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Posts Tagged ‘nature poetry’

[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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[with three poems by Wendell Berry]

Y’all sure do favor!

So folks say when they first see my father and me together. He’s 94. I can’t say I see it but others do so there you are.

On the bookshelf in his living room is a small framed photo of my father about age 3, the same age as our grandson Bert right now. Now those two do favor! Two peas in a pod, cut from the same cloth, much of a muchness. Look at them with that one smile between them, look at those eyes, little imps, look at the domes of those foreheads. Let me just scroll through all these photos Bert’s parents have texted us and you’ll surely see how Wilson and Bert favor.

But where are the photos of my father at 3 making a face, lining up his lead soldiers, stacking his rough-cut handmade blocks? Where dancing? I suspect that framed studio portrait was a Christmas present from Grandmother’s brother Sidney – the rest of the family was surviving the depression on grits and squirrel gravy, the occasional bartered hog shoulder, never two nickels to rub together. The rare snapshots we have of aunts and cousins are from Uncle Sidney’s camera, the only one in the family.

Another depression is upon us now. We are all doing without something. Photos abound but Bert is not free to stand beside his great-grandfather, to show us their one smile between them. When will the day return that may show us how much we all do favor?

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The poetry of Wendell Berry returns me to the center: the center of the fields and woods he walks; the center of time that stretches from long before me to long after; the center of meaning in a universe in which I am not the center but which nevertheless makes a place for me.

These three poems are from Mr. Berry’s book Sabbaths, published in 1987. A moment of stillness, of contemplation, of connection to the earth and all that fills it makes any place sacred and any day Sabbath. My dread, my grief, my struggle during these times are no different really from any times. These things don’t recede, they don’t disappear. They simply take their place in this moment: no before, no after, only now, and I and you and all of us connected in the journey to discover within them some promise of peace.

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VIII (1979)

I go from the woods into the cleared field:
A place no human made, a place unmade
by human greed, and to be made again.
Where centuries of leaves once built by dying
A deathless potency of light and stone
And mold of all that grew and fell, the timeless
Fell into time. The earth fled with the rain,
The growth of fifty thousand years undone
In a few careless seasons, stripped to rock
And clay – a “new land,” truly, that no race
Was ever native to, but hungry mice
And sparrows and the circling hawks, dry thorns
And thistles sent by generosity
Of new beginning. No Eden, this was
A garden once, a good and perfect gift;
Its possible abundance stood in it
As it then stood. But now what it might be
Must be foreseen, darkly, through many lives –
Thousands of years to make it what it was,
Beginning now, in our few troubled days.

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X (1982)

The dark around us, come,
Let us meet here together,
Members one of another,
Here in our holy room,

Here on our little floor,
Here in the daylit sky,
Rejoicing mind and eye,
Rejoining known and knower,

Light, leaf, foot, hand, and wing,
Such order as we know,
One household, high and low,
And all the earth shall sing.

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III (1982)

The pasture, bleached and cold two weeks ago,
Begins to grow in the spring light and rain;
The new grass trembles under the wind’s flow.
The flock, barn-weary, comes to it again,
New to the lambs, a place their mothers know,
Welcoming, bright, and savory in its green,
So fully does the time recover it.
Nibbles of pleasure go all over it.

all selections from Sabbaths, Wendell Berry, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1987
Thank you, Anne Gulley, who gave Linda and me this book many years ago.

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White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, ELKIN NC

 

The Birds’ Carol
Lyrics: Bill Griffin . . . . . . . . . . Music: Mark Daniel Merritt

Elkin Community Chorus
51st Annual Christ Concert / December 4, 2011
Director: David L. McCollum / Piano and Organ: Amy Tayloe and Amy Johnson

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By 2010 Linda and I had been singing for several years with VOCE, Surry County’s invitational chorale, directed by Sandy Beam and assisted later by Mark Merritt. Mark is a talented composer and had asked me before for lyrics. That spring VOCE had been invited to perform at Bilmore House in Asheville, NC, during the Christmas season and Mark wanted to create a suite we could debut there. The Birds’ Carol is the first of three movements in The Wanderer’s Carols. The following year David McCollum selected The Bird’s Carol for Elkin Community Chorus’s 51st Annual Christmas Concert.

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The Birds’ Carol

“Morning! Morning!” trills the lark, “The Babe brings gold to the sky!
A song of light now showers the earth, And we shall know God this day.

Now is the dawn of our new life,
And we shall know God this day.”

“This coat I wear,” caws the rook, “So black, so heavy, so grim.
Only One knows the way to make it bright – The Child who reclaims us from sin.

He lifts our burden upon himself,
The Child who reclaims us from sin.”

“Come rest with me,” coos the dove, “In this humble stable take ease.
Kings and shepherds together embrace The Prince who unites us in peace.

You make us one in all the earth,
O Prince who unites us in peace!”

“I . . . Thou, I . . . Thou,” vow the geese From dark earth to heaven above –
“May we join with Thee in a world made new; May we fly forever in love.

Give us wings of Your perfect light,
And we’ll fly forever in love.”

 

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VOCE of Mount Airy performing The Birds’ Carol, November 14, 2010, Winston-Salem First Presbyterian Church:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDPm6MYvacA&feature=related

Discussion of the symbolism of Lark, Rook, Dove, Goose:
https://griffinpoetry.com/2011/12/17/joy-hope-peace-love/

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2020-09-08b Doughton Park Tree

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Wilderness Advent
(Pisgah Stranger)
Lyrics: Bill Griffin . . . . . . . . . . Music: David L. McCollum

 

Elkin Community Chorus 58th Annual Concert
December 2nd, 2018 – First Baptist Church, Elkin, North Carolina

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This year (2020) would have been the 60th annual concert of the Elkin Community Chorus. The ensemble draws singers from towns and counties across northwest NC, rehearses for seven weeks, and gives two free concerts to the public on the 2nd Sunday in Advent. Linda and I have sung with the group for more than 30 years. We miss it. We’re listening to our stack of recordings from previous years and holding onto the hope that we’ll all be vaccinated and singing together again next fall.

David McCollum has been one of the group’s directors for more than 20 years. Several years back he asked me to write a Christmas poem for which he would compose the music. ECC debuted Wilderness Advent in 2018. Thank you, David, thank you Amy Johnson and Amy Tayloe for your accompaniment, thank you Tonya Smith, co-director, and thanks to the 90 or more of our neighbors whose voices make the waiting, the yearning, the anticipation of Christmas a sacrament.

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Wilderness Advent
(Pisgah Stranger)

A stranger here, I sleep beneath the slash of stars,
The Pisgah forest deep and friendless.
I close myself to love, my heart requires the dark;
Can night within this cove be endless?

Come, you’ve slept too long
And love grows dim.
Awaken to a song – Can it be Him?

Is it madness or a dream that seems to whisper here?
The murmur of a stream or singing?
It chants, a still small voice, I’ve nothing now to fear
For tidings of great joy it’s bringing.

Come, you’ve slept too long
And love grows dim.
Awaken to a song and welcome Him!

And now the music swells as every fir and spruce
Unloose their boughs to tell the story:
May all God’s creatures wake, hearts quickened by the truth,
Invited to partake of mercy.

Come, we’ve slept so long
That love grows dim.
Awaken that our song may worship Him.

Come sing it with the wind and all the Pisgah throng:
The Child reclines within the manger!
With owl and bear and deer my soul’s reborn in song
For none of us is here a stranger.

Come, you’ve slept too long;
If love grows dim
Awaken to a song for it is Him!

Waken . . . welcome . . . worship . . . it is Him!

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MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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[with poems by Ryan Wilson and A. R. Ammons]

I didn’t intend to count birds when I set out Tuesday morning. Just a nice weekly hike to Carter Falls and back, a weekday’s solitude – I’m not sure I intended anything more than cooling my brain and heating my muscles. Tamping down the trail maintenance we completed last Saturday. Following the season’s advance into winter.

But then a heron flew out from under the footbridge as I crossed Grassy Creek. Whoever coined the phrase a force of nature was probably in the presence of a Great Blue Heron. Up close they are mute and fearsome. Flying they arouse precognitive awe. When Linda and I encounter one feeding we address it by its nickname: “Hello, Spike.” When one passes overhead we think, “Pterodactyl.” Great Blue demands that one notice.

After gasping at the heron’s sudden flight, I began noticing birds. If they had been calling and singing during the preceding mile my striding deliberation had shut them out. Now they were continuous and various. Counting, I recede and the birds advance.

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Below are two favorite poems which I return to regularly. They strike me as creating a continuum – the advance of a life toward discovering its meaning, the advance of a life toward its end. I read these and I recede into the lines, but as I read them I expand into my self.

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At Carter Falls trailhead a Black Vulture perched overlooking; I scanned up past the parking area and saw the roadkill possum the vulture was waiting to ripen. At the Powerhouse (the riverstone foundation, all that’s left of the old generating plant) a Kingfisher daggered up the river and disappeared above the spray. I pulled an index card and a pen out of my pack. Here’s what I came home with:

Great Blue Heron / Belted Kingfisher / Northern Flicker / Red-Bellied Woodpecker / Black Vulture / Turkey Vulture / Carolina Wren / Carolina Chickadee / Tufted Titmouse / Golden-Crowned Kinglet / Eastern Phoebe / White-Breasted Nuthatch / Blue Jay / Eastern Bluebird / Cedar Waxwing / Pileated Woodpecker / Red-Shouldered Hawk / Chipping Sparrow / Northern Mockingbird / American Crow / Common Raven

And since I wasn’t carrying binoculars I’ll just include the numerous chippers and chirpers in the thickets as LGB’s (little gray birds, also sometimes known as LBJ’s, little brown jobs).

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Face It

A silence, bodied like wing-beaten air,
Perturbs your face sometimes when parties end
And, half-drunk, you stand looking at some star
That flickers like a coin wished doen a weill,
Or when you hear a voice behind you whisper
Your name, and turn around, and no one’s there.
You’re in it the, once more, the stranger’s house
Perched in the mountain woods, the rot-sweet smell
Of fall, the maples’ millions, tongues of fire,
And there, whirl harrowing the gap, squint-far,
Than unidentified fleck, approaching and
Receding at once, rapt in the wind’s spell –
Pulse, throb, winged dark thar haunts the clean light’s glare –
That thin that you’re becoming, that your are.

Ryan Wilson
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in The New Criterion

Ryan Wilson was born in Griffin, Georgia and resides in Maryland. Of this poem he writes, “Face It was written in West Virginia at a mountaintop cabin belonging to my great friend, Ernest Suarez. During a break near dusk, I stepped out onto the porch, from which one can see more than fifty miles on a clear day. I was tantalized by a hawk hovering in the western gap, how it seemed to approach and to recede at once on the wind, never near enough for me to identify its species, or even its genus.”

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Finishing Up

I wonder if I know enough to know what it’s really like
to have been here: have I seen sights enough to give
seeing over: the clouds, I’ve waited with white
October clouds like these this afternoon often before and

taken them in, but white clouds shade other white
ones gray, had I noticed that: and though I’ve
followed the leaves of many falls, have I spent time with
the wire vines left when frost’s red dyes strip the leaves

away: is more missing that was never enough: I’m sure
many of love’s kinds absolve and heal, but were they passing
rapids or welling stirs: I suppose I haven’t done and seen
enough yet to go, and anyway, it may be way on on the way

before one picks up the track of the sufficient, the
world-round reach, spirit deep, easing and all, not just mind
answering itself but mind and things apprehended at once
as one, all giving all way, not a scrap or question holding back.

A. R. Ammons
from The Best American Poetry 2018, first published in Poetry

Archie Ammons was born outside Whiteville, NC in 1926, attended college in Wake Forest, NC, and taught at Cornell for over 34 years. He was guest editor of The Best American Poetry 1994. He died February 25, 2001. A two-volume set of his collected poems was published by W. W. Norton in 2017.

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2014-07-13 Doughton Park Tree

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Upload Burrowing Crayfish, Cambarus dubius

[with poems by Lesley Wheeler and Bill Griffin]

How? Crayfish taste with their skin. Well, not skin precisely: cuticle is what their carapace is called, their shell, made of chitin. (Read to the end for a science geek discussion of chitin vs. keratin.) It’s hard and it’s tough but it has chemoreceptors that detect dissolved molecules. With their skin, crayfish taste the water. Or smell it.

Taste and smell, inseparable as yeast and flour. Apart only mildly interesting, but mix them together and suddenly it’s 1979, Durham, that little red house on Green Street, waiting at the table with your toddler for hot bread from the oven. Or if you’re Crayfish maybe a tasty caddisfly larva. Or perhaps that taste/smell is Otter on the prowl and it’s time to find a rock.

This big guy (guy: we have our ways of knowing these things, though we don’t like to pry when those pincers are cocked) is possibly an Upland Burrowing Crayfish, Cambarus dubius. Yes, he really is blue; I swear I didn’t touch the hue sliders. (Read to the end for a science geek discussion of crustacean blueness). He was tooling across the level patch near the creek below our house where the Sewer Authority crews clear a path to check their access ports. Lovely spot for a walk, although you might catch the occasional whiff of fabric softener lightly swirled with hydrogen sulfide and anaerobic bacteria. Poop perfume.

Ah, ineffable links, scent and memory. Strolling down the aisle at Food Lion I pass the Downy and my olfactory bulb & hippocampus spark to tell me I’m hiking beside the autumn creek. And look! A Crayfish!

Mountains-to-Sea Trail with Sassafras; near Elkin, NC and Isaac's trailhead

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I don’t believe I’ve missed reading an issue of Cave Wall since its inception. Editors Rhett Iseman Trull and Jeff Trull never fail to craft a collection that sparks neurons I’ve been neglecting. In the same way that a forgotten aroma can open a memory door into all the senses, a poem can flash and growl and shudder the reader with sudden insight. Circles, ripples, connections. My college English prof taught a whole semester on it: epiphany. Or an even better word (thank you Caren Stuart for this indispensable addition to the lexicon) – the gasp-sigh.

Invocation by Lesley Wheeler appears in Cave Wall Number 16 (Spring 2020). Something here is thirsty . . . something is called to wake up! How much of each of us is mud, condensation? Shall we pause a moment for spore and mire to convene again within us?

Worship begins with invocation, a call to the divine presence to enter this place. But since divine mystery comprises the entire universe, every boson and lepton, where can we sojourn where the divine is not? Perhaps practicing invocation we are really calling ourselves. Enter this moment. Reside here. Abide with the mystery. Wake up!

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Invocation

Bottomland: rouse. Sedge, knotweed:
time to rally. You’ve been lost
in thought, ebb and fuming flood,
since the glacier, thin winters
digging for turtles in cold mud.
Valley was tundra. Elk and moose
drank at water’s brink while firs
invented shade. Panthers melted

into the dark, but spore and mire could
convene again. Softness feed us
and eat our footholds away. Something
here is thirst for living’s every
rivulet, hospitable and
treacherous in her oblivion.
Misty divots. Condensation
beads on the throat, where pulses drum.

What kind of god is this? Her name
just a hieroglyph drawn in muck
by a tentative finger. No
answer but a hissing river.
Drowsy spirit, I’m pleading. Take
this blood shed unseasonably,
mineral gift. Be comfort. Be
danger. Of sleep, of trough. Wake up.

Lesley Wheeler, in Cave Wall Number 16, Spring 2020

Lesley Wheeler is a poet, novelist, scholar, and blogger. She is the poetry editor of Shenandoah.

Sassafras, Sassafras albidum, illustrating the three lobe types

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The following poem appears in Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (2008, March Street Press). Linda and I collaborated on the book and her illustration appears below (at the time she agreed to interrupt her many other projects because I promised to dedicate the book to my friend Mike Barnett – I can’t even calculate the hours she spent drawing or the height of the field guides and science books piled beside her on her desk).

Crayfish

Just wiggle this rock
and the stream
hums a whole new flavor –
in the turbulence I taste
last night’s shower
on the Ridge
and this morning’s stirring
of awakened larvae.
Tailflap, legtips,
cuticle,
all of me every moment
strummed by roil and eddy,
random caress
of molecules,
divine order of chaos.

I’ll tell you a secret –
God is deliciousness!,

the constant inconstancy
of current
that reveals my breakfast
or Otter on the prowl,
and just maybe
the passing of a lovely
arthropod I long to meet.

Join me! Immerse yourself,
not in Inadu Creek
but in your own lifestream.
Savor it, sense it as I do
in every part of you.

Bill Griffin, in Snake Den Ridge: a Bestiary (2008, March Street Press)

Illustrations by Linda French Griffin.

 

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Chitin is the hard part of invertebrates: cicada exoskeleton, crayfish and lobster shell, squid beaks (and vertebrate fish scales). Keratin is the hard outer part of vertebrates: bird feathers, tiger claws, what little hair I have left. The two are chemically completely different but function in the same way, for protection and structure.

Chitin is a polymer of sugars, glucose with added nitrogen = glucosamine (a polysaccharide), the stuff I take for my bad knee. Keratin is a polymer of amino acids, namely a protein (polypeptide). Here are two more factoids you can’t possibly live without: Keratin resists digestion, which is why cats hark up hairballs. Spider silk is classified as keratin, although production of the protein probably evolved independently of the process in vertebrates.

Crustacyanin is not a Spongebob character. It’s what makes this crayfish blue. Crustacyanin is a carotenoid, which are pigment proteins found in everything from tomatoes to pink flamingos. The crustacyanin is made from stacks of another carotenoid protein (astaxanthin), which itself is red, but depending how many and how it’s stacked can actually reflect the blue portion of the spectrum. Blue crayfish (also look up Blue Lobsters) have a genetic variation in their stacking. If you steam them (perish the thought!!!) the astaxanthin comes unstacked and that’s why cooked crabs, lobsters, and crayfish are bright red.

Brushy mountains reflected in compound eye

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2016-10-17b Doughton Park Tree

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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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IMG_1822

IMG_1609

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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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