Tennessee Mountain Stories

Under the Bluff

We have these phrases that we use all the time and I have a hard time knowing what’s our mountain vernacular and what’s common English.  So if you told me there was a spring “under the bluff” I wouldn’t think twice about it and unless I was unfamiliar with the particular piece of land I could go right to that spring. 

After the recent article about water, I was talking with a cousin who hasn’t lived on the mountain in nearly seventy years.  He made that very statement about our grandparents' old place, that they had a spring under the bluff.  Somehow it surprised me to hear him use that particular phrase and it got me to wondering whether that’s regional or widely accepted.

A little internet search for the term “bluff” – which I really thought everyone would know about – yields a definition from Oxford Dictionaries lacking any reference to a rocky overhang.  What do you reckon people call that thing because I think bluffs appear all over the place, not just in the vicinity of the Cumberland Plateau?  Well, “The Free Dictionary” does reference, “a steep promontory, bank, or cliff” so I guess it’s not totally foreign.

The mountain has plenty of bluffs – and they can be a welcome respite in the summer for cool shade, in a rainstorm or blocking the wind on a cold winter’s day.  Our Native American predecessors made good use of them if the arrowheads found under them give any indication. (And maybe you'll remember the story here about the Indian Painting under the bridge rock.)  We even have a story about some men working away from home; their boarding house went up on the rent so they just set up housekeeping under a bluff. 

Water Fall.jpg

Now spending some time under a bluff is not akin to living under a bridge – it’s usually quite nice under the bluff and since bluffs aren’t generally good building sites, most of the ones I can think of are off to themselves in the woods where it’s quiet and there’ll often be water dripping off the roof so you have that gentle sound.  A story about living under a bluff isn’t a sad one really.

If you’ve got a good-sized bluff on your farm it’s also a fine place for keeping stock, especially hogs since they are shorter than cows and these openings are sometimes small.  In the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area there is a bluff where two different families kept their hogs and the fencing around it is still kept intact.

In my latest novel, Plans for Emma, a young man sets up under a bluff for a while and he’s doing just fine at that point.

I want to give special thanks to Scott Philips of Backwoods Adventures for sharing today’s pictures.  If you’re planning a visit to the Big South Fork, Scott can sure show off the bluffs there.

Now I’d love to hear from you – is this still a common expression for you?  If so, be sure to let me know where you live or where you’re from because I’m very curious how far this saying reaches.