Photograph by Margaret Morley
When you start to consider big trees, the story can go in any number of directions.
Around here, with some effort, it’s possible to find a few big trees that give an inkling (and only that) of what the forests used to be. Some of those giants, like the hemlocks up Caldwell Fork in Cataloochee are ailing and won’t be around much longer.
Today, as I consider the big trees, I think back to the 1850s. No issue dominated the newspapers of Western North Carolina as did the highly anticipated coming of the railroad. It represented Progress, a Brighter Future. Mountain farmers would find new markets for their produce. That was the hope and promise.
But in all the hype of those days, I don’t recall any predictions of northern capitalists coming to the mountains to harvest the forest giants. Of course, with the eventual arrival of the railroads in the 1880s, large-scale logging became feasible…and brought unimaginable changes to the forests.
Then, as now, people were incapable of foreseeing the toll of Progress.
So, I’m grateful for those who took the time to describe the big trees, giving us a way to return to those magical forests.
Henry Seidel Canby spent some time exploring the area around Cherokee and, in 1916, published an article in Harper’s Magazine:
Indians and white mountaineers alike have an affectionate regard for their forests that I have not found in the North. They regard with a certain melancholy the invasion of the lumbermen, who, since my first visit fourteen years ago, have hacked their way to the top of the Balsams, and peeled off great areas of spruce. Being human, they do not despise the money that comes into the country, but they deplore the slaughter of the forests. North Carolina is better forested, more beautifully forested, than any other part of the Appalachian; nevertheless, the choppers have already culled the more accessible woodlands, and have gone far upon a more ruinous destruction.
"Seems as if they jes' nat'rally t'ar up everything," was our sheep-herder's comment.
"Soon thar'll be no more big woods," said the Cherokee at Lane Tatem's. But the valley folk cling to their forest lands. I know one who keeps fifty acres of virgin forest at his back door, because "my spring's right thar, an' a man cain't live right without a spring." When we asked of white or Indian where we might still find "big poplars," they were eager to direct us, regretful that there were so few left to find.
Our best information led us up the Oconolufta through the Cherokee nation, and on toward the main line of the Smokies, where they tower up well above six thousand feet into Mt. Guyot. We chose the Straight Fork of the river, for on it lie the twenty-five thousand acres of land sold but lately by the Indians, and still untouched by the lumberman, the finest forest, I am told, in North Carolina; if so, one of the finest in the world….
It was glorious riding, but difficult. Our road clung to one side of the narrow mountain rift where Magee and his sons had scraped a patch here and there for corn or sorghum. Beside us the Lufty shouted over its boulders. Above was a deep jade wall of rhododendron, then towering hemlocks beneath a cliff of waving hardwoods, oaks or chestnuts, until far above one saw through some cleft the faint spires of balsam near the top of Cataloochee. I remembered that I had seen such rhododendron hanging its candelabra of flowers over the mountain torrents in July, and regretted for a moment our September. But we rode through goldenrod as high as our saddles and beds of turquoise aster.
The air was crisp and cool, while beneath the hemlocks and among the rhododendron garnet maple-leaves and crimson sorrel burned in the sunlight. Perhaps there are still many groups of tulip-trees such as we found at last in Round Bottom, but I cannot learn of them. One other grove almost as fine I have seen, but now there are only stumps to show what once could be viewed there. And the tulip-tree-or yellow poplar, as it is more familiarly known-is of course no rarity like the sequoia, which among all trees that I know, at its best, it most resembles. True, like the sequoia again, it is the last of its genus; but once it was abundant everywhere in its Appalachian range; it is still common in our forests; but not at its best, not at all as it grows upon the Oconolufta.
We rode up Straight Fork through a sun-spangled grove of chestnuts, then left the trail to Cataloochee, splashed noisily across green water, burst horse and man through a screen of rhododendron, and entered the dark forest. It was an open forest beneath its high roof. The eye went freely once we were past the door of rhododendron, and at first, in intervals of guiding our scrambling horses, we looked vainly for the poplars. Hemlock shafts, oak bolls aplenty; and then on the upper slope I saw the first, a smooth tower, its head lost above the leafage, and beyond another, and below in the hemlocks a group of four, like cathedral piers beyond the pillars of a nave.
We rode to the first in view. Twenty-one feet in circumference, it rose massively for seventy feet perhaps without a branch; how much above one could not tell in that forest. For as in the redwood groves of California, so here, the eye can seldom take in a whole tree when in its forest setting, the camera never. Indeed, the habit of the great poplar is curiously like that of the giant sequoia. Like the sequoia it rises above lesser neighbors, and flings from the capital of its great trunk a crown of heavy limbs that turn and lift nobly above the forest roof. From an opposing hillside you can pick out these crowns of light-green foliage above the oaks and chestnuts, just as across a Sierra canon one sees the sequoias lift above spruce and fir. Only these two trees, in my experience, have this regal habit. And if the sequoia is vaster, it is less graceful.
As our eyes grew more accustomed to the green shade of Round Bottom, we saw that they were all about us, some springing from the rhododendron of the stream-bed until they had overtopped the hemlocks, some high up on the hillside catching the sunlight on smooth, mossy trunks. And everywhere beneath, clear, gold-lit spaces, and above, through rifts in the foliage, glimpses of great arms rising higher into the blue air above the forest.
Some day I hope to see an Eastern forest like this one not already marked for destruction. But I am not hopeful. There are few left now, and it is nearly too late to save them. Already surveyors are at work on the Oconolufta, and rails are waiting somewhere for the narrow gauge down which the last of the Indian poplars will trundle to oblivion. Surely if California can afford five forests of sequoia, we Easterners might have indulged ourselves with one such tulip cove! I have seen both, and really, if a choice between sequoia grove and tulip bottom should lie before me tomorrow, I should be torn. The one is grander; but the other is our well beloved woods of the Appalachians raised to a power which they never again will attain.
Twenty-five thousand acres, of which Round Bottom is, of course, the most valuable part, the Cherokees refused to lease to the government. The "council," a mysterious central power of varying judgment, was responsible. Then it was sold, or seized-the stories are conflicting-at seven dollars an acre!
When I heard this I lost my temper. A thousand dollars an acre scarcely represents what this tulip grove above the rhododendrons of Oconolufta might be worth – unlumbered - in pleasure and in cash to a more far-sighted generation. We splashed back through the river. At a steep cliff's edge, above a turn in the valley, we stopped our horses and looked up the verdurous canon, past the dark hemlock tops of the stream-line, past the green slopes with their giant arms uplifted, to where a mountain rose, ridge on ridge to a black wall dimly pricked with tiny pinnacles along its crest. "Hit's top o’ Smoky," said the mountaineer, and the Indian assented.
Once before and farther westward I had left the hardwoods behind, climbed through the spruce where its dense columns crowd up through rhododendron higher than horse and rider, and come out upon that distant line where Carolina meets Tennessee. I had watched the ravens sailing below, heard snowbirds in the bushes, and seen where bears had sharpened their claws upon trees by the trailside. But this time it seemed better to leave the black crest a distant goal beyond the valley.