A walk through nature with the Ellisons
by Rob Neufeld
George Ellison talks about his new book, “Literary Excursions in the Southern Highlands: Essays on Natural History,” at Macon County Public Library, 149 Siler Farm Road
Franklin, 7 p.m., Dec. 7 (828-524-3600); and at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 3 p.m., Mar. 12, 2017 (828-254-6734).
First, there’s his informal voice, as when, in his new book, “Literary Excursions in the Southern Highlands: Essays on Natural History” (History Press), he talks about hornblende and admits to cribbing a Geology 101 textbook and consulting experts “who are in no way responsible for my conclusions.”
He’s always there, in between his gifts of wisdom, like a folksy teacher.
Then there’s the mystical Ellison. His task in this mode is to advocate for divinity in an everyday way. “At night, I don’t count sheep,” he tells us in the first chapter, “Geography of Place: Inner and Outer Landscapes.” “I name the mountain ranges and rivers from east to west.”
In his chapter, “Inward Eyes,” he asks, “How do we go about making sure we continue seeing the world about us with fresh eyes?”
Ellison titles his new book “Literary Excursions” not because he’s providing author tours, but because he treats other authors’ observations about nature as if they were, along with wildlife, part of a spread.
William Bartram, in his 1791 book, “Travels in North Carolina and South Carolina,” Ellison reveals, loved the magnolia blossom, which, Bartram precisely described, “fits in the center of a radius of very large leaves, which...form an expansive umbrella superbly crowned or crested with the fragrant flower, representing a white plume.”
Ellison then turns to James Costa, director of the Highlands Botanical Station, who informs us that the flower dates back to pre-bee times, when beetles had been the most sought pollinators.
Finally, Ellison ends with a quip, quoting biologist J.B.S. Haldane, who, when asked what nature told him about God, replied that “the Creator apparently had an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
When Ellison serves as the chief explainer, seeking conciseness and clarity, he often throws in a punchy line, such as: “If you happen to be a spider, the female dirt dauber is your worst nightmare.”
But it’s not all wit and charm. At certain times, Ellison must be the scientist.
For example, writing about the northern harrier in his chapter, “The Gray Ghost,” Ellison advises, “The diagnostic feature to look for is the white rump. Less apparent are the facial disks.”
He goes on a while longer about male and female coloring and size, and about nesting and roosting habits. And then, extending the description to courtship and foraging behaviors, he gives poetry some space.
First he borrows from “The Birds of America,” which portrays the male harrier “sweeping in great semicircles, gradually lessening in diameter,” at which point “he stops suddenly in the top of a swoop, closes his wings, drops, turns head over tail, drops again, turns over and swings upward from the last somersault, just clear of the ground on another ecstatic performance.”
“What sort of female of any kind could resist that sort of display?” Ellison muses. Then he does his own visually enhanced job by picturing the bird in foraging mode, “spreading the feathers in their wingtips, creating ‘slots’ that...allow low-speed maneuvers...hovering several feet above the ground, face always pointed downward.”
Poetry, for Ellison, is knowing the world. And that includes being able to distinguish between variations of the same species, a discipline that guidebooks often don’t do very well.
Ellison’s sixth voice is poetry. His 2012 book of poems, “Permanent Camp,” issues such lines as: “Certain images rivet attention/ and lodge in memory banks:/ a timber rattler coiled beside a trail/ a kestrel hovering on blurred wings/ a hellbender in gin-cleared mountain water...”
In “Literary Excursions,” he reins that lyrical voice in because, you get the feeling, he has a job to do, like a farmer who has to actually tend to his crops before taking a break and breaking out.
Ellison’s job-like job is, first, to be precise. Then, he can pause and be amiable.
Don’t take for granted his favorite songbird, the redbird, he tells us. “From time to time, we have to remind ourselves to pay attention to the commonplace.”
The “Redbird” chapter is one of my favorites in that it builds a personality and a legend within the framework of natural history.
“Elizabeth and I,” Ellison says about walks with his wife, “have observed that they (the northern cardinals) are almost always the first bird to sing in the morning during the breeding season and that during the winter months they are almost they are almost the last bird to visit our feeders before dark.”
Ellison surmises, “They like to be in charge of the other songbirds in their area, so they wake them up in the morning and see them to bed at night...the male perhaps carries things a tad too far when he engages in lengthy battles with his own reflection.”
There is a seventh voice, in a manner of speaking, in Ellison’s book, and that is Elizabeth’s brilliant watercolor artwork. The photo-quality pages of their volume are rife with illustrations, all apt.
For instance, when George set about showcasing witch hobble, he wrote Dan Pittillo, retired professor of biology and founding editor of “Chinquapin,” to have him look at “Elizabeth’s rendering of what I think of as a sort of Stained Glass Window effect.” The artwork is in the book, as are Pitillo’s and his colleagues’ musings about the color phenomenon.
Ellison is a nature journalist, and he has created a community of naturalist-songbirds, in a sense.