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Wednesday, 21 November 2007 00:00

Quiz time

Naturalists are always being quizzed about this or that. Turn about is fair play. So, are you ready for a natural history quiz? Here are 20 questions related to the natural history of the southern mountains. My answers are given…
Wednesday, 14 November 2007 00:00

Winter preparation

If you’ve been getting out in the woods at all lately, you’re aware that it’s been an especially good season for chipmunks; indeed, perhaps because of the late frosts and dry weather, it’s been a chipmunk kind of fall. They…
Wednesday, 07 November 2007 00:00

When litter is good

Due to the virtual absence of wind and rain, the fall color season is lingering with us. But winter weather and the descent of the leaves will come soon enough. Right now is a good time to keep on paying…
Wednesday, 31 October 2007 00:00

Overnight hibernation

As I write this on Monday morning, we’ve just had our initial hard frost of the year here in Swain County. For the first time in seven or so months, I had to dig around and find my windshield scraper.…
Wednesday, 24 October 2007 00:00

The gall

The various relationships that exist between plants and animals are fascinating. My view of wildflower ecology is dominated by the specific pollination requirements of a given plant. Insect pollination is usually a two-way exchange in which the insect benefits as…
Wednesday, 17 October 2007 00:00

Uncovering winter’s delight

Some trees that might be difficult to locate during the spring through fall foliage season become more apparent in winter. This is the instance with sweetgum, which holds its leaves into early winter after most other deciduous trees have shed…
Wednesday, 10 October 2007 00:00

Beauty of the cardinal flower

The fall wildflower season has arrived. Along roadsides and woodland edges some of our more robust native plants are now coming into full bloom. By “robust” I mean high growing and stout. These would include wild lettuce, common mullein, Joe…
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 14:04

The evocative power of the color blue

Green used to be the color that caught my eye. Now it’s blue. So much so that I wrote an ode (of sorts) to the color blue that is in my book Permanent Camp. It goes like this:
Wednesday, 03 October 2007 00:00

Shrills in the night

When I was growing up in the tobacco-farming portion of the southern Virginia piedmont, there were many haunted outbuildings throughout the region. My friends and I knew they were haunted because we would nightly, from early spring into early fall,…
Wednesday, 26 September 2007 00:00

Sweet bubby bush

I recently received an email from a reader who asked, “Could you write about the sweet bubby bush? That’s the only name I know it by. Old plant, my mom loves it. I’d like to plant one. Haven’t seen it…
Wednesday, 01 August 2012 14:19

Zeke was a friend I won’t forget

Dogs have been a part of my life since I was a boy. My first dog — part one thing, part another — was named Rascal. I was a sophomore in college when Rascal had to be put to sleep.…
Wednesday, 19 September 2007 00:00

Saying farewell to summer

It’s mid-September ... late summer is sliding toward early autumn. The end of summer officially arrives with the autumnal equinox of Sept. 23, when the sun crosses the celestial equator going north to south. One senses this transition in the…
Wednesday, 12 September 2007 00:00

Walnut toxicity

The walnut trees along the creek where we live are exhibiting a bumper crop this year. At night we are starting to hear their fruits dropping with heavy thuds on the ground or like depth charges into the water. Hopefully,…
Wednesday, 05 September 2007 00:00

Enchanting the summer evening

No late summer wildflower is more widely recognized than evening primrose. The four broad yellow petals that open in the evening and often linger into mid-morning on overcast days are a dead giveaway. If you’re looking for the plant, you…
Wednesday, 08 August 2012 14:04

Cardinal flower among the most popular in U.S.

The late summer wildflower season has arrived. Along roadsides and woodland edges some of our more robust native plants are now coming into full bloom. By “robust” I mean high growing and stout. These would include wild lettuce, common mullein,…
Wednesday, 29 August 2007 00:00

All in a day’s work

One of the more interesting and entertaining early descriptive accounts of the southern mountains is contained in a diary kept by surveyor John Strother. In 1799, he was appointed one of the surveyors for determining a portion of the boundary…
Wednesday, 22 August 2007 00:00

Remarkable red cedar

I sometimes have occasion to drive Interstate 81 up the Great Valley of Tennessee and Virginia to Washington, D.C. As soon as I pass out of Western North Carolina into the terrain north of Knoxville, the dominant tree along the…
Wednesday, 22 August 2012 13:42

The unique habitat of mountain streams

The creeks and streams of the Southern Highlands are one of the most exciting natural areas we have. Unlike most upland habitats — which generally occur as blocks or patches or elevational zones — streams form winding corridors that afford…
Samuel J. Hunnicutt was one of the original characters of the Smokies region before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was founded in 1934. He is far less well known than Quill Rose, Horace Kephart, or Mark Cathey, but he…
Numerous geologists have visited the Smokies region. None was more observant than Arthur Keith. The Murphy Marble Belt is an elongated, lens-shaped mass of marble and related sedimentary materials up to three miles wide that extends in a crescent from…
Wednesday, 15 August 2007 00:00

Ginkgo — a living fossil

When a street was being cut in front of the new county administration building here in Bryson City back in the 1980s, a large foreign-looking tree could well have been felled in the name of progress. But resident R.P. Jenkins…
Wednesday, 08 August 2007 00:00

The golden season

It’s starting to become the goldenrod time of the year. Goldenrods — like asters, thistles, cosmos, zinnias, daisies, coneflowers, dahlias, sunflowers, ragworts, hawkweeds, etc. — belong to the vast “Asteraceae” family that numbers almost 20,000 species worldwide, with over 300…
Wednesday, 01 August 2007 00:00

Hollyhocks and reminders of the past

Sometimes it’s difficult to draw the line between the natural and cultivated plant worlds. As cultivated plants escape they often establish themselves as part of our regional flora. My wife, Elizabeth, and I are particularly fond of those old-fashioned garden…
Wednesday, 05 September 2012 03:06

Dueling was a common way to right a wrong

Let’s suppose that you intentionally or unintentionally insult someone; after all, that’s something that does happen from time to time. You deal with it by apologizing or refusing to apologize. There may be words. The possibility of a little fisticuffs…
Wednesday, 25 July 2007 00:00

Sicklefin redhorse and the Cherokee

An article by Jon Ostendorff headed “Rare fish released into Oconaluftee River” appeared in this past Monday’s edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times. It caught my eye because of an ongoing general interest in the fish found in Western North Carolina…
Wednesday, 18 July 2007 00:00

The thrill of new discoveries

I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time recently up on the Blue Ridge Parkway conducting natural history workshops for the North Carolina Arboretum. Mid-July is the peak period for high-elevation wildflowers. I can report that the flowering…
Wednesday, 11 July 2007 00:00

A man’s got to work and fish

This past Sunday afternoon I decided to go for a walk along the Tuckasegee River west of Bryson City. If I had an objective, it was to see how far the waters of Fontana Lake have receded due to the…
Wednesday, 12 September 2012 13:10

Kudzu’s unstoppable march across the South

Few people want to get close enough to observe the attractive flowers that kudzu produces. The plant probably won’t actually reach out and grab you — but then again, it might. One of the many kudzu jokes that has emerged…
Wednesday, 19 September 2012 14:21

Southern mountains a peninsula of northern climes

Geographically speaking, where are the Great Smoky Mountains in regard to the other mountain ranges in the southern Appalachians. Where is the line between the southern and the northern Appalachians? In other words, where are we?
Wednesday, 26 September 2012 14:24

Let the fall wildflower fruit displays begin

Most wildflower enthusiasts quite naturally hone in on the showy flowering phase of a plant’s life cycle for observation, identification and enjoyment. Only slowly do we learn to appreciate the post-flowering phase.
Wednesday, 04 July 2007 00:00

Thunder in the valley

Last week a late evening thunderstorm with high winds and occasional flashes of lightning rolled out of the high Smokies and down into the little valley where we live several miles west of Bryson City. I had sensed its arrival…
Wednesday, 03 October 2012 20:18

If you suffer from hay fever, blame the ragweed

Allergies are a type of immune reaction. Normally, the immune system responds to foreign microorganisms, or particles, like pollen or dust, by producing specific proteins, called antibodies, that are capable of binding to identifying molecules, or antigens, on the foreign…
Wednesday, 10 October 2012 13:44

First frost ushers in winter

It’s Oct. 7 as I write this. The first hard frost hasn’t as yet arrived. But it won’t be long coming. By the time you read this it may well have occurred throughout Western North Carolina.   The first hard…
Migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks have been appearing at feeders throughout the Smokies region in recent weeks. Those birds that migrate hundreds of miles across the Gulf of Mexico from Central and South America to nest in the United States and Canada…
Wednesday, 24 October 2012 12:50

Waterfalls have a near mystical attraction

We are attracted to water. Mountain paths always wind down to water ... down to springs, creeks and rivers. Water is the essence of our very being. Old-time mountaineers picked home sites according to the location and purity of springs.…
Wednesday, 31 October 2012 01:38

Beauty, form and function go hand in hand

All too often, we tend to think of flowering plants as something beautiful put on this earth to stimulate human sensibilities. Nothing, of course, could be less true. Plants produce flowers to attract pollinators or otherwise distribute pollen in order…
Wednesday, 07 November 2012 00:00

For the love of local bookstores

When I was a child living in Boonville, N.C., a town of 600 people, my mother would load us into the station wagon twice a year — at the start of each new school year and at Christmas — and…
Wednesday, 07 November 2012 13:52

A short bout with Victor the Bear

This is a bear story. Unlike many bear stories, this one is true. Tourism started in Western North Carolina during the post-Civil War era, but it wasn’t a huge factor in the region’s economy until the Great Smoky Mountains National…
In regard to floral diversity, the Southern Appalachian region is unsurpassed by any other temperate region in the world. Whenever I’m conducting a plant identification workshop for the North Carolina Arboretum, Smoky Mountain Field School or other venue, I try…
Wednesday, 21 November 2012 15:18

Byer’s book brings us a sense of place

Kathryn Stripling Byer lives in Cullowhee. Poet Laureate Emeritas of North Carolina for a number of years, she was this year inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. I’ve known her since 1973 … so I’m going to…
Wednesday, 28 November 2012 14:16

Birds of a feather stay warm in bad weather

Because they seem so delicate and vulnerable, we go out of our way to feed birds that overwinter here in the southern mountains. This no doubt helps maintain bird populations at a higher level than would otherwise be the case,…
Wednesday, 05 December 2012 15:02

The appropriately named 'blue darter'

When I was a boy my favorite sport was baseball. I was a pitcher. I didn’t have any idea where the ball was going … or care … but I could throw hard. I liked the game and I liked…
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 15:13

Memories of the lost village of Needmore

Is there another region in the United States that has had more flourishing towns and villages disappear than the one along the Little Tennessee and Tuckasegee rivers in Swain and Macon counties? Almond, Japan, Judson, Bushnell, etc., in Swain went…
Wednesday, 19 December 2012 00:00

Winter mushrooms a welcome find

Most people who hunt mushrooms do so in late summer and fall when an array of choice edibles are abundant or in spring when morels are in season. It’s easy to forget — or maybe never even know — that…
Wednesday, 26 December 2012 15:01

The spirituality of mountain graveyards

“I am developing a taste for walking in cemeteries.” – Jules Renard, “Journals” (December 1909) Like Jules Renard, a turn-of-the-century French novelist, not a few of us are attracted to cemeteries. When looking for a quiet place, I often visit…
Wednesday, 02 January 2013 04:11

Indian words add color to our language

Tuckaseigee, Oconaluftee, Heintooga, Wayah, Cullasaja, Hiwassee, Coweeta, Stecoah, Steestachee, Skeenah, Nantahala, Aquone, Katuwah, and on and on. Our place names here in the Smokies region are graced throughout with evidence of the Cherokee culture that prevailed for more than 700…
Wednesday, 09 January 2013 00:00

Are the ‘possums adapting to headlight glare

Where have all the opossums gone? People worry about cerulean warblers and frogs and honeybees and ash trees and hemlocks and snail darters and so on … as they should. But is anybody out there besides me worried about ‘possums?…
Wednesday, 16 January 2013 00:00

Looking out on a busy day in Bryson City

For some, graveyards are morbid places. When I was a boy, I never liked to pass by or walk through one … especially in the dark. These days I rather enjoy visiting them ... for awhile. They are generally quiet.…
“The opportunistic nature of the species and its partial indifference to constraints of time and space make it an intriguing subject.” — E.W. Dawson, North American Birds Online   Volcanoes “erupt,” birds “irrupt.” We haven’t experienced any eruptions of that…
Wednesday, 27 June 2007 00:00

The elusive hellbender

Have you ever noticed that once you start thinking about something or someone you haven’t seen in awhile, it’s not long before he, she, or it pops up? This can be disconcerting when it’s a he, she, or it you…
Wednesday, 20 June 2007 00:00

Beware the leaves of three

If you like native Appalachian plants that are variable and adaptive, have interesting natural histories with abundant associations in both Cherokee and early white settler folklore, add immeasurably to the fall landscape with vivid colors, and provide nutritious fare for…
Wednesday, 06 June 2007 00:00

Weed or wildflower?

The status of a given plant as either a “noxious weed” or a “lovely wildflower” is pretty much a matter determined in the mind’s eye of the beholder. Several weeks ago, in a column headed “Persecution of the Dandelion,” I…
Wednesday, 30 January 2013 14:49

The hardest tree in North America

I wrote a tribute to the black locust tree some time back. It’s time to take another look. This time around we’ll incorporate the perspectives of a French arborist who visited America during the mid-nineteenth century. Locust is a winter…
Wednesday, 30 May 2007 00:00

Just looking around

I’m rediscovering that it’s good to just slip out of the office and amble around town for a few minutes. The semi-urban landscape here in Bryson City — or any of the other little mountain towns — provides an interesting…
Wednesday, 23 May 2007 00:00

The mountain rhodo show

Rhododendrons are a part of the heath family (Ericaceae), which includes such diverse members in regard to size and habitat as pipsissewa, trailing arbutus, mountain laurel, doghobble, and sourwood. There are three evergreen rhododendron species in the southern mountains: rosebay…
Wednesday, 06 February 2013 14:54

Oil lamps have long history of lighting the way

Surprisingly, a recent column about wood-burning cookstoves attracted as much attention as anything I’ve written for years. Folks who live in The Smoky Mountain News distribution area and can pick up the print edition were the most numerous e-mail correspondents,…
About once a year or less, I work up the nerve to publish poems in this space. Head for cover. It’s that time of the year again.
Wednesday, 27 February 2013 02:10

Re-learning those old, familiar (bird) songs

I like “old time rock and roll” too. And I recently got some of my old time records, CDs, iPods, etc., off the shelf. But what I‘ve been listening to are bird calls and songs. The birds are getting ready…
Wednesday, 20 February 2013 15:15

Be(ar) careful in the Smokies

In the natural world there are certain experiences that rivet our attention and remain stored in our memory banks. Through the years, I’ve written about my own encounters with rare plants, endangered landscapes, copperheads and timber rattlers, coyotes, skunks, eagles,…
Wednesday, 06 March 2013 14:37

The harbingers of spring are upon us

As you read this it may well be freezing or even icy outside. But before long you’ll be outside working in the garden or searching for early spring wildflowers. How do I know? Well, for one thing, it always happens…
Wednesday, 13 March 2013 22:40

In the land of water and rock

Like Old Esdras in the Bible, some live in a land of milk and honey. Here in the Blue Ridge, we live in the land of water and rock. Moving water and worn stone are the predominant features in our…
Wednesday, 20 March 2013 13:44

My wife knows good morels when she sees them

It’s just about morel time. By early April (if not sooner), the succulent spring-fruiting fungi that are the most sought after mushrooms in North America will be popping up in woodlands across Western North Carolina.
Wednesday, 27 March 2013 13:51

Saved by the appearance of a tree swallow

Earlier this morning (Tuesday, March 26) I gazed wishfully through my office window here in Bryson City. About all I could see was the fire station across the street just off the town square. Blue-gray snowflakes were slanting down. I…
Wednesday, 03 April 2013 20:04

Their own way of fishing

I’m sometimes asked if the prehistoric Cherokees used any sort of poisons on their blowgun darts. These darts (slivers of black locust, hickory, or white oak) were from 10 to 20 inches long with thistledown tied at one end to…
I have two options when driving back and forth from home to town. One is along a river and the other isn’t. The choice is easy. I always follow the route along the north side of the Tuckaseigee west of…
Wednesday, 17 April 2013 13:48

The blue-grey gnatcatcher is a mighty mite

Elizabeth and I were sitting on the deck Monday evening when a tiny bird made an abbreviated appearance — apparently just to check us out — and disappeared. It took only a fleeting glimpse for us to know that our…
Wednesday, 24 April 2013 02:05

Cliff swallows return

That’s the news. Our common breeding swallows have always been purple martins, barn swallows, and northern rough-winged swallows. To a lesser extent, tree swallows also breed here, where there are suitable tree cavities or boxes. Cliff swallows are another matter. 
Naturalist Donald Culross Peattie (1898-1964) was born in Chicago. In his autobiography The Road of a Naturalist (1941), Peattie recalled his first extended visit to the North Carolina mountains in 1906 as a time when he “saw the world of…
Wednesday, 08 May 2013 00:00

Some scarlet tanagers are orange

Last Saturday, I led a bird identification workshop for the Smoky Mountain Field School. We started out in the morning in a residential area (Minot Park) in Gatlinburg and worked our way into the higher elevations of the national park…
Wednesday, 15 May 2013 14:28

Identifying birds

Although bird identification can be perplexing — baffling at times for even the most accomplished birders — the principles of identification are relatively simple. We recognize birds by their visual appearances and by their vocalizations.
Wednesday, 22 May 2013 00:00

Plants hitch a ride to the sun

A book I read about the Suwannee River featured numerous photographs of trees overhanging the waterway festooned with Spanish moss. Spanish moss isn’t, by the way, a true moss at all but a vascular plant that reproduces via tiny flowers.…
Leading a field trip isn’t complicated. But there may be more to it than you suppose. It helps if you know ahead of time where you’re going to make stops; where to eat lunch; and where the bathrooms are situated.
Wednesday, 16 May 2007 00:00

Cherokee language and zoology

Doctoral dissertations don’t usually make for exciting reading. There are, however, exceptions.
Wednesday, 09 May 2007 00:00

Flame on

Flame azalea is one of our most magnificent common shrubs here in the Smokies region. From late spring into early summer its flowers are produced in profusion on low growing, twiggy shrubs that are often as wide as they are…
Wednesday, 02 May 2007 00:00

Persecution of the dandelion

It seems that every lawn care commercial on TV or radio these days is aimed at touting a product which eradicates that obnoxious “weed” known as dandelion. What’s wrong with a few dandelions? Does everyone want a yard that looks…
Wednesday, 25 April 2007 00:00

Bartram’s early accounts of Cowee

The preservation of the Cowee mound and village site alongside the Little Tennessee River in Macon County is truly significant in regard to this region’s cultural history. The Hall and Porter families are to be commended for making this possible…
Wednesday, 18 April 2007 00:00

Guyot’s Smokies

Paul Fink and Myron H. Avery were two of the foremost explorers of the Southern Appalachians — especially the Great Smoky Mountains — during the first half of the 20th century. In a paper they coauthored for “Appalachia” magazine in…
Wednesday, 11 April 2007 00:00

The Tsali legend

Since the mid-1980s, I’ve been researching and writing about events surrounding the Cherokee removal of 1838, especially those pertaining to the capture and execution of Tsali — who thereby became a Cherokee martyr — and three of his sons.
Wednesday, 04 April 2007 00:00

Ash bats and the boys of summer

Some essays get to their point or points right away. Others are discursive, beating around the bush before getting there. Or they may not, in fact, have a discernable point. This one, I suspect, will fall somewhere between the latter…
Wednesday, 28 March 2007 00:00

The storied bloodroot

Bloodroot is surely one of most widely admired wildflowers in the eastern United States. Walk now through any rocky, deciduous woodland in Western North Carolina and you’ll likely encounter the plant in all its glory. Notice how the lobes of…
Wednesday, 21 March 2007 00:00

Neufeld’s book on Appalachia

There is a newly published collection of essays that deserves the full attention of any reader interested in this region’s history. Titled A Popular History of Western North Carolina: Mountains, Heroes, and Hootnoggers (Charleston SC: History Press, 2007, 126-pages, soft…
Wednesday, 14 March 2007 00:00

Tradition of the cockfight

As most everyone knows, a cockfight is a match between two specially trained roosters traditionally held in a ring called a cockpit. The activity has a long tradition in American culture.
Wednesday, 07 March 2007 00:00

Accounts of a horned serpent

I have on more than one occasion written about Uktenas, the giant horned serpents modeled on timber rattlesnakes that appear in Cherokee mythology. In doing so, I have never suggested that they are anything but symbols for the nether world…
Wednesday, 05 June 2013 13:53

The mystical allure of moving water

We are attracted to water. Mountain paths always wind down to water. Water is the essence of our very being ... especially here in the mountains.   
Wednesday, 21 February 2007 00:00

Old remedies for the toothache

As noted previously in several Back Then columns, the Cherokees and later on the white settlers here in the Blue Ridge lived close to the natural world. In many ways that lifestyle must have been exceptionally rewarding.
Wednesday, 14 February 2007 00:00

A chip off the ole mauler block

Just after Christmas, my wife, Elizabeth, and I were driving south in the San Luis Valley of Colorado headed for Arizona. Situated on the border with New Mexico and bounded to the east by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the…
Wednesday, 07 February 2007 00:00

A harrowing tale of bear encounters

In the natural world there are certain experiences that rivet our attention and remain stored in our memory banks. Through the years I’ve written about my own encounters with rare plants, endangered landscapes, copperheads and timber rattlers, coyotes, skunks, eagles,…
Wednesday, 31 January 2007 00:00

Recounting natural history

For me, no pursuit is truly worthwhile unless it has an associated body of literature one can consult from time to time for insights, inspiration, or just to pass the time.
Wednesday, 24 January 2007 00:00

Medicinal plants of the Southern Appalachians

Back in November at the Great Smoky Mountains Book Fair in Sylva I met Patricia Kyritsi Howell and purchased a copy of her Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians (BotanoLogos Books, 2006).
Wednesday, 13 December 2006 00:00

Journal to remember

Maintaining a nature journal has been one of my ongoing, albeit intermittent, preoccupations. Keeping such a journal assists me in maintaining a record of my outdoor experiences — and indoor ruminations — many of which would otherwise be lost.
Wednesday, 06 December 2006 00:00

Spreading seeds — a special feat

While conducting plant identification workshops, I always try to remember to discuss two aspects that are essential if one is really going to enjoy plants. I think of these as plant “strategies.” They have to do with pollination and seed…
Wednesday, 12 June 2013 12:49

First of the Floppy Disc: Almond School

I wrote first by hand and then with a manual typewriter. Starting about 1990, I moved “up” to a Tandy writing machine generated by an IBM “Writing Assistant” program diskette that stored information on floppy discs. No hard drive. During…
Wednesday, 29 November 2006 00:00

Blemishes uncovered

Winter is unsparing. It exposes the lines and blemishes on human faces. It reveals worn hillsides and rutted backcountry lanes. It clarifies the ongoing, relentless processes of nature of which we are but a part.
Wednesday, 19 June 2013 14:02

Elderberry gets me thinking with my stomach

A plant that always gets me to thinking with my stomach is common elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), which is just now coming into bloom along roadsides in the lower elevations throughout Western North Carolina. 
Perhaps you’re looking for a new site to visit this summer?  If so, consider making a visit to Black Rock State Mountain Park, which is situated in Rabun County, Ga., just off U.S. 441 several miles south of where Macon…
Note: Every July 4th from 1973 through 1990, I used to go in Bennett’s Drug Store here in Bryson City and order my yearly “banana split” … two scoops of strawberry ice cream on sliced bananas with chocolate syrup, whipped…
Wednesday, 10 July 2013 14:14

The grand and showy hibiscus

I had my first introduction to the showy and curious hibiscus flowers when I was a boy. Rose-of-Sharon was a common where I grew up, just as it is here in Western North Carolina.
Wednesday, 17 July 2013 15:19

Back in the day, many built their own

When I was a very young boy growing up in Virginia, there was a very old man in our neighborhood who was was eccentric. He almost never spoke to anyone, except to scold them in a cackling tone. He was…
Wednesday, 22 November 2006 00:00

The art of well-watching

Now is the time to start looking for yellow-bellied sapsuckers here in the Smokies region. Of the various woodpecker species that occur here, the sapsucker is by far the most migratory. Some can be located in the higher elevations of…
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