Appalachia Profiles of Mountain People

Old Growth

Today’s guest post was 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.



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  • Reply
    Jane ODell
    March 7, 2022 at 8:39 am

    What a lovely post. The mountains are always such a comfort to me. I can always feel God’s presence so palpable there. Prayers for Pearl’s family and friends. ❤️

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    March 4, 2015 at 7:41 am

    In response to Jackie – I’d be delighted if you can use anything I’ve said to be a comfort, and I’d also encourage you to read the comments of others for that purpose. Brother Jim, to pick just one, gave some fine analogies.
    But let me also encourage you to consider using the same sorts of thoughts while the person is still alive. I don’t think I’d even mentioned it to her children, but I’d personally told Miz Pearl that she had a fine old-growth poplar named after her. As I recall, she laughed it off, saying “old-growth is right,” but I’m sure she got the deeper meaning without me having to say more. Likewise, I told her that I call the little boat which I use to carry me across Fontana Lake (to places like Pilkey Creek) the “Miz Pearl.”
    That said, I’ll give you one other thought which only occurred to me this morning, but I really wish I’d thought of the other day when I mumbled through a few words at Pearl’s service….
    In one of the previous pieces I wrote about Pearl for Tipper, I mentioned that her family had to leave their home when Fontana Lake was built. Although some folks look back at those pre-Fontana days with longing, Pearl said “you couldn’t pay me to go back down in there – that was a hard, hard life.” If that was true while she was here on earth, just think about how it pales in comparison to the transition she just made.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 9:56 pm

    I hope Don will not be offended – I will probably use some of his story the next time I speak at a funeral for an elderly person. I know several who are not many years from crossing over. All of them are very precious to me as well as to others around them.

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    March 3, 2015 at 8:54 pm

    tipper thank you for posting such an interesting post by Don Casada what a story teller is he, thanks Don for sharing it with those who appreciate Mountains story so well written.

  • Reply
    Wendy Meyers
    March 3, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    Pearl was the first person Don and I interviewed when we began our park research in 2011. She was beyond wonderful to simply be with, and she never failed to bring a smile to my face. Heaven is certainly lucky to have her, but I would be lying if I told you that I wasn’t sad to see her go.
    A few nights ago, Don sent me the clip that he has posted here with his writing. After listening to it, I decided that I must simply see what that dress looked like! After some searching, I finally turned it up (I think) in an old Speigel catalog that was posted on the web. Don asked that I post the link here for your enjoyment – and to see which dress you think Pearl was referring to:

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Thank you Tipper and Don,Beautiful story and a Beautiful Gem gone home to her Lord.God Bless

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    I enjoyed this writing and the interview very much, O how I miss talking with my Mamaw about the ole days, even as a child I was just captivated with her experience with life.. Born in 1900 she was so full of knowledge… One day we will be able to pick up where we left off..

  • Reply
    Roger Fingar
    March 3, 2015 at 4:43 pm

    What an incredible and reverent tribute to a life so well lived. The imagery and symbolism draws me, who knows nothing of Don or Pearl, in and allows me to be a participant. As I wonder about the backstory of how their lives initially crossed paths, it brings to mind the unexpected fruitfulness of chance relationships – the chance encounters that evolve into unlikely friendships, mentoring or “adoptive” parent/child relationships. Because these relationships are beyond the expectations of family or peer groups, they are free of baggage and expectations that are normally a part of long term relationships. I’m grateful to be reminded of those who have passed, with whom a “chance” encounter, long or short term, significantly impacted my life.

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    March 3, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks all of you (and many thanks to Tipper for putting up with my several edits); I’m especially glad that so many enjoyed listening to Pearl’s pearls.
    I listened to the words again myself this morning, and a significant nuance finally penetrated my thick skull. It was her response to the question of how old was she when she got her first store-bought dress.
    Notice how she immediately thought about OTHERS – in this case the ages of her sisters.
    When Susan and I lived in Raleigh several coon’s ages ago, we attended a church pastored by a really fine man with a lovely Scottish brogue and way of thinking, Albert G. Edwards.
    Dr. Edwards often encouraged us to live the words of the refrain from a hymn “Others”:
    “Others, Lord, yes others,
    Let this my motto be,
    Help me to live for others,
    That I may live like Thee.”
    That mindset was reflected in Pearl’s life.
    I’ve never even heard the song sung. Maybe someone needs to do some looking into that over in Wilson Cove of Brasstown 😉

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    March 3, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    Don–That’s beautifully done. It occurs to me, after reading I, that the old-growth poplar hand Pearl shared many characteristics.
    *Both dignified, with their presence telling those nearby “I’m in a special place.”
    *Both ramrod straight and reaching heavenwards.
    *Both firmly rooted in the mountain soil throughout their days.
    *Both strong and serene.
    *Both majestic in a quiet but deeply meaningful way.
    As I told Velma yesterday in an e-mail, even though I didn’t know her mother well I felt like I did through your connection with her and through knowing Velma all these years. She was, like Dorie (of the book, “Dorie: Woman of the Mountains”) truly part and parcel of all that represents what is endearing and enduring about the high country and its ways. As one of the last living representatives of a world we have lost, she embodied so many of the sterling qualities which have always made mountain folks a breed apart.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Chris Milan
    March 3, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    I have read this many times now and listened to Pearl describe in vivid detail her first store bought dress. I wished that I could have met her, what a joy that would have been. In my younger days I loved hiking throughout the NC mountains. I live in Oregon now and sincerely miss those mountains and all of the wonderful people that call those mountains their home.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for giving Don the chance on the Blind Pig
    to give Pearl a fitting send-off.
    I know what a treasure she was to
    him and Don’s interview with her
    is so precious. When she talked of getting her first dress from a
    Spegial Catalogue, it reminded me
    of my mama ordering things from it too.
    Pearl was very knowledgeable of
    living in the Mountains and it’s
    ways. Rest in Peace…Ken

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    March 3, 2015 at 1:15 pm

    Thank you! I enjoyed this so much. Mama’s mother got the Sears Roebuck catalog & ordered material to make their dresses & stuff. She also made their underwear.
    Mama later picked cotton to get her clothes & had bought a coat. She had all her new clothing in a trunk. Tragedy struck when their house caught on fire. Nothing was saved except my great grandmother’s sewing machine & the man who helped get it out later took pneumonia from smoke damage & died from it. Mama said they could see the glowing coals that night & she was so sad about their home & especially her precious trunk of clothing.

  • Reply
    Robert Wasmer
    March 3, 2015 at 12:14 pm

    Tipper,thanks for posting this guest article. Deep with imagery of these strong old trees and the people that resemble them. Unfortunately, very few of both “species” remain. I loved the inclusion of the references to the Reno and Smiley, and The Johnson Mountain Boys songs. Two of my favorite groups.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    March 3, 2015 at 11:29 am

    What more could I add?
    This story is such a beautiful tribute to Pearl Crisp Cable by her dear friend Don Casada.
    How wonderful that Don sought the old growth tree and named it “Pearls Poplar”…
    It is now and always will be her symbol…her “tree of life”!
    Thanks Tipper and Don

  • Reply
    Bobby Dale
    March 3, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Thank you for running Don’s piece today. It is very inspirational. I find the older some of us get the more we adore Mother Nature and the sweet Pearls in our lives.
    Bobby Dale

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    March 3, 2015 at 10:38 am

    Although the passing of treasures like Pearl leaves a void among the “living,” it fills a void in heaven. Liken it a jigsaw puzzle. There is one less piece in the jumbled pile at one end the table and one more added to the perfected picture at the other. My fear is not for the Pearls of the world but for those who refuse to accept their place as part of that picture.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    March 3, 2015 at 10:26 am

    Don’s words are such an eloquent tribute to Pearl and a life well lived, with the wonderful metaphors of the stately centurion of the forest, its limbs reaching over virgin snow, ephemeral but eternally joining the everlasting flow of Indian Creek and the cycle of life.
    I’ve always wondered how the tulip tree, not being of the poplar family, came to be called the yellow poplar, tulip poplar or just poplar. The old growth ones are truly majestic. On a mountain hike long ago, a city chap asked me, “what kind of tree is that?” I replied that it’s a poplar. The wag then asked, “Are there any unpoplar trees?” After the laugh and further along the trail, he pointed to a gray smooth-barked tree. “What’s that one?” I told him it’s a beech. He couldn’t resist. ‘So this little one’s a son of a beech?”

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 10:09 am


  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 9:51 am

    Pearl sounded so much like my Mom and Mammy. They would have talked about their new dress and yellow root just like she did. Unfortunately, I didn’t record either of them. As I read your story and listened to the recording, my emotions were all over the place.
    Don, you are blessed to know and spend time with such a beautiful woman. May she rest in that springtime place where the streets are lined in gold.

  • Reply
    Roy Pipes
    March 3, 2015 at 9:37 am

    I love hearing Appalachian stories about the people of Western North Carolina. Thanks Tipper and Don. A great remembrance – I would love to visit Pearl’s Popular. My wife and I have visited the Joyce Kimler National Forest several times. Next time I’ll look for ‘Old Growth Popular.’

  • Reply
    Gayle Larson
    March 3, 2015 at 8:52 am

    What a great tribute to Pearl and old trees.
    I have always loved big, old trees. They surround my house.
    Some say I should cut them down but there is nothing better in the summer than the shade of a tall oak tree.
    They were beautiful this last week with their branches all covered with snow.
    I agree with Joyce Kilmer “The Trees Look at God All Day” and remind us to do the same.
    How blessed we are to live in these mountains.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    March 3, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Don’s upward journey to his spot of “Quiet on the Mountain” and seeing “Pearl’s Popular” were so incisive, touching and tender that I am left with tears and awe. Thank you Don, for taking the time to lead us with you on this journey, and for sharing some of Pearl’s wisdom. A memorable post, one that I will revisit again and again!

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Others may fumble and not quite know what to say, but Don’s summation of this grand lady is wonderful. Don’s writing is so descriptive that one seems to walk each step with him on the lonely walk to Pearl’s Poplar. I was extremely touched by his words, “This earth isn’t heaven, but these mountains that we call home are the next closest thing.” It would be well if all could live as Pearl Crisp lived. Meanwhile, I have found so much peace and security sharing the thoughts and wonders found in these beautiful mountains.

  • Reply
    Mj Pettengill
    March 3, 2015 at 8:12 am

    My friend shared this with me. I loved reading it and am grateful that she sent me the link.

  • Reply
    March 3, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Thanks for letting us know the outcome of the many prayers for Pearl. I never realized that there were old Poplars and a newer type. Your journey was very interesting, but watch the treck through the woods with snow and possible ice on the grounds.

  • Reply
    Annette Casada Hensley
    March 3, 2015 at 8:09 am

    As you can tell from this piece and others brother Don has written, he felt a special love for Miz Pearl. This fine example of the greatest generation put a long-lasting twinkle in Don’s heart. I only had the pleasure of meeting Miz Pearl once, but knew her daughter Velma from my school days. Based on the kind of woman her daughter turned out to be and the love and respect Don felt for Miz Pearl, I know that she was one very special lady who will be lighting up heaven.

  • Reply
    Larry proffitt
    March 3, 2015 at 8:08 am

    Thanks Don. I know those places and those trees but they are across the mountain here in Tennessee. I can only say Amen to this great piece. Larry Proffitt

  • Reply
    Henry Horton
    March 3, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Thank you, Tipper and thank you Don Casada.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    March 3, 2015 at 7:28 am

    Thank you, Don. There is always reverence in your tone when you talk of these mountains….and Pearl. A pearl indeed!

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