Mention magnolias and images of plantations and mint juleps come to mind. But here in Western North Carolina we have an array of magnolia species that thrive in an upland hardwoods setting. These trees are most noticeable, of course, in spring or early summer when they produce the showy flowers that have made them famous, but they lend a graceful touch to our landscape year round.
In the southern highlands from southwestern Virginia into north Georgia there are seven species belonging to the Magnolia family. The very common tree we call “tulip popular” actually belongs to this family but is classified in a separate genus from the “magnolias” proper. Two evergreen species introduced from more southern climes that might rarely appear around old home sites in the mountains are the “sweet bay” (Magnolia virginiana) and the “southern” or “bull bay” (M. grandiflora).
A species that might rarely appear in WNC is the “big leaf” (M. macrophylla). A 1981 publication issued by the University Botanical Gardens in Asheville reported it to be “rare in the mountains, its range being sparse and spotty in range. A stand along the French Broad River near Asheville is reported.” More recent surveys locate the species in east Tennessee, north Georgia, and the piedmont region of North Carolina, but do not report it from Western North Carolina per se.
So, that leaves us with three native species that we are likely to encounter while tramping around in rich woods and coves: “cucumber tree” (M. acuminata), “umbrella magnolia” (M. tripetala), and “Fraser’s magnolia” (M. fraseri). All have deciduous leaves and bloom in April and May.
They are readily distinguished by leaf shape. Fraser’s has prominent eared lobes at the base of the leaf where it joins the stem. The other two have leaves that join at the stem without lobes. The umbrella species tapers rather sharply to the stem, while the cucumber species leaf is more oval in appearance as it joins the stem.
The cucumber tree is so-named because of the clasping greenish-yellow petals it produces that tend to blend with the leaf and stem colors. It fruits — often in exotic asymmetrical forms — in August and September.
Umbrella magnolia came by its name because of the broadly elliptical 18- to 20-inch leaves clustered near the ends of its branches. It fruits into October and is therefore the woodland species you’re most likely to observe during the fall color season.
Fraser’s magnolia is named for the Scottish plant hunter, John Fraser, who also discovered Fraser fir and purple rhododendron. It is an upland tree that rarely strays out of the highlands region and is therefore also called the “mountain magnolia.” It produces fruit from late July into early September.
Magnolia cones are attractive scarlet to rust-brown aggregates composed of numerous pod or pocket-like follicles, each containing one or two crimson seeds the color of nail polish. When the cones reach the stage whereby seeds are ejected from the fruit pockets, a curious scenario ensues.
Instead of falling immediately to the ground, these seeds remain suspended in the air attached to slender, almost invisible threads. These are called “funicular outgrowths” in botanical manuals. (“Funicular” means anything operated with strands.) Look closely at these with a pocket lens and you’ll find they are rubbery in consistency and vary in length. Indeed, as the seeds come out of the follicles they do so in a spiderman fashion, with the threads elongating according to the weight of each seed.
If you take a cone that is just beginning to exude seeds and place it upright on a sunny windowsill, this process can be speeded up and readily observed. Some will hang on threads up to nearly three inches in length before the link is finally severed. And some seeds remain suspended for many days, if not weeks, before falling.
Why? The most obvious explanation would seem to be that this tree has adapted itself to cater to animal dispersers capable of distributing seeds at a considerable distance from the parent. Birds are the obvious choice. And they can best locate the bright red seeds dangling in the air rather than on the ground.
More than a few readers of this column collect books associated with the Smokies region. A friend who spends most of his waking hours either fishing the backcountry trout waters in the Smokies or plotting ways to do so brought what he called “an interesting item” by my office. He had obtained at local auction the first edition of a softbound, 142-page volume titled Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Asheville: Inland Press, 1933). Having worked in the park himself some years ago, he has an ongoing interest in its history.
I’d spotted the book in various library collections through the years, but had never had an opportunity to peruse one at leisure. It makes for some interesting reading; indeed, both as a historical artifact and as an information source, it deserves to be reprinted.
According to the title page, George W. McCoy and George Masa compiled the “Guide.” McCoy was born in Dillsboro. He attended the University of North Carolina, 1919-1922, and the University of Chicago, 1926-1928, and was editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times from 1955 to 1961.
Masa was the noted Japanese photographer who helped promote the formation of a national park in the Smokies via photographs published in the national press during the 1920s and early 1930s. He was the subject of a documentary, “The Mystery of George Masa,” by Paul Bonesteel.
Masa’s photo studio was located in Asheville, where he first worked at the Grove Park Inn while teaching himself photography. But he was reputed to spend more of his time in the Smokies than in his studio. In recent years, he has been recognized as a great photographer, renowned for his patience in waiting hours, even days, for just the right light.
The Guide my friend had lucked into contains numerous photos by Masa depicting various scenic spots on both sides of the park, as well as a number of historical photographs that the compilers were able to obtain permission to reproduce.
A Masa study captioned “Sunlight on bed of giant ferns on Big Creek” is a beautiful study of light effects, while another captioned “Camping at Three Forks in the Great Smokies” depicts an idyllic tent camp in the backcountry.
The text consists of a number of motor tours and guides to hiking trails in the Smokies region. It’s full of bits of information such as the fact that, “Andrews Bald is believed to have been named for Anders Thompson, one of the first white men to hunt and camp there.” Or that the name of the vast and infamous heath thicket named Huggins’ Hell in Hazel Creek, which contains nearly 500 acres of tangled rhododendron and laurel, came about, because “Irving Huggins, who lived in the Hazel Creek section, was herding cattle on Siler’s Bald one day and wanted to reach another knob. He thought he could cross the intervening ‘slick’ but was trapped there for a number of days before he could find his way out.”
Also included are sections devoted to hunting and fishing, plants and flowering seasons, Cherokee mythology, geology, native mountaineer and Cherokee culture and more. Keep your eyes peeled and maybe, like my friend, you’ll be fortunate enough to happen upon a copy of this little gem.
Have you ever seen a mountain lion here in the Smokies region? I haven’t. In fact, the only one I’ve ever viewed outside of a zoo was somewhere near Crystal River, Fla., back in the early 1990s. It bounded out of the scrub in front of my truck and passed quickly across the highway. Even now, I can vividly recall the combined grace and power of that animal.
I frequently hear from people who have spotted a mountain lion in Western North Carolina. Or at least they think that’s what they saw. I’d guess that about 90 percent of these sightings are of something else. But the other 10 percent seem to be pretty reliable.
It’s my supposition that any mountain lions living in this region today aren’t descendents of the genetic stock that were originally here. That is, I think they are ones that have wandered into the eastern mountains from Florida or the western states; or, more likely, that they are ones that were trapped elsewhere and deliberately released. Whatever the source, I’m reasonably certain that we have mountain lions in the Smokies region.
The Family Felidae contains a number of species, including jaguars, ocelots, mountain lions, bobcats, lynxes, and domestic cats. Bobcats are very common in the Smokies region, but they are very secretive and are seldom seen.
Mountain lions were common enough well into the 19th century throughout North Carolina. According to Donald W. Linzey’s notes in Mammals of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (1995), the last mountain lion killed in the Great Smokies was back in the early winter of 1920: “Tom Sparks was said to have been attacked by a panther while herding sheep on Spence Field. He managed to inflict a deep wound in its left shoulder. Several months late, W. Orr killed a panther near what is now Fontana Village and found that its left shoulder blade was cut in two. This was generally believed to be the same cat Mr. Sparks had wounded.
Nevertheless, according to Linzey, there were 12 reported sightings between 1908 and 1965 and 31 sightings for the years 1966-1976. He doesn’t provide figures since that date, but my recent discussions with park service biologists would lead me to believe that sightings have increased in the Smokies in recent years, particularly in the Clingmans Dome area. Also, several National Park Service rangers have told me that they have spotted mountain lions while patrolling the Blue Ridge Parkway. Even if only 10 percent of these reports are valid, that still allows for a relatively significant mountain lion population in the Smokes region.
Editor’s note: A longer version of this column by George Ellison first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in May 2003.
As part of this coming weekend’s third annual Horace Kephart Day, a group of 20 or so participants will visit Kephart’s cabin site on Hazel Creek, where he resided from 1904-1907. In that regard, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit a Back Then column written in 2004, when his Our Southern Highlanders (1913) was being read throughout Western North Carolina as part of the “Together We Read” program.
Located two miles from Medlin, a tiny settlement situated where the Sugar Fork enters Hazel Creek about 10 miles from its confluence with the Little Tennessee River (now inundated, in part, by Lake Fontana), this remote cabin on the Little Fork became the vantage point from which Kephart studied the land and its people. It was a two-room structure, half of logs and half of rough planking, perhaps with two levels constructed at different times. He refurbished the dwelling, adding his few belongings once they were hauled up in a wagon.
One of the most revealing sources in regard to Kephart’s three years at the cabin is an interview conducted by F.A. Behymer published in the St. Louis Post Dispatch (12/12/26) under the heading “Horace Kephart, Driven from Library by Broken Health, Reborn in Woods.” Behymer, who apparently knew Kephart from his days as a librarian in St. Louis, visited Kephart in his office just off the town square in Bryson City.
“‘Seldom during those three years as a forest exile,’ Kephart said, ‘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,” Behymer 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, 20 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.”
Kephart became preoccupied with the simple and direct challenge of living efficiently in this new environment. Despite his extensive experiences in the outdoors dating back to childhood, he found that he now “had to make shift in a different way, and fashion many appliances from the materials found on the spot. The forest itself was not only my hunting-ground but my workshop and my garden ... I gathered, cooked, and ate (with certain qualms, be it confessed, but never with serious mishap) a great variety of wild plants that country folk in general do not know to be edible. I learned better ways of dressing and keeping game and fish, and worked out odd makeshifts in cooking with rude utensils, or with none at all. I tested the fuel values and other qualities of many kinds of wood and bark, made leather and rawhide from game that fell to my rifle, and became more or less adept in other backwood handicrafts, seeking not novelties but practical results.”
These “practical results” he published in the popular outdoor magazines of the day. By 1906, he had compiled enough material to put together the first edition of The Book of Camping and Woodcraft, a storehouse of practical advice, lore, anecdote, and adventure that in expanded editions re-titled Camping and Woodcraft became the standard work in its field, supremely applicable as is no other book in regard to basic techniques and philosophy.
After leaving Hazel Creek in 1907, Kephart considered returning there when he came back to the Smokies in 1910. Because the Ritter Lumber Company had begun extensive operations up the entire watershed the previous year, he decided to locate in Bryson City instead.
But those three years in the cabin on the Little Fork stimulated Kephart’s imagination and writing. It was the place where he sorted out his life and laid the foundation for what became a substantial literary and environmental legacy. When he observed toward the end of his life that, “I owe my life to these mountains,” he no doubt had the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek years in mind.
This past Friday (April 15) I attended the dedication ceremony for the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee. I wouldn’t normally enjoy a program made up of eight or so speeches, but as this one proceeded I found myself smiling.
I was pleased that the North Carolina side of GSMNP finally has a real visitor center. I was pleased that the directors, board members, and general membership of the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park received due recognition in regard to raising private funding that totaled $3 million. And I was pleased that it was such a nice friendly-looking building — the sort of public facility you’d enjoy visiting with your mother or your children or by yourself.
I tried after the dedication to tour the exhibit area. But I couldn’t get into it ... too many people I knew … too many distractions. So I left and came back Sunday afternoon. I don’t know anything about the nitty-gritty of designing buildings or planning exhibits. I do love museums of almost any sort, ranging from the grand old Smithsonian in the nation’s capital to the delightful county museum housed in a basement in Murphy. I’ve probably been through the nearby Museum of the Cherokee Indian at least 20 times, with groups or on my own. Here then are some random impressions of the new OVC.
Many traditional museum exhibits are driven by printed sources; that is, the designers read the significant books about a given event or place and use that information to present (in enclosed wall or glass-topped table displays) a chronological account based on — and quoting extensively from — those sources.
The new OVC exhibits are refreshingly free of that semi-academic approach. The only authors allowed even a sentence or two are Francis Asbury, Horace Kephart, Paul Fink and John Parris. (James Mooney, author of the monumental Myths of the Cherokees published in 1900, probably did deserve a word.) Instead, the new OVC exhibit is thematic — depicting via “Mountain Voices” how lands within and related to the park have been used through time by various peoples in various ways — as they sought to establish homelands suitable to their needs. As such, it necessarily tells the story of the ongoing relationship between the Cherokees, the white settlers, and their respective descendents.
Displays are devoted to Cherokee lore, Trail of Tears, Civil War, logging, moonshine, household and farm implements, family relationships, trails and roads, mills, CCC camps, natural history and more. The sounds of voices and music are literally in the air, not as white noise but as an integral part of the presentation. It is, in fact, more of an active “presentation” than static “display.”
The planners clearly strived for diversity in regard to presentation. Layers of often-interactive information are presented via video, print, artwork, maps, photos and voice recordings. Some exhibits, for instance, are designed as hands-on oversized notebooks, while others roll or spin with illustrated sequences. There are free-standing information boards and several video screens along with traditional enclosed wall displays. I can’t pretend to have absorbed a very high percentage of the overall content. After about an hour of looking my brain was saturated.
The primary exhibit area consists of a round kiosk inside a large room. Foot traffic flows clockwise and counterclockwise around the outside and within the kiosk. There is a chronological component, but the individual visitor isn’t locked into a predetermined route. I liked that aspect. I like to ramble around, and I noticed that not a few of my fellow visitors had chosen to wander with me backwards in time from 2011 AD to circa 1000 AD.
Many reading this will remember the oversized (perhaps 4-by-10 feet) raised relief map of the GSMNP that resided on a table in the old OVC. It looked like it had been constructed with mud overlaid with dull green enamel paint. That monstrosity has been replaced in the new OVC by a terrific raised relief map that depicts the topography of the park and adjacent areas in considerable detail.
Aside from perhaps adding a quote from Mooney, I have one other suggestion. Whenever I conduct natural history workshops for the Smoky Mountain Field School, participants are always curious about where the GSMNP is situated in regard to the Appalachians as a whole. It might be useful if a free-standing information exhibit placed near the new map delineated the geographic location of GSMNP as one of the numerous mountain ranges on the western front of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in the Southern Appalachians.
The only notes I made consist of a list of distinctive first names belonging to various individuals quoted or cited in the exhibit: Pettybone, Runaway, Fonzie, Milas, Dulcie, Aden and others. Runaway’s last name was Swimmer. Did he runaway from home or from being transported to Oklahoma?
As I was leaving the exhibit area, I spotted a quote by someone named Winifred. Bending over for a closer look, I saw that it had been spoken by my now deceased friend Winifred Cagle, who grew up on Toms Branch, a tributary of Deep Creek north of Bryson City within what became GSMNP. When I knew him, Winifred lived just outside the park on East Deep Creek. He was very proud of his old home place in the Smokies. And he was a great supporter, in his quiet manner, of the park.
The quote, which I didn’t have to write down, concerns a special salve his mother made that was so good it would cure leprosy, if need be. “It would, in fact,” Winifred advised me on several occasions when we were visiting his old homesite, “cure most anything but a broken heart.”
Winifred spoke in a high-pitched lyrical voice, almost a stammer, that was memorable. Mark Cathey, the renowned fly fisherman who also grew up on Deep Creek, reportedly spoke the same way. I can hear Winifred now. He would be tickled pink to know his mother’s salve has been memorialized in the new visitor center.
Flowing water was the primary agent that sculpted the mountains as we know them today. Long before the first Europeans arrived, the ancient Cherokees had developed ceremonials focused on the spiritual power of running water. One of the prized sites for such purification ceremonies was a waterfall. It was there that they could hear a river — which they identified as “the Long Man” — speaking to them in the clear voice of the raging current.
Waterfalls still speak to us today. Along with scenic vistas and fall colors, they are one of the most sought-after natural attractions in the southern mountains. They are dynamic places that seem to encourage contemplation. Whenever I’m conducting a natural history workshop that encounters a waterfall, I ask participants to contemplate why they are so appealing. Invariably, such qualities as constant motion, soothing sound, spiritual tranquility, natural beauty and harmony of sight and sound are mentioned.
I suspect there are at least 25 waterfall guidebooks for this general region: Western North Carolina, East Tennessee, northwestern South Carolina, and north Georgia. Most waterfalls of any significance have been described in some fashion. Do we need another one? The answer is “Yes, we do, if it’s a good one like Jim Parham’s recently published Waterfall Hikes of North Georgia (Milestone Press; 828.488.6601; www.milestonepress.com).
Parham’s book isn’t just good. In regard to basic content — driving and hiking directions, general and specific maps, elevation profiles and trailhead GPS coordinates, and waterfall photos — it’s really good. And in regard to trail-waterfall descriptions, it’s excellent. The prose is crisp and lively. Parham has an eye for details and a gift for describing what he sees in a concise manner. He also has a nice sense of the tensions that exist where the natural world and recent human activities intersect along old rail beds, at former CCC camps, and similar locations.
Parham grew up in Rome, Ga., and graduated from Berry College. He has hiked, paddled, and biked all over the world. He became a guidebook author in 1992. That year the first of his six-volume Off The Beaten Track mountain bike guide series was published by Milestone Press, which he and his wife, Mary Ellen Hammond, own and operate in Swain County.
When asked, Parham advised me that “his favorite hike” is the Raven Cliffs Trail. That section in his book consists of five pages, which contain a general destination map; a specific trail map; a chart (distance, elevation changes, hiking times, etc.); eight photos of falls encountered along three creeks; and a trail-waterfall description from which the following is excerpted:
“Raven Cliffs Falls is at the head of a waterfall-rich drainage area comprising Dodd Creek, Davis Creek, Bear Den Creek, and Little Low Gap Branch. These all flow down out of the Raven Cliffs and Mark Trail Wilderness Areas to form Dukes Creek. On Dodd Creek alone there are at least six waterfalls within a little over three miles. There are three more on Davis Creek, and Dukes Creek has a few as well. It’s a great place to go for a day hike. With numerous campsites along the trail and elsewhere in the area, it can also make a nice overnight excursion ... Once you see it, there’s no mistaking Raven Cliffs Falls. Dropping 170 feet over, under, and through a breach in the rock face, it’s one of a kind. The most easily seen part is also the most dramatic. Far back in a six-foot wide crack, the water makes a 40-foot freefall plunge into a dark green pool. This magical grotto is guarded above and below by rocks and water … Farther up and about halfway to the cliffs is the second falls. Here the river plunges 15 feet, creating a horsetail, then slips another 15 feet down a long slide. You don’t have to hike too much farther to reach the third falls, and at this point many people think they’ve reached Raven Cliffs Falls. It’s an easy mistake to make, since you’re now in an area of cliffs, high above a 30-foot waterfall that careens and then heads steeply up the hill beside it to a cleft in the cliff where the most dramatic part of the waterfall may be seen. The top is still a long way up, hidden between more rock clefts. You can see where people have scaled their way up trying to reach the top of the falls via a series of sketchy-looking, handover-hand, pull-yourself-up trails. Don’t be tempted to try it. The view of the falls really does not get any better than the one from the base of the cleft. Enjoy it, then head back the way you came.”
As I begin writing this it’s midnight, April 4-5, 2011. When insomnia strikes I always look for something to read. At times I just rummage around in various books rereading and studying familiar passages. Some were encountered in recent years — others have been with me for the better part of a lifetime. Having nothing better to do, I’ll share several them with you.
Long ago a very good teacher remarked: “You can tell a book by its opening lines.” The novelist-philosopher Walker Percy remarked in an interview that the opening of A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), the post-apocalyptic science fiction novel by American writer Warren M. Miller, made the hair stand up on the back of his neck in anticipation.
My favorite story opens: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns / driven time and again off course … / Launch out on his story … / start from where you will — sing for our time too.”
James Joyce, of course, had The Odyssey in mind when he wrote the opening lines of Ulysses (1922): “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: ‘Introibo ad altare Dei.’”
Thomas Hardy opens The Return of the Native (1878) with foreboding words: “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment … The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter … The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to awake and listen.”
And then, of course, the greatest opening in American literature is but three words: “Call me Ishmael.” Five hundred and twenty-six pages later, Herman Melville brings Moby Dick (1851) to closure: “A sky-hawk … folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her”
James Joyce was also good at closure. His long story “The Dead” (from Dubliners, 1914) concludes with sentences that are almost magical: “It had begun to snow again ... falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills [and] upon every part of the lonely churchyard … It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones … He heard the snow faintly falling through the universe … upon all the living and the dead.”
Similar but more ornate sentiments are found in Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial (1658): “Oblivion is not to be hired: the greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the register of God, not in the record of man … And since death must be [the deliverance] of life, and even pagans could doubt whether thus to live were to die … therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darkness.”
On a lighter note, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings opens The Yearling (1938) in this manner: “A column of smoke rose thin and straight from the cabin chimney. The smoke was blue where it left the red of the clay. It trailed into the blue of the April sky and was no longer blue but gray. The boy Jody watched it speculating. The fire on the kitchen hearth was dying down. His mother was hanging up pots and pans after the noon dinner … The day was Friday. If she scrubbed the floor she would not miss him until he reached the Glen [where] a spring as clear as well water bubbled up from nowhere in the sand … It excited Jody to watch the beginnings of the ocean. There were other beginnings, true, but this one was his own. He liked to think that no one came here but himself and the wild animals and the thirsty birds.”
Thoreau’s journal entries can be stimulating in small doses, but they are often too acerbic for my taste. More to my liking are those informed by quiet observation by writers like Edwin Way Teal. The following entry appeared in his Circle of the Seasons (1953): “William T. Davis once showed me some of the unpublished things he had written. I remember two eloquent sentences that express the whole outlook of his life: `There is no need of a faraway fairyland for the earth is a mystery before us. The cow paths lead to mysterious fields.’”
Gilbert White was the first great British naturalist. Although he and William T. Davis were separated in time and space, they were on the same wavelength. In The Natural History of Selborne (1789), White published a letter written on October 8, 1768, in which he expressed his conviction (which I share) that: “It is, I find, in zoology as it is in botany: all nature is so full, that that district produces the greatest variety which is the most examined.” In other words, White and Davis, like the Chinese sages, were admonishing us to “Study the familiar.”
Systems of mature trees and shrubs are covered with blemishes that signal age: cankers, seams, burls, butt scars, sterile conks, and protrusions in the form of bracket fungi.
Cankers are diseases in which lesions caused by a wide range of fungi and bacteria appear on the trunk and branches. When the infected tissue dies, the lesions then crack and split open, exposing underlying tissue to further infection. Some cankers grow on a perennial basis, forming concentric rings in trunk bark with each cycle. Because these patterns resemble targets they are referred to as “target cankers.” Other cankers – like the one now killing off the butternut tree – eat through the bark exposing darkened elliptical patches of the outer cambium.
Seams are long vertical or spiral cracks on tree trunks. They vary in size from a few feet to the entire length of the trunk. These are usually caused by wind, lightening, or frost and occur in all species; however, they are observed most frequently on beech because of the smooth, thin, susceptible bark. Sometimes the seam will fold inward, forming a smoothly turned pattern like a carefully tucked blanket. At other times, it will remain opened like a knife wound.
Burls are round to semi-round or elongate swellings of the trunk. They range in size from a few inches to several feet in length. Some are of unknown origin, but most are caused by either insect or fungi infestations. Fantastically shaped burls on birch trees in the higher elevations of the mountains lend an eerie touch to that often fog-shrouded landscape.
For awhile during World War II – when the European wood traditionally used to make briar pipes was not available – burls on the roots of laurel and rhododendron in boggy places in the southern Appalachians were “grubbed up” as a substitute. The center of the industry in Western North Carolina was around Hendersonville and Brevard, as well as Sparta. Another spot was the White Oak Stamp in Clay Country. An old road near Chunky Gal Mountain is still known as “the old burl road.”
Butt scars are triangular-shaped openings at the base of trees commonly caused by fire or logging injuries. Sycamores are often inflicted with butt scars, resulting in large openings that livestock and even humans have been reputed to take refuge in during hard times or while building cabins. The largest butt scar opening I have seen is one at the base of a tree on Bryson City Island Park, which is situated in the middle of the Tuckaseigee River within the Bryson City town limits. Two people can sit inside with relative ease.
Bracket fungi grow on tree trunks year around but become especially apparent during the winter months. Some are shaped like a horse’s hoof, others like a turkey’s tail. Some are as large as dinner platters, others as small as your fingernail. Also known as pore fungi, bracket fungi belong to a mushroom family (Polyporaceae) whose members grow attached to decomposing logs and tree trunks. Brackets are quite woody and hardened as compared with most soft-bodied mushrooms. Because of this woody nature they tend to last much longer than other mushrooms, providing the opportunity to observe them from year to year.
My favorites among the bracket fungi are the artist’s conks. These cracked, furrowed, knobby growths are really hard. Larger specimens have been made into stools. In Mushrooms Demystified (1986), author David Arora calculates that a large artist’s conk (he found one monster weighing in at 26 pounds) “liberates 30-billion spores a day, 6 months a year – or over 5,000,000,000,000 (5-trillion!) spores annually.” Since the snowy-white pore surface on the underside of the bracket bruises easily and stains permanently brown when scratched, they have been used to leave messages in the woods or as a means for making sketches, hence the common name.
From my window, as I write this, I can see across the creek and down into a pasture where my wife’s horse is grazing. The creek and pasture are lined with trees and shrubs: maple, basswood, rosebay rhododendron, spicebush, beech, tulip poplar, ash, butternut, eastern hemlock and others. The serviceberry and forsythia are in full bloom. It is all very scenic and tranquil, except for the hemlocks, which are dead or dying. The hemlock wooly adelgid infestation that is currently ravaging the southern mountains hasn’t spared our cove.
Eastern hemlock — or Canada hemlock, as it is sometimes called — reaches into the high-elevation spruce-fir country, but for the most part it’s found along ridges between 3,500 to 5,000 feet or on north slopes and in ravines or alongside creeks in the lower elevations. Monster hemlocks almost 100-feet tall with circumferences approaching 20 feet were encountered.
There are two native species of hemlock in the southern mountains: eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), recognized by its flattened, tapered needles that appear to extend in a flat plane from the branch stems; and Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), an uncommon species of rocky woods, dry slopes, bluffs, and cliffs with flat needles that are not tapered and spread from the branch stems in all directions. It is my understanding that the Carolina hemlock is also susceptible to the adelgid infestation.
Hemlocks love shade, rocks, and slopes. You will find them growing in steep “hemlock ravines” straddling boulders in the utmost headwaters. They cool the water, making it possible for native brook trout to thrive.
Red squirrels (“boomers”) are highly dependent on hemlock seeds, and their populations will no doubt decline once the hemlocks are a thing of the past.
Have you ever observed the shelf fungi (bracts) that grow on the trunks of eastern hemlocks? They are kidney- or fan-shaped and look like they have been varnished with a reddish-brown, shiny stain — which is why they are called “hemlock varnish shelf” fungi. Their scientific name is “Ganoderma tsuga.”
They are sometimes called “Reishi” or “Ling Chih” fungi because they resemble the closely related species used for medicinal purposes in the Orient. Some research seems to indicate that the species found in North America has the same properties as true “Reishi” in regard to bolstering the immune system, as an antitoxidant, and other uses.
Whether that is true or not, I wouldn’t know. I do know that these mysterious fungi are quite beautiful … almost luminous … and that they, too, will soon lose their primary host.
In A Natural History of Trees, Donald Peattie captured the essence of the eastern hemlock:
“In the grand, high places of the southern mountains, hemlock soars above the rest of the forest, rising like a church spire — like numberless spires as far as the eye can see — through the blue haze … Hemlock serves us best [when] rooted in its tranquil, age-old stations. Approaching such a noble tree, you think it dark, almost black, because the needles on the upper side are indeed a lustrous deep blue-green. Yet when you lunch on the rock that is almost sure to be found at its feet, or settle your back into the buttresses of the bole and look up under the boughs, their shade seems silvery, since the underside of each needle is whitened by two lines. Soon even talk of the tree itself is silenced by it, and you fall to listening. When the wind lifts up the hemlock’s voice, it is no roaring like the pine’s, no keening like the spruce’s. The hemlock whistles softly to itself. It raises its long, limber boughs and lets them drop again with a sign, not sorrowful, but letting fall tranquility upon us.”
Peattie wrote that in 1950. For the most part the hemlocks no longer whistle softly and their voices are sorrowful. Through my window I can see their dead spires.
Editor’s note: This George Ellison column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in March 2005.
“Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the Fish’s belly …. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head …. But I will sacrifice unto thee with that voice of salvation; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is the Lord … and the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.
— Jonah 2:1-10
When a fisherman in the Smokies region receives a sudden strike from a huge fish that breaks his line or maybe even drags his tackle away before he can react, he usually supposes it was a muskellunge, a ferocious species of pike that reaches a length of 60 inches and a weight of nearly 70 pounds. But maybe all strikes of this sort can’t be attributed to muskies.
There is, after all, another great fish almost as large as a whale that would smash any tackle to smithereens. This would be the Dakwa, a monstrous critter in Cherokee lore so large that it was equated with the whale. Indeed, according to ethnologist James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1900), when the Bible was translated into Cherokee in the 18th century — using the syllabary invented by Sequoya — the word “Dakwa” was employed as the equivalent of “whale.” As we shall see, the primary Cherokee story having to do with the great fish clearly echoes the biblical story of Jonah and the whale.
But how in the world would the Cherokees know anything about whales? No problem. They were great adventurers. Their trade routes and excursions of warfare took them far and wide throughout eastern North America. At any given time when a Cherokee party was on the Atlantic coast, whales — or at least their carcasses washed ashore — could have been observed.
Mooney points out, for instance, that James Lawson, in his A New Voyage to Carolina (1700), noted that whales “were ‘very numerous’ on the coast of North Carolina, being frequently stranded along the shore, so that settlers derived considerable profit from the oil and bladder.”
Mooney also points out that, “in almost every age and country we find a myth of a great fish swallowing a man, who afterwards finds his way out alive.” It’s my notion that after the Cherokees were introduced to Christianity in the 18th century, they adapted an earlier legend depicting a great fish to a version closer to the story related in the Bible. There are several Dakwa stories in Cherokee lore. Here is the one known as “The Hunter and the Dakwa” as collected by Mooney from the storytellers Swimmer and Tagwaddihi on the Qualla Boundary (present-day Cherokee) during the late 1880s:
“In the old days there was a great fish called the Dakwa …. This fish was so large that it could easily swallow a man. One day several hunters were travelling in a canoe …. when the Dakwa suddenly rose up under the canoe and threw them all into the air. As the men came down, the fish swallowed one with a single snap of its jaws, and dived with him to the bottom of the river. This man was one of the bravest hunters in the tribe, and as soon as he discovered where he was he began thinking of some way to overcome the Dakwa and escape from its stomach. Except for a few scratches and bruises, the hunter had not been hurt, but it was so hot and airless inside the big fish that he feared he would soon smother. As he groped around in the darkness, his hands found some mussel shells which the Dakwa had swallowed. These shells had very sharp edges. Using one of them as a knife, the hunter began cutting away at the fish’s stomach. Soon the Dakwa grew uneasy at the scraping inside his stomach and came up to the surface of the river for air. The man kept on cutting with the shell until the fish was in such pain that it swam wildly back and forth across the river, thrashing the water into foam with its tail. At last the hunter cut through the Dakwa’s side. Water flowed in, almost drowning the man, but the big fish was so weary by this time that it came to a stop. The hunter looked out of the hole and saw that the Dakwa was now resting in shallow water near the riverbank. Reaching up, the man pulled himself through the hole in the fish, moving very carefully so as not to disturb the Dakwa. He then waded ashore and returned to his village, where his friends were mourning his death because they were sure he had been eaten by the great fish. Now they named him a hero and held a celebration in his honour. Although the brave hunter escaped with his life, the juices in the stomach of the Dakwa had scalded all the hair from his head, and he was bald forever after.”
The obvious difference between the story of the Cherokee hunter and that of Jonah is that the latter was dependent upon a higher power for his salvation whereas the hunter was dependent upon his own devices.