Appalachia Smoky Mountains

From the Archives: Old Growth

The Blind Pig & The Acorn Archives are like an encyclopedia, albeit not a very well curated encyclopedia. The nature of a blog makes it almost impossible to have something akin to an index of material. The forward motion of the blog itself buries things so far back that new readers aren’t very likely to ever stumble across them.

For a long while I’ve been kicking around the idea of featuring old posts from the archives but never could come up with exactly how I wanted to do it. It finally hit me this week: I should tackle the issue by sharing “this day in this year” type of posts.

My first From the Archives post comes to us from March 3, 2015. It is a guest post written by Don Casada.

Pearl's Poplar, backlit

Old Growth by Don Casada, February 28, 2015

High above the waters of Indian Creek, deep in a hollow carved into the divide called Sunkota Ridge, there stands a fine old-growth yellow poplar. There are a few sizable oaks in the area, but just that one old-growth poplar.

I first ran across the tree just over three years ago. I’d been down near the creek looking for evidence of the old Indian Creek School when I got word that Pearl Cable had fallen and broken her hip. Pearl was 91 years old at the time. A broken hip at that age is often followed by a general rapid deterioration in overall health, so prayer was certainly needful.

My preferred location for worship and prayer is, to use a Louis L’Amour book title, Lonely on the Mountain, so I decided to fetch myself to a high spot from which to pray. Since it was a few miles from where a maintained trail ascended the ridge, I elected to just take off and bushwhack up through the woods toward the top of Sunkota, a ridge which, for several miles, is the divide between Deep Creek and Indian Creek. Quite a bit of it is a steep haul, but fortunately I hit an old sled road which made the climb considerably easier, although there were a few sections of laurel and greenbrier to contend with.

Furrowed bark

Just as I was approaching the ridgeline, the old-growth poplar caught my eye. Old-growth poplar can be distinguished by the deep furrows on its bark. Second-growth poplars, for whatever reason, don’t have the same characteristic, even when they reach over three feet in diameter.

There’s something about old trees which evokes respect and awe, even a sense of reverence. As soldier Joyce Kilmer wrote, a tree “looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray.” This being February, there were no leaves, but her arms were untiringly lifted, and so it just seemed a fitting spot to stop and join in the prayer.

Prayers lifted from there and elsewhere – including from Tipper’s Blind Pig readers (thank you) – ”took holt” in Heaven; Pearl had surgery and recovered.

A difference in character

My father spent his working for pay days in the woodworking business, all but a couple of those at the Carolina Wood Turning plant in Bryson City. Years after he retired, he would occasionally talk about the trees of these mountains and the quality of their wood. Daddy insisted that old-growth yellow poplar was an altogether different tree than second-growth poplar, and finer in all respects.

There are a few places in these mountains, including the Fork Ridge area of Deep Creek, sections in Caldwell Fork of Cataloochee as well as a few other isolated locations, such as the Joyce Kilmer Forest near Robbinsville where fine stands of old-growth poplar can be found. If you have never been into one of these or similar areas, and have the physical ability to do so (relatively little walking is needed in Joyce Kilmer by the way), I strongly encourage you to go. Your soul will be blessed and your heart refreshed by time thus spent.


Old-growth poplar wood is light, straight-grained and durable, and because it grows with long, straight, limb-free trunks, made prime material for log cabins, schools and churches. There are standing log structures in our area with two-plus foot wide poplar logs which date back well over a century. In addition to these rough-hewn uses, poplar was also selected for the making of machined wood pumps and veranda or porch columns, such as those manufactured by the Bryson City Pump Works in the early 1900s. As a catalog of the era noted, only #1 clear yellow poplar was used: “Unlike the northern, or hard white poplar, it will stand exposure to sun and rain without check or decay.”

don 2

In November of the year of Pearl’s recovery from the hip surgery, I made my way back up the mountain to locate where I’d gone to pray, and reflected on how many characteristics she shared with old-growth poplar – tall, straight-grained, durable, and over the course of her life had applied herself to rough (cutting firewood and building rock walls) and refined (doctor’s aide) services. And just being around Pearl is a soul-refreshing time. For future reference purposes, I put a marker for the tree location on my GPS unit and named it “Pearl’s Poplar.”

Sunkota trailhead

A journey back home

Today (February 28, 2015), I once again sought out Pearl’s Poplar. Several inches of the snow from this past week still covered the ground in all but the spots that get a lot of sun.  Down along the Deep Creek and Indian Creek trails, enough folks had walked to pretty well compact the snow and it was a mess to travel through. Leaving Indian Creek, I found that a solitary soul had preceded me on the “Loop Trail” climb across the lower end of Sunkota Ridge.

When I reached the Sunkota Ridge trailhead where I would make the turn and begin the ascent towards Pearl’s Poplar, I found it covered in untrammeled, pure and lovely snow. The contrast between the mess I’d been through down lower and the virgin snow brought to mind the passage in Isaiah where, considering the mess that many of us have made of our lives, God says “Let us reason together…though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” It also occurred to me how fitting it was that this part of the journey would be made alone, for this earth is not our final home; the days of even a gentle but tough lady like Pearl are numbered. I was led to make the pilgrimage to Pearl’s Poplar on this particular day because this morning at 7 am, her own earthly pilgrimage reached its end.

New beginnings and trees along the river

The first passage in Lonely on the Mountain reads:

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”

Pearl started a new beginning today. We are told that in that land of new beginnings, it’ll always be springtime, for trees of life, standing alongside the river, bear fruit every month. Western North Carolina native Red Smiley, who is buried a few miles west of town in the DeHart Cemetery, and Don Reno sang of that, as did the Johnson Mountain Boys.

That Biblical imagery is no doubt what Stonewall Jackson had in mind just before dying. In his excellent biography, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, the Soldier, the Legend, James Robertson notes that Jackson’s physician, Hunter McGuire, recalled that just before he died, Jackson suddenly emerged from a state of wild delirium. With a peaceful smile of relief he said “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees” whereupon, he did in fact cross over.

Don 5
don 4

This earth isn’t heaven, but these mountains that we call home are the next closest thing. I’m grateful that there is special place, lonely on the mountain, where I can go to reach out and touch Pearl’s Poplar, look along its rugged, character-telling trunk toward Heaven, and harken back to the twinkle in the eye and the joy in the voice of an old-growth mountain lady and treasured friend, Pearl Crisp Cable, now resting in that springtime forever place.

don 3

Pearl’s Postscript

It is my hope that your readers would – as Pearl might’ve said – “take to studying” on ways in which Darling Pearl was like that old-growth poplar. Brother Jim saw my words earlier and came up with several thoughts which maybe he’ll repeat for you in a comment here.

But it occurred to me that there was a way for your readers to get an altogether different sense of what a pure delight Pearl was to be around.

I dearly loved just to sit and talk with her – or more accurately, listen – to Pearl talk. Last spring I had a chance to sit down with her and just the two of us had a nice long conversation on a host of subjects.

Relative to the question about how old she was when she got her first dress –  Pearl was born in 1920, the second daughter of Miles and Sarah, and about two years younger than Virgie and two years older than Letha. So it would’ve been sometime in the mid-1930s when Pearl got her first store-bought dress and coat.

I hope you enjoyed the trip back into the archives as much as I did.

Last night’s video: My Life in Appalachia 19 | Climbing Tall Trees, Finding Icicles, Making Music, and Eating Good Food.


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  • Reply
    March 4, 2022 at 12:04 pm

    Oh, Tipper! I loved this story!! Thank you so much!!

  • Reply
    Brenda Jo Taylor
    March 3, 2022 at 8:29 pm

    Thank you, Tipper for sharing this story. I’m fairly new to your podcasts (in the past year), but it has quickly become my favorite. Your podcasts, stories, and just the essence of what you share is like receiving a message in church. Thank you so much for the joy you, your family, friends, and readers share with us.

  • Reply
    Hank Skewis
    March 3, 2022 at 6:04 pm

    Our bountiful Mother Earth is us mere mortals’ greatest blessing. Here in California we feel so thankful for our old growth forests of redwood, giant Sequoias and the world’s oldest living things, the bristlecone pines. So I loved the story of the old growth poplar and feel some sadness that virtually all the rest are gone in the name of “progress.” Loved hearing the story of Pearl as well. Thank you.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 4:59 pm

    This post was well worth re-posting, Tipper. My oldest brother was but a year or two younger than Pearl. He passed at 95, quietly, in his sleep.

  • Reply
    Annie Shaw
    March 3, 2022 at 11:46 am

    The phrase “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” hit me, and a neighbor too, powerfully today as she mourns a relative’s passing. I am reflecting today on “old growth” and thank you for this blog from the past.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 11:41 am

    I was very much touched by Don’s story about Pearl and the yellow poplar tree. This has brought many thoughts to mind. I have many times taken a gun to the woods on the pretense of hunting and just walked around looking at the trees, flowers, and huge rock formations, worshipping and praying to God. You know we have many beautiful spots on earth and the Smokies are one of the best. Just thinking about the beautiful places makes me realize how much more beautiful Heaven will be for we live on a cursed earth.

    I had an old friend many years ago who would tell me about yellow poplar not being the same as new growth poplar. Almost all of virgin trees in E.KY. have been cut many years ago. Back in the 1930’s in the mountains of SE.KY. a steel company which had bought the mineral and timber rights to many parcels of land cut an old growth forest over many protests. The largest tree was a yellow poplar that measured eleven feet two inches in diameter.

  • Reply
    Gene Smith
    March 3, 2022 at 11:32 am

    Don Casada’s gift for writing goes beyond storytelling. So glad I got to read this literary gem from 2015. Thank you, Don and Tipper.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 10:09 am

    Tipper, thanks for revisiting your old posts and using one of Don Casada’s stories, as I very much respect the beauty and strength of trees and have enjoyed his stories before. I have known many women, that came before me, like Pearl and can understand fully the light you and Don saw in her. It was inspiring to read Don’s traipsing through the forest to a special place to pray for her too. There is no doubt she crossed over to a new beginning.

    Also, enjoyed your video as always on cooking, Katie’s video with her daddy and love that little stream of water and the icicles hanging off an old limb. You must have had some rain because that stream was really rushing full.

  • Reply
    Sharon Cole
    March 3, 2022 at 10:00 am

    What a beautiful story. I would have loved to meet Pearl and sit down and have a talk. Those trees are amazing. I am not familiar with old growth poplar, but I am a tree watcher. Don writes beautifully. I can see in my mind what he is writing. Thank you, Tipper, for sharing. Take care and God bless ❣️

  • Reply
    Rita F Speers
    March 3, 2022 at 9:45 am

    Tipper, I’m so glad you had the idea of how to post older writings! Now I can catch up! I haven’t been a follower of your blog very long, but because of the wonderful content that you preserve, I am a DEDICATED follower. LOL! Thank you for sharing your journey!

  • Reply
    Donna Brewton
    March 3, 2022 at 9:20 am

    Thank you for re-posting this blog. What a good idea of how to re-post Un-complicates a decision. I loved reading about Miss Pearl. She reminded me of my mom w,ho was born in 1922, and left us at 93yrs… Both good women who blessed those they encountered . Blessing and teaching just like those old growth Popular trees will do if we but stop and give them a chance.

  • Reply
    Brad Byers
    March 3, 2022 at 9:16 am

    Boy, was this installment tight up my alley! Thanks for taking the time to compile these.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    March 3, 2022 at 9:15 am

    It was just yesterday, while providing a guided walk up Deep Creek to a group of folks, that I mentioned Pearl. It was in the context of how the various sections of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were home not just to individual families, but extended family communities.

    I recall sitting with Pearl and a map of the drainage where she grew up – Pilkey Creek – and moving through the marks I’d made on the map of former home places which I had been to. As we did that, I was struck by two things:

    The first was her map-reading ability. That is something which I used to take for granted but have learned that a significant number of folks have considerable difficulty orienting and relating places on a map to physical location on the ground. That was not at all the case with Pearl. She immediately began to jump from point to point, telling me who lived at each location.

    The second was her connection to the entire community. I had marked 19 home places which are still above water on Pilkey Creek; Pearl was related in some way to one of the heads of family in each home – aunt, uncle, cousin, etc.

    So when these folks were forced to move, the legal settlements were with individual families for land and home. But there was another, unrecompensed price – the loss of extended family communities which had existed for generations were lost. There was simply no way that the entire community could pick up and move, en banc, to a new location.

    While Pearl said that there was no way that she would go back to the life she had on Pilkey Creek – in her words, “it was a hard, hard life,” her memories of both place and people were warm and vibrant.

    I miss her dearly. They aren’t making them like her anymore, it seems.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    March 3, 2022 at 9:01 am

    Thank you for this, Mr. Casada. Much to ponder in this post, beginning with the near-coincidence of the original posting date and this one in memory of Pearl. Somehow I think that is not just simply coincidence.

    Then, as you recommend, there is the allegory of old growth and a long human life well lived. (I feel that need in myself, to ponder my goings. I sometimes think though I’ll end up better if I don’t think about them too much because it can be too self-centered.) That tree and Miss Pearl took the storms of life and endured. The tree laid down a record of the years in its growth rings, the good and the bad. Miss Pearl.did the same in memories, as do we all. I really like that phrase “long, straight-grained, durable”. Don’t want no twists in my grain. Want to be a ‘what you see is what there is’ inside in the sound heart of things. Need to recall also, as a focus and counterbalance that all livings things here must pass but that doesn’t mean passing to nothingness. Miss Pearl’s spirit has gone to that ‘springtime in glory’. You were obviously a good friend and you two were a blessing to each other. She is a ‘treasure laid up’ for you.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 8:42 am

    A great idea, Tipper. I have been a BP reader for a long time, and only occasionally do I let life tie me up so that I miss your blog. Occasionally I will see an old one, and I will go back and read. Even though it may have a comment from me, I do not recall it. Even your old readers could be refreshed by some of those gems you created through your years of blogging. Perhaps my favorite of all is when you featured the “Where I’m From.” This was an especially interesting one by Don Casada. When I return from errands, I will read it slowly and enjoy the writings of this master of the pen. Since he writes about Appalachia, the writer and subject are a perfect match.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 8:39 am

    Great story! We traveled through Brass Town yesterday on way back to Ellijay, saw the Folk School and had lunch at Julie’s Place down the road. Good food! Beautiful country

  • Reply
    Larry Paul Eddings
    March 3, 2022 at 8:33 am

    That beautifully written story brought a tear to my eyes. Thank God for wonderful people like Pearl. Thank God for incredible trees like that poplar. Thank God for those who appreciate the beauty in them.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 8:17 am

    I enjoy reading articles wrote by either Don or Jim Canada. Like Don, I like to go somewhere and be by myself to pray or worship. There is an old growth popular on our property. It has been there I know for 68 years and I have heard my granddaddy say it was when he was young and just about as big then. I believe it would take two men to reach around it.
    I knew it was a popular tree but did not know it was called an old growth popular.

    Tipper, I enjoy reading the older blogs. I will often look up the older blogs you will have at the bottom of each days

  • Reply
    Dave Van Kleeck
    March 3, 2022 at 8:15 am

    Thank you Don for such a lovely post. So heartfelt and so “true” on many levels. My wife and I have lived in Bryson City off and on for a long time and we appreciate your efforts, Don, to keep the history of this wonderful area alive. And thank you Tipper for all that you do. The idea of a trip trough the archives is a great idea!

  • Reply
    March 3, 2022 at 7:46 am

    I loved this story and the fact that Don chose a special place to go and pray for this very special lady. This article was a great tribute to Pearl; I bet she is smiling from Heaven down on Don. Thanks Tipper for re-posting this one from the archives.

  • Reply
    Margie G
    March 3, 2022 at 7:39 am

    I enjoyed this blog maybe MORE than any other- and you’ve got ALL great blogs! I’m going to be studying on Mrs. Pearl and the Old Growth Poplar all day! I decided I’ve got a lot to learn from a tree. They make a statement RIGHT where they stand! They lift their arms and boughs toward heaven all the year round. They bear fruit right where they are and are dependable to be where they last were seen. Squirrels and birds “tickle them” running up and down the boughs all summer long! Most of all a tree seems to whisper “Jesus” when the wind blows through its leaves. Just listen and you may hear it too!!!!

  • Reply
    Martha Justice
    March 3, 2022 at 7:17 am

    I really enjoyed reading about Pearl and the poplar trees of the mountains. Looking forward for more stories from the archives.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 3, 2022 at 7:15 am

    A good selection for a repeat, the big old trees are something to behold! Being in their presence leaves me speechless.

  • Reply
    donna sue
    March 3, 2022 at 7:10 am

    Thank you for reposting Don Casada’s story. I always enjoy reading what he writes! I think it’s an excellent idea to revisit previous posts on this blog! I love reading the comments, and when you repost, it is neat to read the new commenters thoughts on old topics. The majority of your previous posts have stayed in the back of my mind, although there are a few I had/have forgotten about. So it is fun to me to read them again. You have done such a fantastic job with your blog, starting way back at the beginning. I am so very glad you have kept with it!!!

    Donna. : )

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