It’s that time of the year, and the hills are alive not with music but “sang” hunters. As of now a dried pound of “green gold” is bringing about $500 and might rise before the ginseng season closes for good. Here are some random thoughts and observations regarding “sang” that might be of interest.

What’s in a name? When it comes to plant names, there’s quite a bit. A special allure of the plant world is the various common names one encounters. You’ll never meet a botanist, naturalist, nurseryman, herbalist, or florist who doesn’t delight in the colorful lingo used in their workaday world.

The Doctrine of Signatures was a governing principle in ancient herbal medicine and in assigning many of the names we use today. Up until the end of the 19th century, before plants could be scientifically tested to ascertain their active ingredients, each culture on earth independently evolved its own version of this principle. In Europe and subsequently in the Americas, the concept was called the Doctrine of Signatures. It was based upon the simple notion that the almighty spirit of whichever culture you happened to be a part of had marked everything with a sign. This sign was a taken as a clear indicator of the plant’s use as intended by that almighty spirit. Put in its simplest terms, the doctrine states that by careful observation of each plant one can learn the uses of that plant from some aspect of its form.

For instance, there is a very early spring-blooming plant sometimes called hepatica that is also known as liver-leaf because of its darkish brown older leaves that have a rounded liver-like appearance. The Cherokees — who had a wonderful knowledge of this region’s plant life passed down from shaman to shaman — thereby concluded that it was signed to cure liver ailments. Modern testing does not indicate active ingredients in the plant that would be useful for liver ailments; but occasionally, the herbalists in any given culture would stumble upon a plant that did have the active ingredients appropriate for the remedy indicated by the Doctrine of Signatures.

The most famous plant in the Smokies region is ginseng.  (Ramps would hold second place, with shortia, or oconee bells, coming in third.) The common name used in America is based on the Mandarin Chinese “jen shen,” which means “man like” because the lower rootstock is forked so that it resembles the trunk and legs of a human being. According to their version of the Doctrine of Signatures the plant was obviously signed for use as an all-purpose pick-me-up as well as an aphrodisiac. The Cherokees looked at the very similar North American species and made the same determination. Their priests addressed it as “Yunwi Usdi” (Little Man).

I don’t know if the “Little Man” works in these regards or not. I don’t know if the energy drinks so popular now like Red Bull work or not. But there are millions of people out there who do believe in them. Maybe it’s the “believing” that works.

I’m interested in plant hunting strategies … the way knowledgeable people locate various plants in the wild. Sometimes, of course, they just stumble and bumble upon them. Sometimes they visualize a particular species ahead of time and then locate it in the wild as if by magic. Sometimes they keep an eye out for “indicator” species; that is, they have one or more plants they associate with the “target” plant that help them “zero” in on that plant. For instance, many mushroom hunters look under white pines for morels in the spring and for other mushroom species in the fall.

Bob, who lives in the Alarka community just west of Bryson City, knows as much about woodcraft, hunting, and fishing as anyone would ever want to know. Plant lore is an Alarka specialty. It has been passed down for generations.

I heard through a mutual friend that one of Bob’s prime “indicator” species for “sang” is a plant he called “sang master.” I had never heard of anything by that name, so I went into search mode in reference books and on the internet. Nothing doing. I went back to our mutual friend, who described the mystery plant as about waist high with a several forked stems that bore orange fruit.

OK, that narrowed it down. Osage orange has orange fruit, but it’s not native to this region and is but rarely encountered east of the Mississippi. But yellow mandarin (Disporum lingunosa), also called merrybells because of its yellow bell-like flowers does bear orange berries.

Bob showed up in my yard this morning. I asked him to look at a line drawing of yellow mandarin in a guidebook. He squinted at the image for awhile and said, “I believe that’s it.”

I am satisfied that yellow mandarin was the culprit. It grows in the rich woodlands of the sort associated with ginseng. It’d make a fine “indicator” species. Case closed.

Not so fast. As we parted ways, Bob said, “‘Sang granny’ is a good one. You find ‘sang’ where you find that plant, too.”

I don’t have a clue as to what “sang granny” might be. Bob said he’d bring me some to identify the next time he goes ‘sang’ hunting.

“‘Sang’ master” . . . “yellow mandarin” . . . “‘sang’ granny” . . . wonderful names.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

(Note: Since its publication several years ago, this column about Evan O. Hall has sparked a number of comments. Something about Hall’s indefatigable and self-reliant cleverness reminded people of someone they, too, had known in days gone by.)

Back in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, America specialized as a nation in producing a special breed of citizen popularly categorized as an “original genius”; that is, they were folks self-reliant, indefatigable, and exceedingly clever when it came to improvising and making do with little or nothing. Some of these “original geniuses” had experienced formal education, many hadn’t. Most were “local characters” of one sort or another. Many were irascible and difficult to get along with, others were mild mannered.

With the spread of wealth and material goods, much of the country stopped producing their quota of “original geniuses” early in the 20th century. But the more remote areas such as the far western states and Alaska continued to do so for most of that century and even up until the present day. Because it was pretty much off the beaten track prior to World War II, the Smokies regions also continued to turn out “original geniuses” on a regular basis.  

One such was Evan O. Hall, who resided with his family on Goldmine Branch in the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If from Bryson City you drive north on the infamous Road to Nowhere (i.e., Lakeshore Drive), park at the gated trailhead and walk down the Goldmine Loop Trail just opposite the parking area (not through the tunnel). After several miles you’ll come to the point where Goldmine Branch and Tunnel Branch empty into Lake Fontana.  It was in this general area that Hall lived and flourished.

Images of Evan O. Hall, his wife, Ivalee Cole Hall, and their numerous children are fortunately preserved in Duane Oliver’s Along the River: People and Places - A Collection of Photographs of People and Places Once Found Along the Little Tennessee River, An Area Now part of the Fontana Lake Basin & Southern Edge of the Great Smokies Park (1998). Since not all of these are indexed, here’s a listing of the picture numbers for the Hall family that I was able to locate: 152, 229, 293, 929, 953 (the photo reproduced with this column), 1134, 1313, and 1452.

Rollins E. Justice contributed a memoir titled “Rev. Evan O. Hall” to the “Swain County Heritage” volume published in 1988.  His opening paragraph reads: “Reader’s Digest used to have a regular monthly feature story, ‘My Most Memorable Character.’ Had I offered a story, and I often thought of it, it would have been about the one person outside my family who had the most influence on my life. My first teacher, Rev. Evan O. Hall, inspired ambition in learning, working, and right living.”  

The following brief synopsis of Hall’s character and activities is derived from this memoir as well as from information contained in Michal Strutin’s History Hikes in the Smokies (2003).

Evan O. Hall, the son of a Baptist minister, was born in Bryson City in 1888. By 1916 or so, he was living on Goldmine Branch with his wife, Ivalee Cole Hall (a former student he had married in 1913), and their family, which eventually numbered five daughters (Bertha, Zena, Gladys, Bonnie, and Minnie) and four sons (Greeley, Brownlow, Luther, and Stanley).

As a Baptist minister and school teacher, Hall was indefatigable, walking 10 mile round trips each day regardless of the weather on mountain trails and across swinging bridges to reach his destinations. Justice notes that Hall’s religion was “the confident, happy kind,” while as a teacher he “instilled respect for our country, its heroes, and ethical living [so that by] example and instruction he built honesty, ambition, and willingness to work into his students.”

Hall taught shape-note singing, ground cornmeal for his neighbors, sawed lumber for them at his handmade sawmill, cut tombstones for the community in his blacksmith shop (where he also shoed horses and mules), and made them coffins when they died. He was, in short, as Strutin rightly notes, “a community treasure.”

Picture #929 in Along the River is captioned: “Greely O. Hall at E.O. Hall’s Water-Powered Light Plant on Gold Mine Branch with First Radio on the Branch, a Mid-West Radio.”

Evan O. Hall had initially constructed a gristmill on Goldmine Branch, using wood from his own land to construct the housing, shafts, axel, and overshot waterwheel. The only items he didn’t construct were the millstones, which he purchased and set in place. Utilizing the power of this waterwheel (or perhaps another that he constructed) and his native ingenuity, he proceeded to wire and light his home with electricity, the first such in the area. In the evening hours, the entire Hall family no doubt enjoyed gathering around their newly-purchased, waterwheel-powered Mid-West radio.

Evan O. Hall — an “original genius” if there ever was one — and his entire family left their Goldmine Branch residence when Lake Fontana was flooded in the 1940s and moved to Haywood County. He died in 1969.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

This is about frogs. Of late, I’ve been thinking about them … especially the frog that snores. As I recently discovered, there is a fairly common species here in the Smokies region that emits snore-like vocalizations. More about that in a moment.

My grandmother was a short gap-toothed woman with a loud laugh who most always got her way. She was a very good with a .22 rifle. Her hunting was restricted to three animals: in the fall she shot squirrels; during the summer she shot frogs; and year-round she shot rats. The squirrels and frogs were shot through the head so as not to damage the flesh. She skinned them herself. The edible portions of the squirrels were pan fried and served with thickening gravy.

I was about eight when I first went frog-hunting with grandmother near my father’s homeplace at Abingdon in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. She didn’t like to walk … so she hunted squirrels from a stump only a few paces from her car and shot frogs through the driver’s window.

It wasn’t hard to find a frog pond. You could hear them booming from the main road. Once situated just so, she’d cut off the motor and lights and wait for the frogs to reappear. As soon as they were booming again, she’d flip on the headlights and flood the pond with light so that the dark water sparkled with transfixed frog eyes. She’d pick them off one by one until there were no more eyes showing. My job was to retrieve the frogs in a sack, after which we’d move on to the next pond until grandmother felt we had enough or got tired. Once home, she’d cut off the hind legs and deftly peel the skin off the soft flesh using a paring knife and pliers. These were soaked in salt water, dried, battered, and deep fried until crispy brown.If you’ve never eaten frog legs, there’s no way you can understand how good they taste when prepared fresh out of a swamp, creek or pond. Better than catfish. Better than deep-fried chicken. Better than most anything.

As a teenager, I waded with an uncle or by myself in the swamps of piedmont Virginia gigging frogs. Then later, I gigged them from boats wherever we happened to be living in the South. My wife, seven months pregnant with our first child, paddled the boat one time on a lake near Chapel Hill while I speared frogs from the bow. That was her first time hunting frogs and she wasn’t too sure about the undertaking until she tasted the results later that night.

My last frogging expedition was on a farm pond in Mississippi in the summer of 1972. Since then, I’ve simply taken an interest in their range and peculiarities. There are but four species that are commonly encountered here in Western North Carolina — bull frogs, northern green frogs, pickerel frogs, and wood frogs — so identification isn’t a problem. Wood frogs, which are about 2- to 3-inches long and sport distinctive dark patches around their eyes, usually inhabit moist woodlands. The call is a duck-like squawk or grunt. Bull frogs can be up to 8-inches long. They are dark olive and exhibit a fold of skin on each side of their heads extending in an arc from behind the eye down to their front armpit. Breeding males have yellow lips. Their vibrant “jug-o-rum” mating signals are what we think of when we think of frogs calling. Northern green frogs resemble bull frogs but are smaller. Their backs are mottled with brownish-green patterns. The vocalization has been likened to a “banjo-like ‘clung.’” They are perhaps the most common frog species in the region. Pickerel frogs are about the same size as northern green frogs. They display rows of squarish brown spots down their backs and favor areas near creeks or wetlands.

For several years I had been hearing a snoring noise outside our bedroom window after midnight. Coons don’t snore. Possums don’t snore. Fox don’t snore. Coyotes don’t snore. Bobcats don’t snore. Horses don’t snore. Chickens don’t snore. To my knowledge, none of the animals that inhabited our property snore. Then, by chance, I read the pickeral frog entry in Reptiles and Amphibians of the Smokies (2001): “The voice is a low-pitched snore lasting 1-2 seconds.”

I have learned that pickeral frogs snore for two reasons: to attract a mate; and to warn intruders (other male pickeral frogs) away. These attraction and warning snores can be heard at:

http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/topics/frogCalls.html.                

So now, when I lie awake at night listening to snoring outside my window, I know exactly what it is and think about my grandmother shooting frogs through her car window 60 years ago.      

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Earlier this week about nine in the morning, I was standing on the Everett Street bridge in the heart of downtown Bryson City. Looking down I saw two otters in the dark-tinted currents of Tuckasegee. I retrieved my binoculars from my car and watched them cavort in the water and on the bank near the county administration building. I watched until they disappeared downstream.

I had been rivited once again by otters. The river had been “alive” while they were passing through. To say that they are beautiful creatures is inadequate. They are beyond beautiful. They are what beautiful aspires to be.  

I was reminded of the times back in the late 1980s when I had the opportunity to observe and write about the initial otter releases in the Great Smokies. Then, in late January of 1991, I was able to observe and write about the first controlled release of otter in the mountains of North Carolina west of the continental divide. Here’s some of what I wrote at that time:

“Monday morning,­­­ North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission furbearing specialist Mike Carraway set free eight river otters on the east bank of the Little Tennessee River in Swain County. According to Carraway, otters disappeared from WNC as pioneers settled the region and began hunting the animals for their luxurious brown pelts.  That practice combined with habitat destruction led to the elimination of the otter in the mountains by the mid-1930s, when the last otter sighting was made in the Catalooche section of the Great Smokies.

“But otters did survive in the remote swamps of eastern North Carolina, and that population has served as the source of the NCWRC’s restoration program in WNC.  Within the last year, 22 otters have been trapped down east and released in the Catawba River beween Lake James and Morganton east of the continental divide.

“Monday’s release in the Little Tennssee involved seven males and one female. Carraway — who was assisted by wildlife officers Dave Allen of Andrews and John Rogers of Franklin — hopes to return next week and release additional females in the same area several miles north of the line dividing Swain and Macon counties.  He’s hopeful the otters will pair off and reestablish a thriving population along the river and its tributaries.

“Both the Catawba and Little Tennessee rivers offer prime otter habitat: long stretches of slow-moving, moderately deep water with pools, waterfalls, riffles, and rapids. Carraway noted that studies of otter scat indicate the playful mammals feed upon slower moving rough fish like suckers and stonerollers rather than expending energy chasing trout, and that the reintroduction program has the full support of various wildlife organizations like Trout Unlimited.

“This NCWRC otter project and the ongoing river otter reintroductions taking place since 1986 on the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide wildlife officials with a justification for hoping that these playful and engaging animals will soon become a permanent fixture once again in the southern highlands.”

The red wolf introduction that was going on about the same time in the Smokies failed for environmental and strategic reasons. (They shouldn’t have been “reintroduced” in the southern mountains since they were never really here in the first place.) The river otter program has been a success because it was well-planned and environmentally sound.

Otters are long, streamlined animals that may live up to 15 years.  An average of two to four young are born in the spring of the year, with a family group sometimes staying together for over a year.  They live in cavities among the roots of trees or rocks, thickets of vegetation, or in burrows made by other animals.

Otters are the barn swallows of the aquatic world. What a swallow can do in the air an otter can — in its own way — duplicate in water. Our greatest living Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, had these impressions:

 

The Otter

When you plunged

The light of Tuscany wavered

And swung through the pool

From top to bottom.

 

I loved your wet head and smashing crawl,

Your fine swimmer’s back and shoulders

Surfacing and surfacing again

This year and every year since.

 

I sat dry-throated on the warm stones.

You were beyond me.

The mellowed clarities, the grape-deep air

Thinned and disappointed ...

 

Turning to swim on your back,

Each silent, thigh-shaking kick

Re-tilting the light,

Heaving the cool at your neck.

 

And suddenly you’re out,

Back again, intent as ever,

Heavy and frisky in your freshened pelt,

Printing the stones.   

 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Usually I locate rare plants by visualizing them and visiting likely habitats. It’s as if I can will them into existence. But this time was different. It was just suddenly there. By chance, while looking for another plant, I literally stumbled into a stand of monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) alongside a seepage area on Chunky Gal Mountain in Clay County. It was the perhaps the fifth time I have encountered the plant in the Smokies region in the past 40 or so years.

Monkshood displays one of the most striking flowers in North America. They appear in late summer or fall on a smooth stem about three to five feet in length that reclines on foliage of other plants. Like other members of the Buttercup Family (wild geranium, delphenium, etc) the leaves are deeply cleft into three or five lobes.

Arising from the leaf axils the translucent bluish-purple flowers seem to glow with an inner light in the shaded moist habitats it favors. The common name is derived from the uppermost sepal, which is shaped like a helmet or hood. The closely related and very rare plant called wolfsbane (A. reclinatum), which I have never encountered, is described as having whitish or yellowish flowers.

Monkshood is beautiful. It is also deadly poisonous. According to Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski’s Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (1991), the potent alkoloids it harbors are acontine and aconine. When ingested for whatever misguided reason, symptoms include tingling and burning of the face and throat, severe vomiting, headache, cold feeling, slow heart rate, paralysis, and delirium … followed by either recovery or death.

This notion was reinforced at a dinner party in 1856 in the Scottish village of Dingwall when two priests were served a sauce into which monkshead root (mistaken for horseradish) had been grated. Fans of the Harry Potter series will perhaps recall that Professor Snape brews monkshood to assist Remus Lupin in his transformation to a werewolf.        

Several species of Aconitum have been used as arrow poisons. In Japan it was used to hunt bear. And in China it was used in warfare.

It is well documented that the Cherokees used various plant extracts (buckeye and devil’s shoestring, a vetch) to dope fish. But there is seemingly no evidence that the Cherokees used any sort of poison on their arrows when hunting wild game or in warfare.

However, if such use is ever documented, it’s likely that monkshood will be implicated.   

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Eastern Screech Owl has the broadest ecological niche of any owl in its range. It occurs east of the Rocky Mountains, where it is a permanent resident of both rural and urban habitats from south of the Canadian boreal forest to near the Tropic of Cancer in Mexico. This species nests in tree cavities in wooded environments below about 1,500 meters, regardless of habitat, occupying lowland forests to mountainside woodlands, both deciduous and evergreen ... It is often the most common or only avian predator in wooded suburban and urban habitats.

— Birds of America Online (subscription site sponsored by the Ornithology Lab at Cornell and the American Ornithologists’ Union)

These little owls, which are seven to 10 inches in length, become particularly active here in the Smokies region from mid-August through October. My wife and I have been hearing them in recent weeks during the daylight hours, as well as throughout the night.

Eastern screech owls are not aptly named. Their primary call is actually a quavering descending trill reminiscent of a horse’s whinny, not a screech. Its vocal repertoire also includes various barks, hoots, rasps, and chuckles.

The Cherokees knew this bird as “wahuhi,” an onomatopoetic term that captures the essence of its eerie sound. All owls, being nocturnal predators, were ascribed mysterious supernatural powers by the Cherokees, who considered them to be evil portents, often an embodiment of a human ghost or one of the various disguises assumed by witches.

No other North American owl has such distinctive plumage differences. The screech owl has two color-morphs, rufous and gray. Individual owls can’t change colors but localized populations will tend to be one or the other. In this area the reddish phase outnumbers the gray by approximately four to one. That ratio is reversed in the piedmont and coastal plain. Ornithologists suppose these color phases help the birds blend in more effectively in their respective forest environments. Five subspecies are recognized by ornithologists according to body size and vocalizations.   

Learn to imitate their tremulous call and they’ll often answer you right back. I have lured them to within 15 yards or so of our porch, probably to see who the fool was making such a racket. It’s not difficult to locate and observe them with a flashlight.

A screech owl will capture and devour most anything that comes along: earthworms, young rabbits, moles, rats, mice, songbirds, and so on. A full-sized domestic chicken is the largest food item currently on record. Small items are eaten when caught, while larger ones are cached away (usually in tree cavaties) for subsequent consumption.   

Screech owls often nest in tree cavities. You can also purchase or construct boxes that they will readily move into so that you can observe them on a regular basis. A friend of mine who lives in suburban Atlanta, Ga., purchased a screech owl box and placed it in a tree about 30 yards from his back porch.

He was able to observe the box quite closely through a spotting scope. To his surprise and pleasure, within a few days a screech owl had moved into the box.

If you do locate a screech owl nest in the wild or establish one, be careful about approaching too closely.  They become “feathered wildcats” when defending these sites. Aroused adults make raking strikes with their talons at intruders who come near nestlings and fledglings. Domestic cats, dogs, squirrels, snakes, and any other animals, including humans, are subject to attack.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

I started to write this column about Duane Oliver before I discovered that he has just published what he tells me is his “last cookbook.” We’ll see. This one is titled The North Shore Cookbook. It is a follow-up to Cooking on Hazel Creek and Cooking and Living Along the River. All are about cooking on the “north shore” of Lake Fontana in the present day Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Duane grew up on Hazel Creek, the largest watershed on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. After retiring as a professor of art history at Western Carolina University, he followed his mother’s suggestion to write about family and regional history. Many of the recipes in this new book date from the early 1900s or are “later variations” of those cooked along the Tuckasegee and Little Tennessee rivers before they were dammed to form the lake. If something can be boiled, baked, fried, stewed, simmered, sliced, diced, cubed, or whatever, there’s a good chance there’s a recipe for it in The North Shore Cookbook. For good measure, there are also mini-treatises on rolled oats and the Quaker Mill Company; self-rising flour; raising hogs; chickens that hid their nests in the woods; and similar topics. The spiral-bound 272-page text is available at local bookstores or can be ordered directly from Duane Oliver, 558 Westwood Circle, Waynesville, N.C., 28786. Call him at 828.456.8289 to iron out the details.

We now return to the point of the original column, which was that Duane is undervalued as a writer. His magnum opus, Hazel Creek From Then Till Now, is always cited as a source for regional topics. Therein, he covers every aspect of domestic life from building a cabin to springhouses, corn cribs, barns, fences, spinning wheels, cupboards, and so on.

But the quality of Duane’s writing is never mentioned when Western North Carolina writers like Mooney, Kephart, Wolfe, Ehle, Morgan, Frazier, Rash, Byer, Crowe, et al, are being considered. Duane can really write. This was brought home to me yet again by a memoir I recently chanced upon that he wrote about country stores for the Spring 1996 issue of the “Fontana North Shore Historical Association Bulletin.” Therein Duane captures the essence of those things that trigger memories of days gone by. Some excerpts:

My childhood memory of stores at Judson, Fontana and Proctor is that they were good places to buy a ‘dope’ … usually an icy cold Orange Crush … Those old general stores had a certain distinct smell, not the antiseptic, air-conditioned smell of today’s stores. Your nostrils were assailed with the pungent smell of onions, the dusty smell of potatoes that still had a little dirt clinging to them, the cool, spicy smell of apples from far-off places packed in bushel baskets with narrow strips of blue tissue paper, the acrid smell of kegs of nails, the sharp smell of unwrapped bars of soap guaranteed to produce the whitest sheets ever hung on a clothes line, the warm summery smell of towsacks full of cottonseed hulls, and best of all to a child the sweet smell around the drink box where emptied bottles stood in cases waiting for the Nehi truck from Bryson City to take them away and chase off the hungry yellow jackets that always buzzed around the bottles ...

In the middle of the floor was a big pot-bellied stove with a long stovepipe going up into the darkness through the roof … On cold days the stove roared contentedly as it was fed coal or wood, and ‘tramped snow’ with a funny chuffing sound when a snowstorm was coming. It was especially comforting to scrooch up to the stove and warm frozen backsides or put your shoes against it until you smelled rubber starting to melt ...

Candy, a child’s delight, could be bought in bars for a nickel … horehound drops, orange wax candy glistening with sugar, peanut-shaped mallows, gumdrops, and long black licorice sticks whose taste was exotic and not especially good, but a stick lasted for a long time for it didn’t melt in your mouth … candy cigarettes whose ends were red and we held them nonchalantly as if they were real until they melted and we ate them.

These stores not only sold dopes, candy, cloth, thread, needles, shoes, overalls, work shirts, shotgun shells, soap, farm supplies, soda crackers, matches, kerosene (coal oil), pencils, ink (when did you lat see a bottle of it?), dishes, canned goods, and lard, but flour in cotton sacks that when they were washed could be made into all sorts of things … dresses (if you could get two with the same flour pattern), blouses, shirts, bloomers, as well as aprons and curtains …

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About a year and a half ago I wrote a column titled “Mountain Topography and Language Lend Themselves to Colorful Names” that sparked a number of e-mails and letters. Obviously there are other folks out there who enjoy thinking about “the lay of the land.” After all, there’s no other place in the world that surpasses the actual topography of the southern mountains. And there’s no place where the people of a region have utilized a more delightful language to describe their homeland.”

Here then are some additional examples. I’ve restricted myself to the Smokies region west of Asheville. Unless otherwise noted, my general sources are William S. Powell’s The North Carolina Gazetteer: A Dictionary of Tar Heel Place Names (UNC Press, 1968) and Allen R. Coggins’ Place Names of the Smokies (Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, 1999). I have sometimes added additional commentary:

• ADVALOREM BRANCH in Swain County within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An advalorem tax is one based on a percentage of assessed value.  Land taxes have never been popular in Swain County or in general, but maybe someone just liked the sound of the word.

• AKWETIYI (or AGWEDIYI) is a Cherokee word for a site in the Tuckaseigee River at the mouth of Dick’s Creek in Jackson County. It means something like “the place of the lizard monster” as it was believed that a dangerous creature resided therein.

• ANGELICO GAP and ANGELICO MOUNTAIN are Cherokee designations for places in Cherokee County. Angelico is the Cherokee designation for an herbaceous plant used as a cooked green.

• AQUONE is a community in Macon County on the upper Nantahala River. The word is believed to be a corruption of ““egwanulti” (by the river).

• BEAR BRANCH or BEAR CREEK have a combined 36 entries statewide in Powell’s Gazetteer.

• BEAVER CREEK or BEAVERDAM have a combined 45 entries statewide in Powell’s Gazetteer.

• BELL CONEY MOUNTAIN is situated on the eastern side of Lizzy Mountain in Jackson County (see the Big Ridge topo). I’ve never been to Bell Coney and don’t know how it came by that name.  Anyone out there know?

• BIG BUTT is situated in Macon County between Mooney Gap and Bearpen Gap. In geographic parlance, “butt” refers to an abrupt, broken off end of a ridge or mountain.

• BIG FAT GAP is situated in northwestern Graham County at the head of Bear Creek. What does the word “fat” signify in this sort of geographic context? I should know, but don’t.

• BIG HOGBACK CREEK is situated in Jackson County. I assume this creek is associated with HOG BACK MOUNTAIN, so-named because the mountain features jagged rocks along its spine.

• BONE VALLEY CREEK is situated in Swain County in the GSMNP. In 1888 cattle were trapped along this tributary of Hazel Creek in a horrendous blizzard. Named for the bleached bones of these animals that lay in the valley for years.

• BOOGERMAN TRAIL is situated in Haywood County in Cataloochee Valley within the GSMNP. Named for Robert Palmer, whose nickname was “Boogerman.” As he grew older, Palmer became increasingly reclusive and sported a brushy beard that tended to frighten young folks.

• CATALOOCHE is thought to a corruption of the Cherokee word “Gadalutsi,” which is variously translated as “fringe standing erect” or “wave upon wave” in reference to the trees along the valley’s ridge crests.

• CATSTAIRS is a steep trail situated in Macon County along Overflow Creek in Blue Valley. Wildcats supposedly established the route to go from one mountain to another. Or maybe it was so narrow and difficult that it only seemed suitable for wildcats?

• CHATTOOGA RIDGE and CHATTOOGA RIVER in Jackson County are place names derived from the Cherokee word “chatawga”

• COWEE or COWEETA are places names for an old village, a modern community, a creek, a mountain bald, gaps, and a hydrologic station in Macon County. The words mean “place of the Deer Clan.”

• DEVIL’S TATTER PATCH, situated in Swain County within the GSMNP, is one of the numerous place names that invoke the devil in Western North Carolina. He is associated with DEVIL’S NEST (a peak), DEVIL’S PRONG (a creek fork), DEVIL’S SHOALS FORD (a crossing), DEVIL’S GARDEN (steep eroded land), DEVIL’S DEN (rugged terrain), DEVIL’S COURTHOUSE (high outcrop), and numerous other sites local inhabitants deemed fit for the devil himself.   

• EAST LAPORTE is a community in Jackson County east of Cullowhee alongside the Tuckaseigee River. It is named for the site of an 18th century French trading post that the French considered to be the east gate (“la port”) to the Cherokee country.

• GABBY BRANCH is situated in Cherokee County. What a wonderful name for a mountain stream! Instead of merely babbling away, this one seemed to be “talking incessantly.”

An Indian named Running Deer hunted deer in the area with his dog, Wolf. Late one winter day, he wounded a deer with an arrow, and Wolf set out after the wounded animal, which headed into the main stream with the dog close behind.

“A moment later Running Deer spotted Wolf, who was dangling from a mass of jammed logs, debris, and fox grape vines in the middle of the stream. His entanglement was so severe he was in imminent danger of drowning. Running Deer shouted encouragement to Wolf as he plunged into the icy flooded water, fought his way to the dog, and released him. The two then swam to the bank and resumed the chase of the wounded buck, which was soon captured in a clump of laurel bushes.”

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Spring is the appointed time for the various wildflower pilgrimages and outings that attract thousands of visitors to the mountains of Western North Carolina each year. In April and May, it’s a piece of cake to locate spring beauty, hepatica, trailing arbutus, painted trillium, trout lily and all of the other showy wildflowers that appear in profusion before the leaf canopy fully closes in overhead.

Springtime wildflowering is easy pickings. No bugs. No sweltering heat. No beggar’s-lice. No sudden afternoon thunderstorms that leave you drenched and far from home.

As you read this column, however, it’s mid-August and all of the negative factors cited above are out in full force. Yet, the dog days represent one of the very best times to get out and botanize. Sweat may run off your brow into your eyes while you’re trying to key out an unknown species, but — if you persist — you’ll encounter many of the more spectacular wildflowers our region has to offer.

Most summertime wildflowers are located along open roadsides, woodland borders, and in upland pastures or meadows. The edges of creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds are productive. Whenever I’m driving along and encounter an exposed rockface with water seepage, I hardly ever fail to pull over and take a look.

Wet rockfaces are especially promising when there are moss mats that provide a footing for plants like round-leaved sundew, a carnivorous plant that captures small insects with its glistening, sticky leaves. Sundews exude enzymes that dissolve the insect.  The insect’s proteins are then converted into nitrogen so the plant can inhabit its acidic, nitrogen-deficient habitat.

In damp pastures and meadows, Joe Pye weed and New York ironweed are making their appearance. The former is recognized by almost everyone, but do you know ironweed? It grows from three- to seven-feet tall, with a leaf-spread of about three feet. It’s easy to spot from your car. Whereas Joe-Pye-weed produces soft rounded plumes of lavender-pink flowerheads, ironweed presents a rugged, flat-topped appearance with numerous flowerets of a vivid deep purple (sometimes blue) hue gathered into a head about a foot wide.

My favorite late summer wildflower is cardinal flower. Look for it along stream banks or back in the shade of moist woodland borders. About two- to four-feet high, the plant displays spikes of scarlet flowers above toothed leaves that alternate along the main stem. The one-inch long flowers are so vivid they seem to glow as they beckon hummingbirds and other pollinators.

You never know what you’ll encounter if you get out and poke around.  Several years ago, I stopped alongside U.S. 64 in Macon County with a natural history workshop from the John C. Campbell Folk School to take a look at a wetland area situated below the road embankment. We talked about wetland types (marshes, swamps, and bogs) for awhile until a belted kingfisher diverted our attention with rattling calls as it circled back and forth. Had we not been looking out over the wetland through binoculars at the kingfisher, we wouldn’t have spotted one of the more dense stands of spiked blazing star that I’ve ever encountered.

Spiked blazing star grows up to five-feet high with lovely spires of lavender-purple flowers. In its natural setting — as viewed from a distance through binoculars — the graceful plants moved slightly in the wind against a background of rushes and alder, creating an August wildflower setting that was memorable.      

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lots of folks like to study those molded relief maps of the region, the ones that show the upraised contours of the mountain ranges. Some have even pieced together the maps for the Southern Blue Ridge Province from Southwestern Virginia to North Georgia as wall hangings, making it possible to contemplate in miniature the glorious terrain we call home.

It’s pleasurable to sit in an easy chair on a rainy day and ponder the way the ridges join or meditate over how they might have looked before eons of erosion wore them down into their present configuration. Even more rewarding is a venture to a local vista for a panoramic look-see at the real thing.

In one sense, of course, high vistas are places that enable us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and take in grand scenery, even when we don’t know exactly what we’re looking at. As one writer aptly phrased it, “There’s wonder and delight up there ... elbow room for the soul ... all you have to do is suspend judgment and analysis long enough simply to be there, on the mountain, experiencing it.”

Well, no one would want to fail to take in the beauty or be exhilarated, but we also shouldn’t forget that Blue Ridge vistas are windows that allow us to see and comprehend more truly. A little “analysis” from time to time won’t hurt.

On a clear day, you can observe the bare bones of the land and come to a fuller understanding of the exact lay of the land. The thoughtful choice of a series of strategic vistas in your particular section of the Blue Ridge will enable you to observe just where the major ranges abut and how the peaks, spurs, gaps, upland valleys, streams, rock cliffs, gorges, grassy balds and other topographical features fall into place. You will come away with a more precise notion of your place in the world.

Because we’ve lived in the Tuckasegee River valley on the southern edge of the Smokies for the last 40 or so years, my wife and I have concentrated our attention on the interior portion of the Southern Blue Ridge Province from the Great Smokies on the west and north, to the Nantahalas in the south, and the Balsams in the east. One of our greatest satisfactions while driving or walking is being able to look up and recognize specific peaks and ranges by name, to know how they interconnect and relate to the remote cove we live in. They have become old friends. Each new lookout visited, each new mountain range recognized by its distinctive shape adds acreage to our spiritual landscape.

Among our favorite vistas are Wayah Bald (5,342 feet) in the Nantahalas, Waterrock Knob (6,292 feet) in the Plott Balsams along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Clingman’s Dome (6,643 feet) on the high divide of the Smokies along the N.C.-Tenn. state lines. All three can be reached directly by vehicle within a single day. When it’s clear, one can easily see the 30 or so miles from each of these vantage points to the other two corners in what is a vast triangle. This triangulation technique allows an observer to view a given terrain from various directions and fit together landscape in an efficient manner.

Waterrock Knob is a fun place to visit because it attracts such a mix of visitors: drive-by tourists looking for the next overlook; thoughtful tourists savoring a special spot; plant enthusiasts seeking out species restricted to the northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests (yellow birch, spreading wood fern, mountain ash, etc.); birders looking for high-elevation species (ravens, golden-crowned kinglets, winter wrens, etc.); frisbee-catching college students; sunset and sunrise watchers; hikers, walkers, and strollers; and so on. I like remote, difficult-to-access spots, but I also like places where a diverse gathering of people are having fun. I like to watch them go about their chosen activities.

Just last week, I found out about the upcoming “Blue Ridge Parkway: Celebrating Heritage and Communities” event that will take place this coming Saturday at Waterrock Knob. Nevertheless, I wanted to support the event if possible. So I contacted BRP ranger Pam Mann and offered to do a nature walk and talk of about 45 minutes duration starting at 3 p.m. I’ll talk some about the geologic-geographic setting. I’ll have with me a handout for the field guides I use for general natural history as well as for trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, grasses and wildflowers in Western North Carolina. (And I’ll also bring copies of the actual books and source materials). Then we’ll go walking (slowly) and see what we may see. I hope that you will join me in support of one of our great national treasures.        

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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