Walking with author Doug Elliott
by Jonathan Poston in Vol. 16 / Iss. 5 on 08/26/2009 www.mountainx.com
Although I'm questioned regularly on the best events and trails in Western North Carolina, nobody ever asks which locals are worth meeting. Maybe they assume I'm a fan of the trail racers who routinely snap finish lines or those climbers who do their Spiderman thing on challenging rocks.
Beaver territory: The Pink Beds is known for active beavers, whose dams often flood the trail. Photo by Jonathan Poston
Truth told, I'm most intrigued by the lore lords — herbalists, naturalists and storytellers and such. I like to learn something on a hike.
Earlier this summer, I picked up Doug Elliott's 1992 book, Wildwoods Wisdom: Encounters with the Natural World. Fascinated by his stories, I gave the North Carolina resident a call to see if he'd be up for a walk. "Sure," he replied. "We'll head to Pink Beds."
Equipped with a Coke and chocolate candy bar, I met Elliott at a parking lot near Brevard off U.S. Highway 276. He's a thin and curiously bright-eyed, bearded man, 62 years old, and I could tell he was ready to get in the woods. We started up the trail, a popular Pisgah Forest hiking spot so named for the many rhododendrons and laurels that flower there.
A few steps down the trail, Elliott said, "Hear that?"
"Sounds like a pissed bird," I said.
"That's an enraged red squirrel scolding us for intruding," Elliott corrected me.
As we walked up to a bridge crossing, Elliot pointed out Southern yellowroot, describing it as a substitute for the medicinal herb goldenseal, though it might be toxic in high doses. Yellowroot contains an antimicrobial ingredient, berberine. "This stuff has a bitter taste, but it's good for ulcers, " said Elliott. Then he spied the pink-flowered joe-pye weed, aka "queen of the meadow," used by old timers as a urinary-tract remedy.
The sight elicited a story from Elliott:
"One time, I was with an elderly mountain buddy of mine in this wet mountain meadow. We were thirsty, and there were holes 2- or 3-feet deep in the thick turf. In the holes, we could see a stream of clear spring water running underneath. My friend said, 'I'm gonna get me a drink of water. I'll make me a drinking straw.' He cut a 4-foot section of the hollow joe-pye weed stem and slurped it right up. That water tasted great through that long natural straw," said Elliott, calling his friend's resourcefulness "the traditional folks' fluidity with the environment."
Elliott continued as he looked over the bridge: "See how that stream's not hardly flowing? See all those green stems in the water? Now, why would there be a bunch of cut stems just lying in the water like that? Because a beaver's been working. A beaver's got a dam on this creek," said Elliott. "They're not interested in cutting trees when there's all this delicious greenery to eat."
We walked a little further up the trail. "Look," said Elliot, indicating ripples in the water — maybe a beaver diving under. "And there's its dam — raised the creek 3 or 4 feet," he concluded.
Because of that beaver's handy work, the trail we were on was flooded — not uncommon at Pink Beds — and we were doing our best to balance on logs (well, at least I was; Elliott didn't seem to have much trouble). After a while, though, it didn't matter because our feet and ankles were soon covered in mud.
As we walked, Elliott pointed out oyster mushrooms, lobelia and huckleberries. He lifted his chin, listening, then said, "Hear that sound, like two rocks being snapped together? That's a junco." (That's a little bird, Elliott had to explain to me.)
On the return walk, Elliott mentioned he was on the way to the airport to pick up his 16-year-old son, who had been studying truffles in Australia. With a look of nostalgia, he picked up a wad of bright green sphagnum moss, squeezed it like a sponge, watched the water pour out of it and said, "I used to stuff his diaper liners with this moss. Organic biodegradable disposable diapers! It holds ten times its weight in water. It's how the ancients (and a few of us moderns) made diapers."
Back at the trailhead, Elliott produced a picnic bag and shared his dried persimmons, homemade honey and roadkill deer jerky with me. I sat in awe, immersed in this man's wisdom and stories. I shook his hand, congratulated him on his new book, Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons and the Tree of Life, and bode him goodbye.
Like I said, I'm into taking a different kind of hike and learning from my elders. I might never view the Pink Beds in the same way again. I'm even thinking about trying Elliott's moss-diaper notion, but my wife might not let me get that stuff near our 10-month-old.
[Jonathan Poston lives near Asheville.]