Life’s mysteries come in varying degrees, some as weighty as religious faith and others as simple as the curiosity caused by strange lights shining on a dark mountainside. In this issue of Smoky Mountain Living, we assigned editors and writers to cover subjects that fall into the latter category, stories that might raise an eyebrow or two among readers.
One of those is the Brown Mountain Lights. It’s one of those spots — like others throughout the world — where people have documented that strange lights mysteriously appear at night. The story, by regular SML contributor Julia Merchant, explores a possible scientific explanation for the phenomenon while also compiling a bit of history about the lights.
The Brown Mountain story brought back personal memories for me. As a student at Appalachian State University in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of our tried and true ways to pass boring winter nights was to drive out to one of the overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway where these lights were supposedly visible. We’d pile out of the vehicles and wander down a path to a rock outcropping, bundle up in blankets and sleeping bags and start searching for the lights while coming up with our own strange stories.
Of course lots of tales crop up about the lights, legends about Indian widows lighting torches to look for husbands killed in battle, or of families lighting torches to look for little girls who have gone missing. In my 10 or so visits to the overlook I don’t think I ever actually saw the lights, but one time there did appear to be a light haze moving in and out among the faraway trees. Who knows?
SML contributor Don Hendershot writes about wildlife and nature for us on a regular basis, and in this issue he lent his expertise to an enlightening story about the animal that is, perhaps, the most mysterious mammal on earth — the bat. Bats have been misunderstood for centuries, but in truth they are harmless to humans and play a vital role in managing the population of insects. A new fungus that is killing thousands of bats has many wildlife experts fearing for the very survival of this species.
Another of the stories that might pique the interest of those attracted to these topics is a profile on the University of Tennessee’s Dr. Bill Bass. He’s a pioneering forensic anthropologist, which is the study of dead and decomposing bodies. What at one time was an obscure field of study has suddenly gained a kind of celebrity status thanks to televisions shows like CSI (Crime Scene Investigation).
Bass has helped FBI investigators solve crimes and is credited with creating the world’s first “body farm” at UT, a place where bodies could be buried and then studied at various points of decomposition in order to attain the scientific knowledge to help solve crimes. He has probably trained more forensic anthropologists than anyone in the world. SML Associate Editor Michael Beadle’s story provides some fascinating insights into Dr. Bass and his field of study.
Of course there’s also the normal diet of stories on the culture and arts of this mountain region. First-time contributor Joe Hooten has written an entertaining profile of well-known East Tennessee musician Scott Miller, and the short story “Proper Respect” by famed North Carolina Writer Fred Chappell showcases his fabulously funny wit and wordplay.
Enjoy, and I’d love to hear from any readers who might have actually seen those lights out off the Parkway.