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Several weeks ago, I devoted a column to the complicated science of book shelving. Not a few readers responded — often with descriptions of their systems, which they deemed infallible.

Shelving by fiction and non-fiction and leaving it at that seems sort of lazy to me, hardly worth the effort. Nevertheless, that method had several adherents, none of whom gave a hoot when I suggested they might be lazy if not slovenly shelvers. They were happy and didn’t care what I thought.

One lady proudly claimed to have “thousands of books scattered around the house, none of them shelved.” When I replied (in an email) that I hoped she was kidding, she wrote back to say she wasn’t kidding and offered to send a picture of her “book jungle” that I declined.

Most respondents shelved by subject categories of some sort: boats, animals, countries, etc. — and then arranged their books alphabetically within each category. No one else also broke them down chronologically, as I do; that is, I first shelve by general categories, say, natural history. Those books are then divided into British and American. Books up until 1900 are arranged chronologically (Thoreau would come before John Burroughs), but post-1900 books are alphabetical (Annie Dillard comes before Gretel Ehrlich). I don’t know how or why this system of mine originated, but it is infallible.

It should be noted before we move on that almost everyone, as a last resort, approved of the Dusty Miller school of book shelving. Dusty Miller was the much admired London bookseller I described in the column who, when asked how he arranged his books, replied that, “When I buy a short fat book I try to find a short fat hole.” For the lady who doesn’t shelve anything, this wasn’t an issue.

The response to the shelving column surprised me. In Western North Carolina, the love of and care for books seems to be alive and well. Or maybe the point is that readers of The Smoky Mountain News tend to be bookish. And the corollary to that would be that bookish people seem to seek out The Smoky Mountain News in both print and online editions. Why not? It’s a weekly regional newsmagazine situated off-the-beaten track in the southern mountains that features two wonderful written book reviewers, another general column (this one) that discusses older books with frequency, and a natural history columnist who is as likely to focus on a book almost as frequently as he does pileated woodpeckers.

Without this sort of feedback, I probably wouldn’t be inclined to write about bookplates. But there appears to be an audience out there that wouldn’t mind considering bookplates. Here goes.

For years, I’ve admired them and thought about coming up with one for our books that would be appropriate. I like the way a nice bookplate dresses up a nice book. I don’t have a rare or fancy collection of books by any means, but I do have many books that would look good with a bookplate, as does my wife, Elizabeth, who has a nice collection of art and papermaking books. I keep using the word “nice” so as to emphasize that we’re not talking about rare first editions or leather-bound books. We’re just talking about “nice” books — not tattered hardbacks or cheap paperbacks (although some quality soft cover books are “nice”) — of the sort everyone reading this has in their home.

Another reason for thinking about a bookplate is that I have signed most of our books on the front flyleaf. Some signatures are pleasant looking, even elegant. My signature is downright ugly. It used to be as big as a barn door. These days, as I get older, it’s becoming microscopic. Either way, it’s not a pretty thing to encounter. A bookplate would cover up most of my signatures.

Through the years, I’ve picked up several books with chapters on the history of bookplates. There’s no need to go into that sort of detail here. Some excerpted background I summoned up in about five seconds by entering “bookplates” in the Google search engine will suffice:

“A bookplate, also known as ex-Libris [Latin,’ from the books of’], is usually a small print or decorative label pasted into a book, often on the inside front cover, to indicate its owner. Simple typographical bookplates are termed ‘booklabels.’ Bookplates typically bear a name, motto, coat of arms, or any motif that relates to the owner of the book. The earliest known marks of ownership of books or documents date from the reign of Amenophis III in Egypt (1391-1353) ... The earliest known examples of printed bookplates are German, and date from the 15th century ... Although the majority of the older plates were armorial, there were always pictorial examples as well [including] landscape-plates by wood engravers of the Bewick school ... In 1901-1903 the British Museum published the catalog of the 35,000 bookplates collected by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks (1826-97).”

I included the reference to “landscape-plates” because that’s what Elizabeth and I finally came up with, using one of her idealized renderings in watercolor of the cove where we live. The same image appeared on the cover of one of our books, Mountain Passages (2005). So, the bookplates that arrived last week have personal significance, for us — all the more so, because our friend, Asheville artist Ann Smith, designed the 1,300 plates that arrived last week from a printer she works with. Ann describes them as “four-color with bleeds, peel and stick plates — uncoated (matte) finish — 3 x 4 inches.”

They’re better than nice. If you’ve ever thought about a bookplate to dress up your nicer books, I can affirm that you would in all likelihood enjoy doing so.

Considering the rate at which I am presently proceeding, I should be finished with the mounting process of these 1,300 plates in about 2015 or so.

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..

My weekly deadline is looming. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out. But I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m fairly sure it’s going to be a rambling essay about Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders, Camping and Woodcraft, and Smoky Mountain Magic. The first two titles were published by the Outing Publishing Company, upon which he exerted considerable influence for a number of years, as we shall see.

Partly, if all goes well, this is going to be about Kephart’s lifelong rather carefully-cultivated self-image as “an earnest and sometimes lonely, yet self-sufficient figure, like ‘dear old Robinson Crusoe;” and partly, about a thankless sort of literary endeavor at which he was better than competent — editing.

I sometimes think of Horace Kephart as “Robinson Kephart.” Hearing that, he would no doubt laugh and nod in agreement. After all, in the “North Carolina Library Bulletin” for June 1922, he published an autobiographical essay (reprinted as a pamphlet in 1922 by the “Bryson City Times”) titled “Horace Kephart by Himself,” in which he recalled his youthful years in rural Iowa in this maner:

“It was before the day of fences ... The elk and buffalo had left, but their bleached antlers and skulls were strewn everywhere over the prairie ... I had no playmates . . my mother taught me to read . . she gave me my first book, dear old ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ... I used to take ‘Robinson’ out to the old boat among the trees ... I made wooden guns, pistols, hatchet, and a thing I called a cutlass ... A fur cap was easily contrived, shaped like the one Crusoe wears in the pictures in my book ... The old boat was my wrecked ship, to which I made frequent trips, swimming out in my imagination, returning on an imaginary raft laden with imaginary seaman’s chests, bottles of rack and cordials, kits of tools, barrels of powder and bags of shot ... [My copy of DeFoe’s book has] ‘been saved through the vicissitudes of a somewhat venturesome life and lies before me now, coverless and stained with age ...’”

(What is apparently Kephart’s “coverless and stained” copy of the novel that reads like reality apparently re-emerged in the Kephart family archives last year.)

Kephart sometimes recalled his early years on Hazel Creek (1904-1907) in the pre-park Smokies in a manner that evoked affinities with the real Robinson Crusoe. Explaining why he wrote at night, he told a newspaper reporter from St. Louis: “Seldom during those three years as a forest exile did I feel lonesome in the daytime; but when supper would be over and black night closed in on my hermitage, and the owls began calling all the blue devils of the woods, one needed some indoor occupation to keep ... in good cheer.”

A neglected aspect of Kephart’s literary career consists of the series of 11 books he edited for Outing Publishing Company in their Outdoor Adventure Library, starting about 1914. Nine are complete or abridged volumes with historical-biographical-critical introductions.

The titles are indicative of the content: J.D. Borthwick, The Gold Fields: A First-Hand Picture of Life in California Mining Camps in the Early Fifties; Earl of Dunraven [Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin Dunraven], Hunting in Yellowstone: on the Trail of Wapiti with Texas Jack in the Land of Geysers; Roualeyn Gordon-Cumming, The Lion Hunter: In the Days when all South Africa was Virgin Hunting Field; Augustus C. Hobart-Hampton, Hobart Pasha: Blockade-Running Slave-Hunting, and War and Sport in Turkey; Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, Adrift in the Artic Ice Pack: From the History of the First U.S. Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin; Major John Wesley Powell, First Through the Grand Canyon: Being the Record of the Pioneer Exploration of the Colorado River in 1869-1870; and three volumes by George F.A. Ruxton, In the Old West; Adventures in Mexico; and Wild Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Several of his editions of these classics have remained in print because of the quality of Kephart’s introductions, in which he obviously invested considerable research and effort. Here is a paragraph from the introduction to Borthwick’s The Gold Fields:

“The popular notion of a miner is that of a rude and reckless fellow who works one day with a tin pan and gets drunk the next. There were, indeed, many of this ilk in the gold-diggings; but in the main, the miners of ‘49 were a picked and superior class of men. It was not as if a bonanza had been struck within easy reach of the riffraff of the nations. California, by the shortest route, was two thousand miles from any well-populated part of America, five thousand from a European port. The journey thither was expensive, and most of the men who undertook it were such as had accumulated, by their own industry, a good ‘stake’ at home. They were adventurers, to be sure; but what is an adventurer? One who hazards a chance, especially a chance of danger. That is the spirit which starts almost any enterprise that demands courage, determination and self-reliance ... Most of them were charged with spontaneous and persistent energy. Immediately, as by an electric shock, the California of dreaming friars and lazy vaqueros was tossed aside and an amazing industry whirred into action.”

Two of the volumes consist of narratives Kephart excerpted from numerous sources and pieced together with prefatory notes: Captives Among the Indians: First-Hand Naratives of Indian Wars, Customs, Tortures, and Habits of Life During Colonial Times; and Castaways and Crusoes: Tales of Survivors of Shipwreck in New Zealand, Patagonia, Tobago, Cuba, Magdalen Islands, South Seas, and the Crozets.

The title Castways and Crusoes caught my eye. Sure enough, as his first entry, Kephart placed a tale titled “A South Sea Crusoe” that Charles Dickens originally published in the 1860s in “All the Year Round,” one of the magazines he edited. In his note, Kephart informs the reader that this is “the narrative of an English missionary who was cast away on an uninhabited islet off the north coast of New Zealand, with no equipment but his pocket-knife, a pair of blankets, a few pieces of broken glass, a ruined boat and its tattered sails. The man was without food, tools, tackle, weapon, or even the means of making a fire. He was no expert in seamanship or in woodcraft. Yet he managed to subsist in this desolate place for nearly six months, without so much as a captured animal to divert his mind from the awful lonesomeness.” The clergyman added that he had “no books to while away the long tedious hours, no means whereon to fix even an account of my sufferings and fate; though perchance they might one day be read in my bones whitening on the beach.” Just the sort of reading matter Dickens and Kephart would enjoy.

I almost forgot to note that the Outing Publishing Company offered in their 1916-1917 catalog a four-volume “Robinson Crusoe Library,” comprised of Kephart’s Camping and Woodcraft (volumes I and II), his Camp Cookery, and — just in case something went awry — Charles Moody’s Backwoods Surgery and Medicine. Potential buyers were advised that, “It has been used and approved by mining engineers, travelers and sportsmen from Alaska to Hayti. Four volumes in a box. Pocket size 41/2x7 inches. Bound in flexible leather. $6.00 net. Postage 30c.”

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..

It’s Saturday night as I write this .... going on toward midnight. I read the thermometer mounted outside the kitchen through the windowpane with a flashlight. 30-degrees. Not bad. A light frost is forming on the grass in the pasture.

I recall, somewhat vaguely, that Coleridge in a poem titled “Frost at Midnight” alludes to the “secret ministry” of frost. After looking the poem up in an anthology, I’m still not sure exactly what he means by “secret ministry.” I can relate to the sentiments expressed a few lines later, when Coleridge notes his pleasure that all others in his “cottage” are fast asleep, leaving him to “that solitude which suits musings.”

I like being up alone late at night, too, especially in winter. What to do? Plenty. There’s always sports talk on XM radio, so long as I don’t turn the volume up and incur my wife’s wrath. But sports talk, alas, has gone to the dogs since the glory days when you could tune into the Bob Bell and Bill King duo out of Nashville, the irascible Pete Franklin from Cleveland, Larry Munson out of Atlanta, and “Buddy D” (Dilberto) down in New Orleans. Only Bill King is still alive. Those guys were informative and they were entertaining. Buddy D repeatedly vowed to dance down Bourbon Street wearing a dress if the Saints went to the Super Bowl. Too bad he didn’t hang in there a few more years.

Sports talk guys these days, all too often, seem to think they’re sociologists or political savants. The ESPN folks refer to their office building as a “campus.” There’s not much genuine interest out there in who’s on third.

My workspace here at home is in “the spare room,” where most of my favorite books are shelved. Late at night is when I reread them; that is, I usually read just a chapter or several pages — enough to become reacquainted and refresh my memory.

I will brag, however, about having read J. Frank Dobie’s The Legend of Ben Lilly in its entirety at least once every year since 1967. Ben Lilly, as you may not know, was the legendary bear and lion hunter from Mississippi who, in his latter days, frequented the Silver City area of New Mexico, where there is a monument honoring him that I have visited.

Theodore Roosevelt hunted with “Mr. Lilly” in the Louisiana swamps in 1907 and described him in a letter to Ethel, his daughter, as “a remarkable character” and “religious fanatic,” who had slept one night “in a crooked tree, like a wild turkey.” According to Teddy, “Mr. Lilly” had a “a mild, gentle face, blue eyes, and full beard” and was “as hardy as a bear or elk, literally caring nothing for fatigue and exposure, which we couldn’t stand at all.”

“Mr. Lilly” was a champion jumper, who could stand flat-footed in a barrel and jump out in a single bound. Holding a brick in each hand, he once made three consecutive jumps that measured 36 feet, an American record for jumping with bricks. While riding his horse, he would grab an overhanging limb and cavort to other limbs, chattering like a squirrel. I am fairly certain that I am the only person in the world who has read The Legend of Ben Lilly 43 times.

When not tuned into sports talk or reading about “Mr. Lilly,” I sit and listen to the creek that flows by our house. For going on 25 years now, we’ve resided beside Lands Creek, which rises in the Smokies above town and flows perhaps 10 miles into what is the Tuckasegee River part of the year and Lake Fontana the other part. The creek is a living entity, a part of the family — the last thing we hear at night and the first thing we hear in the morning. In the darkness, it purls over and around the smooth stones, murmuring and babbling, speaking quite clearly of its long journey home ... Tuckasegee ... Little T ... Tennessee ... Ohio ... Mississippi ... and on down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Past midnight, now — the frost in the pasture has thickened into a dull-white crust. Everything is very still ... almost perfect.

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..

Some readers might recall that three weeks ago — in a column about relocating my long lost inscribed copy of James Still’s “Hounds on the Mountain” — I mentioned in passing that the book had reappeared as I was in the process of reorganizing my home library while snowbound. I was iced into the cove the following weekend; so, having nothing better to do, I proceeded with the project and finally finished up this past weekend, sort of.

By this time next year, I will have despaired of the present arrangement and have to start all over again. Un-shelving and reorganizing and re-shelving books is a tricky business, with multiple options that can be endlessly fascinating, frustrating and time consuming. I like it. It’s an innocent species of self-therapy.

One of, my favorite authors is Larry McMurtry. I have a shelf of almost all of his books. He presently operates Booked Up — a vast bookstore of rare and used books comprised of nearly 400,000 volumes housed (according to subject matter) in four or five separate buildings in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, which is located in the middle of nowhere many miles south of Wichita Falls. Getting there isn’t easy or scenic, unless you’re partial to scrub and mesquite, but more than worth the effort.

In addition to well-known novels like Lonesome Dove, McMurtry has written two memoirs about book selling, collecting, reading, and related matters: Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999) and Books (2008). Having grown up on a hardscrabble farm outside Archer City, McMurtry thinks of his bookselling and book collecting as “book herding” — as opposed to the actual “cow herding” his father practiced.

(As an almost totally unrelated aside, I will note that Larry McMurtry is the father of accomplished country musician James McMurtry, who co-wrote with Townes Van Zandt the immortal “It’s Snowin’ Over Raton.” That would be the memorably rugged Raton Pass between New Mexico and Colorado, where my wife and I have also been snowbound on several occasions.)

Back to the point. In his Walter Benjamin memoir, McMurtry contemplated the mysteries of book shelving:

“Both in my library at home and in my bookshops I have a hard time hewing to any strict philosophy of shelving. Shelving by chronology (Susan Sontag’s method) doesn’t always work for me. The modest Everyman edition of “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” refuses to sit comfortably next to Leonard Baskin’s tall “Beowulf,” and exactly the same problem — incompatibility of size — crops up if one shelves alphabetically. Susan Sontag, on a visit when all of my books were in the old ranch house, found that she couldn’t live even one night with the sloppiness of my shelving. She imposed a hasty chronologizing which held for some years and still holds, in the main.

“Susan’s principles notwithstanding, I make free with chronologies when the books seem to demand it. My Sterne looks happier beside my DeFoe than he looks next to his near contemporary Smollett, so ‘Tristram Shandy’ sits next to ‘Moll Flanders’ rather than ‘Peregrine Pickle.’

“Despite a nearly infinite range of possibilities in the matter of book arrangement, I’ve noticed that most people who really love books find ways of shelving them which respect the books but clearly reflect their own personalities.”

Nevertheless, after several lengthy descriptions of various arrangements he had encountered through the years in distinguished personal libraries, McMurtry allowed in closing that: “I have long been a disciple of the Dusty Miller school of book shelving. Dusty Miller was a much admired London bookseller, who when asked how he arranged his books, replied that if he bought a short fat book he tried to find a short fat hole.”

My “home library” consists, in reality, of various stacked shelves and bookcases scattered at nine strategic locations throughout the house, including the bedroom and the kitchen. I don’t know how many books there are in the house, and I don’t want to know. I would estimate, conservatively, that there are several tons worth. The house shifts, as if situated on a fault line, each time I relocate a bookcase.

My wife fears it’s only a matter of time before a bookcase makes an appearance in the bathroom. That would, in fact, pose an interesting bibliographic proposition. What sort of books should be shelved in one’s bathroom?

My present system has been scientifically formulated. Authors are sorted and shelved according to subject categories. All of a given author’s titles have to go in one place — they can’t be divided up. This can be difficult. Does, for instance, Lawrence Durrell belong with the British travels writers or the British novelists? (As I am not an admirer of Durrell’s novels, he is currently placed among the travel writers, a genre in which he excels.) Pre-1900 books are arranged chronologically. More recently published titles are arranged alphabetically. Never stack books on top of books that have already been properly shelved. Try to avoid shelving books at floor level.

No, I haven’t read all of the books in my home library or the ones in my office in town, which also require reorganization. Why would anyone want to have read all of the books they possess? I feel good knowing they’re there waiting for me to get around to them at the appropriate time.

No, I don’t regret buying a single book I’ve ever purchased. I do regret each and every one that I’ve ever disposed of. And I hold bitter grudges against all those who have never returned books that I loaned them.

I have a horrible memory, getting worse. To this day, however, I can visualize exactly where certain books I desired but couldn’t afford were shelved as long ago as 1965 in remote bookstores scattered throughout the South in places like Nashville, Birmingham, Tupelo, Abbeville, Hodges, Madeira Island, Buxton, and so on. Book collection and reading and shelving and rearranging have been a most enjoyable part of my life. I can trace this inclination with certainty to when I was very young and mother purchased books and read them to me and then let me shelve them in a small green bookcase beside my bed.

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..

Topography and language

I enjoy using variants on the phrase “lay of the land.” One can “get the lay of the land” in a number of ways. If your hiking partner says that he or she is “going on ahead to get the lay of the land,” that’s one thing; on the other hand, if he or she is your business partner and flies to Dallas to “get the lay of the land” in a business deal, that’s something else. All of us all go through life evaluating “the lay of the land” in order to make it from day to day.

Here in the mountains the phrase is best applied to topography. There’s no other place in the world that surpasses the actual topography of the southern mountains. And there’s no place where the people of the region use a more delightful language in describing the topography of their homeland.

In Smoky Mountain Folks and Their Lore (1960), the well-known folklorist Joseph S. Hall enumerated some of the stories and phrases he had collected in the Smokies during the late 1930s. Some of the language had to do with “getting the lay of the land.”

Hall learned that a “bald” was “a treeless mountain top characteristic of the Smokies, as in Bearwallow Bald.” Botanists recognize a second species of “bald” they call a “heath bald”(i.e., a treeless tangle of rhododendron and other shrubs in the heath family). Hall found that they were known locally by such names as “laurel bed, lettuce bed, rough, slick, wooly (as in wooly head, wooly ridge, wooly top), and laurel hell.” A “bench” is “a level area, sometimes cultivated, on the side of a mountain,” while a “butt” is “the abrupt end of a mountain ridge, as in Mollies Butt, at the end of Mollies Ridge.” A “knob” is “a mountain top,” while a “lead” is “a long ridge, usually extending from a higher ridge, as in Twenty Mile Lead.” I would add that a “spur” is “a lateral branch leading from a ridge or high top that usually terminates abruptly.

Furthermore, a “sag” or “swag” is a low lying area along a ridge that’s not quite low enough to qualify as a “gap.” A “cove” is “a widening out of a mountain valley, or a meadow land between mountains, as in Cades Cove, Emerts Cove.” Coves are closely related to “hollows” (properly pronounced “hollers”) that are small valleys, “as in Pretty Hollow.” I would add that a “bottom” is flat land, usually along a stream. Hall recorded that a “deadening” is “an area where the trees have been killed by girdling (in order to clear the land for farming). Thereby, “bottoms” would often be “deadened” so as to create a “deadening.” Conversely, a “scald” is “a bare hillside” created deliberately or unintentionally by fire, which becomes a “yellow patch” when it has “grown up with thick brush.”

I am fascinated by the terms associated with water. First, there are “seeps” and “springs” or “springheads.” (If a spring is referred to as being “fitified,” this means that it is intermittent or “spasmodic” and thereby unreliable.) Reliable “springs” become “brooks” and then “creeks” and finally “streams” or “rivers.” “Shoals” are shallow, rocky places along waterways that can be treacherous. When a “branch” passes through “a marshy place” or small ravine, it becomes a “run.”

In a little volume by Allen R. Coggins titled Place Names of the Smokies (1999), we discover that the topographic aspects of the mountain landscape have been immortalized in a manner that is at once descriptive, humorous and poetic. Advalorem Branch in Swain County refers to “a tax based on a percentage of assessed value,” and Arbutus Branch in Cades Cove has that trailing wildflower growing in abundance along its banks. Ballhoot Scar Overlook at Smokemont is a place where logs were rolled (“ballhooted”) down the slope creating bare areas (“scars”), and you already know why an area near Gatlinburg is named “Bill Deadening Branch.”

“Blowdow” at Thunderhead Mountain along the state line in the high Smokies is named for an area where a wide swath of tulip trees and other trees were blown down by a storm in 1875. And there are branches, creeks, mountains and ridges known by the designation “Hurricane,” tornadoes or other heavy wind storms ravaged those areas. “Crooked Arm” is a mountain spur in Cades Cove shaped like an elbow that is drained by “Crooked Arm Branch,” which features “Crooked Arm Falls.”

Another place I’d like to visit is on Mt. LeConte. You already know what a “fittified spring” is. The one by that name on Mt. LeConte is said to have been originally created by an earthquake in 1916. It ran like clockwork with a “seven minute on, seven minute off flow pattern” until 1936 when a dynamite blast set off by a CCC trail construction crew disrupted that pattern. Thereafter, it was “fittified.” I’ve been to Miry Ridge at Silers Bald along the state line. As Coggins says, it is “knee-deep in places” with “black muck.” And I’ve been to “Mule Gap” in the same area, where Tom Siler operated a mule lot. Would you seek out Snake Den Mountain at Luftee Knob where, according to local lore, there is a den (nest) of rattlesnakes? I’d enjoy a visit to the “Dry Sluice” on Mt. Guyot. Coggins describes this as being “named for a small hollow or valley called a sluice, which has a spring-fed stream that sinks beneath the surface for several hundred yards before resurfacing. Hence the upper part of the sluice is generally dry.” But the origins of place names can be tricky. Coggins adds that “This name may also be linked to the early logging industry, when logs were sluiced (moved down the mountain) from timber cutting operations.” One could ramble on and on in this regard. Maybe some day soon I’ll run into you up at the Devil’s Courthouse or Hornet Tree Top or Holy Butt or down along the Boogerman Trail or Dog Hobble Branch, “getting the lay of the land.” Let’s just say, “Howdy,” and keep on moving.

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

This past weekend was given over to reorganizing the books in my home library. In the process, I relocated a volume of poems I had feared was long lost.

My favorite “Appalachian” poets would be Robert Morgan, Kay Stripling Byer, and James Still. Morgan and Byer are still going strong. Still passed away in 2001.

I never met James Still, but we corresponded in the 1970s with some frequency. Wilma Dykeman and her husband, James Stokely, close friends of Still’s, had suggested I might enjoy his work. They especially recommended Hounds on the Mountain, a collection of poems that had appeared in 1937 when he was generally recognized as “one of the strongest voices to emerge in Appalachian literature.”

Born in 1906 in LaFayette, Alabama, Still was librarian at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky during the 1930s. Following a stint in the Air Force during World War II, he became a freelance writer. In 1952, he returned to the Hindman Settlement School, again as the librarian. He stayed on for 10 years or more, but left that post to teach and write.

After I did indeed become enthusiastic about Still, who was somewhat reclusive, Wilma Dykeman said he would like to hear from me. At that time, for various reasons, Still had not, to my knowledge, published a book of any sort for almost 25 years and was pleased to be remembered. He did, of course, resurrect his career in the mid-1970s and go on to publish various poetry collections, novels, and children’s books, so that he is now sometimes referred to as the “Dean of Appalachian Literature.”

I have apparently lost our correspondence, but, sure enough, the volume that reappeared this weekend was Hounds on the Mountain, published by The Viking Press in a “first edition limited to seven hundred fifty numbered copies of which seven hundred are for sale.” My copy is hand-numbered in ink as being “435.” I had mailed it to Still, asking if he’d sign it. It came back inscribed on the front flyleaf: “For / George Ellison / Who has kept my poems / in his heart all ‘these sleeping years,’— / with greetings, and gratitude. / James Still / November 25, 1975.”

From the Mountains, From the Valley (Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2001) collects all of Still’s poems, including those that appeared in Hounds of the Mountain. I reread them this weekend with delight and remembrance of a fine poet. I recommend them to you. Here are some sample stanzas:


From Rain on the Cumberlands

Rain in the beechwood trees. Rain upon the wanderer

Whose breath lies cold upon the mountainside,

Caught up with broken horns within the nettled grass,

With hooves relinquished on the breathing stones

Eaten with rain-strokes.


From Hounds on the Mountain

Hounds on the mountain ....

Grey and swift spinning the quarry shall turn

At the cove’s ending, at the slow day’s breaking,

And lave the violent shadows with her blood.


From Graveyard

There is no town so quiet on any earth,

Nor any house so dark upon the mind.

Only the night is here, and the dead

Under the hard blind eyes of hill and tree.

Here lives sleep. Here the dead are free.


From Horseback in the Rain

To the stone, to the mud

With hoofs busy clattering

In a fog-wrinkled spreading

Of waters? Halt not. Stay not.

Ride the storm with no ending

On a road unarriving.


From Spring on Troublesome Creek

Not all of us were warm, not all of us.

We are winter-lean, our faces are sharp with cold

And there is the smell of wood smoke in our clothes;

Not all of us were warm, though we have hugged the fire

Through the long chilled nights.


From Mountain Dulcimer

The dulcimer sings from fretted throat

Of the doe’s swift poise, the fox’s fleeting step

And the music of hounds upon the outward slope

Stirring the night, drumming the ridge-strewn way.


From Child in the Hills

Where on these hills are tracks a small foot made,

Where rests the echo of his voice calling to the crows

In sprouting corn? Here are tall trees his eyes

Have measured to their tops, here lies fallow earth

Unfurrowed by terracing plows these sleeping years.


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..

You can almost smell the word “evergreen.” The word is at once one of the most aptly descriptive and highly evocative botanical terms. Simply reading or hearing it conjures up a mix of personal associations with particular landscapes.

Evergreens are with us year-round, of course, but from spring through fall they blend into a landscape comprised of a multitude of herbaceous or broad-leaved deciduous plants. Winter is the evergreen time of the year. It’s the season when the dominant colors of the landscape are the varied green hues of those trees, vines, shrubs, and ferns that do not lose their leaves or needles. For gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts alike, it’s the prime time for paying a closer attention to this particular category of plant life.

The ancient Cherokees were — by necessity and inclination — close observers of plant life. They wondered why some plants lose their leaves while others are evergreen. When anthropologist James Mooney was collecting Cherokee myths and lore during the late 1880s for his monumental Myths of the Cherokees (Bureau of American Ethnology, 1900), the medicine man Swimmer, who lived in the traditional Big Cove community, explained how it had been determined this came about:

“When the animals and plants were first made — we do not know by whom — they were told to watch and keep awake for seven nights. They tried to do this, and nearly all were awake through the first night, but the next night several dropped off to sleep, and the third night others were asleep, and then others, until, on the seventh night, of all the animals only the owl, the panther, and one or two more were awake. To these were given the power to see and to go about in the dark, and to make prey of the birds and animals which must sleep at night. Of the trees only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, and the laurel were awake to the end, and to them it was given to be always green and to be the greatest medicine, but to the others it was said: Because you have not endured to the end you shall lose your hair every winter.’”

Everyone knows the basic definition of an evergreen as a plant that “holds green leaves, either broadleaf or needle-shaped, over winter.” But an understanding — however rudimentary — of why some plants “choose” to remain evergreen and how they go about doing so will enable us to appreciate them more fully.

All plants in upland or northern environments face the double-edged dilemma of a lack of moisture in winter and a short growing season in summer. Most opt to hunker down in cold weather and then really hustleduring the growing season to do their thing and produce seed.

Evergreens have taken the other path. Instead of shedding leaves or dying completely back in above-ground forms, evergreens have “opted” to tough it out and get a head start on the growing season. For this group of plants, photosynthesis can continue longer in the fall and begin earlier in spring; and, for them, energy that would otherwise be channeled into leaf reproduction is saved for direct reproductive efforts.

Various strategies allow evergreens to weather the drying winds and freezing temperatures of winter. The needle-like leaves of conifers expose less surface to cold drying winds. Their waxy needles, stems, and roots are filled with botanical “antifreeze” in the form of resinous chemicals. Conical shapes minimize buildups of snow or ice.

Other woodland evergreen plants have developed woody stems and thick leaves with waxy coats to cut down on evaporation. These tend to be shrubby or even ground hugging. In order to avoid having leaf cells ruptured by frost, water is channeled to spaces between the cells where expansion does less damage. And finally, the sugar content of the cells is increased to lower freezing points.

Individual evergreen species often have distinctive over-wintering devices. Everyone has observed how rhododendron leaves curl and droop in extreme cold. This posture obviously lessens exposure to wind, while the curling temporarily closes off the air-circulation pores (stomata) on the underside of the leaves. This dormant posture is also assumed during periods of drought.

Here in the Great Smokies region, a considerable body of lore has grown up around the fine art of predicting the weather. The drooping and curling of rhododendron leaves has not gone unnoticed. John Parris, a long-time columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times now deceased, devoted an entire column titled “Tell Weather by Rhododendron’s Curl” to this topic:

“The thick, leathery leaves of the rhododendron bushes were curled tighter than a homemade twist of tobacco. As mountain weather sharps well know, it’s a sign of winter for a fact when rhododendron leaves, though evergreen, droop and roll inwards ... they make weather prognosticating as easy as falling off a log and a heap sight less certain. To the weather sharps, a rhododendron leaf reacts the same way as mercury in a store-bought thermometer. When the temperature drops, they begin to droop and curl. As the mercury falls lower, the edges begin to curl under. The colder it gets the tighter the curl becomes. When it gets down nearly to zero, the entire leaf is rolled tight and at zero it looks like a green pencil hanging on a bush. From then on as sub-zero sets in, the leaf takes on a sort of hard brittleness and a blue-greenness. To those who have devoted years of constant study to the leaf thermometers, there is a familiarity of the tightening curl that is as easy to read in terms of degrees as the markings on a store-bought thermometer. Chances are a real reader of the rhododendron thermometer won’t be off more than a degree from the mercury register of a store-bought thermometer. Of course, a body doesn’t come by such a knack overnight. Most anybody can read the simple signs. But when it comes to the fine reading, then that calls for more years than a few at studying rhododendron leaves and measuring their curl down to a hair’s-breadth with the eye. Folks who fall into this category are rare and far between these days. They are old-timers, born and raised in the mountains, folks with a pleasure for the old things which they figure still have their use.”

Aside from the conspicuous conifers and other obvious evergreen plants such as American holly, rhododendron, laurel, doghobble, and sand myrtle, there are a number of small woodland evergreens. Trailing arbutus, galax, teaberry, and the dainty little partridge-berry vine are always a delight to encounter nestled among the brown leaf-litter while out on a winter walk. They lift my spirits on a gloomy, slushy day.

My favorite evergreen sub-shrub is galax, which displays spikes composed of tiny white flowers in mid-summer. When the first heavy frosts arrive here in the mountains, the rounded dark green leaves display eye-catching bronze, wine, and crimson colors. Galax was once in peril due to over-collection by mountain families who gathered the plant for sale as a Christmas ornamental. The town of Galax in the Blue Ridge of Virginia is so-named because it was situated in an area where the plant was systematically harvested. Today galax is used mostly in the floral trade. You would be hard pressed to go into a florist’s shop where a wreath is being constructed and not observe galax being incorporated therein.

The most prominent evergreens, of course, are the various conifers. What would the winter landscapes across North America be without the varied and often intermixed green hues of pine, spruce, fir, hemlock, cedar, and cypress? When out bird watching during the winter months, my wife and I always search the conifers. Here in the Smokies region a variety of winter residents — chickadees, kinglets, nuthatches, brown creepers, titmice, crossbills, and others — are attracted to conifers for shelter, protection from predators, and food. The cones provide seeds and the scaly, plate-like bark harbors a variety of insects.

An excellent general guide to evergreen plants — including the hardy ferns and clubmosses — is Donald Stokes’ A Guide to Nature in Winter (Little, Brown & Co., 1976). This volume covers a variety of other topics like winter weeds, insects, birds and their nests, mushrooms, and tracks that will stimulate you to get out the door and poke around during the evergreen time of the year.

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

The professional career of biologist Millard C. (“Bill”) Davis — who was born in 1930 in Utica, N.Y., and now resides in Dunnellon, Fla. – included stints as a teacher and editor in various capacities. He has been president of the American Nature Study Society and president of the Audubon New Jersey Wildlife Society. His articles and poems have appeared in The Living Wilderness, New Jersey Outdoors, The Christian Science Monitor, Nature Magazine, Writers’ Journal and Mid-Western Review.

Some of Davis’ finest writing has been about the life and literary career of Edwin Way Teale, in my opinion the greatest American nature writer after Henry David Thoreau. He estimates that he “is now probably 80 percent done” with a biography titled Edwin Way Teale, A Musical Call to Nature.

Davis has published two books: The Near Woods (1974) and Natural Pathways of New Jersey (1997). Both are descriptions of distinctive natural areas. The latter is a county-by-county guide with capsule summaries of 100 of “the finest natural places” in that state. The former is a collection of essays that survey the vast woodlands and associated habitats and micro-habitats of eastern North America. In recent correspondence, Davis recalled some of the events behind the chapter titled “Forests of the Smokies: Northern Summits in the Deep South”:

“In 1965 I was with a group of botanists on a visit to the Smokies to view plant communities. We stayed overnight at the home of Dr. Hal DeSelm (a botanist at the University of Tennessee), who led us up even into (dense tangles of shrubs called) balds ... Eventually I wrote up the trip as “Forests of the Smokies” and sent it to Dr. DeSelm. He liked it (and the article) came out in The Living Wilderness. I placed it in The Near Woods. From this trip, I began a lifelong series of visits into the Smokies — staying overnight, sitting by campfires.”

Most describers of American landscapes plod along. Davis’ descriptions are voiced with poetic crispness and vitality: “A dark horizon seems penciled in by the deep greens of spruce and fir trees.” Words spring to life: “the ultraglassiness of rhododendron blossoms,” or that “genetic oddity, the octoploid ‘skunk’ goldenrod.”

I was so struck by this aspect of his writing that I asked Bill, who visited me briefly in Bryson City last fall, if I could include excerpts in volume two (1900-2009) of an anthology of nature writing from Western North Carolina titled High Vistas, which will be published this spring by The History Press. He agreed. Here are some samples:

“The forests of the far north begin where the first scattered trees break the low flat wilderness of tundra. From there a thin lichen-woodland of small trees and lichen-covered ground spreads southward and gradually rises into a towering escarpment, sweeping toward the sky on dark green boughs. Trees of the few species of this boreal forest, this American taiga, may become so densely interwoven to the east that forest animals are born and buried in a perpetually gloomy winter.

“If the aspect of the coniferous forest is peculiar to itself, however, some of the species are not. And a number of them survive as remnants of the ice age in forests that extend far south to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina ....

“Mountain terrain affects the flow of the seasons as though they were strung on strings. Autumn and winter come earlier, spring and summer later, to the higher altitudes. Yet when the hour has arrived in the Smokies, spring rushes through the highest forests and grassy balds like a crackling fire ....

“On the waistline of ridge after ridge, a pink blur appears and gradually spreads across the mountain range in spring. Late one May I stood with a half-dozen friends enshrouded in a few hundred of the millions of soft blossoms that compose this hazy sash. The knees of my pants were slimy with mud, and my cheeks felt inflamed from tiny cuts. Then I bulldozed my way upward once more, emerging finally fifty yards higher up the mountain. Standing to my full height for the first time in perhaps twenty minutes, I looked down over the tangle I had escaped. For nearly 150 yards down the mountain ridge pink rhododendron flowers slid gently among each other ... To me no flower matches the ultraglassiness of the rhododendron blossoms. The pink cups allow a softer light to pass into the shadowed tangle beneath the canopy ....

“As we scrambled down the ridge flank, aiming free-hand style toward the road along the next ridge, a friend and I followed a corner of the slick. The ground fell away before us until suddenly the bushes ended at a ten-foot overhang. We dangled like parachutists over the bounding waters of a twisting mountain stream. Wading across it a few minutes later, we could see up and down stream only a few hundred feet. But we knew that upstream, several miles beyond the first crisp turn, lay the beech-filled cover of a vastly different environment. We were following one of the routes of the southern junco, which trace their migration routes up and down the mountainsides. For every four hundred feet of altitude they fly, they accomplish an equivalent of about four days’ travel northward or southward ....

“In one Lilliputian clearing the yellow bloom of boreal clintonia bobbed in the May breezes. With the sun’s rays falling directly below it, the plant might have been a lantern illuminating a leafy park. Among the plumes of shield fern we found a genetic oddity, the octoploid “skunk” goldenrod (Solidago glomerata)....

“It is the coves that give these ancient mountains their graceful slanting contours. To the observer five or more miles away, their flanks seem to flow across each other.”

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..

One of my favorite accounts of this region’s varied history is provided by John Preston Arthur, who published his 659-page volume titled Western North Carolina: A History (From 1730 to 1913) in 1914.

Originally published by The Edward Buncombe Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution of Asheville, the volume was reissued in 1996 by The Overmountain Press, by Kessinger Publishing (quick print), and by The University of Michigan Library (quick print) in 2009. (Note that “quick print” editions are generally inferior in regard to print quality and binding but are, perhaps, better than nothing.) And the text is also available online via any search engine.

I like Arthur’s book because it is generally accurate and is written with a distinctive personal style; furthermore, it not only covers the big picture (Cherokee history and culture, early white settlers, timbering, railroads, mining, etc.) but gives equal attention to important matters like “Manners and Customs,” “Humorous and Romantic” incidents, and “Physical Pecularities.”

The dust-wrapper for The Overmountain Press reissue provides information regarding Arthur’s life culled from a “biography” by O. Lester Brown published in the Watauga Democrat (Boone, North Carolina) in March 1976. Arthur was born in 1851 in Columbia, South Carolina, and died in Boone in 1916. He received a law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1872 and practiced in that state and New York City until 1887, when he moved to Asheville, where he also practiced law in addition to serving as manager and superintendent of the Street Railway Company. About 1912 Arthur moved to Boone, where he lived in the Blair Hotel for the rest of his life. He wrote a history of Watauga County then published his history of WNC shortly before his death.

According to the dust-wrapper account, Arthur’s last years were not all that sunny. He earned little from his historical writings, which probably wasn’t a surprise. But he also had few legal cases come his way, so that “his financial condition was acute.” He was reduced to working “for fifty cents a day, digging potatoes and gathering apples, and even applied for a job as a helper at a livery stable. Broken-spirited, he soon took to his bed and died ‘homeless, penniless and heartbroken.’”

Local and regional historians don’t generally live high on the hog, but Arthur’s last years were especially grim. Nevertheless, his work displays an interior outlook that belies the apparent bleakness of his everyday life. “Western North Carolina” is chock full of humor and delight in the everyday events and episodes of mountain life. It’s my hope that O. Lester Brown misread his subject somewhat, not fully realizing that old JPA was having a grand time while scribbling away in his hotel room. By way of support for that position, here are some mostly random excerpts:

JPA on mountain women: “But it was the women who were the true heroines of this section. The hardships and constant toil to which they were generally subjected were blighting and exacting in the extreme. If their lord and master could find time to hunt and fish, go to the Big Musters, spend Saturdays loafing or drinking in the settlement — or about the country ‘stores,’ as the shops were and still are called, their wives could scarcely, if ever, find a moment they could call their own. Long before the ‘palid dawn’ came sifting in through chink and window they were up and about. As there were no matches in those days, the housewife ‘unkivered’ — the coals which had been smothered in ashes the night before to be kept ‘alive’ till morning, and with ‘kindling’ in one hand and a live coal held on the tines of a steel fork or between iron tongs in the other, she blew and blew and blew till the splinters caught fire. Then the fire was started and the water brought from the spring, poured into the ‘kittle,’ and while it was heating the chickens were fed, the cows milked, the children dressed, the bread made, the bacon fried and then coffee was made and breakfast was ready. That over and the dishes washed and put away, the spinning wheel, the loom or the reel were the next to have attention, meanwhile keeping a sharp look out for the children, hawks, keeping the chickens out of the garden, sweeping the floor, making the beds, churning, sewing, darning, washing, ironing, taking up the ashes, and making lye, watching for the bees to swarm, keeping the cat out of the milk pans, dosing the sick children, tying up the hurt fingers and toes, kissing the sore places well again, making soap, robbing the bee hives, stringing beans, for winter use, working the garden, planting and tending a few hardy flowers in the front yard, such as princess feather, pansies, sweet-Williams, dahlias, morning glories; getting dinner, darning patching, mending, milking again, reading the Bible, prayers, and so on from morning till night, and then all over again the next day. It could never have been said of them that they had ‘but fed on roses and lain in the lilies of life.’”

JPA on mountain dialect and language: “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’ .... 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 ‘pack’ our loads in ‘pokes,’ and ‘reckon we can’t’ if invited ‘to go a piece’ with a passerby, when both he and we know perfectly well that we can if we will. Chaucer and Shakespeare may have used these expressions we do not know .... 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, ‘colume’ for column, and ‘pint’ for point. The late Sam Lovin of Graham 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 ... ‘mashed, mummicked and hawged up,’ means worlds to most of us. Finally, most of us are of the opinion of the late Andrew Jackson who thought that one who could spell a word in only way was a ‘mighty po’ excuse for a full grown man.’”

Locate a copy of Arthur’s history of WNC and see for yourself. You’ll perhaps sense, as do I, that JPA’s last years probably weren’t irremediably wretched. After all, anyone who maintains a passionate interest in the history, lore, and humor of his or her chosen region won’t ever be totally impoverished.

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

The New Year has arrived and the great horned owls have commenced their annual “singing” along the dark ridges. These birds don’t sing, of course, in the manner of true songbirds like warblers and orioles — but the quick cadence of four or five hoots (“hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo”) given by the male, or the lower-pitched six to eight hoots (“hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo”) of the female serve the same purpose.

For most living things, winter in these mountains is a time of simple survival. But if you walk the ridges just after dusk, there’s a chance you’ll hear the territorial and mating calls of the so-called “hoot owl,” which, as part of its survival strategy, breeds and lays eggs in the depth of winter.

Aptly known as “The Tiger of the Night,” a great horned owl can stand more than two feet tall with a wingspan of four and a half feet. Its eyes are 35 times more sensitive than those of a human being. The feathered tufts (“horns”) on its head look like ears but aren’t. The real ears are slits hidden among the feathers on the side of the owl’s head. Placed asymmetrically, these admit slightly different frequencies to each of the eardrums so that the bird can differentiate and pinpoint the origin of faint sounds. Specialized wing feathers, downy-fringed like a butterfly’s, enable this predator to move silently in flight. No sound of rushing wings warns the victim of the devastating strike that will be delivered by talons so powerful they can rip through a fencing mask.

The ancient Cherokees were astute observers of the natural world within which they existed. The mountain landscape and all of its plants and animals were a part of their spiritual cosmos. Their system divided the world into three levels: the Upper World of light, goodness, and the everlasting hereafter; the Under World of darkness, evil, and eternal death; and the mundane Middle World within which humans reside. By balancing these realms the Cherokees sought to bring peace and harmony into their daily lives.

There is a great deal of serpent imagery in Cherokee lore, especially that having to do with the Uktena, a giant, mythic snake that haunted their imaginations. But the main portion of their animal imagery was devoted to birds. They were our first ornithologists. For them, as for us, birds were magical. They are beautiful. They often sing. And they can do something that humans can only dream about ... they can fly.

Most Cherokee bird lore is concerned with species they saw all the time: cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, etc. Their bird stories are usually rather lighthearted; at times, however, they associated birds with the negative aspects of the Under World. The most logical candidates for this distinction were the owls, those woeful denizens of darkness, especially the great horned owl, which they knew as “tsgili.”

Anthropologist James Mooney, who lived with the Cherokees on the Qualla Boundary (present day Cherokee) during the late 1880s, observed that, “Owls and other night-crying birds are believed to be the embodied ghosts or disguised witches, and their cry is dreaded as a sound of evil omen.” Of the three owls named in Cherokee lore, the great-horned was by far the most dreaded; so much so, that the designation “tsgili” was expanded in meaning so as to also signify “witch.” The great-horned owls and the Cherokee witches were the masters of the night.

I have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart. The evil medicine men or “witches” employed the formulas to accomplish their own nefarious ends. These have been categorized as those used “To Lower One’s Soul.” Alan Kilpatrick, a member of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, noted in The Night Has a Naked Soul (Syracuse University Press, 1997) that the sacred formulas which fall into this category “represent instruments whose express purpose is to destroy human life. Because of their grave and irreversible consequences, life-threatening spells . . . were traditionally the last incantations to be taught an apprentice.”

Here is a formula of this type that I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. No reader will be surprised to see which bird is invoked:


To My Enemy

Your name is night.

I am the black owl

that hunts the darkness

for your heart and soul.

Your name is the night.

I am the black owl

hunting your soul.


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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