The feedback (mostly email) from readers to recent columns regarding books in general, book shelving strategies, and bookplates has been both surprising and interesting. It encourages me to proceed in that vein. Down the line, we might consider public libraries and the wonderful freedoms they represent, but for the time being let’s consider private holdings — that is, the sort of personal libraries you and I have.
You can’t have a library without a book. But just one book will do it. Hopefully, it’s the right book, suitable to your unique needs. If you were forced to reduce your library to just one book, what would it be?
After some deliberation, my pick is The Odyssey. Homer’s epic has always fascinated me. It has most everything a reader could desire: adventure after adventure, seascapes and landscapes, monsters galore, bad hosts and good hosts, seductive sirens and a beguiling temptress, a descent into Hell, a whirlpool and a shipwreck, a return home (to Ithaca) where the hero’s patient wife (Penelope) weaves by day and unweaves at night so as to befuddle her many arrogant suitors, a faithful dog (Argos), and a thoroughly satisfying closing in which father (Odysseus) and son (Telemachus) pile up dead suitor upon dead suitor like bloody cordwood. There have been numerous translations: the one by T.E. Lawrence (himself a near-mythic figure) has special overtones; a more recent translation by Robert Fagles is one of the best.
Also on my one-book library nomination list: Michel de Montaigne’s Complete Essays, J. Frank Dobie’s The Ben Lilly Legend, Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft, J. Evett Haley’s Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman, E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott’s We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Edwin Way Teale’s North with Spring, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, W.H. Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago, Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Hardy’s Complete Poems, Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods, William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, George Crabbe’s Complete Poems, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Jupiter, E.O. Wilson’s Naturalist, William T. Davis’s Days Afield, Merrill Gilfillan’s Magpie Rising, James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, Llewelyn Powys’ Earth Memories, Virginia Woolf’s Complete Essays, and various others that reflect my eclectic and sometimes peculiar tastes when it comes to reading matter. Few will have even heard of George Crabbe, that poet of the East Anglican mudflats and ungainly flora, whose aim was to avoid in his verses, whenever possible, the poetic. But Homer’s Odyssey won, going away — his only near competition being Montaigne.
Some of the most satisfactory libraries are those housed on a single shelf in a remote cabin — or a portable one consisting of not more than 25 books carefully arranged in a wooden or cardboard box. When Kephart ventured up to his cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the fall of 1904, he bought with him that sort of library.
“‘Seldom during those three years as a forest exile,’ Kephart told a reporter in 1927, ‘Did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep him in good cheer.’
“It was the old life calling, the life of books that he had left,” the reporter noted. “For such a man there could be a beginning again but the old life could not be entirely disowned ... Out of the thousands of books that he had intimately known [as a librarian] there were only a few he could carry with him into the solitudes. He selected them with care, twenty of them. Here is the list in the order in which they stood on a shelf on his soap-box cupboard: an English dictionary; Roget’s Thesaurus; his sister’s Bible; Shakespeare; Burns’ Poems; Dante (in Italian); Goethe’s Faust; Poe’s Tales; Stevenson’s Kidnapped, David Balfour and The Merry Men; Fisher’s Universal History; Nessmuk’s [i.e., George Washington Sears] Woodcraft; Frazer’s Minerals; Jordan’s Vertebrate Animals; Wright’s Birdcraft; Matthews’ American Wild Flowers; Keeler’s Our Native Trees; and Lounsberry’s Southern Wild Flowers and Trees. The old man had become a new man, but the new man was a man of books ... and when the owls began calling, it was in his books that he found comfort. He took up writing, as it was inevitable that he would, setting down by night his experiences of the day.”
Then there is the home library — the sort most of us have, ranging from an hundred or so books to several thousand. If you have more than 5,000 books in your library, you may require counseling. If you have more than 10,000, it’s probably too late.
For the devoted, the home library requires an infallible shelving strategy, periodic rearranging, weeding and dusting, carefully chosen additions, and reading. Whether housed in a separate room, on a wall in the den, in the corner of a spare room, or (like mine) in bookcases and on shelves scattered throughout the house, the home library is, for many, a living entity.
Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first essayist in Western literature. The first and the best-able practitioners of the art like Bacon, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Woolf agree that he has never been surpassed. His subject matter was himself. In three volumes, he evaluated and quantified himself with calm objectivity, describing without cant what it’s like to be alive, what it means to be human.
After his best friend Ramond Sebond died, Montaigne’s library became his best friend, a place of refuge. At his chateau in the French countryside, one of the three-story towers was converted into private quarters: chapel, bedroom, and library. Of the forms of association Montaigne preferred — these included intelligent men and beautiful women — he ranked the 1,000 or so books shelved on the top floor of his tower first. In Of the Three Kinds of Association he wrote:
“In my library, I spend most of the days of my life, and most of the hours of the day there ... The shape of my library is round, the only flat side being the part needed for my table and chair; and curving round me it presents at a glance all my books, arranged in five rows of shelves on all sides. It offers rich and free views in thee directions, and sixteen paces of free space in diameter ... There is my throne. I try to make my authority over it absolute, and to withdraw this one corner from all society, conjugal, filial, and civil ... Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself ... I find it measurably more endurable to be always alone than never to be able to be alone. In my youth I studied for ostentation; later, a little to gain wisdom; now, for recreation; never for gain. As for the vain and spendthrift fancy I had for that sort of furniture [used] for the purpose of lining and decorating walls, I have given it up long ago.”
Several weeks ago, I devoted a column to the complicated science of book shelving. Not a few readers responded — often with descriptions of their systems, which they deemed infallible.
Shelving by fiction and non-fiction and leaving it at that seems sort of lazy to me, hardly worth the effort. Nevertheless, that method had several adherents, none of whom gave a hoot when I suggested they might be lazy if not slovenly shelvers. They were happy and didn’t care what I thought.
One lady proudly claimed to have “thousands of books scattered around the house, none of them shelved.” When I replied (in an email) that I hoped she was kidding, she wrote back to say she wasn’t kidding and offered to send a picture of her “book jungle” that I declined.
Most respondents shelved by subject categories of some sort: boats, animals, countries, etc. — and then arranged their books alphabetically within each category. No one else also broke them down chronologically, as I do; that is, I first shelve by general categories, say, natural history. Those books are then divided into British and American. Books up until 1900 are arranged chronologically (Thoreau would come before John Burroughs), but post-1900 books are alphabetical (Annie Dillard comes before Gretel Ehrlich). I don’t know how or why this system of mine originated, but it is infallible.
It should be noted before we move on that almost everyone, as a last resort, approved of the Dusty Miller school of book shelving. Dusty Miller was the much admired London bookseller I described in the column who, when asked how he arranged his books, replied that, “When I buy a short fat book I try to find a short fat hole.” For the lady who doesn’t shelve anything, this wasn’t an issue.
The response to the shelving column surprised me. In Western North Carolina, the love of and care for books seems to be alive and well. Or maybe the point is that readers of The Smoky Mountain News tend to be bookish. And the corollary to that would be that bookish people seem to seek out The Smoky Mountain News in both print and online editions. Why not? It’s a weekly regional newsmagazine situated off-the-beaten track in the southern mountains that features two wonderful written book reviewers, another general column (this one) that discusses older books with frequency, and a natural history columnist who is as likely to focus on a book almost as frequently as he does pileated woodpeckers.
Without this sort of feedback, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to write about bookplates. But there appears to be an audience out there that wouldn’t mind considering bookplates. Here goes.
For years, I’ve admired them and thought about coming up with one for our books that would be appropriate. I like the way a nice bookplate dresses up a nice book. I don’t have a rare or fancy collection of books by any means, but I do have many books that would look good with a bookplate, as does my wife, Elizabeth, who has a nice collection of art and papermaking books. I keep using the word “nice” so as to emphasize that we’re not talking about rare first editions or leather-bound books. We’re just talking about “nice” books — not tattered hardbacks or cheap paperbacks (although some quality soft cover books are “nice”) — of the sort everyone reading this has in their home.
Another reason for thinking about a bookplate is that I have signed most of our books on the front flyleaf. Some signatures are pleasant looking, even elegant. My signature is downright ugly. It used to be as big as a barn door. These days, as I get older, it’s becoming microscopic. Either way, it’s not a pretty thing to encounter. A bookplate would cover up most of my signatures.
Through the years, I’ve picked up several books with chapters on the history of bookplates. There’s no need to go into that sort of detail here. Some excerpted background I summoned up in about five seconds by entering “bookplates” in the Google search engine will suffice:
“A bookplate, also known as ex-Libris [Latin,’ from the books of’], is usually a small print or decorative label pasted into a book, often on the inside front cover, to indicate its owner. Simple typographical bookplates are termed ‘booklabels.’ Bookplates typically bear a name, motto, coat of arms, or any motif that relates to the owner of the book. The earliest known marks of ownership of books or documents date from the reign of Amenophis III in Egypt (1391-1353) ... The earliest known examples of printed bookplates are German, and date from the 15th century ... Although the majority of the older plates were armorial, there were always pictorial examples as well [including] landscape-plates by wood engravers of the Bewick school ... In 1901-1903 the British Museum published the catalog of the 35,000 bookplates collected by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97).”
I included the reference to “landscape-plates” because that’s what Elizabeth and I finally came up with, using one of her idealized renderings in watercolor of the cove where we live. The same image appeared on the cover of one of our books, Mountain Passages (2005). So, the bookplates that arrived last week have personal significance, for us — all the more so, because our friend, Asheville artist Ann Smith, designed the 1,300 plates that arrived last week from a printer she works with. Ann describes them as “four-color with bleeds, peel and stick plates — uncoated (matte) finish — 3 x 4 inches.”
They’re better than nice. If you’ve ever thought about a bookplate to dress up your nicer books, I can affirm that you would in all likelihood enjoy doing so.
Considering the rate at which I am presently proceeding, I should be finished with the mounting process of these 1,300 plates in about 2015 or so.
My weekly deadline is looming. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m fairly sure it’s going to be a rambling essay about Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders, Camping and Woodcraft, and Smoky Mountain Magic. The first two titles were published by the Outing Publishing Company, upon which he exerted considerable influence for a number of years, as we shall see.
Partly, if all goes well, this is going to be about Kephart’s lifelong rather carefully-cultivated self-image as “an earnest and sometimes lonely, yet self-sufficient figure, like ‘dear old Robinson Crusoe;” and partly, about a thankless sort of literary endeavor at which he was better than competent — editing.
I sometimes think of Horace Kephart as “Robinson Kephart.” Hearing that, he would no doubt laugh and nod in agreement. After all, in the “North Carolina Library Bulletin” for June 1922, he published an autobiographical essay (reprinted as a pamphlet in 1922 by the “Bryson City Times”) titled “Horace Kephart by Himself,” in which he recalled his youthful years in rural Iowa in this maner:
“It was before the day of fences ... The elk and buffalo had left, but their bleached antlers and skulls were strewn everywhere over the prairie ... I had no playmates . . my mother taught me to read . . she gave me my first book, dear old ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ... I used to take ‘Robinson’ out to the old boat among the trees ... I made wooden guns, pistols, hatchet, and a thing I called a cutlass ... A fur cap was easily contrived, shaped like the one Crusoe wears in the pictures in my book ... The old boat was my wrecked ship, to which I made frequent trips, swimming out in my imagination, returning on an imaginary raft laden with imaginary seaman’s chests, bottles of rack and cordials, kits of tools, barrels of powder and bags of shot ... [My copy of DeFoe’s book has] ‘been saved through the vicissitudes of a somewhat venturesome life and lies before me now, coverless and stained with age ...’”
(What is apparently Kephart’s “coverless and stained” copy of the novel that reads like reality apparently re-emerged in the Kephart family archives last year.)
Kephart sometimes recalled his early years on Hazel Creek (1904-1907) in the pre-park Smokies in a manner that evoked affinities with the real Robinson Crusoe. Explaining why he wrote at night, he told a newspaper reporter from St. Louis: “Seldom during those three years as a forest exile did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep ... in good cheer.”
A neglected aspect of Kephart’s literary career consists of the series of 11 books he edited for Outing Publishing Company in their Outdoor Adventure Library, starting about 1914. Nine are complete or abridged volumes with historical-biographical-critical introductions.
The titles are indicative of the content: J.D. Borthwick, The Gold Fields: A First-Hand Picture of Life in California Mining Camps in the Early Fifties; Earl of Dunraven [Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin Dunraven], Hunting in Yellowstone: on the Trail of Wapiti with Texas Jack in the Land of Geysers; Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, The Lion Hunter: In the Days when all South Africa was Virgin Hunting Field; Augustus C. Hobart-Hampton, Hobart Pasha: Blockade-Running Slave-Hunting, and War and Sport in Turkey; Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, Adrift in the Artic Ice Pack: From the History of the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin; Major John Wesley Powell, First Through the Grand Canyon: Being the Record of the Pioneer Exploration of the Colorado River in 1869-1870; and three volumes by George F.A. Ruxton, In the Old West; Adventures in Mexico; and Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains.
Several of his editions of these classics have remained in print because of the quality of Kephart’s introductions, in which he obviously invested considerable research and effort. Here is a paragraph from the introduction to Borthwick’s The Gold Fields:
“The popular notion of a miner is that of a rude and reckless fellow who works one day with a tin pan and gets drunk the next. There were, indeed, many of this ilk in the gold-diggings; but in the main, the miners of ‘49 were a picked and superior class of men. It was not as if a bonanza had been struck within easy reach of the riffraff of the nations. California, by the shortest route, was two thousand miles from any well-populated part of America, five thousand from a European port. The journey thither was expensive, and most of the men who undertook it were such as had accumulated, by their own industry, a good ‘stake’ at home. They were adventurers, to be sure; but what is an adventurer? One who hazards a chance, especially a chance of danger. That is the spirit which starts almost any enterprise that demands courage, determination and self-reliance ... Most of them were charged with spontaneous and persistent energy. Immediately, as by an electric shock, the California of dreaming friars and lazy vaqueros was tossed aside and an amazing industry whirred into action.”
Two of the volumes consist of narratives Kephart excerpted from numerous sources and pieced together with prefatory notes: Captives Among the Indians: First-Hand Naratives of Indian Wars, Customs, Tortures, and Habits of Life During Colonial Times; and Castaways and Crusoes: Tales of Survivors of Shipwreck in New Zealand, Patagonia, Tobago, Cuba, Magdalen Islands, South Seas, and the Crozets.
The title Castways and Crusoes caught my eye. Sure enough, as his first entry, Kephart placed a tale titled “A South Sea Crusoe” that Charles Dickens originally published in the 1860s in “All the Year Round,” one of the magazines he edited. In his note, Kephart informs the reader that this is “the narrative of an English missionary who was cast away on an uninhabited islet off the north coast of New Zealand, with no equipment but his pocket-knife, a pair of blankets, a few pieces of broken glass, a ruined boat and its tattered sails. The man was without food, tools, tackle, weapon, or even the means of making a fire. He was no expert in seamanship or in woodcraft. Yet he managed to subsist in this desolate place for nearly six months, without so much as a captured animal to divert his mind from the awful lonesomeness.” The clergyman added that he had “no books to while away the long tedious hours, no means whereon to fix even an account of my sufferings and fate; though perchance they might one day be read in my bones whitening on the beach.” Just the sort of reading matter Dickens and Kephart would enjoy.
I almost forgot to note that the Outing Publishing Company offered in their 1916-1917 catalog a four-volume “Robinson Crusoe Library,” comprised of Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft (volumes I and II), his Camp Cookery, and — just in case something went awry — Charles Moody’s Backwoods Surgery and Medicine. Potential buyers were advised that, “It has been used and approved by mining engineers, travelers and sportsmen from Alaska to Hayti. Four volumes in a box. Pocket size 41/2x7 inches. Bound in flexible leather. $6.00 net. Postage 30c.”
It’s Saturday night as I write this .... going on toward midnight. I read the thermometer mounted outside the kitchen through the windowpane with a flashlight. 30-degrees. Not bad. A light frost is forming on the grass in the pasture.
I recall, somewhat vaguely, that Coleridge in a poem titled “Frost at Midnight” alludes to the “secret ministry” of frost. After looking the poem up in an anthology, I’m still not sure exactly what he means by “secret ministry.” I can relate to the sentiments expressed a few lines later, when Coleridge notes his pleasure that all others in his “cottage” are fast asleep, leaving him to “that solitude which suits musings.”
I like being up alone late at night, too, especially in winter. What to do? Plenty. There’s always sports talk on XM radio, so long as I don’t turn the volume up and incur my wife’s wrath. But sports talk, alas, has gone to the dogs since the glory days when you could tune into the Bob Bell and Bill King duo out of Nashville, the irascible Pete Franklin from Cleveland, Larry Munson out of Atlanta, and “Buddy D” (Dilberto) down in New Orleans. Only Bill King is still alive. Those guys were informative and they were entertaining. Buddy D repeatedly vowed to dance down Bourbon Street wearing a dress if the Saints went to the Super Bowl. Too bad he didn’t hang in there a few more years.
Sports talk guys these days, all too often, seem to think they’re sociologists or political savants. The ESPN folks refer to their office building as a “campus.” There’s not much genuine interest out there in who’s on third.
My workspace here at home is in “the spare room,” where most of my favorite books are shelved. Late at night is when I reread them; that is, I usually read just a chapter or several pages — enough to become reacquainted and refresh my memory.
I will brag, however, about having read J. Frank Dobie’s The Legend of Ben Lilly in its entirety at least once every year since 1967. Ben Lilly, as you may not know, was the legendary bear and lion hunter from Mississippi who, in his latter days, frequented the Silver City area of New Mexico, where there is a monument honoring him that I have visited.
Theodore Roosevelt hunted with “Mr. Lilly” in the Louisiana swamps in 1907 and described him in a letter to Ethel, his daughter, as “a remarkable character” and “religious fanatic,” who had slept one night “in a crooked tree, like a wild turkey.” According to Teddy, “Mr. Lilly” had a “a mild, gentle face, blue eyes, and full beard” and was “as hardy as a bear or elk, literally caring nothing for fatigue and exposure, which we couldn’t stand at all.”
“Mr. Lilly” was a champion jumper, who could stand flat-footed in a barrel and jump out in a single bound. Holding a brick in each hand, he once made three consecutive jumps that measured 36 feet, an American record for jumping with bricks. While riding his horse, he would grab an overhanging limb and cavort to other limbs, chattering like a squirrel. I am fairly certain that I am the only person in the world who has read The Legend of Ben Lilly 43 times.
When not tuned into sports talk or reading about “Mr. Lilly,” I sit and listen to the creek that flows by our house. For going on 25 years now, we’ve resided beside Lands Creek, which rises in the Smokies above town and flows perhaps 10 miles into what is the Tuckasegee River part of the year and Lake Fontana the other part. The creek is a living entity, a part of the family — the last thing we hear at night and the first thing we hear in the morning. In the darkness, it purls over and around the smooth stones, murmuring and babbling, speaking quite clearly of its long journey home ... Tuckasegee ... Little T ... Tennessee ... Ohio ... Mississippi ... and on down to the Gulf of Mexico.
Past midnight, now — the frost in the pasture has thickened into a dull-white crust. Everything is very still ... almost perfect.
Numerous non-native plants have been introduced into the southern mountains during the last century or so. Many are now classified by wildlife biologists as “exotic pests.” Few would argue that kudzu does not fall into this category. And without doubt, the most notable alien mammal ever introduced into this immediate region was the European wild boar.
There are friends of the wild boar — mostly hunters — who believe that the animal’s outstanding qualities as a game animal outweigh its negative qualities. Then there are those who have observed its capacity to devastate large areas who think otherwise.
I used to be a friend of the wild boar. Its survival instincts and ability to adapt to truly rugged mountain terrain seemed to me to be admirable traits in any animal. In recent years, however, after some up close and personal encounters, I’ve changed my mind. More about that later.
A 29-page pamphlet by Perry Jones entitled “The European Wild Boar in North Carolina” (North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 1959) tells the story of how the animal arrived and subsequently flourished in this region of the world. In 1908, the Whiting Manufacturing Co., an English concern, purchased Hooper Bald and adjoining lands near Robbinsville in Graham County. George Gordon Moore, an adviser to English investors, was allowed to establish a 1,600-acre game preserve on Hooper Bald in return for assisting the company with floating a loan of $2 million. Beginning in 1912, the preserve was stocked with 8 buffaloes, 14 elk, 6 Colorado mule deer, 34 bears (9 of which were Russian brown bears), 200 wild turkeys, 10,000 English ring-neck pheasant eggs, and 13 wild boar. For good measure, Moore also purchased 150 sheep and 150 turkeys locally.
“Almost immediately,” Jones writes, “blows of adversity began to strike the preserve. Some of the big bears promptly climbed out of the wire stockade, and since several of them had come from zoos, they would proceed to the clubhouse for food. The thought of a large bear appearing at any moment made sleeping extremely difficult. In order to return a bear to the lot, two men would have to lasso each of his front feet, pull him around a tree, and securely bind both pairs of feet together on the opposite side of the tree. Next, a pole was placed across the back of his neck, and his chin was pushed up firmly against the tree. While two men would hold this pole, another would put a collar securely around the bear’s neck. Two chains were then snapped on the collar. The pole and ropes were then removed, the bear was ‘collared,’ and the two men at the extreme end of the chain would hold the bear off each other. This procedure was described as ‘spread-eagling’ a bear.” So, there you go. Next time you need to deal with a bear you know exactly what to do — “spread-eagle” the varmint.
“The bear quickly fell prey to sharpshooting mountaineers,” Jones writes, and all the other animals rather quickly faded away in an environment they couldn’t cope with — all, that is but the wild boar. Area residents have long referred to the wild boar as the Russian (or “Roossian”) wild boar, but Jones speculates that they actually came from Germany. At any rate, they were the only ones to escape from the preserve and survive in the surrounding mountains.
“One source states that the wild boar were capable of sticking their legs between the rails of their pen and actually climbing over the fence,” Jones writes. “It seems likely, however, that the majority of them chose to remain within the enclosure where they were allowed to reproduce unmolested for a period of eight to ten years.” In the early 1920s, Moore’s foreman, Cotton McGuire, a Graham County resident who provided most of the information Jones collected, “invited some of his friends who owned packs of dogs up to the Bald for a grand hog hunt. This hunt was conducted within the boar lot, and by this time the boar had increased to an estimated herd of between 60 and 100. The Russian boar, however, turned out to be more than the hunters or dogs bargained for. Only two boar were killed, and at least a dozen dogs were killed, or severely maimed. Some of the hunters were forced to take refuge in trees to escape the charging beasts. Overly excited by the baying of dogs and shouts of hunters, the boar simply tore their way through the fence and escaped into the nearby mountains.”
Established in 1934, the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become their prime sanctuary despite extended shooting and trapping campaigns by the park service to eradicate them because of their destructive habits. A mature animal can attain a height of over three feet at the shoulder and a weight of over 400 pounds. The average weight, however, is probably less than half that. Ranging widely in herds, they are omnivorous, feeding on plant matter and small animals. The head of the wild boar is wedge shaped with a pointed snout, which enables it to root up the ground seeking underground tubers in search of food. According to Jones, “their menu also includes acorns ... grains, fruits, birds’ eggs, mice, carrion, and salamanders. During the spring and early summer, chick grouse and green corn ... are also included in the diet. The imported boars seem particularly to relish rattlesnakes, which they kill with their sharp-edged hooves ... Alone or in herds, a boar may travel up to 12 miles during one feeding period.”
Troy Hyde, a veteran Graham County hunter, told Jones that one could “root up concrete, if he put his mind to it.” That sounds like exaggeration until you see areas where they have been rooting. The first time I encountered such an area I momentarily wondered what fool had been rototilling in the national park. Then the hog smell betrayed the culprits’ identities. I was astonished at the extent of damage. But just how destructive they can be didn’t really hit home until several years ago when they came onto our property — which adjoins the national park in Swain County three miles northwest of Bryson City — and went to work digging up the richest wildflower area we have. (They especially love the tubers of the showy spring species: bloodroot, trillium, rue anemone, blue cohosh, trout lily, etc.) When we returned home after an extended absence, my first thought once again was that some fool had rototilled the slope behind the house. Then I smelled that smell and saw the hog tracks. At that time we had to temporarily discontinue using our gravity-flow water system because the critters decided to root and wallow in the watershed up on the ridge above the house.
North Carolina wildlife officers issued us an out-of-season hunting permit to help remedy the problem. But I didn’t have enough firepower to make a stand. The pellets from my 12-gauge shotgun would have only tickled a boar’s funny bone. (Wild boars have funny bones don’t they?) Anyway, I never fired a shot. After awhile, they upped and left on their own. Good riddance, we thought. Alas, they returned again last fall while Elizabeth and I were away for a week. This time they attacked a partly buried rock wall above the house. This 60-foot long wall had been built in the early part of the 20th century by a farmer clearing the hillside to plant corn. We suppose there was something living in or under the wall that the wild boar craved. We haven’t gotten around to clearing up the mess to this day. The hillside looks like several grenades had been detonated under the wall, throwing rock debris helter-skelter.
Wild boars are independent cusses that have made the transition from one continent to another with admirable ease. They didn’t asked to be hauled from Europe to Graham County, but they’ve made a go of it without any whining or bellyaching. That’s admirable. But you can’t really be the friend of an animal that pollutes your water supply and uproots rock walls on your property. Can you? Even kudzu doesn’t do that.
Our consideration of “books and all things related” continues with a look at an instance when a well-known author (and former librarian) chose to disguise his reading so as to create a literary persona.
Horace Kephart was often guarded, sometimes evasive, when giving reasons for choosing the Smokies region as a place of renewal. There was no doubt an element of chance in the decision. It’s probable, however, despite his denials of having done so, that he read travel accounts and studied government documents, many of which were available by the turn of the century.
For someone with Kephart’s areas of interest an easily located source would have been (and perhaps was) Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup’s The Heart of the Alleghanies or Western North Carolina: Comprising Its Topography, History, Resources, People, Narratives, Incidents, and Pictures of Travel, Adventures in Hunting and Fishing, and Legends of Its Wilderness (Raleigh, NC: Alfred Williams, and Cleveland, OH: W.W. Williams, 1883). Kevin E. O’Donnell and Helen Hollingsworth, authors of Seekers of Scenery: Travel Writing from Southern Appalachia (1840-1900), reproduce five magazine articles describing Western North Carolina, post-1875, including Frank O. Carpenter’s “The Great Smoky Mountains and Thunderhead Peak,” which appeared in the June 1890 issue of Appalachia magazine.
The “pub.doc” Kephart managed to unearth in “that dustiest room of a great library” — but absentmindedly fails to provide authors or title for — was Horace B. Ayers and William W. Ashe’s The Southern Appalachian Forests (Washington. DC: Department of Interior and U.S. Geological Survey, 1902), the monumental study that contains descriptions, maps and photos of the Smokies region as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s detailed Letter of Transmittal, in which he observed: “These great mountains are old in the history of the continent which has grown up about them,” and having escaped “the ice on the north” display “that marvelous variety and richness of plant growth which have enabled our ablest business men and scientists to ask for its preservation by the Government for the advancement of science and pleasure of the people of our own and of future generations.”
Kephart had been for over a decade one of the most meticulous librarians in America. For the remainder of his life, he independently maintained the mindset and methodologies of the prototypical librarian. This trait is exemplified by the set of 27 journals — researched, categorized, alphabetized, indexed, and cross-referenced, more than once — he created so as to depict, often in great detail, almost every aspect of Appalachian culture, and more.
He wasn’t the sort who would venture into his own backyard without first taking a look at the relevant literature. By denying that he had access to written materials, the Smokies thereby became for his readers even more of a “terra incognita” — a land of “hidden possibilities” — in which, as his title for the first chapter of Our Southern Highlanders indicates, there is “Something Hidden; Go and Find It.” Via this calculated strategy, Kephart emerges as the somewhat heroic, albeit mild-mannered and curiously attentive, outsider who explores and describes the landscapes and lifestyles of a “mysterious realm.”
We’re still at it—considering books and related matters like shelving strategies, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?” This could go on forever. This week, not having anything else in mind, I’ll reminisce some about the role books have played in my life. I’m not at all sure where this is headed, but I do know that it will be about some things that still mean a lot to me. We’ll start at the beginning.
I was born in Danville, Virginia, where, after my father was killed in World War II, I was raised as an only child. Mother, who never remarried, purchased a small house on North Main Street in an ideal location; that is, adjacent to our backyard was a ball field, where pickup football, baseball and other games were ongoing year-round; and beyond the ball field there were woods and a small creek that flowed several miles into a river. When I wasn’t playing ball or walking in the woods or fishing in the creek, I was reading. Reading has always been one of my greatest pleasures. At one point in my life it was, for lack of a better word, magical. We’ll get back to that.
I grew up wanting to be either: (1) a pitcher for a major league baseball team (preferably the Brooklyn Dodgers), or (2) a writer. It became apparent almost immediately, even to me, that the pitching thing wasn’t going to work out; so, I focused on my backup plan. Because of my infatuation with the reading experience, I did eventually become a writer, of sorts. And somewhat to my surprise, I also became a naturalist, of sorts—a strategy that has allowed me to spend a lot of time in the woods.
My mother’s name was Ruth. She read something to me every night. I recall that she was a good reader, not overly emphatic, and seemed to enjoy the stories—no doubt, in part, as a diversion from more pressing concerns of which I was unaware. I will always remember that she read to me every night.
Once I was reading on my own, she subscribed to a children’s book club that mailed a new book every other week addressed to me. It was addressed to me and it was my book. That’s important. I had a bookcase beside my bed in which I arranged my accumulating collection however I wanted.
By the time I was maybe nine years old, I was using the city library. It was housed, as I recall, in an ornate two-story cube of a building located, just like everything else, on the other side of town. It was reputed to have been the seat of the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy.” I never knew if that was true or not and never really cared. I was interested in the books.
On Saturdays when a game of some sort wasn’t scheduled, I’d catch a city bus first thing in the morning over to the library and spend the day reading down in the basement, where the juvenile books were shelved. There was a sign that warned young people not to enter the main library. The gray-haired librarian in charge of the basement did look like a Confederate spinster or like my idea of what one ought to look like. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ball on the back of her head and held in place with a long pin. I can’t recall her name but we got along. On the sly, she let me check out as many books as I could carry home on the bus.
There was a green cloth-covered chair in my bedroom that I always sat in when reading. If I situated myself, just so, in that chair—with a book opened on my left side and the fingertips of my right hand quietly turning the pages, something would happen. For hours it sometimes seemed, a rare emotion would envelope me, and I would be transported into the world about which I was reading.
When I had read pretty much everything down in the basement worth reading, the Confederate spinster obtained a special dispensation from the head librarian that allowed me to come upstairs and read—so long as I didn’t venture into a certain room, where I supposed the dirty books were shelved. In the far corner of the main reading room there was a plush chair in which I always sat, just so, while reading. It was also magical, especially when there was a steady rain falling on the roof of The Last Capitol of the Confederacy.
At Chapel Hill I majored in English because I still loved reading more than anything else, a whole lot more than, say, chemistry, math, economics, German, and other unlikely opportunities. Back then—this was in the early 60s—the Bull’s Head Book Store was located in the basement of Wilson Library. If a book was worth reading, they had it; and you didn’t have to buy it—there were chairs in which you could sit and read anything for free. Anything. Even the dirty books by writers with names like Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and D.H. Lawrence. And once again there was a chair involved. It was a soft black leather or imitation-leather chair tucked in behind a partition. While sitting in it, just so, I could still enter the dream world of each book as I read it . . . they were books with beautiful names . . . The Old Man and the Boy . . . Specimen Days . . . Go Down, Moses . . . My Antonia . . . Far Away and Long Ago . . . The Odyssey . . . Ulysses . . . Urn Burial . . .Lie Down in Darkness . . . Give Your Heart to the Hawks . . . Tender is the Night . . . names that stick with you for a lifetime, long after you have forgotten the plot and most of the characters.
But that was the end of the magic. I grew older, assumed responsibilities as best as I knew how, and lost the capacity to be fully transported by what I was reading. A person I talked with about this experience suggested that things changed for me with “a loss of innocence.” Maybe so . . . a more realistic explanation would be that my way of processing information changed. The stories and images that books relate — fiction and non-fiction, alike — had once flowed into my system unimpeded with galvanizing impact.
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,.
We’re been considering books and related matters like shelving, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and (last week’s topic) — “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?”
This week we’re going to do something worthwhile by introducing you to the new Friends of the Marianna Black Library Book Store. It’s located on Everett Street in Bryson City, just south of the town square, on the right, before you get to the bridge, right next to Calby’s Antiques. If you’re old enough to recall where Bennett’s Drugstore was situated, that’s the place.
The word “unique” is almost always misused, but the new bookstore probably qualifies. Is there another one anywhere that features a marbled-topped counter from Italy and five stools with spinning seats that graced one of the most famous soda fountains in North Carolina? People traveled to Bryson City just to order a peanut butter milkshake at Bennett’s and sit in one of the old-time booths while drinking it.
For 10 long years, the library bookstore was a 14-by-20-foot shed perched next to the main library that featured a jumble of “unalphabatized” books. Revenues generated for the library via book sales were minimal. Calling it inadequate would have been praise.
Within the last six months, that situation has been altered. The change was initiated when Friends president Gail Findlay, who was director of the Fontana Regional Library system before “retiring,” decided to look for a new location that was large enough, relatively inexpensive, well-situated within walking distance of the main library and downtown areas, and could be leased for at least two years.
Findlay looked closely at four or five locations that didn’t pan out. She mentioned her project to Peggy Duncan, an artist who leased the old Bennett’s soda fountain and luncheonette room as gallery space. Duncan no longer wanted to maintain a downtown gallery — but she did want to retain rights to the wall space as a place to display her work.
Findlay and Duncan went next door to Calby’s and talked things over with Ivan Gibby, present owner of the soda fountain room. While growing up, Gibby had known Doc Bennett and his daughters, and maintains fond recollections of a pharmacy and soda fountain operation that once served as the social and political center of Swain County. They had no difficulty with working out a three-way lease suitable to all. And that’s the story of how the new Friends of the Marianna Black Library came to be.
I can report that when you come to Bryson City to check out the stock, you will find it meets the requirements established by author Larry McMurtry, who owns a bookstore himself, that all books be neatly shelved, arranged alphabetically, make a nice appearance, and be interesting to peruse, whether or not you buy anything. Chances are you will find something to read.
I knew the Bennetts, too. Years ago, I wrote a feature article about Doc Bennett, his daughter, Mary Alice, and the day she closed the drugstore’s doors after almost a century of service. Mary Alice was a great reader who always stocked regional books. She would be pleased with the recent turn of events. For the record, here are some excerpts from that article:
Sorry folks, no more ice cream cones, milkshakes, or sundaes at the marble-topped counters and tables. No more old-fashioned hospitality at the drug counter. No more advice on what to do for a foundered horse or poison ivy. Bennett’s Drug Store — a landmark in Western North Carolina for nearly a century — recently closed its doors for the last time when pharmacist Mary Alice (Bennett) Greyer decided to retire.
The closing marks the end of a single family’s century-long medical service in a rural mountain county, and brings back memories of a remarkable man whose influence extended far beyond his profession as a pharmacist.
Bennett’s Drug Store was founded in 1905 by Greyer’s father, Kelly Bennett (1890-1974), whose father, Dr. A.M. Bennett, was registered as a pharmacist by the state of North Carolina in 1888. Kelly was registered in 1912. His daughter, Mary Alice, was registered in 1936, being the first woman pharmacist in North Carolina. Accordingly, three generations of the Bennett family served Swain County as pharmacists for more than 100 years, with 86 of those years being in the same location.
For his part in promoting the movement that culminated in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kelly became known as “The Apostle of the Smokies.” Shortly after his death, a peak just south of Bryson City in the park was named Mount Bennett. If something took place in Swain County during Doc Kelly’s lifetime, there was more than an even chance he either started it or had a hand in supporting or opposing it. A billboard sign in Bryson City that read “Ask Bennett, He Knows” was more often right than wrong. The closing of Bennett’s Drug Store marks the end of an era.”
Someone needs to find that sign and hang it over the marble counter in the old soda fountain room that, almost overnight, has been transformed into a library bookstore.
This past weekend marked the second annual Horace Kephart celebration in Bryson City. There was a terrific presentation of newly surfaced George Masa photographs moderated by Masa biographer Bill Hart. Daniel Gore brought his band from Washington State to play the Kephart tunes in the album “Ways That Are Dark.” Folk musician Lee Knight played and sang. Park superintendent Dale Ditmanson spoke at the graveside service in uniform but quickly reappeared downtown in a T-shirt and shorts. There was talk of moving Masa’s remains from Asheville to a place beside Kephart in Bryson City. I’ll oppose that notion. “Leave George Be” will be my anti-removal slogan. He’s been at rest in Asheville, where he lived and worked, for 75 years.
That’s about it ... except for the Kamp Kephart five-man contingent from the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, N.C., which pitched their period demonstration camp near the railway depot.
Kamp Kephart is an educational workshop dedicated to late-19th and early-20th century campcraft and woodcraft and is named in honor of Horace Kephart, outdoorsman and author of Camping and Woodcraft, one of the cornerstones of American outdoor literature. Kamp Kephart leader Steve Watts asserts that the book is “no mere out-of-date period piece, but rather a viable guide with great relevancy for the 21st century.”
I spent a lot of time with the Kamp Kephart crowd at their “camp site” and later on in my office. A visit to this web site will give you an idea of what they’re up to in regard to presentations of period dress, equipment, etc: http://zombiehunters.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=34&t=43874
But they also think a lot about what they’re up to philosophically and spiritually. My last question of them was: “Which item of Kephart’s camping equipment would you like to find and have?”
“His tea cup,” one of them said. I knew exactly what he was talking about. You’ll find the “Kep’s teacup” on pages 111-112 of the first volume of Camping and Woodcraft:
“In his charming book, The Forest, Stewart Edward White has spoken of that amusing foible, common to us all, which compels even an experienced woodsman to lug along some pet trifle that he does not need, but which he would be miserable without. The more absurd this trinket is, the more he loves it. One of my camp-mates for five seasons carried in his “packer” a big chunk of rosin. When asked what it was for, he confessed:
“Oh, I’m going to get a fellow to make me a turkey-call, some day, and this is to make it ‘turk.’ “ Jew’s-harps, campstools, shaving-mugs, alarm-clocks, derringers that nobody could hit anything with, and other such trifles have been known to accompany very practical men who were otherwise in light marching order. If you have some such thing that you know you can’t sleep well without, stow it religiously in your kit. It is your “medicine,” your amulet against the spooks and bogies of the woods. It will dispel the koosy-oonek. (If you don’t know what that means, ask an Eskimo. He may tell you that it means sorcery, witchcraft — and so, no doubt, it does to the children of nature; but to us children of guile it is the spell of that imp who hides our pipes, steals our last match, and brings rain on the just when they want to go fishing.)
No two men have the same “medicine.” Mine is a porcelain teacup, minus the handle. It cost me much trouble to find one that would fit snugly inside the metal cup in which I brew my tea. Many’s the time it has all but slipped from my fingers and dropped upon a rock; many’s the gibe I have suffered for its dear sake. But I do love it. Hot indeed must be the sun, tangled the trail and weary the miles, before I forsake thee, O my frail, cool lipped, but ardent teacup!”
It would be nice to have that handless teacup in a museum ... but I also like the idea that’s it’s still out there ... maybe up in the old cabin at High Rocks . . . or tucked away behind a boulder in Bone Valley ... or somewhere back in Nicks Nest ... waiting for the right person, in the right frame of mind, to come along, pick it up, and say to himself or herself, “Kep’s teacup.”
This past weekend marked the 26th annual Great Smokies Birding Expedition, a gathering of onrnithologically-inclined friends. On Saturdays, to get things started, we always walk around Bryson City, tallying the common species that prefer a semi-urban setting. The highlight of the morning was the observation of cliff swallows nesting for the second straight year on the sides of the I-beams that support Everett Street Bridge. Their mud-cup colonial-style nests are a work of art.
After lunch, we moved to the Blue Ridge Parkway and birded the different forest zones into the spruce-fir forest at the intersection of Balsam Mountain Road and the BRP. The initial highlight of that stop was hearing a Canada warbler singing, even though he remained hidden from view in the rhododendrons. But the Canada warbler’s place of honor was replaced when someone said, “Black-billed cuckoo.” Sure enough, from the nearby woodlands came the ku-ku-ku-ku-ku notes of the black-billed cuckoo. They sound to me like someone tapping a coffee cup rhythmically with a spoon.
There are certain sounds that haunt the southern highlands: wind sighing in boughs of spruce-fir; the ongoing, ever-changing murmurs of a mountain stream; the “singing” of a timber rattler’s segmented tail; and the forlorn calls of the cuckoos.
No bird species are more secretive. Seldom leaving the shrouding foliage, the cuckoo sits motionless. When it does move, the cuckoo creeps about with furtive restraint. Seeing one is possible but unlikely. For the most part, this is a bird that you hear. It is mostly a “voice” that arises somewhere in the near distance then fades away.
Many rural residents know the more common species as the “rain crow” since its guttural “ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” calls are often sounded just prior to a late evening thunderstorm. (The distinctive “kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” portion of the call sounds something like a small dog barking.) The cuckoos on our property often sound a single “kowlp” note rather than the full vocalization.
The second cuckoo species that nests here in the mountains, mostly in the upper elevations, is called the black-billed cuckoo because it lacks the yellow lower mandible of its cousin. I’ve never seen even one black-billed cuckoo, but I have heard its rythmic “cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu” calls on more than a few occasions, most notably in the region of Blue Valley near Highlands, the Rainbow Springs section of the Nantahala River, and on the Balsam Mountain spur road of the BRP just beyond Mile High Overlook.
Both species winter in South America. They arrive in our region during the last week in April and usually depart by late October. If you see a yellow-billed cuckoo in flight, the most distinctive feature will be a double row of large white spots beneath the tail. The reddish flash of wing against the brownish body is also diagnostic. Henry David Thoreau described the bird this way:
“The cuckoo is a very neat, slender, and graceful bird. It belongs to the nobility of birds. It is elegant.”
The entry for the black-billed cuckoo in the Birds of North America Online (subscription) site contains these observations:
Graceful in flight but skulky and retiring in habit, the Black-billed Cuckoo is among North America’s most elusive birds. It is frequently confused with the more common Yellow-billed Cuckoo ... with which it shares similarities in plumage, behavior, and many vocalizations. Although both species occur ... through much of their ranges, the Black-billed Cuckoo has the more northerly distribution. In addition, Black-billeds prefer more densely wooded areas and can be found more frequently within coniferous vegetation. The Black-billed Cuckoo is rarely seen during migration and on wintering grounds in South America due to its silent and secretive manner. As a result, its nonbreeding distribution remains controversial. In North America, it is among the later migrants to return each spring; arrival on breeding grounds is announced by its staccato, repetitive call— cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu —uttered as individuals fly overhead on late spring evenings. Vocal night flights increase as breeding commences. These flights, in concert with its quiet, sluggish behavior during the day, has led some ornithologists to suggest that the Black-billed Cuckoo is nocturnal in summer.
On Saturday, we heard the black-billed cuckoo calling for a while. Then the sound faded into silence. No one glimpsed the bird or even knew for sure where it had been. But the next time you’re in the high country and hear those steady rhythmic notes you’ll know what it is. With luck on your side, you might even see the bird. But don’t count on it.
One of the handouts I use during natural history workshops is headed “Southern Blue Ridge Province: Geographic Location and Influences.” It is the best “concise” approximation of the situation that I have been able to devise, as yet. I revise it from year to year, but many of the “facts” therein remain subjective. Here it is:
The Appalachians — created between 300 and 250 million years ago as a result of periods of mountain building brought about when the North American continental plate collided with the plates forming the European and African continents — extend some 2,000 miles from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to north Georgia and Alabama. They have been described as “The most elegant mountain range in the world.”
The Southern Appalachians can be defined as the ranges south of the point in northeastern Pennsylvania to which glacial ice sheets extended at the height of the Wisconsin epoch 18,000 years ago. That region consists of four geographic provinces: Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Plateau. The Blue Ridge is by far the most significant in regard to mountainous terrain.
The Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachians extends from just south of Harrisburg Penn., to the hills of north Georgia just north of Atlanta, encompassing mountainous portions of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, east Tennessee, northwest South Carolina, and north Georgia. The Blue Ridge can be divided into northern and southern provinces, with the Southern Blue Ridge Province (SBRP) consisting of the terrain south of Mt. Rogers in southwestern Virginia to Mt. Oglethorpe in north Georgia.
The eastern front or escarpment of the SBRP is clearly defined from Virginia into South Carolina. On its western front the SBRP consists of the Unaka, Great Smoky, Unocoi, and other massive ranges. Connecting the eastern and western fronts are transverse ranges: Blacks, Great Craggies, Great Balsams, Nantahalas, and many others. The Appalachian system as a whole reaches its greatest elevation, largest mass, and most rugged topography in the SBRP where 125 peaks rise 5,000 feet or more, with 49 of them surpassing 6,000 feet. (From Mt. Rogers in Virginia northward to the Gaspe Penninsula only Mt. Washington in New Hampshire exceeds 6,000 feet.)
This topography profoundly influences the region’s average temperature (and thereby its plant and animal life, which exhibit strong northern affinities). The principle of verticality states that for each 1,000 feet gained in elevation the mean temperature decreases about 4 degrees F, equivalent to a change of 250 miles in latitude. (This means that if you travel from the lowest elevations in the SBRP at about 1,000 feet to the higher elevations above 6,000 feet, it’s the equivalent of traveling more than 1,200 miles northward in regard to the habitats you will encounter.)
The SBRP is situated where winds bringing saturated air masses from the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Coastal Plain are cooled and lose much of their content. (Air cools while rising to pass over a mountain range and can hold less moisture than warm air; therefore, heavy condensation occurs where large fronts first encounter massive ranges, as is the instance along the Blue Ridge divide.) The heaviest rainfall in the entire Appalachian region occurs along the GA-NC-SC borders, resulting in annual rainfalls of over 90 inches in many areas. (As much as 145 inches have been recorded with regularity since 1935 along the GA-NC line by the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab located near Otto). Taking this into consideration, some professional observers now refer to the area as a temperate rain forest. The higher elevations of the SBRP can be thought of as a peninsula of northern terrain extending into the southeastern U.S. where typical flora and fauna of northeastern and southeastern North America flourish. The region features approximately 1,500 vascular plants (many of which are considered to be showy wildflowers) and 125 species of trees (in all of Europe there are only about 75 species).
Not all agree on the exact extent of the SBRP. Not all agree on the number of 5,000- and 6,000-foot peaks. Not all agree on the definition for the “principle of verticality.” And so on. Almost nobody agrees on the location of the so-called “Temperate (or Appalachian) Rain Forest.” Here are three excerpts from various sources:
(1) “Temperate Rain Forests” of North America are usually defined by P.B. Alaback’s definition published in 1991 in the “Review of Chilean Natural History”: “Annual precipitation over 1400 mm [55 inches], cool summers stemming from an equable year-round climate with mean annual temperature between 4 and 12 degrees Celsius (39 and 54 degrees F.), and infrequent fire.”
(2) Temperate rain forests in the eastern USA are limited to areas in the southern Appalachian Mountains where orographic precipitation causes weather systems coming from the west and from the Gulf of Mexico to drop more precipitation than in surrounding areas. The largest of these forest blocks are located in western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and far eastern Tennessee, largely in the Pisgah, Nantahala, Chattahoochee National Forests and nearby Gorges State Park. In addition, small areas in the highest elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains also receive substantial rainfall, with Clingmans Dome, for example, collecting about 2000 mm of precipitation per year.
(3) An online description of Jocasse State Park by Stephanie Walker and Dirk Frankenberg reads, in part: ‘Near the southwestern corner of the state, the Blue Ridge escarpment rises over 2,500 feet from the Piedmont to the Highlands Plateau at 3,500 to 4,000 feet above sea level. This difference in elevation has been eroded by rainfall runoff into a half-moon-shaped indentation in the Blue Ridge through which five major rivers make their way towards the sea. These rivers have cut deep gorges into the escarpment, which are known collectively as the Jocassee Gorges after one of the principal streams. Annual rainfalls in the heavily forested Jocassee Gorges region can range upward of 100 inches - the generally accepted definition of a rain forest. In the temperate zone of the United States, this is the only rain forest east of the Olympic peninsula in the Pacific Northwest.’
The so-called “Appalachian Rain Forest” and many other aspects related to the Blue Ridge are starting to assume a mythical status in my mind.
One doesn’t tire of certain places. Even though they inevitably change through the years, they become more than friends. The cove we live in has become that sort of place even though, in most ways, it’s just another mountain cove. There are no rare plants or birds. The views are comforting — if you enjoy gazing at nearly vertical mountainsides.
Most of the time it’s fairly secluded, except for the occasional hunter or fisherman or lost tourist. In years past, our cove was a trap of sorts for seriously lost vacationers from France. How they wound up on lower Lands Creek instead of downtown Gatlinburg was always a mystery. They couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them. But with the help of a jug of red wine, we got along.
Most of the time, it’s fairly quiet — except for when Johnny Floor and his rock band kick it into gear up the creek at midnight with their high-octane cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.” In one swift generation, the cove has gone from Little Jimmy Dickens on the radio to Johnny Floor wired for high-tech sound. Well, let’s look at it this way: Johnny can sing better than Little Jimmy, and even at midnight, I’d rather hear “The White Freightliner Blues” than “Take an Old Cold Tater.”
Sometimes I’m asked, “How much would you want for your property?” To those eyes it’s just another plot of land — a commodity in need of improvement. Those eyes see it as something to be exchanged and re-exchanged on the marketplace. Bulldoze that old house and that rickety barn with the leaky roof and plywood sides. Get rid of that antiquated gravity-flow spring-fed water system. Flatten that ridge top and build a mansion with a sensational view someone lives in for six weeks a year and never calls home.
I can’t grasp that perspective. Never even tried. I do know that a homeplace isn’t a commodity. Even as things change, as they inevitably will, such places continue to lift our spirits and keep us going. Going on 35 years now and we continue to be renewed by the familiar shape of each ridge and the familiar patterns and sounds of the creek.
Back in the early 1990s, we had to move everyone into a large house in town for seven months because of my mother’s declining health. That’s when we found out just how much that spot “out in the country” had become a defining factor in our lives. Once we returned back into the cove after mother’s death, we felt more certain of our place and direction in life. There was quite clearly no place else we wanted or needed to be.
Everyone reading this knows what I’m talking about. Our emotional ties to specific places can be as ingrained as our ties to certain people. Our most deeply rooted feelings about certain people are often associated with specific places. That’s surely one of the reasons why the families of those moved out of the lands now occupied by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park are reluctant to cast core issues aside. Those issues are, after all, emblems signifying an ongoing attachment to certain places and not-yet-forgotten people.
But this is getting way too serious. It’s a simple matter. At the end of the day, each of us is lucky almost beyond belief if we have a place to go home to that means something — a place where you can punch up the “White Freightliner Blues” on the boom box, sit on the deck with a cup of red wine, and watch the creek flow by.
Monday morning … 9:15 or so … suddenly the coyote was there … as if from out of nowhere … a shadow moving in the pasture across the creek.
I had glanced out of my workroom window moments before and nothing was there. The next time I looked up he (or she) had probably come out of dense tangle of rhododendron, laurel, and grapevine that cloaks the mountainside bordering the far side of the pasture. The animal was 35 to 40 yards away.
He was gray-brown with reddish highlights around his face and neck and down the spine. The underside was a lighter color. He looked as if he might weigh 50 pounds, but I have read that coyotes look larger than they are. It’s likely that he weighed 25 to 30 pounds and was maybe three feet long, including the long bushy tail.
The coyote circled a post in the pasture on which a bluebird box was mounted. Apparently sensing (correctly) that it was empty this year, he moved out of sight under grapevines, perhaps checking to see if they were ripe. When he reappeared, he surprised me — instead of crossing the creek by wading, he crossed it on our new footbridge (built this year), as if he had crossed it many times before. Maybe he has.
I suspect he knew four of our five German shorthaired pointers were penned up and that the fifth (Zeke, who is 15 years old) was likely to be asleep (which he was). And I’d guess that the critter was headed for the far side of the house — where fallen apples from my wife’s trees litter the ground — when he sensed my presence and drifted around the other side, up a trail, and out of sight.
The last I saw of him, he was moving in a quick-footed dogtrot. Not dainty-footed or nimble like a fox, he nevertheless moved gracefully. He certainly didn’t “slink” in the manner usually ascribed to coyotes. My visitor was, in fact, a pretty animal. I had no desire to harm him, even though he and his extended family are a negative factor where we live.
In A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2008), Donald W. Linzey noted that, “Coyotes originally inhabited portions of western North America. As forests were cleared, however, their range in the United States expanded eastward … Many coyotes were liberated by fox hunters in the southern states who had similar-appearing coyote pups shipped to them instead of fox pups. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented 20 different points in the southeastern United States where coyotes were released by people who planned to run them with hounds … Coyotes were first observed in the park in Cades Cove by Charles Remus on June 6, 1982, and now occur throughout the park” They also occur throughout Western North Carolina in backcountry, rural and urban areas. They’re everywhere and, like it or not, they’re here to stay.
Andy Russell, a professional trapper in Alberta, Canada, wrote a nice book based on a lifetime of personal experiences titled Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer (1970). Russell concluded that, “Of all the animals a trapper encounters, the coyote is by far the most cunning and intelligent. I have trapped foxes, which have a reputation for being difficult to take, but compared to a coyote the fox is a dunce.”
The pack of between five and 10 coyotes that patrols the area where we live west of Bryson City has decimated the small-game population on our property. Ground-nesting birds like towhees and ovenbirds have moved on. There are reports of missing cats and small dogs from neighbors. The pack likes to serenade us late at night with ongoing choruses of short yaps, long whines and loud barks. And now they are crossing our new footbridge into the yard looking for my wife’s apples in broad daylight.
I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart.
The evil medicine men or “witches” employed the formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. These have been categorized as those used “To Lower One’s Soul.” Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, noted in The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997) that the sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells ... were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”
Here is a formula of this type I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. The model for the “black owl” would have been the great-horned owl.
Your name is night.
I am the black owl
that hunts the darkness
for your heart and soul.
Your name is the night.
I am the black owl
hunting your soul.
This is my favorite. It is rendered from various late 19th and 20th century English translations, etc., as a composite approximation of Cherokee sacred formulas intended to “remake” or “rebeautify.” In this instance the formula is also a love incantation.
CALLING LIKE A DISTANT BIRD
Dressed in the sunrise
I might sing like a red bird.
But I shake my clothing until it fades
so that you and I are dressed alike.
Our souls are aligned.
Be thinking of me.
We are as the red bird.
We are as the blue bird.
We are as the yellow bird.
We are as the mythic bird.
Look at me ... talk with me ... no apartness.
In the middle of the morning we stand.
Each day we walk in splendor
within the heart of a rainbow.
Each day we are remade by
the spirit that never dies.
Some Cherokees believed that after death the soul could go to a place seven days to the west where the ghost people (their ancestors and others) resided in Night Land. Going there was apparently an option. One had to make up one’s mind. Neither a heaven nor a hell, it seems to have been a sort of parallel universe in which there were chiefs, warriors, wise women, dances, songs, animals, plants, and, most importantly, deceased ancestors with whom one could commune. In this poem a woman is explaining to her great-grandmother about where and how she made up her mind.
Speak to me.
I have made up my mind.
She stood listening before smiling
and nodding as the mist burned away and
sunlight turned the sycamore-lined Tuckaseigee
into a track of light within which she arose
on out-spread arms and down-turned hands
above the indifferent grasping currents and
was transposed as if on the wings of a radiant hawk.
Many years later when her great-grandmother asked
when she had made up her mind, she smiled and replied:
“I grew tired missing you and grandfather and my uncles.
I made up my mind while fording the river.
I asked my other grandfather
the river to ask my heart.
My heart told my mind to place
My soul with the ghost people.
Thinking always starts in the heart.
I made up my mind in the river
to come and live with you
here in the Night Land.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in June 2003.
Honey was a primary sweetening agent for the early settlers here in the Smokies region. And to this day there are numerous beekeepers in the region.
They trace the origins of their activity back to the introduction of the honeybee into North America. Prior to that time, sweetening was obtained primarily by tapping maple trees.
The honeybee probably arrived on this continent during the 1600s. They became so numerous that Native Americans called them the “white man’s fly.”
Donald Edward Davis notes in Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2000) that “By the time of the American Revolution ... William Bartram found honeybees numerous ‘from Nova Scotia to East Florida.’ During his tour of the Cherokee country in 1796, Benjamin Hawkins reported that the Cherokees already ‘had bees and honey’ and were doing ‘a considerable trade in beeswax.’ Moreover, European plants such as apple trees were greatly dependent on the pollination of honeybees in order to consistently bear fruit. Certainly the honeybee also helped native plants, including Indian maize, to produce more prolifically.”
Sourwood honey is the most famous honey produced in this region. One just about can’t think about sourwood trees in bloom without thinking of the fresh sourwood honey that’s on the way. Fortunately, the blooming period of sourwood comes pretty much after that of its cousins, the mountain laurel and rhododendrons, whose honeys are toxic. Bees are said to prefer sourwood to any other tree. Stand under a sourwood in full bloom and you will hear the “song of summer” coming from the congregation of bees feeding high above.
The early white settlers made their bee gums from black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). This use was based on close observation of the natural world. Black gum is susceptible to a heartwood decay that sets in early at the top of the tree and works downward; therefore, hollow trees are common. The settlers simply sectioned a black gum, placed the sections on end with boards over the tops and bottoms, and made an entrance hole. Gums were also constructed from rough planks.
Obtaining a hive of bees was the next step. Bee-hunters sometimes located a watering place for bees and followed them back to their homes in hollow trees. Some hunters baited the bees with corn cobs soaked in honey and then followed them home. If their home base couldn’t be located at first, the hunter simply kept setting out more bait until he finally found it.
Volume 2 of the “Foxfire” series of books provides a unique “stink-bait” bee attraction recipe. One veteran bee-hunter recalled that it was virtually foolproof: “Old-timers used to put corn cobs and dirt in a bucket, urinate in it, and then leave it for a few days. When they got back, the bees would be there.”
The same bee-hunter recalled that “he would set up two bait locations, one a short distance from the other. When the lines from each were established, one had simply to follow each to the point where they intersected, and there would be the tree. When the tree was located, a deep ‘X’ or other sign was almost always cut into the bark. Such a mark was understood by the whole community as meaning that that particular tree was already someone’s property and thus could not be cut or interfered with.”
The bee tree could be felled at any time of the year, but the best time was in September when the bee-hunter could rob both honey and bees. He would bring an axe (to fell the tree), tub (for the honey), and bee gum or tow sack (for the bees). Once the tree was down, he would locate the queen bee and place her in front of the gum or tow sack. In short order, both she and her attendants would crawl into the gum or sack and be relocated at a site near the bee-hunter’s cabin.
Naturally enough, a great deal of lore has through the years become associated with bee-keeping. In Mountain Bred (Citizen-Times Publishing Co., 1967), John Parris has a chapter titled “When the Master Dies Move the Bees.” Therein he records a conversation he had with county farm agent Paul Gibson.
“‘There’s a lot of superstitions about bee-keeping,’ Paul said. ‘One is, if a colony of bees swarm you’ve got to get out and ring a bell or beat on a dishpan before they’ll settle. I don’t know why folks believe in it, for bees don’t have a hearing organ. They go by physical vibrations’
“‘Then there’s the one old-timers swear by. They say if the master dies the bees die with him, unless the bees are moved.’”
To check out this latter belief, Parris sought out Eliza Jane Bradley, then 87, who lived on Bunches Creek and was the recent widow of a master beekeeper.
“‘Yes, the bees are all right,’ she said. ‘We moved ‘em before we took the Old Man out of the house. I saw to that no sooner than I saw he was dead. You know, they always say that if you don’t move the bees when the master dies you’ll lose them. They’ll die, too. We just moved ‘em about an inch ... Just so they wasn’t like he had put ‘em. Ever’body’ll tell you it don’t matter how much you move ‘em, just so as you move ‘em.’
“‘Well, the Old Man died about 3:30 in the morning. Right away we sent to Bryson City for the undertaker. And the very next thing, I told one of my boys that the bees would have to be moved. He and another fellow went out — it was still dark and cold — and moved the bees. There was 23 stands. Since then I’ve lost but two ... Now, I know, as sure as I’m a-settin’ here, if them bees hadn’t of been moved there wouldn’t be a one out there now. I know what I’m talkin’ about.’”
Many characters surface in stories related to Horace Kephart, regional author and one of the founders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. F.A. Behymer, a journalist from St. Louis who would have been aware of the basic story behind Horace Kephart’s dismissal as a head librarian, separation from wife and family, and subsequent breakdown in March 1904 — is one of the more colorful. Behymer’s article, based on an interview with Kephart in Bryson City in 1926, appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was reprinted on Dec. 12 of the same year in the Asheville Citizen-Times as “Horace Kephart, Driven from Library by Broken Health, Reborn in Woods.”
An editorial note prefacing the reprinted text reads: “The following interesting article about one of the most interesting characters in Western North Carolina, Horace Kephart of Bryson City, was written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by F.A. Behymer, one of the star men of that newspaper.” Behymer was easily as much of a “character” as Kephart ever dreamed of being.
It must have surprised him that a journalist from St. Louis would journey to Bryson City to write a lengthy article 20 years after he had departed the city in trying circumstances. But Behymer wasn’t your run-of-the-mill journalist. Driving to remote places to look around, get the lay of the land, conduct an interview, take a few photographs and drive back home to write it up was the way he had operated for more than a quarter of a century. Behymer is a minor character in the overall story, but his descriptions and conclusions are often shrewdly phrased and insightful.
Francis Albert Behymer (1870-1956) was born in Ohio, quit school at the age of 12, joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a proofreader, started his writing career as a “suburban correspondent,” and by 1900 was writing “a chain of bright stories of rural life ... that lasted half a century.” His friends called him “Bee.” He was short, weighed 125 pounds, had a big nose and gray hair that was unruly, wore a small mustache and always carried a battered briefcase. In his Chevrolet sedan, he traveled thousands of backcountry miles each year covering his beat, which consisted of the rural portions of three states: Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, with emphasis on the Ozarks. His rambling columns have been described as “homey tales of people, horses, auctions and little girls who liked rabbits” — but he also enjoyed covering the occasional “cornfield murder.” The Post-Dispatch made him a Sunday editor, but he promptly “resigned” and went back to traveling and writing.
Kephart was precisely the sort of personality, with the sort of lifestyle and background, that would have attracted a journalist like Behymer, and Kephart himself gravitated toward “original characters” — as personalities like Quill Rose, Mark Cathey, Bob Barnett and “Bee” Behymer were known. Kephart would have appreciated the fact that the journalist had done his homework — having read Kephart’s books and the autobiographical essay — and that he pieced the overall story together in a lively but unobtrusive fashion. When asked by Behymer why he had chosen the Smokies as his destination, Kephart’s response was more specific than usual:
Resting awhile at his father’s home at Dayton [he] took a map and a compass and with Dayton as the center drew circles, seeking the nearest wilderness, in any direction, where he might cast himself away. The region of the Big Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina seemed to meet the requirements. A topographic map showed him, by means of the contour lines and the blank spaces, where nature was wildest and where there were no settlements. These were the highest mountains east of the Rockies. It was a primitive hinterland without a history. It would be a good place to begin again, he thought.
Kephart’s materials were always categorized, alphabetized and indexed, often more than once. Relevant items that might be of use were cross-referenced in the outlines and drafts of specific articles and books he was working on at the time. Although no longer a librarian, he retained a librarian’s instinct for classification — or as Behymer described the situation: “The librarian’s ruling passion was still strong amid the bears and owls.”
Behymer was uncanny when it came to unraveling Kephart’s convoluted motives. He did so via a complexity of language and images never encountered in modern day journalism. For instance, he reached this carefully phrased (and in my opinion accurate) conclusion regarding Kephart’s “crash” after interviewing him in his office overlooking the Tuckaseigee River in 1926.
Horace Kephart won high position in the busy world as a librarian. He was a front-rank man. For 13 years he was at the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Success was his. ... Then in 1904 — “crash.” The man broke down. To another man it would have been tragedy. To Horace Kephart it was blessed release. ... Ambition had beckoned, and duty had driven. His heart’s deepest longing had been denied. Always he had waited for a more convenient season. Greater ambition called for greater devotion. But for this chance, which another would have called mischance, he would have gone to the end denying himself his dearest wish, winning much but losing more.
This past week, we took our 11-year-old granddaughter, Daisy, who is visiting from Colorado, to the Cherokee Indian Village. She had been reading about the Cherokees and wanted to see “real Indians.” The tour was excellent. There were plenty of “real Indians.” We were lucky in that the Cherokees were holding a special dance ceremony to which the public was invited. Chief Michell Hicks was there and he danced, fairly well.
Daisy didn’t dance because she wanted to observe. She saw the bear dance, the quail dance, the friendship dance, and several others. The Cherokees in attendance were in a good mood. They especially enjoyed watching a teacher try to organize his kids — who looked to be 5 or 6 years old — into a disciplined covey of baby quails. They were about as organizable as a real covey of baby quails. But they were cute.
That evening, we talked some about Cherokee dance and other traditions. I told Daisy about Will West Long, one of my favorite Cherokees. The Cherokees of today are obviously keeping their traditions alive as much as possible. It was Will West Long who kept them alive 100 years ago.
He was born in the Big Cove area about 1870, the son of a Baptist minister, John Long, and Ayasta (Sally Terrapin). As was normal in traditional Cherokee society, the mother’s side of the family assumed responsibility for the rearing of children. The anthropologist James Mooney, who lived in Cherokee periodically from 1897-1890 collecting their lore, noted that Ayasta was “one of the principal conservatives among the women.” (I showed Daisy a photo of Ayasta in Mooney’s book.) Ayasta initiated Will into an understanding of tribal lore that subsequently withstood numerous brushes with acculturation.
After several lonely sojourns at Trinity College near High Point, Will returned to the Qualla Boundary and settled down to farming while learning more about the sacred formulas and other traditional lore from the conjurers and medicine men.
When Mooney arrived in the Big Cove in 1887, he felt an immediate attraction to Long — then a teenager working with the medicine man Swimmer — and hired him as a scribe and interpreter. Even after Mooney mastered the language himself, the two remained close friends.
Until several years before his death in 1921, Mooney periodically visited Will and other members of the Long family in the Big Cove. On one such occasion in 1913, he was invited to take place in a “going to water” ceremony commemorating the birth of a son. The entire family arose before sunrise, prayed, and then walked two miles to a special mountain stream. While Will West Long faced the rising sun, held forth colored beads, and invoked the Long Man (the designation for a stream in Cherokee mythology as it was a giant with its head in the mountains and its feet in the ocean), everyone else waded with the newborn child into the sacred water.
As a result of Mooney’s influence in the late 1880s, Will once again enrolled in an institution of higher learning. This time it was Hampton Institute. He subsequently spent 10 years in New England, learning and observing the dominant culture. The exposure didn’t take. Dissatisfied with that lifestyle, he returned in 1904 just prior to Ayasta’s death and seldom ventured away from the Big Cove again.
Having seen and experienced other possibilities, Will found that a white education had had little influence on the traditional spiritual lessons learned as a child from his mother. He began collecting notebooks from tribal conjurors that contained the ancient sacred chants and charms. He would on occasion appear suddenly at the Cherokee schools and captivate the children with tales and chants from their shared tribal past. Adept at all of the traditional Cherokee modes of expression — storytelling and dancing and singing — he was also the Eastern Band’s foremost authority on medicinal plants. Almost single-handedly, he kept the tradition of ceremonial mask carving alive.
He taught the old ways to the young people. Among these was his nephew Walker Calhoun. As a child Walker danced to the ceremonial singing of his uncle. The singing and dancing captured the boy’s imagination. Before he was 9, Walker could sing all of the old songs and dance all of the old dances.
I was pleased that Daisy, who has developed an interest in Cherokee ways, had a chance to see them dance some of the old dances kept alive by Swimmer, Ayasti, Will West Long, Walker Calhoun, the Raven Rock Dancers, and the school teacher last week who was doing his absolute best to organize that covey of Indian children for a quail dance.
In the mid-1970s my primary writing interest was poetry. I was consumed night and day by poetry for perhaps five years and took part in poetry readings throughout the southern mountains. Some poems were published in little magazines like “Wind,” “Touchstone” and “The Small Farm” that flourished during that era. I even published a mimeographed newsletter-journal called “Unaka Range” that lasted a few years in which I had the audacity to publish at least one of my own poems each issue.
It was an era when every little town had at least one resident poet and quite often a small printing press of some sort. The readings were as much social as literary occasions, and the wine flowed before, during and after. I can recall some others, mostly poets, from this area who were a part of that scene: Nancy Simpson in Hayesville; Bettie Sellers in Young Harris, Ga.; Jim Stokely (Wilma Dykeman’s son) in Newport, Tenn., edited “Touchstone”; Jeff Daniel (Danny) Marion taught at Carson-Newman and edited the best of this region’s little magazines, “The Small Farm”; Thomas Rain Crowe was living in either Robbinsville or Cullowhee; Gary Carden was and is living in Sylva. Those associated with Western Carolina University included Newt Smith, Elizabeth Addison and Kay Stripling Byer, who was until recently the poet laureate of North Carolina. I can still hear Elizabeth Addison’s precise diction as she read her poems. I hated to read after Elizabeth because my own diction was so mumble-jumbled.
One of the young poets of that era from WNC was Robert Morgan, now primarily known for his novels and a recent biography of Daniel Boone. Robert didn’t show up at any of the readings because he was teaching far away at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He was already writing the sort of close-observation poems about the natural world that I was trying to write. He did them so deftly I couldn’t figure out how to steal anything from him short of abject plagiarism. We corresponded some. He gave me one piece of advice that has stuck: “Be careful about adverbs.” The following is from Robert Morgan’s website:
“I was born October 3, 1944 in Hendersonville, North Carolina and grew up on the family farm [near Zirconia] in the Green River valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains... After starting out in engineering and applied mathematics at North Carolina State University, I transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated in 1965 with a B.A. in English. In 1968 I received a Master of Fine Arts degree from UNC-Greensboro... My first writing teacher was the novelist Guy Owen at N.C. State. He encouraged me to write stories and poems about the place and people where I had grown up. One day he brought one of my stories to class, an account of visiting a great-grandmother in an old house in the mountains, and announced he had wept when he read the story. This was better praise than I had gotten in math classes, and I was hooked on writing. My earliest publications were short stories, but I soon became caught up in the excitement about poetry in the late 1960s. I had a lot of encouragement from Jessie Rehder at UNC-Chapel Hill and Fred Chappell at UNC-Greensboro. Fred was the best reader of poetry I had ever met... [My] first book, Zirconia Poems, [was published] in 1969. After coming to Cornell in 1971, I wrote only poems for 10 years, and published three more books of poems, Land Diving, Trunk & Thicket, and Groundwork.”
I’m not sure why, but I got away from writing poetry about 1980 — or maybe poetry got tired of me. But of late, for reasons we won’t go into, I’ve gotten back to poetry. Poems are flowing out of me like water from a spigot in the back of the garden that someone forgot to turn off: haiku, sonnets, verses both free and rhymed, sestinas, Petrarchian renderings, you name it. Late last Saturday night I invented a poetic form new to the English language poetry I call “simulated blank verse,” whereby every 10 syllables you break the line and keep on trucking. Counting stresses or rhyming is frowned upon. If you can count to 10, you can write simulated blank verse.
I’m also back to where I started with Robert Morgan 35 years ago, studying his poems to see how he does it. I’ve decided that he has a gift for what he does. Could have been something in the water at Zirconia. Here are two excerpts and one complete poem, just in case you ever want to contemplate the circular interrelationships that exist between old hubcaps in a creek, an owl’s eyes, and discs that furrow the landscape.
Sprinkled with needles the snow is still intact in thickets.
Blind cars rusting in the woods.
Pink clay stains through the snow and yellow holes where rabbits pissed.
Cellars of air moving down the creek.
The valley sails on, a farm in its hold.
— from “Creek” (Zirconia Poems, 1969)
In the pine woods, at the log
enclosure with a roof
over one corner,
you can get up close
to the grunting breather.
And he knows you’re there, always
watching through a chink.
his great weight
squealing to the other
side, for all his size quick as a cat; stands
in mud plush.
— from “Hogpen” (Land Diving, 1976)
The tractor runs over dirt and shapes it, turning
stubble and moving the hill
furrow by furrow to the terraces, slicing clods, wearing
them away and chopping roots
to rot in sweet beds of decay.
The owl: eyes like arenas
the weeds and hungry ditches.
She guards the air like a monument
Shedding a field of energy downwind.
Old hubcaps burning all night in the creek.
— (Red Owl, 1972)
Like most commonly observed objects, crows flit across our field of vision unheeded. Caw-caw-cawing unmusically … flap-flap-flapping over the fields … dressed as if for a funeral … iridescent pieces of black flannel waving in the breeze. We hear and see them … but we don’t really pay attention. We rarely think about them … we never ask ourselves: “What are these birds up to?”
Within the last decade, however, crows have decided to relocate into the valley we live in west of Bryson City. This flock is composed of perhaps 30 individuals ... maybe more … maybe less. Counting crows can be a problem.
They all look alike … and no crow stays in one place for very long. But I’d say we’ve got about 30 crows … more than enough.
They primarily feed around the barn on whatever chicken, rabbit, and horse feed gets scattered on the ground. But they will eat almost anything. They are, I have observed, fond of apples … especially golden Grimes apples. I have seen them pecking at tomatoes and squash. But I have never observed a crow eating a green bean.
They apparently roost and nest in a thicket of scrub pine on a ridge above the valley. Being crows they are, of course, secretive about where they roost. They are secretive about everything. But I have watched them through binoculars late in the evening. They fly in every direction as a diversion but eventually they slip away … one by one … into the pine grove on that ridge.
Of late, they have become rather tame and often come down to feed and mess around in the garden ornamental shrubs next to our home, when they think no one is around; that is, when both of our vehicles are gone. You did know that crows can count, didn’t you?
Well-funded high-caliber scientific research has established that all crows can count to three ... not a few can count to four ... and the occasional crow can get to five. The North American record for counting by a crow is eight. It was set by a crow residing in Ithaca, N.Y. There is suspicion that the crow was tutored at the Cornell University Lab. Be that as it may, crows are good counters.
When they think no one is home, I sit by my window and listen to the crows talking things over. I have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t caw when there’re discussing things. At this time, their vocalizations consist primarily of low rattling and gurgling sounds. One will rattle for a while, then another one will gurgle for awhile in response. I keep asking myself, “What are these birds up to?”
I have never observed a large roost of crows, which is properly referred to not as a flock but as a “congress of crows,” but in some places they form winter enclaves that number into the thousands. One standard source reports winter flocks of up to 200,000 birds.
I have an AP wire service clip in my “Crow” file dated Jan. 6, 1987, and titled “Crows Decide Illinois Town Is For The Birds.” The town in question was Danville, Ill., which had suffered a crow inundation that broke branches, pulled down power lines, and bombarded streets and houses with droppings.
From the article: “‘It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie over here. These birds are driving us all crazy,’ said Irene Hall, who lives on Oak Street, one of the crows’ favorite spots.”
The first naturalists in our part of the world were the ancient Cherokees. They didn’t miss a trick in regard to the intricacies of plant and animal life. They liked to closely observe the mundane, and then make it a part of their oral traditions.
The Cherokee word for crow is “Koga.” According to one of their stories, Koga acquired its black color in a futile attempt to obtain the first fire. In another story, two crows were selected to be the guards of a gambler named Brass. Anthropologist James Mooney collected this story in the late 1880s while living among the Cherokees in the Big Cove section of the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.
“They tied his hands and feet with a grapevine and drove a long stake through his breast, and planted it far out in the deep water,” Mooney recorded in Myths of the Cherokee (1900). “They set two crows on the end of the pole to guard it and called the place Ka-gun-yi: ‘Crow place.’ But Brass never died, and cannot die until the end of the world, but lies there always with his face up. Sometimes he struggles under the water to get free, and sometimes the beavers, who are his friends, come and gnaw at the grapevine to release him. Then the pole shakes and the crows at the top cry ‘Ka! Ka! Ka!’ and scare the beavers away.”
What better lookouts than a pair of crows?
Each July since 1991, I’ve led field trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway offered as part of the Native Plants Conference sponsored by Western Carolina University. This year’s outings (July 25) will have taken place by the time you read this.
Between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah, the eight participants in my group will identify perhaps eight fern species, several grasses, a few lichens, maybe a mushroom or two, and more than 100 wildflower species, including wild quinine, large-flowered leafcup, bush honeysuckle, green wood orchis, starry campion, Indian paintbrush, enchanter’s nightshade, Small’s beardtongue, downy skullcap, tall delphenium, pale Indian plantain, tall bellflower, southern harebell, horsebalm, round-leaved sundew, Blue Ridge St. Johnswort and false asphodel.
No group of flowering plants along the Parkway, however, will be of more interest to participants than the “Monardas,” a genus in the mint family that includes the ever-popular bee balm. There are two other distinct “Monarda” species — wild bergamot and basil balm — that appear in this section of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in addition to a hybrid backcross called purple bergamont.
“Monardas” are sometimes called horsemints because “horse” signifies “large” or “coarse,” and the members of this genus are generally larger, coarser plants than many other members of the mint family. In this instance “coarse is beautiful.” Most of the horsemints have quite appropriately been introduced into cultivation.
Here’s a checklist of those three horsemint species and the hybrid found in the Western North Carolina mountains. All flower from mid-June into September and can be readily located along the parkway, especially in the areas of the Grassy Ridge Mine (milepost 436.8) and Standing Rock Overlook (milepost 441.4).
• Bee balm, also called crimson bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma): occasional in moist, shaded situations; adapted by scarlet color long tubular shape of flowers for pollination by hummingbirds, but often “robbed” by bees and other insects that bore “bungholes” at the base of the corolla tube; note the reddish leaf-like bracts just below the flowers; called “bee balm” because it made a poultice that soothed stings; sometimes called Oswego tea because of its use as a steeped medicinal by the Oswego Indians of New York; generic name honors an European botanist, Nicholas Monarda, who had an interest in medically useful plants from the New World. No red flower — save, of course, cardinal flower — is more resplendent. And like cardinal flower, this member of the mint family often haunts a lush and dark setting so that when it catches slanting light the flaming crimson gleams like a beacon.
• Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa): common but variable species flowering in open fields, meadows, and on dry wooded slopes; petals are usually lilac or pinkish-purple (rarely white) with the upper lip bearded at the apex; bracts often pink-tinged; frequently visited by butterflies; oil with an odor resembling essence of bergamot was once extracted from the plant to treat respiratory ailments; brewed as tea by the Cherokee for many ailments, including flatulence and hysterics.
• Basil balm (M. clinopodia): occasional in both moist and dry woods and thickets; similar to wild bergamot but with paler pink or white flowers that have purple spots on lower lip and whitish bracts; common name indicates that it was used like bee balm as a poultice. Wild bergamot and basil balm often interbreed along the parkway.
• Purple bergamot (M. media): an infrequently encountered natural hybrid backcross of the above species displaying deep reddish-purple flowers and dark purple bracts; habitat about the same as bee balm, so look for color differences between scarlet of that species and deep purple for the hybrid; despite the hybrid status it’s reliably distinctive and exciting to encounter.
Note: Excellent colored illustrations of each of these horsemints appear opposite p. 92 of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1977). Dotted horsemint (M. punctata), which has purple-spotted yellow flowers, is primarily a species of the piedmont and coastal plain that does not — to my knowledge — appear in the Southern Blue Ridge Province.
The sweltering heat this summer is restricting some outdoor activities, but it’s a prime time for lizard watching. Lizards don’t mind the heat; indeed, many of them are highly adapted to dry climatic conditions. Lizard watching can be done from your front porch, along fencerows, in dry pine or oak woods, and in rocky areas.
The “spring lizards” used for fish bait are actually salamanders, which (like frogs and toads) are amphibians. True lizards are reptiles (like snakes and turtles) and have scaly, dry skins, as well as claws.
In A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard (1985), John Hanson Mitchell gives readers his “golden rule” for distinguishing salamanders from lizards: “If you can catch it, it is a salamander, if you can’t, it is a lizard.”
It never even occurred to me that I might be able to catch a fence lizard, which are aptly called “fence swifts” by many country boys. For several summers, however, I did try from time to time to capture one of the numerous skinks that live on our property. Spotting one with its pretty lines and luminescent blue tail perched on the side of the barn or outhouse, I’d attempt to ease up and grab it with my hand or encompass the critter with my cap. No such luck. They were much too quick for me.
In his introduction to A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians (1975), Roger Conant advises the would-be lizard catcher to stalk the quarry by not looking directly at it. “Move in at an angle, watching it out of the corner of your eye.” A prize fighter or major league infielder might apply that technique with success, but my hand-eye coordination wasn’t up to lizard-catching standards.
What I do plan to try, however, the next time my lizard-catching granddaughter comes to visit, is one of the nifty lizard nooses Conant describes and diagrams. It’s not complicated. You simply “attach a small noose of horsehair or fine thread or wire to the end of a pole measuring a few feet in length ... Slip the noose over the lizard’s head and let it come to rest around the neck. Jerk the pole quickly upward and the lizard is yours! This method requires practice, but it is quite efficient.”
The eastern fence lizard is gray or brown above. Their scales are ridged so that they have a rough appearance. Females have conspicuously patterned backs, while the backs of males tend to be brownish with less pattern. Mature males have very apparent greenish-blue markings on each side of the belly. As the lizard raises and lowers itself in pushup fashion, the markings are flashed to warn off other males.
While basking in the sun, a fence lizard alternately puffs out and draws in its throat as if it were sucking on something. Ever alert to the peculiarities of each animal and plant, the ancient Cherokees invoked the fence lizard in their formulas used for drawing out the poison from snake bites. They also believed that scratching one’s legs with the claws of the first fence lizard caught each spring would result in no dangerous snakes being encountered for the remainder of the year.
This is about a place, High Rocks, a lookout situated at just over 5,000 feet on Welch Ridge in the national park. Welch Ridge is the massive divide between Forney and Hazel creeks on the North Carolina side of the park. On the exposed outcrop at High Rocks, a fire tower and ranger’s cabin were constructed during the 1930s.
This is also about the relationship with that place my wife, Elizabeth, and I have maintained for three decades and counting. Our part of the story now exists on various levels, but the primary venture involving High Rocks took place in early August 1982. It had been preceded by visits dating back into the 1970s. In addition to the journal notes, sketches, Polaroid snapshots, etc., made in 1982, a narrative description of mine titled “High Rocks” was published in the “Fall-Winter 1982” issue of The Wayah Review; and a column was published in Smoky Mountain News some time ago that re-created a portion of the journal notes verbatim.
Not long ago, I chanced upon my missing issue of The Wayah Review.
What follows, after some additional window dressing, is a fragment from that narrative somewhat altered in style and incorporating journal entries. What I write in July 2010 is neither better nor worse than what I wrote in September 1982. Writing it again is my way of reviving memory.
High Rocks is one of those magical places. Like an entranceway to Shangri-La, stone steps constructed by CCC workers lead up to the tower for hundred of yards under a dense tangle of rhododendron. The views from the tower out over the southwestern tip of North Carolina were stupendous. I use the past tense because the fire tower is no longer there. The park service removed it with a helicopter in the late 1980s. (Insofar as I am aware, the ranger’s cabin remains, but I haven’t been back there since August 1982.)
As trips go, it wasn’t very long — maybe 25 miles roundtrip from Lower Lands Creek, where we live on property just west of Bryson City to High Rocks and back. In retrospect, our route to High Rocks might seem peculiar. We chose to portage our canoe down Lands Creek to Lake Fontana, paddle to the mouth of Goldmine Creek (camp for a night), paddle the next morning to the mouth of Forney Creek, hike up Forney Creek trail, follow the aptly-named Jumpup Ridge trail to the crest of Welch Ridge, and push on up from there to High Rocks, where we had obtained a permit from a backcountry ranger to use the cabin.
Lake Fontana … three men and a woman drink beer and nod with indifference as we float past … green heron squawks from a tangle … Goldmine Creek camp … rose-colored mallows the size of dinner plates growing in shallows … up in light drizzle utensils clinking coffee oatmeal … canoe flows over lake water … mouth of Forney rock-ribbed darker water… long-bearded middle-aged fellow red-faced yelling in front of a yellow tent wearing a yellow T bearing the succinct message in orange script: ‘FLORIDA!’ … keep on moving … cache canoe … Jumpup Trail … steep switchbacks gray rainwater running in rivulets … pause every 20 minutes or so w/ no need to talk . . . push up to grassy saddle atop Welch Ridge w/ E effortlessly beside me … signpost: “High Rocks 1 mi” pointing south … and the rain stops.
Trail junctions have a special quality. I don’t mean the bit about paths untaken. I mean the union a junction represents. Most manmade connections are awkward but you will never come upon a confluence of pathways that is not as it should be.
We hide our packs off-trail. It’s sweet to get out from under them. For a while, we float several inches off the ground. Water up at High Rocks will be iffy. So we go north on the main trail … past white wood aster, starry campion, horse balm, and blue panicles of harebell … over Bearwallow Bald and down to a glade below Hawk Knob to fill our water bags.
Unseen and yet nearby, a bird sounds
three clear notes as the sun flashes
filling the moist glade with light.
A maze of scarlet bee balm flames
to life along the edge of the trail
and farther down there is the
glow of a single pendant lily.
The bird sings again a song
meaningless and profound
that somehow secures
this moment in
Steep trail up from main ridge to High Rocks . . . stone steps carved from granite splotched with patches of lichen … rhododendron boughs arched overhead … glistening black muck underfoot … lush moss is emerald green in this dim underworld … step after step & finally the top.
Rock and tower and cabin.
There is an emptiness that we fill.
From the tower after the swirling mists
had been blown away were views that
took our breath away: all across the Smokies
from Deeplow Gap to Shuckstack and
southward over the Cowees and Nantahalas
into Georgia ... blue ridge after blue ridge
in every direction.