Editor’s note: George Ellison is on sabbatical this week and will return next week. This is a previously published column.
As I write this on Monday morning, we’ve just had our initial hard frost of the year here in Swain County. For the first time in seven or so months, I had to dig around and find my windshield scraper. While scraping away at the windshield with nearly frozen hands, I heard the birds in our backyard calling to one another as they trundled back and forth from the shrubbery to the feeders. They seemed excited that cold weather was finally arriving.
Because most birds seem so delicate and vulnerable, many of us go out of our way to feed those that overwinter here in the mountains. This no doubt helps maintain bird populations at a higher level than would otherwise be the case. But our feathered friends long ago devised basic strategies for withstanding wind and cold which are both effective and ingenious.
For the most part, it’s the insect-eating birds that migrate south. Those that stay behind are either seed eaters or insect eaters that have perfected techniques that allow them to extract morsels hidden behind and between the bark of trees, as do woodpeckers and nuthatches.
It’s not difficult to observe birds preening themselves with their bills and feet to carefully clean, rearrange, and oil their feathers. They do so, in part, to maintain flight capabilities, but in winter the process is essential for heat regulation. Birds have a “preen gland” located on their rumps just below the upper tail feathers. Oil squeezed from this gland is rubbed over the body as a waterproofing agent.
Birds have more than 25 percent more feathers in winter than during the summer months. Growing beneath the large, outer flight feathers are tiny, tuft-like, down feathers that provide one of the world’s most effective heat traps. It’s the same stuff humans have adapted for use in hats, coats, and other cold-weather apparel.
When fluffed and preened into position, these feathers trap a layer of warm air next to the bird’s body that prohibits the loss of body heat. At night or when it’s really cold during daylight hours, birds tuck their heads back under their body feathers into this warm-air source. This head-tucking technique allows them to breathe pre-warmed air and further cut down on energy expenditure.
What about their bare legs? You’ve no doubt observed birds standing one-legged on a bare branch. The seemingly missing appendage was lifted up beneath the lower feathers into that warm-air zone. The exposed leg was protected by a physical adaptation ornithologists call the “counter-current heat exchange system.” Via this system, leg arteries and veins are placed side by side so that heat in the arteries coming directly from the heart warms the chilled blood in the veins and keeps the lower extremities unfrozen. Unlike my hands, beaver tails, whale fins, and many other types of exposed animal limbs are protected in this fashion.
Making it through the night is the most challenging task facing birds during the winter months. Like humans, birds shiver involuntarily as a warming reflex, and when all else fails they, like humans, huddle and snuggle together. Finches, sparrows, crows, jays, and doves roost in dense conifers to reduce heat loss. Species such as brown creepers, white-breasted nuthatches, winter wrens, and bluebirds sometimes join one another in bird boxes or tree cavities.
There are birds in other parts of the world that actually hibernate like woodchucks, snakes, and other animals. Here in the Smokies region, the chickadee is the bird that comes closest to utilizing hibernation as a technique. This process — which is called either “controlled hypothermia” or “overnight hibernation” — reduces the rate of heat loss from a chickadee by reducing the temperature difference between the bird’s body and the surrounding air. Shivering is stopped so that body temperature drops until a level of hypothermia is reached. On a really cold night, a chickadee can allow its temperature to drop up to 12 degrees, resulting in a large overnight energy savings. The only problem is waking up quickly enough from this torpid state when a predator happens along.
Arthur Stupka (1905-1999) was the first naturalist in the National Park Service in the eastern United States. That was at Arcadia National Park in Maine, shortly before he became chief naturalist in the newly founded Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He held that position for 25 years before becoming the official park biologist for another four years. Upon “retiring,” he continued to write and conduct natural history workshops — his uniquely styled, leisurely paced but intensely informative talks, walks and tours — until the time of his death. During a career that spanned nearly seven decades, he came into contact with hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life and enhanced their relationship with the natural world.
According to Rose Houk’s “The Golden Years of Arthur Stupka” (Smokies Life Magazine, vol. 2, 2008) — a groundbreaking and sensitive profile of his life and work that focuses on the nature journals he kept most of his life — he earned his undergraduate and masters degrees at Ohio State University. After taking the position as ranger-naturalist in Yosemite National Park in 1931, he moved the following year to Arcadia, where he spent three years on the Maine coast as park naturalist.
Margaret Lynn Brown noted in The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (2000) that after arriving in the Great Smokies in 1935, Stupka met with J. Ross Eakin, the first superintendent of the national park. Eakin, then preoccupied with overseeing Civilian Conservation Corps projects, exclaimed: “’I don’t need a naturalist because I don’t want any more visitors [until construction is finished].’” And so Eakin advised Stupka to get acquainted with the park: “’This is your baby,’” he said. Stupka spent four years hiking, observing, recording, building the park’s natural history collection, and making connections with scientists before he offered a single public hike or evening program.
Stupka’s energy and methodology attracted the attention of countless scientists and their students who came to the Great Smokies on an annual basis to study and categorize its natural assets. Fellow naturalists such as Edwin Way Teale, James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson also called on him for assistance when visiting the national park.
It was my good fortune to meet Stupka in the early 1970s at the Hemlock Inn near Bryson City, where, after his “retirement” in 1964, he spent parts of every year as the guest of innkeepers John and Ella Jo Shell. We didn’t become intimate friends, but we always had topics of mutual interest to discuss whenever we met. And on several occasions we went for walks in park areas adjacent to Bryson City. At the inn he was a magnetic draw for those interested in natural history in general and in the flora, fauna, geology and natural areas of the national park in particular. His slide programs, nature walks and motor tours were legendary.
Like all close observers of the natural world, Arthur didn’t hurry. He sort of moseyed along — almost, at times, at a snail’s pace. He was interested in just about everything that came into view, from lichens and liverworts to toads and hawks. Unless asked, he never had much to say. But when queried, he became a memorable source of information delivered in a crisp, exacting manner.
Arthur was especially protective of the park’s flora. He summed up the lure of the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage held in Gatlinburg, Tenn., each year this way: “Vegetation is to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park what granite domes are to Yosemite, geysers are to Yellowstone and sculptured pinnacles are to Bryce Canyon National Park.”
His literary output on the flora and fauna of the national park included books devoted to birds, amphibians and woody plants (trees, shrubs and vines). These aren’t identification guides but detailed observations on each plant or animal species as to habitat, seasonal variation and distribution — all based on his careful journal entries or, occasionally, upon observations made by fellow naturalists he trusted.
Arthur was for the most part, in my experience, a reticent man, but he would from time to time express his deep emotional attachment to the natural world in an almost poetic manner. This is most apparent in a sweeping chronicle, “Through the Year in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Month by Month,” he contributed to a volume of essays by various writers titled The Great Smokies and the Blue Ridge (1943). Before launching into his chronicle, Arthur paused to remind the reader in characteristic fashion that, “So omnipotent are nature’s rhythms that any vagaries she may have, if studied carefully enough and over a sufficiently long period of time, will turn out to be orderly enough in the long run.” Here are some excerpts:
“It was a warm day in early March and I was out rambling through the Sugarlands Valley of the Park. (Many Park visitors are acquainted with this long and narrow area which is marked by Chimneys Campground at its upper end and the Administration building at its lower reaches.) The spice bush and shrub yellowroot were in bloom near the stream and the first of the violets appeared in the woodlands. Anglewing, mourning cloak, and the little spring azure butterflies were on the wing, tiger beetles hurried before me in the old road, land fence lizards made for cover here and there. Suddenly the angry cries of a few crows attracted my attention, and, after making way to the foot of the pine-and oak-covered slope from whence the disturbance came, I made out the form of a great horned owl in a tall pine near the very crest of the ridge ...
Since the great horned owl is one of the earliest of the birds to nest, I made my way to the top of the ridge hoping, perchance, to come upon the structure, but before I had taken many steps the bird disappeared into the forest, and my quest proved fruitless. However, on making my way back to the valley, the unexpected discovery of the first trailing arbutus flowers of the year brought ample reward. For me these white and pinkish waxy blooms, as delightful in their fragrance as they are humble in their growth (“gravelweed,” the mountain people call the plant), always serve to mark a significant period in the chronicle of the year ...
Somber habiliments appear to be the lot of mankind in his old age, yet the mellowing year marks its period of decline with a pageantry of hues so varied that it is as Walt Whitman said of the sundown, enough to make a colorist go delirious. Here in the forests of the Smokies, where well over a hundred kinds of native deciduous trees are to be found, the spectacle challenges description; the writer feels humbled and gropes for words ...
Like the crow and the jay, to which he is related, the raven is much more in evidence in October than during the summer months. Against the background of an October sky, I have seen as many as nine of these splendid wary birds together at one time. Occasionally they leave their favored haunts in the higher mountains and appear singly or in pairs at the lower altitudes. Such invasions, however are often contested by the lowland crows who harass the bigger bird much as they do the various hawks and owls. A strong flier, the raven is capable of remarkable performances on the wing. Once, in March, while at Collins Gap, high up on the crest of the Smokies, I watched what may have been a mated pair come into view. Flying side by side, the two performed a series of thrilling acrobatics involving dipping, sailing, rolling (head foremost, as well as sideways), plunging — all executed simultaneously and in the most finished manner. On occasions they uttered a few low notes. A third raven who came upon the scene was disregarded. Through all their evolutions there was nothing which might be interpreted as an act of animosity between them. For fully five minutes I had them in good view. Once they tumbled down together into the dense forest below. Finally I lost them when, in a series of power dives, they disappeared from sight far below.
I have nothing to add to Gary Carden’s perceptive review of Horace Kephart’s posthumous novel Smoky Mountain Magic (Great Smoky Mountains Association, 2009) that appeared in last week’s “Smoky Mountain News.” I do, however, have a query regarding Bob Barnett, the real life model for one of the major characters — Tom Burbank. Burbank is the mountaineer who saves the hero, John Cabarrus, from sure death in a cavern supposedly “located” in the Nicks Nest watershed on Deep Creek above Bryson City. I place “located” in quotation marks because I doubt that such a cavern actually exists along that creek. Kephart more than likely had in mind one of the caverns situated in the Nantahala Gorge, which he “moved” a few miles eastward to suit his purposes.
Although I have written about Kephart since the mid-1970s, the importance of Barnett in his life and work hadn’t fully dawned on me until last month while writing the introduction for Smoky Mountain Magic. I have become quite interested in finding out what I can about Robert L. Barnett and would appreciate hearing from anyone with additional information. Here’s a summary from the introduction of what I know as of now:
In 1904, Kephart secured permission from a copper mining company that had gone into litigation to use one of its abandoned cabins on “the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek” in the present day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Barnett was Kephart’s closest friend during the Hazel Creek years (1904-1907) and on into the early 1920s. Although Barnett was the younger man by 18 years, Kephart admired him tremendously. In a “Roving with Kephart” column published in “All Outdoors” magazine in 1921, he described a recent visit:
“He was the big, fat Bob who figures in ‘Camping and Woodcraft’ and ‘Our Southern Highlanders.’ He came years ago, to the old mine site where I’d been living alone with the bobcats and hoot-owls, and became caretaker for the company that had possession. It was an abandoned place — that is, no one ever lived there — and I welcomed a neighbor. Soon I shifted quarters to his house. We lived together, in various necks of the woods, for several years. Bob is now at Aquone, N.C., on the upper Nantahala, where he keeps open house for all comers.”
In Camping and Woodcraft (1906), Kephart credited Barnett as being “one of the best woodsmen in this country, a man so genuinely a scholar in his chosen lore that he could well afford to say, as once he did to me: ‘I’ve studied these woods and mountains all my life, Kep, like you do your books, and I don’t know them all yet, no sirree.’”
Many of the dialect witticisms entered in Kephart’s journals (now housed at Western Carolina University) were originally uttered by Barnett: “Bob whittled Old Pete Laney’s store-bought axe-handle for him and remarked: ‘Thar! I’ll see that Pete’ll have a decent axe-handle fer his women-folks to chop wood with, anyhow.’”
In the “Back of Beyond” chapter of Our Southern Highlanders, when the two friends were stymied by the marauding tactics of a “slab-sided tusky old boar” (which Kephart has christened “Belial,” after one of Dante’s devils), Bob remarked in frustration: “That Be-liar would cross hell on a rotten rail to get in my ‘tater patch!”
The years after Kephart left the Great Smokies in 1907 until he returned in 1910 have been more or less a mystery. A letter recently archived at Western Carolina University from Kephart to Louis Hampton, a friend who still lived on Hazel Creek, provides additional information as to his whereabouts and activities. It is dated Oct. 5, 1909, and addressed from Lindale, Georgia (near Rome), where he was living with the Barnett family. Kephart advised Hampton that he had been “to Dayton to look after my father who was very sick [and] died a year ago. Then I went to New York and Pennsylvania, and back to Dayton, and finally came down here two weeks ago. I will stay with the Barnetts until spring, and then take a long trip through the mountains from Georgia to Virginia and Kentucky, taking photographs for my books.” In closing, he observed that, “Bob has a good job and a nice home. I have plenty of writing to do, and am saving money to buy a place in the Smokies. The Barnetts have a girl baby. She is a pretty little thing, but has one bad habit, for she pisses in my lap every day. Bob is fatter than ever, and his wife is quite stout. My own health is good.”
While in Lindale, Kephart was no doubt consulting with “Mistress Bob” — as he usually referred to Barnett’s wife — who was renowned for her backcountry culinary skills. His little volume “Camp Cookery,” published in 1910, was dedicated: “To Mistress Bob, who taught me some clever expedients of backwoods cookery that are lost arts wherever the old forest has been leveled.” She reappeared in the expanded edition of Camping and Woodcraft, wherein Kephart described with obvious delight “a mess of greens of her own picking ... an olla podrida ... cooked together in the same pot, with a slice of pork” that resulted in a ‘wild salat,’ as she called it.” And in Smoky Mountain Magic she emerged yet again as the model for Tom Burbank’s wife, Sylvia (“Sylvy”) Burbank.
Kephart returned to the Great Smokies early in 1910. He chose not to settle on Hazel Creek. The W.M. Ritter Company had begun operations there and was in the process of running a railway spur, the Smoky Mountain Railroad, up the watershed. It would not be the same. Instead, he stayed for a while, yet again, with the Barnett family, who had moved from Georgia to “the last house up Deep Creek.” This house was situated at the Bryson Place about 10 miles north of Bryson City—precisely where the Burbank family resides in Smoky Mountain Magic.
By the early 1920s, Kephart was settled in Bryson City and the Barnetts had moved to Aquone, a remote community in Macon County about 30 miles west of Bryson City. Barnett passed away in 1934, when he was 54 years old, and was buried near Mars Hill, North Carolina. It’s unlikely that Kephart admired or valued any of his friends more than he did Bob Barnett — not even George Masa, the Japanese photographer with whom he also formed a special bond.
Western Carolina University biologist Jim Costa traces his interest in insect societies to studies of social interactions of caterpillars made while an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Cortland, an interest that deepened as he worked on master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Georgia. Currently executive director of the Highlands Biological Station and a long-time research associate in entomology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, he has studied insect social behavior in the southern Appalachians, Mexico, and Costa Rica.
For most people, including many trained biologists, the term “insect society” conjures up images of beehives, ant colonies, wasp nests, termite mounds, etc.; that is, structured societies characterized by precise and often elaborate divisions of labor. In “The Other Insect Societies” (Harvard University Press, 2006) — a groundbreaking study of lasting significance — Costa contends that evolutionary biologists have long ignored the diverse, if less elaborate, social arrangements existing among other insects. In 767 densely-packed pages illustrated with drawings by his wife Leslie Costa and numerous photographs, he examines social phenomena from the worlds of the beetles and bugs, caterpillars and cockroaches and sawflies and spiders, demonstrating that many of them exhibit degrees of social interaction and subtle interdependencies that can be both sophisticated and intriguing.
The non-academic reader of “The Other Insect Societies” will find much therein of general interest expressed in a lively manner. But the real gem of natural history writing in “The Other Insect Societies” is tucked away — “hidden way” might be a more apt description — on pages 717-720. Therein, as his long book is winding down, Costa suddenly shifts from the scientific to the poetic and serves up a remarkable closing passage of lyrical homage titled “Coda: Sociality in an Appalachian Spring.”
I was so struck by “Coda” I asked Jim if I could include it in volume two (1900-2009) of an anthology of nature writing from Western North Carolina titled “High Vistas,” which will be published later this year by The History Press. Requested to do so, he provided (via email) an interesting recollection as to how “Coda” came to be:
“I chuckled a bit when you asked about my personal reflections on how I happened to write that ‘Coda’ for TOIS; it came about in an unexpected manner. I had largely finished revising the main body of the text and had been mulling over in my mind how best to end the book. I had several false starts with what you might call a ‘conventional’ conclusion or afterword; each time I would get partway through and realize that I was just rehashing material and arguments already laid out nicely in the book — a pointless exercise. I was half-inclined to just end with the final taxonomic chapter, on arachnids, but I had the gnawing feeling that the book really needed better closure than that. That was the state of my thoughts when I reported for jury duty in Sylva. I usually have a notebook with me to jot down thoughts and ideas, and jury duty involves, as I’m sure you know, lots of waiting. I was selected for service as an alternate juror ... and on the first full day, sequestered away with a bunch of other jurors while waiting for something or other, it suddenly came to me, as I looked out the window on the lovely mountain scenery, that a wonderful way to end the book was to somehow show that the fascinating insects I had just lengthily written about could be observed virtually anywhere — they were all around us, if people would only look. They weren’t confined to some exotic locale; any interested person, just about any place, could find innumerable examples of those neat critters. Almost immediately I hit on the device of an imaginary hike around our mountains, showing how many examples of sociality could be found overhead and underfoot, in meadow, woods, and creeks all around us. I wrote that ‘Coda’ in a single burst of insight; I started writing furiously in that jury room lest the idea somehow slip away, and in less than an hour I had the essay completely written. It just naturally flowed from my pencil; I later edited a little when typing it up, but it ended up very close to what I had written initially. My editor loved it and didn’t want to change a word, which was welcome news to me! I felt immensely pleased with it, because I felt the book ended on a very personal note that resonated with my fundamental motive for studying these insects to begin with — a sense of the beauty and wonder of the natural world. Many scientists were naturalists first, often as kids, and hopefully never lose that spark of wonderment at nature. I realized later that the ‘Coda’ in TOIS was that sense of beauty and wonder seeking an outlet in an otherwise rather academic volume.”
The full text of “Coda: Sociality in an Appalachian Spring” is over 1,500 words in length. Here are some excerpts:
“Springtime in Appalachia is justly celebrated for its astounding explosion of wildflowers. Aaron Copland’s 1944 composition ‘Appalachian Spring’ evokes the beauty, majesty, and prolific exuberance of nature in these thickly forested mountains, endless chains that were already ancient when the dinosaurs walked the continent. Let us set out on a hike on a fine late spring morning, through cove forests and over upland ridges draped with the slowly swirling mists that give the Great Smoky Mountains their name. Here, as almost everywhere, the casual naturalist cannot help but notice the insect societies stirring all around — foraging columns of ants; spectacular mating flights of termites emerging from long-rotting logs; bumblebees packing pollen for a brood developing in a distant underground nest; paper wasps on the prowl for caterpillars, fresh meat for their grubs upside-down in their hexagon-holed nest beneath a rock ledge. These insect societies are as ubiquitous as they are fascinating, evolutionary marvels. But so, too, are the insect societies not immediately noticed, other insect societies that, unbeknownst to our fellow hikers, surround us overhead and underfoot. Let me show you just how common these oft-overlooked societies are in one time and place: May or June in the mountains where I live — Appalachian spring.
“This region of eastern North America is teeming with insect societies and those of their many arthropod cousins, in almost every corner of these wet, dripping mountains. This is land with a primeval feel, mountains clothed in a verdant flora that echoes an ancient link with Asia: towering hemlock and Liriodendron trees, large-leaved tropical-looking magnolias, and lush rhododendron crowding cove forests, with coveted ginseng and a host of other herbs carpeting the forest floor. At first glance it is hard to see the forest for the trees, but the minisocieties are there. Just look ...
“Step over the fallen tree and back into a light gap to admire those ‘Helianthus’ sunflowers so common in the mountains. Why do some have leaves that droop from the middle, was the midrib cut? Flip the leaves over, and see another drama: membracid treehopper mothers tending their eggs while keeping a wary eye on probing ants. Are the ants friend or foe? Many gregarious membracids, like aphids, are ant tended for their honeydew in exchange for protection; but some ants are predators. Other ants catch our eye on the black locust branch overhead; the swarm, it turns out, is associated with the small ‘Vanduzea’ treehopper herd near the leaf axils. We cannot hear it, but that branch is humming with vibrations from the drumming treehoppers as they call to each other, and to their ant protectors.
“Treehopper herds and family colonies are all around us here — on sunflowers, ironwoods, thistle, ragweed, and more; and many other tiny families populate the forest alongside them. At lower elevations, take a look at the common horse nettle. How many naturalists, let alone more casual hikers, realize that most are home to elegant lace bug moms that chaperone their tiny jewel-like brood as they feed from leaf to leaf? ...
“You know, of course, that insects and other animals of all kinds are busily making a living all about you in this rich Appalachian forest. But did you have any idea that overhead and underfoot, inside, beneath, and on top of virtually every tree and shrub, living and dead, this forest really consists of innumerable, tiny, polities? You need not travel to exotic locales to find fascinating insect societies, animals often as beautiful in structural intricacy, color and ornament as they are instructive to those yearning to understand the evolution of sociality.”
Naturalist, herbalist, lecturer, writer, adventure trip leader, folklorist and prize-winning harmonica player Doug Elliott has a new book. Titled Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (Charleston, SC: The History Press; soft cover; 160 pages; illustrated by the author; $17.99), it is vintage Doug Elliott.
There are 13 essays devoted to or touching upon various topics such as migratory beekeeping, how to pick up a skunk, fish grabbing, “Republicans in the Ramp Patch,” hitchhikers with butterfly nets, and a lot more — all designed “to illuminate the confluence of nature, humanity, and spirit.”
Elliott related in a recent email that, after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1970, “For most of the following decade, I traveled extensively from the Canadian north to the Central American jungles studying nature and spending time with traditional country folk and indigenous people, learning their stories, folklore, and traditional ways of relating to the natural world. For a number of years I made my living as a traveling herbalist collecting, displaying, and selling herbs, teas and old time remedies at folk festivals and country fairs. Attracted by the biodiversity and the richness of the traditional culture, I found myself spending more and more time in the Southern Appalachians. Accordingly, I’ve made my home in Western North Carolina since the mid-1970s, presently residing in Rutherford County with my wife and son. I still travel nowadays, teaching about nature, and performing stories and songs.”
In addition to programs on birds, bugs, reptiles and amphibians, rainforests, bogs and traditional foods, he can provide the following: “Woodslore and Wildwoods: Wisdom Stories, Songs and Lore Celebrating Animals, Plants and People;” “Groundhogology: Of Whistlepigs and World Politics;” “Possumology: Everything you never thought you wanted to know about America’s favorite marsupial” and “Everybody’s Fishin’, A Crosscultural Fishing Extravaganza: Wrestling Sea Serpents, Tickling Trout, Grabbing Catfish by the Snout!”
Elliott’s botanical knowledge is sound and extensive. Through the years, he has carefully observed, photographed, and drawn plants, including their underground systems, while at the same time collecting information from varied sources regarding their “history, legends, and lore; their uses in various cultures, medicinal properties, food value, as well as other practical ways we can use wild plants every day.”
In addition to Swarm Tree, he has published the following books: Wild Roots: A Forager’s Guide to the Wild Edible and Medicinal Roots, Tubers, Corms & Rhizomes (1976, reissued 1995); Woodslore (1986); and Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World (1992).
The stories Elliott writes up for his books are natural extensions — in regard to content and style — of the stories he relates for live audiences. They don’t derive as directly from a literary tradition as they do from the rich storytelling tradition of the southern mountains; that is, they ramble around here and there, relating this and that, and then they end. As in this selection from Swarm Tree, ‘possums are often involved. In retrospect, the reader realizes that he or she has been entertained while learning something worthwhile about the natural world.
“Of Ginseng, Golden Apples and
the Rainbow Fish”
“If you want to go ‘seng hunting, you come up this fall, and we’ll run yo’ little legs off!”
That sounded like both a challenge and an invitation to go on a ginseng hunt. The offer came from Ted and Leonard Hicks when I was visiting their family homestead high on Beech Mountain in Western North Carolina. I had come there, like so many others, to listen to their dad tell stories. Their father, [the late] Ray Hicks, was a national treasure, known for his incredible repertoire of old-time Appalachian stories.
I had long enjoyed Ray’s storytelling. He was a master of the Jack tale s —stories about the naive, but resourceful, archetypal trickster character named Jack. Many of us first heard about Jack in the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.” As it turns out, the beanstalk story is only one of hundreds of these stories that were brought over from Europe by early settlers, and they were kept alive and relatively intact by those who settled the isolated hills and hollers of the Appalachian backcountry. Ray knew dozens of these wild, elaborate and fanciful tales and was more than willing to share them with anyone who came his way.
Ray was getting too old to roam the hills like he used to, so the opportunity to go ginseng hunting with his sons was too good to pass up. Ginseng is a valuable medicinal herb found in the deep shady hollows and hillsides of the Appalachian Mountains. So one morning in early October, when I knew most of the ginseng berries would be ripe and the leaves would be turning that distinctive shade of yellow, I showed up at the Hicks homestead. There I met Leonard at the top of the driveway, where he informed me that both he and Ted had gotten jobs and they had to go to work that morning.
Since I was there already, I went down to the house to say hello to Ray and Rosa. I knocked on the door and heard Ray say, “Come in.”
I could tell that he sort of recognized me from previous visits, but it seemed like he was having trouble placing me. His wife, Rosa, hollering in from the kitchen, reminded him I was the “possum man” and that I had been there a few times over the years.
I don’t know about how it is where you live, but among these folks mentioning ‘possums is a great icebreaker. And indeed Ray warmed quickly to the subject. He started talking .... and he pretty much kept on talking till later that afternoon when I stood up and said I had to leave . . .
We talked about ginseng and about how ginseng hunting gets in your blood. He was saying that when you’re walking through the woods, you can tell the places where ginseng is likely to grow — in the richer coves often near chestnut stumps, grapevines or black walnut trees.
“Thar’s a little fearn . . .” Ray was saying, speaking in his rich Appalachian dialect, full of archaic expressions and word twists. At first I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me about. Then I realized he was talking about a fern, pronouncing the word like “fee’-ern.”
“Thar’s a little fearn I look for,” he went on to say. “If’n you find that fearn, you’ll find ‘seng (if somebody ain’t got there first and dug it). See, this here fearn, ‘hit’s all hooked up with ginseng. Thar’s a fungus hooked up thar ‘tween their roots.”
I realized he was talking about rattlesnake or grape fern (Botrychium sp.). This little fern grows in the same rich hollows as ginseng, and many mountain folks call it “‘seng sign” or “‘seng pointer” because it’s commonly known to grow in association with ginseng.
When I got home, I looked up the word “fern” in my dictionary, and it said that our word “fern” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “fearn.” So here was this backwoods mountaineer, a vestige of another era, living without a phone or indoor plumbing, speaking an ancient, archaic dialect. yet he was discussing subterranean microscopic mycorrhizal associations between plants — something that is only just beginning to be understood by modern scientists.
Angler and writer Harry Middleton (1949-1993) is an elusive figure. Except for what he chose to reveal in his books — which are part memoir and part novel — little is known, outside of family and friends, about his too brief life. But the books speak for themselves in a voice that is at once haunting and uplifting. There is nothing else quite like them in American nature or outdoor writing. On the Spine of Time: An Angler’s Love of the Smokies (1991) is one of the finest books yet written about this region.
As a boy, Middleton was almost constantly on the move as his father shifted from one military base to the next. During the mid-1960s, he did spend influential years — learning to fly fish and explore the natural world — with his grandfather, his great-uncle and their Sioux friend, Elias Wonder, on the grandfather’s farm in the mountains of northwestern Arkansas. Those experiences were warmly captured in his first book The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Trout and Old Men (1989).
He initiated his literary career by writing about food, art, music, and books for Figaro, an alternative newspaper published in New Orleans. During that period he met Walker Percy, the post-existentialist southern novelist whose ruminative style and philosophical perspectives are reflected in Middleton’s work. In the early 1980s, he began writing about regional and personal themes for Louisiana Life magazine in a column titled “Louisiana at Large.” That led to his becoming a writer and editor for the Southern Progress Corporation in Birmingham, Alabama, which publishes the widely distributed Southern Living magazine.
Middleton wrote for various magazines that the corporation issued, but his passion was a monthly “Outdoor South” column contributed to Southern Living. He had apparently suffered from chronic depression for much of his adult life, but the column gave him a positive identity that stabilized his personality. He was apparently happy, for the most part, and productive.
In 1989, a new Southern Progress magazine titled Southpoint, for which Middleton was also writing, failed after just nine issues. On June 21, he was called into the CEO’s office and fired. June 21, 1989 ... that date was seared into his memory bank. It was the pivotal point at which his life began to unravel: “On the day that I lost my job, waves of depression hummed and sizzled in my gray-pink brain like downed electrical wires.”
Descriptions of that sort permeate The Bright Country, published several weeks after his death in July 1993. In that book he described his immediate flight from Birmingham to Denver, Colo. There on the edge of the Rockies he found a job as a hack writer; he consulted with a psychiatrist, Dr. Lilly Mutzpah; he interrelated with an outrageous group of misfits that included Dr. Truth, who spoke wisdom from a folded chair on a street corner, and a pair of grifters, Swami Bill and “his main squeeze” Kiwi LaReaux; he went fly fishing every weekend in the streams west of Denver; and in the fall of 1990 — “the year which haunts this story” — he returned to Birmingham, where he worked “on the crew of county garbage truck No. 2 for two years.” Shortly before his death from an apparent heart attack, Harry Middleton — one of the very best southern writers of his time — had been hired by The Birmingham Herald to write restaurant reviews.
On the Spine of Time was written before and based upon experiences that took place prior to June 21, 1990. It is a love song in prose composed for the Great Smokies and the adjacent mountain ranges he had discovered by accident in the early 1980s. One reviewer, Jason C. Sheasley, observed: “His salvation was fishing cold mountain streams with a fly rod. For over a decade Middleton traveled from his home in Birmingham ... to the Great Smoky Mountains. There he found relief wading the trout streams with his 4-weight Winston fly rod in hand. On the Spine of Time captures the essence of those trips through the Smoky Mountains and provides us with a glimpse into the quiet splendor of this place ....”
These excerpts from On the Spine of Time track Middleton’s constant yearning, while residing and working in Birmingham, to get away from it all, if only for a short while to the Great Smokies. In that regard, he captures the feelings of many others, past and present, who have shared the same yearning: the desire to find a place of refuge in the high country. In this instance, his objective was Hazel Creek on the North Carolina flank of the national park:
A few words of explanation on this cold and windy mountain night. This is not a book about the history — social, cultural, or otherwise — of the Great Smoky Mountains or the high country of southwestern North Carolina, which is where most of the high country trout streams that haunt and soothe me are located. Neither is this some great quest or sojourn, nor a chronicle of some ambitious pilgrimage, angling or any other ... It’s a look at life, its losses and joys, its tragedies and happinesses, what is lost in a life and what is found ... I began going into the Great Smoky Mountains and into the nearby Slickrock Wilderness and Snowbird Mountains more than a decade ago. I was on my way to West Virginia and got side-tracked. Lucky me ... For years I have tried unsuccessfully to abandon this peculiar need of mine for mountains, for high country and trout streams, for the economy of life that seems to follow a steady rise in altitude. It’s a serious malady, a vexing obsession ... The mountain I live on rises 1,100 feet above a narrow valley spreading to the south ... On good days, days when the air is not thick with the heavy, gray clouds of smog rising up from every city between central Alabama, Atlanta, and Knoxville, I am sure, quite sure that I can look out this window and see all the way to Tennessee and beyond, all the way to the high dome-shaped peaks of the Smoky Mountains, mountains that appear briefly in the bright light as though they are momentary illusions ....
The day I set up camp [on Hazel Creek] I purposely ignored a wide pool of alluring water just downstream from the small rise above the creek bank where I put up the blue tent ... It was a stretch of water worth saving, for tomorrow or the next day, or a morning such as this ... I sat alone on the big stone by the tent. The rod was ready, as was the angler, and the creek ran fast and cold. Daylight widened along the creek, giving a flat shine to the stones and the damp ground littered with a chaos of fallen leaves heaped by the wind into low swales, against outcrops of stone, in weathered coverts, ravines, and cuts, scattered like winnowed duff about the deep shadows of the forest floor. With each breath of wind the landscape shuddered, became almost liquid, a geography of colors rather than of fixed landmarks and boundaries, colors endlessly mingling one with the other .... All along the upper ridges, the thick deciduous forest glowed in the hazy autumn light. Under a press of wind, the trees and their fashion of dead, brightly colored leaves bent and swayed like great coils of undulating ribbon, bolts of warm, rich color.
Sitting on a large, flat, comfortable stone, I took a No. 18 Royal Wulff from my small metal fly box, examined it carefully, decided it looked too well kept, too tidy, too much the imposter to entice a fish as suspicious as trout, especially at this time of the morning. Instead of putting the fly through expected routine of preening, making it presentable, I intentionally mussed it up, giving it a rumpled, tacky, almost ruinous look, like an insect truly fallen on hard times and in deep trouble, a morsel ready for the taking, a temptation tied invitingly about a fine well-sharpened hook and knotted securely to nine feet of 6X leader and tippet ... Rod in hand I walk up the creek. Brittle leaves crumbled underfoot. At the instant of my first cast above and across the deep pool’s smooth dark surface ... a kingfisher across the creek squawked harshly.
Those of you who enjoy reading books about the Smokies should make an effort to locate a copy of Hidden Valley of the Smokies: With a Naturalist in the Great Smoky Mountains (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1971) by Ross E. Hutchins. It is one of more informative books yet written about the natural history of this region.
Hutchins (1912-1983) possessed a trained scientist’s mindset and powers of observation. Unlike many scientific writers, his long experience as a writer for popular magazines and books enabled him to describe the somewhat technical processes that interested him in an engaging manner.
Hutchins was born in Alder Gulch, a gold mining camp in Montana. He grew up on a cattle ranch in the high Rockies near Yellowstone National Park, never descending below 5,000 feet elevation until he was over 20 years of age. In his autobiography, Trails to Nature’s Mysteries: The Life of a Working Naturalist (1977), he reflected: “Having grown up in a mountainous area, it was perhaps inevitable that I should become attracted by the Great Smoky Mountains, the nearest one to my adopted home in the South.”
The “adopted home” was Starkville, Miss., where since the 1930s Hutchins had been professor of entomology and zoology at Mississippi State University as well as longtime director of the State Plant Board of Mississippi. He was the author of more than 40 books — all illustrated by his photographs, which were exceptional in regard to magnification of minute details.
In addition to books about seeds, dragonflies and damselflies, grasshoppers, galls and gall insects, ants and similar subjects, he wrote three excellent general accounts of natural history: Island of Adventure: A Naturalist Explores a Gulf Coast Wilderness (1968); Hidden Valley of the Smokies; and the 1977 autobiography.
It was perhaps in the mid-1960s, but exactly when Hutchins and his wife established seasonal residence at Elkmont on the Tennessee side of the national park is unclear. In Hidden Valley of the Smokies, he advises the reader: “I call it Hidden Valley with good reason; to me, that name is most descriptive of its nature. Places I love I usually designate by my own special names ... and thus named, a place becomes ‘mine.’”
While exploring “Hidden Valley” he considers topics such as seed dispersal mechanisms, the pollination tactics of various plants, skunks and “chemical warfare,” why many trees have twisted grains, medicinal and deadly plants, and more.
An entire chapter titled “Leaves in the Sun” is devoted to leaf shapes, leaf “drip tips,” leaf flight patterns, leaf volume and the special “voice” each tree possesses — it is a veritable tour de force of leaf lore. After reading Hutchins on leaves, you’ll never look at a leaf the same way again. Here are some excerpts:
“Leaves, seemingly in infinite number, festoon the trees and herbaceous plants of the valley, and one afternoon I wondered how many there actually were. My first thought was that it would be impossible to make even a wild guess. Yet when I considered the matter, it occurred to me that by calculating the number of leaves per square foot — not an impossible task — I might arrive at some reasonable figure ... In any case, I decided to attempt an estimate of the number of leaves — on both trees and herbaceous plants — on an acre of ground in Hidden Valley. I imagined a column, one square foot in area, reaching upward from the earth to the tops of the trees and estimated the number of leaves within it. A month later, after the leaves had fallen from the trees, I made several counts of dead leaves on the ground and obtained an average. The conclusion was that on each square foot there had been an average of about two hundred living leaves. The conifers — hemlocks and pines — ignored, since I could not decide how to classify their needles ... From the above figure I determined that on each acre of ground there had been 8,712,000 leaves. Carrying my calculations even farther, assuming there to be about six square miles in the valley, I found that there had been about 33,454,080,000 leaves ...
“Abundant as are the leaves of these forests, each one has its own individual form and structure; no two, even on the same tree or plant, are exactly alike .... Why, you may ask, are there such variations in leaf shapes? The answer is not at all simple. Some leaves have pointed, downwardly directed tips that facilitate the runoff of rain water, eliminating the water before it can injure the leaves by inducing the growth of fungi or by focusing the rays of sunlight upon the leaves’ delicate tissues. In the forest there are many examples of leaves with drip tips. On the other hand, many leaves are ovate in form, having no adaptations for the rapid elimination of water ...
“The subject of drip tips is an illusive one and I hesitate to generalize too much. Drip tips must have value; otherwise not so many leaves would be equipped with such a mechanism. I recall that the buckskin jacket of the American Indians and early trappers were almost always fringed. These fringes, contrary to the usual assumption, were not merely decorative; in effect they were drip tips, aiding water to drip off quickly, without soaking the remainder of the clothing ....
“Seated here on a boulder this mid-October afternoon, I watch the falling leaves sailing down like gayly colored confetti and marvel at the miraculous autumn season, and the indiscriminate array of colors around me ... Usually I can identify a leaf by the way it falls, although the shape in which it dries before falling from the tree also influences the path it follows. In general, maple trees spiral downward, following a helical path; oak leaves zigzag in their descent, swinging from side to side in hurried movements; the leaves of the sycamores settle gracefully down, exhibiting but little lateral movement and do not spin. (Sycamore leaves remind me of small, inverted parachutes.) Willow leaves, slender and lanceolate in form, have a most characteristic manner of all; they spin rapidly on horizontal axes. I am sure I could classify each kind of tree leaf by the way it falls. Each one by its shape is governed by the complexities of its aerodynamics.
“Against the background sounds of the roaring stream in Hidden Valley is the music of the forest, the multitudinous voices of the trees as the wind blow through them. There is the soft but audible breath of the breeze in the pines and the hemlocks, and the sonorous tones of the broad-leafed trees. Never is there complete silence in the valley, and often, while alone there, I imagine that each tree has its own special ‘voice.’”
Biologist and ecologist Robert Zahner (1923-2007) was born in Summerville, S.C., and grew up in Atlanta. But his adopted “spiritual home” was the elevated plateau on the southeastern cusp of the Blue Ridge where Highlands is situated.
Through the years, the Highlands Plateau has attracted some of this nation’s finest naturalists, biologists, ornithologists and ecologists, starting with the French botanical explorer Andre Michaux during the late 18th century. But the name attached to the region today as much as any other is Bob Zahner’s. Unlike most of the others, he didn’t just pass through or come for a season of field studies. Along with his wife, fellow biologist and constant companion, Glenda, he came to stay.
Even in condensed summary, Zahner’s professional career was distinguished. After serving in the U.S. Army air corps during World War II, he received his bachelor’s (botany), master’s (forestry) and Ph.D. (Ecology) degrees from Duke University. From 1953-1959, he was a research scientist for the U.S. Forest Service. From 1959-1974, he was a professor of forest botany and ecology at the University of Michigan. From 1974-1979, he was a self-employed consultant in conservation biology in Highlands. From 1980-1990, he was a professor of forest ecology at Clemson University. And from 1990-1999, he was again a self-employed consultant in conservation biology based in Highlands.
Bob Zahner was fun to be with. He was a ready source of precise information imparted in a low-key manner, but he was also a good listener. He saw the natural world through scientifically trained eyes and the eyes of a nature enthusiast.
Requested to do so, Glenda Zahner provided these “Biographical Notes on Bob Zahner”:
“Bob grew up as a rich kid in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. His family spent summers in Highlands, at their cabin on Lake Sequoia, and, later on, on Billy Cabin Mountain. Bob considered Highlands his true home; his spiritual home; a refuge from Atlanta society; with freedom to be himself and be close to nature. He loved hiking in the mountains and the forests. This is where he got his inspiration to become a forest ecologist.
“For as long as I can remember, Bob always said he wanted to retire to Highlands; to the little cabin he built after being discharged from the army air corps while awaiting admission to Duke University on the G.I. Bill.
“Bob’s ‘retirement’ came much sooner than either of us expected. In 1973 his parents decided to give the Highlands property to Bob and his brother, since they felt we were already ‘buying’ his inheritance by paying the taxes and making the mortgage payments.
“Bob was at the peak of his academic career: chairman of the forestry department, with a very productive teaching and research program and a possible candidate for dean of the School of Natural Resources. However, he was unhappy about having more and more administrative duties leaving him less time for the research and teaching that he loved and did so well.
“Within a week after we became owners of the property in Highlands, Bob resigned his position at the University of Michigan and we prepared to make Highlands our full-time residence. Friends, family and colleagues were stunned by our decision. We, ourselves, never struggled with the decision. It was as though we were ‘called’ there, but didn’t yet know why or for what purpose.
“Soon after we arrived we discovered that destructive forces were at work in the forests that Bob loved. Fifty years after the Weeks Act was passed, our National Forest was ripe again for cutting, and the clear-cuts were enormous. (It seems the timber industry was telling Congress and the forest service how much timber it wanted and that, rather than “best management practices” determined the quota.) It was totally unsustainable, and for Bob, it was heartbreaking to see what was happening in the Nantahala National Forest surrounding Highlands. From every mountaintop huge clear-cuts could be seen like pockmarks on the landscape throughout the national forest. On the ground it was devastating ....
“We decided to form a local ‘watchdog’ group to monitor forest service publication of planned timber sales on the Highlands district. This group became the Highlands Chapter of the Western North Carolina Alliance, and worked diligently on the ‘Cut the Clear-cutting’ campaign.
“Bob eschewed confrontation, but he excelled in diplomacy and had a real talent for finding common ground. He was effective in dealing with the forest service because he treated everyone with respect, including those with whom he disagreed, and he had the weight of good sound science behind him. He pointed out that to the timber industry, the term ‘sustainability’ meant sustainable timber harvest, while, to the environmental community, it refers to sustainable forest ecosystems . . .
“Bob introduced the term ‘benign neglect’ as a forest management tool, arguing that the value of a live tree on the stump continues to increase with age as it functions within the ecosystem, providing habitat, sequestering carbon and adding biomass. And he wrote a significant paper defining the characteristics of ‘old growth,’ which has been of immense help in determining stands that are in need of protection.
“Bob’s love for the land was not limited to the forest. He loved Highlands like he was a native son, which motivated him to write a book, The Mountain At The End Of The Trail, about the relationship between the town of Highlands and the iconic mountain that figures so prominently in the town’s history.
“The book is also about Bob’s own relationship with the mountain. Bob was a scientist of international repute, with scores of scientific peer-reviewed research publications to his credit. His first attempt at writing was dry, and empirical in style. I advised him to start all over and write from his heart, and the next draft was heartfelt and personal, even passionate.”
The Mountain at the End of the Trail: A History of Whiteside Mountain is both scientific and personal, a graceful blend of restrained yet “heartfelt” nature writing.
Naturalist, photographer and writer Edwin Way Teale (1899-1980) was born in Joliet, Ill.
American nature writing in descriptive prose inevitably flows from Henry David Thoreau, that insistent observer of the commonplace. John Burroughs, his 19th century follower, was the first professional nature writer in America, and he remains one of the most pleasurable to read. Then there is that forgotten gem of outdoor ruminations, Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. By the end of the century, John Muir had introduced a sense of urgency concerning the need for preservation. Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edwin Way Teale, Edward Abbey, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard and a few others extended that major tradition of American nature writing into the twentieth century.
Somewhat overlooked in recent years in favor of those writers whose primary interest lies in rendering their psychological reactions, Teale was one of the most gifted and influential nature writers of his era. Always methodical in regard to preparation, he was consistently able to locate significant interactions as they were occurring in the natural world and record what he was seeing in his notebooks. In his books, these events were set forth in an unvarnished yet memorable style that appealed to the common reader and the specialist alike. He intuited that experiencing nature either firsthand or via the written word was essential — that it filled “a deep need of the human heart.”
The son of a railroad mechanic and a school teacher who had emigrated from England, Teale dated his interest in nature to summer vacations at his maternal grandfather’s farm, “Lone Oak,” in the dune country of northern Indiana. In 1918, he entered Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Ind., and studied English literature. After graduating in 1922, he married an Earlham classmate, Nellie Donovan, who became his constant companion as they crisscrossed the United States and Great Britain.
Near Horizons won the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing in 1943. His memoirs Dune Boy: The Early Years of a Naturalist (1943); The Lost Woods (1945), Days without Time (1948) and A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) have become natural history classics. Springtime in Britain (1970) is an absorbing account of his travels with Nellie through England, Scotland and Wales that covered 11,000 miles to places associated with the great figures in English nature writing: Gilbert White, William Cobbett, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, W.H. Hudson, Richard Jefferies, and others.
Teale’s most famous books consist of a quartet on the four seasons that he and Nellie traveled throughout the United States for nearly 20 years to research: North With Spring: A Naturalist’s Record of a 17,000 Mile Journey with the North American Spring (1951); Autumn Across America: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000-Mile Journey Through the North American Autumn (1956); Journey Into Summer: A Naturalist’s Record of a 19,000 Mile Journey Through the North American Summer (1960) and Wandering Through Winter: A Naturalist’s Record of a 20,000 Mile Journey Through the North American Winter (1965).
Wandering Through Winter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1966 — but, in reality, the award recognized the literary accomplishment the entire series represented.
The spring journey from the Everglades to Maine took place in 1948. It carried the Teales through Western North Carolina from Pearson’s Falls Glen near Tryon to Highlands and up into the Great Smokies to Silers Bald and Mt. LeConte. Teale explained in the opening pages that they had been planning such a journey — “seeing, firsthand, the long upward northward flow of the season” — for many years:
“But obligations and responsibilities pushed the dream unrealized before us. Season followed season and year followed year. And while we waited, the world changed and we changed with it. The spring trip was something we looked forward to during the terrible years of World War II, during the strain and grief of losing David, our only son, in battle. [All of the books in the quartet are ‘Dedicated to / DAVID / who traveled with / Us in Our Hearts.’] When we talked over our plans with friends we discovered that our dream was a universal dream. They, too, had beguiled themselves, on days when winter seemed invincible, with thoughts of lifting anchor and, leaving everyday responsibilities behind, drifting north with the spring.”
Anyone interested in this region’s natural history will want to read North With Spring.
Radical ecologist and writer Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was born in Home, Penn., the son of a hardscrabble farmer and a schoolteacher. Hitchhiking as an adolescent through the western United States initiated a lifelong identity with that region. After being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1947, Abbey worked at various marginal jobs while studying philosophy at the University of New Mexico, from which he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees. The title of his master’s thesis was “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence.”
Abbey worked in the western states, intermittently, as a U.S. Forest Service fire-lookout and for the National Park Service as a ranger. He also, without success, tried his hand at being a social caseworker and technical writer in New York City. He wrote eight novels, seven collections of non-fiction prose, a gathering of aphorisms, the texts for five collections of photographs, and — for just for good measure — he self-edited The Best of Edward Abbey. Later in life, he taught writing at the University of Arizona. He was married three times.
According to Kingsley Widmer’s biographical sketch in American National Biography Online, “Abbey held that his main vocation was as iconoclastic literateur defending natural wilderness and freedom. [His] best-known novel, and intended handbook of troublemaking, The Monkey-Wrench Gang (1975), along with its posthumously published continuation Hayduke Lives! (1990), is dedicated to the “Luddite anarchism of sabotaging American technocracy in the remaining open West.”
Abbey’s best writing occurs in his non-fictional prose narratives and essays. The most famous of these is Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968). Widmer notes that it “centers with tough candor on his times as a fire-lookout and park ranger. Here, and increasingly in later essays ... he revived anarchist Propaganda of the Deed (destroying surveyors’ markers, burning billboards, disabling diesels, protectively tree-spiking in old-growth forests, satiric sloganeering, and other measures) .... But in fact Abbey was more of a sardonic commentator than a political activist. [His] self-conscious role was to combine, in both person and writings, the ecologically sensitive wilderness westerner with the Enlightenment rebel-skeptic in a post-World War II he-man manner (he had trouble with “new feminism” and other “chicken-xxxx liberalism”).
“In spite of his considerable macho western mode — including boots and vest over flannel shirt, six-pack of beer and cigar, pickup and .357 magnum, full beard and fully scornful tongue — he was also attempting a libertarian revision of western mythology.”
Be that as it may, when he got around to doing so, Abbey could write with beautiful insight about the landscapes and entities in the natural world that he encountered. Some of his finest nature writing appears in an essay titled “Natural and Human History,” which served as the text for Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains — a coffee-table size book published in 1970 that featured the photographs of Eliot Porter.
Abbey was chosen to prepare this text because he had proven his ability as a writer of descriptive prose with Desert Solitaire. And he could also point out that he had resided within 30 miles of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a short while in 1968. As he was departing from the Great Smokies after completing his writing-assignment visit in 1969, he noted, in passing, that, “We come next to Sylva, where I had lived the year before while teaching at nearby University of Western North Carolina.” That’s the short version of an interesting interlude in Abbey’s career.
A fuller version is provided in James M. Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life (2001). Abbey felt the need for a full-time job after his wife, Judy, had given birth to their daughter, Susannah. So, he accepted a position in the English Department at Western Carolina University, where a friend, Al Sarvis, was teaching in the Art Department.
According to Callahan, “Ed, Judy, and baby Susie lived in the nearby town of Sylva, in the basement of the rambling home of Marcellus Buchanan, a colorful local politician ... Abbey hated this area and his job. He noted on Oct. 8, 1968, that ‘like a bloody idiot,’ he had accepted a teaching job ‘here at Redneck U. All for monetary greed ... $7,800, or almost $1,000 per working month, good wages for me.’ He dreaded the ‘horror the tedium the drudgery of academic life. ‘How I loathe it. All those pink faces in the classroom three xxxxxxx hours, five xxxxxxx days per week .... always there’s tomorrow’s xxxx to prepare, to read, to grade’ ... [His] first term as a full-time instructor of record was not an auspicious one ... His English Department colleague D. Newton Smith explained that Abbey was ‘very shy about that process. He didn’t know what to do, pretty much.’ Smith added that Abbey’s training in philosophy, ‘a very contemplative kind of thing,’ was certainly ‘not the same thing as teaching English.’
“On wild drunken, reckless drives through the countryside, Abbey threw his homebrew bottles out the window and raged against the ugly billboards defacing the landscape ... When Abbey got the word that he could return to Organ Pipe [Cactus National Monument] for a second full season, he was so eager to flee the classroom and the coming Appalachian winter for the Arizona desert that he quit his teaching job before the end of the quarter ... Newt Smith clarified that ‘he simply gave everybody in his class a B and left. It was not well received!’”
Edward Abbey couldn’t (or wouldn’t) teach English, but he could write it. A year later he described this moment during a wintertime journey to Clingmans Dome:
“Higher and higher we rise toward the clouds, the cloud forest. We reach a certain elevation, about 4,500 feet, where all of the trees are covered with a delicate, brilliant, impeccable snowy lace. Not snow, not ice, but frozen fog, that’s what it is ... Brittle and fragile crystals of frost. Apparently the needles act as condensation nuclei, around which the cloud vapors gather and freeze. The effect is stranger than that of snow or ice; each tree, seen against the sun, seems to glow, to radiate an aura of intense white light.”