Proposed Hunting in Sanctuaries Represents Spiritual Crisis

30 Jan

“No important change in human conduct is ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections, and our convictions. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have dodged its spiritual implications.” ~Aldo Leopold

Intelligent bear by Bill Lea

I have spent the better part of two years devoting energy to an effort to help wildlife more safely cross the highways in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. I’ve worked alongside scientists to make their work more accessible to the lay public through branding, articles, a web site, social media posts, a children’s book, and even a music video. 

Now I feel that this work to help allow bear, deer, elk, and many other species the right of way is partially canceled out by a shocking proposal to allow hunting with dogs in the Pisgah, Panthertown–Bonas Defeat, and Standing Indian bear sanctuaries in Western North Carolina. 

“The bear sanctuary concept was based on knowledge of the smaller home ranges of female bears and dispersal behavior of young males,” says Mike Pelton, Professor Emeritus, Wildlife Science, University of Tennessee, whose groundbreaking research helped to modernize black bear management around the world. “Additionally, starting hunts later in the fall protected the females, skewing the harvest ratio toward males. Using knowledge of bear behavior for management strategies assisted in the recovery of the bear population. This success led to the dispersal of bears into new and nonpublic habitats.”

But now, increased populations of both humans and bears means that humans are going to be seeing more bears in developed areas. The wildlife commission wants to open these three sanctuaries to hunting to address this issue by killing off some of the bears. But not all bear “sightings” represent “conflicts.” Those who are not educated about living with bears are exhibiting panic behaviors and turning what should simply be a bear “sighting” into a de facto “conflict.” 

We do not have too many bears; we have too little education. 

“Campers must learn to store their food properly to keep from attracting bears,” says bear photographer Bill Lea, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger who knows the bears in these three sanctuaries. “Hikers must learn proper behavior when encountering a bear while hiking. Nearby property owners must learn to eliminate the foods (bird feeders, garbage, barbeque grills, etc.) that are attracting bears to their property. The indiscriminate killing of bears is not the solution to resolving negative human-bear interactions. Education is the one and only effective answer.” 

Pelton, who has 30+ years of experience in bear research, reasons that while these three well-established sanctuaries occupy a very small portion of the huge national forests, they provide important refugia for bears and are needed for the long-term stability and resiliency of this species. 

Relaxed bear by Bill Lea

“I am concerned that once sanctuaries are opened for hunting, it will be hard to ever reverse that action,” he says. “As we have all learned from the pandemic, no one can predict the future regarding potential negative impacts due to natural or human-caused events. Holding onto these three safe havens is insurance for possible future issues for bears.”

The fierce green light

The 1949 non-fiction masterpiece A Sand County Almanac by ecologist Aldo Leopold is one of history’s seminal testaments to the environmentalist ethic. One philosophy it espouses is the idea that without preserving some wild spaces, not only animals but humans themselves will no longer be free. 

I can identify with Leopold and his rallying cry against policy makers whose pseudo-conservation efforts vainly mask their desires for economic gain. While our understanding of natural history has tumbled leaps and bounds ahead of where it stood in Leopold’s time—just before the advent of DDT and the subsequent writing of another conservation pioneer, Rachel Carson—our forests are rapidly disappearing, our rivers and oceans face ever more serious threats from pollution, and our planet is entering the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. This is our own doing—and, from one human to the next, the magnitude of having passed the tipping point seems to manifest itself in denial, indifference, nearly unbearable emotional void, or a continuing struggle to attempt to reverse the needle, if only a tiny bit. 

“In those days, we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” writes Leopold in his chapter “Think Like a Mountain.” As a mother wolf with injured pups scurrying around her dies at his own hands, he sees “a fierce green light dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.”

History shows that humans evolve at different rates. While some of us understand the value in conservation, others justify willful habitat destruction and species annihilation predicated solely on greed by falling back on the “man conquers nature” mentality that reigned in past centuries. We all want the same thing, ultimately, but it looks different depending upon the level of consciousness from which each of us is acting. 

Whether they be mountains, forests, rivers, deserts, oceans, or bear families who have lived on safe havens in Southern Appalachia for 50 years, it is vital that we strive to champion, protect, and maintain the pristine state of what few natural landscapes remain in the areas around where we make our homes.

Leopold ends his chapter thus: “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: in wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” 

Sentient bear by Joye Ardyn Durham

We have to act NOW!

Please consider raising your voice to save unsuspecting bears in three North Carolina sanctuaries from a merciless, torturous, and ultimately senseless death. The deadline is tomorrow!

It’s really as simple as sending an email. Submit your comments by Monday, January 31, via e-mail at or by mail to Rule-making Coordinator, NCWRC,1701 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1701.

Visit the Facebook page Protect Bear Sanctuaries to learn more about the issue or write to me directly for talking points. 


How I became a songwriter during COVID

3 Jan

“I am not a songwriter.” Before the pandemic, this statement was true. 

But today, the “t” in “not” has to become a “w” to make a new true statement: “I am now a songwriter.”

On December 10, my new music video of the song “Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand” launched on the YouTube channel of my supportive employer, Great Smoky Mountains Association. Now it has reached over 3,500 views. So, I thought I’d write the story of how it all began. 

Bella Wells-Fried (the elk), Natalie Karrh (the deer), and Lexi McGraw (the bear) enter the box culvert in Unicoi County, TN, that provides their safe passage under a busy highway in the video. Image courtesy of Valerie Polk, GSMA.

Sometime back in 2018, I was driving home from Asheville on Interstate 26 listening to WNCW, a noncommercial public radio station operating from Spindale, North Carolina. Like a bolt from the blue, a song came on that created such a shift in my focus that I was scarcely aware of driving my vehicle. The refrain that struck me to my core, and what I assumed was also its title, was “we used to be birds.” I strained at the end to be sure I picked up the name of the artist. Appropriately, and easy to remember, it was Jonathan Byrd. I distinctly recall feeling that this was an important moment. 

From that time on, I followed Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys, purchasing some CDs and signing up for the band’s email newsletter, the Byrd Word. Wednesday nights at our house became Jonathan Bryd night as we watched the band performing live from a small music venue in White Cross, North Carolina. As the pandemic descended and we all struggled to feel connected, the band continued to provide their live streams, first from the Kraken while it was closed to its local audience, and later from the loft of Jonathan’s home. These three-hour concerts helped us feel a sense of community and sanity during lockdown and into the “new normal.”

At the same time, from March to May of 2020, in an unpremeditated fit of creative passion for wildlife and their struggles to cross highways like I-26 and I-40 near the Smokies, I wrote the story that became my children’s book, A Search for Safe Passage. I’ve waxed on about that creative process in an earlier blog post here.

On July 27, 2020, the book’s illustrations were being created by GSMA Publications Specialist Emma DuFort while I pulled together the educational material for the back section. Sitting at my orange-and-yellow-crackle-painted desk in my home office in Flag Pond, Tennessee, I opened the Byrd Word to read that Jonathan was inviting fans to join him for a virtual songwriting retreat

“Could I write a song?” I heard myself say out loud, as if I had momentarily split in two and was asking my other self a question. I pushed back my chair, stood up, and headed to the kitchen to refill my coffee. As I did this physical motion, I simultaneously opened my mouth, and sang the words, “Safe passage, animals need to cross!” 

Coffee in hand, I returned to my desk and turned on the digital recording app on my phone. Here’s what came out: 

Safe passage, animals need to cross.

Safe passage, animals need to cross.

To cross the highway, oh yeah.

To cross the highway, oh yeah.

Ancient trails have been put down for centuries. 

You can’t try to tell me it ain’t true. 

Foxes and bobcats, coyote, and bear and elk are hit. 

You can’t tell me it’s not part of you.”

And that was just the beginning. I realized that I needed a way to write the music down that was flooding into my head. I also realized that I missed having a piano at the ready, as had been the case when I was growing up in eastern Kentucky. Mother played mostly “by ear” and provided me with both piano and voice lessons for about five years, but they never really “took,” and I gave up to focus on horseback riding and boys. But now I wished for a keyboard to pluck out the notes. I found a couple of songwriting apps that allowed me to identify and document the melody I was creating. 

Jonathan Byrd’s songwriting retreat

By the time the songwriting retreat rolled around in September, I had the basis for “Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand” already in draft form both in terms of the lyrics and the melody. But I needed direction on how to hone the composition and a boatload of encouragement, both of which I got from the wonderful three-day course. 

On the first Zoom meeting on Friday night, I met the other seven students, who were mostly musicians and songwriters already. They were supportive, open, and excited that I was stepping out of my comfort zone to try to write a song. We all enjoyed getting to interact with Jonathan and listen as he shared the backstory behind several of his own popular compositions.

On the Saturday morning session, we got to know each other better and explored writing as Jonathan shared more examples of pairing lyrics and melody from his repertoire. Saturday afternoon each member of the group would have just one-half hour alone on a Zoom with Jonathan. This was my chance to get specific direction, and I anxiously prepared so the time would be spent as effectively as possible. 

I’m still amazed at how well this one-on-one interaction worked. I showed Jonathan my draft of the lyrics and made a woeful attempt to sing him the melody. He liked the poetic conceit of the person saying they are the animal and suggested some very simple changes to the lyrics. In the verses, rather than something complex like “I am a white-tailed deer,” the stark “I am a deer,” would be better. This change helped me to choose some other ways to simplify and the entire piece tightened up before my eyes. 

After my “audience” with Jonathan, I had until the next morning to finalize my song. There was this phrase and melody stuck in my head that didn’t fit with the new streamlined style, yet it seemed to have to remain in the song: “I am an American black bear, and I’m following an ancient trail.” I realized this would hold space as a little introduction to set the tone for the song—and it ended up working perfectly. 

When Sunday morning came, rather than “performing” nervously in front of the group, I recorded my version of the song using Zoom and played it back for them. My new friends all loved the composition and the lone hand-drum accompaniment that gave it the Native American feel I was going for with the melody. 

Making a music video

Over the next six months or so GSMA’s marketing coordinator, Elly Wells, helped me to locate the right band to record the song. I loved The Fates from the moment we met, and they have their own story about how they worked with River Guerguerian to create the awesome harmonic piece that you hear on the music video. You can read about that in this column I wrote for the Asheville Citizen Times

The Fates: vocalist and guitarist Natalie Karrh, vocalist, pianist and bassist Lexi McGraw, and vocalist and violinist Bella Wells-Fried (left to right) captured inside the graffiti-riddled tunnel in Unicoi County, TN, that provides their “safe passage” under the highway in the video. Image courtesy of Frances Figart.

Before they even finalized the recording, The Fates got to perform “Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand” on a special show dedicated to the Safe Passage project by Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys. This occurred in March of 2021, timed with the launch of my book, A Search for Safe Passage.

Next, I had in mind to create the music video in a way that would ignite the wildlife crossing movement. Somewhat unpremeditated, I picked up the phone in early April to ask the person who was my first choice of director. Joe Lamirand became one of my best friends during the early 2000s. I had seen him create music videos before and knew how much he loved the editing process. Since that time, he had married my best friend from childhood, Mary Elizabeth. The two have several properties to manage in addition to their jobs. Would he take this on? 

I was thrilled when Joe agreed to lend his talents to the project for which I had shared such passion. We began to plan the video shoot for late June and for several months Joe and I enjoyed the creative process in the roles of director and producer. After considering several locations in Asheville, we realized the simplest place to do the production was at my house and property in East Tennessee. This would allow us to get all the shots we needed in just one weekend as well as have a place to house The Fates. With Joe arriving a week before the shoot in order to plot out the entire script, the stage was set for a hectic but rewarding weekend of work.

The Fates on the set of the video shoot in Flag Pond, Tennessee. Image courtesy of Frances Figart.

“Working on the video was a very fun and exciting experience,” said Natalie Karrh of The Fates. “We camped out for a weekend in Tennessee on Frances’s beautiful, lush property. Filming took place over a couple days and the first day was spent acting out the storyline of the animals’ journeys. The second day entailed the more musical aspect of the video. We were so lucky to have such talented and supportive people working with us the whole time. Frances was such a gracious host and made sure we were all comfortable and well fed. Joe was a very encouraging and patient director with a clear vision that he helped us all execute. Many other people came out to help, each bringing a sense of joy, community, and dedication.”

All of those wonderful people are named in the credits at the end of the video, which overlays footage of young black bears frolicking in the forest with Interstate 40 traffic raging by in the background, just visible and audible through the trees. Many folks heard about the project and sent small amounts of money to offset my costs. Some came and physically helped to make the shooting a success. Road ecology professionals from around the country helped us obtain b-roll. It was a true collaboration!

All this is not to say that I am now going to be writing songs every day, as does the immensely inspiring Jonathan Byrd. But I am content to have allowed my spirit for a fleeting moment to soar like the bird I used to be and to say “yes” to a notion that maybe I could do something that I didn’t think I was designed to do. 

“In my dreams, we fly.” ~Joni Mitchell 

Frances Figart, who wrote the song “Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand” and produced the music video with director Joe Lamirand looks on as the Fates sing her song in her backyard in Flag Pond, TN. Production assistant Jane Maurer, now also working at GSMA, can be seen behind the lighting device. Image courtesy of Sarah K. Schuetz. 
The Fates’ vocalist and violinist Bella Wells-Fried singing “I am an elk” in the music video. Image courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.
The Fates’ vocalist, pianist, and bassist Lexi McGraw singing “I am a bear” in the music video. Image courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.
The Fates’ vocalist and guitarist Natalie Karrh singing “I am a deer” in the music video. Image courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.
The Fates’ violinist Bella Wells-Fried performing her solo in the music video. Image courtesy of Joye Ardyn Durham.
Videographer Joye Ardyn Durham captures a take while Director Joe Lamirand monitors the lighting.
Director Joe Lamirand and Videographer Valerie Polk of Great Smoky Mountains Association look over the shot list with help from Dukkha.
Production assistant Jane Maurer helps Director Joe Lamirand with setup of lighting equipment.
Ivy hugs her aunt Joye while Production Assistant Sarah K. Schuetz looks on.
Production Assistant Terry Deal happily poses for her daughter Taylor who works in filmmaking.
Bella holds Oki, a normally unmanageable feline, in between takes as Natalie comments.

New Book and Song Support Safe Passage Movement

13 May

Most of my writing is now part of my work in the Smokies. I blog at Smokies LIVE and write a regular column called “Word from the Smokies” for the Asheville Citizen Times. But I realized that I still needed to post here—where my essays began—about my new book and song that are helping to make people aware that we need a paradigm shift when it comes to roadkill.

As most of you know, I grew up in Eastern Kentucky at a summer camp for which my parents acted as overseers. I spent summer days swimming, canoeing, hiking, and horseback riding, immersing myself in a landscape of Appalachian wildlife. The only sadness I recall was seeing animals hit and killed on roads.

In my 30s and 40s, I traveled the world as a tourism professional, and lived for a period of time in both Canada and Costa Rica. These experiences raised my awareness of wildlife road mortality as a global problem.

Not long after I began working in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I got involved with a group of federal, state, tribal, and non-governmental organizations discussing the need for wildlife-crossing structures along Interstate 40 near the park boundary—in the Pigeon River Gorge between Asheville and Knoxville. I was drawn to this group because I had been seeing black bear, white-tailed deer, and even an elk killed on Interstate 26 north of Asheville, near my home in Flag Pond, Tennessee.

Flash forward to late March of 2020. The pandemic ground most of my travel and social interaction to a halt. But sitting out by the creek on my six-acre property, Taylor Barnhill popped a startling question: “When are you going to write a children’s book about the need for wildlife crossings?”

I must have spewed a five-minute litany of protests. At the apex of my career as a creative director managing five leading-edge innovators, being involved in a plethora of engaging projects with my colleagues at Great Smoky Mountains Association and in the National Park Service, how could I begin to think about taking on such a project?

The next day, I found myself at the creek again with a yellow legal pad and a pen. I filled six and a half pages with a story draft, and about six more with detailed notes. I created an outline for eight chapters, drew a crude map, and charted out personality types for 16 characters of various species. This was just the beginning: For the next six weekends, I typed on my computer, finishing the narrative of a children’s story in early May, now one year ago.

But it wasn’t just for kids! I was writing something that my mother and I would have enjoyed reading to one another when I was about age 11 or 12. And I was including humor, allusion, and allegory that epitomized my education as an English Literature major and would appeal to others who love great books with a journey motif.

A Search for Safe Passage tells the story of best friends Bear and Deer who grew up together on the North side of a beautiful Appalachian gorge. In the time of their grandparents, animals could travel freely on either side of a fast-flowing river, but now the dangerous Human Highway divides their home range into the North and South sides.

Many animals have died on the Human Highway trying to follow the ancient trails. So, to keep everyone safe, Turtle, the elder, has created a law forbidding anyone to try to cross, and a Forest Council has been formed to look for solutions. Hawk and Owl scout the area each day for other ways to travel from North to South, with no luck. But on the night of a full moon, two strangers arrive from the South with news that will lead to tough decisions, a life-changing adventure, and new friends joining in a search for safe passage.

To book’s illustrator is Emma DuFort, a publications specialist on my staff at Great Smoky Mountains Association. This is her first book to design and illustrate, and I’m so thrilled with the result of all her efforts from May 2020 through January of 2021. She rendered my characters with perceptive grace, understanding them as dignified, smart, and sensitive and conveying this in her anatomically accurate portrayals.

The story is fiction, but it is based on the real-life problem. The setting is a microcosm of the Pigeon River Gorge, a beautiful, wild landscape with a treacherous highway bisecting ancient wildlife corridors. In the back of the book is an interpretive section about the real-life animals and their actual wildlife crossing needs.

And there is also a song: Safe Passage: Animals Need a Hand. It came together through a songwriting retreat with Jonathan Byrd of White Cross, North Carolina. I’m getting ready to produce a music video of the song performed by the Asheville band The Fates, who performed it in March on Jonathan Byrd’s Shake Sugaree Americana Residency. My dear friend Laura Rod in Lausanne, Switzerland, just made a wonderful video of her band, Smile, doing a Laura Nyro-esque version of the song with a completely different melody than the one I originally composed. I welcome others to record their own versions so it can become an anthem for the wildlife crossing movement.

All the while I was preparing the book for publication by GSMA, I was supporting the collaborative effort to collect data, plan, and help implement wildlife crossings along the dangerous 28-mile stretch of highway in western North Carolina and east Tennessee. On February 25, the public became aware of Safe Passage: The I-40 Pigeon River Gorge Wildlife Crossing Project. Six partners—The Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains Association, National Parks Conservation Association, North Carolina Wildlife Federation, and Wildlands Network—have made it possible for donations to be collected for future road mitigation and wildlife crossing structures via a fund at

Through all this work, I have come to the realization that humans must refuse to accept roadkill as a natural part of traveling in our modern world. There are viable and affordable solutions that have succeeded all over the planet—and the time has come to do something about this issue in our biologically diverse Southern Appalachian landscape.

If this work interests you, here are many articles where you can read more about road ecology and the work being done in the Pigeon River Gorge. You can purchase A Search For Safe Passage at If you would like to buy it with a bookplate signed by me and illustrator Emma DuFort, you can call 865.436.7318 Ext 226 and the awesome folks at the GSMA warehouse will take your card number and ship you a signed copy.

“Anyway… Beep Beep”

29 Sep

My Uncle Jack, my dad’s youngest brother, was my hero. Born November 9, 1940, he died today, September 29, 2020, just a few weeks shy of his 80th birthday.

Jack and Mary Nelle, his wife of 54 years, loved each other dearly—and they lived for adventures together. They were the first couple I heard of taking dancing lessons together back in the ’70s. When I was a kid, one of my earliest memories was getting to ride in their big camper trailer when they came up from the Texas Hill Country to visit us in Eastern Kentucky. I liked to hang out in the part of the camper that stuck out over the cab and pretend that I, too, was setting off on an exciting trek across the country.

As a youngster or later in life, whenever I visited, Jack and I would always scan the East Texas backroads for Roadrunners, his and my favorite shared bird. He would organize a day of what he called “Tex-sploring,” showing his guests all around the area near Bastrop. He’d always take me to Winchester, TX, since I’m from Winchester, KY.

Back in 2011, when Jack and Mary Nelle lost their Hill Country home and pine-tree-laden acreage burned to the ground in the Texas wildfires, I remember his voice on the phone sounded calm and confident: “We are doing just fine. We are survivors. We will miss the wildlife that came to visit us in our forest. But all the things we lost… it was just stuff. It was easier than having a garage sale!” Resilient and hopeful for the future, they rebuilt their new home on the same spot a few years later.

When my mother died in 2012, Jack came for the funeral and the wake—and all my friends really loved getting to know him. It meant so much to have an actual family member there.

When he lost Mary Nelle in May of 2016, he carried on with an ever-positive attitude, and continued to devote himself fully to creating as wholesome a life as he possibly could for his grandchild, Cheyenne, as well as her extended family.

Three years ago, John and I visited Austin and spent two nights and three days with Jack and Tabby, Cheyenne’s other grandparent. It was she who called me first thing this morning with the news that Jack had died in his sleep. I am so glad that Jack and John got to meet and know each other’s goodness of spirit.

Jack and I talked every few months. Lately he had mentioned a desire to go back to a favorite destination from his past, Mexico, and to visit Panama and possibly retire there. But he also hoped to stay at the bank where he worked part-time until he could beat the record of someone who had served there into his 90s. Ultimately, his strong love for and commitment to Cheyenne, now in seventh grade, kept him from flying off to another destination.

Today, new trees are beginning to grow and the animals are returning to Jack’s Hill Country homesite. He called me this past weekend and I sat on our front porch in the sunshine and listened as he talked again of a yen for travel. He had just purchased a new RV so that he could safely take Cheyenne on the road during COVID-19. We fantasized about a road trip in which the two of them would visit us here in East Tennessee, hang out on our six-acre mountain property, and I could take Cheyenne horseback riding, something she is getting really good at these days.

Jack’s favorite connector word in his dialog was, “Anyway…” He said it liltingly, with the first syllable up high, and the others down low about an octave. Those who know him heard it a hundred times during a conversation. It reminds me of my grandmother, Jack’s mother, who had a wonderful Pennsylvania Dutch accent.

I have reflected on that word, “Anyway,” today while grieving, and I think it encapsulated Jack’s attitude toward life. He met with many disappointments and heartaches, but he always tried not to dwell on them, to move on, not focus on sadness, and to look forward to the future. When we ended the conversation, we both said, “Love you!”

The Roadrunner will always symbolize my Uncle Jack for me. He knew that, and sometimes he would say, “Beep Beep!” Always a traveler, he is on a big journey now and I wish him godspeed. I will never forget his voice, much like my own father’s, yet somehow more vulnerable. And I can imagine him saying to me now from somewhere bright and full of promise, “Anyway… Beep Beep!”


Post Script: I had a post card of this Road Runner by Charley Harper tucked into a box of items I had planned to send to Jack in a few weeks. I had sent him many old photos and other family heirlooms in recent months.  

Freed from the Lyrical Labyrinth at Last

24 Aug

Growing up in Eastern Kentucky in the mid-’70s, my constant companion was a small portable Sony AM/FM radio. By the time I turned 11, it was always tuned to the rock-n-roll station in Lexington, WKQQ, then found at 98.6 on the dial. 

I can distinctly recall listening to The Who, The Stones, Elton John, James Taylor, Carole King, Kansas, Fleetwood Mac, and so many others while swinging on our front porch, looking out across the grounds of Boones Creek Baptist Camp. I did this sometimes during rainstorms, when I would kick the swing higher and higher to the beat of Abba, Boston, Queen or Thin Lizzy and watch from my rock-n-roll chariot as the wind shook the trees, who became, in my imagination, large green bears dancing in time to the songs. 

Perhaps in part thanks to me always playing the mono radio’s scratchy music, my parents allowed me to take up residence in an “apartment” on the downstairs floor of our two-story stone home, which was in essence a “parsonage” provided by the collection of 31 Southern Baptist churches for which my father was the associational missionary. My room had its own door to the outside, which brought with it an inherent responsibility to stay inside after dark, which I would not shirk until several years hence.

The tiny radio was not the most sophisticated system on which to listen to the plethora of classic and southern rock titles The Q was hurtling at me over the airwaves. Often it was all but impossible to hear the words of the songs clearly. One night I heard a song with a catchy tune and beat, but the lyrics mystified me. Memory is fuzzy here, but I believe I was either getting ready to leave the house for an event or was about to fall asleep, so I didn’t get to hear the name of the song or the artist, but this is what I thought I heard:

Lay down in the back seat
Crank up the trust and give some
Let’s give it everything we got just one more time

I was only 12 or 13, but I knew what older kids were doing in the back seats of cars on dates. Would a rock group really talk about this behavior overtly in a rock song, especially with a guy asking a girl to “give” him “some”? The question persisted in my mind, though I never heard the song again.

But this essay is more about how the mind works than about sex in the back of a vehicle. Because I can honestly say that on some foggy layer of conscious thought, the first few words of that song and its tune have stayed with me all those years, though the mystery of what was actually sung and who sang it remained unanswered. I never remembered the rest of the chorus, so didn’t have a hook to latch onto. Yet, at the same time, learning the answer was never a pressing issue, so I never actively pursued it—even when a couple of decades later the pervasiveness of the internet conceivably made that possible—even easy. 

I suppose it is every singer–songwriter’s dream, that the chorus of their song would just stick in the mind of the listener like glue. What is so fascinating to me is that the recess of my mind that recorded the memory of those notes and the words I attached to them (though constantly arguing with myself that they couldn’t have been right) stayed as accessible as if I had just heard the song last week or last month—for more than 40 years. Yet it was not something that troubled me enough to actually take any action. It was like an old photograph of a high school friend, a sly smile frozen in time. 

Fast forward to a weekday lunch last week. Now age 56, I no longer carry around a transistor radio, but do often watch rock-n-roll documentaries during the noon hour in order to make myself take a legitimate break while working from home. On a video history of the Allman Brothers, someone must have said the words “lay down a backbeat,” and it was like a switch flipped in my mind and I suddenly saw my exit from the lyrical labyrinth. Of course, I’ve heard the term “backbeat” before, but maybe never in tandem with the words “lay down.” I hit pause, googled those words, and this is what I found: 

So, lay down a back beat
And crank up your trusty Gibson
Let’s give it everything we got just one more time
Lovin’ the life we’re livin’
Playin’ that Georgia rhythm
Nothin’ else ever made me feel so fine

I immediately found and played on YouTube, then Spotify, the tenacious song that had stayed with me all those years, “Georgia Rhythm,” recorded by the Atlanta Rhythm Section! And a more-than-40-year mystery was solved. 

What intrigued me was not that the knowledge of this song in itself was so earthshaking, but that I could so clearly remember the tune and faux words of a song I heard only once when I was a preteen just launching my long-term relationship with music of every kind. Over the years, whenever it entered my consciousness, I always thought, “I wonder if I’ll ever find that song.” Now that I have, it’s like emerging from a labyrinth that was actually a fun and mysterious part of my life. I’d love to tell the guys from the Atlanta Rhythm Section what a lasting impression their song made on a young girl in East Kentucky for whom music has to this day remained a powerful and inspiring creative force.


POSTSCRIPT: As you may have noticed, I rarely get the chance to post on this site anymore. If you want to keep up with what I am doing, and help support the Smokies at the same time, consider joining Great Smoky Mountains Association. You’ll receive the print magazine I edit in the mail twice a year and get emails with articles that are posted on our Smokies LIVE virtual magazine. If you can’t spare the $35, just let me know if you want to be on our free email list. 

Keep listening!

Free Goats – Mid July update

21 Jul
Mid July update: the goats are doing well and there is a brown baby not visible in this shot.

Last fall, my husband and I were driving up to Wolf Laurel in Madison County, North Carolina, to a post-Thanksgiving gathering. Around a bend in the road we encountered a group of five small goats—four white and one black—running in our path. “Whose are you guys?” I mused while shooting a short video of them. The goats, who were wearing bright red collars, leapt off the road, trotted up a hill and disappeared into the forested landscape as we passed by. Later, one of our group said they thought these particular goats belonged to someone in the area, and perhaps had gotten loose. 

Although goats are often “kept” by people for their milk, meat, fur and skins—or even just as pets—their cloven-hooved ancestors once roamed free. Today’s common goat is probably descended from a beast called the bezoar ibex—a wild bovid that still clambers around the rocks in certain parts of the Middle East and likely dates back to the prehistoric period; the earliest known remains of goats were found in Iran. Capra aegagrus hircus was one of first animals to be domesticated by humans about 9,000 years ago when Neolithic farmers started herding them for their milk and meat, and to use their dung for fuel. 

Goats are extremely gregarious social animals and love to be with others of their kind or with any other animal so as to form a hierarchy and structure within which to carry out their complex and often humorous shenanigans. They possess high intelligence, are extremely aware of even minor changes in their routine or surroundings, and have an astounding memory. I know because, once upon a time, I had three goats. 

Back in the early 1990s, I had a job at a newspaper and lived in a rambling old farmhouse between Winchester and Lexington, Kentucky. I shared this well-preserved turn-of-the-century manor with several roommates, each of whom had his or her own large room and fireplace; we heated with wood and propane. Maybe it was over-zealous joy at having my own cool pad in the country or maybe I wanted to make life more complex than it needed to be: I’m not sure how it started, but a got a yen for goats. I found and bought three young kids—two brown males and a white female—for a very modest price, carrying them home in the back of my teal Geo Metro; they were so small, it was a perfect fit. Being an English major, I named them Virgil, Dante and Lysistrata—those of you with the interest can probably discern why. When it was time to take the two males to be castrated, the vet at first was going to perform this necessary act sans any anesthesia, as was the typical practice for livestock. But I insisted these were pets, and deserving of any decency due a cat or dog.

A couple of seasons were spent delighting in the goats and their cavorting antics. They loved to “dance” with me by jumping towards me with their stubby horns and butting up against my hips. It seemed to be their form of a hug. We fed them hay and sweet feed from Southern States and they frolicked in a large fenced-in area inside which a large pink doghouse-like enclosure served as both shelter and jungle gym. I cannot remember why it was pink; maybe that was a paint color from one of the rooms and we had some to spare. What I do recall is that the goats’ primary pastime was escaping the fence—which had actually been built by some farmer, years back, and was now vulnerable to the goats’ tenacious ingenuity at many junctures. Sometimes we would come home to find “the goaters” nibbling smugly on the plastic that we had painstakingly used to cover the farmhouse windows for warmth during winter; other times we would find them skipping and capering through our vain attempt at a vegetable garden, having ravaged the freshly grown lettuce, beans, corn and potatoes. They never really wanted to go far, but they did want to use their smarts to sassily obtain their freedom. They wanted to frisk, gambol and romp their way to exercising free will. 

After what I realize now was probably only a few months of this, it became clear that my three prancing critters named for literary legends would be happier and better cared for on an actual farm than at a farmhouse full of young writers, designers, teachers and social workers who were gone all day and didn’t know the first thing about making a goat-proof fence. So I loaded the now much larger goaters up, bleating and baaing, into the Geo Metro and drove them about 20 miles to my good friend’s well-fenced acreage on Wills-Rupard Road in the community of Trapp, near where I had grown up. Here they were welcomed into a complex social structure that included cattle, horses, mules, pigs and a family of other goats. The addition of Virgil, Dante and Lissie brought the herd to a dozen goats in all; we adoringly referred to them as the twelve disciples. 

Any time I visited them, although they hadn’t seen me in years, my goats would recognize me as soon as I got out of my vehicle—even when I had graduated to a Toyota RAV4—and would greet me enthusiastically with plaintive baas and hip butts. It was great fun to go visit them and all the other farm animals my friend kept in her care. A few years into the goats’ tenure there, a pack of coyotes attacked and killed half the Wills-Rupard herd, leaving only hooves, horns, beards and a few other select pieces behind. My three goats, who were now some of the larger and stronger members of the group, made it through this natural atrocity physically unscathed, yet apparently emotionally shaken from the trauma of seeing their comrades slaughtered. 

Over the years, as I traveled farther from home, my visits grew less and less frequent, but I always knew the goats were in good hands, and eagerly absorbed any news about them. Years later, Virgil, who had grown the longest horns, died suddenly of unknown causes in his teens; the vet said it was possibly a heart attack. Both Dante and Lissie lived into their 20s; Dante, who for some reason grew only nubs for horns, finally passed away only a few years back. 

Not long ago, my husband and I were traveling Highway I-26 from our home in Flag Pond, Tennessee, down to Asheville. Climbing up the mountain to what’s known as Sam’s Gap, we spotted some color and movement on a field adjacent to a runaway truck ramp. Three white and one black furry bodies basking in the sunlight and dining on green grass: It was the Wolf Laurel goats! They were missing one of their white cohorts, but these four still sported their red collars and looked healthy and happy. 

We’ve been seeing them up there for almost a month now, living on their own, not near any shepherding caretakers or fenced lands. Sometimes during the day they are grazing the open field, but early in the morning or closer to nightfall, they can be seen high up in the rocky outcrops and out on the dizzying precipices of the high-elevation pass, acting like true mountain goats. 

However wonderfully they may have been treated by the humans who kept them in the past, the Wolf Laurel goats followed their instincts and their intellects and chose a home on their own. They took risks to get there, crossing several miles of various properties, and losing one of their herd mates, which I know is a painful thing for them. No one knows exactly how far they traveled or how many roads they may have crossed. But they are doing what they want to do. No longer burdened by the perpetual desire to be escape artists, they are fending for themselves, living the life they choose—at whatever cost, for however long. 

Early in the morning, sometimes late at night, I wonder about their fate. How long can these rogue goats keep up their tenuous livelihood on the edge of the cliff beside a busy highway? I expect to one day find some disaster has befallen them. But I delight to know that, at least for now, they are free.



Keep Rocky Fork Wild: Raise Your Voice by December 11

10 Dec

I invite you to step away from the holiday hype and marketing madness for a moment and imagine your own favorite forest, your most treasured slice of nature, in your mind’s eye. It might be in a mountain setting, beside a lake, waterfall or river, in the US or in another country. Maybe it’s a place you knew in your childhood, or maybe you go there every weekend. It might be on your own property, or in a state or national park. Go there in your mind right now.

Imagine relaxing in this special space, where a stream gurgles over rocks nearby. Hear the sounds of the rushing water and the birds, insects, frogs and other wildlife around you. Feel the exquisiteness of the air, made fresh by the moisture of the water, the smells of the pine needles and wildflowers. See the butterflies and birds flitting around you; feel the cool earth beneath your feet and the solidity of the rocks on which you stand.

Now, imagine that the natural sounds of your special outdoor place are silenced by the roar of engines, the scrape of metal on rock, and the screeching of dozens of bulldozers that have suddenly appeared on the scene. The ground around you is trembling in an upheaval of rock and soil, trees begin to fall, and the stream is filled with dirt. You cry out but no one can hear your voice over the sounds of destruction.

Up in Rocky Fork by Joye Ardyn Durham

Biodiversity threatened
When I moved with my new husband to Unicoi County, Tennessee a few years ago, I fell in love not only with him and his handmade homestead, but also with the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork Watershed, my own new special place and practically in our backyard.

Part of Cherokee National Forest, this watershed has been studied by scientists as a biodiversity hotspot for the Appalachians. It is a haven for black bear, Peregrine Falcons, many threatened bat and salamander species, the endangered star-nosed mole and woodland jumping mouse, blue ghost and synchronous fireflies, and delicate pink and yellow lady slipper orchids among hundreds of other wildflowers. These fragile species will soon be in peril due to loss of habitat, so I’m asking you to help by making some short comments online in the next two days!

Here’s what is happening
Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation announced in November its plans to replace Rocky Fork’s iconic natural entrance with a modern visitor center plus parking, an auto bridge across Rocky Fork Creek, and a 24-foot-wide, 17-percent-grade road cut into Flint Mountain, ostensibly for access to an overlook and “primitive campground.” But rumor has it that an RV campground will come later, facilitated by this large road, even though officials say there is no plan for RVs “at this time.”

“The plan presented would have a huge effect on the entrance to the park, also the entryway to the rest of the tract,” says John Beaudet, volunteer trail builder and maintainer on the Appalachian Trail and in Rocky Fork. “The beautiful scene as we turn into the park—a small field backed by woods to the right, Rocky Fork Creek flowing down the center, and the steep slope of Flint Mountain reaching down to the creek on the left—would be destroyed. If this is done, Rocky Fork will never be the same.”

Proposed placement of the visitor center would decimate one of the tract’s few natural wetlands—the habitat of synchronous fireflies, star-nosed moles and important plant species. This new “road to nowhere” would subject the creek to excessive runoff, flooding and sedimentation, degrading water quality for trout habitat and human users downstream.

Are fireflies important?
Although insects such as lightning bugs are not federally protected species, they do represent a charismatic draw for tourism and should therefore be preserved. Their hatching and mating grounds are right where the state wants to put its new visitor center. If these areas that host the fireflies are destroyed, we will be plowing under a bioluminescent miracle that could propel the park to national fame.

Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Radim Schreiber

Lynn Faust has been doing firefly research in the Appalachians for past 27 years, and is the author of many peer reviewed papers and the book Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs. In her comments to the state, she calls Rocky Fork “a lovely new park with wonderful yet fragile diversity of plants and animals all packed in a small, narrow vulnerable area. Surely a more appropriate solution to honoring and preserving this unique place is to build facilities down in Flag Pond and perhaps shuttle (with electric or something innovative) visitors up to the creek, trails and firefly area instead of destroying the most beautiful wetland and vulnerable and rich areas by earthmoving and habitat destruction, which will forever change and impact the very area you want to showcase.”

Why is this happening?
Biologist Frosty Levy was a member of the RFSP steering committee, with meetings organized by the state and held approximately once every two months. This committee included representatives from the US Forest Service, Unicoi County Commission, Appalachian Trail Conference, Mountain Bikers, Upper East Tennessee Backcountry Riders, East Tennessee State University, and TDEC. “Without exception, all supported the concept of a primitive, low-development park,” he says. “None were in favor of road development within the park. None favored RV sites. Instead, to spur economic development in the county, all favored private development in the surrounding area of campgrounds, B&Bs, food establishments, etc.”

So why is this happening? Apparently it is believed that developing roads in the tiny park will allow it to be like the Smokies, which is 250 times the size of Rocky Fork State Park. Unicoi County wants to use this fragile ecosystem for economic gain, when developing outside the park to capture visitors would be the best way to keep the asset intact.

As it is now, Rocky Fork State Park has what it takes to attract a huge piece of the global tourism market: ecotourists, who are willing to pay up to three times more for the quality experience that comes from visiting a rustic, biodiverse park. Unicoi County can derive far greater economic benefit by keeping Rocky Fork underdeveloped and marketing it in a way that no other park in Tennessee can be marketed—as one of the last remaining pristine wildlife refuges in Southern Appalachia—than if it allows the state to carve out just one more overdeveloped playground.

It’s everyone’s park, so please help!
Rocky Fork is public land that belongs to everyone in every state. About $15,000,000 is to be spent on this construction with no public input, but for the next two days TDEC is accepting public comments on its plan. If the state hears from enough concerned citizens that the park should not be over-developed, the tides could turn.

Our hope is that the public will speak up and demand that the state slow down, allow public input to help shape the plan for the park, and ensure that we “get it right” while we still have the chance. Public comments on the plan are being accepted through December 11 here. 

By the Light of the Fireflies

12 Jun

It was Thursday, May 18, 2017. Dark was falling and a storm was in the air. My husband John and I, along with our good friend Taylor, were traveling south along Tennessee Highway 352, back to our home in Flag Pond from Johnson City, where we had been to a Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy fundraiser. Though it had been a long week and we were all tired, we were deep in conversation about the most important topic on our collective mind: our backyard, Rocky Fork.

The 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed—roughly a fifth of which recently became Tennessee’s newest state park, the rest remaining part of Cherokee National Forest—has been inventoried and studied by scientists as a biodiversity hotspot for the Appalachians. Its cove forest and pristine mountain streams are home to Peregrine Falcons, the Yonahlossee salamander, the woodland jumping mouse, and delicate pink and yellow lady slipper orchids. The property is also part of the Unicoi Bear Sanctuary and lies within an Audubon Important Bird Area.

Taylor, John and I were talking about the fact that, although the tract was spared from being purchased by trophy-home developers a decade ago, it might now face another threat just as damaging to its fragile ecosystem. The park, which currently has no facilities and only limited parking, is accessed via a narrow one-lane paved road, tightly wedged between the gorgeous Rocky Fork Creek on one side and steep-sloping rocky embankments on the other. We were soon to pass this road en route to our house. Rumor had it that this enchanting corridor that led into our favorite slice of Appalachian Heaven on Earth might soon be widened to support the passage of huge RVs and that a large campground with all the amenities might be built there to accommodate up to 60 of them.

“Let’s go up in Rocky Fork for a minute,” Taylor suddenly suggested when we were about a mile from the turn. “I think the habitat could be perfect up there for Blue Ghost Fireflies.”

Not putting much stock in the possibility—and quite honestly not really knowing there were different kinds of lighting bugs to be found—I conceded. John, who had seen the creatures a few times on the Appalachian Trail, was intrigued. Taylor described Phausis reticulata and told us what to look for. We drove in a little ways on what John and I refer to as “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” until Taylor said, “Okay, stop here, and turn off all the lights.” We complied and, in a few moments, our eyes began to adjust to the darkness.

And there, back a bit off the road, in the trees on a craggy bank near the gushing Rocky Fork Creek, I saw a group of 20 or so tiny lights moving around and toward us, somewhat like one might expect an inquisitive fairy colony to do. They weren’t exactly blue, but they did seem ever so ghostly, yet in a friendly way.

We made our way to the park’s entrance where, in an open area that used to be the field-like yard in front of an old homestead, we noticed a different small group of fireflies were blinking off and on, sometimes seemingly in unison. After watching them for a while, Taylor realized these must be the emerging Synchronous Fireflies that we all knew created one of the most exciting and fabulously popular displays each year in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The next night, John and I returned to Rocky Fork, this time entering the park and checking the newly created parking lot area for fireflies. And what we saw now nearly blew our minds. In the woods right in front of us were hundreds of the same Blue Ghosts we had seen on the paved road the night before. These seemingly sentient little beings moved around each other slowly, some coming curiously closer to us, keeping their friendly lights on for minutes at a time, reminding me of the fictional Eywa, the shimmery-light-clad ancestors who would occasionally visit the characters in the movie Avatar.

Off to our right, in the open field where we had heard the park’s new visitor center might be constructed, more Synchronous Fireflies had gathered than the night before, and their rhythm (six flashes in unison, then all dark) had gotten stronger, more in sync. The flashy mating ritual of Photinus carolinus was unfolding before our eyes, and our first rational thought was that we couldn’t wait to tell Taylor, then Tim and Jesse, our friends the park ranger and park manager. We knew they would be thrilled that our park had these amazing creatures—just like the Smokies!

That spring, during the four to six weeks of the two species’ peaks, Taylor, John and I were obsessed, burning the candle at both ends, seizing every opportunity to visit with our newfound insect friends, getting to bed after midnight each night, and rising early the next day to meet all our responsibilities so we could do it all over again. Rocky Fork State Park became more than just our Shangri-La; it was a wonderland of mystical lights, and we delighted in an ancient dance preserved through ages of genetic code.

Synchronous and Blue Ghost fireflies in Rocky Fork State Park


Having made my living as a writer and editor, foreshadowing is rarely lost on me.

Not long after Taylor, John and I discovered that Rocky Fork had the charismatic fireflies, I got an interview for a new job, and a few months later was asked to be the publications director for Great Smoky Mountains Association, an important nonprofit partner to the most visited park in the U.S., the park known for its fireflies. Since then, I’ve learned a tad of the science behind the glowing creatures. I’ve talked to experts like Will Kuhn, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, who explains that “bioluminescence is the process fireflies use to create light. These biological processes are the result of millions of years of evolution and are extremely efficient—much more so than light bulbs.” There are 19 species of fireflies known to exist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Lynn Frierson Faust, author of Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs, has identified 24 different species on her farm near Knoxville.

But for me, the science is secondary to another kind of message invoked by being in the presence of the fireflies. I’m reminded of a passage from one of my favorite writers, David Brill, from his book As Far As the Eye Can See, that describes two kinds of AT thru-hikers. The peak-baggers “viewed completing the Appalachian Trail as a Spartan feat that would enhance their sense of machismo without reconfiguring their attitudes or values.” But the other camp were “those intent on savoring the trail experience… They tended to measure the miles in terms of quality—of events and experiences—rather than quantity. These were the hikers who… learned and grew the most while on the trail.”

The scientists of future generations will probably speak of our time in history as the era when homo sapiens became so disconnected from nature that we romanticized and objectified it as something totally different and apart from ourselves. More than 80 percent of the world’s 7.5 billion people now live in urban areas and experience the natural world mostly through artificial constructs like educational television series and movies (like Avatar) about humans having adventures in forests and jungles, and on rivers and oceans. Rather than surviving sustainably on the landscape for 70,000 years like our cave-dwelling Neanderthal predecessors, we have industrialized, digitized and cyber-sized ourselves out of balance with what is left of our wild spaces in just a few centuries!

Yet there is at least one place where modern humankind still has an opportunity to coexist with nature. In the U.S. alone, our 58 national parks and more than 10,000 state parks provide us with some of the last refuges in which to create a harmonious balance with the plants and animals of planet Earth. Visitors to the 520,000-acre haven of wilderness in the Smokies and the 2,058 acres of Rocky Fork State Park alike represent some of the few human beings who still seek to physically connect with nature in some tangible and meaningful way.

The trick of the firefly light is a complex topic about which many books and papers have been written. But the light also communicates something intangible that cannot be explained by measurements and algorithms. My feeling when in their presence is that the fireflies represent an ecosystem that still has some semblance of balance, even though we have likely reached the tipping point beyond which humans can no longer live in harmony with nature.

It’s a language beyond words, but if I had to give it some, I’d pick: hope, mystery, love and acceptance that transcends death and the millennia.

Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Radim Schreiber. See more images at


Irony rarely escapes me either.

Much has changed since last spring. Because we shared last year’s findings with Tim and Jesse, thousands of park visitors are also excited to come and see the species in action. Thus our own viewings of Phausis reticulata and Photinus carolinus in the park two miles from our home have been drastically curtailed. Rocky Fork State Park closes at dusk, and so unless we were lucky enough to score a ticket to a park-sanctioned firefly-viewing event in the five minutes during which they sold out on June 1, we cannot regularly visit our flashy floating friends this season.

But our concern remains that the habitat of these and many other fragile species may be in peril, and that those who love the diversity of Rocky Fork as we do might not get the chance to learn about the state’s plans for the park until it is too late to have a voice in the matter. Our greatest fear is that well-meaning politicians seeking the boon of economic development for our community would inadvertently destroy much of what makes this fledgling new park unique. If its beautiful entry corridor and parkland can remain pristine with only primitive camping and no large-scale development, with vision and foresight from local leaders, Rocky Fork has what it takes to attract a huge piece of the global tourism market: ecotourists, who are willing to pay up to three times more for the quality that comes from a rustic, biodiverse park experience.

While we wait for officials in Nashville to let us and other friends of the park in on whatever plans they have in store, we hope our discovery may be somehow fortuitous. If our sharing of the news of these species means that “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” can be spared the ravages of huge construction equipment and that a large visitor center might now not be destined for the woods and field that host the hatching and mating grounds of the Synchronous Fireflies and their Blue Ghost neighbors, then all will be well that ends well.

We will be the lightning bug viewers who valued the quality of our experiences rather than the quantity—and used the light of the fireflies to see our way to save them, at least for a little while.

Blue Ghost exposure by Radim Schreiber. See more images at

Who wants to read a book about grief?

23 Feb

Caregiving and death are topics often avoided in modern conversation. It’s much easier to stay busy, push down our feelings and focus on conducting our daily lives than to talk about these stressful and emotion-laden experiences. Also, in the face of deep loss, we can tend to believe that to “get over it” would be to dishonor the dead. Often, many years later, people are still hurting and carrying destructive feelings—staying “stuck” in the infancy of their grief.

The truth is, not only is it okay to talk about caregiving and death, by doing so, we can allow our grief to mature and, eventually, actually finish it. This allows us to move on with our lives in a healthy way, gaining new wisdom and strength through which we can actualize our dreams and visions in the world, all the while honoring the person who has transitioned out of this realm.

Hydrangeas on Porch illustration by Linda Santell

Hydrangeas on Porch illustration by Linda Santell

Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die is a collection of autobiographical essays inspired by being my mother’s caregiver in Kentucky in the years leading up to her death in 2012. It explores the emotions of caregiving and grief, chronicles my transition to a new life in Western North Carolina and details my process of letting go so that a time of healing and self-actualization could replace sadness and loss.


For several years in the late 2000s, I lived alternately in Costa Rica and New Brunswick, Canada, as the partner of a kayak tour operator I met through my work in ecotourism. Feeling that I’d found the love of my life, I was swept up in an international experience full of adventure and romance.

Back in the states, my mother was approaching 80 and becoming weakened by the combination of a leaky heart valve and a chest wall damaged years before by a radical mastectomy and cobalt radiation. I realized that, in order to be true to myself, I needed to transition away from the exotic life of travel, and back to what I felt was a much more mundane existence: living with my mom in my old hometown of Winchester, Kentucky.

I started a blog so that I would not lose touch with my writing or my large network of friends and travel industry colleagues. What began as simply being around to lend a hand morphed into the role of caregiver—and the blog became an outlet for stress and, eventually, a way to come to terms with my mother’s passing.

Flash forward to late 2015. By now I had moved to Asheville and was talking one night with one of my new friends who had also experienced a loss. She was working through her grief in a yearlong photography project—and I suddenly realized I had done the same thing through my blog. In effect, I had already written a book without knowing it!

The light over the Appalachian Mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina paints the sky with the setting sun.

The light over the Appalachian Mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina paints the sky with the setting sun. ~Joye Ardyn Durham

Seasons explores the universal emotions that surround losing a loved one. It begins by traveling through the psychological landscape that marks each season in the initial year of grieving—a process that began for me even before death, with caregiving.


When you are taking care of a person who can’t get better, everything you do or try to do is in vain. You realize “I have no control,” and “There is no way to succeed.” Along the way, a larger understanding sets in: “There is no right way to do this. I am not here to save the day. I am here to love.”

I learned the most important life lesson through taking care of and losing my mom, who, as it turned out, was ultimately the love of my life. I learned, finally, to let go.

Hydrangeas detail by Linda Santell

Hydrangeas detail by Linda Santell

With inspirational quotes, song lyrics and literary references sprinkled throughout, the book is not only my personal account of loss and grief, but also a universal meditation on hope and spirituality. The essays are accompanied by stunning nature photography, colorful illustrations and graphic design elements that take the reader on an introspective journey of healing.

Not everything in the book is about death and sorrow, doom and gloom. There are chapters about following your bliss and meeting fate halfway, so that you can realize lifelong dreams for yourself, both personally and professionally. One chapter is especially for cat lovers!

Buy the book on Amazon.



Press Release

8 Jan

January 8, 2016


CONTACT: Frances Figart

Editor of The Laurel of Asheville Publishes  Collection of Autobiographical Essays

ASHEVILLE, NC (January 8, 2016) —Frances Figart, editor of The Laurel of Asheville, has published a collection of essays that is now available through Amazon and select booksellers. The 92-page illustrated paperback, titled Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die, chronicles a powerful time of crisis, transition and resilience.

In 2010, Figart (pronounced Fié-gert) was running kayak ecotours in Costa Rica and Canada’s Bay of Fundy, swept up in an international travel adventure. Back in the States, her mother was becoming weakened by the combination of a leaky heart valve and a chest wall damaged years before by a mastectomy and cobalt radiation.

“I made the decision to return and care for my mom in my old hometown of Winchester, Kentucky,” says Figart. “So I wouldn’t lose touch with my writing, I started a blog about my experience as a caregiver.”


Beginning just before her mother died and stretching over the last four years, the essays follow Figart’s transition to Asheville and share wisdom gained through caregiving and embracing grief in a healthy way. “Last year, I realized I had written my best essays during this time. It hit me: Why not publish them as a book to honor my mother’s life and help others dealing with loss?”

With inspirational quotes, song lyrics and literary references sprinkled throughout, the book is not only a personal account of loss and grief, but also a universal meditation on hope, spirituality and self-actualization. The essays are accompanied by stunning nature photography, colorful illustrations and graphic design elements that take the reader on an introspective journey of healing.

“If you or someone you know has experienced a loss or change, this book will touch your heart,” says reviewer Leslie Donovan on Amazon. “The beautiful photography and illustrations add to the story of adventure, loss, change and renewal. As a Hospice nurse, I will recommend this book to my patients and families.”



Friday, January 27, at Metro Wines, Asheville, NC, 5–6:30 p.m.

Saturday, February 25, at Gingko Tree Gallery, Black Mountain, NC, 3:30–5:30 p.m.

Part of the proceeds from sales at these events will be donated to a Gatlinburg family who lost their home and pets in the November fires.

Thursday, May 25, at Bentley and Murray, Winchester, KY, 5–7 p.m.

Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die, autobiographical essays, 2016, softcover, $19.95,, by Frances Figart. Learn more at