One of the handouts I use during natural history workshops is headed “Southern Blue Ridge Province: Geographic Location and Influences.” It is the best “concise” approximation of the situation that I have been able to devise, as yet. I revise it from year to year, but many of the “facts” therein remain subjective. Here it is:
The Appalachians — created between 300 and 250 million years ago as a result of periods of mountain building brought about when the North American continental plate collided with the plates forming the European and African continents — extend some 2,000 miles from Canada’s Gaspe Peninsula to north Georgia and Alabama. They have been described as “The most elegant mountain range in the world.”
The Southern Appalachians can be defined as the ranges south of the point in northeastern Pennsylvania to which glacial ice sheets extended at the height of the Wisconsin epoch 18,000 years ago. That region consists of four geographic provinces: Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Plateau. The Blue Ridge is by far the most significant in regard to mountainous terrain.
The Blue Ridge Province of the Southern Appalachians extends from just south of Harrisburg Penn., to the hills of north Georgia just north of Atlanta, encompassing mountainous portions of southwestern Virginia, western North Carolina, east Tennessee, northwest South Carolina, and north Georgia. The Blue Ridge can be divided into northern and southern provinces, with the Southern Blue Ridge Province (SBRP) consisting of the terrain south of Mt. Rogers in southwestern Virginia to Mt. Oglethorpe in north Georgia.
The eastern front or escarpment of the SBRP is clearly defined from Virginia into South Carolina. On its western front the SBRP consists of the Unaka, Great Smoky, Unocoi, and other massive ranges. Connecting the eastern and western fronts are transverse ranges: Blacks, Great Craggies, Great Balsams, Nantahalas, and many others. The Appalachian system as a whole reaches its greatest elevation, largest mass, and most rugged topography in the SBRP where 125 peaks rise 5,000 feet or more, with 49 of them surpassing 6,000 feet. (From Mt. Rogers in Virginia northward to the Gaspe Penninsula only Mt. Washington in New Hampshire exceeds 6,000 feet.)
This topography profoundly influences the region’s average temperature (and thereby its plant and animal life, which exhibit strong northern affinities). The principle of verticality states that for each 1,000 feet gained in elevation the mean temperature decreases about 4 degrees F, equivalent to a change of 250 miles in latitude. (This means that if you travel from the lowest elevations in the SBRP at about 1,000 feet to the higher elevations above 6,000 feet, it’s the equivalent of traveling more than 1,200 miles northward in regard to the habitats you will encounter.)
The SBRP is situated where winds bringing saturated air masses from the Gulf of Mexico and the southern Coastal Plain are cooled and lose much of their content. (Air cools while rising to pass over a mountain range and can hold less moisture than warm air; therefore, heavy condensation occurs where large fronts first encounter massive ranges, as is the instance along the Blue Ridge divide.) The heaviest rainfall in the entire Appalachian region occurs along the GA-NC-SC borders, resulting in annual rainfalls of over 90 inches in many areas. (As much as 145 inches have been recorded with regularity since 1935 along the GA-NC line by the Coweeta Hydrologic Lab located near Otto). Taking this into consideration, some professional observers now refer to the area as a temperate rain forest. The higher elevations of the SBRP can be thought of as a peninsula of northern terrain extending into the southeastern U.S. where typical flora and fauna of northeastern and southeastern North America flourish. The region features approximately 1,500 vascular plants (many of which are considered to be showy wildflowers) and 125 species of trees (in all of Europe there are only about 75 species).
Not all agree on the exact extent of the SBRP. Not all agree on the number of 5,000- and 6,000-foot peaks. Not all agree on the definition for the “principle of verticality.” And so on. Almost nobody agrees on the location of the so-called “Temperate (or Appalachian) Rain Forest.” Here are three excerpts from various sources:
(1) “Temperate Rain Forests” of North America are usually defined by P.B. Alaback’s definition published in 1991 in the “Review of Chilean Natural History”: “Annual precipitation over 1400 mm [55 inches], cool summers stemming from an equable year-round climate with mean annual temperature between 4 and 12 degrees Celsius (39 and 54 degrees F.), and infrequent fire.”
(2) Temperate rain forests in the eastern USA are limited to areas in the southern Appalachian Mountains where orographic precipitation causes weather systems coming from the west and from the Gulf of Mexico to drop more precipitation than in surrounding areas. The largest of these forest blocks are located in western North Carolina, northern Georgia, and far eastern Tennessee, largely in the Pisgah, Nantahala, Chattahoochee National Forests and nearby Gorges State Park. In addition, small areas in the highest elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains also receive substantial rainfall, with Clingmans Dome, for example, collecting about 2000 mm of precipitation per year.
(3) An online description of Jocasse State Park by Stephanie Walker and Dirk Frankenberg reads, in part: ‘Near the southwestern corner of the state, the Blue Ridge escarpment rises over 2,500 feet from the Piedmont to the Highlands Plateau at 3,500 to 4,000 feet above sea level. This difference in elevation has been eroded by rainfall runoff into a half-moon-shaped indentation in the Blue Ridge through which five major rivers make their way towards the sea. These rivers have cut deep gorges into the escarpment, which are known collectively as the Jocassee Gorges after one of the principal streams. Annual rainfalls in the heavily forested Jocassee Gorges region can range upward of 100 inches - the generally accepted definition of a rain forest. In the temperate zone of the United States, this is the only rain forest east of the Olympic peninsula in the Pacific Northwest.’
The so-called “Appalachian Rain Forest” and many other aspects related to the Blue Ridge are starting to assume a mythical status in my mind.
This past weekend marked the 26th annual Great Smokies Birding Expedition, a gathering of onrnithologically-inclined friends. On Saturdays, to get things started, we always walk around Bryson City, tallying the common species that prefer a semi-urban setting. The highlight of the morning was the observation of cliff swallows nesting for the second straight year on the sides of the I-beams that support Everett Street Bridge. Their mud-cup colonial-style nests are a work of art.
After lunch, we moved to the Blue Ridge Parkway and birded the different forest zones into the spruce-fir forest at the intersection of Balsam Mountain Road and the BRP. The initial highlight of that stop was hearing a Canada warbler singing, even though he remained hidden from view in the rhododendrons. But the Canada warbler’s place of honor was replaced when someone said, “Black-billed cuckoo.” Sure enough, from the nearby woodlands came the ku-ku-ku-ku-ku notes of the black-billed cuckoo. They sound to me like someone tapping a coffee cup rhythmically with a spoon.
There are certain sounds that haunt the southern highlands: wind sighing in boughs of spruce-fir; the ongoing, ever-changing murmurs of a mountain stream; the “singing” of a timber rattler’s segmented tail; and the forlorn calls of the cuckoos.
No bird species are more secretive. Seldom leaving the shrouding foliage, the cuckoo sits motionless. When it does move, the cuckoo creeps about with furtive restraint. Seeing one is possible but unlikely. For the most part, this is a bird that you hear. It is mostly a “voice” that arises somewhere in the near distance then fades away.
Many rural residents know the more common species as the “rain crow” since its guttural “ka-ka-kow-kow-kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” calls are often sounded just prior to a late evening thunderstorm. (The distinctive “kowlp-kowlp-kowlp” portion of the call sounds something like a small dog barking.) The cuckoos on our property often sound a single “kowlp” note rather than the full vocalization.
The second cuckoo species that nests here in the mountains, mostly in the upper elevations, is called the black-billed cuckoo because it lacks the yellow lower mandible of its cousin. I’ve never seen even one black-billed cuckoo, but I have heard its rythmic “cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu” calls on more than a few occasions, most notably in the region of Blue Valley near Highlands, the Rainbow Springs section of the Nantahala River, and on the Balsam Mountain spur road of the BRP just beyond Mile High Overlook.
Both species winter in South America. They arrive in our region during the last week in April and usually depart by late October. If you see a yellow-billed cuckoo in flight, the most distinctive feature will be a double row of large white spots beneath the tail. The reddish flash of wing against the brownish body is also diagnostic. Henry David Thoreau described the bird this way:
“The cuckoo is a very neat, slender, and graceful bird. It belongs to the nobility of birds. It is elegant.”
The entry for the black-billed cuckoo in the Birds of North America Online (subscription) site contains these observations:
Graceful in flight but skulky and retiring in habit, the Black-billed Cuckoo is among North America’s most elusive birds. It is frequently confused with the more common Yellow-billed Cuckoo ... with which it shares similarities in plumage, behavior, and many vocalizations. Although both species occur ... through much of their ranges, the Black-billed Cuckoo has the more northerly distribution. In addition, Black-billeds prefer more densely wooded areas and can be found more frequently within coniferous vegetation. The Black-billed Cuckoo is rarely seen during migration and on wintering grounds in South America due to its silent and secretive manner. As a result, its nonbreeding distribution remains controversial. In North America, it is among the later migrants to return each spring; arrival on breeding grounds is announced by its staccato, repetitive call— cu-cu-cu cu-cu-cu —uttered as individuals fly overhead on late spring evenings. Vocal night flights increase as breeding commences. These flights, in concert with its quiet, sluggish behavior during the day, has led some ornithologists to suggest that the Black-billed Cuckoo is nocturnal in summer.
On Saturday, we heard the black-billed cuckoo calling for a while. Then the sound faded into silence. No one glimpsed the bird or even knew for sure where it had been. But the next time you’re in the high country and hear those steady rhythmic notes you’ll know what it is. With luck on your side, you might even see the bird. But don’t count on it.
This past weekend marked the second annual Horace Kephart celebration in Bryson City. There was a terrific presentation of newly surfaced George Masa photographs moderated by Masa biographer Bill Hart. Daniel Gore brought his band from Washington State to play the Kephart tunes in the album “Ways That Are Dark.” Folk musician Lee Knight played and sang. Park superintendent Dale Ditmanson spoke at the graveside service in uniform but quickly reappeared downtown in a T-shirt and shorts. There was talk of moving Masa’s remains from Asheville to a place beside Kephart in Bryson City. I’ll oppose that notion. “Leave George Be” will be my anti-removal slogan. He’s been at rest in Asheville, where he lived and worked, for 75 years.
That’s about it ... except for the Kamp Kephart five-man contingent from the Schiele Museum of Natural History in Gastonia, N.C., which pitched their period demonstration camp near the railway depot.
Kamp Kephart is an educational workshop dedicated to late-19th and early-20th century campcraft and woodcraft and is named in honor of Horace Kephart, outdoorsman and author of Camping and Woodcraft, one of the cornerstones of American outdoor literature. Kamp Kephart leader Steve Watts asserts that the book is “no mere out-of-date period piece, but rather a viable guide with great relevancy for the 21st century.”
I spent a lot of time with the Kamp Kephart crowd at their “camp site” and later on in my office. A visit to this web site will give you an idea of what they’re up to in regard to presentations of period dress, equipment, etc: http://zombiehunters.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=34&t=43874
But they also think a lot about what they’re up to philosophically and spiritually. My last question of them was: “Which item of Kephart’s camping equipment would you like to find and have?”
“His tea cup,” one of them said. I knew exactly what he was talking about. You’ll find the “Kep’s teacup” on pages 111-112 of the first volume of Camping and Woodcraft:
“In his charming book, The Forest, Stewart Edward White has spoken of that amusing foible, common to us all, which compels even an experienced woodsman to lug along some pet trifle that he does not need, but which he would be miserable without. The more absurd this trinket is, the more he loves it. One of my camp-mates for five seasons carried in his “packer” a big chunk of rosin. When asked what it was for, he confessed:
“Oh, I’m going to get a fellow to make me a turkey-call, some day, and this is to make it ‘turk.’ “ Jew’s-harps, campstools, shaving-mugs, alarm-clocks, derringers that nobody could hit anything with, and other such trifles have been known to accompany very practical men who were otherwise in light marching order. If you have some such thing that you know you can’t sleep well without, stow it religiously in your kit. It is your “medicine,” your amulet against the spooks and bogies of the woods. It will dispel the koosy-oonek. (If you don’t know what that means, ask an Eskimo. He may tell you that it means sorcery, witchcraft — and so, no doubt, it does to the children of nature; but to us children of guile it is the spell of that imp who hides our pipes, steals our last match, and brings rain on the just when they want to go fishing.)
No two men have the same “medicine.” Mine is a porcelain teacup, minus the handle. It cost me much trouble to find one that would fit snugly inside the metal cup in which I brew my tea. Many’s the time it has all but slipped from my fingers and dropped upon a rock; many’s the gibe I have suffered for its dear sake. But I do love it. Hot indeed must be the sun, tangled the trail and weary the miles, before I forsake thee, O my frail, cool lipped, but ardent teacup!”
It would be nice to have that handless teacup in a museum ... but I also like the idea that’s it’s still out there ... maybe up in the old cabin at High Rocks . . . or tucked away behind a boulder in Bone Valley ... or somewhere back in Nicks Nest ... waiting for the right person, in the right frame of mind, to come along, pick it up, and say to himself or herself, “Kep’s teacup.”
Numerous non-native plants have been introduced into the southern mountains during the last century or so. Many are now classified by wildlife biologists as “exotic pests.” Few would argue that kudzu does not fall into this category. And without doubt, the most notable alien mammal ever introduced into this immediate region was the European wild boar.
There are friends of the wild boar — mostly hunters — who believe that the animal’s outstanding qualities as a game animal outweigh its negative qualities. Then there are those who have observed its capacity to devastate large areas who think otherwise.
I used to be a friend of the wild boar. Its survival instincts and ability to adapt to truly rugged mountain terrain seemed to me to be admirable traits in any animal. In recent years, however, after some up close and personal encounters, I’ve changed my mind. More about that later.
A 29-page pamphlet by Perry Jones entitled “The European Wild Boar in North Carolina” (North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, 1959) tells the story of how the animal arrived and subsequently flourished in this region of the world. In 1908, the Whiting Manufacturing Co., an English concern, purchased Hooper Bald and adjoining lands near Robbinsville in Graham County. George Gordon Moore, an adviser to English investors, was allowed to establish a 1,600-acre game preserve on Hooper Bald in return for assisting the company with floating a loan of $2 million. Beginning in 1912, the preserve was stocked with 8 buffaloes, 14 elk, 6 Colorado mule deer, 34 bears (9 of which were Russian brown bears), 200 wild turkeys, 10,000 English ring-neck pheasant eggs, and 13 wild boar. For good measure, Moore also purchased 150 sheep and 150 turkeys locally.
“Almost immediately,” Jones writes, “blows of adversity began to strike the preserve. Some of the big bears promptly climbed out of the wire stockade, and since several of them had come from zoos, they would proceed to the clubhouse for food. The thought of a large bear appearing at any moment made sleeping extremely difficult. In order to return a bear to the lot, two men would have to lasso each of his front feet, pull him around a tree, and securely bind both pairs of feet together on the opposite side of the tree. Next, a pole was placed across the back of his neck, and his chin was pushed up firmly against the tree. While two men would hold this pole, another would put a collar securely around the bear’s neck. Two chains were then snapped on the collar. The pole and ropes were then removed, the bear was ‘collared,’ and the two men at the extreme end of the chain would hold the bear off each other. This procedure was described as ‘spread-eagling’ a bear.” So, there you go. Next time you need to deal with a bear you know exactly what to do — “spread-eagle” the varmint.
“The bear quickly fell prey to sharpshooting mountaineers,” Jones writes, and all the other animals rather quickly faded away in an environment they couldn’t cope with — all, that is but the wild boar. Area residents have long referred to the wild boar as the Russian (or “Roossian”) wild boar, but Jones speculates that they actually came from Germany. At any rate, they were the only ones to escape from the preserve and survive in the surrounding mountains.
“One source states that the wild boar were capable of sticking their legs between the rails of their pen and actually climbing over the fence,” Jones writes. “It seems likely, however, that the majority of them chose to remain within the enclosure where they were allowed to reproduce unmolested for a period of eight to ten years.” In the early 1920s, Moore’s foreman, Cotton McGuire, a Graham County resident who provided most of the information Jones collected, “invited some of his friends who owned packs of dogs up to the Bald for a grand hog hunt. This hunt was conducted within the boar lot, and by this time the boar had increased to an estimated herd of between 60 and 100. The Russian boar, however, turned out to be more than the hunters or dogs bargained for. Only two boar were killed, and at least a dozen dogs were killed, or severely maimed. Some of the hunters were forced to take refuge in trees to escape the charging beasts. Overly excited by the baying of dogs and shouts of hunters, the boar simply tore their way through the fence and escaped into the nearby mountains.”
Established in 1934, the 520,000-acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park has become their prime sanctuary despite extended shooting and trapping campaigns by the park service to eradicate them because of their destructive habits. A mature animal can attain a height of over three feet at the shoulder and a weight of over 400 pounds. The average weight, however, is probably less than half that. Ranging widely in herds, they are omnivorous, feeding on plant matter and small animals. The head of the wild boar is wedge shaped with a pointed snout, which enables it to root up the ground seeking underground tubers in search of food. According to Jones, “their menu also includes acorns ... grains, fruits, birds’ eggs, mice, carrion, and salamanders. During the spring and early summer, chick grouse and green corn ... are also included in the diet. The imported boars seem particularly to relish rattlesnakes, which they kill with their sharp-edged hooves ... Alone or in herds, a boar may travel up to 12 miles during one feeding period.”
Troy Hyde, a veteran Graham County hunter, told Jones that one could “root up concrete, if he put his mind to it.” That sounds like exaggeration until you see areas where they have been rooting. The first time I encountered such an area I momentarily wondered what fool had been rototilling in the national park. Then the hog smell betrayed the culprits’ identities. I was astonished at the extent of damage. But just how destructive they can be didn’t really hit home until several years ago when they came onto our property — which adjoins the national park in Swain County three miles northwest of Bryson City — and went to work digging up the richest wildflower area we have. (They especially love the tubers of the showy spring species: bloodroot, trillium, rue anemone, blue cohosh, trout lily, etc.) When we returned home after an extended absence, my first thought once again was that some fool had rototilled the slope behind the house. Then I smelled that smell and saw the hog tracks. At that time we had to temporarily discontinue using our gravity-flow water system because the critters decided to root and wallow in the watershed up on the ridge above the house.
North Carolina wildlife officers issued us an out-of-season hunting permit to help remedy the problem. But I didn’t have enough firepower to make a stand. The pellets from my 12-gauge shotgun would have only tickled a boar’s funny bone. (Wild boars have funny bones don’t they?) Anyway, I never fired a shot. After awhile, they upped and left on their own. Good riddance, we thought. Alas, they returned again last fall while Elizabeth and I were away for a week. This time they attacked a partly buried rock wall above the house. This 60-foot long wall had been built in the early part of the 20th century by a farmer clearing the hillside to plant corn. We suppose there was something living in or under the wall that the wild boar craved. We haven’t gotten around to clearing up the mess to this day. The hillside looks like several grenades had been detonated under the wall, throwing rock debris helter-skelter.
Wild boars are independent cusses that have made the transition from one continent to another with admirable ease. They didn’t asked to be hauled from Europe to Graham County, but they’ve made a go of it without any whining or bellyaching. That’s admirable. But you can’t really be the friend of an animal that pollutes your water supply and uproots rock walls on your property. Can you? Even kudzu doesn’t do that.
Our consideration of “books and all things related” continues with a look at an instance when a well-known author (and former librarian) chose to disguise his reading so as to create a literary persona.
Horace Kephart was often guarded, sometimes evasive, when giving reasons for choosing the Smokies region as a place of renewal. There was no doubt an element of chance in the decision. It’s probable, however, despite his denials of having done so, that he read travel accounts and studied government documents, many of which were available by the turn of the century.
For someone with Kephart’s areas of interest an easily located source would have been (and perhaps was) Wilbur G. Zeigler and Ben S. Grosscup’s The Heart of the Alleghanies or Western North Carolina: Comprising Its Topography, History, Resources, People, Narratives, Incidents, and Pictures of Travel, Adventures in Hunting and Fishing, and Legends of Its Wilderness (Raleigh, NC: Alfred Williams, and Cleveland, OH: W.W. Williams, 1883). Kevin E. O’Donnell and Helen Hollingsworth, authors of Seekers of Scenery: Travel Writing from Southern Appalachia (1840-1900), reproduce five magazine articles describing Western North Carolina, post-1875, including Frank O. Carpenter’s “The Great Smoky Mountains and Thunderhead Peak,” which appeared in the June 1890 issue of Appalachia magazine.
The “pub.doc” Kephart managed to unearth in “that dustiest room of a great library” — but absentmindedly fails to provide authors or title for — was Horace B. Ayers and William W. Ashe’s The Southern Appalachian Forests (Washington. DC: Department of Interior and U.S. Geological Survey, 1902), the monumental study that contains descriptions, maps and photos of the Smokies region as well as President Theodore Roosevelt’s detailed Letter of Transmittal, in which he observed: “These great mountains are old in the history of the continent which has grown up about them,” and having escaped “the ice on the north” display “that marvelous variety and richness of plant growth which have enabled our ablest business men and scientists to ask for its preservation by the Government for the advancement of science and pleasure of the people of our own and of future generations.”
Kephart had been for over a decade one of the most meticulous librarians in America. For the remainder of his life, he independently maintained the mindset and methodologies of the prototypical librarian. This trait is exemplified by the set of 27 journals — researched, categorized, alphabetized, indexed, and cross-referenced, more than once — he created so as to depict, often in great detail, almost every aspect of Appalachian culture, and more.
He wasn’t the sort who would venture into his own backyard without first taking a look at the relevant literature. By denying that he had access to written materials, the Smokies thereby became for his readers even more of a “terra incognita” — a land of “hidden possibilities” — in which, as his title for the first chapter of Our Southern Highlanders indicates, there is “Something Hidden; Go and Find It.” Via this calculated strategy, Kephart emerges as the somewhat heroic, albeit mild-mannered and curiously attentive, outsider who explores and describes the landscapes and lifestyles of a “mysterious realm.”
We’re still at it—considering books and related matters like shelving strategies, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?” This could go on forever. This week, not having anything else in mind, I’ll reminisce some about the role books have played in my life. I’m not at all sure where this is headed, but I do know that it will be about some things that still mean a lot to me. We’ll start at the beginning.
I was born in Danville, Virginia, where, after my father was killed in World War II, I was raised as an only child. Mother, who never remarried, purchased a small house on North Main Street in an ideal location; that is, adjacent to our backyard was a ball field, where pickup football, baseball and other games were ongoing year-round; and beyond the ball field there were woods and a small creek that flowed several miles into a river. When I wasn’t playing ball or walking in the woods or fishing in the creek, I was reading. Reading has always been one of my greatest pleasures. At one point in my life it was, for lack of a better word, magical. We’ll get back to that.
I grew up wanting to be either: (1) a pitcher for a major league baseball team (preferably the Brooklyn Dodgers), or (2) a writer. It became apparent almost immediately, even to me, that the pitching thing wasn’t going to work out; so, I focused on my backup plan. Because of my infatuation with the reading experience, I did eventually become a writer, of sorts. And somewhat to my surprise, I also became a naturalist, of sorts—a strategy that has allowed me to spend a lot of time in the woods.
My mother’s name was Ruth. She read something to me every night. I recall that she was a good reader, not overly emphatic, and seemed to enjoy the stories—no doubt, in part, as a diversion from more pressing concerns of which I was unaware. I will always remember that she read to me every night.
Once I was reading on my own, she subscribed to a children’s book club that mailed a new book every other week addressed to me. It was addressed to me and it was my book. That’s important. I had a bookcase beside my bed in which I arranged my accumulating collection however I wanted.
By the time I was maybe nine years old, I was using the city library. It was housed, as I recall, in an ornate two-story cube of a building located, just like everything else, on the other side of town. It was reputed to have been the seat of the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy.” I never knew if that was true or not and never really cared. I was interested in the books.
On Saturdays when a game of some sort wasn’t scheduled, I’d catch a city bus first thing in the morning over to the library and spend the day reading down in the basement, where the juvenile books were shelved. There was a sign that warned young people not to enter the main library. The gray-haired librarian in charge of the basement did look like a Confederate spinster or like my idea of what one ought to look like. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ball on the back of her head and held in place with a long pin. I can’t recall her name but we got along. On the sly, she let me check out as many books as I could carry home on the bus.
There was a green cloth-covered chair in my bedroom that I always sat in when reading. If I situated myself, just so, in that chair—with a book opened on my left side and the fingertips of my right hand quietly turning the pages, something would happen. For hours it sometimes seemed, a rare emotion would envelope me, and I would be transported into the world about which I was reading.
When I had read pretty much everything down in the basement worth reading, the Confederate spinster obtained a special dispensation from the head librarian that allowed me to come upstairs and read—so long as I didn’t venture into a certain room, where I supposed the dirty books were shelved. In the far corner of the main reading room there was a plush chair in which I always sat, just so, while reading. It was also magical, especially when there was a steady rain falling on the roof of The Last Capitol of the Confederacy.
At Chapel Hill I majored in English because I still loved reading more than anything else, a whole lot more than, say, chemistry, math, economics, German, and other unlikely opportunities. Back then—this was in the early 60s—the Bull’s Head Book Store was located in the basement of Wilson Library. If a book was worth reading, they had it; and you didn’t have to buy it—there were chairs in which you could sit and read anything for free. Anything. Even the dirty books by writers with names like Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and D.H. Lawrence. And once again there was a chair involved. It was a soft black leather or imitation-leather chair tucked in behind a partition. While sitting in it, just so, I could still enter the dream world of each book as I read it . . . they were books with beautiful names . . . The Old Man and the Boy . . . Specimen Days . . . Go Down, Moses . . . My Antonia . . . Far Away and Long Ago . . . The Odyssey . . . Ulysses . . . Urn Burial . . .Lie Down in Darkness . . . Give Your Heart to the Hawks . . . Tender is the Night . . . names that stick with you for a lifetime, long after you have forgotten the plot and most of the characters.
But that was the end of the magic. I grew older, assumed responsibilities as best as I knew how, and lost the capacity to be fully transported by what I was reading. A person I talked with about this experience suggested that things changed for me with “a loss of innocence.” Maybe so . . . a more realistic explanation would be that my way of processing information changed. The stories and images that books relate — fiction and non-fiction, alike — had once flowed into my system unimpeded with galvanizing impact.
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,.
We’re been considering books and related matters like shelving, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and (last week’s topic) — “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?”
This week we’re going to do something worthwhile by introducing you to the new Friends of the Marianna Black Library Book Store. It’s located on Everett Street in Bryson City, just south of the town square, on the right, before you get to the bridge, right next to Calby’s Antiques. If you’re old enough to recall where Bennett’s Drugstore was situated, that’s the place.
The word “unique” is almost always misused, but the new bookstore probably qualifies. Is there another one anywhere that features a marbled-topped counter from Italy and five stools with spinning seats that graced one of the most famous soda fountains in North Carolina? People traveled to Bryson City just to order a peanut butter milkshake at Bennett’s and sit in one of the old-time booths while drinking it.
For 10 long years, the library bookstore was a 14-by-20-foot shed perched next to the main library that featured a jumble of “unalphabatized” books. Revenues generated for the library via book sales were minimal. Calling it inadequate would have been praise.
Within the last six months, that situation has been altered. The change was initiated when Friends president Gail Findlay, who was director of the Fontana Regional Library system before “retiring,” decided to look for a new location that was large enough, relatively inexpensive, well-situated within walking distance of the main library and downtown areas, and could be leased for at least two years.
Findlay looked closely at four or five locations that didn’t pan out. She mentioned her project to Peggy Duncan, an artist who leased the old Bennett’s soda fountain and luncheonette room as gallery space. Duncan no longer wanted to maintain a downtown gallery — but she did want to retain rights to the wall space as a place to display her work.
Findlay and Duncan went next door to Calby’s and talked things over with Ivan Gibby, present owner of the soda fountain room. While growing up, Gibby had known Doc Bennett and his daughters, and maintains fond recollections of a pharmacy and soda fountain operation that once served as the social and political center of Swain County. They had no difficulty with working out a three-way lease suitable to all. And that’s the story of how the new Friends of the Marianna Black Library came to be.
I can report that when you come to Bryson City to check out the stock, you will find it meets the requirements established by author Larry McMurtry, who owns a bookstore himself, that all books be neatly shelved, arranged alphabetically, make a nice appearance, and be interesting to peruse, whether or not you buy anything. Chances are you will find something to read.
I knew the Bennetts, too. Years ago, I wrote a feature article about Doc Bennett, his daughter, Mary Alice, and the day she closed the drugstore’s doors after almost a century of service. Mary Alice was a great reader who always stocked regional books. She would be pleased with the recent turn of events. For the record, here are some excerpts from that article:
Sorry folks, no more ice cream cones, milkshakes, or sundaes at the marble-topped counters and tables. No more old-fashioned hospitality at the drug counter. No more advice on what to do for a foundered horse or poison ivy. Bennett’s Drug Store — a landmark in Western North Carolina for nearly a century — recently closed its doors for the last time when pharmacist Mary Alice (Bennett) Greyer decided to retire.
The closing marks the end of a single family’s century-long medical service in a rural mountain county, and brings back memories of a remarkable man whose influence extended far beyond his profession as a pharmacist.
Bennett’s Drug Store was founded in 1905 by Greyer’s father, Kelly Bennett (1890-1974), whose father, Dr. A.M. Bennett, was registered as a pharmacist by the state of North Carolina in 1888. Kelly was registered in 1912. His daughter, Mary Alice, was registered in 1936, being the first woman pharmacist in North Carolina. Accordingly, three generations of the Bennett family served Swain County as pharmacists for more than 100 years, with 86 of those years being in the same location.
For his part in promoting the movement that culminated in the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Kelly became known as “The Apostle of the Smokies.” Shortly after his death, a peak just south of Bryson City in the park was named Mount Bennett. If something took place in Swain County during Doc Kelly’s lifetime, there was more than an even chance he either started it or had a hand in supporting or opposing it. A billboard sign in Bryson City that read “Ask Bennett, He Knows” was more often right than wrong. The closing of Bennett’s Drug Store marks the end of an era.”
Someone needs to find that sign and hang it over the marble counter in the old soda fountain room that, almost overnight, has been transformed into a library bookstore.
Of late, we’ve been considering books. The feedback (mostly email) from readers to recent columns regarding books in general, book shelving strategies, bookplates, home libraries, favorite books, and so on, has been instructive. Before we move on to this week’s assignment (“How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?”) here’s some of what my bookish correspondents are up to.
As previously mentioned, I heard from a woman who doesn’t require a book shelving strategy because she doesn’t shelve her books, having “given up on that foolishness more than 20 years ago.” Her home in Atlanta is apparently awash in a sea of 2,500 or so volumes, amongst which she and her three cats make their way. Her multiple copies of Gone With the Wind, she advised me most recently, are “very carefully stacked.”
A woman in Lake Junaluska wrote a lovely note about bookplates that I haven’t responded to as yet. But I will.
A well-organized gentleman dispatched (by snail mail) a list (three handwritten, single-spaced yellow pages) that warmed my heart. Therein, he enumerated the subject matter in each of his nine (A-I) bookcases situated, respectively: (1) in the “Living Room,” four bookcases, seven subject areas (novels, books about Indians, music, etc.), 11 sub-categories (edible/medicinal plants, Smoky Mountains, William Bartram, etc.), and two sub-sub-categories; (2) in the “Kitchen,” one bookcase, one subject area (American History) and five subcategories (French and Indian War, War of 1812, etc.); (3) in the “Hallway,” one bookcase, one subject area (music) and five sub-categories (opera, biographies of musicians, etc); (4) in the “Bed Room,” two bookcases and random shelves, with miscellaneous subject areas (sports, mysteries, poetry, transcendentalism, etc.); and (5) in the “Bathroom,” one bookcase, four subject areas (natural history, trail guides, animals, and books about the Appalachian Trail). All’s right with this world when a man’s books are well-organized.
Last week, I picked The Odyssey as the book I’d want if I could have but one book in my home library. Some picks by readers: the Bible (by a landslide), anything by Jane Austen, Walden, a one-volume edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, Chaucer, and Gene Stratton Porter’s A Girl of the Limberlost.
Now we get to “How do we go about discovering the next book we’re going to read?” — a serious question. When things are going well, it seems there’s no end to the books in hand or on your reading list. But in the blink of an eye, you can go into a slump. You’re not reading well (it’s a skill that fades with disuse) and you don’t know where your next book is coming from. What to do?
Book reviews. At times, when I can keep up with them, I subscribe to as many book review publications on the national and regional levels as I can afford (not more than five). Aside from whatever leads I might pick up, I enjoy reading reviews in and of themselves. They are an art form of sorts, at which the British excel. In this country, Larry McMurtry is skilled at informal overviews and book talk; James Wood, a reviewer for the New Yorker who was raised in England, is more formal, more of a traditional critic. And it must be noted that, when he’s on his game, Gary Carden is as good a book reviewer as there is on any level.
Blurbs. I read them carefully. If the recently-deceased detective fiction author Robert Parker (creator of Spenser and Hawk) wrote a blurb praising another mystery author’s prose style, you could bank on it. James Dickey, you couldn’t trust. If asked, he would have written a blurb praising a chainsaw manual.
Writing blurbs is also an art form of sorts. They are difficult because so much has to be packed into so little space. I can’t write them. Several months ago, Renea Winchester — a Swain County native who lives in Atlanta — asked me to read the typescript of her new book, In the Garden with Billy: Lessons About Life, Love, and Tomatoes, and write a blurb. It’s a terrific book. The best thing I’ve read in quite a while. I got carried away. Renea was understandably bewildered – but still gracious – when she received, as an email attachment, a 1,000-word blurb. What she’s doing with it, I’m afraid to ask.
Word of mouth. The best bet. I won’t have any interest in your politics or problems, but if our paths should ever cross, it won’t be long before I ask, “By the way, what are you reading?” I will listen carefully to what you say and, if something you mention sounds likely, I’ll make a note.
The feedback (mostly email) from readers to recent columns regarding books in general, book shelving strategies, and bookplates has been both surprising and interesting. It encourages me to proceed in that vein. Down the line, we might consider public libraries and the wonderful freedoms they represent, but for the time being let’s consider private holdings — that is, the sort of personal libraries you and I have.
You can’t have a library without a book. But just one book will do it. Hopefully, it’s the right book, suitable to your unique needs. If you were forced to reduce your library to just one book, what would it be?
After some deliberation, my pick is The Odyssey. Homer’s epic has always fascinated me. It has most everything a reader could desire: adventure after adventure, seascapes and landscapes, monsters galore, bad hosts and good hosts, seductive sirens and a beguiling temptress, a descent into Hell, a whirlpool and a shipwreck, a return home (to Ithaca) where the hero’s patient wife (Penelope) weaves by day and unweaves at night so as to befuddle her many arrogant suitors, a faithful dog (Argos), and a thoroughly satisfying closing in which father (Odysseus) and son (Telemachus) pile up dead suitor upon dead suitor like bloody cordwood. There have been numerous translations: the one by T.E. Lawrence (himself a near-mythic figure) has special overtones; a more recent translation by Robert Fagles is one of the best.
Also on my one-book library nomination list: Michel de Montaigne’s Complete Essays, J. Frank Dobie’s The Ben Lilly Legend, Horace Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft, J. Evett Haley’s Charles Goodnight: Cowman and Plainsman, E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott’s We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Edwin Way Teale’s North with Spring, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, W.H. Hudson’s Far Away and Long Ago, Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Thomas Hardy’s Complete Poems, Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods, William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, George Crabbe’s Complete Poems, W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Jupiter, E.O. Wilson’s Naturalist, William T. Davis’s Days Afield, Merrill Gilfillan’s Magpie Rising, James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, Llewelyn Powys’ Earth Memories, Virginia Woolf’s Complete Essays, and various others that reflect my eclectic and sometimes peculiar tastes when it comes to reading matter. Few will have even heard of George Crabbe, that poet of the East Anglican mudflats and ungainly flora, whose aim was to avoid in his verses, whenever possible, the poetic. But Homer’s Odyssey won, going away — his only near competition being Montaigne.
Some of the most satisfactory libraries are those housed on a single shelf in a remote cabin — or a portable one consisting of not more than 25 books carefully arranged in a wooden or cardboard box. When Kephart ventured up to his cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the fall of 1904, he bought with him that sort of library.
“‘Seldom during those three years as a forest exile,’ Kephart told a reporter in 1927, ‘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,” the reporter 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, twenty 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.”
Then there is the home library — the sort most of us have, ranging from an hundred or so books to several thousand. If you have more than 5,000 books in your library, you may require counseling. If you have more than 10,000, it’s probably too late.
For the devoted, the home library requires an infallible shelving strategy, periodic rearranging, weeding and dusting, carefully chosen additions, and reading. Whether housed in a separate room, on a wall in the den, in the corner of a spare room, or (like mine) in bookcases and on shelves scattered throughout the house, the home library is, for many, a living entity.
Montaigne (1533-1592) was the first essayist in Western literature. The first and the best-able practitioners of the art like Bacon, Hazlitt, Emerson, and Woolf agree that he has never been surpassed. His subject matter was himself. In three volumes, he evaluated and quantified himself with calm objectivity, describing without cant what it’s like to be alive, what it means to be human.
After his best friend Ramond Sebond died, Montaigne’s library became his best friend, a place of refuge. At his chateau in the French countryside, one of the three-story towers was converted into private quarters: chapel, bedroom, and library. Of the forms of association Montaigne preferred — these included intelligent men and beautiful women — he ranked the 1,000 or so books shelved on the top floor of his tower first. In Of the Three Kinds of Association he wrote:
“In my library, I spend most of the days of my life, and most of the hours of the day there ... The shape of my library is round, the only flat side being the part needed for my table and chair; and curving round me it presents at a glance all my books, arranged in five rows of shelves on all sides. It offers rich and free views in thee directions, and sixteen paces of free space in diameter ... There is my throne. I try to make my authority over it absolute, and to withdraw this one corner from all society, conjugal, filial, and civil ... Sorry the man, to my mind, who has not in his own home a place to be all by himself ... I find it measurably more endurable to be always alone than never to be able to be alone. In my youth I studied for ostentation; later, a little to gain wisdom; now, for recreation; never for gain. As for the vain and spendthrift fancy I had for that sort of furniture [used] for the purpose of lining and decorating walls, I have given it up long ago.”
Several weeks ago, I devoted a column to the complicated science of book shelving. Not a few readers responded — often with descriptions of their systems, which they deemed infallible.
Shelving by fiction and non-fiction and leaving it at that seems sort of lazy to me, hardly worth the effort. Nevertheless, that method had several adherents, none of whom gave a hoot when I suggested they might be lazy if not slovenly shelvers. They were happy and didn’t care what I thought.
One lady proudly claimed to have “thousands of books scattered around the house, none of them shelved.” When I replied (in an email) that I hoped she was kidding, she wrote back to say she wasn’t kidding and offered to send a picture of her “book jungle” that I declined.
Most respondents shelved by subject categories of some sort: boats, animals, countries, etc. — and then arranged their books alphabetically within each category. No one else also broke them down chronologically, as I do; that is, I first shelve by general categories, say, natural history. Those books are then divided into British and American. Books up until 1900 are arranged chronologically (Thoreau would come before John Burroughs), but post-1900 books are alphabetical (Annie Dillard comes before Gretel Ehrlich). I don’t know how or why this system of mine originated, but it is infallible.
It should be noted before we move on that almost everyone, as a last resort, approved of the Dusty Miller school of book shelving. Dusty Miller was the much admired London bookseller I described in the column who, when asked how he arranged his books, replied that, “When I buy a short fat book I try to find a short fat hole.” For the lady who doesn’t shelve anything, this wasn’t an issue.
The response to the shelving column surprised me. In Western North Carolina, the love of and care for books seems to be alive and well. Or maybe the point is that readers of The Smoky Mountain News tend to be bookish. And the corollary to that would be that bookish people seem to seek out The Smoky Mountain News in both print and online editions. Why not? It’s a weekly regional newsmagazine situated off-the-beaten track in the southern mountains that features two wonderful written book reviewers, another general column (this one) that discusses older books with frequency, and a natural history columnist who is as likely to focus on a book almost as frequently as he does pileated woodpeckers.
Without this sort of feedback, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to write about bookplates. But there appears to be an audience out there that wouldn’t mind considering bookplates. Here goes.
For years, I’ve admired them and thought about coming up with one for our books that would be appropriate. I like the way a nice bookplate dresses up a nice book. I don’t have a rare or fancy collection of books by any means, but I do have many books that would look good with a bookplate, as does my wife, Elizabeth, who has a nice collection of art and papermaking books. I keep using the word “nice” so as to emphasize that we’re not talking about rare first editions or leather-bound books. We’re just talking about “nice” books — not tattered hardbacks or cheap paperbacks (although some quality soft cover books are “nice”) — of the sort everyone reading this has in their home.
Another reason for thinking about a bookplate is that I have signed most of our books on the front flyleaf. Some signatures are pleasant looking, even elegant. My signature is downright ugly. It used to be as big as a barn door. These days, as I get older, it’s becoming microscopic. Either way, it’s not a pretty thing to encounter. A bookplate would cover up most of my signatures.
Through the years, I’ve picked up several books with chapters on the history of bookplates. There’s no need to go into that sort of detail here. Some excerpted background I summoned up in about five seconds by entering “bookplates” in the Google search engine will suffice:
“A bookplate, also known as ex-Libris [Latin,’ from the books of’], is usually a small print or decorative label pasted into a book, often on the inside front cover, to indicate its owner. Simple typographical bookplates are termed ‘booklabels.’ Bookplates typically bear a name, motto, coat of arms, or any motif that relates to the owner of the book. The earliest known marks of ownership of books or documents date from the reign of Amenophis III in Egypt (1391-1353) ... The earliest known examples of printed bookplates are German, and date from the 15th century ... Although the majority of the older plates were armorial, there were always pictorial examples as well [including] landscape-plates by wood engravers of the Bewick school ... In 1901-1903 the British Museum published the catalog of the 35,000 bookplates collected by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97).”
I included the reference to “landscape-plates” because that’s what Elizabeth and I finally came up with, using one of her idealized renderings in watercolor of the cove where we live. The same image appeared on the cover of one of our books, Mountain Passages (2005). So, the bookplates that arrived last week have personal significance, for us — all the more so, because our friend, Asheville artist Ann Smith, designed the 1,300 plates that arrived last week from a printer she works with. Ann describes them as “four-color with bleeds, peel and stick plates — uncoated (matte) finish — 3 x 4 inches.”
They’re better than nice. If you’ve ever thought about a bookplate to dress up your nicer books, I can affirm that you would in all likelihood enjoy doing so.
Considering the rate at which I am presently proceeding, I should be finished with the mounting process of these 1,300 plates in about 2015 or so.