol in the Victorian novels I sometimes read. (“Gambol” is a lovely word, and it gives me immense satisfaction to work it into a sentence. The pairing of the words “lamb” and “gambol” seems as natural together as the words “mint jelly” and “leg of lamb,” though more cerebral in this case than gustatory, of course),

(Quintin Ellison is a staff writer and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Care of mentally ill may be Arizona tragedy’s lesson

There are many issues to discuss in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona that left six dead and 13 wounded.

The ugliness of the political discourse in this nation is one. We took that subject up last week in news article and column form in The Smoky Mountain News, and I suspect we’ll probably explore this particular topic in greater depth in the future. Gun rights might be another subject to eventually tackle. Though I, frankly, find this particular angle as a potential outcome to the Arizona shootings less than convincing. Perhaps because I own firearms, my family owns firearms, and I grew up in these mountains where almost everyone I knew growing up had guns in their homes, too.

Having acknowledged my tepid interest in the debate concerning gun ownership, I do concede controls of a sort might be worth discussion — such as whether we should truly allow the insane easy access to weapons such as a semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity ammo clip.

Which ties neatly into what I believe is the single most important lesson being offered in the wake of the Arizona shootings: the consequences of denying the mentally ill the care and monitoring required. The potential outcome of such neglect has been spelled out in graphic, heartbreaking detail. We can ignore what happened in Arizona only at great peril. And, if we choose to do so, I think it should be openly acknowledged that a repeat of what happened there could easily happen elsewhere, and probably will.

Just making sure we’re all on the same page: does anyone have the smallest doubt, simply by looking into the alleged Arizona killer’s eyes in that creepy mug shot taken a short time after police say he gunned down so many, that this young man is seriously mentally ill?  

I’ll give a nod of approval to the community college he once attended. After Jared Lee Loughner exhibited bizarre, scary behavior, they apparently acted properly and promptly. Officials expelled him, and agreed they’d let the 22-year old back into school only if he underwent a mental health evaluation (and, I assume, passed it, if one “passes” such a thing).

Then what happened, though? There the storyline of attention paid to Loughner seems to end. At least until all the dead and wounded piled up outside a Tucson grocery store.

In case you’re curious, North Carolina doesn’t offer much support to the mentally ill or their families these days, either. In the name of savings, the state largely dismantled a not-that-great-to-begin-with system a few years ago. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in 2008 in a series of investigative articles on the state’s mental health system for a local newspaper chain. We were examining North Carolina’s then new (translation: cheap) approach to helping the mentally ill:

“Reform, to hear proponents tell it, would empower people with choices. No longer would patients be shut out and shut up when it came time to decide on treatments. Now they would get to pick from a virtual smorgasbord of choices, all conveniently located in their hometown or county.

This, taxpayers were told, would save money – lots and lots of money. Millions, in fact, because more people would be treated in their own communities instead of being admitted to one of the state’s four psychiatric hospitals.

Who could argue with empowerment and saving money? Actually, a few people did, but not effectively enough for anyone in power to heed their warnings.

The result?

A mental health system that has wasted, not saved, millions of tax dollars. And worse, many of the state’s most vulnerable residents are unable to obtain adequate treatments. For those people and their families, the price has been incalculable.”

It is time — it’s past time — to face honestly what we are potentially unleashing with our neglect, and in the name of saving pennies. Take a look again at the massacre in Arizona.

Granted, most of those with mental illnesses do not buy guns and start shooting — God knows, I’m not saying that, so please don’t think I’m stigmatizing those who deserve compassion and help.

What I am saying is that we have a responsibility, a duty, to care for and monitor those who potentially pose a danger to themselves and others. The economic costs of doing so be damned — we need a mental-health system in place that works.


(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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