By Lauren Stepp
Howard Tatham Buchanan knew bears. He knew where they holed up in the Nantahala River Gorge and which logging roads to take to find them, even if those logging roads were so washed out that they would snap a truck axle. No matter the costs, he was a hunter. He knew that too.
“He’d see some disturbed dirt, get out and start digging a narrative out of a track—species, direction, size, age of track, stuff like that,” Jim Buchanan writes of his father in Historic Tales of Sylva and Jackson County, a book chronicling the people and places of Western North Carolina. “All I ever saw was disturbed dirt.”
Buchanan will discuss the text, which was a nominee for the 2020 Thomas Wolfe Memorial Literary Award, on Tuesday, July 13, via Zoom as part of the LitCafé series hosted by the Western North Carolina Historical Association (WNCHA).
In many ways, Historic Tales of Sylva and Jackson County is a personal history—a compilation of first-person essays riffing on anything from moonshine to college basketball. “Daddy,” as Buchanan refers to his father, makes many appearances, splitting rails to sell for 75 cents each at the feed ‘n’ seed and dragging his son “deep, deep into the woods” to chase bears. But the book is also a testament to the growing pains mountain folks dealt with during the latter half of the 20th century.
“The text reflects a slice of time as the area was emerging from decades of isolation defined by geography that bound together a homogeneous mountain society,” says Buchanan. “It was a tough place to make a living and a tough place to travel to, but it was tempered by people with a gentle sense of humor. It’s a society that is still suffering a bit of whiplash, going from spinning wheels used to make cloth to spinning wheels at casinos in pretty much the blink of an eye.”
In an essay toward the end of the book, Buchanan muses on the commercialization of mountain culture—how tourists come from lands far, far away to see “lightnin’” bugs and elk in the Smokies or Cherokee Indians posing outside of a tepee on the Qualla Boundary. “A friend and I discussed throwing on overalls and putting up a sign saying, ‘Have Your Picture Taken With A Genuine Hillbilly!’ The idea never gained traction,” Buchanan writes.
Joking aside, the story makes a fair point: mountain life is shifting. Natives need look no further than bear hunting to witness a microcosm of cultural change.
“Bear hunting in days gone by was a chance to explore far-flung areas of WNC,” says Buchanan. “Bears were much rarer and harder to find, and freedom of movement was a good deal easier. Many areas that once took hours of driving and bushwhacking to get to can now be driven to in a passenger car—if you can get through the gate of the development.”
On Tuesday, July 13, from 6–7 p.m., Jim Buchanan will discuss Historic Tales of Sylva and Jackson County as part of WNCHA’s LitCafé series. The virtual event is free for WNCHA members and $5 for all others. For more information, visit WNCHistory.org.