The smells of autumn

Fall is the odiferous time of the year.

I don’t possess a very discriminating sense of smell, but certain fragrances arise in the natural world this time of the year that even I can detect.

Have you ever been walking a mountain trail in October when you encountered a musky smell that reminded you of skunk or scat? Thus alerted, I consider five possible sources: skunk, bear scat, wild boar, skunk goldenrod, and galax.

The first three are self-evident, more or less — although we will return in the end to skunks — which always deserve the last word when it comes to odiferousness of any sort.  

A note titled “Wild Ideas: The Odor of Galax” by J. Amoroso that appeared in Chinquapin: The Newsletter of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society in 2000, reviewed speculations by several botanists about the possible causes for the peculiar smells associated with this well-known plant.

According to Amoroso, the source of the odor is still unknown but “Speculation has linked it to chemical compounds-long sulfur chains such as mercaptan or butyl-thiols (which are similar to the chemicals found in a skunk’s scent) emitted from the stomata or from the decomposing leaves.”

In other words, crushed living galax leaves produce no smell — but sulphur compounds could be released as the older leaves decompose.

If you’re in the higher elevations, say at Waterrock Knob, a very similar odor will often be emanating from a nearby stand of skunk goldenrod (S. glomerata), a species easily recognized by its large basal leaves. The plant is found only in the higher elevations of 13 mountain counties in Tennessee and North Carolina and no place else in the world.    

The smell can’t be detected from crushed foliage or flowers. It simply forms a “cloud” over and around a stand of the plant. It seems likely that decaying foliage (or some other aspect of the plant) is emitting decomposed sulfur compounds similar to those exuded by skunks and galax.

Most features associated with plants can be attributed to three tactics: (1) pollinator attraction (flowers), (2) seed distribution (fruits), and (3) protection (thorns, smells, poisonous oils, etc.). It’s likely that the sulpheric emanations of galax and skunk goldenrod are related to either the first or the third categories.

“Skunk” and “odor” are synonymous. You cannot hear or read the word skunk without thinking of odor. Five species are resident in the United States: hooded, hog-nosed, western spotted, eastern spotted, and striped. Only the last two reside in the Smokies region.

The striped skunk — which is black with two white stripes running up its back to form a cap on top of its head — is the one that usually comes to mind when someone starts telling skunk tales in this neck of the woods.

The spotted skunk is, in my experience, more common in the higher elevations. Sometimes referred to as a civet, it is black with a white spot on its forehead and under each ear. There are also four broken white stripes along its neck, back, and sides, as well as a white-tipped tail.

Now we get to the interesting part. When provoked, a striped skunk simply raises its tail daintily like a plume and assumes a U-shaped posture that allows its hip muscles to squeeze the odiferous fluids indiscriminately out of its anal glands.

The spotted skunk has perfected that basic strategy. When frightened or angered, it will often do a “handstand” on it front feet. This posture allows the critter to look between its legs and see where to aim the spray.

These random musings will perhaps give you something to think about the next time you’re out walking in the fall of the year and smell a sulpherous smell.

 

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’m no expert on regional linguistics, but through the years I have delighted in the dialect English still spoken here in the Smokies region. One sometimes hears or reads that it dates back to the Elizabethan era; that is, to the second half of the 16th century when Shakespeare appeared on the literary scene.

On the other hand, retired Western Carolina University historian Tyler Blethen, who has studied the Scots-Irish movement from England to Ireland to North America and into the southern mountains in great detail, told me he thinks that the language dates more or less back to the Plantation of Ulster era, that is, from about 1620 to 1715 when Scots were settled in Northern Ireland in great numbers.

Whatever its sources, the language is rich in dialect words and expressions. These are used to express a wide range of emotions and insights that can be mournful or humorous. To a great extent, the dialect language spoken here is fading due to outside influences, but it still survives in various coves and hollers, coffee and barber shops, or wherever you might, by chance, overhear someone local speaking naturally.  

Three mountain historians — John Preston Arthur, Horace Kephart and Paul Fink — have taken a particular interest in dialect expressions. Here are some of their observations, as well as words or expressions they recorded.

Under the heading “Elizabethan English” in Western North Carolina: A History, 1730-1913 (1914), Arthur noted that “writers who think they know, have said that our people have been sequestered in these mountains so long that they speak the language of Shakespeare and of Chaucer. It is certain that we sometimes say ‘hit’ for ‘it’ and ‘taken’ for ‘took’; that we also say ‘plague’ for ‘tease’, and when we are ‘willing,’ we say we are ‘consentable.’ If invited to accompany anyone and wish to do so, we almost invariably say, ‘I wouldn’t care to go along,’ meaning ‘we do not object.’

We also say ‘haint’ for ‘am not,’ ‘are not,’ and ‘have not,’ and we invite you to ‘light’ if you are riding or driving.

We have Webster for our authority that ‘hit’ is the Saxon for ‘it’; and we know ourselves that ‘taken’ is more regular than ‘took.’ We may ‘mend,’ not ‘improve’; and who shall say that our ‘mend’ is not a simpler, sweeter and more significant word than ‘improve’?  

But we do mispronounce many words, among which is ‘gardeen’ for ‘guardian’ and ‘pint’ for ‘point’. The late Sam Lovin of Graham County was told that it was improper to say Rocky ‘Pint,’ as its true name is ‘Point.’ When next he went to Asheville he asked for a ‘point’ of whiskey.

Finally, most of us are of the opinion of the late Andrew Jackson who thought that one who could spell a word in only one way was a “mighty poor excuse for a full grown man.”

Swain County resident Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders (1913), recorded dialect expressions he heard from 1904 until his death in 1931 in extensive journals now housed at WCU. Here are some uses of the word “law” for “lord” that he overheard:  

“Law!”

“Good law!”

“Why, laws-a-me!”

“Laws-a-mighty-me!”

“Yea, law!”

“A - law!”

(P) When disappointed folks would say:

“Dod burn hit!”

“Consarn hit!”

“Hell’s conniptions!”

East Tennessee historian Paul Fink published a little dictionary titled Bits of Mountain Speech (1974) that used expressions to illustrate how each word was used.  Here are some of his entries:

“Aidge (n): edge … ‘He lived on the aidge of the cliff.’”

“Argufy (v): to argue … ‘They’d argufy all night.’”

“Beal (v): to fester, as an abscess … ‘I had a bealed ear.’”

“Coon (v): climb or crawl … ‘I cooned up a tree.’”

“Cuss-fight (n): interchange of profanity.”

“Purt’ nigh (adv): almost, very close … ‘I purt’ nigh fell in.’”

 

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..

Here in the Smokies region “making do” isn’t a lost art. Most “country” men and women can still “get along” because they grew up doing so. And the “jack-of-all-trades” era isn’t ancient history — it lasted on mountain farms until not very many years ago.  

When writing Our Southern Highlanders (1913), Horace Kephart recalled the years (1904-1907) when he resided on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the Smokies: “In our primitive community there were no trades, no professions. Every man was his own farmer, blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, cobbler, miller and tinker. Someone in his family, or a near neighbor, served him as barber and dentist, and would make him a coffin when he died.”

There are two books in which the authors describe very clearly the “make do” lifestyles of the mountain past. The first is by Duane Oliver, who grew up on Hazel Creek. His Hazel Creek From Then Til Now (1989) contains a chapter titled “‘Won’t You Stay for Supper? We’re Having Leatherbritches, Corn Pone, Bear Meat, Gritted Bread, Poke Sallit and Sourwood Honey.’ ‘I Believe I Will, I’m Partial to Poke Salit.’”

Oliver opens that chapter with a paean to mountain women: “The pioneer women of Hazel Creek had her hands full. Some of her activities, such as hoeing, picking berries, gathering nuts and herbs, and drying and pickling, were seasonal. Other chores such as laundering, soap making, carding, spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, cooking, raising the children and helping to educate them before schools were started, and dozens of other jobs, were done all year.”

The other excellent source for this sort of information is John Preston Arthur’s Western North Carolina - A History From 1730 to 1913 (1913). Preston, a resident of Asheville and Boone, was a former attorney turned writer. He became too well acquainted with John Barley and ended his life digging potatoes and gathering apples for 50 cents a day. Nevertheless, he was a superb local historian.

Under the heading “Jacks of All Trades,” Arthur noted: “The men were necessarily ‘handy’ men at almost every trade known at that day. They made shoes, bullets and powder, built houses, constructed tables, chairs, cupboards, harness, saddles, bridles, buckets, barrels, and plough stocks. They made their own axe and hoe-handles, fashioned their own horseshoes and nails upon the anvil, burnt wood charcoal, made wagon tires, bolts, nuts and everything that was needed about the farm. Some could even make rifles, including the locks, and Mr. John C. Smathers now (1912) 86 years old, is still a good rock and brick mason, carpenter, shoemaker, tinner, painter, blacksmith, plumber, harness and saddle maker, candle maker, farmer, hunter, store-keeper, bee raiser, glazier, butcher, fruit grower, hotel-keeper, merchant, physician, poulterer, lawyer, rail-splitter, politician, cook, school master, gardener, Bible scholar and stable man. He lives at Turnpike, halfway between Asheville and Waynesville, and brought the huge trees now growing in front of his hotel on his shoulders when they were saplings and planted them where they now stand, nearly 70 years ago. He can still run a foot race and ‘throw’ most men in a wrestle ‘catch as catch can.’ He is the finest example of the old time pioneer now alive.”

Under the heading “Nail-less Houses,” Arthur recalled that, “Nails were scarce in those days and saw mills few and far between, rendering it necessary for them to use wooden pins to hold their ceiling and shelving in place and to rive out their shingles or `boards’ for their roof covering and puncheons for their door and window shutters and their flooring. Thin boards or shingles were held in position upon the roof rafters by long split logs tied upon them with hickory withes, or held in place by laying heavy stones upon them. There is still standing in the Smoky Mountains a comfortable cabin of one large room, floored and ceiled on the inside, and rain and wind proof, in the construction of which not a single nail was used.”

 

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..

“Oh, what is that shiny stuff in the rocks?” someone will ask during any sort of outing. And invariably, someone in the group will reply, “Oh, that’s just mica.”

I think to myself, “How could anything so pretty be ‘just mica?’”

Mica lives up to its name, which is derived from the Latin micare: to shine or glitter. The ancient Hindus knew all about mica — four thousand years ago they used it for decorative effects. If you were an ancient Hindu looking for a little glitz in your life, mica was the ideal medium. It was the surface of choice for mythological scenes. The Hindus believed mica crystals are preserved flashes of lightning. 

On the other hand, geologists believe micas are prominent rock-forming constituents of igneous and metamorphic rocks that belong to a group of complex aluminosilicate minerals having sheet or plate-like structures formed from flat six-sided crystals with cleavage parallel to the direction of the large surfaces, which allows them to be split into optically flat films.

The Cherokees used the material as a medium of exchange. Mica from this region has been found throughout eastern North America. In return the Cherokees received shells, copper, suitable stones for spear points, shells, feathers, and numerous other commodities. The Indians used it for ornamental and ritualistic purposes. Sacred birds, dancing bears, and serpents with horns were crafted from sheet mica. It was the material of choice throughout eastern North America for centuries — and the Cherokees had mineral rights. 

A mica book is so-named because of the resemblance of the cleavage plates of a large crystal to the leaves of a book. The plates can be readily separated into thin sheets with specific thicknesses. Quality sheet mica is graded into 10 classifications. Books flawed with excess inclusions, cracks, or folds are ground into commercial products: coating for roof shingles and cement blocks; paint and rubber additives; and so on, ad infinitum.

The center of mica production in Western North Carolina has traditionally been in the Spruce Pine area. But there were also less extensive mining operations throughout the region, especially in Jackson and Macon counties. In The History of Jackson Country (1987), John L. Bell noted that mica deposits were first discovered “on the road between Webster and Franklin” in 1858. As recently as the early 1940s, “the defense needs during World War II caused a boom in mica,” then very “important in the production of electronic vacuum tubes.” Ninety-four mines were opened in 1942 that “produced 94,943 pounds of sheet and 183,00 pounds of scrap mica. The largest operations were at the Buchanan, Big East Fork, Jasper, Frady, Engle, Cope, Kolb, Tilley, and Stillwell mines.” 

Before mica mining became an industrial enterprise in WNC, it was a cottage industry. In The French Broad (1965), one of my favorite books, Wilma Dykeman described those days:

“A large part of this mining is done in small operations — ‘groundhog holes,’ the local people call them, penetrating the sides of hill after hill in these counties … and the raw wound of many an abandoned digging gapes on the mountainside, giving the country an appearance different from the rest of the French Broad watershed.”

Dykeman noted that it was during the post-Civil War era — “when a northern traveler happened to see a large sheet of ‘isinglass’ in one of the cabins, where he stopped overnight “ —that the sheet-mica business was initiated, thereby supplying “practically all of the isinglass used in the old-fashioned stove windows in this country or Canada.” 

Isinglass is one of the minerals in the mica group. Sometimes called “white mica,” it occurs in thin transparent sheets. I have been told that after the men had extracted blocks (lenses) of mica from “groundhog holes,” the women took over and separated the fragile sheets of isinglass with their more nimble fingers.

From now on, each time you spot a sparkling cluster of “that shiny stuff in the rocks,” I suspect you’ll think about  the ancient Hindu belief that mica crystals are “preserved flashes of lightning.”   

  

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..      

Saturday morning … sitting alone at the kitchen table … nothing much going on … looking out the window … watching the bend in the creek and the bend in the path that leads up to the bend in the ridge I can’t see but know is there … opening my composition book to a blank space I scribble: “creeks-paths-ridges bend with natural grace.”

Composition books are therapeutic … especially those with inside back covers featuring the multiplication table and conversion tables for length, capacity and weight ... 9-by-7 is always tricky and I never did comprehend liters … my composition book is one of those manufactured by Mead Corporation in Dayton, Ohio … 100 sheets … 9 ¾ x 7 ½ in … wide ruled … the blackish-green and silver model (#09918) designed by Jackson Pollock (just kidding — but the cover does look like it was splatter painted) ... not a journal … not a diary … no dates … no themes … mostly illegible … the sort used by grade school kids … just right … I write (scribble) down whatever comes to mind … something I’ve read or might write about … anything that’s brief ... incomplete sentences & ampersands are encouraged …continuity is discouraged … pages should be decorated with mustard stains & beer bottle rings.   

Composition books are an appropriate venue in which to compose haiku … about which I am very conservative … any deviation from the traditional five-seven-five syllable format will be ridiculed ... here’s a “Mystery Haiku” for you … see if you can guess which critter this one is about:

weathered-board-monarch

frozen sky-tailed in the sun

dark-crack-slither-gone

Take your time … the answer is at the end of the column ... meanwhile here’s maybe the best haiku ever written (on lower Lands Creek) … Daisy Ellison (my 11-year-old granddaughter, who also likes to scribble) & I co-authored it in about eight minutes … I wanted the middle line to read “high above the wind & the rain” but was overruled:

sunshine a-glitter

days & years a-spinning round

starlight a-twinkling

Billie Joe Shaver was just now singing on Outlaw Country (XM radio): “Gonna die with my boots on … gonna go out in style … when I get my wings I’m gonna fly away fly … gonna fly away singing” … or something like that …at the top of a blank page I wrote in my Lilliputian-sized scribble what came to mind:

Billie Joe … the 75-year old problem child

who is not unfamiliar with Texas jails …

claims he’s gonna die & then fly away.

Well now…that’s the good news …

‘cause if Billie Joe’s gonna fly away fly

there’s a good chance so can I.

It’s so nice supposing that

each ending is a new beginning

& that me & Billie Joe

are gonna sprout wings

& fly away singing.

That’s maybe the worst poem ever written (on lower Lands Creek) but it was a pleasant enough diversion from doing nothing ... Billie Joe can’t bitch … he’s in good company ... just above his poem is one of the finest short poems in any language ... it was written 1,600 or so years ago by T’ao Ch’ien:

I built this hut not far from others –

still, I don’t ever hear horse or wagon.

How? Solitude is here in the heart.

Seeking chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge

The southern hills rise quietly before me.

At sunset the mountain air is fine

& the birds always wing home in flocks.

In all this there is something –

but not in these words.

Random notes to myself scattered throughout: pale ales to try (100s) … books to read (Gilchrist’s “Life of William Blake”) … musicians to catch up with (Levon Helm) … words to look up (growler) … people to think about (so many) … can salamanders sing?      

For less than $2 you, too, can own a magic composition book … if it doesn’t save your life it will give you something to do of a Saturday morning when you’re all alone just looking out the kitchen window.

[The “sky-tailed” critter in the “Mystery  Haiku” is a skink.]

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..

A coyote in the yard

Monday morning … 9:15 or so … suddenly the coyote was there … as if from out of nowhere … a shadow moving in the pasture across the creek.  

I had glanced out of my workroom window moments before and nothing was there. The next time I looked up he (or she) had probably come out of dense tangle of rhododendron, laurel, and grapevine that cloaks the mountainside bordering the far side of the pasture. The animal was 35 to 40 yards away.

He was gray-brown with reddish highlights around his face and neck and down the spine. The underside was a lighter color. He looked as if he might weigh 50 pounds, but I have read that coyotes look larger than they are. It’s likely that he weighed 25 to 30 pounds and was maybe three feet long, including the long bushy tail.  

The coyote circled a post in the pasture on which a bluebird box was mounted. Apparently sensing (correctly) that it was empty this year, he moved out of sight under grapevines, perhaps checking to see if they were ripe. When he reappeared, he surprised me — instead of crossing the creek by wading, he crossed it on our new footbridge (built this year), as if he had crossed it many times before. Maybe he has.

I suspect he knew four of our five German shorthaired pointers were penned up and that the fifth (Zeke, who is 15 years old) was likely to be asleep (which he was). And I’d guess that the critter was headed for the far side of the house — where fallen apples from my wife’s trees litter the ground — when he sensed my presence and drifted around the other side, up a trail, and out of sight.

The last I saw of him, he was moving in a quick-footed dogtrot. Not dainty-footed or nimble like a fox, he nevertheless moved gracefully. He certainly didn’t “slink” in the manner usually ascribed to coyotes. My visitor was, in fact, a pretty animal. I had no desire to harm him, even though he and his extended family are a negative factor where we live.

In A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2008), Donald W. Linzey noted that, “Coyotes originally inhabited portions of western North America. As forests were cleared, however, their range in the United States expanded eastward … Many coyotes were liberated by fox hunters in the southern states who had similar-appearing coyote pups shipped to them instead of fox pups. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented 20 different points in the southeastern United States where coyotes were released by people who planned to run them with hounds … Coyotes were first observed in the park in Cades Cove by Charles Remus on June 6, 1982, and now occur throughout the park” They also occur throughout Western North Carolina in backcountry, rural and urban areas. They’re everywhere and, like it or not, they’re here to stay.

Andy Russell, a professional trapper in Alberta, Canada, wrote a nice book based on a lifetime of personal experiences titled Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer (1970). Russell concluded that, “Of all the animals a trapper encounters, the coyote is by far the most cunning and intelligent. I have trapped foxes, which have a reputation for being difficult to take, but compared to a coyote the fox is a dunce.”

The pack of between five and 10 coyotes that patrols the area where we live west of Bryson City has decimated the small-game population on our property. Ground-nesting birds like towhees and ovenbirds have moved on. There are reports of missing cats and small dogs from neighbors. The pack likes to serenade us late at night with ongoing choruses of short yaps, long whines and loud barks. And now they are crossing our new footbridge into the yard looking for my wife’s apples in broad daylight.

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..

Many characters surface in stories related to Horace Kephart, regional author and one of the founders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. F.A. Behymer, a journalist from St. Louis who would have been aware of the basic story behind Horace Kephart’s dismissal as a head librarian, separation from wife and family, and subsequent breakdown in March 1904 — is one of the more colorful. Behymer’s article, based on an interview with Kephart in Bryson City in 1926, appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was reprinted on Dec. 12 of the same year in the Asheville Citizen-Times as “Horace Kephart, Driven from Library by Broken Health, Reborn in Woods.”

An editorial note prefacing the reprinted text reads: “The following interesting article about one of the most interesting characters in Western North Carolina, Horace Kephart of Bryson City, was written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by F.A. Behymer, one of the star men of that newspaper.” Behymer was easily as much of a “character” as Kephart ever dreamed of being.

It must have surprised him that a journalist from St. Louis would journey to Bryson City to write a lengthy article 20 years after he had departed the city in trying circumstances. But Behymer wasn’t your run-of-the-mill journalist. Driving to remote places to look around, get the lay of the land, conduct an interview, take a few photographs and drive back home to write it up was the way he had operated for more than a quarter of a century. Behymer is a minor character in the overall story, but his descriptions and conclusions are often shrewdly phrased and insightful.

Francis Albert Behymer (1870-1956) was born in Ohio, quit school at the age of 12, joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a proofreader, started his writing career as a “suburban correspondent,” and by 1900 was writing “a chain of bright stories of rural life ... that lasted half a century.” His friends called him “Bee.” He was short, weighed 125 pounds, had a big nose and gray hair that was unruly, wore a small mustache and always carried a battered briefcase. In his Chevrolet sedan, he traveled thousands of backcountry miles each year covering his beat, which consisted of the rural portions of three states: Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, with emphasis on the Ozarks. His rambling columns have been described as “homey tales of people, horses, auctions and little girls who liked rabbits” — but he also enjoyed covering the occasional “cornfield murder.” The Post-Dispatch made him a Sunday editor, but he promptly “resigned” and went back to traveling and writing.

Kephart was precisely the sort of personality, with the sort of lifestyle and background, that would have attracted a journalist like Behymer, and Kephart himself gravitated toward “original characters” — as personalities like Quill Rose, Mark Cathey, Bob Barnett and “Bee” Behymer were known. Kephart would have appreciated the fact that the journalist had done his homework — having read Kephart’s books and the autobiographical essay — and that he pieced the overall story together in a lively but unobtrusive fashion. When asked by Behymer why he had chosen the Smokies as his destination, Kephart’s response was more specific than usual:

Resting awhile at his father’s home at Dayton [he] took a map and a compass and with Dayton as the center drew circles, seeking the nearest wilderness, in any direction, where he might cast himself away. The region of the Big Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina seemed to meet the requirements. A topographic map showed him, by means of the contour lines and the blank spaces, where nature was wildest and where there were no settlements. These were the highest mountains east of the Rockies. It was a primitive hinterland without a history. It would be a good place to begin again, he thought.

Kephart’s materials were always categorized, alphabetized and indexed, often more than once. Relevant items that might be of use were cross-referenced in the outlines and drafts of specific articles and books he was working on at the time. Although no longer a librarian, he retained a librarian’s instinct for classification — or as Behymer described the situation: “The librarian’s ruling passion was still strong amid the bears and owls.”

Behymer was uncanny when it came to unraveling Kephart’s convoluted motives. He did so via a complexity of language and images never encountered in modern day journalism. For instance, he reached this carefully phrased (and in my opinion accurate) conclusion regarding Kephart’s “crash” after interviewing him in his office overlooking the Tuckaseigee River in 1926.

Horace Kephart won high position in the busy world as a librarian. He was a front-rank man. For 13 years he was at the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Success was his. ... Then in 1904 — “crash.” The man broke down. To another man it would have been tragedy. To Horace Kephart it was blessed release. ... Ambition had beckoned, and duty had driven. His heart’s deepest longing had been denied. Always he had waited for a more convenient season. Greater ambition called for greater devotion. But for this chance, which another would have called mischance, he would have gone to the end denying himself his dearest wish, winning much but losing more.

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..

Like dimly-lit rhododendron tunnels or ancient sphagnum-layered bogs, creek bends are special places that invariably precipitate beauty.

Sitting in the blue-gray shadows of my porch, I watch lower Lands Creek flow by on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Down past the old outhouse, the creek bends southeastwardly and with mindless precision slices like a blade into a bluff of hornblende gneiss. Random glints of low-slanted evening light trace the graceful arc of the bend.

Horneblende is an aluminum silicate of iron and magnesium that may contain potassium. On slopes and in creek bends where flora is especially varied and lush, horneblende gneiss is often the key ingredient.

The bluff Lands Creek has been sculpting for thousands of years is shaded by a dense canopy composed of basswood, slippery elm, various white and red oak species, butternut, beech, striped and red maple, silverbell, serviceberry, black cherry, dogwood, ironwood, and various species of hickory. The under story is composed of rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel, and dog-hobble. There are grape vines and tangles of greenbrier. Ferns that come to mind are cinnamon, Christmas, New York, glade, lady, hay-scented, ebony spleenwort, winged beech, and maidenhair. There are mosses, liverworts, sedges, ground pine, and grasses. The spring wildflowers are prolific.

In other words, the factors that created a bend in a creek exposed various levels of a mountainside containing horneblende gneiss and, in the process, also created a small natural garden of great beauty, without any “help” whatsoever from any person.

My favorite tree in the bend is a good-sized butternut ... the perfect tree for this setting. The butternut walnut (Juglans cinerea), which some people call white walnut, is surrounded by several of its close cousins, the ever-present black walnuts (J. nigra). But you can distinguish the smaller butternut walnut in a heartbeat.

Butternut has a large terminal leaflet, whereas black walnut has either a small terminal leaflet or no terminal leaflet at all. The bark of mature butternut walnut trees is gray-white and divided into deep furrows that form a characteristic rough diamond-shaped pattern. Its leaves and fruit drop early revealing conspicuous, 3-lobed (inversely triangular) leaf scars on twigs, each of which is surrounded by a raised, downy, gray pad or “eyebrow.” These scars make the leaf scars look for all the world like a ram’s face.

Unlike black walnut — which bears dark-green rounded fruits that turn dark black-brown — butternut walnut displays oblong fleshy light-green fruits that turn a light-brown buttery color with maturity.

Cherokees traditionally used the inner bark as a carthartic and harvested the nuts as food. To this day, they make a black dye to color basket splints from butternut roots and carve the soft wood for masks and other items. Mountaineers used the inner bark and fruit husks to obtain a yellow or orange agent to dye homespuns; hence, during the Civil War backwoods Confederate troops dressed in homespun “uniforms” of butternut-dyed cloth became known as “Butternuts.” In country churches here in the mountains, an altar carved of a satiny light-brown wood and displaying bands of paler sapwood might well be made of butternut.

Unfortunately, butternut walnut — like so many tree species — is being infested by a killing agent. In the butternut’s instance, the agent is a fungus first identified during the late 1960s in eastern North America. This canker has now spread throughout the entire range of the tree from Minnesota south to Arkansas and from New England south into Georgia.

In Charles E. Little’s The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests (Viking, 1995), the lens-shaped cankers that are formed when a tiny fungus spore enters the tree through an injured limb or trunk are described as “necrotic lesions of the bark and cambium layer” that “spread throughout the tree, even to the nut husks, eventually girdling the main limbs and trunk and causing the tree to die. The death is slow, taking several years, but certain.”

For the time being, however, the evening light that glints off the arc of water below our place is still refracted by the patterns in the bark of the butternut tree … diamonds in a near-perfect creek bend.

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..

High-elevation overlooks are one of our finest natural resources. These vantage points allow us to rise above our everyday humdrum existence and see the world with fresh eyes. Many of the finest overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the Great Smokies, and elsewhere can be reached directly via motor vehicles.

Instant access is just fine when we don’t have a lot of time to devote to getting there. But it always adds a bit of resonance to the experience if we have to walk a ways before reaching our destination. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Many of the most satisfying overlooks require relatively little time or effort to reach. Two of my favorites through the years have been Pickens Nose and Salt Rock.

Pickens Nose is located at the southern end of the Nantahala Mountains within the Nantahala National Forest. From the backcountry information center at the Standing Indian Campground, continue on FR-67/2 along the headwaters of the Nantahala River. Eight miles from the information center, this maintained road passes through Mooney Gap where the Appalachian Trail (marked with white blazes) makes a crossing. Continue another 0.7 mile along FR-67/2 to the trailhead for Pickens Nose, which is situated in a gap at 4,680 feet.

The trail leads south along the crest of a ridge through a rhododendron tunnel. At about a half-mile, there is a side-trail leading a few yards to the east (left) to a small outcrop providing a view out over the Coweeta Creek watershed and the Little Tennessee River Valley to the Balsam Mountain Range. You can spot Highlands in the distance.

At 0.7 miles, you reach Pickens Nose at 4,900 feet, a sloping, multi-level granite outcrop on the southwest end of the ridge. It’s maybe 45-feet-long and 20-feet-wide. The vertical drop of the rock face is 50 or so feet, while the almost sheer descent into the Bettys Creek valley below is 2,230 feet.

The views west and north are into the high Nantahalas. Standing Indian looms at 5,499 feet due west. It’s four miles away but seems as if you could reach out and touch it. To the east the Balsams swing back in an arc toward the Smokies. And to the south you will look out over an endless blue expanse of mountains into Georgia and the upper headwaters of the Savannah. Here you are on the edge of the contorted Appalachian drainage system, with waters flowing on the one hand directly to the Atlantic and on the other through the vast heartland of the nation to the Gulf of Mexico.

Why Pickens Nose? In profile the outcrop resembles a huge nose.

All the evidence indicates that it was so-named in honor of Gen. Andrew Pickens of South Carolina, a soldier in the Revolutionary War who subsequently initiated prohibited sales of Cherokee lands during the 1780s and helped lay out Indian boundary lines during the 1790s.

Salt Rock is located in Panthertown Valley, which is administered by the Highlands Ranger District of the Nantahala National Forest. Inquire at the Highlands Ranger District office regarding trail maps and additional information.

To reach Salt Rock turn east (towards Brevard) at the crossroads in Cashiers on U.S. 64 and proceed 1.8 miles before turning left onto Cedar Creek Road. At 2.1 miles, turn right onto Breedlove Road and proceed 3.3 miles to the gated trailhead. A short walk down the roadway and around the first bend leads to Salt Rock, one of the most delightful overlooks in the southern highlands.

From this vantage point on the southwest rim of the Panthertown watershed (headwaters of the Tucksegee River) a series of extensive rock outcrops that rise from 200 to 300 feet above the valley can be observed. The broad valley floor and almost vertical rock-face terrain has led some to describe the area as “The Yosemite of the East.” Retired Western Carolina University biologist Dan Pittillo has observed that Panthertown Valley resembles what the Yosemite Valley of California “might look like following several million years of erosion.”

It’s a region of flat, meandering tannin-darkened streams often bordered by white sand banks, extensive waterfall systems that form grottoes in which rare ferns reside, large pools several hundred feet in length, high country bogs and seeps that harbor vegetation not often encountered elsewhere in the mountains, upland “hanging” valleys on the sides of the tract, and rocky outcrops where ravens nest.

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..

Like most commonly observed objects, crows flit across our field of vision unheeded. Caw-caw-cawing unmusically … flap-flap-flapping over the fields … dressed as if for a funeral … iridescent pieces of black flannel waving in the breeze. We hear and see them … but we don’t really pay attention. We rarely think about them … we never ask ourselves: “What are these birds up to?”

Within the last decade, however, crows have decided to relocate into the valley we live in west of Bryson City. This flock is composed of perhaps 30 individuals ... maybe more … maybe less. Counting crows can be a problem.

They all look alike … and no crow stays in one place for very long. But I’d say we’ve got about 30 crows … more than enough.

They primarily feed around the barn on whatever chicken, rabbit, and horse feed gets scattered on the ground. But they will eat almost anything. They are, I have observed, fond of apples … especially golden Grimes apples. I have seen them pecking at tomatoes and squash. But I have never observed a crow eating a green bean.

They apparently roost and nest in a thicket of scrub pine on a ridge above the valley. Being crows they are, of course, secretive about where they roost. They are secretive about everything. But I have watched them through binoculars late in the evening. They fly in every direction as a diversion but eventually they slip away … one by one … into the pine grove on that ridge.

Of late, they have become rather tame and often come down to feed and mess around in the garden ornamental shrubs next to our home, when they think no one is around; that is, when both of our vehicles are gone. You did know that crows can count, didn’t you?

Well-funded high-caliber scientific research has established that all crows can count to three ... not a few can count to four ... and the occasional crow can get to five. The North American record for counting by a crow is eight. It was set by a crow residing in Ithaca, N.Y. There is suspicion that the crow was tutored at the Cornell University Lab. Be that as it may, crows are good counters.

When they think no one is home, I sit by my window and listen to the crows talking things over. I have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t caw when there’re discussing things. At this time, their vocalizations consist primarily of low rattling and gurgling sounds. One will rattle for a while, then another one will gurgle for awhile in response. I keep asking myself, “What are these birds up to?”

I have never observed a large roost of crows, which is properly referred to not as a flock but as a “congress of crows,” but in some places they form winter enclaves that number into the thousands. One standard source reports winter flocks of up to 200,000 birds.

I have an AP wire service clip in my “Crow” file dated Jan. 6, 1987, and titled “Crows Decide Illinois Town Is For The Birds.” The town in question was Danville, Ill., which had suffered a crow inundation that broke branches, pulled down power lines, and bombarded streets and houses with droppings.

From the article: “‘It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie over here. These birds are driving us all crazy,’ said Irene Hall, who lives on Oak Street, one of the crows’ favorite spots.”

The first naturalists in our part of the world were the ancient Cherokees. They didn’t miss a trick in regard to the intricacies of plant and animal life. They liked to closely observe the mundane, and then make it a part of their oral traditions.

The Cherokee word for crow is “Koga.” According to one of their stories, Koga acquired its black color in a futile attempt to obtain the first fire. In another story, two crows were selected to be the guards of a gambler named Brass. Anthropologist James Mooney collected this story in the late 1880s while living among the Cherokees in the Big Cove section of the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.

“They tied his hands and feet with a grapevine and drove a long stake through his breast, and planted it far out in the deep water,” Mooney recorded in Myths of the Cherokee (1900). “They set two crows on the end of the pole to guard it and called the place Ka-gun-yi: ‘Crow place.’ But Brass never died, and cannot die until the end of the world, but lies there always with his face up. Sometimes he struggles under the water to get free, and sometimes the beavers, who are his friends, come and gnaw at the grapevine to release him. Then the pole shakes and the crows at the top cry ‘Ka! Ka! Ka!’ and scare the beavers away.”

What better lookouts than a pair of crows?

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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