A poetic tribute from a son of the SmokiesWritten by George Ellison
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The second volume of an anthology of nature writing from Western North Carolina and the Great Smokies that I edited will be published in a couple of weeks by The History Press in Charleston, S.C. The first volume (1674-1900) offers selections from 21 authors, including Bartram, Michaux, Elisha Mitchell, William Brewster, Arnold Guyot, and Christian Reid. The second volume (1900-2009) offers selections from another 21 authors, including James Mooney, Horace Kephart, Margaret Morley, Arthur Stupka, Roger Tory Peterson, Edwin Way Teale, D.C. Peattie, Edward Abbey, Harry Middleton, William A. (Bill) Hart, Scott Weidensaul, Bob Zahner, Doug Elliott, John Lane, and Thomas Crowe.
Each selection is prefaced by a biographical note. I necessarily wrote the notes for deceased authors. But I enlisted input in that regard from the living authors. They discovered that writing a self-portrait is rather more difficult than might be supposed. But in several instances, these mini-bios were exceptionally well-crafted and informative.
One such was composed by Jim Casada, the nationally known outdoor writer from Bryson City, as a head note for four excerpts from his Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion (2009). Those who know Casada’s work or encounter it in the future will, I suspect, enjoy this self-portrait as well as one of the excerpts (“Flies”) included in anthology:
I am a son of the Smokies, born and raised in Bryson City, N.C., and the region remains the home of my heart and the primary inspiration for my literary endeavors. From my earliest memories connection to the natural world was an integral part of my being. My father was a keen outdoorsman whose boyhood was spent high up on Juneywhank Branch, now in the national park, and his father was a flowing fount of down-to-earth wisdom concerning nature’s ways. Both were wonderful mentors who oversaw an idyllic boyhood spiced by hunting, fishing, subsistence farming, and constant awareness of the cycle of the seasons.
They lovingly laid the foundations of knowledge and linkage to the land which run as a bright thread through the fabric of my literary endeavors, but it took the inspiration of a mother who instilled a lasting love for reading, along with a trio of teachers, to plant the seed which eventually sprouted into life as a writer. Two of these individuals, Thad DeHart and John Wikle, taught at Swain County High School, while the third, Inez Morton, was an English professor at King College. All offered encouragement and guidance, but my academic pursuits took me along a different path with a B.A. in history at King and the M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in the same field at Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt, followed by 25 years as a history professor at Winthrop University.
Long before I took early retirement to write full time, however, my focus had switched from academic works (I wrote four scholarly books) to the outdoors. Realization gradually dawned that a life devoted to writing on fishing, hunting, natural history and cooking nature’s wild bounty was what held my heart, and the day I became a fulltime writer and “recovering” professor was a glorious one indeed. For the last 15 years writing has been my life. Over that period I have written more than a dozen books and edited or otherwise contributed to many more, served as series editor for the University of Tennessee Press Outdoor Tennessee Series and the Firearms Classics Series from Palladium Press, produced weekly newspaper columns, and averaged upwards of a hundred feature articles a year for regional and national magazines.
Much of my focus has been on the Smokies, and the book from which these selections are taken, Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insider’s Guide to a Pursuit of Passion, is one I consider my book of a lifetime. It combines my love of fly fishing with detailed looks at natural history, human history and mountain folkways.
Fetching frauds crafted from fur and feather, thread and clue, flies are designed to catch trout, and those who tie them deserve recognition as creative souls of the first rank.
As I have already suggested, mine was an incredibly rich boyhood. I was blessed by growing up in a world well populated with devoted anglers and surrounded by the deep-rooted traditions of mountain fly fishing. Some of the fly-fishing heroes of my marvelously misspent youth served as informal mentors, and tales associated with the sport’s regional history were almost daily fare.
Today ours seems a world obsessed with a fast-paced lifestyle that too often leaves little time for tradition, storytelling and respect for the past. Yet those of us who cherish the feel of the long rod or savor the music of whistling line and singing reel should pay careful heed to the lure and lore of fly-fishing history in the Smokies … The sport is one productive of endearing individuals and enduring traditions…
Bryson City’s Frank Young is a splendid example. Young returned home from service in the Korean War with a deep-rooted determination to sample and savor the streams of his highland homeland as fully as possible. For decades he did just this, fishing an average of 250 days a year. Young became an accomplished fly-tier, with one of his more notable achievements in this regard involving the substitution of the fur from ‘possum bellies for calf’s tail in tying hair-wing patterns such as the Royal Wulff. As Young laughingly said, “It doesn’t cost anything to get ‘possum fur, and anyone who can’t find it just doesn’t understand road kills.”
A religious, contemplative man, Young appreciated the world of the trout with something approaching reverence. Over the years, anytime he caught a trophy trout or enjoyed a meaningful experience, he picked up a stone from the stream and put it in his creel. Upon returning home he placed these stones in a frame. When it was full, the addition of some concrete made it one more building block for walls that would eventually line his home. “It’s mighty comforting,” he reflected, “to be by surrounded memories.”
It is also comforting to know that the legacy of individuals like Young, and countless others, has found contemporary adherents. This linkage across generations is a meaningful one, a poignant reminder of the legacy of pioneering mountain fly fishermen. While the paraphernalia of the sport has changed immensely, the lure of clean waters, wild fish and solitude are timeless. So are the characteristics of hardy highland folks — thrift, independence, practicality, ingenuity and an innovative approach to making do with whatever happens to be available — as they apply to fishing in waters coursing through the deep hollows and steep coves of the Appalachians.