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Excerpt from "Sovereign Oak"

For the past several months, I've been working on a historical fiction novel set in the mountains of Western North Carolina where I live. I've tentatively titled it Sovereign Oak. I've finished a first draft and now comes the hard part ... editing. The draft is just over 94,000 words and 281 pages of double-spaced text. I use three historical events that took place within a ten mile radius of my house as the backdrop for a current-day fictional story. I hope to have a final version ready before summer and then I'll see if I can find someone to publish it. Until then, here's a short sample:

Everything in nature is connected; if you harm one thing, you harm everything.

– Cherokee Proverb


It’s not uncommon for temperatures in the North Carolina mountains to creep into the seventies during the month of March. It’s called Fool’s Spring, the first warm spell each year that lulls creatures – human beings included – into thinking that winter is over, and spring has arrived. Inevitably, Fool’s Spring is followed by Second Winter, a sudden cold snap where the temperatures drop below freezing, the wind blows cold, and perhaps some snowflakes will fall.

The mountains normally experience six pseudo seasons between the end of the real winter and the beginning of the actual spring. The cycle begins with Fool’s Spring, which is followed by Second Winter. Then comes the Spring of Deception; a second warm spell where you’re lulled into believing it’s the no kidding, honest-to-god arrival of spring since mother nature already fooled you once. You realize you’ve been fooled again when Third Winter rolls through with chilly, gusty winds and frost. Then comes The Pollening, a period that lasts a few weeks where every surface is blanketed in a gritty yellow film of pollen from the trees, bushes, and weeds springing back to life. And then along comes Mud Season, days and days of rain – often pouring down in biblical proportions – that washes away the pollen, turns the creeks and the rivers brown, makes the red Appalachian clay slick to walk on, and nourishes the plants enabling them to pop when Actual Spring finally rolls in. As the saying goes here in the mountains, if you don’t like the weather, give it an hour.


The bear was four years old. She gave birth to her first cub the year before, a healthy and rambunctious male that was approaching a hundred pounds. She would keep him under her watch for several more months before kicking him out in late summer and forcing him to make his own way in the world. She had kept him close by her side when he was a wee cub oblivious to danger and in need of her constant attention in order to survive in the mountain wilderness. As he grew, she afforded him a wider berth to explore and to begin honing the skills he would need when he had to live on his own, but she made sure he stayed close enough that she could summon him with a loud grunt when she sensed it was necessary for his own good.

The black bears that inhabit the North Carolina mountains don’t hibernate the same way grizzlies and brown bears hibernate in other parts of North America. That’s due primarily to winters in North Carolina not being as cold and prolonged as in the chillier climes where other bears reside. While some bears hibernate for the winter – falling into a state of unconsciousness and sharply reducing their metabolism to conserve energy – black bears sleep in their dens for extended periods and then venture out in search of food when it warms up.

Mom and the yearling had established a den that kept them safe, warm, and dry. It was inside a crevice on the south side of Brushy Mountain, just a few miles outside of where Asheville is situated today. Unless you saw them coming or going from the den, or you happened to spot strands of black hair on the bark of the sourwood tree near the entrance where mom and the yearling paused to scratch their backs when they emerged from the den, you weren’t likely to notice it. The entrance was an opening between two boulders that was just wide enough for mom to squeeze through. Long before the yearling would mature and reach his full adult weight of nearly five hundred pounds, his girth would expand, and it would prevent him from entering the den where he was raised.

Fool’s Spring arrived on time in March of 1784. The yearling awoke first and began to rustle, which nudged mom and brought her out of her weeks long slumber. Her first sensation was a sense of melancholy because she hadn’t given birth to more cubs over the winter. She mated with two male bears the prior summer and she carried two embryos through the fall and into winter, but neither of the embryos attached to her uterine wall to develop into bear cubs. Female black bears often mate with more than one male and give birth to cubs with different fathers and with noticeable differences in their features. One cub might have a black snout, for instance, while his or her sibling has a brown snout because they had different fathers and inherited their different traits. Nature doesn’t allow the embryos to attach if it senses that the mother lacks the weight and the stamina required to get her and her infant cubs through the winter and safely on to spring. The mother bear didn’t know why nature decided she wouldn’t give birth to any cubs that year and she hoped it wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. She realized that before long, when she forced the yearling to go out and start a life of his own, she’d be left there all alone on Brushy Mountain.

The two bears stretched the muscles they hadn’t used in weeks and then shook off the dust that had accumulated on their fur. Mom walked slowly out of the den through the gap between the boulders. The warm sunlight felt especially pleasing after weeks spent in the cold, damp den. A few seconds later, the yearling emerged. He immediately eyed the sourwood tree just a few feet away, walked over to it, stood up on his hind legs, turned around, and vigorously rubbed his back against the coarse sourwood bark. It felt so good that he couldn’t help but utter a low, rumbling growl of sheer delight.

Mom raised her head and stuck her snout up into the gentle breeze. Bears have a keen sense of smell that’s estimated to be three thousand times more sensitive than the human nose. Some folks say that a black bear can smell a ripe apple from twenty miles away. Mom inhaled deeply and held it in for several seconds. She detected acorns that had fallen from the oak trees and beech nuts that had dropped from the beech trees the previous fall. Oak trees and beech trees produce more acorns and nuts once every third year in what is called a “mast” year, a term derived from the Old English word “mæst,” meaning nuts accumulated on the ground from the trees in the forest. An adult black bear consumes about five thousand calories a day during the spring and summer, but it takes in about twenty thousand calories a day during the fall when it forages eighteen to twenty hours a day to bulk up in preparation for winter. Mom recalled the prior year had been a mast year, which had made it easy for her and the yearling to fill their bellies and bulk up.

The rhetorical question asks, “does a bear shit in the woods?” The answer is yes … but they don’t poop or pee in their den while they’re sleeping. It had been several weeks since the bears had set foot outside their den, so both mom and the yearling paused to relieve themselves before heading off in search of food.  

Mom began the slow, meandering descent down Brushy Mountain heading in an easterly direction towards Bee Tree Creek where they could stop for a drink of clear, cold mountain stream water. Her route was in the same general direction as the smoke she smelled emanating from a cabin about a mile away.

The two bears used their claws to dig into rotting trees and to flip over large rocks and tree stumps to look for grubs and insects. They munched on leaves, grass, and acorns as they plodded along on what they thought was their first of many spring journeys to come. They stopped at Bee Tree Creek, bent down, and drank. Mom paused for a moment, raised her snout again, and sniffed. The smell of the smoke from the cabin was stronger and the scent told mom that something delicious was cooking. She decided it warranted a closer look.

The cabin was on the east side of the creek on a slight rise not far from the creekbank. It was a single-pen cabin – a cabin consisting of a single room with a fireplace at one end – which was a common style for those who wanted to build quickly in order to have shelter in place to protect them from the winter weather. Those with enough time and enough help might erect a saddlebag or a dogtrot cabin. A saddlebag consists of two pens built around a chimney located in the center and a dogtrot has a room at each end, each with its own fireplace, with the area in between referred to as the dogtrot. The little cabin was made of rough-hewn oak, pine, and tulip poplar trees. An ax was used to cut a saddle notch near the ends of each log so they could be joined together to secure the corners of the cabin. Straw and clay sealed the seams between the logs to keep out the cold. The roof was made of overlapping rough-cut boards. The chimney was crafted from stacked stones that were held in place with clay that had been excavated from the creekbank. There were no windows, just solid walls on all four sides. The door had a wooden latch and was held in place by leather hinges.

Mom and the yearling walked down the mountain behind the tree line on the west side of the creek and stopped about fifty yards from the cabin, which was a little further below them and over on the other side of the creek. A large scruffy dog was curled up asleep next to the front door. A thin stream of grey smoke rose from the chimney and wandered off in the southerly breeze where it slowly dissipated and then vanished all together. Even though mom and the yearling were upwind, and the smoke was blowing the other way, they noted the warm, earthy smell from the oak wood burning in the fireplace. They detected a sweeter smell too, although they weren’t sure exactly what it was. It was the aroma wafting up from an iron pot hanging over the flames in the fireplace that contained chunks of rabbit and elk mixed with corn and potatoes to concoct a hearty stew.

The yearling was intrigued by the delicious smells and walked out from the tree line and over to the top of the creekbank to a better vantage point. The gentle rustling of the stream provided enough ambient noise that the sound of his movements went undetected on the other side of the creek. Mom and the yearling were upwind of the cabin, so the breeze carried their scents in its direction. A dog’s sense of smell isn’t as keen as a bear’s, but it’s far more sensitive than the human nose. The dog opened his eyes and sniffed. He smelled something, but he didn’t know what it was. He raised his head, sniffed again, and scanned the other side of the creek. He saw the yearling first near the creekbank and then he spotted mom a few yards away over by the tree line. The dog leapt to his feet, started barking, and ran over to the edge of the creek. Mom and the yearling froze. A moment later, the cabin door opened, and a man walked out carrying a gun.  “What’s all the ruckus about?” The man looked to see where the dog was focused, and then he cast his gaze in that direction. As he did, he saw two bears on the opposite side of the creek as they turned and started to run up the hill. He raised his musket, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The sound of the musket firing echoed across the valley. The bears kept running up the hill, turned left, receded into the brush, and disappeared into the forest. As they did, the dog stopped barking and walked over to the man. “Good boy,” the man said as he rubbed the dog’s head, turned around, and walked back inside the cabin.

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