Displaying items by tag: george ellison

Big fish of the Smokies

Each of us inhabits several landscapes. On the one hand, there is our everyday exterior topographic landscape. We call it reality. On the other there is our interior landscape … the world of imagination, dreams and nightmares. Whether we are aware of it or not, a significant portion of our life is spent balancing and reconciling the exterior and the interior.

The spiritual ideal of the ancient Cherokees was balance in all matters large and small … the Upper World of light, peace, and everlasting life (represented by Sanuwa, the mythic hawk modeled, perhaps, on the perigrine falcon) was balanced by the Under World of darkness, strife, and eternal death (represented by Uktena, the giant serpent modeled on the rattlesnake) ... men balanced women … plants balanced animals … summer balanced winter … each item or category had its counterweight. The totality of this belief system is now sometimes referred to as the Harmony Ethic.

The interior landscapes reflected in the Cherokee myths are inhabited by anomalous creatures. They were distorted images of the exterior world that helped define “reality”—or maybe it was the other way round. Be that as it may, they were an interesting assembly of strange and wonderful critters. Here is one of them: Dakwa.

When a fisherman in the Smokies region receives a sudden strike from a huge fish that breaks his line or drags his tackle away before he can react, he usually supposes it was a muskellunge, a ferocious species of pike that reaches a length of 60 inches and a weight of nearly 70 pounds.

But all strikes of this sort can’t be attributed to muskies. There is, after all, another great fish almost as large as a whale. This would be the Dakwa, a fish so large it was equated with the whale. Indeed, according to ethnologist James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1900), when the Bible was translated into Cherokee in the 18th century, the word “Dakwa” was employed as the equivalent of “whale.”

Mooney also points out that, “In almost every age and country we find a myth of a great fish swallowing a man, who afterwards finds his way out alive.” It may be that after the Cherokees were introduced to Christianity in the 18th century they adapted an earlier legend depicting a great fish to a version closer to the story related in the Bible:

 

Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the Fish’s

belly … The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:

the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about

about my head … But I will sacrifice unto thee with that

voice of salvation; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation

is the Lord … and the Lord spake unto the fish, and it

vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

— “Jonah” 2:1-10

 

There are several Dakwa stories in Cherokee lore. Here is the one known as “The Hunter and the Dakwa” as collected by Mooney from the storytellers Swimmer and Tagwaddihi in the Big Cove of the Qualla Boundary (present-day Cherokee) during the late 1880s:

“In the old days there was a great fish called the Dakwa … This fish was so large that it could easily swallow a man. One day several hunters were traveling in a canoe … when the Dakwa suddenly rose up under the canoe and threw them all into the air. As the men came down, the fish swallowed one with a single snap of its jaws, and dived with him to the bottom of the river. This man was one of the bravest hunters in the tribe, and as soon as he discovered where he was he began thinking of some way to overcome the Dakwa and escape from its stomach. Except for a few scratches and bruises, the hunter had not been hurt, but it was so hot and airless inside the big fish that he feared he would soon smother. As he groped around in the darkness, his hands found some mussel shells which the Dakwa had swallowed. These shells had very sharp edges. Using one of them as a knife, the hunter began cutting away at the fish’s stomach. Soon the Dakwa grew uneasy at the scraping inside his stomach and came up to the surface of the river for air. The man kept on cutting with the shell until the fish was in such pain that it swam wildly back and forth across the river, thrashing the water into foam with its tail. At last the hunter cut through the Dakwa’s side. Water flowed in, almost drowning the man, but the big fish was so weary by this time that it came to a stop. The hunter looked out of the hole and saw that the Dakwa was now resting in shallow water near the riverbank. Reaching up, the man pulled himself through the hole in the fish, moving very carefully so as not to disturb the Dakwa. He then waded ashore and returned to his village, where his friends were mourning his death because they were sure he had been eaten by the great fish. Now they named him a hero and held a celebration in his honour. Although the brave hunter escaped with his life, the juices in the stomach of the Dakwa had scalded all the hair from his head, and he was bald forever after.”

The obvious difference between the story of the Cherokee hunter and that of Jonah is that the latter was dependent upon a higher power for his salvation whereas the hunter was dependent upon his own devices. Before someone calls to advise me that there are no whales in WNC, I’ll note that the Cherokees had trade relations with coastal tribes. They would have heard all about whales. And it’s probable that they saw them from time to time. I do wonder why the storytellers gave the hunter a baldhead.

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..

Editor’s note: George Ellison, like many in the mountains, was snowed in and unable to get an internet connection. This column was first published in The Smoky Mountain News in 2005

I’m sure you’ve noticed it’s the little things that, in the long run, mean the most in life? That’s a time-worn cliché if there ever was one. But as of now, I prefer to believe that it’s true.

And furthermore, I’m of the opinion that the little things are more important during the winter months. Here in the mountains, winter slows life down almost to a standstill, especially if you live in the country. In the country in winter, one tends to pay closer attention to the everyday world.

One of my best times for paying attention is in the morning just after I’ve cajoled myself out of bed and before I crank up the truck, scrape the frost off the windows, and drive the three miles to my office in Bryson City. After dressing, I pour myself a cup of grapefruit juice and, sometimes, a half of a cup of coffee. Then I position myself in front of the wood burning stove in the living room, with my backside situated as close as is feasible to the stove. From that secure position, I have a clear view out the front windows and across the creek to a far pasture. My wife, Elizabeth, almost always joins me. We usually don’t bother to talk much.

Sometimes her horse, Sochan, will be standing in the pasture. Preferring to walk all of my life, I have no inclination to ride a horse. But I like watching them. As someone once remarked, “A pretty horse completes a landscape,” or something like that.

Most of the time, however, Sochan is waiting up at the barn for his food and can’t be seen. My eyes then wander to the jagged ridgeline above the cove southeast of our home. Beyond that ridgeline in winter are the lower reaches of the Tuckasegee River, several miles below town. In summer, the river valley fills with bluish-green water and transforms itself into Lake Fontana.

From the ridgeline, my eyes wander downward to a bend in the creek just below the house. I’ve been watching that bend for over 30 years now and will never tire of doing so. A hardening in the ridge at that point, perhaps hornblende gneiss, diverted the water abruptly into a dogleg left, as a golfer might describe it. The water cuts under a small rock overhang, purling and glinting in the winter light. That bend is, for me, a magical sort of place. It was there when the first Indians walked this creek thousands of years ago.

My eyes follow the creek below the bend to the dark, almost black, vase-shaped outlines of several large slippery elms situated on the far bank. All elms are darkish looking from a distance. But slippery elms are a lot larger than winged elms. And they’re usually more vase-shaped than American elms. They display a gracious symmetry that’s always a pleasure to study. The splayed limbs look as if they’d collapse under a heavy snowfall, but they don’t. The Cherokees and the early settlers peeled the bark from slippery elms in long strips, shaved off the outer layers, and converted the mucilaginous inner bark into poultices that were applied to old sores, burns, and wounds. Watching the elms, I like to think about such long-ago things.

Below the elms at the far end of the pasture, is a footbridge, level and true. It gives Elizabeth and I not a little satisfaction to come back up the trail on the west side of the creek and be able to cross into the pasture on the far side, wander around, and view our home from that perspective. A creek without a footbridge is incomplete.

Come Christmas morning, Elizabeth and I won’t exchange gifts, just hugs and a kiss. From the windows we’ll be able to see the looming ridgeline, a sharp bend in the creek, the dark outlines of elms, a footbridge in the distance, and maybe a horse.

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

I am fascinated by those images from the natural world that remain with us for a lifetime — almost as vivid as when first exposed — while most simply fade away. I have sometimes tried to capture in prose or verse or scribbled notes in a journal those moments when such images are created

•••

I was driving alone south of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A light early morning mist was swirling in my truck’s headlights. As if from out of nowhere, a fox suddenly appeared, moving across the roadway, nimble feet in a dainty trot. On the roadside embankment, it paused, lifted a front paw, and turned to peer at the oncoming vehicle. The animal’s eyes looked into mine without fear. It was simply curious. With heightened awareness, I could see drops of moisture clinging to the hairs that outlined the creature’s silhouette. Then, with a single catlike bound, it disappeared in a graceful flow of movement. That clear image of a fox in the rain remains with me.

•••

The most distinctive feature of the rattlesnake is, of course, its rattle. Poisonous snakes prefer not to waste energy or venom except in pursuing food. The rattle serves to warn off creatures that might disturb or harm the serpent. Some authorities think the evolution of the rattle occurred by natural selection years ago when the rattlesnake’s ancestors were in danger of being trampled by vast herds of grazing animals. Whatever its origin, the rattle is an effective instrument. It’s a sound that galvanizes the senses. The tail vibrates with an uncanny almost-musical warning … you freeze in mid-step, holding your breath but unaware that you’re doing so … the hair on the back of your neck stands on end … the moment remains imprinted in your memory bank.

•••

August 1982 … Forney Creek-Welch Ridge-High Rocks … rain finally stops … dry T-shirt … a hog bolts out of the underbrush like a goat, head up … lunch where a giant chestnut fell long ago … decaying, blue-gray like a ghost … steep from main ridge to High Rocks … stone steps carved from granite splotched with patches of lichen … rhododendron boughs arched overhead … glistening black muck underfoot … the lush moss glows emerald green in this dim underworld … step after step & finally the top … tower & cabin … we can see almost forever … ridge upon ridge in every direction … no need to talk.

•••

Suddenly sunlight pierced the mist

magnetizing the moist leaf canopy

& filling the glade below Hawk Knob

with blue shadows and bright patches of light.

Down in the tangle at the lower edge of the

spring-fed now radiant glade there was

the faint glow of just one pendant lily.

•••

For days now you have been watching & waiting.

But not till you are least prepared is she suddenly there …

sculling upstream with swift strokes

rattling the morning into being

weaving her territory with sound

painting the air blue-gray and rust-brown

as kingfishers have for so many thousand years.

•••

In the plain light of that long cold winter I saw things more clearly than ever before … it was a revelation … I could see the edges and shapes of things: twigs and branches, stakes and posts, rusty wire and rotting string, thin blue shadows on snow, brown paths curving beside lichen encrusted stone walls … that strange winter provided time to pay attention.

 

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

I write this from my “office” (a spare room) at home. Looking out the window, I can see the creek that passes through our place. As a general rule, I spend more time watching the creek flow by my window than I do writing.    

We have lived beside this particular creek for 34 years. During the last 10 years, it has been mentioned with some frequency in this column. I often hear from readers who also feel attached to the creeks they live beside or seek out. This is for them … and any others who might feel the same way.

In a collection of essays titled Mountain Passages (2005) I observed: “Creeks are as central to life here in Western North Carolina as the mountains themselves. You can’t have mountains like the ones found here without the seeps, springs, branches, creeks and rivers that form them. Flowing water was the primary agent that sculpted the landscapes as we know them today. The word creek, in addition to being defined as ‘a small stream, often a shallow or intermittent tributary to a river,’ means ‘any turn or winding.’ The word may derive from the Old Norse kriki, meaning ‘a bend or nook’ … Mountain pathways almost inevitably wind down to and alongside creeks. They are irresistible. Each bend and nook has its own voice: the unique set of sounds that arises from the confluence of water running at a given rate over a particular configuration of logs and stones. We are attracted when moody or meditative to certain creeks where these sounds become voices that speak to us quite clearly.”

The creek I watch is named Lands Creek. Some say Land(s) was the last name (with or without the “s”) of the original settler … others that it was a general designation scribbled in the soiled notebook of the first surveyor who ventured up the creek after the Cherokees were forcibly removed.  

Be that as it may, Lands Creek rises far upstream within what is now national park from a hubcap-sized swatch of pebbly dark-stained seepage tucked in just below a grove of pitch pine and boulders. You can sit back out of the wind in that grove and consider the rhythmic repetition of nearby clearly-defined ridgelines as they fade westward into the distance toward Tennessee.

Have you ever noticed how paired ridges meander downward in measured patterns that mirrow one another across shared creek beds?  

Once out of the park the creek slows to a near stop as it filters though the system of reservoirs and dams that until the mid-nineties provided Bryson City with drinking water and then flows through the upper Lands Creek community into lower Lands Creek via a culvert under the so-called “Road to Nowhere” just east of  the park boundary.    

Here it is freed again to braid its way through remembered channels beneath overhanging rhododendron and laurel into sunlit openings. After surging over fallen hemlocks and boulders it suddenly flattens into a silver ribbon and flows past my window before darting under Shorty’s Foot-log.

I smile whenever I think about Shorty’s Footlog because: (1) Shorty isn’t short; and (2) to his way of thinking anything he constructs that reconnects the far sides of a branch … creek … river … bay … ocean … whatever it might be that ordinary people walk on to get from one side to the other without getting wet is a “foot-log” because that’s what it always has been “Up on ‘Larkie.” And it always be — even if someone says it’s the Brooklyn Bridge — because Shorty doesn’t give a damn and is easily aggravated. So henceforth the four-foot wide, thirty-five foot long, pressure-treated structure he calculated to reunite our pasture and yard for only $806.11 will be known as Shorty’s Foot-log.

The creek passes one last time into the park and down to a small waterfall without a name. Here you might sit and watch the water as it pours over the wafer-thin lip of rock … forming and reforming in falling patterns of white lace that dissolve in the dark pool below—and descends into what is the desolate landscape of the lower Tuckasegee in winter or placid Lake Fontana in summer.

Before the rivers of eastern America were impounded the waters that pass by my window flowed unimpeded nearly 2000 miles from Sharp Top in the Smokies down Lands Creek to the Tuckasegee … Little Tennessee . . . Tennessee . . . Ohio . . . Mississippi . . . and the Gulf of Mexico.

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 be excused for perhaps having overlooked the recent fireworks, but a minor war has erupted over one of this region’s favorite sons (or, not-favorite sons).

Pick your side.

Horace Kephart, the definitive writer of Western North Carolina history who set up a home of sorts in Swain County and gave us an accurate portrait of the mountaineer as he was then.

Or, Horace Kephart, who wasn’t even from this region. Who gave us a not very accurate portrait of the mountaineer of yore, and, if that isn’t enough to make you dislike him, was a good-for-nothing drunk who suffered a mental breakdown and stranded his family to boot.

I have an unusual, albeit somewhat shallow, interest in these matters. I live in WNC today because of Kephart. My family moved to the Bryson City area in the early 1970s because my parents fell in love with the region while Dad was doing research on Kephart. My father, George Ellison, wrote the introduction to Our Southern Highlanders when the University of Tennessee Press reissued it in 1976.

Other republications of Kephart’s books, and new information about the man himself, have been taking place these past few years. This has set the stage for a bunch of arguing about Kephart’s importance, the value of his books, and so on. My Dad hasn’t been part of that, best I can tell. He just keeps working on the material. And there’s been a lot of it to plow through, because the Kephart family is providing boxes and boxes of previously unexamined documents.

Here is the central argument of Kephart’s detractors, though they aren’t necessarily as direct about it as I am in this rephrasing: Kephart wasn’t from here. Thus, he had no right to portray the mountaineer at all. Only those born and bred in these hills, with roots that go back for generations, have a right or the ability to write about the people of these mountains. Everyone else is an outsider and doesn’t “get it.”

Phooey. I’m not from here, yet I maintain I’ve got a perfect right to portray whomever I want to, whenever I want to, how I want to, in whatever form I desire. Fiction, nonfiction, newspaper or magazine articles, columns, whatever interests me in a given moment as a writer. Who is going to stop me, pray tell? And if I do write about this region, what gives someone else the special insight to say my writing lacks value simply because I’m not born and bred of the hills?

I was born in Richmond, Va. If I abided by the underpinnings of this anti-Kephart argument, I would only write about people from Richmond (of which I know nothing, since we left there when I was six months old).

The argument is specious at best, and arrogant at worst. Let’s take it one step further, and the lack of logic becomes clear: Henry James wasn’t from Europe, so he shouldn’t have included Europeans in his novels. Ridiculous.

Joseph Conrad was Polish, so he shouldn’t have mastered English and written all those masterpieces, and about British people, for goodness’ sake.

Sue Hubbell, my current favorite nonfiction writer, hails from Michigan. Shouldn’t have written all those great books about living in the Missouri Ozarks, Sue.  

Here’s the other angle of this anti-Kephart fervor. Not being from here, Kephart just didn’t understand — he overemphasized the moonshining and illicit behavior, and underemphasized the refined dignities of the mountain people.

Maybe. Maybe not. That’s the neato thing about being a writer. You get to emphasize whatever interests you. And Kephart was very interested in moonshine. How it was made, and how it tasted. He spent a lot of time sampling the local offerings, and clearly became something of a connoisseur.

Additionally, if we are going to condemn every drunk who was a writer, say farewell to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Ernest Hemingway and plenty of others who found their muses in the dregs of wine cups and beer bottles. Kephart apparently often found his floating around near the bottom of a moonshine jar. So what does that prove about the worth of his work? Not a thing.

He was probably a lousy father and husband, but again, what in the world does that have to do with the quality of his writing, or his portrayal of Southern Appalachia? Not much.

A good place to take in the this-side and that-side of the great Kephart debate is www.tuckreader.com, a valuable recent addition to the local news scene. Check out the battle of words (both are being ever-so-courteous) taking place between Jim Casada and Gary Carden, both fine regional writers born and raised in WNC. Jim is from Bryson City, Gary from Sylva.

Better yet, read Kephart’s books and make an independent determination of your own.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Ho down down … Ho down dee

Red bird dancin in custody

Way down in New Orleans.

Ho down down … Ho down dee

A jailer stoned & barred the door:

“Red bird soon be dark & dead.”

Ho down down … Ho down dee

Red bird dancin in custody

Sang his song & flew away.

—modern rendering of The Red Bird Song

 

What if suddenly there were no songbirds? Hell, I’m told, is like that: hoot owls and buzzards … maybe a night heron or two … the occasional stork … no songbirds down there … a world without bird song would be “dark & dead.”

I wouldn’t want to do without any of the common songbirds that grace our landscape. But if I had to choose the one species I’d keep above all others, I suppose it would have to be the redbird. It is the emblematic songbird of the eastern temperate zone in which I’ve resided all of my life. Indeed, it’s the designated bird for my native state, Virginia, as well as for my adopted home state, North Carolina.

For the most part, we tend to take many astonishing things in our everyday world for granted. What if you had seen but one redbird in your lifetime? That would be a red- letter day in your life for sure. From time to time, we have to pinch ourselves and pay attention to the commonplace.

I sometimes have Elderhostelers in natural history workshops from the far western states that are accomplished birders. Many times … when I’ve asked those folks which bird they’d like to see that they’ve never seen before … they have responded, “I’ve never seen a northern cardinal, even though my mother read me stories about them when I was a child.” What great satisfaction to take them out, look around, and say, “Look over there in that bush … there’s a redbird.”       

Redbirds aren’t great vocalists in the pure musical sense. But their vocalizations are quite varied. Singing is almost exclusively done by male birds … the female cardinal, who also sings, is one of the few exceptions We usually think of them as saying something like “pretty-pretty-pretty” or “right-cheer, right-cheer, right-cheer.” But they must have at least 15 to 20 other vocalizations

My wife and I have observed that redbirds are almost always the first bird species to sing in the morning during the breeding season. And they are always the very last bird to visit our feeders during the winter months. I recently read an account in a birding journal attributing this habit to the fact that their eyes are larger than those of any other songbird species; that is, their eyes are more sensitive to the light.

Whether or not this is the case, these “early to rise and late to bed” tactics are in keeping with the redbird’s personality. They like to be in charge of all the other songbirds in their area. So, they wake them up in the morning and see them to bed at night. Somebody has to be in charge, and it might as well be the incandescent redbird.

The early Cherokees, who were unsurpassed observers of bird life, gave the redbird the onomatopoetic name “to-juh-wa.”

In Myths of the Cherokees (1900), James Mooney records two cardinal stories. The first, “How the Redbird Got His Color,” is simple. A raccoon had tricked a wolf and plastered his eyes with dung so that he couldn’t open them. In return for some red paint “the brown bird” agreed to peck the dung away from the eyes of the wolf, who then showed the bird a rock with veins of bright red pigment.

“The little bird painted himself with it, and has ever since been a redbird.”

From a number of informants in Western North Carolina and Oklahoma, Mooney stitched together one of his most interesting renderings of Cherokee spiritual lore.

The earth became dark after the sun’s daughter was slain. The benevolent Little Men told the Cherokees they must go to “Tsusginai” … to “the Ghost country in ‘Usunhiyi,’ the Darkening land in the west” (also known as Night Land) and bring back the daughter in a box in order to restore light in their homeland.

(In “The Swimmer Manuscript” published in 1932 we are told: In the Night Land the ghost people live exactly according to the native pattern; they live in settlements, have chiefs and councils, clans and families … everybody who dies goes and joins the relatives who have preceded him; they go hunting and fishing, have ball games and dances, etc.)

“The Little Men told them that they must take a box with them, and when they got to ‘Tsusginai’ they would find all the ghosts at a dance. They must stand outside the circle, and when the young woman passed in the dance they must strike her with sourwood rods and she would fall to the ground. They must then put her into the box and bring her back to her mother, but they must be very sure not to open the box, even a little way, until they were home again.”

This they did. On the way home, however, they heard the young woman wailing. She told them that she had no air and was dying. They tried to withstand these pleas, but finally succumbed and lifted the lid of the box “just a little to give her air.”  

“There was a fluttering sound inside and something flew past them into the thicket …”  

In Living Stories of the Cherokee (1998) contemporary Cherokee storyteller Freeman Owl concludes the story in this manner:

 

They looked over to the bush,

and there was

a beautiful redbird.

And as she sang,

the Sun smiled …

Then they knew that the redbird

was the daughter of the Sun …

 

It is a story about darkness and light and bird song.

 

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

A father’s influence

Horace Kephart (1862-1931) was the author of Our Southern Highlanders, Camp Cookery, Sporting Firearms, Camping and Woodcraft, Smoky Mountain Magic, and other books. He also played a well-documented role in the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most residents in and frequent visitors to the Smokies region know the basic story.

During 1903-1904, in a situation acerbated by alcoholism, he lost his position as a prestigious librarian in St. Louis and his wife and six children returned to her family in Ithaca, N.Y. He came to Western North Carolina seeking a “Back of Beyond” in which to heal himself, which he found from 1904-1907 in a cabin on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the Smokies. From 1910 until 1931, when he died in an automobile wreck, he resided in Bryson City.

Those are the barest rudiments of the Horace Kephart story. This is the story of the little-known role his father, Isaiah L. Kephart, played in his son’s transition from St. Louis to the Smokies. It’s a role that can’t be overestimated.

Born on a farm in 1832 in Clearfield County, Penn. (west of State College and northwest of Harrisburg), Isaiah worked as a lumberman, teamster, raftsman, and river pilot before being licensed to preach in 1859 by the Allegheny Conference of the United Brethren in Christ. He was ordained in 1863. During the final year and a half of the Civil War, he served as chaplain for the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry, which lost 417 men killed or wounded and more than 200 captured. He participated in 19 engagements under fire, including the Second Battle of Cold Harbor and the Battle of Petersburg. Thereafter, he taught at colleges in Iowa, California, and Illinois. Although some sensed during the early portions of his career that Isaiah’s interests were perhaps too broad, that he was at times dilettantish, he was by this time firmly entrenched in Dayton as editor of the Religious Telescope and widely respected, even revered, in the family, church, and educational circles within which he moved.

The journey from St. Louis to Dayton required perhaps eight hours. Sitting with one another in a coach, the Kepharts would have experienced tense moments. Aside from their differences in regard to religious issues and Isaiah’s disgust with tobacco, the major source of tension between father and son would have been the use of alcohol. Isaiah had for years been a leader of the temperance movement in Ohio.

Nevertheless, Isaiah and Horace enjoyed one another’s company, especially when they could get together “for a tramp in the woods.” And they maintained mutual interests that allowed them to work through or set aside tensions as they arose. These interests were intertwined, involving matters of family history and lore that included a passionate nostalgia for almost anything having to do with the pioneer lifestyle — as evidenced in a poem Isaiah wrote dated ”September 1899”:

 

WHEN I WAS A BOY

Ah! oft in my thoughts do I wander

Away to the dear forest, home,

Far off in the pine-covered mountains,

Where the cabin stood silent and lone;

And I think, with a heartache pathetic,

Of the home circle, rustic and fair,

That there, ‘mid the wildest surroundings,

Dwelt cozy, contented, and poor.

‘T was a paradise, now as I see it ….

So in thought I go back to that cabin,

That clearing, that forest, that farm

Where father and mother and children

Dwelt contented—oblivious of harm.

And as memory retouches the picture,

And contrasts it with life of to-day—

With the hurry, the rush, and the clatter.

On the road thus far down life’s way.

My heart often yearns for the quiet.

The peace, the contentment, the joy

Of the life that I lived in that cabin

Back yonder when I was a boy.

 

Isaiah’s poem is chock full of sentiments regarding the degrading influence of urban “uproar” and “The peace, the contentment, the joy / Of life that I lived in that cabin / Back yonder.” Few readers of Our Southern Highlanders will have overlooked the connection between Isaiah’s dreamed of cabin “Back Yonder” in the Alleghenies and his son’s cabin-to-be in the heart of the Smokies.

In Isaiah Kephart’s biography published in 1909, a photo captioned “Elder Kephart’s home in Dayton, 916 N. Main Street” provides an image of a large double-storied frame house with an L-shaped front porch. The residence of Horace’s father and mother looks quiet and inviting, a better place than most from which to plot a new start. While trying to sort things out — to see what he might make of a life now in such disarray — Kephart had already decided upon a literary career of some sort. With his father’s counsel, he intuited that living in a setting similar to the one experienced by Isaiah and their pioneer ancestors (while writing about such a place and its people, if he could find it) might become part of a healing process. As if to get their bearings, father and son journeyed to the “Old Goss” cemetery “on the hill one mile east of Osceola Springs, Pennsylvania,” where many of Horace’s ancestors on his mother’s side are buried. (These descriptions are based on a series of “snapshots” Horace made with penciled inscriptions on their backs.) Horace carefully photographed the site and recorded the inscriptions on each headstone. Of note is the fact, not previously known, that Isaiah had accompanied his son on this venture. The inscription on the back of “the old Center school-house” snapshot indicates that the building’s logs “were hewed by Rev. Henry Kephart [Isaiah’s father] in 1847, 8 or 9, and in which in the winter of 1855-56 one Bishop, two preachers, two physicians, one lawyer, one editor, and eleven Union Soldiers of the Civil War (then in their boyhood) all attended school. The Snap-shot was taken  ...  by Horace Kephart, son of editor I.L. Kephart (who stands in the fore-ground) and grand-son of the said Rev. Henry Kephart.”

This mid-July 1904 outing to ancestral sites in central Pennsylvania took place not more than two weeks before Horace left Dayton headed south, looking for a place in the Smokies where life was still being conducted, he supposed, as it had been in the Alleghenies. By November, three months after establishing a base camp 45 miles west of Asheville, he had relocated to a cabin deep in the Smokies, where to a certain extent he could “realize the past in the present.” The following July, the 72-year-old Isaiah arrived on the scene — making what amounted to an inspection tour on horseback of the pioneer facilities in the Hazel Creek area and along the high state line between North Carolina and Tennessee, which Horace documented with photographs.

It appears that Isaiah not only played a more active role in his son’s overall plans than previously supposed, but that he was, in fact, a co-conspirator in the search for a “Back of Beyond.”

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..

Where the buffalo roam

Buffalo Branch ... Buffalo Creek ... Buffalo Cove ... all are common place names that indicate the prior residence of that mammal here in Western North Carolina.

Whenever I conduct workshops on the region’s natural history or Cherokee lore, the buffalo topic always comes up. I used to think that the species that was formerly here was the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), one of the two bison subspecies recognized in North America. After looking into the matter more closely, however, I now know better. More about that after we take a look at the historical record.

The buffalo was certainly here long before the Cherokees emerged as a distinctive culture about a thousand years ago. They knew the great beast as “yansa,” and utilized it for clothing and food. According to Arlene Fradkin’s Cherokee Folk Zoology (N.Y.: Garland, 1990), the horns were made into surgical instruments for curing swellings from boils and toothaches as well as for war trumpets. Buffalo hoofs were sometimes worn on warriors’ feet during war expeditions so as to deceive the enemy. To this day the buffalo dance is still a favorite among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

John Henry Preston in Western North Carolina: A History (Asheville: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1914) notes that some of Hernando de Soto’s men exploring this area in 1540 were presented with a dressed buffalo skin by the Cherokees. This, Arthur speculates, was perhaps the first such skin “ever obtained by white men.” The Spaniards described it as “an ox hide as thin as a calf’s skin, and the hair like a soft wool between the coarse and fine wool of sheep.”

The first recorded British observation of a buffalo in eastern North America was documented by William T. Hornaday in The Extermination of the American Bison (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889):

“The earliest discovery of the bison in Eastern North America ... was made somewhere near Washington, District of Columbia, in 1612, by an English navigator named Samuell Argoll, and narrated in a letter published as follows in ‘Purchas: His Pilgrimes’ (1625): ‘And then marching into the Countrie, I found great store of Cattle as big as Kine, of which the Indians that were my guides killed a couple, which we found to be very good and wholesome meate, and are very easie to be killed, in regard they are heavy, slow, and not so wild as other beasts of the wildernesse.’”

While helping to run the dividing line between North Carolina and Virginia in 1729, Col. William Byrd of Virginia recorded several buffalo sightings in the Piedmont sections of those states. According to Hornaday, Byrd noted that a bull “was found all alone, tho Buffaloes Seldom are,” and “the meat is spoken of as ‘a Rarity.’”

Most authorities feel that buffaloes had been extirpated from the mountains of Western North Carolina by 1865 or so. The last reference I have been able to locate comes from a diary kept by Bishop Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg in which he portrayed in detail his exploration of the Blue Ridge in 1752-53 on behalf of the Moravian Church.  

In 1752, Bishop Spangenberg traveled westward from the coast. By Nov. 24, they had reached the mountains east of present-day Asheville. He recorded that this was a land where timber wolves still howled at night and panthers were a menace. The land was also “frequented by buffalo, whose tracks are everywhere, and can often be followed with profit. Frequently, however, a man cannot travel them, for they go through thick and thin, through morass and deep water, and up and down banks so steep that a man could fall down but neither ride nor walk!”  

Before many more years had passed, the buffalo was a thing of the past in the Blue Ridge. But what kind of buffalo was it? I had always read and been told it was the wood bison, but that’s not possible. Let’s look at the taxonomic background.

The online edition of the Encyclopedia Britticana indicates that a bison is “either of two species of ox-like grazing mammals that constitute the genus Bison of the family Bovidae. The American bison (Bison bison), commonly known as the buffalo, or plains buffalo, is native to North America, while the European bison (B. bonasus), or wisent, is native to Europe ... Some authorities distinguish two subspecies of American bison, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the woodland bison (Bison bison athabascae).

Various Internet sites describe the wood bison as having been a resident of boreal forests in western Canada. Today, there are small remnant herds of wood bison in that region. Whereas plains bison have a full beard and neck mane, wood bison have a thin pointy beard and a rudimentary neck mane. There are differences in weights as well, with the wood bison being considerably larger. Canadian research teams recorded just one instance of a plains bison bull weighing more than 2,000 pounds, while over one-third of the wood bison bulls exceeded this weight.

OK, we’ve ruled out the wood bison as a candidate for historical residence here in the Blue Ridge. That leaves us with the plains bison ... but what kind? The authors of Mammals of the Carolinas, Virginia and Maryland (UNC Press, 1985) observe that “Very little is known about the biology of the eastern bison, but it was presumably similar to the plains-dwelling bison of the west.”

Roger A. Caras in North American Mammals (N.Y.: Galahad, 1967) mentions in passing two sub-types of the plains bison: a “pale mountain bison of Colorado” and an “eastern bison of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.”  

The bison found here in the east were usually described as being smaller and better adapted to woodlands than the western form. I’m now of the opinion that our Blue Ridge bison was Caras’ ‘eastern bison,” and that it was an ecological (not a genetic) variant of the plains bison.

 

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 fine mountain poet

Allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is Han Shan. He is among the finest mountain poets of any era in any language.

He may have lived during the T’ang Dynasty (circa 600-900 AD). “Han Shan” means “Cold Mountain”: the place and the poet were the same. He had a friend named Shih-te, and their laughter was sometimes heard late at night when they were drinking wine and telling stories.

Mostly, however, Han Shan preferred living alone on Cold Mountain, where he enjoyed walking and sitting and thinking about things. When some fleeting memory made him really happy he would throw back his head and laugh so loud Cold Mountain trembled. Han Shan also enjoyed writing poems. He wrote them on rocks and trees and walls. He wrote them about those things we also ponder whenever we’re walking and sitting and thinking about things.

Adopted as a totem figure by numerous poets (Gary Snyder being the most prominent) during the latter half of the 20th century, he has become the quintessential grumpy-and-reclusive happy-go-lucky wine-drinking nature-loving hand-clapping Zen-sharp mountain poet. (Charles Frazier, author of the novel Cold Mountain, also knew all about Han Shan.) He was an irascible old coot and, as you will see, one hell of a poet.

I made Han Shan’s acquaintance in the early 1970s and — during several year’s worth of long winter nights on Lands Creek — entertained myself by rendering perhaps 75 of his poems into eight-line entities attuned to my personal wavelength. (Unable to speak or read even one word of Chinese, I used various English translations collectively as prompts, especially those by Burton Watson.) In the process Han Shan became a friend. My wife Elizabeth’s drawing of a robe-clad Han Shan is tacked on my workroom wall.

About 1975 I distributed perhaps 15 hand-bound copies (typewritten sheets with cardboard covers) of a selection of my renderings titled Guffawing in the Wilderness: 13 Poems by Han Shan. In the spring of 1977 the poet and printer John Judson — a recipient of one of the hand-bound copies — surprised me by publishing 250 handset copies at his Juniper Press in LaCrosse, Wis., with Elizabeth’s drawing as a frontispiece.

I thought I had either lost or given away all of my copies of the little 4-by-8-inch book years ago. But I recently chanced upon a copy hidden away in a box. At about the same time, Elizabeth purchased another one for me via the Internet for $40! Suddenly, I am the proud owner of two copies of my own book. In reality, of course, it’s Han Shan’s book. That said … listen to him speaking to you from Cold Mountain more than 1,000 years ago:

 

Are you looking for home?

Cold Mountain is the way.

Come close beside me.

Hear the pines whine?

See the old man there

lost in the old words?

That’s me. Been sitting here

forgetting the way back out.

 

Among clouds and streams

wandering the trails by day

sleeping this cliffside at night

here lives an idle man.

Swiftly the years run by

with nothing to lean on

and my mind empties …

still as fall waters.

 

Hiding at Cold Mountain

one lives with the land

day to day without bother.

This was meant to be

and the days flow.

A lifetime is a flint spark.

Heaven and earth shift …

I rest with the silent stones.

 

Cold Mountain transmogrifies.

Climbers here are always scared.

Moonshine glistens on dark water.

The windblown grasses hiss.

Snow clumps flower naked branches

and sweeping clouds foliate.

Rain and the mountain glimmers.

Don’t come in winter.

 

Seek consciously

and the cloudway’s gone … untraceable.

The loveliest peaks are precipices

and the broadest coves sunless.

Yawing ridges.

 

Impenetrable mists.

Still … you desire the cloudway?

Inward from sky to sky.

 

Is flesh real?

Who am I?

Wondering …

 

I lean time away against this cliff.

The grass grows between my toes.

The dust settles in my hair.

The worldly think me dead

and offer sacraments to my body.

 

The way to Cold Mountain?

There’s no sure trail.

The ice won’t melt

and the morning sun blurs in a haze.

How did I get here?

Well … your heart’s not mine

or you’d be here with me …

no trouble.

 

From this peak

vision is endless.

No one knows I sit here.

Moon in the cold spring.

That’s not the moon.

The moon is above.

I sing for you …

but in my song there is nothing.

 

walking these high trails alone

it was always cold mountain

 

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 unusually dry, warm days this month have resulted in a delayed color season as well as an abundance of fall wildflowers. During recent field trips conducted for the North Carolina Arboretum along the Blue Ridge Parkway and for the Smoky Mountain Field School in the high Smokies, there have been dazzling displays of late-blooming species like ladies’-tresses, lobelia, aster, and goldenrod. My favorite fall wildflower, however, has always been witch-hazel.     

If you take a walk along a woodland edge within the next few weeks, there’s every chance you’ll discover witch-hazel in full bloom. It sometimes flowers by early September and will persist into late December or early January during warm winters. But from early October into early November is the time to catch witch-hazel in its prime. 

Witch-hazel is renowned as a utilitarian plant, especially as an astringent or as the forked branch of choice for those dowsing for water. But before we consider its utilitarian possibilities, let’s first take a look at its natural history. 

Flowers are designed to attract pollinators. Somehow witch-hazel has “discovered” that a late flowering period provides a niche in which the competition with other plants for certain pollinators is at a minimum. In The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines (1989), Donald Stokes observes that “A question for which I have not been able to find an answer is, ‘Who pollinates the flowers?’ It blooms when very few insects are out collecting food. I have watched the flowers when they are in bloom and the only visitors I have seen are ants.”

I don’t know the answer to that question either, but you can easily observe that during warm intervals (when insects would be out and about) witch-hazel’s yellow tassels are unfurled, thereby allowing access to the floral cup. During cold snaps, the tassels curl tightly over the cup to protect the plant’s sexual parts.

Note that last year’s fruits are ripening just as this year’s flowers appear. These grayish-brown, hairy capsules are tiny cannons that eject their black seeds with such force they can land up to 30 feet away from the parent shrub or tree. If you hear a mysterious crackling in the leaf litter, it’s probably the result of a witch-hazel seed bombardment.

What’s in a name? One source suggests that witch-hazel’s seed propulsion tactics “suggested witchcraft to those who first observed the phenomenon.” Another source suggests that the plant’s leaves often display cone-shaped insect galls that resemble “the hat of a witch.” And yet another source observes that “the name refers not to magic and witchcraft but to an old English word meaning ‘to bend.’” Take your pick.

I’m inclined to go along with the last suggestion since witch-hazel has traditionally been utilized in water-witchery; that is, the locating of water by the use of a forked branch that bends over its objective. In A Natural History of Trees (1950), Donald Culross Peattie provides some details: “You took a forked branch (of witch-hazel), one whose points grew north and south so that they had the influence of the sun at its rising and setting, and you carried it with a point in each hand, the stem pointing forward. Any downward tug of the stem was caused by the flow of hidden water.”

On the other hand, “Both skeptics of dowsing and many of dowsing’s supporters believe that dowsing apparatus have no special powers, but merely amplify small imperceptible movements of the hands arising from the expectations of the dowser. This psychological phenomenon is known as the ideomotor effect.” (http://www.paralumun.com/dowsing.htm)      

Witch-hazel leaf extract is widely used today as an astringent for toning skin. Virtually all of the facial cleansers in your local pharmacy will feature this extract. Herbal Medicine Past and Present (vol. 2, 1989) by John K. Crellin and Jane Philpot, provides the following background:

“The basis of witch-hazel’s reputation has long rested on the astringency due to hydrolysable tannins. Distilled witch-hazel contains no tannins but a small amount of volatile oil. Alcohol is usually added, which provides a sense of astringency when applied to the skin; this, plus a characteristically pleasant taste and odor, probably accounts for the considerable reputation of distilled witch-hazel for bruises and cuts … Recent concern has been expressed over the presence of a safrole (a carcinogen), but this is irrelevant because of the small quantity present. Furthermore, preparations of witch-hazel are employed externally, including for hemorrhoids.  

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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The Naturalist's Corner

  • The eagles have landed
    The eagles have landed The eagles’ neighbors have known for months, observant birders and other Lake Junaluska regulars have either known or suspected, and I have sat on the news for a while as I consulted with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, but…
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Back Then with George Ellison

  • Colorful reminders of long-ago homesteads
    Colorful reminders of long-ago homesteads A chimney standing all alone where a fire burned a house down long ago … a crumbling stone wall overgrown with tangles of vines … a flattened area on a slope above a creek or abandoned roadbed … all are likely locations for a dwelling…
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