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.
One of the more interesting stories concerning this region is that of the kaolin mining industry. It began more than 200 years ago in Macon County when Thomas Griffith, a representative of the noted English pottery firm headed by Josiah Wedgwood, journeyed into the Cherokee heartland to secure samples of the “white burning” clay. And it continued almost into our own time with the extensive mining of kaolin from the late 1880s to about 1950 of quarries that still dot the landscape in Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties. Now it’s mostly a forgotten saga in the economic and social history of the region. Here’s the Wedgwood part of the story.
Kaolin, or “China clay,” is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of fine china and porcelain. It has also been widely used in the making of paper, rubber, paint, and heat-resistant products. Fine chinaware is, of course, associated with the nation that first refined the process, and the name kaolin arises from the Chinese for Kau-ling (“high ridge”) — the designation for a hill in China where the earliest pure clay samples were obtained by a Jesuit missionary about 1700.
The Europeans quickly recognized that kaolin retains intended forms and characteristics when fired at high temperatures; it is the only clay from which a translucent-glassy hard white ceramic can be made. For commercial purposes, they required a source closer to home, and after the “white burning” clay was discovered in the early 18th century in France, Germany and at Cornwall, England, they began producing their own porcelains and chinaware.
As the Europeans explored the New World, they sought out natural products that could be utilized in colonial industries or shipped back home. Sure enough, the white clay materialized in feldspar deposits throughout the southeastern region of what became the United States.
Some of the finest deposits were located in the middle Cherokee homeland in the far southwestern tip of North Carolina. Although it is now mostly a forgotten industry and topic, recalled mainly by old-timers — some of whom went down into the clay pits to earn a living — it’s not difficult to locate the quarries and imagine the toil which went into excavating them.
Thomas Griffith arrived at Charleston, S.C. in September 1767 and reached the clay mine area at Iotla just south of the Indian town of Cowee on the Little Tennessee in November. By the time he embarked for England the following spring, he had dug five or more tons for Wedgwood, the famous British pottery manufacturer renowned for artistic and scientific approaches that revolutionized the porcelain industry. His family had been potters since the 17th century. After an apprenticeship with his elder brother, he formed a partnership with another potter and finally went into business for himself. He took a scientific approach to pottery making and was so successful that the other makers of fine porcelain found their trade affected.
An excellent account of Wedgwood’s interest in and use of the clay is provided by Bill Anderson — a retired Western Carolina University historian — in an article titled “Cherokee Clay, from Duche to Wedgewood: The Journal of Thomas Griffiths, 1767-1768.” Published in “The North Carolina Historical Review” (1976), Anderson relates that Andrew Duche — a Philadelphia Quaker who had established himself in Savannah in 1737 — was the first potter in the English-speaking world to make porcelain, and that “Moreover, he was making it from clay secured from the Cherokee Indians.”
From this source and others, Wedgwood became aware of superior kaolin deposits in the “Ayoree Mountains” deep in the Cherokee backcountry. The Cherokee may have used the clay — which they called “unaker” (for white) — to some extent in their own pottery, but were more interested in mining mica as a ritual and trade item.
Anderson details the Wedgwood-Griffith pursuit of kaolin in a lively fashion and reproduces Griffith’s journal with annotations. What did Wedgwood make of the stuff once he had five or six tons in hand back in England? In 1769, he took out a patent for a painting process called “encaustic ornamentation” using the clay, and in the 1770s he used it to prepare gems and cameos, as well as for making jasper, a porcelaneous stoneware. But, Anderson concludes, “No further attempts were made to secure additional clay from the Cherokee because of the cost and the difficulties involved.”
In his book The Southern Appalachian Region (vol. II, 1966), Highlands author T.W. Reynolds recounts his efforts to relocate the mines in Macon County that Griffith had worked. He explored the region and decided it probably did not come from the Snow Hill Road area where a state highway historical marker citing the incident was situated. In the company of a kaolin producer, and relying on “local inquiry and guide lines of the Journal,” he felt that they “located Griffith’s clay pit, and if not the precise one, then mighty close to it, and the best white clay around … three miles from Franklin by Highway 28 (where) Rt. 1372 takes off left towards Burningtown, whereon at 1.5 mile before the bridge at Iotla Creek, Rt. 1385 turns off left 0.6 miles, and then turns over a bridge where the road forks right.”
“Mr. Boyd Jones,” Reynolds continued, “refers to the mine as the old Gurney mine for one Gurney who is said locally to have come from Wedgwood in England. Two or three men lost their lives in the mine in about 1912.”
Because of the remoteness of the white clay in the Smokies region and its availability elsewhere farther east in this state, as well as in Georgia and Florida, kaolin mining was not an important industry in this area for over a century after Griffith’s exploration. But from 1888 up until about 1950, it became very significant in both Jackson and Swain counties, providing an alternative to agricultural subsistence for many residents.
Fall is the odiferous time of the year.
I don’t possess a very discriminating sense of smell, but certain fragrances arise in the natural world this time of the year that even I can detect.
Have you ever been walking a mountain trail in October when you encountered a musky smell that reminded you of skunk or scat? Thus alerted, I consider five possible sources: skunk, bear scat, wild boar, skunk goldenrod, and galax.
The first three are self-evident, more or less — although we will return in the end to skunks — which always deserve the last word when it comes to odiferousness of any sort.
A note titled “Wild Ideas: The Odor of Galax” by J. Amoroso that appeared in Chinquapin: The Newsletter of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society in 2000, reviewed speculations by several botanists about the possible causes for the peculiar smells associated with this well-known plant.
According to Amoroso, the source of the odor is still unknown but “Speculation has linked it to chemical compounds-long sulfur chains such as mercaptan or butyl-thiols (which are similar to the chemicals found in a skunk’s scent) emitted from the stomata or from the decomposing leaves.”
In other words, crushed living galax leaves produce no smell — but sulphur compounds could be released as the older leaves decompose.
If you’re in the higher elevations, say at Waterrock Knob, a very similar odor will often be emanating from a nearby stand of skunk goldenrod (S. glomerata), a species easily recognized by its large basal leaves. The plant is found only in the higher elevations of 13 mountain counties in Tennessee and North Carolina and no place else in the world.
The smell can’t be detected from crushed foliage or flowers. It simply forms a “cloud” over and around a stand of the plant. It seems likely that decaying foliage (or some other aspect of the plant) is emitting decomposed sulfur compounds similar to those exuded by skunks and galax.
Most features associated with plants can be attributed to three tactics: (1) pollinator attraction (flowers), (2) seed distribution (fruits), and (3) protection (thorns, smells, poisonous oils, etc.). It’s likely that the sulpheric emanations of galax and skunk goldenrod are related to either the first or the third categories.
“Skunk” and “odor” are synonymous. You cannot hear or read the word skunk without thinking of odor. Five species are resident in the United States: hooded, hog-nosed, western spotted, eastern spotted, and striped. Only the last two reside in the Smokies region.
The striped skunk — which is black with two white stripes running up its back to form a cap on top of its head — is the one that usually comes to mind when someone starts telling skunk tales in this neck of the woods.
The spotted skunk is, in my experience, more common in the higher elevations. Sometimes referred to as a civet, it is black with a white spot on its forehead and under each ear. There are also four broken white stripes along its neck, back, and sides, as well as a white-tipped tail.
Now we get to the interesting part. When provoked, a striped skunk simply raises its tail daintily like a plume and assumes a U-shaped posture that allows its hip muscles to squeeze the odiferous fluids indiscriminately out of its anal glands.
The spotted skunk has perfected that basic strategy. When frightened or angered, it will often do a “handstand” on it front feet. This posture allows the critter to look between its legs and see where to aim the spray.
These random musings will perhaps give you something to think about the next time you’re out walking in the fall of the year and smell a sulpherous smell.
I’m no expert on regional linguistics, but through the years I have delighted in the dialect English still spoken here in the Smokies region. One sometimes hears or reads that it dates back to the Elizabethan era; that is, to the second half of the 16th century when Shakespeare appeared on the literary scene.
On the other hand, retired Western Carolina University historian Tyler Blethen, who has studied the Scots-Irish movement from England to Ireland to North America and into the southern mountains in great detail, told me he thinks that the language dates more or less back to the Plantation of Ulster era, that is, from about 1620 to 1715 when Scots were settled in Northern Ireland in great numbers.
Whatever its sources, the language is rich in dialect words and expressions. These are used to express a wide range of emotions and insights that can be mournful or humorous. To a great extent, the dialect language spoken here is fading due to outside influences, but it still survives in various coves and hollers, coffee and barber shops, or wherever you might, by chance, overhear someone local speaking naturally.
Three mountain historians — John Preston Arthur, Horace Kephart and Paul Fink — have taken a particular interest in dialect expressions. Here are some of their observations, as well as words or expressions they recorded.
Under the heading “Elizabethan English” in Western North Carolina: A History, 1730-1913 (1914), Arthur noted that “writers who think they know, have said that our people have been sequestered in these mountains so long that they speak the language of Shakespeare and of Chaucer. It is certain that we sometimes say ‘hit’ for ‘it’ and ‘taken’ for ‘took’; that we also say ‘plague’ for ‘tease’, and when we are ‘willing,’ we say we are ‘consentable.’ If invited to accompany anyone and wish to do so, we almost invariably say, ‘I wouldn’t care to go along,’ meaning ‘we do not object.’
We also say ‘haint’ for ‘am not,’ ‘are not,’ and ‘have not,’ and we invite you to ‘light’ if you are riding or driving.
We have Webster for our authority that ‘hit’ is the Saxon for ‘it’; and we know ourselves that ‘taken’ is more regular than ‘took.’ We may ‘mend,’ not ‘improve’; and who shall say that our ‘mend’ is not a simpler, sweeter and more significant word than ‘improve’?
But we do mispronounce many words, among which is ‘gardeen’ for ‘guardian’ and ‘pint’ for ‘point’. The late Sam Lovin of Graham County was told that it was improper to say Rocky ‘Pint,’ as its true name is ‘Point.’ When next he went to Asheville he asked for a ‘point’ of whiskey.
Finally, most of us are of the opinion of the late Andrew Jackson who thought that one who could spell a word in only one way was a “mighty poor excuse for a full grown man.”
Swain County resident Horace Kephart, author of Our Southern Highlanders (1913), recorded dialect expressions he heard from 1904 until his death in 1931 in extensive journals now housed at WCU. Here are some uses of the word “law” for “lord” that he overheard:
“A - law!”
(P) When disappointed folks would say:
“Dod burn hit!”
East Tennessee historian Paul Fink published a little dictionary titled Bits of Mountain Speech (1974) that used expressions to illustrate how each word was used. Here are some of his entries:
“Aidge (n): edge … ‘He lived on the aidge of the cliff.’”
“Argufy (v): to argue … ‘They’d argufy all night.’”
“Beal (v): to fester, as an abscess … ‘I had a bealed ear.’”
“Coon (v): climb or crawl … ‘I cooned up a tree.’”
“Cuss-fight (n): interchange of profanity.”
“Purt’ nigh (adv): almost, very close … ‘I purt’ nigh fell in.’”
Here in the Smokies region “making do” isn’t a lost art. Most “country” men and women can still “get along” because they grew up doing so. And the “jack-of-all-trades” era isn’t ancient history — it lasted on mountain farms until not very many years ago.
When writing Our Southern Highlanders (1913), Horace Kephart recalled the years (1904-1907) when he resided on the Little Fork of the Sugar Fork of Hazel Creek in the Smokies: “In our primitive community there were no trades, no professions. Every man was his own farmer, blacksmith, gunsmith, carpenter, cobbler, miller and tinker. Someone in his family, or a near neighbor, served him as barber and dentist, and would make him a coffin when he died.”
There are two books in which the authors describe very clearly the “make do” lifestyles of the mountain past. The first is by Duane Oliver, who grew up on Hazel Creek. His Hazel Creek From Then Til Now (1989) contains a chapter titled “‘Won’t You Stay for Supper? We’re Having Leatherbritches, Corn Pone, Bear Meat, Gritted Bread, Poke Sallit and Sourwood Honey.’ ‘I Believe I Will, I’m Partial to Poke Salit.’”
Oliver opens that chapter with a paean to mountain women: “The pioneer women of Hazel Creek had her hands full. Some of her activities, such as hoeing, picking berries, gathering nuts and herbs, and drying and pickling, were seasonal. Other chores such as laundering, soap making, carding, spinning, weaving, dyeing, sewing, cooking, raising the children and helping to educate them before schools were started, and dozens of other jobs, were done all year.”
The other excellent source for this sort of information is John Preston Arthur’s Western North Carolina - A History From 1730 to 1913 (1913). Preston, a resident of Asheville and Boone, was a former attorney turned writer. He became too well acquainted with John Barley and ended his life digging potatoes and gathering apples for 50 cents a day. Nevertheless, he was a superb local historian.
Under the heading “Jacks of All Trades,” Arthur noted: “The men were necessarily ‘handy’ men at almost every trade known at that day. They made shoes, bullets and powder, built houses, constructed tables, chairs, cupboards, harness, saddles, bridles, buckets, barrels, and plough stocks. They made their own axe and hoe-handles, fashioned their own horseshoes and nails upon the anvil, burnt wood charcoal, made wagon tires, bolts, nuts and everything that was needed about the farm. Some could even make rifles, including the locks, and Mr. John C. Smathers now (1912) 86 years old, is still a good rock and brick mason, carpenter, shoemaker, tinner, painter, blacksmith, plumber, harness and saddle maker, candle maker, farmer, hunter, store-keeper, bee raiser, glazier, butcher, fruit grower, hotel-keeper, merchant, physician, poulterer, lawyer, rail-splitter, politician, cook, school master, gardener, Bible scholar and stable man. He lives at Turnpike, halfway between Asheville and Waynesville, and brought the huge trees now growing in front of his hotel on his shoulders when they were saplings and planted them where they now stand, nearly 70 years ago. He can still run a foot race and ‘throw’ most men in a wrestle ‘catch as catch can.’ He is the finest example of the old time pioneer now alive.”
Under the heading “Nail-less Houses,” Arthur recalled that, “Nails were scarce in those days and saw mills few and far between, rendering it necessary for them to use wooden pins to hold their ceiling and shelving in place and to rive out their shingles or `boards’ for their roof covering and puncheons for their door and window shutters and their flooring. Thin boards or shingles were held in position upon the roof rafters by long split logs tied upon them with hickory withes, or held in place by laying heavy stones upon them. There is still standing in the Smoky Mountains a comfortable cabin of one large room, floored and ceiled on the inside, and rain and wind proof, in the construction of which not a single nail was used.”
“Oh, what is that shiny stuff in the rocks?” someone will ask during any sort of outing. And invariably, someone in the group will reply, “Oh, that’s just mica.”
I think to myself, “How could anything so pretty be ‘just mica?’”
Mica lives up to its name, which is derived from the Latin micare: to shine or glitter. The ancient Hindus knew all about mica — four thousand years ago they used it for decorative effects. If you were an ancient Hindu looking for a little glitz in your life, mica was the ideal medium. It was the surface of choice for mythological scenes. The Hindus believed mica crystals are preserved flashes of lightning.
On the other hand, geologists believe micas are prominent rock-forming constituents of igneous and metamorphic rocks that belong to a group of complex aluminosilicate minerals having sheet or plate-like structures formed from flat six-sided crystals with cleavage parallel to the direction of the large surfaces, which allows them to be split into optically flat films.
The Cherokees used the material as a medium of exchange. Mica from this region has been found throughout eastern North America. In return the Cherokees received shells, copper, suitable stones for spear points, shells, feathers, and numerous other commodities. The Indians used it for ornamental and ritualistic purposes. Sacred birds, dancing bears, and serpents with horns were crafted from sheet mica. It was the material of choice throughout eastern North America for centuries — and the Cherokees had mineral rights.
A mica book is so-named because of the resemblance of the cleavage plates of a large crystal to the leaves of a book. The plates can be readily separated into thin sheets with specific thicknesses. Quality sheet mica is graded into 10 classifications. Books flawed with excess inclusions, cracks, or folds are ground into commercial products: coating for roof shingles and cement blocks; paint and rubber additives; and so on, ad infinitum.
The center of mica production in Western North Carolina has traditionally been in the Spruce Pine area. But there were also less extensive mining operations throughout the region, especially in Jackson and Macon counties. In The History of Jackson Country (1987), John L. Bell noted that mica deposits were first discovered “on the road between Webster and Franklin” in 1858. As recently as the early 1940s, “the defense needs during World War II caused a boom in mica,” then very “important in the production of electronic vacuum tubes.” Ninety-four mines were opened in 1942 that “produced 94,943 pounds of sheet and 183,00 pounds of scrap mica. The largest operations were at the Buchanan, Big East Fork, Jasper, Frady, Engle, Cope, Kolb, Tilley, and Stillwell mines.”
Before mica mining became an industrial enterprise in WNC, it was a cottage industry. In The French Broad (1965), one of my favorite books, Wilma Dykeman described those days:
“A large part of this mining is done in small operations — ‘groundhog holes,’ the local people call them, penetrating the sides of hill after hill in these counties … and the raw wound of many an abandoned digging gapes on the mountainside, giving the country an appearance different from the rest of the French Broad watershed.”
Dykeman noted that it was during the post-Civil War era — “when a northern traveler happened to see a large sheet of ‘isinglass’ in one of the cabins, where he stopped overnight “ —that the sheet-mica business was initiated, thereby supplying “practically all of the isinglass used in the old-fashioned stove windows in this country or Canada.”
Isinglass is one of the minerals in the mica group. Sometimes called “white mica,” it occurs in thin transparent sheets. I have been told that after the men had extracted blocks (lenses) of mica from “groundhog holes,” the women took over and separated the fragile sheets of isinglass with their more nimble fingers.
From now on, each time you spot a sparkling cluster of “that shiny stuff in the rocks,” I suspect you’ll think about the ancient Hindu belief that mica crystals are “preserved flashes of lightning.”
Saturday morning … sitting alone at the kitchen table … nothing much going on … looking out the window … watching the bend in the creek and the bend in the path that leads up to the bend in the ridge I can’t see but know is there … opening my composition book to a blank space I scribble: “creeks-paths-ridges bend with natural grace.”
Composition books are therapeutic … especially those with inside back covers featuring the multiplication table and conversion tables for length, capacity and weight ... 9-by-7 is always tricky and I never did comprehend liters … my composition book is one of those manufactured by Mead Corporation in Dayton, Ohio … 100 sheets … 9 ¾ x 7 ½ in … wide ruled … the blackish-green and silver model (#09918) designed by Jackson Pollock (just kidding — but the cover does look like it was splatter painted) ... not a journal … not a diary … no dates … no themes … mostly illegible … the sort used by grade school kids … just right … I write (scribble) down whatever comes to mind … something I’ve read or might write about … anything that’s brief ... incomplete sentences & ampersands are encouraged …continuity is discouraged … pages should be decorated with mustard stains & beer bottle rings.
Composition books are an appropriate venue in which to compose haiku … about which I am very conservative … any deviation from the traditional five-seven-five syllable format will be ridiculed ... here’s a “Mystery Haiku” for you … see if you can guess which critter this one is about:
frozen sky-tailed in the sun
Take your time … the answer is at the end of the column ... meanwhile here’s maybe the best haiku ever written (on lower Lands Creek) … Daisy Ellison (my 11-year-old granddaughter, who also likes to scribble) & I co-authored it in about eight minutes … I wanted the middle line to read “high above the wind & the rain” but was overruled:
days & years a-spinning round
Billie Joe Shaver was just now singing on Outlaw Country (XM radio): “Gonna die with my boots on … gonna go out in style … when I get my wings I’m gonna fly away fly … gonna fly away singing” … or something like that …at the top of a blank page I wrote in my Lilliputian-sized scribble what came to mind:
Billie Joe … the 75-year old problem child
who is not unfamiliar with Texas jails …
claims he’s gonna die & then fly away.
Well now…that’s the good news …
‘cause if Billie Joe’s gonna fly away fly
there’s a good chance so can I.
It’s so nice supposing that
each ending is a new beginning
& that me & Billie Joe
are gonna sprout wings
& fly away singing.
That’s maybe the worst poem ever written (on lower Lands Creek) but it was a pleasant enough diversion from doing nothing ... Billie Joe can’t bitch … he’s in good company ... just above his poem is one of the finest short poems in any language ... it was written 1,600 or so years ago by T’ao Ch’ien:
I built this hut not far from others –
still, I don’t ever hear horse or wagon.
How? Solitude is here in the heart.
Seeking chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge
The southern hills rise quietly before me.
At sunset the mountain air is fine
& the birds always wing home in flocks.
In all this there is something –
but not in these words.
Random notes to myself scattered throughout: pale ales to try (100s) … books to read (Gilchrist’s “Life of William Blake”) … musicians to catch up with (Levon Helm) … words to look up (growler) … people to think about (so many) … can salamanders sing?
For less than $2 you, too, can own a magic composition book … if it doesn’t save your life it will give you something to do of a Saturday morning when you’re all alone just looking out the kitchen window.
[The “sky-tailed” critter in the “Mystery Haiku” is a skink.]
Monday morning … 9:15 or so … suddenly the coyote was there … as if from out of nowhere … a shadow moving in the pasture across the creek.
I had glanced out of my workroom window moments before and nothing was there. The next time I looked up he (or she) had probably come out of dense tangle of rhododendron, laurel, and grapevine that cloaks the mountainside bordering the far side of the pasture. The animal was 35 to 40 yards away.
He was gray-brown with reddish highlights around his face and neck and down the spine. The underside was a lighter color. He looked as if he might weigh 50 pounds, but I have read that coyotes look larger than they are. It’s likely that he weighed 25 to 30 pounds and was maybe three feet long, including the long bushy tail.
The coyote circled a post in the pasture on which a bluebird box was mounted. Apparently sensing (correctly) that it was empty this year, he moved out of sight under grapevines, perhaps checking to see if they were ripe. When he reappeared, he surprised me — instead of crossing the creek by wading, he crossed it on our new footbridge (built this year), as if he had crossed it many times before. Maybe he has.
I suspect he knew four of our five German shorthaired pointers were penned up and that the fifth (Zeke, who is 15 years old) was likely to be asleep (which he was). And I’d guess that the critter was headed for the far side of the house — where fallen apples from my wife’s trees litter the ground — when he sensed my presence and drifted around the other side, up a trail, and out of sight.
The last I saw of him, he was moving in a quick-footed dogtrot. Not dainty-footed or nimble like a fox, he nevertheless moved gracefully. He certainly didn’t “slink” in the manner usually ascribed to coyotes. My visitor was, in fact, a pretty animal. I had no desire to harm him, even though he and his extended family are a negative factor where we live.
In A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (2008), Donald W. Linzey noted that, “Coyotes originally inhabited portions of western North America. As forests were cleared, however, their range in the United States expanded eastward … Many coyotes were liberated by fox hunters in the southern states who had similar-appearing coyote pups shipped to them instead of fox pups. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has documented 20 different points in the southeastern United States where coyotes were released by people who planned to run them with hounds … Coyotes were first observed in the park in Cades Cove by Charles Remus on June 6, 1982, and now occur throughout the park” They also occur throughout Western North Carolina in backcountry, rural and urban areas. They’re everywhere and, like it or not, they’re here to stay.
Andy Russell, a professional trapper in Alberta, Canada, wrote a nice book based on a lifetime of personal experiences titled Trails of a Wilderness Wanderer (1970). Russell concluded that, “Of all the animals a trapper encounters, the coyote is by far the most cunning and intelligent. I have trapped foxes, which have a reputation for being difficult to take, but compared to a coyote the fox is a dunce.”
The pack of between five and 10 coyotes that patrols the area where we live west of Bryson City has decimated the small-game population on our property. Ground-nesting birds like towhees and ovenbirds have moved on. There are reports of missing cats and small dogs from neighbors. The pack likes to serenade us late at night with ongoing choruses of short yaps, long whines and loud barks. And now they are crossing our new footbridge into the yard looking for my wife’s apples in broad daylight.
Many characters surface in stories related to Horace Kephart, regional author and one of the founders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. F.A. Behymer, a journalist from St. Louis who would have been aware of the basic story behind Horace Kephart’s dismissal as a head librarian, separation from wife and family, and subsequent breakdown in March 1904 — is one of the more colorful. Behymer’s article, based on an interview with Kephart in Bryson City in 1926, appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was reprinted on Dec. 12 of the same year in the Asheville Citizen-Times as “Horace Kephart, Driven from Library by Broken Health, Reborn in Woods.”
An editorial note prefacing the reprinted text reads: “The following interesting article about one of the most interesting characters in Western North Carolina, Horace Kephart of Bryson City, was written for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch by F.A. Behymer, one of the star men of that newspaper.” Behymer was easily as much of a “character” as Kephart ever dreamed of being.
It must have surprised him that a journalist from St. Louis would journey to Bryson City to write a lengthy article 20 years after he had departed the city in trying circumstances. But Behymer wasn’t your run-of-the-mill journalist. Driving to remote places to look around, get the lay of the land, conduct an interview, take a few photographs and drive back home to write it up was the way he had operated for more than a quarter of a century. Behymer is a minor character in the overall story, but his descriptions and conclusions are often shrewdly phrased and insightful.
Francis Albert Behymer (1870-1956) was born in Ohio, quit school at the age of 12, joined the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a proofreader, started his writing career as a “suburban correspondent,” and by 1900 was writing “a chain of bright stories of rural life ... that lasted half a century.” His friends called him “Bee.” He was short, weighed 125 pounds, had a big nose and gray hair that was unruly, wore a small mustache and always carried a battered briefcase. In his Chevrolet sedan, he traveled thousands of backcountry miles each year covering his beat, which consisted of the rural portions of three states: Missouri, Illinois and Arkansas, with emphasis on the Ozarks. His rambling columns have been described as “homey tales of people, horses, auctions and little girls who liked rabbits” — but he also enjoyed covering the occasional “cornfield murder.” The Post-Dispatch made him a Sunday editor, but he promptly “resigned” and went back to traveling and writing.
Kephart was precisely the sort of personality, with the sort of lifestyle and background, that would have attracted a journalist like Behymer, and Kephart himself gravitated toward “original characters” — as personalities like Quill Rose, Mark Cathey, Bob Barnett and “Bee” Behymer were known. Kephart would have appreciated the fact that the journalist had done his homework — having read Kephart’s books and the autobiographical essay — and that he pieced the overall story together in a lively but unobtrusive fashion. When asked by Behymer why he had chosen the Smokies as his destination, Kephart’s response was more specific than usual:
Resting awhile at his father’s home at Dayton [he] took a map and a compass and with Dayton as the center drew circles, seeking the nearest wilderness, in any direction, where he might cast himself away. The region of the Big Smoky Mountains in Western North Carolina seemed to meet the requirements. A topographic map showed him, by means of the contour lines and the blank spaces, where nature was wildest and where there were no settlements. These were the highest mountains east of the Rockies. It was a primitive hinterland without a history. It would be a good place to begin again, he thought.
Kephart’s materials were always categorized, alphabetized and indexed, often more than once. Relevant items that might be of use were cross-referenced in the outlines and drafts of specific articles and books he was working on at the time. Although no longer a librarian, he retained a librarian’s instinct for classification — or as Behymer described the situation: “The librarian’s ruling passion was still strong amid the bears and owls.”
Behymer was uncanny when it came to unraveling Kephart’s convoluted motives. He did so via a complexity of language and images never encountered in modern day journalism. For instance, he reached this carefully phrased (and in my opinion accurate) conclusion regarding Kephart’s “crash” after interviewing him in his office overlooking the Tuckaseigee River in 1926.
Horace Kephart won high position in the busy world as a librarian. He was a front-rank man. For 13 years he was at the head of the St. Louis Mercantile Library. Success was his. ... Then in 1904 — “crash.” The man broke down. To another man it would have been tragedy. To Horace Kephart it was blessed release. ... Ambition had beckoned, and duty had driven. His heart’s deepest longing had been denied. Always he had waited for a more convenient season. Greater ambition called for greater devotion. But for this chance, which another would have called mischance, he would have gone to the end denying himself his dearest wish, winning much but losing more.
Like dimly-lit rhododendron tunnels or ancient sphagnum-layered bogs, creek bends are special places that invariably precipitate beauty.
Sitting in the blue-gray shadows of my porch, I watch lower Lands Creek flow by on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Down past the old outhouse, the creek bends southeastwardly and with mindless precision slices like a blade into a bluff of hornblende gneiss. Random glints of low-slanted evening light trace the graceful arc of the bend.
Horneblende is an aluminum silicate of iron and magnesium that may contain potassium. On slopes and in creek bends where flora is especially varied and lush, horneblende gneiss is often the key ingredient.
The bluff Lands Creek has been sculpting for thousands of years is shaded by a dense canopy composed of basswood, slippery elm, various white and red oak species, butternut, beech, striped and red maple, silverbell, serviceberry, black cherry, dogwood, ironwood, and various species of hickory. The under story is composed of rosebay rhododendron, mountain laurel, and dog-hobble. There are grape vines and tangles of greenbrier. Ferns that come to mind are cinnamon, Christmas, New York, glade, lady, hay-scented, ebony spleenwort, winged beech, and maidenhair. There are mosses, liverworts, sedges, ground pine, and grasses. The spring wildflowers are prolific.
In other words, the factors that created a bend in a creek exposed various levels of a mountainside containing horneblende gneiss and, in the process, also created a small natural garden of great beauty, without any “help” whatsoever from any person.
My favorite tree in the bend is a good-sized butternut ... the perfect tree for this setting. The butternut walnut (Juglans cinerea), which some people call white walnut, is surrounded by several of its close cousins, the ever-present black walnuts (J. nigra). But you can distinguish the smaller butternut walnut in a heartbeat.
Butternut has a large terminal leaflet, whereas black walnut has either a small terminal leaflet or no terminal leaflet at all. The bark of mature butternut walnut trees is gray-white and divided into deep furrows that form a characteristic rough diamond-shaped pattern. Its leaves and fruit drop early revealing conspicuous, 3-lobed (inversely triangular) leaf scars on twigs, each of which is surrounded by a raised, downy, gray pad or “eyebrow.” These scars make the leaf scars look for all the world like a ram’s face.
Unlike black walnut — which bears dark-green rounded fruits that turn dark black-brown — butternut walnut displays oblong fleshy light-green fruits that turn a light-brown buttery color with maturity.
Cherokees traditionally used the inner bark as a carthartic and harvested the nuts as food. To this day, they make a black dye to color basket splints from butternut roots and carve the soft wood for masks and other items. Mountaineers used the inner bark and fruit husks to obtain a yellow or orange agent to dye homespuns; hence, during the Civil War backwoods Confederate troops dressed in homespun “uniforms” of butternut-dyed cloth became known as “Butternuts.” In country churches here in the mountains, an altar carved of a satiny light-brown wood and displaying bands of paler sapwood might well be made of butternut.
Unfortunately, butternut walnut — like so many tree species — is being infested by a killing agent. In the butternut’s instance, the agent is a fungus first identified during the late 1960s in eastern North America. This canker has now spread throughout the entire range of the tree from Minnesota south to Arkansas and from New England south into Georgia.
In Charles E. Little’s The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests (Viking, 1995), the lens-shaped cankers that are formed when a tiny fungus spore enters the tree through an injured limb or trunk are described as “necrotic lesions of the bark and cambium layer” that “spread throughout the tree, even to the nut husks, eventually girdling the main limbs and trunk and causing the tree to die. The death is slow, taking several years, but certain.”
For the time being, however, the evening light that glints off the arc of water below our place is still refracted by the patterns in the bark of the butternut tree … diamonds in a near-perfect creek bend.