Growing up in the Piedmont of North Carolina in the 1960s, like many boys of that time period, I participated in Boy Scouting. Our troop was fortunate to have an association with the [retired] NC State University botanist B. W. Wells, and to enjoy the use of his 140 acre tree farm along the Neuse River known as Rockcliff Farm. [He was a truly amazing man, and pioneer in the scientific concept that became known as “ecology”… Links here and here ]
He was a contemporary of my own grandfather, although they had never met, and it was their influences, and their love of all things natural and of the outdoors that set the groundwork for my own enjoyment of just “getting out”.
Burt was already in his 80s when I first knew him, having retired in 1954. But he was spry and energetic and he loved roaming around the property with us to show us all kinds of things, geologic, historical, and biological. Since one of the features of the property was a 50 foot tall rock cliff known as Ziegles Rock that towered over the river, that energy was frequently taxed, but you couldn’t slow Burt down… he continued to walk his beloved Rockcliff Farm until his death at age 94. Because I was one of the older kids, I can remember being taken aside by his wife Maude and being told “Not to let Burt over-do himself”… I don’t remember ever having been able to achieve that goal.
Ziegles Rock– painting by BW Wells… [Wells taught himself painting after his retirement and would gladly give away pieces to admirers… especially women]
Well’s property was a spoon-shaped neck wrapped on three sides by the Neuse River. The Neuse in that section was a slow moving, quiet stream, that even on its best days was a murky brown. Lodged in its bank down beyond Ziegel’s Rock was a 30 foot lumber raft of 24 inch diameter timbers that had run aground in the mud banks while being floated down the river in Civil War times. There were deep red garnets and seams of mica in the cliffs. There were a dozen places on the property that you simply had to go to camp. Each one different from the rest, and each one just as inviting.
For Burt and Maude Wells Rockcliff Farm in the 50s,60s and 70s was rural, remote, and pastoral. The big city of Raleigh was almost 20 miles away. You could hear the birdsongs, see the stars at night, and enjoy the sundial of the seasons. They were kind enough to let a bunch of city boys come out and share that experience through scouting.
Burt was the first person who introduced me to the ideas that you could go “camping” without a lot of gear. What was important was to know bushcraft… how to make a fire, how to make a shelter, how to stay safe… that the experience to be sought was that of the outdoors, not that of taking along all the conveniences of your daily life.
He was one of those “once-in-a-lifetime” acquaintances. Intelligent, articulate, entertaining, knowledgeable, and with a vast store of experiences that he was always more than willing to share. I cannot even begin to describe the many gifts I took away from his company. Even after my time in Scouting, I continued to visit with him and Maude anytime I was back in Raleigh. His death in the late 70s was like losing a second grandfather.
I am currently 20 years younger than Burt was when I met him. Moosenut Falls is my own Rockcliff Farm. I am still in love with the great outdoors, and I owe great deal of that love to the friendship of this man. No matter where I go for my camping experience, Burt, like my old friend Philip and my own Grandad, is always there “just on the other side of the fire”.