Aspects of life from a rural cove

This marks my tenth year of writing a weekly Back Then column for The Smoky Mountain News. In all that time I have belabored neither editors nor readers with my poetry. Brace yourselves. The time has come. It is winter and it is cold and this is when I read and write poems. Herewith are several winter poems, dating back to 1977. Some day, if I get around to it, they might appear with others in a collection of personal essays and poems as well as line drawings by my wife titled “Permanent Camp.” These will depict random aspects of life in a somewhat remote cove situated a few miles west of Bryson City.


Han Shan

That old reprobate told his friends:

“Don’t come in winter!”

But he’d grin his toothless grin

and clap his hands and dance in the snow

way up there in the swirling mists

when anyone came to see him.

Well, we like friends, too.

And we’ll drink your wine with glee.

But what we will look for here in the lamplight

is the sparkle in your eyes.


Season of Light

Windowpanes gleam in winter.

Dark branches and twigs stand uplifted

crosshatched against the blue sky.

Snow-covered mountains emerge from the

swirling mists and move closer,

seemingly within reach.

Forgotten patterns and textures emerge.

Now is the time for seeing.


Do Not Neglect the Winter Months

Solitude is surer then.

The body of the land is laid bare.

Gray boulders await with somber intensity.

Each trail has an entity best realized in winter.

Sitting here at the kitchen table writing this for you

I think of Deeplow Gap . . . a notch in Thomas Divide.

Not far. I go there often, walking or in my fancy.

Oh, I could tell you all about it, how I see it.

But for you it will be different.

Essence arises from the manner of coming and going.

Go light. Don’t walk fast. Savor the cold.


Even in Winter

Stones in the creekbed

will speak to you quite clearly

in praise of water.



The creek is frozen.

All this clothing and still I shiver.

The goat rattles loose boarding behind the shack.

A decayed tree on the ridge gives way under ice.

Peering into the mirror by lamplight

I see the mole splotch spreading on my right cheek

and the gray hairs spurting from my nostrils.

There is no occasion for talk.



At 10 below there is a silence that is not solitude.

Frost flowers etch darkened window glass.

The woodstove leaks the light of a million poems.

But you are beyond all words

transported by the cold.

And what a fine thing

to kneel and blow the coals

just to see the embers glow,

when suddenly the kettle boils.


January 1977

After the long cold siege it warmed today.

Sun in a haze. The surface of the ice slurred

at noon but solidified by 3:00. I spent my day

in the yard, gathering scattered piles

of horseshit into one large pile. At first

I tried shoveling, but the frozen balls rolled

frustratingly away, here and there.

So I scooped them up with my bare hands.

They looked like ... like frozen horseshit.

And that’s the way I feel.


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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