Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"sombre depths beneath the dark boughs"

Margaret Morley was one of the greatest pioneering photographers in Western North Carolina. Not only that, her 1913 book, The Carolina Mountains is a classic.

She had a knack for describing the geography of the mountains in a precise and vivid way, romantic and yet accurate. This week I experienced the joy of a little time on Mount Mitchell. Upon my return, I re-read Morley’s chapter on Mount Mitchell and was not disappointed:

Nowhere is the rounded contour of the Southern mountains so striking as in the high balsam-covered summits. Mitchell's High Peak, as it is now called, used to be the Black Dome, a name poetical and profoundly descriptive. When near enough, perhaps on some neighboring slope or summit, the balsam covered mountains are impressive to solemnity. The dark, unbroken mantle of fir trees covering all heights and hollows throws back the light with singular depth and softness, the color varying from deepest green to inky black, in which lie intense indigo shadows.

The range of the Black Mountains, which is only fifteen miles in length, has, it will be remembered, thirteen summits above six thousand feet high. This short, high range, standing on a base less than five miles wide, its slopes sweeping up from either side to the crests more than three thousand feet above the surrounding valley bottoms, is, wherever visible, the most notable feature in the landscape.

There is the same glorious wildness in the Black Mountain country that one feels in the regions of the Smokies and the Balsams; and whoever ascends the Black Mountains, excepting perhaps over the trail to Mount Mitchell, unless he is a mountaineer of experience, must take a guide or run the risk of getting lost in the rhododendrons that heavily clothe the slopes of the mountain. To get lost in the rhododendron on one of these big mountains, where the foliage is too dense for one to see the sky, and where the strong, twisted limbs form a labyrinth in places utterly impassable, is an experience none would court, for, besides the trap woven by the rhododendron limbs, wild streams rush down, ledges and chasms obstruct the way, and fogs, the real danger in the mountains, are frequent.

But on a pleasant summer day what is more delightful than a climb to the top of Mount Mitchell! One can easily get to the Black Mountain country by way of the railroad that now crosses the Blue Ridge a few miles to the north of there; or one can follow the old route from the Black Mountain Station in the Swannanoa Valley, taking a long ride to the summit of Mount Mitchell and spending the night in a cave; or there is that two days' drive from Asheville to the foot of the mountain, over roads which, speaking after the fashion of the Italians, are carriageable — though barely so. The road, good enough for some miles out of Asheville, runs northward to the Ivy River up which it follows through the "Ivy Country," so named because of the luxuriance with which the mountain laurel or "ivy" densely covered this region.

Ascending through the balsam forests one seems under the spell of the Black Dome. The Black Mountains have received their baptism. No matter how delicately blue and ethereal distance may paint them, to think of them or to see them must ever after recall these sombre depths beneath the dark boughs. The path is wet and muddy in places, and also steep, but at last you pass up out of the dark balsams into a sunny meadow where blue eyebrights look up from the grass, and from which a stony trail bordered with rose-bay leads through stunted firs to the open top, where a monument standing alone on the very summit of the mountain gives a feeling of solemnity to the place. It was erected here in 1888 to the memory, as the legend on the side reads, of the "Rev. Elisha Mitchell, D.D., who, after being for thirty-nine years a professor in the University of North Carolina, lost his life in the scientific exploration of this mountain, in the sixty-fourth year of his age, June 27th, 1857."

The extreme top of Mount Mitchell is bare of trees excepting a few stunted firs; but yellow St. Johns wort blooms in cheerful profusion over the rocks that are daintily fringed with saxifrage and sedum, a few twisted rose-bays show traces of earlier bloom, and prickly gooseberry bushes are maturing fruit for the birds, while sounds in the leaves and a flutter of wings betray the presence of a flock of juncos. On all sides the dark fir-clad slopes descend into the shadows below, where streams rush through ravines choked full of rhododendrons, and mossy slopes are impenetrable with laurel. Below the firs glorious hardwood trees cover the mountain-sides, the ravines, and the valleys, their intermingling hues of green blended and lost in tremendous depths of blue or purple spaces.

The view from the summit, off over the ocean of land that rolls in stormy waves to the far horizon, is stupendous. Beyond the impressive and dark masses of the near heights, the great mountains of the region, from the Grandfather to the Smokies, crowd the scene, melting as they recede into blue and misty shapes. Past the strong headlands of Craggy and the Blue Ridge, the mountains towards the south subside to rise again in far blue domes and pinnacles. Cultivated valleys, beautiful balds, uprising slopes, long curving lines, overlapping summits, — it is difficult to disengage individual forms from the wonderfully blended whole. And here as elsewhere that which most moves the senses is the sweep of the near majestic slopes down into the deep blue spaces.

The cave near the top of the mountain is formed by an overhanging ledge, and here it is customary, for those wishing to watch the sunrise from the summit, to spend the night. And it is worth the effort, even if one only sees the mountains emerge from the clouds for a moment to be again swallowed up by them, for it is seldom that the visitor gets more than a glimpse of the whole world at one time, from Mitchell's cloud-capped peak. It was in this cave on top of Mount Mitchell that one once arrived in a pouring rain, after a perilous climb up the eastern slope, to find, as sole trace of former visitors, a little can partly full of condensed milk, which saved, not one's own life, but that of a young squirrel rescued on the way up, and who became the hero of many pleasant subsequent adventures.

The Black Mountain Country is very wild, and also very beautiful, the ascent of Mount Mitchell being but one of many reasons for going there. The streams are crystal clear, and everywhere picturesque houses are hidden away in the coves and valleys from which one gets superb views of the cloud-capped mountains that lie on all sides. There is no more romantically beautiful valley in the mountains than that of Cane River, which, in its upper part, is over three thousand feet high, and nowhere falls below twenty-five hundred feet. It runs along the whole western base of the Black Mountain Range, and from it one sees round-pointed mountains delightfully grouped in the landscape, and quaint houses placed in a superb setting of mountains and streams.

Margaret Morley, 1858 - 1923

Cane River is named from the heavy canebrakes that clothe its banks in places, supplying fishpoles, pipestems, and reeds for the loom, but the river valley is more noted for the products of its farms — grain, grass, and apples. No one can visit this region in the summertime without noticing the orchards loaded with handsome apples, fruit of so fine a quality that it took a prize at the Paris Exposition, the people tell you with pride. The land in the Cane River Valley is valuable, not only because it is fertile, but because the people love it so. One man we were told refused a hundred dollars an acre for his farm because "he was that foolish over it." And the inhabitants of the valley are fine and friendly, as you would expect of people who so love their homes.


Photographs of mountain scenes by Margaret Morley


Jim Parker said...

Fabulous description of one of my favorite places on this Earth. Thank you so much for sharing.

GULAHIYI said...

Morley describes a "cave" or rock overhang near the top. I'll have to look for that as I don't recall it. I had a great hike one time by parking on the BRP at the Mount Mitchell spur road, and climbing up Potato Knob (what a climb!) to reach the ridge, then continuing north to Clingman's Peak and Mount Gibbes.

Don Talley said...

The rock Morley describes is probably the "Camp Rock" just below the summit of Mount Mitchell. Wendell Begley is a local historian in Black Mountain NC and pres. of Black Mtn Savings Bank. He writes a local history piece in the weekly newspaper and has oftentimes mentioned this rock and posted pictures.