Notable Books by North Carolina Writers: November, 2006
An invitation . . .
Blue Ridge Nature Journal: Reflections on the Appalachian Mountains in Essays and Art, by George Ellison, with paintings by Elizabeth Ellison
(Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2006)
My friendship with George and Elizabeth Ellison goes way back, to the first years I lived in the western North Carolina mountains and began to learn about the literary community around me. That's when I met George at a poetry reading and learned about his small publication Unaka Range -- "Unaka" being the Cherokee word for our mountains. George and Elizabeth lived, and still live, outside Bryson City in a cabin, and they were determined to follow Thoreau's advice: Simplify, simplify, simplify. They had three children, now grown, one of whom -- Quintin -- has become a splendid journalist. George is a poet and the reigning expert on Horace Kephart, and Elizabeth has taught numerous watercolor workshops over the years and brought her vision of this landscape to exquisite focus through her art. As one can see from the following excerpts from Blue Ridge Nature Journal, they work well together. The prose and images are never flashy and pretentious; like the artists themselves, the words and illustrations remain grounded, as if to say, Here we are, this is what we've seen, and we invite you into our lifelong experience of living in the mountains of western North Carolina. -- K.S.B.
. . . . Sometimes a red fox will live up to its name in the sense that its fur is bright red. But most that we have seen were tawny rusty-red to reddish-yellow in coloration. Sometimes a red fox will resemble a gray fox. Since the latter often has some reddish tinges in its coat, the two species found in the Blue Ridge can be confused. But a gray fox is smaller than a red fox and the tip of its tail is dark gray or black. The red fox always has a white-tipped tail. Gray foxes prefer woodlands, often climb trees and are mostly nocturnal. Red foxes prefer more open areas, don't like to climb and are often about during daylight hours. . . .
Copperheads and Timber Rattlers
Snakes are among the world's most beautiful creatures. There are twenty-three species in the Blue Ridge, some being common throughout and others infrequent to rare. In my experience, the most commonly encountered species include black racers, rat snakes, ringneck snakes, rough green snakes, queen snakes, eastern garter snakes, northern water snakes and northern copperheads. There are two poisonous snakes: northern copperheads and timber rattlesnakes. Both use heat-sensitive organs in their facial pits to detect prey. . . .
. . . . Timber rattlesnakes are not nearly as common in settled areas as copperheads. They're found from the lowest elevations up to six-thousand feet, but are rare in the high-elevation spruce-fir forests. Like copperheads, they generally prefer rocky habitats. In summer, however, rattlesnakes seek prey throughout the forests, meadows and farmlands of the Blue Ridge, frequently "holing up" in old stumps. Stephen G. Tilley and James E. Huheey noted in Reptiles & Amphibians of the Smokies (2001) that "timber rattlesnakes overwinter, often with copperheads and other snakes, in deep crevices on rocky, usually south-facing slopes. Some of these dens have probably been utilized for centuries or millennia."
Rattlesnakes are heavy-bodied, averaging thirty-six to fifty-four inches in length. A five-foot specimen is unusual, but they can be more than six feet in length. There are two color phases: a yellow phase with wavy cross-bands down the back over a body color of yellow, brown or gray; and a black phase in which individuals are very dark or entirely black.
The most distinctive feature of the rattlesnake is, of course, its rattle. Poisonous snakes prefer not to waste energy or venom except in pursuing food. The rattle serves to warn off creatures that might disturb or harm the serpent. Some authorities think the evolution of the rattle occurred by natural selection years ago when the rattlesnake's ancestors were in danger of being trampled by vast herds of grazing animals. Whatever its origin, the rattle is an effective instrument. It's a sound that galvanizes the senses. The tail vibrates with an uncanny almost-musical warning -- you freeze in mid-step, holding your breath but unaware that you're doing so...the hair on the back of your neck stands on end...the moment remains imprinted in your memory bank.
This rattle consists of a series of loosely interlocking segments composed of keratin, the same material that is in animal horns and human fingernails. Through transverse vibrations of the tail, these segments produce a sound that has been most frequently described as a "buzzing," but it has also correctly been likened to escaping steam or the sound produced by cicadas. The good news is that, if the rattlesnake is large, the warning can be heard for several hundred feet. The bad news is that rattlesnakes don't always sound a warning before striking. If you don't heed the warning or if it comes too late or not at all, the chunky arrowhead-shaped head cocked above the coiled muscular body will deliver its venom load in a strike quicker than an eye-blink.
George Ellison -- a writer, naturalist, lecturer, and historian -- lives near Bryson City in the mountains of western North Carolina, adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Qualla Boundary -- the Cherokee Indian reservation. He wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Southern Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders (University of Tennessee Press, 1976) and James Mooney's Myths of the Cherokees (Historical Images, 1992).
He writes the "Nature Journal" column for the Asheville Citizen-Times, the "Botanical Excursions" column for "Chinquapin: The Newsletter of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society," and the "Back Then" regional history column forSmoky Mountain News. In June, 2005, the History Press, which published Blue Ridge Nature Journal, published a collection of his essays--Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina. The book is in its third printing.
The book excerpted here includes thirty of George's essays on the natural areas, flora, and fauna of the southern mountains, as well as forty full-color watercolors and thirty illustrations by his wife, Elizabeth Ellison. He is currently editing a two-volume collection titled High Vistas: An Anthology of Nature, scheduled for publication next year. He conducts natural and human history workshops for the North Carolina Arboretum, Smoky Mountain Field School, Great Smoky Mountains Association, North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Southwestern Community College, The Mountain, and other facilities.
Elizabeth Ellison, who owns and operates Elizabeth Ellison Watercolors on the town square in Bryson City, has exhibited and sold widely throughout the United States for more than thirty years, and her pen-and-ink drawings and watercolor washes have graced numerous publications. She is the featured artist in the November, 2006, issue of Our State magazine. Her work is also showcased in the October, 2006 issue of the magazine Western North Carolina Woman.