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Wednesday, 06 September 2006 00:00

Expect the unexpected

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When writing about the natural world, I prefer to write about specific natural areas, plants, and animals here in the southern highlands. But from time to time I do like to pause and consider the philosophical aspects of comprehending the natural world. That’s when I invariably drag out my pet maxims: “Study the familiar,” “Go light,” “Don’t walk fast,” “Winter simplifies,” “Each trail has a life of its own,” and so on. A little bit of that sort of thing goes a long ways, so I air them out in public only when I can’t otherwise help myself.

My favorite maxim is “Expect the unexpected.” I’d insert that observation into every natural history column I ever write, if I thought I could get away with it. Through the years, I’ve recalled finding a baby ’possum in a log, rare wildflowers and birds, an endangered bog turtle, remote natural areas, sacred Cherokee sites, etc., when and where I least expected them. Indeed, I’d readily apply the concept not only to experiences in the natural world but also to life in general. After many years of trying to grow up, my only advice to younger folks would be, “Expect the unexpected.” Too bad none of them ever ask for my input.

This particular maxim is my shorthand rendering of a saying recorded by followers of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher who lived about 500 B.C. His style –- which tended to be both vivid and cryptic at the same time — led his many detractors to label him “Heraclitus, the Obscure.” Nevertheless, over 100 of his “insights” were recorded as “cosmic fragments.” Most of them make perfect sense to me. We all know what the philosopher was getting at when he advised us that, “You can’t step in the same river twice,” or “Character is destiny,” or “There is nothing permanent except change.”

The full text of Heraclitus’ insight regarding the “unexpected” reads: “If you do not expect it, you will not find the unexpected, for it is hard and difficult.” Chew on that.

In the July 2, 2003, issue of The Smoky Mountain News, I wrote about my most notable instance, to date, of encountering something of interest by expecting the unexpected. It happened in late June of that year, while I was camping at the Evins State Park just off the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau northwest of Smithville, Tenn. One morning I picked a trail and went out with no particular objective in mind except to observe the extensive stands of Goldie’s and glade ferns reputed to be distributed along the first mile or so of the trail. After passing through the ferns, I followed the trail down a steep ravine to Center Hill Lake.

It started to get hot and buggy. I was thirsty and hadn’t brought any water. This is the point at which one either returns to the campsite or pushes on to see what might be encountered that’s totally unexpected. I pushed on and somehow got off the established trail. Being bullheaded, I never like to backtrack. So I decided to hump it up the ridge in the general direction of where I’d parked the truck. The ridge slope was really steep. I had to stop and rest every few minutes.

“Well now,” I thought to myself, “this is going to be really good. No telling what I’ll find having gotten lost and ending up climbing the side of a mountain.”

Sure enough, after 40 or so minutes of climbing, as I was approaching the general vicinity of my truck, I suddenly spotted chestnut husks littering the ground. Looking up, there in full bloom was an American chestnut tree. I examined the leaves to make sure it wasn’t a disease-resistant Chinese chestnut that might have become naturalized at the park. Nope, it was the genuine article.

I have seen American chestnut trees flowering and fruiting at several places here in the Smokies region, most notably near Wayah Bald above Franklin. But all of those were small and obviously already blighted by the fungus first introduced to America about 1910 in New York City.

This wonderful tree showed absolutely no signs of blight. The bark was firm without any of the fissures that indicate infestation. The leaves were bright and glossy. And it was covered with creamy spike-like flowers.

Subsequently, I roughly measured the tree. At breast height, it was nearly 60 inches in circumference and about 18 inches in diameter. I estimated that it stood over 70 feet in height. And it displayed a nice wide canopy in spite of being crowded by several adjacent trees. What a sight!

The Evins State Park tree is now considered to be the second largest of the species in Tennessee. It has been studied and its pollen utilized by scientists who are seeking ways of reintroducing blight resistant American chestnuts back into the deciduous forests of eastern North America. If a plaque is ever placed at the base of that tree, I’m hoping that it will read, “Expect the unexpected.”

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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