Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Listening to the Earth

Yesterday, a thoughtful friend sent me this encouraging news:

The South American Republic of Ecuador will next week consider what many countries in the world would say is unthinkable. People will be asked to vote on Sunday on a new constitution that would give Ecuador's tropical forests, islands, rivers and air similar legal rights to those normally granted to humans. If they vote yes - and polls show that 56% are for and only 23% are against - then an already approved bill of rights for nature will be introduced, and new laws will change the legal status of nature from being simply property to being a right-bearing entity.

The proposed bill states: "Natural communities and ecosystems possess the unalienable right to exist, flourish and evolve within Ecuador. Those rights shall be self-executing, and it shall be the duty and right of all Ecuadorian governments, communities, and individuals to enforce those rights."


Just last week, during a discussion of development issues in Jackson County, another thoughtful friend raised some timely rhetorical questions:

"Who speaks for the water?"

"Who speaks for the land?"

Contrarian that I am, I countered:

"Well, let's remember, the water and the land are quite capable of speaking for themselves. It’s up to us to listen. It’s up to us to learn how to listen."

This week, I rediscovered the many joys of WALKING. In this case, I don’t mean putting one foot in front of the other. No, what I rediscovered was the essay by Henry David Thoreau. In my humble estimation, "Walking" more than holds its own with Thoreau’s better-known "Walden."

With his unparalleled ability to find a different perspective on the world, Thoreau gets the last word in today's rumination. I suspect he would be heartened by the news from Ecuador. Certainly, Thoreau spoke for the land, and listened, too. But in this passage from "Walking", he suggests that the land can speak for us:

Where is the literature which gives expression to Nature? He would be a poet who could impress the winds and streams into his service, to speak for him; who nailed words to their primitive senses, as farmers drive down stakes in the spring which the frost has heaved; who derived his words as often as he used them — transplanted them to his page with earth adhering to their roots; — whose words were so true, and fresh, and natural that they would appear to expand like the buds at the approach of spring, though they lay half smothered between two musty leaves in a library, — aye, to bloom and bear fruit there after their kind annually for the faithful reader, in sympathy with surrounding Nature.


Sunday, September 28, 2008


Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.

Excerpt from Goldenrod, by Mary Oliver

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dry Falls - 1873

For about a year now, one of the most memorable waterfalls of the Southern Appalachians has been inaccessible. The Forest Service is rebuilding the parking area and trail leading to Dry Falls on the Cullasaja River between Franklin and Highlands and the site will remain closed for a few more months.

Edward King and several of his companions traveled up the Cullasaja Gorge in 1873, and he wrote in considerable detail about their visit to Dry Falls:

By and by, in the afternoon, the reunited party, as it crept skyward, plunged, Indian-file, into the forest, and took its way to the " Dry Falls." A silence, not of gloom but of reverence, seemed to fall upon all as we entered the aisles of the grand wood, and climbed the knolls which rose like whales' backs every few hundred yards. …

After two miles of climbing, sometimes where the hills were so steep that in descending a misstep of the horse would have cost one a broken limb, we came to a long line of laurel thicket. Here, taking our oil capes, we scrambled into the bushes, and, stooping, worked our way to a cliff, down which rugged steps were cut, and stood where we could overlook the canon into which the upper fall of the Sugar Fork sent its leaping water.

The Hibernianism by which this glorious cascade gets its designation of the "Dry Falls," was suggested by the possibility of passing beneath the giant shelf, over which it pours, without severe wetting, although the spray is at times blinding. The river, coming to a dizzy height, leaps out with such force, that the water is projected far from the rock, and the beholder seems to see a lace veil, at least sixty feet long, dependent from the hoary walls of the canon.

Passing under it, along the slippery rocks, one comes out upon another stone under beetling precipices, from which little streams run down, and around which the mist and spray rise, and can note the changing gleams of the sunshine as they play on the immense mass of foam suspended between earth and sky.

Below, the stream passionately clutches at the rocks, and now and then throws them down into the chasm; there are hollows in the stones, which have been worn to a considerable depth by the pattering of the spray upon them for hundreds of years. Here a mass of wall rises dozens of feet from the chaos of rocks which is huddled at the fall's bottom. Many of the rude figures seem to have human resemblances, and one might imagine them giants rising from the canon's depths to tear away the veil which has been drawn across the entrance to their cavern.

A hundred and fifty feet below the summit of the falls, the stream runs on in whirlpools and eddies, now forming into inlets in which reeds, ferns and blossoms flourish, and now making a deep, steady current, cold and crystal clear. The pines and spruces seventy feet high seem but toys by the sides of these immense walls ; the light, too, in the gap through the mountain, is strange and fantastic, and seems to cast a glamour over every minute object. Even the pebbles, and the ferns and tiny grass-sprouts in the soil beneath the shelf over which the fall pours, are purple.

Then the voice — the voice of the fall! Heard from the laurel thicket, it seems to come from the very ground under your feet ; heard from the cavern into which you pass, it is sombre and complaining, like the winter Wind about the house chimneys ; and its echoes from the foot of the rapids, to which you may descend if you have firm nerves and a quick step, are like those from some unseen choir in a cathedral gallery, — some chant of priests at High Mass, monotonous, grand, inspiring ; " the height, the glow, the gloom, the glory," all blended, shock and awe the soul.

Here is a fall upon whose virgin rocks no quack has painted his shameless sign ; whose precipices have not been invaded by the mob of the grand tour ; whose solitary magnificence thrills and impresses you as if in some barren land you came upon the dazzling lustre of a priceless diamond. But to this, and its brother a few miles below, the feet of thousands of the curious will hereafter wander.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Piscatorial Correction

I wasn’t designed to fish. Oh, I’ve tried several times over the past few decades. The concept is appealing in some ways. But after making all necessary preparations - assembling the gear, purchasing a license, and finding a likely spot on the water – I cast out a line. And wait. And wait. And wait. The seconds tick by with nary a bite. Nary a nibble. Zilch. After about thirty seconds or so, I declare "Enough of this. They’re just not biting, and I don’t have all day." It’s not that I lack patience. It’s just that I lack patience for fishing.

Nevertheless, the idea of fishing and, particularly, the idea of fishing these mountain waters is something I like to consider. But the latest fish news has not been good news. Add those little swimmers to the long list of the victims of our excesses.

A couple of weeks ago in The Smoky Mountain News Becky Johnson reported on mercury contamination in walleye taken from Fontana Lake.

About the same time, another report was making headlines, although not enough headlines, as far as I’m concerned:

40% of Freshwater Fish Imperiled
Federal Scientists: Rate of Decline Is "Staggering"

Here’s how one writer summarized that study:

In a report that would seem more likely coming from an environmental group than the Bush Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey has reported a "staggering" 92% increase in just 20 years in the number of North American freshwater fish considered imperiled.

Now nearly 40% of all freshwater fish species in North America are "in jeopardy" -- 700 species that are either vulnerable, threatened or endangered. And that doesn't even consider the 61 fishes that have already gone extinct.

The full report of the study is available online and worth a read:

Also this month, I heard another news report and thought about those beleaguered fish. We learned that American hospitals flush 250 million pounds of pharmaceuticals down the drain every year.

Can anyone tell me if this is standard procedure for Westcare? Can anyone tell me if the Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Authority is monitoring the release of pharmaceuticals from its treatment plant on the banks of our beloved river? Has anyone asked the fish how they like those extra hormones and antibiotics and who-knows-what?

Just wondering.


This all reminded me of one of my favorite passages about fishing in the mountains. Charles Lanman included the following lesson on the nomenclature of Appalachian ichthyology in his book, Letters from the Alleghany Mountains:

The distance from Murphy to this place is reported to be fifty miles. For twenty miles the road runs in full view of Valley river, which is worthy in every particular of the stream into which it empties, the Owassa. It is a remarkably cold and translucent stream, and looks as if it ought to contain trout, but I am certain that it does not.

On inquiring of a homespun angler what fish the river did produce, he replied : "Salmon, black trout, red horse, hog-fish, suckers and cat-fish." I took the liberty of doubting the gentleman's word, and subsequently found out that the people of this section of country call the legitimate pickerel the "salmon," the black bass the " black trout," the mullet the "red horse," and a deformed sucker the " hog-fish."

And now, while I think of it, I would intimate to my friends residing on the Ohio (to which glorious river all the streams of this region pay tribute) that their salmon is none other than the genuine pickerel of the North and South, their white perch only the sheep's head of the great lakes, and their black perch is but another name for the black or Oswego bass. So much for a piscatorial correction.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tecumseh Speaks

I think about Tecumseh from time to time. There’s a place he walked (not far from here) where I feel his presence. For months, I’ve wanted to write about that place and, in time, I will. Thinking about Tecumseh, I realize that whatever the lessons of history may be, most of those lessons come in the form of questions, rather than answers.

After the signing of the "Treaty of Fort Wayne," which sold three million acres of land for a single payment in goods of $7,000 and a small annual subsidy, to be divided among the tribes signing the treaty, Tecumseh met with Governor William Henry Harrison and delivered the following speech on August 11, 1810.

In order to avoid accusations of fostering divisiveness, pitting neighbor against neighbor, engaging in class warfare, etc. etc., I’ll resist a certain temptation. I’ll resist the temptation to replace the word "Americans" with "big developers" or to replace the word "Indians" with "local citizens" or to replace "treaties" with "development agreements". I won’t do it. It's not that simple. I do believe history raises more questions than answers.
But only if people pay attention to it.

Brother, I wish you to give me close attention, because I think you do not clearly understand. I want to speak to you about promises that the Americans have made.

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

The same promises were given to the Shawnee one time. It was at Fort Finney, where some of my people were forced to make a treaty. Flags were given to my people, and they were told they were now the children of the Americans. We were told, if any white people mean to harm you, hold up these flags and you will then be safe from all danger. We did this in good faith. But what happened? Our beloved chief Moluntha stood with the American flag in front of him and that very peace treaty in his hand, but his head was chopped by an American officer, and that American Officer was never punished.

Brother, after such bitter events, can you blame me for placing little confidence in the promises of Americans? That happened before the Treaty of Greenville. When they buried the tomahawk at Greenville, the Americans said they were our new fathers, not the British anymore, and would treat us well. Since that treaty, here is how the Americans have treated us well: They have killed many Shawnee, many Winnebagoes, many Miamis, many Delawares, and have taken land from them. When they killed them, no American ever was punished, not one.

It is you, the Americans, by such bad deeds, who push the men to do mischief. You do not want unity among tribes, and you destroy it. You try to make differences between them. We, their leaders, wish them to unite and consider their land the common property of all, but you try to keep them from this. You separate the tribes and deal with them that way, one by one, and advise them not to come into this union. Your states have set an example of forming a union among all the Fires, why should you censure the Indians for following that example?

But, Brother, I mean to bring all the tribes together, in spite of you, and until I have finished, I will not go to visit your President. Maybe I will when I have finished, maybe. The reason I tell you this, you want, by making your distinctions of Indian tribes and allotting to each particular tract of land, to set them against each other, and thus to weaken us.

You never see an Indian come, do you, and endeavor to make the white people divide up?

You are always driving the red people this way! At last you will drive them into the Great Lake, where they can neither stand nor walk.

Brother, you ought to know what you are doing to the Indians. Is it by direction of the president you make these distinctions? It is a very bad thing, and we do not like it. Since my residence at Tippecanoe, we have tried to level all distinctions, to destroy village chiefs, by whom all such mischief is done. It is they who sell our lands to the Americans. Brother, these lands that were sold and the goods that were given for them were done by only a few. The Treaty of Fort Wayne was made through the threats of Winnemac, but in the future we are going to punish those chiefs who propose to sell the land.

The only way to stop this evil is for all the red men to unite in claiming an equal right in the land. That is how it was at first, and should be still, for the land never was divided, but was for the use of everyone. Any tribe could go to an empty land and make a home there. No groups among us have a right to sell, even to one another, and surely not to outsiders who want all, and will not do with less.

Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, and the Great Sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?

Brother, I was glad to hear what you told us. You said that if we could prove that the land was sold by people who had no right to sell it, you would restore it. I will prove that those who did sell did not own it. Did they have a deed? A title? NO! You say those proves someone owns land. Those chiefs only spoke a claim, and so you pretended to believe their claim, only because you wanted the land. But the many tribes with me will not agree with those claims. They have never had a title to sell, and we agree this proves you could not buy it from them. If the land is not given back to us, you will see, when we return to our home from here, how it will be settled. It will be like this:

We shall have a great council, at which all tribes will be present. We shall show to those who sold that they had no rights to the claims they set up, and we shall see what will be done to those chiefs who did sell the land to you. I am not alone in this determination, it is the determination of all the warriors and red people who listen to me. Brother, I now wish you to listen to me. If you do not wipe out that treaty, it will seem that you wish to kill all the chiefs who sold the land! I tell you so because I am authorized by all tribes to do so! I am the head of them all! All my warriors will meet together with me in two or three moons from now. Then I will call for those chiefs who sold you this land, and we shall know what to do with them. If you do not restore the land, you will have had a hand in killing them!

I am Shawnee! I am a warrior! My forefathers were warriors. From them I took my birth into this world. From my tribe I take nothing. I am the master of my own destiny! And of that I might make the destiny of my red people, of our nation, as great as I concieve to in my mind, when I think of Weshemoneto, who rules this universe! The being within me hears the voice of the ages, which tells me that once, always, and until lately, there were no white men on all this island, that it then belonged to the red man, children of the same parents, placed on it by the Great Spirit who made them, to keep it, to traverse it, to enjot its yield, and to people it with the same race. Once they were a happy race!

Now they are made miserable by the white people, who are never contented but are always coming in! You do this always, after promising not to anyone, yet you ask us to have confidence in your promises. How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth, you killed him, the son of your own God, you nailed him up!! You thought he was dead, but you were mistaken. And only after you thought you killed him did you worship him, and start killing those who would not worship him. What kind of people is this for us to trust?

Now, Brother, everything I have said to you is the truth, as Washemoneto has inspired me to speak only truth to you. I have declared myself freely to you about my intentions. And I want to know your intentions. I want to know what you are going to do about taking our land. I want to hear you say that you understand now, and you will wipe out that pretended treaty, so that the tribes can be at peace with each other, as you pretend you want them to be. Tell me, Brother. I want to know.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Brinkley Museum Coming to Tuckasegee

Call it a victory for the community. As you know, many local residents have urged the developer Legasus to conduct business more in keeping with the cultural heritage of the surrounding community. Today, Legasus President Jim Pitts announced that the developer will be restoring the historic barn on Moody Bridge Road to house the Dr. John R. Brinkley Museum.

In a press release, Pitts explained:

I know of no better way to demonstrate our respect and commitment to the community than to celebrate the life of Jackson County’s most distinguished son, Dr. John Brinkley. In his enterprising spirit, his indefatigable energy, and his pioneering medical practice that improved the lives of so many, our organization finds inspiration for creating a 21st century community on the Jackson County Plateau.

It is appropriate that we recognize a man who rose from his mountain roots and left marks that are still visible as you approach our community, including the entrance to the Brinkley Farm and the roadside monument he erected to his beloved Aunt Sally.

You could say the ultimate embodiment of the Legasus philosophy is Jackson County’s very own Dr. John R. Brinkley.

Plans are underway for a massive event to officially launch the project, featuring an appearance by Brinkley biographer Pope Brock, author of the best-seller Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flim-Flam.
John R. Brinkley (1885-1942) was an accomplished medical doctor who experimented with xenotransplantation of goat testicular glands into humans as a means of curing male impotence. He was also a radio pioneer who created the age of Mexican border blasters and launched the career of the now-legendary Carter Family.

Pitts added that plans for a practice golf course near the historic barn have been scuttled:

With the establishment of the Brinkley Museum we thought it best to replace the practice course with an organic goat farm to enhance the experience for our guests.
PGA champion Phil Mickelson, designer of the Webster Creek golf course on the Legasus development, heartily endorsed the change in plans:

You can practice your stroke until you're blue in the face, but Dr. Brinkley showed us a sure-fire way to add twenty yards to your drive. I think everyone will be more satisfied with the result.
Though planning is still in the early stages, Legasus has hired the international firm, MuseumDesignAssociates, to create what is billed as “a world-class, state-of-the-art, multi-media, interactive destination.”
Pitts continued:

Anything’s possible. We intend to reconstruct Brinkley’s boyhood home next to the barn and are already acquiring medical equipment and broadcasting gear actually used by Dr. Brinkley during his illustrious career.

Here at Legasus, we’re fond of saying, “Since the Gilded Age, the mountains of North Carolina have beckoned, and America’s children of fortune have answered their call. Here on the Plateau, River Rock conjures the high life.”

So it’s only fitting that we honor a man who rose from poverty, and through grit and determined effort, became fabulously wealthy during the Great Depression. While those were times of hardship and failure for many who lacked his tenacity and drive, Brinkley amassed a fortune and enjoyed the high life.

He installed a pipe-organ in his three-level mansion. Neon lights flashed over tiled lily ponds. Two fountains threw water 30 feet high, lit by multicolored changing lights. Huge Galapagos tortoises and a flock of penguins played on Brinkley’s lawn.

We’d love to recreate as much of that opulence as possible, display some of Brinkley’s many diamonds and show off his gold-plated 16-cylinder Cadillac.

Pitts revealed that the kickoff celebration will include a faithful reenactment of a picnic that was hosted by Brinkley and billed as “The Biggest Lawn Party in Southwest Texas.” The event featured 20 high school dancers in Japanese kimonos serving 1380 guests. Twelve hams, 192 chickens, 2 crates of eggs, 70 pounds of canapés, 250 gallons of punch, 40 gallons of fruit cocktail, 15 crates of oranges, 6 gallons of green olives and an ice-house full of vegetables and fruits were eaten during that lawn party.

Pitts concluded:

Here at Legasus, it’s always been our goal to create something that Jackson County would be proud of. With our announcement of the Dr. John R. Brinkley Museum, I hope we’ve put to rest any doubts about our true intentions for this community.
And THAT’S a statement with which I would HAVE to agree.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Hemlock Trees

Hemlock trees towered over my earliest memories. I remember playing under their feathery boughs on summer days, a four-year-old fascinated with the tiny cones that had fallen from the trees. In the fifty years since, I’ve always loved hemlocks. Their soft greenery framed my favorite waterfalls. I’ve transplanted spindly seedlings and watched them grow tall. Once, I even sided my home with boards sawn from hemlock.

I remember, too, hearing that an insect was on its way to the Southern Appalachians, and that it would wipe out the hemlocks I love so much. It didn’t seem possible. I couldn’t imagine these mountains without the hemlocks. Now, just a few years later, I can’t escape it. Hiking through the magic places, I look out and see gray ghosts all around.

In a few years, we’ll have the opportunity to talk to people who never saw the mountain streams lined with hemlocks, who never saw the cool oases that hemlocks provided on the mountainsides. Those of us who did see those sights will struggle to describe what it was like. Perhaps others will find the words to bring those pictures to life. I doubt that I’ll ever find the words to recapture what we’ve lost.

In this case, copyright be damned. Here’s an article from McClatchy newspapers that appeared this week:


CATALOOCHEE VALLEY, N.C. -- The country's tallest eastern hemlock, reaching to the sky from a cove of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, towers 173.1 feet from its 5-foot-thick base to its last pencil-thin sprig.

The tree is 400 years old, armored in rough bark, and dead.

Millions of hemlocks across the Southern Appalachians are dying, victims of an Asian insect that has moved faster than efforts to stop it. The trees' collapse will change these forests, from warbler nesting habits to the temperature of trout streams, unlike anything since the 1930s. That's when a foreign fungus finished off another keystone tree, the chestnut.

Will Blozan and his fellow big-tree lovers call the record hemlock Usis. It's the Cherokee word for antlers and refers to the massive geometry of limbs in the tree's crown.

For nearly three years, Blozan, an arborist from Black Mountain, has led a project to find, document and save the biggest trees infested by the hemlock woolly adelgid. The tiny insect attaches to the base of hemlock needles and sucks the life out of the trees in as little as three years.

Nowhere do hemlocks grow bigger, or fall harder, than in Cataloochee, on the North Carolina side of the Smokies park, 30 miles west of Asheville.

"We're finding them right as we lose them," Blozan says. All 15 of the tallest eastern hemlocks are already dead.

In February 2007, when his team first climbed it, Usis was in deep decline but still bearing green needles. Twice the team injected insecticide into the soil around it. But the chemical needs water to work and drought wrung the mountains dry last year. By October the great tree was dead.

Last month they climbed Usis again, this time to map its architecture for posterity.

High in the tree, strapped into his ropes, Blozan can already hear insects called hemlock borers gnawing into dead wood. Their holes make it look like shotgun pellets have riddled the tree. Woodpeckers will follow, knocking off bark in search of larvae.

Limb by limb, over four days, Blozan and his business partners, Brian Hinshaw and Jason Childs, measure heights, lengths, diameters, forks and angles. Blozan fills a yellow notebook with penciled numbers. Someday they will be fed into a computer program to produce a finely detailed, rotating digital image.

It will be all that's left of a hemlock that stood from the time of Cherokee warriors to the European settlers who cleared farmland on the valley floor.

"From the top of the tree you just see gray, gray, gray," Blozan says. "I know this forest really well. I've climbed a lot of these trees. I witnessed this grove when it was alive, and now I'm witnessing it while it's dying.

"You can see for miles, and everywhere you look it's just death."

The adelgid hitched a ride to the East Coast more than a half-century ago, it's believed, on a shipment of nursery stock from Japan. First seen in Richmond, Va., in 1951, it moved north up the spine of the Appalachians, probably by clinging to migrating birds that nest in hemlocks.

Frigid Northeastern winters slowed the Asian insect there. But the South doesn't have that advantage, and the adelgid spread toward North Carolina - slowly at first, then in a surge.

By 1993, Virginia's Shenandoah National Park was overrun - 95 percent of its hemlocks are now dead. By 2001, the adelgid was in the high country of Western North Carolina, the heart of the hemlock range. Wind quickly spread it from tree to tree.

North Carolina foresters had experienced a similar attacker decades earlier and never gotten rid of it. A European insect called the balsam woolly adelgid attacks the Fraser and balsam firs that stand on the state's highest peaks.

If you've been to Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak in the Eastern United States, you've seen the standing skeletons of dead firs. The balsam adelgid infests only mature trees, killing them within a few years. That's why the only living trees on Mitchell's 6,684-foot summit are young ones.

Two key differences make the hemlock adelgid an even worse invader. It attacks hemlocks young and old. And while firs cover only about 75,000 high-elevation acres in the Southern Appalachians, hemlocks number in the millions.

"We know full well there are too many hemlocks to try to save," says Rusty Rhea, a U.S. Forest Service entomologist in Asheville who's leading the agency's adelgid fight. "We don't have a lot of tools here. We're still trying to figure this adelgid out."

The Great Smokies serve as both laboratory and graveyard.

Park officials, aware of the Shenandoah devastation, knew it was only a matter of time before the adelgid invaded the Smokies. Hemlocks dominate 35,000 of the park's 521,000 acres.

The white, waxy "wool" the insect wraps itself in was spotted in 2002.

The Smokies park has battled non-native invaders virtually all of its 68 years. "When you drive through the park and don't see kudzu, it's no accident," Kristine Johnson, the park's supervisory forester, says of one successful battle.

Still, more than 50 exotic plant species have found a foothold. Foreign pests and diseases have already attacked dogwood, butternut, beech and mountain ash trees, in addition to firs.

From the park's overlooks, the ashen gray of dead, barren hemlocks is impossible to miss in the sea of green.

"This is the first year of seeing trees that we knew were definitely dead," Johnson says. "The drought last year put them over the edge."

She guesses that 20 percent of the park's hemlocks may be dead and has little hope for most of the rest.

Given the adelgid's rapid spread and the lack of knowledge on how to control it, Rhea adds, "If I could save a third of the (hemlock) range or more I would be happy."

Blozan insists that more could have been done to save the trees.

With the Shenandoah hemlocks already infested, he says, the government spent too much time before attacking the Smokies adelgids with chemicals. His own company has invested $100,000 in labor and expenses, supplemented with $25,000 from the park, to try to save the trees.

"With the chestnut there was no choice - people watched them die and there were no tools to save them," he says, sprawled beside Usis. "But that's not the case with hemlocks. We have the ability to save a piece of our ecological history that we're losing."

In Tennessee and Kentucky, where hemlock stands are still healthy, Blozan is helping prepare government agencies for what will come their way.

Rhea, the Forest Service official, said the problem isn't easily solved. Money - the Forest Service spends up to $4 million a year fighting the adelgid - has to be found. Chemical treatments have to be tested.

"We have to find a middle ground there," he says. "We're being aggressive and we're trying to be fiscally responsible, and I think we've done that.

"I'm passionate, too. I've dedicated 15 years of my life to try to make this go away."

In Nellie Cove, where Usis stands, pileated woodpeckers chisel the bark off dead trees, leaving long red scars in the gnarly trunks. Streams run amber after heavy rains, stained by the tannins in the bark.

Some hemlocks have already fallen, their trunks splintered like toothpicks. Sunlight floods north-facing slopes that had been cool, wet and dark for centuries. Pokeweed rises among the rhododendron.

That's just the beginning, Johnson says.

"When the hemlock forests start to collapse in the next year or two, the difference in the watersheds will be dramatic," she says. "It's going to be millions of trees falling across the streams."

The trees will block creeks and trails. Dozens of species of birds will lose food and nesting places. Without the temperature-stabilizing microclimates that hemlocks create, trout streams will be colder in winter and warmer in summer. The deep, spongy forest floor will dry.

"It's going to be," Johnson says, "a very different place."


Government agencies are using three tactics in trying to slow the adelgid's advance.


The Smokies park sprays insecticidal soaps on infested hemlocks or injects insecticides to be taken up by roots. The treatments are laborious, expensive at about $16 a tree, and must be repeated about every three years.

Some 75,000 park trees have been treated, in high-visibility areas such as campgrounds and the 33 "conservation areas" that preserve a sampling of hemlock habitats and genetic diversity.

But chemicals are only a stop-gap fix.


The long-term plan is to stock the forests with insects that prey on the adelgids and hope the hemlocks themselves, in time, will fight back.

Dozens of insects feed on adelgids in their native Japan and China, and two predatory beetle species have been released in the Smokies. Success is likely to require several kinds of bugs, and years to establish them. Researchers have to be sure that the mercenaries won't cause unintended ecological damage.


An international conservation program of North Carolina State University's forestry school is preparing for the worst.

The Camcore program collects hemlock seeds and grows trees in places the adelgid hasn't reached - Arkansas, Brazil and Chile. It also looks for trees that might be bred into an adelgid-resistant race of hemlocks.

"It's really the last-ditch effort," says director Bill Dvorak. "If all else fails, we want to make sure we have genetic material in a location that would allow us to re-establish this species."

The problem is that the trees are dying faster than seed-bearing cones can be collected. "One year we see a stand," Dvorak says, "and then we go back and it's gone."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008

Return to Atagahi

Synchronicity is a funny thing. After a couple of weeks of working too hard, the call of the wild was becoming ever more insistent. The time had come for me to get out on the trail and reconnect with my inner woodland gnome. But just before I left the house, I checked the computer. Google Reader alerted me to an update from one of my favorite blogs, where the following quote had been reprinted:

A Lakota woman named Elaine Jahner once wrote that what lies at the heart of the religion of hunting peoples is the notion that a spiritual landscape exists within the physical landscape. To put it another way, occasionally one sees something fleeting in the land, a moment when line, color, and movement intensify and something sacred is revealed, leading one to believe that there is another realm of reality corresponding to the physical one but different.

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.
(From ARCTIC DREAMS, by Barry Lopez)

Aha! "A spiritual landscape within the physical landscape" has become as much a part of my reality as the air I breathe. And so I had this quote in mind as I arrived at Kuwahi, the mulberry place, the sacred mountain, where a sign explained:

The Cherokee believed bears had their townhouse inside this mountain. Bears would congregate and hold dances here in the fall before retiring to their dens for the winter.

I peered through the fog and the mist swirling around this mountain and tried to catch a glimpse of the valley below before reading from the sign again:

Nearby was the enchanted lake of Atagahi, where wounded bears would submerge in the water and be cured of their injuries when they emerged. The animals kept the lake invisible to hunters, but if a human were to sharpen his spiritual vision by prayer, fasting, and all-night vigil, there was a slight chance they might catch a glimpse of Atagahi at daybreak. The lake would appear as a wide but shallow body of purple water, fed by springs flowing from high cliffs. Paw prints of all the bears that had visited would be impressed in the sands along the shore. Fish and reptiles teemed in the water and a multitude of birds flew constantly overhead.

Looking down through the clouds, I could see a trace of a lake. As if to quell the excitement of tourists who might think they’ve seen Atagahi, the sign continued:

The lake you see in the distance today is Fontana, created during World War II to generate electricity for the war effort.


Of course.


Not to be confused with Atagahi.

When I returned from Kuwahi, I picked up the most indispensible book ever written about the Southern Appalachians. I wonder if people appreciate how fortunate we are to have such a book about this place we call home - James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokees. Mooney described the enchanted lake:

Westward from the headwaters of Oconaluftee river, in the wildest depths of the Great Smoky mountains, which form the line between North Carolina and Tennessee, is the enchanted lake of Atagâ'hï, "Gall place." Although all the Cherokee know that it is there, no one has ever seen it, for the way is so difficult that only the animals know how to reach it. Should a stray hunter come near the place he would know of it by the whirring sound of the thousands of wild ducks flying about the lake, but on reaching the spot he would find only a dry flat, without bird or animal or blade of grass, unless he had first sharpened his spiritual vision by prayer and fasting and an all-night vigil.

Because it is not seen, some people think the lake has dried up long ago, but this is not true. To one who had kept watch and fast through the night it would appear at daybreak as a wide-extending but shallow sheet of purple water, fed by springs spouting from the high cliffs around. In the water are all kinds of fish and reptiles, and swimming upon the surface or flying overhead are great flocks of ducks and pigeons, while all about the shores are bear tracks crossing in every direction. It is the medicine lake of the birds and animals, and whenever a bear is wounded by the hunters he makes his way through the woods to this lake and plunges into the water, and when he comes out upon the other side his wounds are healed. For this reason the animals keep the lake invisible to the hunter.

I have another book, as unreadable as Mooney’s book is engrossing. That book is Occoneechee, The Maid of the Mystic Lake, by Robert Frank Jarrett, the same Robert Frank Jarrett who was the original proprietor of the Jarrett House in Dillsboro. The only reason I mention his volume of bad verse is because the story of Atagahi inspired Jarrett’s interminable poem about the lovely Indian maiden, Occoneechee. Perhaps a brief sample is enough to discourage anyone from making the effort to obtain a copy of Jarrett’s book:

There the stream Oconaluftee
Hides its source far from the eye,
Of the white man in his rovings,
Far upon the mountain high;
And the forest land primeval,
Roamed by doe and wandering bear,
And the hissing, coiling serpent,
Was not stranger to them there.

Catamount and mountain-boomer
Sprang from cliff-side into trees,
And the eagle, hawk and vulture
Winged their course on every breeze.
At the footfall of this maiden
Sped the gobbler wild and free,
From the maiden Occoneechee
Flitted butterfly and bee.

For anyone who does enjoy that sort of thing, another hundred pages of it awaits the eager reader. I give Jarrett his due, though, he considered the spiritual landscape within the physical landscape, that enchanted lake, that place called Atagahi.

With James Mooney's help, I have Atagahi marked on my maps, in case my prayer and fasting gives me the glimpse I long for. Whenever I am near it, I listen carefully, in case I hear the whirring sound of the thousands of wild ducks flying about that enchanted lake.

Who knows? Maybe that sign on the mountain was right:

The Great Spirit told them, “If they love me, if they love all their brothers and sisters, and if they love the animals of the earth, when they grow old and sick, they can come to a magic lake and be made well again.”

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Closer Look

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

-William Blake

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Day the Bull Got Stoned

If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten. - Exodus 21:28

I remember a charming little town called Oakboro, North Carolina, a few miles from where I was born and raised. Recently, I came across a report of an 1875 incident that occurred just south of Oakboro, among the rolling hills that rise from the banks of the Rocky River. During my years in Stanly County, I never heard the tale, but it certainly strikes a familiar note. The account reprinted below first appeared in the January 23, 1898 edition of the Asheville Gazette.

Frankly, I don’t know why the writer gets his shorts in a wad over the actions of my Stanly County ancestors. Considering the context of the times, I understand their reasoning. But these were “my people” after all. So that could explain why they don’t seem like such beastly brutes to me, just ordinary folks responding to an extraordinary situation. In learning more about them, I learn more about myself, and recognize how their zealous sense of justice is a legacy that lives on in me. In fact, after reading this story, I’ve gone back through the Old Testament to find the appropriate punishment for avaricious golf-course developers.

And let me tell you, it’s not pretty.

But that's another story for another day. Now, the 1898 newspaper account of the day the bull got stoned:

Queer Story from Stanly

A traveler going from the old Drew Morgan mill on Rocky River in Stanly county, east by the Honey and Wine public road will see a curious pile of stones by the roadside. The stones are of all colors, yet on most of them there are dark clouds which contrast sickeningly with the flinty whiteness of the surface. Close examination will reveal the fact that these cloudy spots are stains and then a horrible sensation takes hold of the stranger as he becomes convinced that the stains were made by blood. The pile of stones has a strange, shocking history.

Two dozen years ago there lived near this place two neighbors, King Brooks and William Hinson. Hinson was the owner of a fine bull whose viciousness was known only to himself. Brooks wanted to buy the animal and Hinson told him to take it along home with him and see how he liked it, knowing that Brooks would likely have some trouble before he got home. It was one of those senseless jokes with lots of cruelty, which some people sometimes play on others.

Brooks started home leading the bull. He reached in safety his plantation fence, but before he could lay down the rails in order to cross the vicious bull made a murderous plunge at Brooks and drove him through the fence with his cruel horns literally through the man’s body. Brooks died in great agony.

The people heard of the tragedy and threatened to lynch Hinson. Finally their frenzy reached fanaticism and they believed it to be their duty from a scriptural standpoint to stone the bull to death. The decision was unanimous.

A few men were put to hauling rocks for the execution while others went to Hinson’s cow barn for the condemned brute. Hinson remonstrated, but being told if he bothered them they would tie him to the same stake with the bull, he took things easy. The bull seemed to know his fate and it was impossible to tie him in any ordinary way. One man was sent up in the loft to get a vantage ground from which he might fasten a chain in the bull’s horns. As he attempted this, the animal made a last death dealing lick, and with his horn ripped the skin on the man’s head from his forehead to his crown. At last the animal was chained, and wet with perspiration, conscious of his fate, was led to the place of execution. He was tied securely to a tree and then the stoning began.

The news spread over the country, and hundreds of the children of the hills were present – men, women, old and young, in wagons and buggies, walking and on horseback. A large number of people participated in the rocking, and after hours of torture the animal, with a ghost-like groan of misery, fell dead at his stake.

He was left tied to the stake, from which the buzzards tore him in their vulturous hunger and the stones were left, crimsoned and blackened, as witnesses to the terrible deed.

The witchcraft in New England, and the merciless persecutions of Baptists in Virginia show how people can go back into an estate worse than their first. The story of death on the Latin cross pictures the cold cruelty of unfeeling hearts steeped in fanaticism and sin; the story of the death of this bull at the stake shows how long it requires for the race to grow out of its slavish beastliness.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Forbes Spotlights the Nickajack

I never expected that my old mentor, the Bard of Cullasaja - Silas McDowell – would make it into Forbes magazine. But this week, it happened. Well, it almost happened. While Silas McDowell wasn’t mentioned by name, his Nickajack apple was. As reported here last month, McDowell discovered the apple on a tributary of the Cullasaja River just across the mountain, and it gained much acclaim during the nineteenth century.

This week, America’s Most Endangered Foods, a story by Allison Van Dusen, appeared on the Forbes website. It began:

Walk the aisles of any grocery store in America and it may seem like the average shopper has access to a wide range of foods. Spend a minute talking to someone knowledgeable about endangered foods, however, and you realize you're only seeing a glimpse of what was once an extremely diverse bounty.

The article reviews Renewing America's Food Traditions, a book edited by Gary Paul Nabhan, that lists “some of the more than 1,000 food species and varieties once savored by Americans, but are now on the verge of disappearing from the landscape altogether.”

The article continued:

The effort was founded by seven organizations, including Slow Food USA, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Chefs Collaborative, which came together in 2004 to help conserve, restore and celebrate North America's unique food traditions. Nabhan compiled his list by working with collaborative members and talking to farmers, fishermen, foragers, herders, chefs, food historians and folklorists about what foods they've seen dramatically decline over the past few decades.

Among other findings, some of the endangered foods on their way to recovery include the Mission olive, silver fox rabbit and standard varieties of turkeys or heritage turkeys. The desert plum and Carolina northern flying squirrel are still considered too endangered to be eaten.

A slide show accompanying the article pictures a number of endangered foods native to various regions of the country, and says of the Nickajack apple:

The Nickajack apple is said to have originated where Cherokees lived along Nickajack Creek in Macon County, N.C. A large fruit, it has a crisp white flesh that changes flavor as it ripens, becoming aromatic. It's currently only commercially available in a handful of nurseries in the region.