Displaying items by tag: george ellison

Like most commonly observed objects, crows flit across our field of vision unheeded. Caw-caw-cawing unmusically … flap-flap-flapping over the fields … dressed as if for a funeral … iridescent pieces of black flannel waving in the breeze. We hear and see them … but we don’t really pay attention. We rarely think about them … we never ask ourselves: “What are these birds up to?”

Within the last decade, however, crows have decided to relocate into the valley we live in west of Bryson City. This flock is composed of perhaps 30 individuals ... maybe more … maybe less. Counting crows can be a problem.

They all look alike … and no crow stays in one place for very long. But I’d say we’ve got about 30 crows … more than enough.

They primarily feed around the barn on whatever chicken, rabbit, and horse feed gets scattered on the ground. But they will eat almost anything. They are, I have observed, fond of apples … especially golden Grimes apples. I have seen them pecking at tomatoes and squash. But I have never observed a crow eating a green bean.

They apparently roost and nest in a thicket of scrub pine on a ridge above the valley. Being crows they are, of course, secretive about where they roost. They are secretive about everything. But I have watched them through binoculars late in the evening. They fly in every direction as a diversion but eventually they slip away … one by one … into the pine grove on that ridge.

Of late, they have become rather tame and often come down to feed and mess around in the garden ornamental shrubs next to our home, when they think no one is around; that is, when both of our vehicles are gone. You did know that crows can count, didn’t you?

Well-funded high-caliber scientific research has established that all crows can count to three ... not a few can count to four ... and the occasional crow can get to five. The North American record for counting by a crow is eight. It was set by a crow residing in Ithaca, N.Y. There is suspicion that the crow was tutored at the Cornell University Lab. Be that as it may, crows are good counters.

When they think no one is home, I sit by my window and listen to the crows talking things over. I have no idea what they’re talking about. They don’t caw when there’re discussing things. At this time, their vocalizations consist primarily of low rattling and gurgling sounds. One will rattle for a while, then another one will gurgle for awhile in response. I keep asking myself, “What are these birds up to?”

I have never observed a large roost of crows, which is properly referred to not as a flock but as a “congress of crows,” but in some places they form winter enclaves that number into the thousands. One standard source reports winter flocks of up to 200,000 birds.

I have an AP wire service clip in my “Crow” file dated Jan. 6, 1987, and titled “Crows Decide Illinois Town Is For The Birds.” The town in question was Danville, Ill., which had suffered a crow inundation that broke branches, pulled down power lines, and bombarded streets and houses with droppings.

From the article: “‘It’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie over here. These birds are driving us all crazy,’ said Irene Hall, who lives on Oak Street, one of the crows’ favorite spots.”

The first naturalists in our part of the world were the ancient Cherokees. They didn’t miss a trick in regard to the intricacies of plant and animal life. They liked to closely observe the mundane, and then make it a part of their oral traditions.

The Cherokee word for crow is “Koga.” According to one of their stories, Koga acquired its black color in a futile attempt to obtain the first fire. In another story, two crows were selected to be the guards of a gambler named Brass. Anthropologist James Mooney collected this story in the late 1880s while living among the Cherokees in the Big Cove section of the Qualla Boundary in Western North Carolina.

“They tied his hands and feet with a grapevine and drove a long stake through his breast, and planted it far out in the deep water,” Mooney recorded in Myths of the Cherokee (1900). “They set two crows on the end of the pole to guard it and called the place Ka-gun-yi: ‘Crow place.’ But Brass never died, and cannot die until the end of the world, but lies there always with his face up. Sometimes he struggles under the water to get free, and sometimes the beavers, who are his friends, come and gnaw at the grapevine to release him. Then the pole shakes and the crows at the top cry ‘Ka! Ka! Ka!’ and scare the beavers away.”

What better lookouts than a pair of crows?

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 had my first introduction to plants in the Hibiscus genus when I was a boy. Rose-of-Sharon was a common dooryard shrub in the piedmont region of Virginia where I grew up, just as it is here in Western North Carolina.

In mid-summer, my cousins and I would amuse ourselves by trapping large bumblebees in the flowers. No problem: just wait for a bee to penetrate the back part of the blossom and then seal the petals shut with your fingertips. We must not have had a lot amusement options back then, since we spent a lot of our time harassing bumblebees in this manner.

Even then, I noticed the peculiar structure of the rose-of-Sharon blossoms, but it wasn’t until later on that I bothered to find out more about them and the other members of the Hibiscus genus, which belong to the mallow family of plants.

All mallows display five petals, within which the male stamen parts are united to form a long tube (or “staminal column”) that surrounds the female parts. Nectar is produced at the base of the petals that attracts pollinators deep into the flower and thereby into contact with the sexual parts.

Rose-of-Sharon is the only shrub in the Hibiscus genus that’s hardy in our region. Sometimes called Althaea by gardeners, the plant is native to Asia but was introduced into the British Isles over 250 years ago; indeed, it has been a part of our floral heritage for so long that it no longer seems “foreign” at all. It’s not uncommon to spot naturalized plants growing near old home sites that have “escaped” and made themselves at home with the rest of our native plants.

Which common garden plant displays the most striking blossoms? To my eye okra is the hands-down winner. The plant is a Hibiscus genus member native to the Old World tropics.

Another Hibiscus genus plants that has come to live with us — this time from Europe — is flower-of-an-hour (H. trionum), which has lovely sulphur-yellow petals and a purplish-black “eye.” As the common name indicates, the flowers last only a few hours. Unfortunately, it is more common in the Piedmont region of the state than here in the Smokies region, being reported from only Jackson and Watauga counties in Western North Carolina.

That brings us to the lone native Hibiscus species found in the Smokies region. But if we have to just have one Hibiscus of our very own, few wildflower enthusiasts would choose another in its stead.

That species is the swamp rose mallow (H. moshcheutos), which grows in moist woods, meadows, and marshes. Some authorities treat the pink-flowered variety and the white-flowered variety as separate species, but the current thought is that they are subspecies.

Here in the westernmost counties of North Carolina swamp rose mallow has been reported from Cherokee, Swain, Macon, and Haywood counties. To my knowledge, all of these represent reports of the whitish subspecies. No plant is more stunning when encountered in the wild. They lend a sub-tropical touch to our upland landscape.

The large deep-red rose mallows that put on late summer and early fall shows in yards throughout the region are derived from horticultural strains such as the “Hibiscus Southern Belle” types offered by many seed companies.

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..

Each July since 1991, I’ve led field trips along the Blue Ridge Parkway offered as part of the Native Plants Conference sponsored by Western Carolina University. This year’s outings (July 25) will have taken place by the time you read this.

Between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah, the eight participants in my group will identify perhaps eight fern species, several grasses, a few lichens, maybe a mushroom or two, and more than 100 wildflower species, including wild quinine, large-flowered leafcup, bush honeysuckle, green wood orchis, starry campion, Indian paintbrush, enchanter’s nightshade, Small’s beardtongue, downy skullcap, tall delphenium, pale Indian plantain, tall bellflower, southern harebell, horsebalm, round-leaved sundew, Blue Ridge St. Johnswort and false asphodel.

No group of flowering plants along the Parkway, however, will be of more interest to participants than the “Monardas,” a genus in the mint family that includes the ever-popular bee balm. There are two other distinct “Monarda” species — wild bergamot and basil balm — that appear in this section of the Southern Blue Ridge Province in addition to a hybrid backcross called purple bergamont.

“Monardas” are sometimes called horsemints because “horse” signifies “large” or “coarse,” and the members of this genus are generally larger, coarser plants than many other members of the mint family.  In this instance “coarse is beautiful.” Most of the horsemints have quite appropriately been introduced into cultivation.

Here’s a checklist of those three horsemint species and the hybrid found in the Western North Carolina mountains. All flower from mid-June into September and can be readily located along the parkway, especially in the areas of the Grassy Ridge Mine (milepost 436.8) and Standing Rock Overlook (milepost 441.4).

Bee balm, also called crimson bee balm or Oswego tea (Monarda didyma): occasional in moist, shaded situations; adapted by scarlet color long tubular shape of flowers for pollination by hummingbirds, but often “robbed” by bees and other insects that bore “bungholes” at the base of the corolla tube; note the reddish leaf-like bracts just below the flowers; called “bee balm” because it made a poultice that soothed stings; sometimes called Oswego tea because of its use as a steeped medicinal by the Oswego Indians of New York; generic name honors an European botanist, Nicholas Monarda, who had an interest in medically useful plants from the New World. No red flower — save, of course, cardinal flower — is more resplendent. And like cardinal flower, this member of the mint family often haunts a lush and dark setting so that when it catches slanting light the flaming crimson gleams like a beacon.

Wild bergamot (M. fistulosa): common but variable species flowering in open fields, meadows, and on dry wooded slopes; petals are usually lilac or pinkish-purple (rarely white) with the upper lip bearded at the apex; bracts often pink-tinged; frequently visited by butterflies; oil with an odor resembling essence of bergamot was once extracted from the plant to treat respiratory ailments; brewed as tea by the Cherokee for many ailments, including flatulence and hysterics.

• Basil balm (M. clinopodia): occasional in both moist and dry woods and thickets; similar to wild bergamot but with paler pink or white flowers that have purple spots on lower lip and whitish bracts; common name indicates that it was used like bee balm as a poultice. Wild bergamot and basil balm often interbreed along the parkway.

Purple bergamot (M. media): an infrequently encountered natural hybrid backcross of the above species displaying deep reddish-purple flowers and dark purple bracts; habitat about the same as bee balm, so look for color differences between scarlet of that species and deep purple for the hybrid; despite the hybrid status it’s reliably distinctive and exciting to encounter.

Note: Excellent colored illustrations of each of these horsemints appear opposite p. 92 of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1977).  Dotted horsemint (M. punctata), which has purple-spotted yellow flowers, is primarily a species of the piedmont and coastal plain that does not — to my knowledge — appear in the Southern Blue Ridge Province.

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 upland waterways of the southern highlands provide one of the region’s most interesting natural areas. Unlike most upland habitats — which generally occur as blocks or patches — streams form long corridors that afford rich and varied niches for  plants and animals that have adapted their lifestyles accordingly.

Within the water there’s a variety of animal life, ranging from native brook trout to grotesque hellbenders to water shrews equipped with hairy feet that allow them to hunt underwater. In quiet nooks of pools and eddies, waterstriders skate on film provided by the surface tension of the water.

Over the water corridor, kingfishers, dragonflies and other species establish linear territories. Along the edges, Louisana waterthrushes hunt for worms and snails that they take to their young hatched in nests built back under the banks.

Within the spray zones of waterfalls and cascades, there’s the shimmering emerald world of the mosses, liverworts, ferns and other moisture-loving plants. Then, somewhat farther back — in the miniature flood plains or wash zones created by periodic overflows — a variety of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants form thick walls of undergrowth and overhanging canopy that define the outer edges (or walls) of the corridor.

Shrub yellowroot (Xanthoriza simplicissima), one of the most distinctive and important plants found here in the Blue Ridge, occurs along the banks of most streams. Yellowroot is distinctive because of the handsome tassel of flowers that sometimes appear as early as February and the strategies it has devised for growth and seed dispersal in areas often invaded by raging currents. The plant is also economically and socially important because of its medicinal use and the yellow dye Cherokee women extract from the plant’s inner pulp for tinting basket splints.

If you’re not familiar with yellowroot, look for a woody plant about 8- to 24-inches high that looks to me like a miniature palm tree; that is, all the leafy green growth is at the top of the stem. A participant in one of my plant identification workshops disagreed, saying that it looked like carrot tops.

The flowers emerge on graceful drooping racemes about 3-inches in length. These flowers consist of five purplish-brown sepals (no petals) about a half inch in diameter. The most distinctive feature of the flower is the bright yellow dot in its center — the pollen used to attract pollinators.

The yellowish follicles or fruits produced in summer disperse seeds that float away on inflated capsules.  That makes wonderful sense of why the plant favors a streamside habitat and of how it becomes distributed downstream.

The tissue under the bark is a bright yellow hue that rivals the color of fine butter. The slender roots have long been used for medicinal purposes. Doug Elliott, in his neglected little book Roots (The Chatham Press, 1976), advises that “many people who do use it, including myself, chew a section of the bitter root regularly as a general tonic with an especially beneficial effect on the gastric system.”

Many years ago, Martha Ross, a resident of the Big Cove Community on the Qualla Boundary and a member of family well known for their basketry, told me that her mother, Charlotte Lossiah, “didn’t use yellowroot as a dye too much except with honeysuckle. She liked to use bloodroot. But I like yellowroot. We also use butternut and walnut and bloodroot. You can gather yellowroot anytime, but it’s best in spring when you get a brighter color. It’s a little dull in winter. The roots can be used if you beat them with a hammer, but I like the stems to get the prettiest yellow. You scrape the pulp into a kettle of boiling water on the stove. Pull the splints out to the edge so that the yellow fills up a little hole in the center. After 30 or 40 minutes it’s ready. I never dye a big batch at once, just enough to make a few baskets.”

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 sweltering heat this summer is restricting some outdoor activities, but it’s a prime time for lizard watching. Lizards don’t mind the heat; indeed, many of them are highly adapted to dry climatic conditions. Lizard watching can be done from your front porch, along fencerows, in dry pine or oak woods, and in rocky areas.

The “spring lizards” used for fish bait are actually salamanders, which (like frogs and toads) are amphibians. True lizards are reptiles (like snakes and turtles) and have scaly, dry skins, as well as claws.

In A Field Guide to Your Own Back Yard (1985), John Hanson Mitchell gives readers his “golden rule” for distinguishing salamanders from lizards: “If you can catch it, it is a salamander, if you can’t, it is a lizard.”

It never even occurred to me that I might be able to catch a fence lizard, which are aptly called “fence swifts” by many country boys. For several summers, however, I did try from time to time to capture one of the numerous skinks that live on our property. Spotting one with its pretty lines and luminescent blue tail perched on the side of the barn or outhouse, I’d attempt to ease up and grab it with my hand or encompass the critter with my cap. No such luck. They were much too quick for me.

In his introduction to A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians (1975), Roger Conant advises the would-be lizard catcher to stalk the quarry by not looking directly at it. “Move in at an angle, watching it out of the corner of your eye.” A prize fighter or major league infielder might apply that technique with success, but my hand-eye coordination wasn’t up to lizard-catching standards.

What I do plan to try, however, the next time my lizard-catching granddaughter comes to visit, is one of the nifty lizard nooses Conant describes and diagrams. It’s not complicated. You simply “attach a small noose of horsehair or fine thread or wire to the end of a pole measuring a few feet in length ... Slip the noose over the lizard’s head and let it come to rest around the neck. Jerk the pole quickly upward and the lizard is yours! This method requires practice, but it is quite efficient.”

The eastern fence lizard is gray or brown above. Their scales are ridged so that they have a rough appearance. Females have conspicuously patterned backs, while the backs of males tend to be brownish with less pattern. Mature males have very apparent greenish-blue markings on each side of the belly. As the lizard raises and lowers itself in pushup fashion, the markings are flashed to warn off other males.

While basking in the sun, a fence lizard alternately puffs out and draws in its throat as if it were sucking on something. Ever alert to the peculiarities of each animal and plant, the ancient Cherokees invoked the fence lizard in their formulas used for drawing out the poison from snake bites. They also believed that scratching one’s legs with the claws of the first fence lizard caught each spring would result in no dangerous snakes being encountered for the remainder of the year.

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

This is about a place, High Rocks, a lookout situated at just over 5,000 feet on Welch Ridge in the national park. Welch Ridge is the massive divide between Forney and Hazel creeks on the North Carolina side of the park. On the exposed outcrop at High Rocks, a fire tower and ranger’s cabin were constructed during the 1930s.

This is also about the relationship with that place my wife, Elizabeth, and I have maintained for three decades and counting. Our part of the story now exists on various levels, but the primary venture involving High Rocks took place in early August 1982. It had been preceded by visits dating back into the 1970s. In addition to the journal notes, sketches, Polaroid snapshots, etc., made in 1982, a narrative description of mine titled “High Rocks” was published in the “Fall-Winter 1982” issue of The Wayah Review; and a column was published in Smoky Mountain News some time ago that re-created a portion of the journal notes verbatim.

Not long ago, I chanced upon my missing issue of The Wayah Review.

What follows, after some additional window dressing, is a fragment from that narrative somewhat altered in style and incorporating journal entries. What I write in July 2010 is neither better nor worse than what I wrote in September 1982. Writing it again is my way of reviving memory.

High Rocks is one of those magical places. Like an entranceway to Shangri-La, stone steps constructed by CCC workers lead up to the tower for hundred of yards under a dense tangle of rhododendron. The views from the tower out over the southwestern tip of North Carolina were stupendous. I use the past tense because the fire tower is no longer there. The park service removed it with a helicopter in the late 1980s. (Insofar as I am aware, the ranger’s cabin remains, but I haven’t been back there since August 1982.)

As trips go, it wasn’t very long — maybe 25 miles roundtrip from Lower Lands Creek, where we live on property just west of Bryson City to High Rocks and back. In retrospect, our route to High Rocks might seem peculiar. We chose to portage our canoe down Lands Creek to Lake Fontana, paddle to the mouth of Goldmine Creek (camp for a night), paddle the next morning to the mouth of Forney Creek, hike up Forney Creek trail, follow the aptly-named Jumpup Ridge trail to the crest of Welch Ridge, and push on up from there to High Rocks, where we had obtained a permit from a backcountry ranger to use the cabin.


Lake Fontana … three men and a woman drink beer and nod with indifference as we float past … green heron squawks from a tangle … Goldmine Creek camp … rose-colored mallows the size of dinner plates growing in shallows … up in light drizzle utensils clinking coffee oatmeal … canoe flows over lake water … mouth of Forney rock-ribbed darker water… long-bearded middle-aged fellow red-faced yelling in front of a yellow tent wearing a yellow T bearing the succinct message in orange script: ‘FLORIDA!’ … keep on moving … cache canoe … Jumpup Trail … steep switchbacks gray rainwater running in rivulets … pause every 20 minutes or so w/ no need to talk . . . push up to grassy saddle atop Welch Ridge w/ E effortlessly beside me … signpost: “High Rocks 1 mi” pointing south … and the rain stops.


Trail junctions have a special quality. I don’t mean the bit about paths untaken. I mean the union a junction represents. Most manmade connections are awkward but you will never come upon a confluence of pathways that is not as it should be.


We hide our packs off-trail. It’s sweet to get out from under them. For a while, we float several inches off the ground. Water up at High Rocks will be iffy. So we go north on the main trail … past white wood aster, starry campion, horse balm, and blue panicles of harebell … over Bearwallow Bald and down to a glade below Hawk Knob to fill our water bags.

 

Unseen and yet nearby, a bird sounds

three clear notes as the sun flashes

filling the moist glade with light.

A maze of scarlet bee balm flames

to life along the edge of the trail

and farther down there is the

glow of a single pendant lily.

The bird sings again a song

meaningless and profound

that somehow secures

this moment in

my memory.


Steep trail up from main ridge to High Rocks . . . stone steps carved from granite splotched with patches of lichen …  rhododendron boughs arched overhead … glistening black muck underfoot … lush moss is emerald green in this dim underworld … step after step & finally the top.


Rock and tower and cabin.

There is an emptiness that we fill.

From the tower after the swirling mists

had been blown away were views that

took our breath away: all across the Smokies

from Deeplow Gap to Shuckstack and

southward over the Cowees and Nantahalas

into Georgia ... blue ridge after blue ridge

in every direction.


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 have always been struck by the sacred formulas (chants or incantations) that the Cherokee medicine men used to create good luck in hunting or warfare, in healing, or in affairs of the heart.

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

Here is a formula of this type I rendered from one of Kilpatrick’s rough paraphrases. The model for the “black owl” would have been the great-horned owl.

MY ENEMY

Your name is night.

I am the black owl

that hunts the darkness

for your heart and soul.

Your name is the night.

I am the black owl

hunting your soul.

This is my favorite. It is rendered from various late 19th and 20th century English translations, etc., as a composite approximation of Cherokee sacred formulas intended to “remake” or “rebeautify.” In this instance the formula is also a love incantation.

CALLING LIKE A DISTANT BIRD

Listen!

Dressed in the sunrise

I might sing like a red bird.

But I shake my clothing until it fades

so that you and I are dressed alike.

Our souls are aligned.

Be thinking of me.

We are as the red bird.

We are as the blue bird.

We are as the yellow bird.

We are as the mythic bird.

Now!

Look at me ... talk with me ... no apartness.

In the middle of the morning we stand.

Each day we walk in splendor

within the heart of a rainbow.

Each day we are remade by

the spirit that never dies.

Some Cherokees believed that after death the soul could go to a place seven days to the west where the ghost people (their ancestors and others) resided in Night Land. Going there was apparently an option. One had to make up one’s mind. Neither a heaven nor a hell, it seems to have been a sort of parallel universe in which there were chiefs, warriors, wise women, dances, songs, animals, plants, and, most importantly, deceased ancestors with whom one could commune. In this poem a woman is explaining to her great-grandmother about where and how she made up her mind.

NIGHT LAND

Agadv:dodi

Grandfather!

Speak to me.

I have made up my mind.

She stood listening before smiling

and nodding as the mist burned away and

sunlight turned the sycamore-lined Tuckaseigee

into a track of light within which she arose

on out-spread arms and down-turned hands

above the indifferent grasping currents and

was transposed as if on the wings of a radiant hawk.

Many years later when her great-grandmother asked

when she had made up her mind, she smiled and replied:

“I grew tired missing you and grandfather and my uncles.

I made up my mind while fording the river.

I asked my other grandfather

the river to ask my heart.

My heart told my mind to place

My soul with the ghost people.

Thinking always starts in the heart.

I made up my mind in the river

to come and live with you

here in the Night Land.

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: This column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in June 2003.

Honey was a primary sweetening agent for the early settlers here in the Smokies region. And to this day there are numerous beekeepers in the region.

They trace the origins of their activity back to the introduction of the honeybee into North America. Prior to that time, sweetening was obtained primarily by tapping maple trees.

The honeybee probably arrived on this continent during the 1600s. They became so numerous that Native Americans called them the “white man’s fly.”

Donald Edward Davis notes in Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Univ. of Georgia Press, 2000) that “By the time of the American Revolution ... William Bartram found honeybees numerous ‘from Nova Scotia to East Florida.’ During his tour of the Cherokee country in 1796, Benjamin Hawkins reported that the Cherokees already ‘had bees and honey’ and were doing ‘a considerable trade in beeswax.’ Moreover, European plants such as apple trees were greatly dependent on the pollination of honeybees in order to consistently bear fruit. Certainly the honeybee also helped native plants, including Indian maize, to produce more prolifically.”

Sourwood honey is the most famous honey produced in this region. One just about can’t think about sourwood trees in bloom without thinking of the fresh sourwood honey that’s on the way. Fortunately, the blooming period of sourwood comes pretty much after that of its cousins, the mountain laurel and rhododendrons, whose honeys are toxic. Bees are said to prefer sourwood to any other tree. Stand under a sourwood in full bloom and you will hear the “song of summer” coming from the congregation of bees feeding high above.

The early white settlers made their bee gums from black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). This use was based on close observation of the natural world. Black gum is susceptible to a heartwood decay that sets in early at the top of the tree and works downward; therefore, hollow trees are common. The settlers simply sectioned a black gum, placed the sections on end with boards over the tops and bottoms, and made an entrance hole. Gums were also constructed from rough planks.

Obtaining a hive of bees was the next step. Bee-hunters sometimes located a watering place for bees and followed them back to their homes in hollow trees. Some hunters baited the bees with corn cobs soaked in honey and then followed them home. If their home base couldn’t be located at first, the hunter simply kept setting out more bait until he finally found it.

Volume 2 of the “Foxfire” series of books provides a unique “stink-bait” bee attraction recipe. One veteran bee-hunter recalled that it was virtually foolproof: “Old-timers used to put corn cobs and dirt in a bucket, urinate in it, and then leave it for a few days. When they got back, the bees would be there.”

The same bee-hunter recalled that “he would set up two bait locations, one a short distance from the other. When the lines from each were established, one had simply to follow each to the point where they intersected, and there would be the tree. When the tree was located, a deep ‘X’ or other sign was almost always cut into the bark. Such a mark was understood by the whole community as meaning that that particular tree was already someone’s property and thus could not be cut or interfered with.”

The bee tree could be felled at any time of the year, but the best time was in September when the bee-hunter could rob both honey and bees. He would bring an axe (to fell the tree), tub (for the honey), and bee gum or tow sack (for the bees). Once the tree was down, he would locate the queen bee and place her in front of the gum or tow sack. In short order, both she and her attendants would crawl into the gum or sack and be relocated at a site near the bee-hunter’s cabin.

Naturally enough, a great deal of lore has through the years become associated with bee-keeping. In Mountain Bred (Citizen-Times Publishing Co., 1967), John Parris has a chapter titled “When the Master Dies Move the Bees.” Therein he records a conversation he had with county farm agent Paul Gibson.

“‘There’s a lot of superstitions about bee-keeping,’ Paul said. ‘One is, if a colony of bees swarm you’ve got to get out and ring a bell or beat on a dishpan before they’ll settle. I don’t know why folks believe in it, for bees don’t have a hearing organ. They go by physical vibrations’

“‘Then there’s the one old-timers swear by. They say if the master dies the bees die with him, unless the bees are moved.’”

To check out this latter belief, Parris sought out Eliza Jane Bradley, then 87, who lived on Bunches Creek and was the recent widow of a master beekeeper.

“‘Yes, the bees are all right,’ she said. ‘We moved ‘em before we took the Old Man out of the house. I saw to that no sooner than I saw he was dead. You know, they always say that if you don’t move the bees when the master dies you’ll lose them. They’ll die, too. We just moved ‘em about an inch ... Just so they wasn’t like he had put ‘em. Ever’body’ll tell you it don’t matter how much you move ‘em, just so as you move ‘em.’

“‘Well, the Old Man died about 3:30 in the morning. Right away we sent to Bryson City for the undertaker. And the very next thing, I told one of my boys that the bees would have to be moved. He and another fellow went out — it was still dark and cold — and moved the bees. There was 23 stands. Since then I’ve lost but two ... Now, I know, as sure as I’m a-settin’ here, if them bees hadn’t of been moved there wouldn’t be a one out there now. I know what I’m talkin’ about.’”

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

This past week, we took our 11-year-old granddaughter, Daisy, who is visiting from Colorado, to the Cherokee Indian Village. She had been reading about the Cherokees and wanted to see “real Indians.” The tour was excellent. There were plenty of “real Indians.” We were lucky in that the Cherokees were holding a special dance ceremony to which the public was invited. Chief Michell Hicks was there and he danced, fairly well.

Daisy didn’t dance because she wanted to observe. She saw the bear dance, the quail dance, the friendship dance, and several others. The Cherokees in attendance were in a good mood. They especially enjoyed watching a teacher try to organize his kids — who looked to be 5 or 6 years old — into a disciplined covey of baby quails. They were about as organizable as a real covey of baby quails. But they were cute.

That evening, we talked some about Cherokee dance and other traditions. I told Daisy about Will West Long, one of my favorite Cherokees. The Cherokees of today are obviously keeping their traditions alive as much as possible. It was Will West Long who kept them alive 100 years ago.

He was born in the Big Cove area about 1870, the son of a Baptist minister, John Long, and Ayasta (Sally Terrapin). As was normal in traditional Cherokee society, the mother’s side of the family assumed responsibility for the rearing of children. The anthropologist James Mooney, who lived in Cherokee periodically from 1897-1890 collecting their lore, noted that Ayasta was “one of the principal conservatives among the women.” (I showed Daisy a photo of Ayasta in Mooney’s book.) Ayasta initiated Will into an understanding of tribal lore that subsequently withstood numerous brushes with acculturation.

After several lonely sojourns at Trinity College near High Point, Will returned to the Qualla Boundary and settled down to farming while learning more about the sacred formulas and other traditional lore from the conjurers and medicine men.

When Mooney arrived in the Big Cove in 1887, he felt an immediate attraction to Long — then a teenager working with the medicine man Swimmer — and hired him as a scribe and interpreter. Even after Mooney mastered the language himself, the two remained close friends.

Until several years before his death in 1921, Mooney periodically visited Will and other members of the Long family in the Big Cove. On one such occasion in 1913, he was invited to take place in a “going to water” ceremony commemorating the birth of a son. The entire family arose before sunrise, prayed, and then walked two miles to a special mountain stream. While Will West Long faced the rising sun, held forth colored beads, and invoked the Long Man (the designation for a stream in Cherokee mythology as it was a giant with its head in the mountains and its feet in the ocean), everyone else waded with the newborn child into the sacred water.

As a result of Mooney’s influence in the late 1880s, Will once again enrolled in an institution of higher learning. This time it was Hampton Institute. He subsequently spent 10 years in New England, learning and observing the dominant culture. The exposure didn’t take. Dissatisfied with that lifestyle, he returned in 1904 just prior to Ayasta’s death and seldom ventured away from the Big Cove again.

Having seen and experienced other possibilities, Will found that a white education had had little influence on the traditional spiritual lessons learned as a child from his mother. He began collecting notebooks from tribal conjurors that contained the ancient sacred chants and charms. He would on occasion appear suddenly at the Cherokee schools and captivate the children with tales and chants from their shared tribal past. Adept at all of the traditional Cherokee modes of expression — storytelling and dancing and singing — he was also the Eastern Band’s foremost authority on medicinal plants. Almost single-handedly, he kept the tradition of ceremonial mask carving alive.

He taught the old ways to the young people. Among these was his nephew Walker Calhoun. As a child Walker danced to the ceremonial singing of his uncle. The singing and dancing captured the boy’s imagination. Before he was 9, Walker could sing all of the old songs and dance all of the old dances.

I was pleased that Daisy, who has developed an interest in Cherokee ways, had a chance to see them dance some of the old dances kept alive by Swimmer, Ayasti, Will West Long, Walker Calhoun, the Raven Rock Dancers, and the school teacher last week who was doing his absolute best to organize that covey of Indian children for a quail dance.

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..

In the mid-1970s my primary writing interest was poetry. I was consumed night and day by poetry for perhaps five years and took part in poetry readings throughout the southern mountains. Some poems were published in little magazines like “Wind,” “Touchstone” and “The Small Farm” that flourished during that era. I even published a mimeographed newsletter-journal called “Unaka Range” that lasted a few years in which I had the audacity to publish at least one of my own poems each issue.

It was an era when every little town had at least one resident poet and quite often a small printing press of some sort. The readings were as much social as literary occasions, and the wine flowed before, during and after. I can recall some others, mostly poets, from this area who were a part of that scene: Nancy Simpson in Hayesville; Bettie Sellers in Young Harris, Ga.; Jim Stokely (Wilma Dykeman’s son) in Newport, Tenn., edited “Touchstone”; Jeff Daniel (Danny) Marion taught at Carson-Newman and edited the best of this region’s little magazines, “The Small Farm”; Thomas Rain Crowe was living in either Robbinsville or Cullowhee; Gary Carden was and is living in Sylva. Those associated with Western Carolina University included Newt Smith, Elizabeth Addison and Kay Stripling Byer, who was until recently the poet laureate of North Carolina. I can still hear Elizabeth Addison’s precise diction as she read her poems. I hated to read after Elizabeth because my own diction was so mumble-jumbled.

One of the young poets of that era from WNC was Robert Morgan, now primarily known for his novels and a recent biography of Daniel Boone. Robert didn’t show up at any of the readings because he was teaching far away at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He was already writing the sort of close-observation poems about the natural world that I was trying to write. He did them so deftly I couldn’t figure out how to steal anything from him short of abject plagiarism. We corresponded some. He gave me one piece of advice that has stuck: “Be careful about adverbs.” The following is from Robert Morgan’s website:

“I was born October 3, 1944 in Hendersonville, North Carolina and grew up on the family farm [near Zirconia] in the Green River valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains... After starting out in engineering and applied mathematics at North Carolina State University, I transferred to UNC-Chapel Hill and graduated in 1965 with a B.A. in English. In 1968 I received a Master of Fine Arts degree from UNC-Greensboro... My first writing teacher was the novelist Guy Owen at N.C. State. He encouraged me to write stories and poems about the place and people where I had grown up. One day he brought one of my stories to class, an account of visiting a great-grandmother in an old house in the mountains, and announced he had wept when he read the story. This was better praise than I had gotten in math classes, and I was hooked on writing. My earliest publications were short stories, but I soon became caught up in the excitement about poetry in the late 1960s. I had a lot of encouragement from Jessie Rehder at UNC-Chapel Hill and Fred Chappell at UNC-Greensboro. Fred was the best reader of poetry I had ever met... [My] first book, Zirconia Poems, [was published] in 1969. After coming to Cornell in 1971, I wrote only poems for 10 years, and published three more books of poems, Land Diving, Trunk & Thicket, and Groundwork.”

I’m not sure why, but I got away from writing poetry about 1980 — or maybe poetry got tired of me. But of late, for reasons we won’t go into, I’ve gotten back to poetry. Poems are flowing out of me like water from a spigot in the back of the garden that someone forgot to turn off: haiku, sonnets, verses both free and rhymed, sestinas, Petrarchian renderings, you name it. Late last Saturday night I invented a poetic form new to the English language poetry I call “simulated blank verse,” whereby every 10 syllables you break the line and keep on trucking. Counting stresses or rhyming is frowned upon. If you can count to 10, you can write simulated blank verse.

I’m also back to where I started with Robert Morgan 35 years ago, studying his poems to see how he does it. I’ve decided that he has a gift for what he does. Could have been something in the water at Zirconia. Here are two excerpts and one complete poem, just in case you ever want to contemplate the circular interrelationships that exist between old hubcaps in a creek, an owl’s eyes, and discs that furrow the landscape.

Sprinkled with needles the snow is still intact in thickets.

Blind cars rusting in the woods.

Pink clay stains through the snow and yellow holes where rabbits pissed.

Cellars of air moving down the creek.

The valley sails on, a farm in its hold.

— from “Creek” (Zirconia Poems, 1969)

In the pine woods, at the log

enclosure with a roof

over one corner,

you can get up close

to the grunting breather.

And he knows you’re there, always

watching through a chink.

Suddenly whirls

his great weight

squealing to the other

side, for all his size quick as a cat; stands

in mud plush.

— from “Hogpen” (Land Diving, 1976)

Hubcaps

The tractor runs over dirt and shapes it, turning

stubble and moving the hill

furrow by furrow to the terraces, slicing clods, wearing

them away and chopping roots

to rot in sweet beds of decay.

The owl: eyes like arenas

gathering

the weeds and hungry ditches.

She guards the air like a monument

Shedding a field of energy downwind.

Old hubcaps burning all night in the creek.

— (Red Owl, 1972)

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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