Back to Blog

In Memory of George Ellison

George Ellison, a naturalist, author, longtime columnist for the Asheville Citizen Times and by all accounts a Western North Carolina treasure, died Feb. 19, according to his daughter, Quintin Ellison. He was by any measure the voice of the WNC mountains for at least the past 36 years, penning the weekly “Nature Journal,” detailing the intricate ways of wildlife, especially his beloved birds, the passing of seasons in the mountains and the wonders of nature. — Karen Chávez, Asheville Citizen Times

Written by Brent Martin

The news of George Ellison’s death was not expected. I knew he had been dealing with Parkinson’s for some time, but had not talked to him in over a month. When I had talked to him last, it was mainly through his wife Elizabeth, as I could not understand a great deal of what he was saying. We had not visited in almost a year. Holidays, the new year, too busy as always, the need for a visit with them always in the back of my mind, then the unexpected. Grief was immediate. George had been a strong presence in my life for two decades and this was one of those events in which the impact was profound. I learned immensely from him, as many did, from his particular sense of place and diverse and unparalleled knowledge of his beloved Smokies landscape. But I think I learned more from his way of being. As I write this, I’m listening to Van Morrison and drinking wine. George loved Van Morrison, as well as Steve Earle, Townes Van Zant, and many, many others. When Permanent Camp was released, I organized a reading for him here in Cowee at the Macon Arts and Heritage Center. Elizabeth told me he had to stay with us, as he could not see at night, and that was just fine by me. We’d visited George and Elizabeth many times, staying late occasionally, drinking beer and writing Haikus, one of his favorite ways to pass the time. But on this particular night, we stayed up past 3AM, unaware of how the time was passing. We all woke up hungover the next morning and went birding at Alarka Laurel, one of George’s favorite places. George called in some Golden Crowned Kinglets and we were all bedazzled by how close they approached us. The colors were spectacular, the Appalachian spring as magical as ever. George seemed mesmerized by it all.

When he was writing Back of Beyond, we travelled to Lindale, Georgia, together. Angela and I have roots there, and Horace Kephart had spent time there while living with Bob Barnett. We were on a mission to see what we could find out about Kep’s time there, but found very little. But we oddly found a jazz club in downtown Rome, where the three of us got rip-roaring drunk and danced with strangers. I fell asleep in a chair in George’s hotel room while he read Coleridge out loud. Angela had abandoned me and I stumbled to my room in the wee hours. 

On a more sober note, he was one of the best damn birders I ever knew. The Great Smoky Mountains Birding Expedition was a highlight of every spring, which George and Elizabeth carried on for over thirty years. Two days of serious birding with a not so serious potluck party on the night between. I made great friends through him. And saw lots of great birds.

Once after Parkinsons became a more serious struggle with him, he asked me to help him teach a class on ferns at the NC Arboretum. I knew about a hundredth of what George knew about ferns, but what an opportunity! I loved any opportunity to be with George. His teaching style was full of subtle dry humor, his commitment to the subject was always admirable and palpable, and his approach always personal and honest. I learned to emulate him, or at least try. That day at the arboretum I was worried about him. Elizabeth had asked me to meet him in Sylva and drive him and I did. He wanted to take the class up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to see a large population of sensitive ferns, which required a walk of about a half mile each way. He made it out to the location, but on his way back he tripped and fell hard, his head making direct contact with a large stone. The cut was significant and he was bleeding profusely. When we got him loaded in my car, I told him we had to go to the hospital. He refused. When we left the group at the arboretum, he asked me to stop at a Hot Spot convenience store so he could get a beverage and something to eat. His face and shock of hair was covered with blood, as was his shirt. He would not let me go in for him, so we went in together. I’ll never forget it. The convenience store clerk looked very concerned, but we paid up and I got him to Sylva. He told me not to call Elizabeth after I dropped him off, but of course I did. I followed him to a Walgreens in Bryson City and waited until I saw her arrive. She took him to ER and he got stitched up.

I can’t remember if it was on that drive with him to Sylva or another time, but I know we talked more than once about how to live a life in a way that became consistently bearable. “Practice indifference” was his advice. It really struck me the first time we talked about this and it also struck me that he truly did have a skill with this advice. Maybe it was the Stoics or the Taoists, or any other number of philosophers he’d read, but it didn’t really matter. It was a way of being that he seemed to have some true gift at. Not that he was indifferent, or apathetic, but present to the world and accepting to the way it unfolded. Regardless, I could not practice indifference when I was with him. I practiced reverence, love, and awe. And I cannot be indifferent to his passing. I will miss him so much, and wish that as I grow older I do so with the same grace, humor, and deep commitment to this landscape as he did.

Brent Martin is the author of three chapbook collections of poetry and of The Changing Blue Ridge Mountains: Essays on Journeys Past and Present and George Masa’s Wild Vision: A Japanese Immigrant Imagines Western North Carolina. His poetry and essays have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Pisgah Review, Tar River Poetry, Chattahoochee Review, Eno Journal, New Southerner, Kudzu Literary Journal, Smoky Mountain News and elsewhere. He lives in the Cowee community in Western North Carolina, where he and his wife, Angela Faye Martin, run Alarka Institute.