Posts Tagged ‘Nature’

The Questions…

1. What animal has the largest eyeballs?

2. In the Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown’s father was never seen, but his occupation was mentioned. What was it?

3. Apple seeds contain trace amounts of what deadly poison?

4. How long does it take to hard-boil an egg?

5. What is Earth’s largest single structure made by living organisms?

The Answers…

1. The giant squid. Its eyeballs are about the size of your head.

2. Mr. Brown was a barber, as was the father of Peanuts creator Charles Schultz.

3. Cyanide. You would have to eat about 140 seeds to ingest a lethal dose.

4. Seven minutes.

5. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It is a system of reefs and islands made up of billions of living coral polyps growing atop the remains of deceased polyps. The Reef is a delicate ecosystem that supports a wide variety of marine life and, no surprise, is steadily succumbing to pollution.

Read Full Post »

The Questions…

1. What color is gamboge?

2. What is the origin of the word cereal?

3. Shellbark, shagbark, pignut, mockernut, bitternut, nutmeg, and pecan are varieties of what type of tree?

4. Define the noun argle-bargle, which originated in Scotland in the early 19th century.

5. Which state was the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution?

The Answers…

1. Gamboge is yellow-orange, ranging from deep saffron to mustard yellow. It’s the traditional color used to dye the robes of Buddhist monks. The dye comes from the resin of the gamboge tree in Southeast Asia.

2. Cereal is named for Ceres, the Roman goddess of fertility and agriculture, notably grain crops and other food plants.

3. All are hickory trees, members of the walnut family.

4. Originally, it meant a noisy argument, but it evolved to describe meaningless talk or writing, as in “endless bureaucratic argle-bargle.”

5. Delaware ratified the Constitution on December 7, 1787, five days before Pennsylvania.

Read Full Post »

One of my go-to spots for a pleasant walk in the woods these days is Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens. SCNC is a 225-acre park, half woodlands and half wetlands, located where Sandy Creek and the North Oconee River merge on their way south.

The park features several miles of trails, a visitor center, a small museum, classrooms, and a gift shop. Activities include classes on woodsy lore, programs for kids, nature walks, etc. It’s a good place to get your nature fix.


By now, I know the park thoroughly. I’m familiar with all the trails, the terrain, and the various features that help make the place interesting — such as a reconstructed log house from the early 1800s and the ruins of an old brick-making factory.

A topo map of the park would show a long, elevated center ridge dropping off to lowlands on both sides. The river on the west and the creek on the east have created extensive wetlands, some seasonal and some permanent.

Even in dry seasons, the wetland areas are mostly boggy and impassable. And, being important habitat for plants and animals, the swamps and ponds are the pride of the park staff.

Claypit Pond

A century ago, long before the park existed, human activity had a major impact on this locale. In 1906, the Georgia Brick Company built a factory here on a hill overlooking Sandy Creek. Using a newly-patented “tunnel kiln,” which was six feet in diameter and 300 feet long, the company produced 25,000 bricks per day.


Ruins of the old brick factory. Ironically, a fire put the company out of business in 1923.

This being North Georgia, the red clay soil needed to manufacture bricks is, literally, underfoot everywhere. Georgia Brick Co. excavated it at the bottom of the hill where the factory stood.

As the years passed, the excavation site became a small lake thanks to rainfall, flooding from Sandy Creek, and the work of beavers. It’s known today as Claypit Pond.


Claypit Pond.

The south end of Claypit Pond has a well-defined shore, but the north end does not. It tapers off to swamp and bog, varying with the amount of water present at the time.

Now that I’m aware of the pond’s ebbs and flows, I have a habit of noting its size when I go walking at the park. The difference from visit to visit is easy to see.

The Beavers

Beavers are fascinating creatures. As you probably know, they are large rodents adapted for an aquatic life. Adults usually weight 40 or 50 pounds and live 10 to 20 years.

Beavers have large, sharp front teeth — incisors — that are designed for serious incising. Their hind feet are webbed for swimming. Their large, flat tails are used (1) as a rudder when they swim, (2) as a prop when they are sitting upright, and (3), when they smack the water sharply, as a way to warn the group of danger.

A beaver’s mission in life is to modify the environment to its advantage, usually by building dams. At a spot where water is running, the beaver will collect fallen branches, cut down small trees, and assemble them to block the moving water.

Why? Because it creates a pond of deeper water that helps protect the lodge and the beavers from predators. It also creates a new area of calm water where aquatic vegetation will grow, thus providing a food source for the beavers.

In addition, new vegetation will sprout around the edges of the pond — another source of food and building material. As a bonus, the new vegetation filters contaminants from the water in the pond.

Typically, beavers eat the tender parts of the plants they harvest, store some for future consumption, and use the rest as construction material. They are most active at night, working from sundown to sunrise and resting in their lodges during the day.

Beavers have lived in Claypit Pond for as long as the staff can recall. The beaver lodge in the middle of the pond is about six feet high and is hard to miss.


A typical colony consists of four to eight related beavers. They will accept no outsiders in the group and will drive off any newcomers who try to settle too close to their territory.

When their own offspring become sexually mature at about two years old, they are booted out of the colony. In most cases, the youngsters go out into the world, find a mate and a suitable spot, and start a colony of their own.

Apparently, that is what happened at SCNC this year.

If the park staff is right, and they probably are, a young male recently left the Claypit Pond colony, moved to a spot north of the Audubon Society Bird Blind (see map), and constructed a new dam. And a fine dam it is, worthy of a seasoned veteran beaver.



The new dam flooded the swampy area behind it, creating a new pond that, for the moment, extends north almost to the high ground at Cook’s Trail.

Accordingly, an area of the park that once looked like this…


… now looks like this.


The question now: is the pond a permanent feature? Will it survive the dry season? I’m curious to find out.

Beavers are a good example of why we should be in awe of the natural world. Amazing ecological systems are all around us — systems that evolved to perform important functions, even if we don’t understand them — systems that can perform virtual feats of magic when people don’t get in the way.


A few weeks ago, someone left this stone next to the Claypit Pond Trail. I don’t know if it’s an offering, a statement, a celebration, or what, but I sure agree with the sentiment.


Read Full Post »

Clever Girl

More on my road trip earlier this month to Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine…


My final night in New England was in Bennington, Vermont, in the southwest corner of the state. The next morning, I sucked it up and headed south on a succession of interstate highways, down through New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia.

At the end of the day, I stopped in Winchester, Virginia, near the north entrance to Shenandoah National Park. I would have an early start on the Skyline Drive.

The next morning was clear and nicely brisk. No one was on duty at the Shenandoah entrance station. A sign read “Pay when you leave the Park.”

I had the road to myself. I turned off the radio, rolled down the windows, and headed out.

Two minutes later, a young adult black bear emerged from the greenery on the right side of the road about 20 yards ahead. I stopped immediately and grabbed my camera from the passenger seat.

The bear — which turned out to be a female, as you’ll understand directly — glanced at me, then ambled across the road.


When she reached the grassy strip on left shoulder, she stopped and looked toward me again.

I eased forward, camera at the ready, until I reached her. At that point, my car was paused in the right lane. The bear was 10 feet away on the left side of the road.

Although she showed no aggression, I was apprehensive. Could I romp on the gas and get away if she rushed me? I decided I could.

The bear stood stoically on the grass, looking at me. I took a burst of photos that I knew would be keepers.


Why she remained there instead of continuing on her way was puzzling. She seemed in no hurry to leave.

But I had my photos, and I figured it was best not to prolong the encounter. I tossed my camera onto the passenger seat and slowly drove on.

Mere seconds later, I watched in my rear-view mirror as a bear cub emerged from the woods and scampered across the road to join mom.

Clever girl. She had been waiting for me to leave, so it would be safe for the youngster to cross the road.

No cars were in sight in ether direction. In fact, I hadn’t seen another car since I entered the park. Undoubtedly, driving backward on the Skyline Drive is illegal, but I put the car in reverse anyway, and I began inching back toward the mama bear and her cub. The two of them sat quietly on the grass at the edge of the road, watching my approach.

This time, for reasons I still don’t understand, I grabbed my cell phone instead of my Nikon. I raised the phone and took three photos.

Two were hopeless blurs. This was the third.


Thinking back on the episode, it’s obvious why I could never be a professional photographer. Having taken several shots, I became concerned that I was hassling the poor bears, and I felt compelled to go away and leave them alone.

A real photographer would have continued shooting with both cameras, firing off hundreds of shots using a variety of angles and settings.

But, no, I drove away, leaving the bears posing perfectly for God-know-how-many-more awesome photos that I do not have.

What a jerk move.

A few miles south, I arrived at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. It was 9:00 AM, and two female employees were just opening for the day.

I went inside, looked at a map, browsed around the gift shop, and purchased a Shenandoah refrigerator magnet featuring a bear cub.

Betty, I saw a mother bear and two cubs on the way here yesterday,” one employee said. “About a mile south.”

Oh, the cubs are so CUTE!” the other woman gushed. Apparently, everyone loves Shenandoah’s black bears.

When I told them I had bear photos taken 10 minutes earlier, they were thrilled. They fawned* at length over the mother-and-cub photo on my phone.

The bears, the ladies told me, are very mellow. They keep to themselves, but they’re acclimated to cars and people. The mother bears have learned how to deal with cars, and their cubs know to stay hidden until the mom gives the okay to come forward.

Bears, as you may know, are smart creatures, probably on a level with dogs and pigs. Some studies say they have longer memories and are more devoted and attentive as parents.

Judging from her size, the mother bear I encountered was young. The cub probably was her first.

But she already understands people and the park roads, and she knows how to care for her baby. That knowledge will stay with her every season she has cubs.

Clever, indeed.

* Fawned. That’s a pun.


Read Full Post »

The Questions…

1. Since 1957, the symbol of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has been a green, yellow, and red rooster. What is the bird’s name?

2. To whom did Herman Melville dedicate the novel Moby Dick?

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a star student and ultimately the valedictorian at the prestigious Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. But in one class soon after he arrived, he got a lowly C. What was the class?

4. What future U.S. president pawned his watch for $22 to buy Christmas gifts for his pregnant wife and their three children?

5. The agouti, a squirrel-like rodent found in Central and South America, eats fruit, nuts, roots, leaves, and, on occasion, eggs. It also performs a function that is critical to the survival of the rain forests. What is it?

The Answers…

1. Cornelius “Corny” Rooster.

2. He dedicated it to fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had urged Melville to draw upon his experiences aboard a succession of whaling ships to write a novel.

3. Public Speaking.

4. Ulysses S. Grant pawned the watch in 1857, when he was a struggling Missouri farmer. He served as President from 1869 until 1877.

5. The agouti has sharp teeth and a powerful bite, capable of cracking open a Brazil nut. The only other critter that can do that is the macaw. Agoutis hoard the nuts in buried caches, many of which end up sprouting and producing new generations of Brazil nut trees.


ARKive image GES078168 - Central American agouti


Read Full Post »

As documented here many times, I am a huge fan — HUGE fan — of Grand Canyon.

I’ve been to the Canyon 23 times; I’ve hiked many of the backcountry trails; I’ve taken four river trips down the Colorado River. Show me a random photo taken from the rim, and odds are, I can identify the landforms.

I’ve become more familiar with Grand Canyon than the average dude because, for reasons I can’t explain, I find the geography, geology, and history of the place endlessly fascinating.

Which is why I just got through re-reading “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons” by John Wesley Powell, a remarkable account of the first recorded journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 1869.

Here are some facts every schoolchild should know about that expedition…


The leader of the 10-man Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 was John Wesley Powell, geology professor, self-taught naturalist, and Civil War veteran. His purpose, in addition to being the first to explore the last uncharted stretch of the Colorado River, was to document the geology, biology, and native people of the region.

The members of the expedition:

Powell, who had lost an arm at the battle of Shiloh and was the only man who wore a life preserver. He was “Major Powell” to the men.
Walter Powell, his younger brother, a former Union Army captain. Described by the others as “surly and quick-tempered.”
John Sumner, a trapper and Civil War veteran. Worked for Powell on a previous expedition in the Rockies.
Frank Goodman, an Englishmen and skilled boatman who came to America to find out what the American West was really like. Signed on to have an adventure.
Oramel Howland, a mountain man and hunter, but also well educated. Worked as a newspaperman.
Seneca Howland, Oramel’s younger brother, a war veteran hoping the trip would bring fame and fortune.
William Dunn, a buckskin-clad hunter and trapper from Colorado.
William Hawkins from Missouri, the congenial expedition cook, just out of the Army after a series of disciplinary problems.
George Bradley, an Army sergeant who joined the expedition on Powell’s promise of an prompt discharge afterward.
Andrew Hall, a strong, hard-working Scottish lad, age 20, a crack shot with a rifle.

Powell’s boat was the Emma Dean, a fast, lightweight, 16-foot vessel built of pine. The other boats, Maid of the Canyon, Kitty Clyde’s Sister, and No Name, were heavy, 21-foot oak vessels. The boats were divided into three compartments, one of which was watertight to protect the provisions.

The four boats were easy to handle on relatively smooth water, but not through the shallow, rocky rapids of the Green and Colorado rivers. Powell portaged most of the larger rapids or lined the boats through the rapids from the shore with ropes.

During the journey, several of the men grumbled that Powell was overly cautious, and many of the rapids he made them portage were runnable.

The expedition lasted three months, from May 24 until August 29. The men traveled about 1,000 miles. They began at Green River, Wyoming, journeyed downstream through a succession of canyons, and emerged from Grand Canyon not far from where the Virgin River meets the Colorado, near present-day Las Vegas.



In 1871, Powell repeated a good part of the original voyage, this time with more provisions, better equipment, and photographers in tow. He also knew what was ahead; the Colorado was the Great Unknown no longer.

After turning his diary of the first expedition into a book, Powell went on to head the U.S. Geological Survey and to serve as a director at the Smithsonian Institution. He died in 1902 at his summer cottage in Maine.

The expedition of 1869 was genuinely harrowing. The No Name was wrecked, the Emma Dean abandoned. They set out with provisions for 10 months, but most of the food was lost or spoiled. Only six of the 10 men completed the trip.

A depiction of

A depiction of “Disaster Falls” in Lodore Canyon, where the “No Name” went down with much of the expedition’s food and supplies.

Probably the most dramatic and climactic event of the expedition occurred in late August, when three men left the group and set out walking north, back to civilization.

Two months earlier, the expedition had lost Goodman, who dropped out after a series of especially difficult rapids.

At the time, the party had reached a stretch of calm water on the Green River in Utah. Rolling meadows covered both banks of the river. The expedition remained there for about a week to make repairs and buy supplies from a nearby tribe of Utes.

On July 5, the day before the party was to continue downriver, Goodman informed Powell that he was quitting. Apparently, he had his fill of adventure.

Now, on August 27, three more men were leaving.

The three were Dunn and the Howland brothers. All were seasoned mountain men. The terrain was harsh and the heat scorching, but they trusted their abilities. With the food almost gone, and fearing that worse rapids were ahead, they concluded that the odds favored striking out cross-country.

This is Powell’s account of the incident in his diary.


August 27 — After supper Captain [Oramel] Howland asks to have a talk with me. We walk up the little creek a short distance, and I soon find that his object is to remonstrate against my determination to proceed. He thinks that we had better abandon the river here. Talking with him, I learn that he, his brother, and William Dunn have determined to go no farther in the boats. So we return to camp. Nothing is said to the other men.
For the last two days our course has not been plotted. I sit down and do this now, for the purpose of finding where we are by dead reckoning. It is a clear night, and I take out the sextant to make observation for latitude, and I find that the astronomic determination agrees very nearly with that of the plot — quite as closely as might be expected from a meridian observation on a planet.

In a direct line, we must be about 45 miles from the mouth of the Rio Virgen. If we can reach that point, we know that there are settlements up that river about 20 miles. This 45 miles in a direct line will probably be 80 or 90 by the meandering line of the river. But then we know that there is comparatively open country for many miles above the mouth of the Virgen, which is our point of destination.

As soon as I determine all this, I spread my plot on the sand and wake Howland, who is sleeping down by the river, and show him where I suppose we are, and where several Mormon settlements are situated. We have another short talk about the morrow, and he lies down again; but for me there is no sleep.

All night long I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach, along by the river. Is it wise to go on? I go to the boats again to look at our rations. I feel satisfied that we can get over the danger immediately before us; what there may be below I know not.

From our outlook yesterday on the cliffs, the canyon seemed to make another great bend to the south, and this, from our experience heretofore, means more and higher granite walls. I am not sure that we can climb out of the canyon here, and, if at the top of the wall, I know enough of the country to be certain that it is a desert of rock and sand between this and the nearest Mormon town, which, on the most direct line, must be 75 miles away.

True, the late rains have been favorable to us, should we go out, for the probabilities are that we shall find water still standing in holes; and at one time I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.

I wake my brother and tell him of Howland’s determination, and he promises to stay with me; then I call up Hawkins, the cook, and he makes a like promise; then Sumner and Bradley and Hall, and they all agree to go on.

August 28 — At last daylight comes and we have breakfast without a word being said about the future. The meal is as solemn as a funeral. After breakfast I ask the three men if they still think it best to leave us. The elder Howland thinks it is, and Dunn agrees with him. The younger Howland tries to persuade them to go on with the party; failing in which, he decides to go with his brother.

Then we cross the river. The small boat is very much disabled and unseaworthy. With the loss of hands, consequent on the departure of the three men, we shall not be able to run all of the boats; so I decide to leave my “Emma Dean.”

Two rifles and a shotgun are given to the men who are going out. I ask them to help themselves to the rations and take what they think to be a fair share. This they refuse to do, saying they have no fear but that they can get something to eat; but Billy, the cook, has a pan of biscuits prepared for dinner, and these he leaves on a rock.

Before starting, we take from the boat our barometers, fossils, the minerals, and some ammunition and leave them on the rocks. We are going over this place as light as possible. The three men help us lift our boats over a rock 25 or 30 feet high and let them down again over the first fall, and now we are all ready to start.

The last thing before leaving, I write a letter to my wife and give it to Howland. Sumner gives him his watch, directing that it be sent to his sister should he not be heard from again. The records of the expedition have been kept in duplicate. One set of these is given to Howland; and now we are ready.

For the last time they entreat us not to go on, and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place; that we can never get safely through it; and, further, that the river turns again to the south into the granite, and a few miles of such rapids and falls will exhaust our entire stock of rations, and then it will be too late to climb out. Some tears are shed; it is rather a solemn parting; each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.
My old boat left, I go on board of the “Maid of the Canyon.” The three men climb a crag that overhangs the river to watch us off. The “Maid of the Canyon” pushes out. We glide rapidly along the foot of the wall, just grazing one great rock, then pull out a little into the chute of the second fall and plunge over it.

The open compartment is filled when we strike the first wave below, but we cut through it, and then the men pull with all their power toward the left wall and swing clear of the dangerous rock below all right. We are scarcely a minute in running it, and find that, although it looked bad from above, we have passed many places that were worse.

The other boat follows without more difficulty. We land at the first practicable point below, and fire our guns, as a signal to the men above that we have come over in safety. Here we remain a couple of hours, hoping that they will take the smaller boat and follow us. We are behind a curve in the canyon and cannot see up to where we left them, and so we wait until their coming seems hopeless, and then push on.


Ironically, the expedition was already over. The two boats encountered no more significant rapids. The next day, they arrived at Grand Wash, the unofficial western end of Grand Canyon. There, they learned from Mormon farmers that most of the country assumed they were dead.

Dunn and the Howland brothers were never heard from again. By many accounts, they were killed by men from the Shivwits tribe who mistook them for three prospectors who had raped and killed a Shivwits woman.

Prior to his second expedition, Powell visited the Shivwits, hoping to find out the truth behind the rumors. According to Powell’s Mormon interpreter, Jacob Hamlin, the Shivwits admitted killing the men in a case of mistaken identity. Powell accepted the story and smoked a peace pipe with the chiefs.

But speculation also arose that the Howlands and Dunn were killed by Mormons, who blamed the deed on the Shivwits. The Mormon colonies of the time were paranoid about a possible attack by the U.S. Army. Hamlin easily could have altered the story.

Further, the killings happened only a decade after the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which 100-plus settlers on a wagon train to California were killed by a Mormon militia force.

Shivwits, Mormons, the heat of the August desert — we may never know for sure.

Of the 10 members of the first Powell expedition, nine have geological features in Grand Canyon named after them — a butte, a point, or in Powell’s case, an entire plateau. Not to mention Lake Powell.

The exception is Frank Goodman, who left the expedition before it reached Grand Canyon.

In 1939, on the 75th anniversary of the expedition, the rapid where Dunn and the Howland brothers left the group was named Separation Rapid. A commemorative plaque was placed at the site.

Today, the plaque and the rapid are deep below the surface of Lake Meade.

Drawing of George Bradley rescuing Major Powell from a predicament. One evening, while exploring near camp, Powell became stranded on a ledge and couldn't go up or down. Bradley was able to haul him up by using his long underwear as a rope.

Drawing of George Bradley rescuing Major Powell from a predicament. One evening, while exploring near camp, Powell became stranded on a ledge and couldn’t go up or down. Bradley was able to haul him up by using his long underwear as a rope.

Photo of Powell prior to the 2nd expedition with Tau-gu, a Paiute chief.

Photo of Powell prior to the 2nd expedition with Tau-gu, a Paiute chief.

Noted violinist Maud Powell, niece of John Wesley Powell, shown in 1918 at the Powell Memorial, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Noted violinist Maud Powell, niece of John Wesley Powell, shown in 1918 at the Powell Memorial, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Read Full Post »

“Dell” is a delightful, evocative word.

Forget Dell, Inc., the perpetually-struggling computer company. I mean a “dell” — a place — a secluded spot in a verdant forest somewhere.

A dell is a small hollow or a hidden valley, typically lush and green. The word comes from the High German telle (ravine) and the Old English dael (valley). It implies peace, seclusion, green things.

About an hour north of where I live, in the extreme northeast corner of Georgia, is a dell that fits the classic description better than any place I know.

“Warwoman Dell” — what a wonderful name — is a Forest Service Recreation Area in the mountains a few miles east of Clayton, located where a small creek, Becky Branch, crosses Warwoman Road. The place features picnic shelters amid the trillium, mountain laurel, and wild azaleas under a canopy of hardwoods.

In addition to the picnic area, the dell has a loop trail that passes a small waterfall on Becky Branch. Plaques along the way describe the flora and history of the place.

For a modest, out-of-the-way spot, quite a bit is going on there. Allow me to elaborate.


Warwoman Dell Recreation Area was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The crew of 129 CCC workers lived nearby at Camp Warwoman, which they constructed themselves.

Working for $1 per day plus food and shelter, they built the road into the dell, the shelters and fireplaces, and a fish hatchery that raised speckled trout to stock the local rivers and streams.

But Warwoman Dell had plenty of history before the CCC boys arrived. Also passing through the spot is the Bartram Trail, which follows the route in the late 1700s of naturalist William Bartram, a journey he meticulously documented in “Bartram’s Travels.”

Actually, the formal title of Bartram’s book is Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws: Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Embellished With Copper Plates.

Bartram, a young botanist from Philadelphia, left Charleston in 1773 and spent four years exploring the Southeast, mostly to study the flora of the region.

Alone and unarmed, he traveled through wilderness areas where both the Indians and the white settlers inevitably were friendly and helpful. He rarely faced serious danger.

Being out of touch during his travels, he was unaware that the American colonies had rebelled against England.


Warwoman Dell also marks the westernmost point reached in the 1850s by the Blue Ridge Railroad, which was being built to haul coal from Cincinnati to Knoxville to Charleston.

The railroad was completed and in use from Charleston west to the edge of the mountains. From there, right-of-way was cleared to Warwoman Dell. But as the Civil War loomed, the company went broke. The project was abandoned in 1858.

In the 1890s, entrepreneurs resurrected the project as the Black Diamond Railroad. They tried valiantly to round up investors to finish the right-of-way west through the mountains, but failed.

The project left behind a series of unfinished mountain tunnels, including one a few miles east of Warwoman Dell. Both ends were destroyed long ago by landslides and  highway construction.

Today, the railroad right-of-way serves as a walking path through Warwoman Dell.

A section of the abandoned railroad bed.

A section of the abandoned railroad bed.

Also, if you look, you’ll see a series of sturdy, hand-made granite culverts beneath the right-of-way. They’ve been providing reliable drainage for the unused railroad bed for 160 years.

A culvert beneath the abandoned right-of-way. Note the light marking the far side of the roadbed.

A culvert beneath the abandoned right-of-way. Note the light marking the far side of the roadbed.

Okay, so Warwoman Dell is beautiful and historic, and the “dell” part of the name is clear enough. But where did “Warwoman” come from? Historians can’t agree.

Some attribute the name “Warwoman” to Nancy Ward (1738-1822), a prominent and respected Cherokee leader. Others credit Nancy Hart (1735-1830), a frontier woman, patriot, and occasional spy who lived in the Georgia mountains during the American Revolution.

Their stories are fascinating.

Nancy Ward, Cherokee

By long tradition, the Cherokee Nation is a matriarchal society. In the years before the Europeans arrived and turned the world of the Cherokees upside down, most questions of justice and war were decided by women.

A council of women meted out punishment for offenses within the tribe, chose the War Chief, and determined the fate of captives.

The Cherokee called the leader of the women’s council Tsi-ge-yu, which means Beloved Woman or Pretty Woman. To the early white settlers, she was the War Woman.

The last and best known War Woman of the Cherokee Nation was Nanyehi, known today as Nancy Ward. (Note the similarity between Nanyehi and Nancy.)

Ward rose to prominence in a battle with the Creeks, during which her husband was killed and she stepped forward to lead the Cherokee to victory.

But she believed in peaceful coexistence with the Europeans. She served as the tribe’s ambassador to the early settlers and made sure relations were peaceful. She also helped the tribe transition from hunting to farming and raising cattle.

Because of these societal changes, the Cherokee left behind many of the old ways. Soon, a new style of governance emerged that had no place for a War Woman.

Eventually, Nanyehi moved west to the mountains east of Chattanooga. She married a settler, Bryan Ward, had a daughter, and operated an inn on the banks of the Ocoee River until her death at age 84.

Nanyehi, the last Cherokee War Woman.

Nanyehi, the last Cherokee War Woman.

Nancy Hart, Patriot

Nancy Ann Morgan Hart is a bona fide Georgia legend. Hart County is named for her. So is the city of Hartwell. So are Lake Hartwell, Hartwell Dam, Hart State Park, and the Nancy Hart Highway.

During the Civil War, a group of women in LaGrange, south of Atlanta, formed a militia company called the Nancy Harts to defend the town from Union troops.

Nancy Hart was said to be six feet tall, well-muscled, red-haired, and cross-eyed, with a face scarred by smallpox. She was hot-headed, fearless, a skilled hunter, and, despite being cross-eyed, a crack shot.

Although no real evidence of her supposed exploits exists, stories about Nancy Hart abound.

During the Revolutionary War, the colonists were sharply divided between supporters of independence and those who remained loyal to the British Crown. Nancy Hart fiercely supported independence.

While Hart’s husband was away fighting in the Georgia militia, she was left alone on the family farm in Elbert County with her eight children.

Always anxious to help the cause, she sometimes slipped away, disguised herself as a man, and quietly visited British garrisons to gather information.

As word spread about Hart, area Loyalists began to keep watch on her cabin. In one famous story, a British Loyalist crept up to the house and peeked in through a crack. One of Hart’s daughters saw the peeking eye and quietly informed her mother.

Hart, who was making soap at the fireplace, flung a ladle of boiling water through the crack, badly scalding the Loyalist. She tied him up and delivered him to the local militia.

On another alleged occasion, six Loyalists came to the cabin, shot Hart’s prize turkey, and forced her to cook it for them. While they ate, she grabbed their weapons, shot two of them, and held the rest captive.

When her husband and others arrived, the Loyalists were hanged, at Nancy’s insistence, from a nearby tree.

Later in her life, Hart reportedly found religion. Georgia Governor George Gilmer wrote that Hart “became a shouting Christian” who “fought the Devil as manfully as she fought the Tories.”

In 1803, Hart, then a widow, moved to Kentucky with her son John. She spent the rest  of her life there, living quietly among relatives.

Nancy Hart gets the drop on the Loyalists.

Nancy Hart gets the drop on the Loyalists.

Other Stories

Other tales have surfaced that also claim to explain the origin of “Warwoman.”

— A Cherokee woman named Cateechee killed a settler during a raid and was made a War Woman by the tribe.

— A young female colonist whose baby was stolen by three Indians sneaked into their camp as they slept, killed all three with a tomahawk, and took her baby home. Thereafter, she was called Warwoman by her neighbors.

— In a similar tale, two women colonists who lived near Clayton were abducted by Indians. During the night, they freed themselves, killed the sleeping Indians, and escaped. Warwoman Creek (and subsequently Warwoman Road, etc.) is named after them.


Most likely, the true origin of “Warwoman” will never be known, but that’s okay. Any one of the explanations will do, and a bit of mystery is a good thing.

It makes me want to drive up to Warwoman Dell — what a wonderful name — for a restorative day of peace and seclusion.


Read Full Post »

Here in Jefferson, the kids started back to school on August 1, which means they had a measly two-month summer vacation. That’s cruel.

By all rights, summer vacation should be three months long, like it was in olden times when I was in school. True, today’s little darlings don’t know the difference, but I feel bad for them.

But, as usual, I digress. A few days before school started, my ex Deanna and I took our two youngest granddaughters, Maddie and Sarah, ages 10 and seven, up to the North Georgia mountains for the day. It was one last chance to spend time with them, one last summer fling.

We kept it simple. In the morning, we hiked a short trail to Panther Falls, a pretty spot in the Chattahoochee National Forest.


For lunch, we went to Henry’s Restaurant in Clayton, Henry’s being one of the culinary gems of Northeast Georgia.

After that, we drove over to the Chattooga River and sat on a rock overlooking Bull Sluice Rapid, watching the rafts flip.

It was a most satisfying day. The weather was idyllic — cool and bracing. The girls kept the squabbling relatively in check. The food was superb. And, for Maddie and Sarah, seeing the whitewater and the boats was a new and enlightening experience.

Here are a few recollections…


Ten minutes down the trail to Panther Falls, we reached a spot where you cross the creek on a series of stepping stones. At that point, the creek is a small, clear, babbling brook about six inches deep.

I hopped across the stepping stones first, and Maddie followed. While Deanna was preparing to help Sarah across, Sarah calmly waded into and across the creek, bypassing the stepping stones, soaking her shoes in the process.

“Sarah!” said her grandmother in surprise.

“Wow, the water’s cold,” Sarah observed as she emerged on the opposite bank. “My socks are all squishy.”

I asked Sarah if she wanted to take off her shoes and wring out her socks.

“No, I’m fine. They’ll dry pretty soon. Let’s go!”

“You are such a knucklehead,” said Maddie.


We had the trail to ourselves. At Panther Falls, the girls waded in the pool at the base of the falls (shoeless) while Deanna and I took photos.


On the way back to the trailhead, we encountered a young couple heading toward the waterfall. Toddling along on a leash in front of them was a Lhasa Apso puppy.

Lhasas can be beautiful when their coats are long and well-groomed. This one was shaved bald and, at least in my view, singularly homely. In fact, it looked a bit crazed, like a blunt-nosed, goggly-eyed Chihuahua with an overbite.

Our two parties greeted each other cordially. The couple pulled their goofy little dog aside to let us pass.

Sarah, apparently watching the dog instead of her footing, tripped on a rock and did a spectacular faceplant in front of the entire group.

Gasps went up from everyone. Deanna and I simultaneously rushed forward to Sarah’s aid.

“Well,” Sarah intoned, still sprawled face down on the trail, “THAT worked!”


Sarah was okay, except for a tiny scratch on her leg, but she soon realized she could get some mileage from it. As we continued toward the trailhead, she began to groan and hobble.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Maddie barked. “That hardly qualifies as a scratch.”

“You don’t know how much it hurts!” Sarah pouted, limping in apparent agony.

“Okay, you two,” the grandparents ordered in unison. “Knock it off.”

Back at the parking lot, Maddie held her cell phone aloft and whooped, “Hey, I got a signal! I’m gonna call Mom!”

Which she did, bringing Leslie up to date about the events of the morning, including Sarah’s pratfall in front of six witnesses, if you count the dog.

“Yeah, Mom, Sarah fell on her face in the middle of the trail a while ago, but she’s fine now.”

“I am NOT ‘FINE’!”  Sarah bellowed.


Henry’s Restaurant is a North Georgia institution. The food — country cookin’ served buffet style — is as good today as it was 30 years ago, when Henry himself ran the place.

Sadly, Henry is gone now. His daughter Lynn is in charge, assisted by a crew of siblings, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws.

While we were feasting, the kitchen door burst open, and Lynn’s oldest son emerged carrying a tray of piping hot glazed donuts. He wandered among the tables, offering the diners complimentary donuts for dessert.


Sarah’s eyes were as large and as glazed as the donuts. She waved eagerly to flag down the donut boy, and he approached our table.

Deanna reminded Sarah that donuts are for dessert, after one finishes one’s meal.

“Don’t worry, we have plenty,” donut boy told her. Sarah resumed eating with new purpose.

Maddie’s reaction to the donuts was different.

“Did you see those things?” she said. “Nothing but sugar! That’s sickening! No way could I eat one!”

Sarah allowed as how she could eat one just fine. Probably two.

“Yuck,” said Maddie.

A few minutes later, the donut boy returned with Sarah’s prize. While Maddie looked away in mock disgust, Sarah consumed it with speed, efficiency, and no ill effects.


If you leave Henry’s Restaurant and drive 10 miles east on U.S. 76, you reach a large parking area on the Chattooga River near Bull Sluice Rapid. This is the take-out point for boat trips down Section III of the river, and it’s the put-in point for trips continuing downstream on Section IV.


It’s also a popular picnicking and swimming spot where the locals go to watch the rafters and kayakers run Bull Sluice Rapid, the grand finale of Section III.

Maddie and Sarah were enthralled by everything — the river, the whitewater, the scenery, the eddies full of swimmers, the crowds of spectators, the colorful rafts and kayaks, the spectacular flips.

For a long time, the girls sat quietly on a rock and watched the activity. They could see that the kayaking requires skill, but they weren’t sure about rafting.

“Rocky, are rafts hard to paddle?” Sarah asked.

“Not really,” I said. “They float downstream by themselves. The guide in the back is doing the work — using his paddle like a rudder to steer. When a raft flips, it’s usually because the guide made a mistake, like entering a rapid crooked.”

“What about the passengers?” asked Maddie. “They’re all paddling like crazy.”

“Well, most of the time, it doesn’t matter what they do. Especially in a big rapid like this. Either the guide nails the entry, or he doesn’t.”

As if to illustrate the point, a raft approached Bull Sluice, and the passengers brought their paddles into the raft and held them vertically. The guide carefully lined up the raft in the chute at the top of the rapid, and they shot smoothly through.

“Cool,” said Maddie.

“Rocky, I want to come back here sometime and go swimming,” said Sarah.

“No problem,” I said. “But you guys will be back in school in a couple of days. We’ll have to do it on a Saturday.”

They had no problem with that.


Back at home that evening, I got an email from my son Dustin imploring me NOT to get the girls interested in whitewater boating.

I can’t figure out why he was so concerned.


Read Full Post »

Savannah, Georgia, official home base of the Smith family, is three cities in one.

One Savannah is black and poor. The worst areas may not be as wretched and run-down today as in the past, but they still are bleak, disheartening, and often dangerous.

Another Savannah is the suburbs — crowded and commercialized, indistinguishable from any other suburbs in the country, if you don’t count the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes of summer.

Finally, there is the Savannah of postcards. The historic downtown and the stately old neighborhoods around it. The beautiful city tourists come to see.

In old Savannah, the architecture and the moss-draped oaks are stunning. The streets and squares are elegant and enchanting.



Many streets are lined with unbelievable displays of azaleas and oleanders, some reaching eight feet tall before city workers are obliged to prune them back.



The Smith family home in Savannah’s historic Gordonston neighborhood is old, stately, and moss-draped, too.

The house has been there for a century. The rooms and the furnishings change, but very slowly. The trees and flowers are ordinary things that live and die, but somehow, they seem timeless. I think of the place, against all reason, as an eternal presence.

This point of view evolved, I realize, because I don’t live in Savannah; have never lived in Savannah. It’s a place I visit — a week here, a weekend there. If I lived there, as my aunt still does, the old house probably would seem like an ordinary residence, not eternal and unchanging.

Why am I reminiscing about Savannah and flora and old homes? Because of azaleas.

Here in North Georgia, azaleas are common plants. They’re showy and hardy, especially in the more settled neighborhoods. My house is relatively new, but in my yard are a dozen azaleas of various colors, ages, and sizes, all doing fine.

But all of mine together would be dwarfed in size and fullness — literally — by any single azalea bush in my aunt’s yard in Savannah. Azaleas simply are more lush and spectacular in that climate.

The azaleas at my aunt’s house have grown over the years into massive hedges that surround the house. They are impressive all year, but are utterly astounding when in bloom.

Azaleas are deciduous evergreen shrubs in the Rhododendron family. They are popular plants, widely grown and admired across Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

In Chinese culture, azaleas are known as si xiang shu — the “thinking of home” bush. That fact alone makes me love them.

As I said, I’ve always thought of my aunt’s house, and the azaleas around it, as timeless and eternal. It’s part of the “Savannah” I’ve created in my mind.

It’s a place populated by people I love and memories I treasure. A place that will endure forever, unchanging.

I know — it’s a delusion. But it’s a harmless one, and it gives me great comfort, so back off.

With all of the aforementioned in mind, you can understand how jolted I was to learn the real story of when and why the spectacular azaleas at my aunt’s house were planted.

I got the facts not long ago when Aunt Betty and I were talking about her yard plants. She mentioned that the azaleas were getting too big and, as happens periodically, needed to be pruned back.

She added casually that they had brought her much pleasure over the years — ever since the family planted them following my grandfather’s funeral.


My grandfather was in the cotton export business and was well known in Savannah business circles. Betty explained that when he died, many friends and associates remembered him by sending potted azaleas — lots of them — to the funeral.

The family took the azaleas home and planted them. They were, in effect, a beautiful living memorial.

My grandfather died in 1950 while we were living in Tokyo. Only Dad flew home for the funeral. By the time we returned to the U.S. in 1952, the azaleas were established and growing.

If anyone ever told me the story, I didn’t retain it. I was nine years old. Flowers were of no interest to me.

But finally learning about it as a grandfather myself? Mind-blowing.

Still, I can understand how the information eluded me. In 1950, every adult in the family knew the origin and significance of those azaleas. There was no need to keep retelling the tale. It simply didn’t occur to them that we kids might not know the story.

Anyway, it was supremely satisfying to unearth a bit of family history that, unbeknownst to me, was underfoot all along.

And it gives me one more reason to love those magnificent azaleas.


The old house in Gordonston, standing behind a wall of azaleas.

View of the left side.

View of the left side.

The right side.

The right side.

And the back yard. A proper memorial, indeed.

And the back yard. A proper memorial, indeed.

Read Full Post »

The Questions…

1. In what way does the strawberry differ from other fruit?

2. How did the Green Bay Packers — the last of the small-town NFL teams, the only non-profit, community-owned team in pro sports, and the winner of more league championships than any other NFL team — get its name?

3. On the New York Stock Exchange, what is the stock symbol of the Sealy Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of mattresses?

4. During World War I, the rulers of Germany, Russia, and the UK were Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and King George V, respectively. What did the three men have in common?

5. What tiny marine creature stuns its prey by emitting a noise louder than a gunshot or the sonic boom of a jet aircraft?

The Answers…

1. Strawberry seeds grow on the outside of the plant, not the inside.

2. In 1919, team co-founder Earl “Curly” Lambeau worked at the Indian Packing Company. When he asked the company to donate money for uniforms and equipment, IPC gave him $500, on the condition that he name the team after them.

3. ZZ.

4. Relatives. The three men were first cousins.

5. The pistol shrimp. This inch-long resident of the Mediterranean Sea makes a sound that can reach an amazing 218 decibels. How? The shrimp snaps its pincer, firing off a jet of water traveling at 60 mph. This briefly creates a bubble with an internal temperature hotter than the sun. The bubble bursts with a kaboom that stuns nearby prey, so the shrimp can avail itself of lunch.


Pistol shrimp

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »