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Posts Tagged ‘GSMNP’

[with 3 poems by Patricia Hooper]

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, February 05-07, 2021

the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen . . .

Faint tracks – but when has life ever laid it out plain, an open book, page upon page with footnotes? Aren’t I still searching between the lines, faint traces, no clear prints? Lately I dream every night of making diagnoses, explaining treatments, buffing up my charts. Is Jung telling me that this was my only purpose in life and now it’s over?

Deer walk a diagonal gait – each hoof print is really two impressions, the forefoot overlaid with the rear. If the rear hoof strikes a little lateral within each fore print it means the pelvis is wider = you are following a female.

Don’t plan on seeing a bear in the Smokies in February. Mom is asleep in a hollow tree with her cubs and Dad is dozing under a bush somewhere (he snores), though he might rouse up to forage on a warm afternoon. So why are we studying mammals at Tremont in February? In the sere meadows, the leaf-littered groves, under the pale unforgiving sky the book of all their signs is open for us to read. Let’s hike up to that oak tree and see who’s been scratching for acorns, see who has left us some scat. Let’s follow that faint trail through dry brown stalks to check out predator and prey. Who clawed up this white pine? Who stepped in the mud?

Canids: dog paw prints show deep claw marks with claws of outer toes angled outward; coyote claw marks are less distinct but all aligned strait ahead; gray fox claw marks are the least distinct since they save the claws for climbing trees, and the rear pad looks scalloped like a chevron.

But clear prints are maybe 1% of tracking. We’re learning a new vocabulary of chewed nut and compressed grass. Tracking is patterns and connections, habitats and behaviors. Measure the size of the incisors that gnawed this antler. Measure the bits of skull and femur in this dropping.

And can I learn a new language? Maybe all these dreams are about knitting up the years, tying the last knot, laying it away to pull out when I need to reminisce. Or maybe I need to discover something missed. Life is not disjunctive – the end of every moment flows into the beginning of the next. The assurance of past creates future. Tracking in Cades Cove – a metaphor for opening oneself to an unseen message within, to the evidence of human purpose. Connections, convictions. We track a personal ecology that leaves signs for us to discover, to question, to wonder.

To follow.

Tracks have lead us to this place, maybe with a lesson or two that sunk in along the way. Some wisdom. And the tracks that still lead forward?

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Patricia Hooper’s bright clear poetry touches earth with a feather – to bring color and flight. Garden, feeder, wild crag, starry night, in all seasons she observes the particular and discovers its connection to the universal. Nature is her palette but human nature is the canvas she illuminates. The poems of her latest book, Wild Persistence, taken singly seem to open our eyes to brief moments or localities, but as a whole these poems weave a complex narrative of family, longing, grief, redemption. I find joy in her art.

Patricia moved to North Carolina in 2006 and lives in Gastonia. In 2020 she was awarded the Brockman-Campbell Award of the North Carolina Poetry Society for Wild Persistence, awarded for the year’s best book of poetry by a North Carolina author.

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Elegy for a Son-in-Law

1.

A distant figure on the mountainside
seems to be coming closer, then it turns,
a blue, retreating cap, a scarlet jacket.
Without another sign, I know you’re there,
climbing again the way you used to climb
before you were a ghost. I want to call
Don’t go! Come back! I have your two small sons
sleeping behind me in the car, their mother
watching the sky for falcons. But you move
farther away. Or we do. Now you’re gone,
back toward Mount Sterling where she took your ashes.
I hope it’s peaceful there. I hope you know
they’re doing well. I hope you didn’t see us.

2.
These are the mountains where you were a boy,
broad waves of mountains rolling like an ocean
into the distance, no horizon, only
these smoky contours where you knew each rise
and hemlock forest, plunging stream. Your friends
tell how you often left them for a while
after you’d reached the top, to be alone,
then met them at the camp, all tales and laughter.
Today, a red-tailed hawk riding the breeze,
gold leaves, cascading creeks, – your kind of joy:
cold rushing currents, then the ecstatic slide.

3.
This is the world you wanted: brisk fall air,
the valleys hung with haze, that long blue range
half-hidden by the clouds. It’s coming clear.
How far you must have seen from there! And here?
It’s hard to see around so many hills,
so many peaks and gorges, and the curves
are slippery on the parkway, miles of turns.
We’re heading home. The boys are waking now,
their mother’s passing crackers, pointing out
the overlook ahead: blue waterfall,
deep river valley, autumn leaves, the pines
along the ridge, the rising trail – and there,
the summit you’d have shown them. Mist and shine.

from Wild Persistence, Patricia Hooper, University of Tampa Press, 2019

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In Tennessee

The Blue Ridge at sunset – hardly a missed note
in the hemlocks where a mockingbird is singing
while to the west a falcon dips, then glides
over the valley, indistinct from here
except that the bird falls lower than the chair
I’m sitting in, and disappears. The sky
is the color of pomegranate, and the balcony
slips into shadow like the distant hills.
No wonder that the mockingbird is singing
a medley of every song he knows,
no matter whose. No wonder that he sits
in the glow of a single flood lamp high above
the roof, a pool he must mistake for sunlight,
enough to urge him on and on and through
his repertoire that bird by bird is ringing
over the day’s end, over the night’s coming.
Maybe he has to sing to know himself
as part of things – finch, cardinal, wren, and now
that long coarse call that sounded like the crow
or Steller’s jay – whatever voice he’s pulling
out of himself, some sound against the silence,
against the signs of brightness vanishing.
The railing of the porch dissolves in mist,
the sun has set, and now we’re weightless, drifting
as if suspended in the blackening air.
His sphere of light no longer seems as clear.
Maybe he knows the lamplight isn’t sunlight.
Maybe he feels he too is disappearing
into the darkness like this porch and chair.
he has to sing, he has to keep on singing,
to know he’s really there.

from Wild Persistence, Patricia Hooper, University of Tampa Press, 2019

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At the Rifle River

When the eagle unfurled, clearing
the green dome of the forest,
I almost missed it

till somebody cried, “Look up!”

and there it was
in the sky over the river

which I saw it must have owned
the way it spanned the rapids
with a single stroke,

and the sky parted.

I can’t say I believe
in messengers from the clouds,

but I didn’t believe
this was an accident either,

the way its light
tore through the drab morning
I barely lived in, and then

it rose over the steaming
forest, it disappeared.

*
At the time I was only watching
my own path by the river,

but afterward
I knew it must still be there
over the rim of maples

its white helmet, its fire,
and its gold eye turned toward me,

or something enough like it,
something powerful and amazing
which someone else sees.

Imagine my certainty
the moment before it rose
through the world, crossing the water,
that there was nothing anymore to surprise me.

Imagine my emptiness.

Imagine my surprise.

from Separate Flights, Patricia Hooper, University of Tampa Press, 2016

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GSMIT // SANCP

Special thanks to Jeremy Lloyd and John DiDiego directors and instructors at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, for the weekend Mammals course, which is part of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program, and to Wanda DeWaard, guest instructor for the day and master tracker and naturalist.

The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at GSMIT comprises eight weekend courses designed to provide fundamental and specialty skills in Southern Appalachian ecology and interpretive techniques. Each weekend includes 15 hours and more of lecture and hands-on field study. Upon completion the student receives the non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate from the University of Tennessee.

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[with a Possum Poem]

In case you missed it, February 7, 2021 was Smoky Mountains ‘Possum ‘Preciation Day. Not that we blame you for overlooking the date – Joyce, Kimber, and I had just declared it that very morning. As part of our presentation on Didelphis virginiana to the Mammals class at Tremont we were determined to remedy the bad rap opossums get. And since we’re all friends here let’s just call them ‘possums’.

Possums are not big gross rats. Well, yes, when you try to shoo them away from the compost heap they do hiss and show all 50 teeth in their long pointy jaws, but let’s give them credit for having the most teeth of any North American mammal. And a pouch – they’re our one and only marsupial. Plus possums can be positively stylish and glowing when you give them a nice shampoo, blow dry, and brush up, although unfortunately that’s usually done by the taxidermist.

Back to those teeth – one of Ms. Possum’s super-powers is time travel. Her jawbone and dentition haven’t changed much at all from those little early mammals who lived side by side with Cretaceous dinosaurs. From Ms. Possum, mammalogists can figure out how those prehistoric critters chewed and what they most likely ate. Which by the way for our current day possums is basically anything and everything. (If we refer here to Ms. Possum it’s because Mr. is totally out of the picture after the mating is finished. Like, two minutes. And he doesn’t have a pouch – boring.)

At this point you’ll certainly be ready to agree it’s no coincidence that Possum rhymes with Awesome. Joyce, Kimber, and I were very happy to enlighten our classmates about the admirable features of this little pouched prehensile-tailed omnivorous non-endangered darling. And hey, we could have drawn the assignment that one of the other teams got stuck with: Appalachian Wood Rat.

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Requiem

I won’t walk back this way tonight
to not-see in the darkness the damp splay of fur,
the jawful of Pliocene needles, the blind worm
of a tail. And not only for fear that I’ll tread
on the red-brown seep or the pitiful snout;
no, I also don’t wish to meet its little ghost
ranging, anxious to cross the road,
baffled by its body’s long play of possum,
denied its marsupial rest.

But perhaps in mercy I should return
and pronounce, O pouched spirit,
linger only until the crows have said grace
and the sun awakens your baking humors, then flee
with the blessing of one who has swerved
to avoid your brothers. Go now and find peace
on the other side.

© Bill Griffin; first appeared in North Carolina Literary Review Number 12, 2003

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One of the numerous hands-on nature experiences offered by Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program. Eight weekend courses (which may be completed over a span of years) are designed to provide fundamental and specialty skills in Southern Appalachian ecology, biodiversity, and interpretive techniques. Most of the time is spent outdoors; for the winter Mammals course we spent Saturday in Cades Cove discovering tracks, scrapes, signs, and scat that testify of the denizens and their activities. Each course also involves keeping a nature journal and practicing interpretation skills – sharing Nature with others. Upon completion the student receives the non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate from the University of Tennessee.

Joyce, Kimber, and I were Team Possum. We did not discover any possum tracks during the weekend and we reprimand Tremont for not providing us with a possum skull to play with among all the other skulls, bones, and pelts in their collection. We are DEEPLY grateful, however, to master tracker and instructor Wanda DeWaard, who brought with her a little jar of possum scat. Treasure!

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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POSTSCRIPT

My birthday is February 11. Here’s the card I opened from Mike and Nancy that day. Mike is the guy who first invited me to come backpacking in the Southern Appalachians 25 years ago and talked me into enrolling for my first SANCP course at Tremont. And he did not know I’d pulled Virginia Opossum for my small group presentation — he’s just prescient.

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[with 3 poems by Val Nieman]

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont – February 5-7, 2021

Winter on the mountain gavels its sentence, no appeal: wrestle the cold to keep it at bay; eat, feed the inner fire; light the darkness or fall and break. I pull my hood closer and hide myself. In the tent at night I bind my neck against cold fingers. I watch my feet.

The day is short. Nevertheless we fill it and discover it filling us. Small signs begin to reveal their stories – an incisored nut, scratches in the bark, one single hair. At first we hesitate, we thirteen who’ve journeyed here to explore, but in the light we gather as closely as prudence permits. Muddy track, scrabbled duff, compressed leaf, scat: where did Bear sleep? what did Coyote eat?

Winter on the mountain: what crouches here for us to notice?

The night is long. In this valley darkness is complete. The rush and growl of Middle Prong fill the cove as well as empty it. Are we alone? In the gap of sleep a brush and skitter, a brief chittered voice – I imagine dark eyes and gliding flight. The spirit is released from the prison of his tree. In the morning we will seek signs of his passing.

Winter on the mountain – I release myself to see, to question, to wonder.

 

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Valerie Nieman journeys landscapes of memory, family, heartache to reveal stories in the signs unearthed along the way. A path may seem clear but its meanings fissure and deepen into many layers. A bud, a leaf, a branch – are they simply of themselves wholly themselves? Look deeper: there are mysteries unfolding.

Val teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University but she is preparing to retire this summer and replace syllabus revisions with fly selection for a day on the trout stream. Her poetry has appeared widely and has been published in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. Her fifth novel, Backwater, will be published in 2021.

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Becoming Ariel
for Gerald Stern

Groundhog in a tree, behaving like a bird, like a squirrel,
nibbling tender green buds at branch end, high-wiring
above a bog. Any burrow dug here would be swamped,

front door to back stoop – how did he come to cross water
and ascend, diggers curved deep in the bark as a lineman’s spikes?
A crow would think twice about lighting on a branch so frail.

Soil-shoveling wedge of a face, a fat tail that never could balance
his loose bulk: this creature was not meant for such heights.
His round belly was destined to bloat in a ditch beside the road.

Still, he sways against the sky, close to the sun, Caliban
joyously drunk on spring sap drawn up from the mud
and darkness he was born to, tiny feet dancing and dancing.

from The Georgia Review, University of Georgia

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Captures

I sprayed for tiny ants
late last night, killing the spider
doing its best to corral them.

Between the sheets I struggled
hand to hand with old lovers
and other aliens

descending cosmic ladders
to pincer my heart,
boiling them in the ichor

my bare claws released
from their flesh.
But this morning,

I catch a humpback cricket
in the sink, cup it
between my hands

and toss it out
the back door
to take its chances.

This morning, I’m
mild as a painted virgin,
my hands empty of slaughter.

from Change 7

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Approach

Arms stretched wise,
right hand to the dawn,
left toward eventual night,
I face north.

As latitude rises,
life flattens:
forest to taiga,
to tundra, to permanent ice.

Everything will have
a name of cold:
polar bear, arctic fox,
glacier flea, snowy owl.

~ ~ ~

A compass is known to stray
from true north, lured
by the earth’s magnetic heart.
Now the needle swings

at the approach
of a frost spirit
from those barrens
I’ll have to cross

without advice,
without a companion,
or a harness of wolf-dogs,
or good boots.

from Hotel Worthy, Press 53, Winston-Salem, © 2015

Becoming ArielCapturesApproach  © Valerie Nieman

 

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The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont comprises eight weekend courses designed to provide fundamental and specialty skills in Southern Appalachian ecology and interpretive techniques. Each weekend includes 15 hours and more of lecture and hands-on field study. Upon completion the student receives the non-credit Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate from the University of Tennessee.

Ariel, the spirit in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is released from his prison in the split pine by the magician Prospero.

 

 

 

 

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Southern Lobelia, Lobelia amoena, Campanulaceae (Bellflower family)

[with poems by Robert Frost, Paulann Peterson, Edwin Markham]

Tree At My Window

Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.

Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.

But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.

That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

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Why the Aging Poet Continues to Write

At a coneflower’s seed-making center,
hundreds of tiny dark florets—
each stiff and sharp—
take turns oozing
their flashes of pollen.
A flagrant
bee-stopping show.

Making a bright circle,
the outermost spiky blossoms
open first to then fade.
Shrinking day by day,
the ring of yellow flame
moves inward.
That heart—what’s at
the flower’s very core—
blazes last.

Paulann Petersen, from Understory, Lost Horse Press, 2013

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These two poems are collected in The Poetry of Impermanence, Mindfulness, and Joy; edited by John Brehm; Wisdom Publications, 2017.

Spreading False Foxglove, Aureolaria patula, Scrophulariaceae (Figwort family)

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No plant community is static. Even the “climax forest” is in constant flux, the flow that is the marker of time’s passage, that is time. All things flow: change, the primary mutable immutable that creates reality.

Observe the climax forest for enough generations (its generations, not ours) and see that its steady state is illusion. Water cycles, carbon cycles, death and reclamation and regeneration: constant flux. Apt metaphor for our life as human individuals. Observe the plant community’s encroachers and invaders, its fuzzy boundaries, its balance never balanced for long – also a metaphor for human communities.

During pandemic if there is one factor that underlies our existential fears it must be separation from community. How small has our circle shrunk? How unwilling are we to step outside or let in the unknown? Anger, anxiety, dread: they must all have the same roots.

When the soil is shallow the tree sends its roots wider. When moisture or minerals are scarce the rootlets’ embrace by mycorrhizal fungi becomes even more welcome.

Human ecology: I watch the Zoom gallery nod and smile and imagine that they are seeing me, too. I step off the trail when other hikers pass but we wave and share a few words at distance. I sit nearby during Linda’s long phone calls with sisters: essential, restoring, redeeming. I even (gasp!) write a few letters. Aren’t we all reaching out to discover some new way of connecting, some way amidst the flux to re-forge community?

Wider, draw the circle wider!

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He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!

Outwitted – Edwin Markham (1852-1940)

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Many thanks to the organizers and instructors of Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont who continue their mission of connecting people with nature even during pandemics. Their science-based educational programs have evolved with science-based precautions and modifications to allow small communities to form for a weekend at a time.

One word sums the program and purpose of Great Smoky Mountains National Park: BIODIVERSITY. These photos are from the September 2020 GSMIT program Southern Appalachian Ecology. Immersed in that diversity, I continue to absorb the enrichment, root, stem and blossom, of that community of seekers.

 

 

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Appalachian Trail near Clingman’s Dome, 2003

[with two poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer]

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Summer has skimmed the high ridge like a chimney swift, rarely perching for long. Now on September mornings you can see your breath. First frost certainly won’t dally. Above 6,000 feet you wonder, Where is the South in Southern Appalachians?

And what about these bleached spines and gnarled knucklebones? This phalanx of snags that palisades the highest elevations against the green upon green below? The balsam wooly adelgid arrived on Clingman’s Dome in 1957. By the 1980’s the tiny insect invader from Europe, order Hemiptera, had destroyed more than 90% of the Fraser Fir in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This year, though, the Park Service has declared a tenuous truce. Some of those dead snags are forty years old but younger trees spared by the adelgid have matured and are making fertile cones. The very oldest trees, with thicker bark, also seem less susceptible. The insects are still around but you have to hunt for them, whereas during the earliest infestations biologists described the branches covered in wooly bugs as if they had been “whitewashed.”

What is the fulcrum of this new equilibrium? Perhaps the adelgid found easy pickings among whole communities weakened for decades by acid deposition, bad air. Coal-burning power plants up the Appalachian ridge to Canada have added scrubbers. The red spruce that had stopped growing in the ‘80’s are laying on new rings of cambrium. Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be.

Or will it? Depends on what you mean by leave alone. The fir that survive are a little more resistant to the insect, a little more acid tolerant. But what happens as their subalpine microclimate becomes less like Canada and more like Atlanta? Scrubbers remove the nitrogen and sulfur that oxidize to form acids but when you burn carbon you get carbon dioxide. Can’t scrub that out. How many degrees of warming can Fraser fir tolerate? Go higher, it gets cooler. Here in the Park you can’t go any higher than Clingman’s Dome.

Mountain Angelica, Angelica triquinata (Apiaceae - parsley family)

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Last week I shared two poems from Kathryn Stripling Byer’s first book (1986). The two poems that follow here are from her final book, Trawling the Silences, published in 2019 two years after her death.

Kay Byer takes me into wild places and she brings me home. She names the earth, just naming a thing is a prayer, and she leaves nameless the mysteries that mist from her verses into my soul. She has left this earth, and she has left this earth to me to hold close for the days I will remain. Notice. Learn. Cherish. Tell it.

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Three for My Trail Guide
for Jim

1.

Ascent

Before I can catch
my breath you right away
start to identify

Wild Ginger,
Mayapple,
Bloodroot.

I’m dizzy with switchbacks
I see rising into
the hardwoods you hail

Sarvis,
Sycamore,
Tulip Tree.

Trillium sweeps down
the hillside like angel wings
come to rest creekside.

You chanting hepatica,
stonecrop, anemone,
we climb until

we reach the summit,
where underfoot
some stubborn lichen

you can’t name
has already claimed
the best view.

2.

Star Grass

You name it
and there it is
at the edge
of the outcropping
over the Gorge.

Not to worry,
I placate the ravens
that harry us,
we won’t be lingering
long in your aerie.

See? Even now we are
striding away
into star grass,
its small spikes of clear
recognizable light.

3.

Galax

Squatting behind bushes,
I smell it nearby, neither bear scat

nor carrion vine, to which naturalists
liken its scent, but the breath

of an old woman lowering herself
to her chamber pot, sighing

as I heard her sigh while I tried
not to listen. Hoisting my backpack

I leave her behind in the underbrush,
glad to be back on the trail

with you, sidestepping tree stump
and blowdown, splashing through

creek bed, striding from switch back
to switch back toward sky we see,

step by step, open its window,
when, almost to summit, I stop.

Breathing hard. The scent
of her following me.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, from Trawling the Silences (Jacar Press, 2019)

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Silvery Glade Fern, Deparia acrostichoides (Dryopteridaceae - Wood Fern Family)

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Trawling the Silences

This end-of-March day, I’d rather watch hawks surf the
thermals than contemplate what lies ahead.
Or behind in its wake. In the few hours left, let me keep
my doubts shut, my windows wide open, their sheer curtains
billowing. It’s March, after all, having come in
a lamb and departing a lioness, stalking my back yard,

leaving her paw prints alongside the patient ephemerals
rising again out of leaf litter. Squirrel corn. Spring beauty.
The first rue anemone. Today I would rather
read field guides, repeating the whimsical names
of our nice-dwelling mussels about to be wiped out by backhoes
and bulldozers. Pimpleback, Snuffbucket. Monkeyface
Pearlymussel. Don’t let their names be forgotten,
I’d pray if I prayed, though just naming a thing is a prayer,

wrote Simone Weil, turning her face to the almighty
silences. The silences. Where would we be
without them, what were we, what will we be, oh to be,
and again be, that damn linking verb. I’d rather be tracking
my lioness up to the rim of that mountain top,
I’d rather let be and let go. Let the anemone
cling, the hawks soar, the lioness squander another day
trying to find what she’s looking for. Give her another day,
I ask the Almighty. Give the birds one more day
scolding the rapscallion squirrels stealing birdseed.
I rest my case, carapace, my own little voice trawling
the silences, the bully wind boasting its presence in present-tense,
no linking verb to shut down the show. Let
my lioness lounge in the sally grass. Licking her paws.

Kathryn Stripling Byer, from Trawling the Silences (Jacar Press, 2019)

 

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Spruce-Fir forests covered vast areas of the Southeast when glaciers reached their southernmost extent 18,000 years ago. As the glaciers retreated north the Spruce-Fir communities also retreated to higher elevations and now remain only along the highest peaks and ridges above 4,000 feet elevation, mostly higher. Clingman’s Dome at 6643 feet is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and indeed along the entire Appalachian Trail. Its impressive swath of Spruce-Fir is also home to the rare Jordan’s Red-Cheeked salamander (Plethodon jordani) found only in the Park. The naturally acid soil and severe climate limit biodiversity compared to lower elevations, but other distinctive high elevation species include mountain ash (Rose family), mountain wood sorrel, mountain asters, glade fern. After sixty years the Fraser Fir seem to be surviving the balsam wooly adelgid invasion, air pollution, acid rain; it remains to be seen how long they will remain in the face of advancing climate change.

from SNAKE DEN RIDGE, A BESTIARY, illustration by Linda French Griffin

from SNAKE DEN RIDGE, A BESTIARY, illustration by Linda French Griffin

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Photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

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[with two poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer]

Hepatica: its flowers spring up in March before its new leaves. Quick! Before arching limbs furl their green sails and hijack the wind of sunlight, quickly make your tiny seeds from last year’s photons! New leaves will have all summer and fall to glean what the canopy misses.

When Linda and I discover the first hepatica blooming along Elkin Creek each spring we take heart. The world is not such a grim and wintry place. One morning last April we counted 50 individual plants along a mile of trail. Such bounty! How they thrive! How our hearts do!

A few weeks ago I walked one mile of nature trail at Chimneys picnic area in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the end of September hepatica leaves are glossy, taut, ready to overwinter. As I strolled the cove, deep cathedral of old growth hardwoods, I estimated within 5,280 feet I saw 50,000 individual hepatica plants.

Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Hepatica acutiloba, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

Life wants more of itself. Life wants to fill every niche. How many generations, how many hundred, did it take to create this mountain cove topography? Mossed, leafy, pits and mounds left by an ancient giant fallen. The light gap its falling created. Explosion of variety in the margins. Trunks of all sizes and ages in the understory, massive individuals creating the canopy. I didn’t know a black cherry, a silverbell, ever got this big!

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Mountain flanks and shoulders for protection, rain upon rain, limestone subsoil for minerals – the old growth cove hardwood community shelters biodiversity approaching a tropical rainforest. These few sections in the Smokies that the loggers never reached are still revealing new species. Life wants more.

And to what purpose? What is it good for? I could probably list a few dozen reasons the undisturbed and unmanipulated forest is good for me and good for you. But how about this – the thousands of reasons it is simply good for itself.

Black Cherry, a BIG one, Prunus serotina, Rosaceae, rose family

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Kathryn Stripling Byer (1944-2017) was North Carolina Poet Laureate from 2005-2009 and the first woman to hold that position. She and her family lived in the mountains of western NC (she taught and was poet-in-residence at Western Carolina University); her grace and generosity reached throughout the southeast and beyond. She was teacher and mentor but, even more, she encouraged and celebrated the creative spirit wherever and in whomever it was found. Even me. Thinking of her today brings me joy.

I have gone back to Kay’s first book for these two poems. The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest was her debut collection (Texas Tech Press, 1986) and was re-issued by Press 53 (Winston-Salem, NC) in 2013.

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The Backwoods

Great-grandmother carried the cadence of Genesis.
Girl cousins up late at family reunions,
we made her an Indian, although her forebears
were Irish. Before her lay darkness, the empty fields
barren as desert until she came forward,
the sweat on her high cheekbones gleaming like eyes
we imagined surrounding her, bob-cat and red fox,
the last of the sleek, singing wolves. Every evening
she shouldered her how and walked home
through the tasselling corn. The Good Lord only knows
what bare feet stalked the backwoods in those days,
what waited behind every woodpile! She brought forth
a daughter with black hair that never curled.
Shy as a fieldmouse, that girl fell in love
with a man scything hay in the twilight. They kissed
twice. A moment she stood in her white dress
and smiled back at us, then she grew fat and sighed
in the kitchen. Four daughter she bore,
and the three who survived scarlet fever
wove grass in their brown hair and danced every night
with the fireflies. They galloped on wild horse
bareback until they got married and gave birth
to us, Southern Belles who could sit in a parlor
all evening and never complain. We could faint
in a handsome man’s arms. We could charm a
a stone wall. But we never forgot the back door,
how to disappear into the darkness, our crinolines rustling
like cornstalks between our legs. We told
this story so well, we inherit its black earth
where women hoe all night, inscrutable as Indians.

Pale jewelweed, Impatiens pallida, Balsaminaceae, touch-me-not family

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Frost

“Shake the cold from our hands,” you call, running ahead
of me onto the frozen grass. Look, in the garden
your father wrests vines from a tripod of bamboo stakes.
Okra’s grown weary with mourning another year
gone and just yesterday, Darling,
they wore yellow buds in their hair. Like you

twisting a puny chrysanthemum into your tangles
and galloping off on a broomstick. Down Caney Fork
scarecrows come hobbling like old soldiers
leaving their cornfields. They’ll sit by the river
and talk about what the crows told them: a hard winter
coming. Those windy crows, all they keep saying
is cold, cold, and when I see clouds swept
like ice down the creek, I believe them
too easily. Why must the maple leaves rattle

Remember me, as if someday
I’ll forget there were thousands came
falling the morning I felt for the first time you
shiver inside me, no fish as I thought you would be
but a mouse in its burrow? Now you sit in sand
and make birthday cakes, blowing out candles
that aren’t there. I blow on my hands
like an old woman taking no heed of a child
who believes time can be shaken from her like water.

poems by Kathryn Stripling Byer
from The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest, Press 53, © 2013 Kathryn Stripling Byer
first published by Texas Tech Press, January 15, 1986

 

Mountain bugbane, Cimicifuga americana, Ranunculaceae, buttercup family

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Mountain Cove plant communities occur in sheltered areas with abundant rainfall in mid- to lower-elevation areas of the Southern Appalachians. Especially the Rich Cove Forest subset, with less acidic and more rich mineral soils, is home to a huge diversity of tree species, flowering plants and ferns, insects, reptiles and amphibians. Original (old growth) forests will have massive individual trees hundreds of years old mixed with trees of all ages where a giant has fallen and allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor. There are a number of these areas where loggers never reached in GSMNP, such as Chimneys and near Cades Cove.

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program; Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

 

 

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[with two poems by Debra Kaufman]

Deep shade, red spruce, heavy moss – the trail switches up, cuts back, winds steadily higher. We can smell the transition, conifer tang, slow decomposition. We can feel it on our faces, in our pores, sweat cooling, wraith of mist blown up the ridge to envelope us. And we feel it somewhere deeper.

Something changes, so gradual we sense it before we know it. Daylight creeps through, one tree with toothed sun-colored leaves, then two; smell of spring and sweet flowering even at the end of autumn; witch hobble and pale mountain asters give way to dwarf goldenrod. Look, here are beech drops, flowers faded, seeds set, never green, their skinny bodies and appendages like effigies set among the trees they parasitize. We stop and breathe. Again, deeper. This is beech gap.

Leave a patch of ground alone long enough and it will grow into what it is meant to be. Its personality is in its community. Why does this beech gap persist? Its elders, Fagus grandifolia, stunted and twisted in communion with mountain maple, wood ferns, sedges – why not fir and spruce intruding? Elevation, precipitation, mountain aspect, soil pH? Centuries-old seed repository in the duff? Visitation by warblers, jays, and small mast-seeking mammals? Protection by allelopathic residues? Protection by mountain spirits?

All of these may define but don’t explain. It is the community that becomes itself: shallow spreading roots and pervasive mycelia, leaf and frond, sporangium and ovule, every one essential to the personality of place.

And you and I? We may choose how tall we stand. We choose which way we face, whether we learn from our elders, teach our children. We rest here for a few minutes and commune with this other. The silence of a ridge-crest glade: fragile or resilient? Retreat or restoration? Will we descend from the mountain and bring this peace, this purpose, into our own communities?

Beech drops, Epifagus virginiana, Orobanchaceae (Broomrape family)

 

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These two poems by Debra Kaufman speak to me of reverence and restlessness, of longing for community and the fear of isolation. Are we welcome on this earth and will we welcome others? Will we create more than we destroy?

As described on the cover of her book, God Shattered, Kaufman discovers how personal disillusionment can be a guide to finding the godly within ourselves. These poems lead us to contemplate and understand our place in this fragile world.

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Great White
An angel is nothing but a shark well-governed.
– Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Everyone carries a shadow.
The less it is embodied in the conscious self,
the blacker and denser it is.

Does a savage self always lurk
just below the surface,
on the hunt, no matter

our good intentions? Is our higher
nature ready to do battle against the dark,
harpoon at the ready?

If, as the Buddha says, there is no I,
does awareness reside
between empty spaces?

I understand so little.
But I can see Aleppo is rubble,
its people scattered;

anyone who listens can hear the cries
of girls being shuttled into brothels,
can imagine comforting someone suffering

here or half the world away.
How do we stop what is sacred
from being ravaged,

witness life out of balance yet not despair?
There must be ways
toward doing what is right.

Why else, as Job asked, would
light be given to a man
whose way is hidden?

The great white shark
is nearly extinct. It can sense
a beating heart over a mile a way.

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Welcome

You, one of seven billion born
helpless, nearly hairless,

one more chimp-cousin
in our midst:

Will you be swaddled,
neglected, anointed,

will you breathe air
that smells like rain?

Which foods will sustain you,
upon what ground

will you walk? What storm,
fires, floods will sweep

over you, what languages
will you learn, what

dances, what prayers?
Here is my hope for you,

little stranger: may you feel
beholden to this wondrous planet,

may you take your hungry,
humble place in it,

may you dedicate your life
to making it a world worth

revering, holding, passing on.

poems by Debra Kaufman from God Shattered, Jacar Press, © 2019

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Debra Kaufman grew up in the Midwest but has lived in North Carolina for thirty years. She has published three poetry chapbooks and four full length poetry collections: God Shattered, Delicate Thefts, The Next Moment, and A Certain Light.

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The Beech Gap is a rare subtype of Northern Hardwood Forest, found scattered in small patches surrounded by Fraser Fir and Red Spruce in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and elsewhere at the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians. The Beech, mixed with small numbers of Buckeye, Birch, and Maple species, are stunted by the cold climate and high winds, with an open understory but relatively rich herb layer. Some patches in the Smokies are fenced to prevent destruction by invasive non-native wild pigs. Why this seemingly stable climax plant community remains stable and is not overtaken by Spruce-Fir remains a mystery.

 

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All photos by Bill Griffin from Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program on Southern Appalachian Ecology, September 2020, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont; instructors Jeremy Lloyd and Elizabeth Davis.

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[with two poems by Malaika King Albrecht]

The lesson you need is the one you weren’t looking for.

The lesson you keep is the one you didn’t want.

Our final exercise is to sit. Not in the open air pavilion where we’ve weathered hours of presentations and discussion. And not by any means moving along the trails we’ve hiked for hours encountering a new species every minute. Now at the close of our weekend naturalist course on plants of the Smokies we are instructed to stop, settle, sit. We are to find a green thing we don’t know or one we’ve have ignored and sit for half an hour. Pay attention. Become intimate.

I choose to sketch a bryophyte not much bigger than my thumb. Perhaps I’ll never know its true name – starmoss? sphagnum? – but we could become friends. I won’t even give it a name. Be satisfied sometimes simply to explore, to know first with all my senses, that is what I’m learning. Where does it like to lie and spread? Whom does it choose for neighbors? How does it make its living? Naming can come later.

Moss with Doghobble leaf

Look at us all, scattered like toadstools across this mountain glade quietly noticing. For now the birds and insects get to make all the noise. Eventually our quiet must end and we gather one last time for closing and summarizing and making sense. Now Tonya has a surprise. A worm snake, while she sat, has burrowed, well, wormed into her open sandals and curled around her toe. She untangles it and cradles it for us all to see while it tries to bite her with its mere slit of a mouth, better suited for eating slugs. If we were quiet, if we paid attention, if we sat long enough would we be reclaimed by moss and crawling things and become a haven for all that is small and necessary?

We eat our lunch along the trail, we travel back to Tremont, we pack our cars. At the parking lot I congratulate Tonya upon completing her final course and receiving her Naturalist Certification. I tell her, I’m still only half way through.

Tonya turns to me. She sets down her pack. She is solid, present, her eyes deep and full as a hardwood cove. Help the new ones, she pleads. Share what you know.

And during the five hour drive back to my foothills what image recurs? Not family characteristics that differentiate Brassicaceae, Lamiaceae, Asteraceae; not frond morphology and sorus distribution. No, the image I can’t escape is of the two first-timers in our course turning a leaf over and over in their hands, turning the leaves of a guidebook, excited, figuring things out. And of me a pace or two removed, watching them, adding nothing.

Sometimes I think I have the perfect temperament and skill set to be a moss-covered log slowly digested by fungal mycelia. Ah, the long and placid observations I would make. But that’s not the lesson I need or the lesson I will keep. Instead, this: don’t imagine you know so much. But know that what you do know has value when you share it. Know that its only value is in the sharing. You have joined the circle of seekers. Now open the circle wide.

Rudbeckia lacianata; Cutleaf Coneflower; Asteraceae

Rudbeckia lacianata

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A week ago I shared here two poems by Malaika King Albrecht from her most recent book. I’m not finished with her. Something about this collection of poetry has become very necessary for me as I continue to pile and compile the lessons from my most recent course in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. The quantity of information itself is just shy of infinite. I’m working through a book titled, Botany in a Day, which would more realistically be In a Couple of Years. Just the new vocabulary reminds me of starting Med school (that was 1974 – what am I doing here?!) or maybe of being smacked with a breaker at Fort Macon beach.

But being overwhelmed with information is the trees, it is not the forest. That is why I need poetry. I will study the taxonomy but poetry will teach me the connections. I will feel like I can never know enough but poetry will teach me to live with and love the mystery. I will work on what to know but poetry will teach me how to know.

Malaika’s collection is just the solace and challenge and promise needed. Her poems can be grounded in the senses but spiral into the imagined and unimagined. I would say her poems make connections but even more they open me to make connections. It can be the difference between burying myself in the Field Guides and opening myself to the field.

Thanks again, Malaika!

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Following the Wind

Everything leaves a mark:
dull grass in the morning where the raccoon
ambled away full of cat food,
antler scratches along the willow oak,
and tracks and scat everywhere.

I know what stirs in this forest:
Deer nosing the horse path,
red fox slitting the tall switch grass,
rabbit bounding, freezing, and hopping again.

At the edge of Loftin Woods, I fall
for the wind, the way it parts the grass,
makes branches speak
and vultures glide their shallow V’s.

If sky holds our dreams,
then earth, our memories,
and wind, only the now
of this moment calling,
calling from everywhere.

Elephantopus carolinianus; Elephant Foot; Asteraceae

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Praise Song for What Is

Praise the frozen rain, the icicles daggering
the trees, the gray snow sludge. Praise
the shiver, the wet wind cutting through clothes,
the frozen water troughs. Blessed be
the hard frost, the frozen pond,
the apple sapling snapped in half.

Praise autumn and spring, the hot then cold
then hot again. Praise the corn mazes,
the haystacks, the reaping what we’ve sown.
Blessed be the fig tree, the honeycomb, the hive.
Praise the kudzu, the poison ivy,
the forsythia shouting yellow at a fence.

Praise the mosquito, the itch,
the scratch. Praise the heat waves,
the asphalt, the stopped
highway traffic. Blessed be
the dusty, the wilted, the dry
husks of corn in summer drought.

Praise the possum lumbering
into the chicken coop,
the fox slinging the wood’s edge.
The owl, the hawk, blessed be
their swift descent to prey.
Praise the failures, the losses. Blessed be
the broken path that brought me here.

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From The Stumble Fields, Malaika King Albrecht. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, Charlotte, North Carolina. © 2020.

Botany in a Day, The Patterns Method of Plan Identification; Thomas J. Elpel; HOPS Press, LLC; © 2018; An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America

Wildflowers of Tennessee the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians; Dennis Horn and Tavia Hathcart; Partners Publishing © 2018; The Official Field Guide of the Tennessee Native Plant Society

 

 

 

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[After the fashion of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with apologies; and also with admiration and gratitude to Emily Stein, educator, naturalist, and instructor who prompted, “Make me care about an apple.”]

Behold! [the speaker lifts high in his right hand a bright green globe] Behold . . . the unnamed spheroid before us, orb, minor planetoid, imperfect representation of 4/3 π r3. What shall we call it? What is it?!

Is it Creature? Shall it pick itself up, scuttle about of its own motivation, turn itself ‘round to display its obverse hemisphere presently concealed from our vision?

Is it Mineral, thus created and apportioned and ever so to remain for millennia save it be worked and reworked by wind, water, the abrasion of ever degrading time?

Or is it perhaps . . . Vegetable, and now a revelation of its true nature leaps into my consciousness: is it not Fruit? May we not so surmise when we detect the telltale declivity at its northern pole from whose depth protrudes a brown and spiraled worm so very like a stem? YES, its roundiness, its gloss, its green green GREEN sings life and liveliness, living fruit, fresh, taut, shiny, reflecting what meager light may penetrate these benighted chambers to inspire our minds even as we are inspired by the light of our own great yellow star.

That star which nurtures us has also nurtured our green fruit’s life and growth to this size, this heft, wide in diameter as my four fingers, rounder in circumference than my fist can grasp. Firm and solid it appears, clean and whole, but upon finer inspection decorated with speckles and freckles, minute specks not blemishes but marks of its natural beauty, painted by creation to elevate our perception that Beauty and Truth and even Life itself are not ideal forms that reside solely in the imaginings of philosophers but are real, here before us, weighty, textured, worthy of adulation with all their variations and imperfections, with all their uncertainties, with all our own doubts about how to discover them and what to name them.

But what is Life that we should esteem it so? Life is bruises when we fall. If you prick us, do we not bleed? Life is clamor and confusion that fill the senses to bursting, sight and sound and scent sometimes sweet but oftentimes so foul. Can you convince me that Life is not suffering? Days and years unremitting even such that some might in despair willingly choose to forsake their life?

And yet . . . and yet, where can suffering prevail when we, my fellows, stand together? Where can the horror of decay and decrepitude persist when there is yet Beauty in the world?

Look again upon my treasure’s smiling green visage! Look to the living green that buds and swells and streams through hills and valleys where Life insists it must return to the gray and blasted earth. Look to the green water that calls down from the rocky slopes lithe creatures that hop and slither and find each other, there emphatically to declare their confidence in Life as we discover the motile forms of tadpole and eft.

Look, my friends, into your own hearts and discover there some fresh green shoot arising, a green hope that may yet draw you anew into this day of wonder, a hope that may, my friends, just may [here the speaker bites into the green apple] may taste this sweet! This is what I choose and this is what I treasure – this Life.

I care not what you name my green friend here – seed pod, drupe, jampot, pie bait, cider berry. I name it LIFE. And this rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

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Mitchella repens – Partridge Berry

This essay was prepared as an oral class presentation for “Skills for Sharing Nature,” Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program, Great Smokies Institute at Tremont, February 23, 2020.

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Thinking, for Emerson, was not the contemplation of final Truth, but the daily encounter of an active mind with its environment; it was not a special activity but life itself.

Stephen E Whicher, editor
Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Houghton Mifflin, © 1957

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Apple, genus Malus, is the largest fruit in the family Rosaceae, which also includes plums, pears, cherries, apricots, peaches, quince, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, almonds, rowan, hawthorne and . . . roses.

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Viola rostrata – Beaked Violet or Longspurred Violet

The Rhodora
On Being Asked, Whence is the Flower?

In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Mad e the black water with their beauty gay;
Her might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask they why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1839

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Middle Prong Little River

The Apology

Think me not unkind and rude
That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
To fetch his word to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not, laborious band,
For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery
But ‘tis figured in the flowers;
Was never secret history
But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
Which I gather in a song.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1846

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Gyrinophilus porphyriticus -spring salamander

The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program is administered by Great Smokies Institute at Tremont within Great Smoky Mountains National Park (near Townsend, Tennessee) and offers weekend intensive programs towards a certificate from the University of Tennessee. More information at www.gsmit.org

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Everything I love changes me, and if I can be true to love I will welcome the changes.

Hear the veery in the deep dapple-dark forest.  Hear the descending double-voiced yearning so airy and earthy, old when these broad poplars were jade-and-honey flowers in their mother’s hair, old when these smooth mossed stones had just cracked from their father’s face.  Sit in the silence of light retreating and perhaps the spirit-bird will join you, a momentary apparition of brown leaf shadow and speckled dusk.  With bright eyes it will accept you, hop once, fly, and in the next moment you will hear again, ancient and aching, Audubon’s flute.

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Creekside 01 crop_01

Audubon’s Flute

Audubon in the summer woods
by the afternoon river sips
his flute, his fingers swimming on
the silver as silver notes pour

by the afternoon river, sips
and fills the mosquito-note air
with silver as silver notes pour
two hundred miles from any wall.

And fills the mosquito-note air
as deer and herons pause, listen,
two hundred miles from any wall,
and sunset plays the stops of river.

As deer and herons pause, listen,
the silver pipe sings on his tongue
and sunset plays the stops of river,
his breath modeling a melody

the silver pipe sings on his tongue,
coloring the trees and canebrakes,
his breath modeling a melody
over calamus and brush country,

coloring the trees and canebrakes
to the horizon and beyond,
over calamus and brush country
where the whitest moon is rising

to the horizon and beyond
his flute, his fingers swimming on
where the whitest moon is rising.
Audubon in the summer woods.

Robert Morgan.

[Collected in Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry, Sally Buckner, editor.  Carolina Academic Press, 1999.]

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Last Saturday I walked beside the creek and up the mountain with my sister while each veery called to the next that we were on our way.  Today Linda and I drive to Durham to meet my teacher, the first time in over thirty years, and to gather with his students gathering from fifty states.  Already we’ve been cataloguing the changes.  What do I love now that I didn’t love then?  How have I been true to the loves that entered me years ago?  Before the noisy afternoon, I take a moment to listen.  And when my bones are old as stones, trees, moss, how will my voice be recalled?

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Robert Morgan was born in Hendersonville, North Carolina and grew up on the family farm in the Green River valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  He is currently the Kappa Alpha Professor of English at Cornell but has returned to North Carolina many times as visiting professor and writer to Davidson, Duke, Appalachian State, and East Carolina.

The Veery (Catharus fuscescens) is a small thrush of deep moist woods, chestnut brown with a speckled breast.  All thrushsong is melodic and haunting, but to me the veery is most magical.  On a quiet afternoon you clearly hear him singing harmony with himself, the doubled notes possible only with an avian syrinx (unlike my limited tenor’s larynx).

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