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Wednesday, 20 September 2006 00:00

Fine features of a familiar footpath

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An ancient Chinese philosopher once admonished his listeners to “Study the familiar!” Ancient Chinese philosophers were always admonishing people to do one thing or another. That was their job. Sometimes they even knew what they were talking about.

In recent years, now that the children are finally grown, my wife Elizabeth and I have made it part of our routine to travel, camping in our popup trailer. South Florida and the Florida panhandle, south Texas, northeastern New Mexico, south-central Colorado, the coastlines of Georgia and South Carolina, the Outer Banks, and Vancouver Island in British Columbia, have been some of our destinations. We mainly travel to find new landscapes and birds, and there have been some wonderful landscapes and birds: rock sandpipers and black oyster-catchers on the tidal rocks of the Strait of Georgia; golden eagles and Townsend’s solitaires in the remote San Juan Mountains; vermilion flycatchers and great kiskadees along the Rio Grande; limpkins and swallow-tailed kites at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary; and more.

Of late, however, we have become stay-at-homes due to book publication obligations. Nevertheless, for the most part, we haven’t missed our excursions away from the Smokies region too much. There are, we have found, landscapes and birds aplenty right here. Indeed, there’s just about everything one requires in this regard within a short walk of our home.

Most every evening before supper, we walk the old familiar path down along the bank of the creek that traverses the cove. After 30 years, our footsteps have worn a clearly defined trail, a brown ribbon of soil. From time to time, according to the season, we arouse grouse, wild turkey, Louisiana waterthrushes, ovenbirds, great blue herons, white-throated and fox sparrows, purple finches, black-and-white and hooded warblers, wood thrushes, Carolina and winter wrens, kinglets, towhees, Carolina and black-capped chickadees, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, cedar waxwings, blue-gray gnatcatchers, and the ever-present tufted titmice.

Each winter, we disturb an over-wintering hermit thrush in a brushy area. It pointed its bill straight up in the air like a haughty spinster and made agitated noises to let us know that we are intruders on our own property.

Sometimes one of the pair of belted kingfishers that reside along the creek will make an appearance. They’re almost never seen together, except during the spring when mating rituals are undertaken for a brief period. We know that it’s a male if he doesn’t have the rust-colored chest band displayed by females. Flying from perch to perch just ahead of us, he or she seems to invite human company. We marvel at how the kingfishers can fly like a shot through the dense tangle of branches overarching the water without striking them.

The creek runs low from late summer into winter. We can then see the channel — an extended groove that forms a sluice — the ever-running water has etched into the underlying strata of rock. How many years did that take? As the water purls through the sluice, it makes a low muttering sound, almost as if speaking to us, complaining about the dry season.

At the end of the trail there’s a waterfall not more than two feet in height. If we bushwhack a ways farther down the creek through the laurel, rhododendron, and doghobble, there’s a somewhat higher waterfall that’s worth the effort. There a flat shelving rock cascades the water in a U-shaped white veil down into the dark plunge pool below. From day to day, the water flow is never the same. The white veil is always changing. Here the creek makes an almost musical sound as it pours ever downward.

Back home before dark, we can see the popup camper parked in the pasture near the barn. Maybe this coming winter we’ll make a getaway — go for the first time to southeastern Arizona and see painted redstarts, hepatic tanagers, red-faced warblers, cordilleran flycatchers, and other curiosities in the Chiricahua Mountains. Maybe not .... for now, there’s plenty enough to experience right here at home.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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