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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

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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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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Charismatic Megafauna is what people hope to see when they visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If traffic barely creeps approaching Cades Cove there must be a black bear feeding near a pullout; if traffic stops altogether Mama has cubs. And if cars are pulled over for a mile along the prairie verge leading to Oconaluftee Visitor Center it means elk are grazing the pasture.

From the center lane I saw the big bull with six-foot rack and a harem of twenty and I slowed but I didn’t stop: the gate into Tremont would only be open from 4:00 to 5:00. It takes at least an hour up and over New Found Gap down to Sugarlands and on west into the Park. Fifteen of us will be arriving for a naturalist course on this final weekend in August, hoping to get personal with that other charismatic Kingdom – Plantae.

Lobelia cardinalis; Cardinal Flower; Campanulaceae

Trees, ferns, and flowers certainly draw many to the Smokies, if only for the deep summer shade and restorative air. Some people are even known to kneel. As winter unscrews her frozen vice we hurry to see ephemerals – trailing arbutus, hepatica, bloodroot. Then the princess of spring’s reign is trillium, including uncommon Catesby’s and Vasey’s. As we wind through the seasons we lust for phacelia, fringed orchids, lady’s slippers. But what about now at the tail end of summer?

Summer, the season of yellow: asters, wild sunflowers, goldenrod (19 species in the Park), but driving west on I-40 didn’t every weedy median present us with all these and more Asteraceae? Solid gold at 70 mph. Time to slow down. The hour for Latin and Linnaeus is after vespers with our books and guides. In this moment the growl of Harleys on Little River Road can’t penetrate the glade. The rumble of the river into its Sinks reaches us only as subsonic reassurance through our soles. All light has slipped bent drifted through tuliptree and hemlock to recline with us among shaggy green. We are crouched among the ferns.

Botrychium dissectum; Common Grape Fern; Ophioglossaceae

So many different kinds of ferns. Notice blade and stipe, dimensions and symmetries. We “frondle” them to read the hieroglyphics of their spores. We smell them. We struggle to know their names.

But here’s another fern-like frond, toothed and divided but with a tell-tale: a spike of yellow flowers like sequins in the wildwood. Lean closer. Five-petaled, many threads of stamens, Rose family. Agrimonia, harvestlice, swamp agrimony, but let us name it rose-among-the-ferns. Let us name ourselves sit-and-notice. Call us one-more-among-all-small-things. Look closely. Kneel. The least among the most is what we have come here to discover.

Agrimonia parviflora; Harvestlice Agrimony; Rosaceae

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Before, during, and after my summer visit to Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont I have been reading Malaika King Albrecht’s newest book of poetry, The Stumble Fields. If a work of art could be a facial expression her book would be a quiet, welcoming smile – the kind that lets you know she is about to share a great confidence. Her poems are revealing in the way sitting patiently in a quiet glade will gradually begin to reveal its true life.

And the spirit that often winds among her lines is, to me, that same spirit that leads us to desire to live truly in this world. Not to skip along its edges but to draw fully and be drawn deeply into it, discovering our selves as we discover the truths of our co-travelers. It is the naturalist urge – to find our connections at every stratum and station.

I am thankful to be connected to Malaika through her words.

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Lactuca floridana; Florida Blue Lettuce; Asteraceae

Loftin Woods

I’ve wanted to be a single story,
so I could tell you a happy ending
but every breath’s different.
In these woods I’m lost enough
to notice but not lost enough to care.
I find my body when the barred owl
startles the air. I find
my body where white trillium
catches light. I find my body
in the music of cantering horses
singing to sky. Today I could fall
right through this fabric of grass.

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Prunella vulgaris; Heall All; Lamiaceae

Silver Tangle of Brambles at Midnight

Late night you remember God’s first language
is silence. The space between heart beats,

the pause before someone says, Yes,
a brief moment before ebb becomes flow.

So you say, Fine. Don’t talk to me
like God’s a stubborn ghost.

You say, I’ll hear messages
whether you speak or not.

Every closed-door signals detour,
and each broken heart demands

sitting quietly for a time.

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

Vernonia flaccidifolia; Tennessee Iron Weed; Asteraceae

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Let’s meet at Grandview above the New River Gorge while the sun is still working its way through the pine and bare hickory. The hardcore birders left from Shelter #4 hours ago but we will follow the same course down the abandoned mining road to the River. We will follow the wild flowers. We will walk into Spring.

We don’t see a lot blooming up here at the end of April, elevation 2,500 feet in the West Virginia Appalachians. Beneath the trees and in the sunny patches the landscape is still mostly brown, but that doesn’t hold for long. Trailing arbutus and trout lily greet us in the first quarter mile, wake robin and four more species of trillium pop up along the course of the trail, wild iris and asters appear by the time we’ve descended 1,000 feet to river’s edge – all of Spring blooming in one morning.

And just in case we miss something we have a guide: my wife’s sister Jodi French-Burr, National Park Service ranger, naturalist, and interpreter. She’ll be kneeling in the duff gently parting the leaves so we can see the wild ginger blossoms. She’ll have at the tip of her tongue the name of every growing thing we discover. She’ll tell us the history of this winding trail and point out relics and landmarks along the way. And she will usually laugh at my jokes.

Come and convince yourself that the earth is filled with beauty.

Bring water and a snack. RESERVATIONS requested by April 21, 2020: 304-465-2632 or jodi_french-burr@nps.gov.

[UPDATE 3/23/2020 — due to the COVID-19 Pandemic many NPS and New River Gorge activities may have to be canceled or rescheduled. Be sure the check this site for the latest info:

https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/wildflower-weekend.htm

BUT . . . outdoor activities with family and small groups (maintaining your social distancing) are just what THIS doctor orders! Get out into nature! Viruses hate sunlight! . . . . . . . . Bill G  ]

 

Erythronium americana — Trout Lily (Dog-tooth Violet, yellow adder’s tongue, fawn lily)

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Deborah H. Doolittle has created a unique botanical and poetic experience with her collection Floribunda, a true garden of verse. The focal point of each poem is a particular flower, from Cowslip to Gardenia, but the speaker or the style of each poem is a giant of literature, from William Blake and Lewis Carroll to Sylvia Plath and Wallace Stevens. To wander the garden path of Deborah’s poetry is to smell the fragrance and delight in the colors but also to abide in the company of great writers, Deborah H. Doolittle not the least of them. Open to any page and converse.

[all selections are from Floribunda, © Deborah H. Doolittle, Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2017]

Hepatica americana — Round-lobed Hepatica

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Emily Dickinson’s Wild Flowers

The way she dressed a flower was
just that extravagant.
The haute couture of wild flowers!
wild flowers! her element.

To that pale cheek she called petal,
she pressed both stem and leaf –
the lupine, like crinoline; sweet
clover, tight Damascus weave.

She had played the part of Botanist,
a child’s specialty.
Swamp candles shed no brighter light
in Latin for the bee.

Grasses of Parnassus, skullcap
of the tiny laces,
she pressed herself soft as a moth
treading through her pages.

Antennaria solitaria — Solitary Pussytoes

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Henry David Thoreau and the Sunflower

Who among us has not followed the sun
and hated the clouds that hid its shining face?
Who else but us can claim that we have traced
across the sky the very path it runs?

We’ve traveled much through Concord, you and I.
The widest fields are fenced and most contain
cattle or corn or the stock of kitchen
gardens. The farmers never wonder why

your seeds proliferate upon their grounds.
I know how the wind blows the smallest crumb
and how the bees and birds know where to come.
The two of us, like them, know no such bounds.

The hedgerows and stonewalls can’t grow taller.
The sun is but a star and you’re its flower.

Sanguinaria canadensis — Bloodroot

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Sylvia Plath and the Impatiens

Unlike my empty hands,
it does not just lie there
with its flowers opening

upon white bed linen.
All its seeds jettisoned,
its future guaranteed

for at least another
season, this jewel-weed,
asks for nothing that I

cannot give it. It basks
in my sunlight, breathes in
my exhalations as fast

as I can breathe them out,
again. Still, we are both
waiting for the nurses

to make their rounds, the sun
to rise up, then subside,
for the moon and the stars

to appear and disappear,
for winter’s frost to turn
us into limp black rags.

Asarum virginicum – Heart-leaf Ginger (Little Brown Jugs)

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The other way to walk into Spring, although it takes a month or two, is to stroll along the same trail every day. Linda and I walk the Elkin Valley Trail Association Nature Trail along Big Elkin Creek at least three days a week. First appears trout lily, hepatica close behind, then every day or two there’s a new species in sequence: pussy-toes, wild ginger, bloodroot, rue anemone, star chickweed. In a month there will be foamflower, bellwort, jewel-weed, jack-in-the-pulpit. The photos in this post were all blooming on the same day, March 16, 2020.

Anemonella thalictroides — Rue Anemone

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Deborah H. Doolittle moved from her birthplace in Hartford, Connecticutt through many different landscapes and gardens before settling in Jacksonville, North Carolina. She has an MA in Women’s Studies and and MFA in Creative Writing and teaches at Coastal Carolina Community College. She serves on the Board of the North Carolina Poetry Society and she loves flowers.

Stellaria pubera – Star Chickweed

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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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I remember the first bird that counted. Clarification: I remember the first bird I counted.

Mom and Dad had rented a cabin so we could join them for a long weekend on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoahs, June, 1988. Did they think their grandkids were Nature undernourished? Mountain vistas, enfolding trees, night sky – we even saw a bobcat at dusk one evening. Maybe I was undernourished.

The second morning we hiked up a lonely trail in deep shade that suddenly brightened. A forest giant had fallen and invited into its space the sun and the sky. And birdsong. (Prime transitional habitat, I’ve since learned.)

Mom spotted a yellow streak come to rest on a bare branch and begin to sing. I focused. What is this?! Never had one of these on the feeder outside my dorm window, never saw one snagging worms on the front lawn. And listen to it sing! What?!

That Chestnut Sided Warbler is the first bird in my list. Well, make that lists: pocket notebooks, index cards, the backs of trail maps. And of the course the database on my hard drive, which has swelled to megabytes. But what’s the big deal? Thirty-five years old and writing down the name of a bird? What?

I wasn’t a Nature-deprived child. We played outdoors until the street lights blinked on. Caught fireflies in our hands and honey bees in jars. Raised tadpoles to peepers. Camps, beach trips, hiking, Scouts; I was out in Nature pretty much, but I count that CSW as the moment I began to notice. This is not just an unpopulated landscape, not a homogenous backdrop for picnics or games or a nice walk. These are things. Individuals. Differentiated. Species. I start by counting birds but then I notice wildflowers and take up botany, notice one side of the ridge has more blossoms and different, it’s geology, get down on my knees for the tiniest blooms and dang there’s a beetle, entomology.

Pretty soon I want to notice it all, the great grand beautiful interconnected mess, ecology, the parts and the whole. I’m becoming a Naturalist – someone who pays attention. Someone who notices.

Chestnut Sided Warbler in Virginia was my gateway drug. How much was I missing all those years before? Now I can’t help but notice. Blame the wrens that scold me every morning in the driveway. Blame my friend Mike who is always so careful to step over every millipede on the trail. Blame Amelia my granddaughter as she watches the crocuses open. And after last weekend blame Emily Stein* as my chief enabler, she and the other twenty hard core Naturalists I joined at Tremont in the Smokies for an intense course in “Skills for Sharing Nature.” As always, begin with some questions:

Where have I come from to reach this place? Why do I care? What is my personal story? What do I have to share?

The answers may arrive like spring buds that swell along the flank of the mountain seeking the summit, a lifetime of questions and answers, but now it’s time to screw up my courage and take Step 2: I’m going to get you hooked on Nature, too. Come here a minute. Try my binoculars. See that little dab of brown fluff that just flew up to that branch? Yes, that’s the one. Let’s see what he has to tell us.

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* Emily Stein: Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont naturalist educator, youth programs coordinator, and instructor for the February 2020 course “Skills for Sharing Nature,” part of the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program (SANCP). More information at www.gsmit.org

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Prayer for the Great Family

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare, and sweet
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowing spiral grain
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and the silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways, who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave, and aware
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep—he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars—and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.

so be it.

Gary Snyder (after a Mohawk prayer)
from EARTH PRAYERS, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

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Tonya and Roseann found them: wings scattered beside the river bank. Dozens and dozens of wings, bright yellow with stark black bars and fingerprints of orange and blue along the margins. Where had they come from?

Our entire class trooped over to observe. Leaf sized wings strewn on boulders at the north point of Girl Scout Island, Middle Prong of Little River, weekend naturalist skills course, Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, perfect setting for our mission: not to know an answer but to learn to question. “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Why were they here?

Only wings, no butterfly bodies. Had they congregated here to die? No dark females’ wings — were the males puddling, gleaning minerals for their spermatophores, and then attacked? Or had some devious predator collected the wings and brought them here to mystify us?

We crouched beneath the sycamore and hemlock while the mountain stream raced and chattered beside us. We parted the grasses, looked under rocks, collected a few wings and peered with our hand lenses. We paid attention. We were astonished.

Swallowtail wings

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The naturalist method and poetry have something in common. We want truth but we want to experience it directly. We make connections. We let light shine in dark places. And if we discover an answer it will likely bring with it not only a dollop of new knowledge but more than a dollop of wonder.

Susan Laughter Meyers has been a person and poet who has filled me with wonder. When her ultimate collection, Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, was published this year, two years after her untimely death, its poetry opened my heart and my mind again to the mystery and power of words. She was a fierce observer of the earth and all that is in it, the heron’s plume, the subtle change of hour, of season. And she was an uncompromising naturalist of the soul. In subtle phrase and in lancing stab she uncovers the dark places within us.

And lets in the light.

Oh, and as she reminds us, and as we beside the river finally remembered, besides looking back we must not forget to look up.

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If Not Birds Dodging Loneliness

The bluest ones in an open sky
fan reveries with their wings.
Dream time, that’s what they inhabit —
fabulous as the past and its dingy veils

I wore in a favorite childhood game:
dress-up with the girl whose father
ran a funeral home. The newest shroud
had no holes to trip us, one a princess

the other a bride. The least breeze
and the shroud would ripple, barely
kissing the skin. Wasn’t that a dalliance
to wish for? On days when birds soar

toward light, when they tip and wheel
and turn until they silhouette,
you’d think they’re being chased.
Or if not birds dodging loneliness,

then memories loosed into view.
Like the ones of a blindfolded
child with stick or pin-and-tail in hand,
steering toward a prize, when to win

the game is to break something
or make something whole again.
Fringed and fleeting, such remnants,
though the world is full of them.

There are moments in my life
when gravitating toward feels the same
as ducking from. Moments when,
for recompense, I look back. Or up.

 

Susan Laughter Meyers
from Self-Portrait in the River of Deja Vu, Press 53, 2019

Smokies - Tremont

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The quotation “Pay attention . . . ” is excerpted from the poem Sometimes by Mary Oliver, from Red Bird, Boston: Beacon Press, 2009, page 37.

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Doughton Park Tree #3

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Halfway down the steep ridge behind our house I am carving out a level spot where I will plant a bench.  On cool mornings I’ll lean forward and peer between the beech and hickory, Dutchman Creek ripples below, a pileated raps and quarrels above.  On warm evenings lengthening into dusk I will lean back, tentative step of unseen deer behind, mosquito countertenor in my ears. Join me as we entertain small thoughts.

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Weekend before last I laid down the mattock and dug with my hands.  Scooping up dirt to mold a shallow campfire pit, I lifted something soft.  An underground fungus, the sort that pigs sniff out?  Rare petrified bear scat from a wilder epoch?  What?

I opened my hands – a toad, inert in its hibernation.  It cracked one eye the smallest slit and looked up at me.  “Just five more minutes?”  I found a safer spot between the beech tree roots and tucked him in with moss.

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Adam & Eve Orchid

Jalalu’ddin Rumi
(translated by R.A.Nicholson)

If there be any lover in the world, O Moslems, ‘tis I.
If there be any believer, infidel, or Christian hermit, ‘tis I.
The wine-dregs, the cupbearer, the minstrel, the harp and the music,
The beloved, the candle, the drink and the joy of the drunken – ‘tis I.
The two-and-seventy creeds and sects in the world
Do not really exist: I swear by God that every creed and sect – ‘tis I.
Earth and air and water and fire – knowest thou what they are?
Earth and air and water and fire, nay, body and soul too – ‘tis I.
Truth and falsehood, good and evil, ease and difficulty from first to last,
Knowledge and learning and ascetism and piety and faith – ‘tis I.
The fire of Hell, be assured, with its flaming limbos,
Yes, and Paradise and Eden and houris – ‘tis I.
This earth and heaven with all that they hold,
Angels, peris, genies, and mankind – ‘tis I.

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Doughton Park Tree #2

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Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment / be kin, whatever it takes to link lives across the species?
Katherine Soniat, Furnishing the Frog Cosmos

It’s 1963 and my family is spending a few weeks at Nana’s house in Morehead City.  She lives on a high bluff overlooking Bogue Sound (Bogue Banks a mile across the waterway with nary a house visible).  All morning my little brother Bob and I pole an old flat-bottomed skiff through the shallows.  When the tide’s out we spend all afternoon stalking creatures through ankle-deep water and weed beds: silvery fish too swift and lean for our dip net; scallops that show a line of blue-green eyespots on their mantle and snap shut before we can grab them; squirts, knobbed and rubbery, that Bob and I have become brave enough to pick up and squeeze; strange holes in the sand, some that bubble, some that smoke with silt, some with a filmy slime-sac attached that waves in the ripples.  Crabs tiny and large, sea urchins, sand dollars, muscle-footed conches – there are so many strange and wonderful denizens that I, age 10, am very leery of wading through those same weed beds at high tide, never knowing what intends to snatch my toe.

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Bob lives in Montana now.  I don’t know if those creatures still haunt his memories, but I do know that when he brought his daughters to Pine Knoll Shores a few weeks ago they spent an entire day paddling about the sound in a canoe.  Josh, Allison, and Saul are at the beach right now.  We joined them for a couple of days, and I coaxed Saul to follow me out into that green-grey water.  Two feet deep and it catches him mid-chest.  He’s not bothered a bit that he can’t see where he’s placing his feet.  I feel something firm beneath my own and dip up a 3-inch blue crab.  Saul watches its claws pinch the netting, notices the paddle-shaped rear legs flip it through the water when I release it.  The net clinks something hard; I bring up a little whelk shell.  There’s an orange hermit crab hunkered in there.  We set it up on the pier and hold perfectly still until it inches forth, scuttles away, and plops back into the sound.

It’s time for lunch.  There are plenty more mysteries beneath that shining surface.  Next time we’re coming back at low tide.

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I love Katherine Soniat’s Furnishing the Frog Cosmos, from her book The Swing Girl.  I am fascinated by the idea Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment be kin?  What if?  I was born in February when the hoots of Great Horned Owls haunt the forest and the female on the nest is covered with snow.  Her mate brings meat to her and the downy chicks while she keeps them from freezing.  The Black Bear gives birth to her cubs in February, still in her winter dormancy.  While they nurse she may not eat for weeks.  No doubt a thousand generations of insects by the trillions share the February moment of my birth.  Equatorial birds, warm-water polyps, the whole southern hemisphere in their mid-summer – we’re a strange and wonderful family.

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Furnishing the Frog Cosmos

Earth-jam of a mulched garden — foxglove and iris
beneath the statue that trickles water from her jug
into the pond.

Frogs by the lily pad couple, aloof, eggs adrift
in the green algae.
Why shouldn’t offspring of a given moment
be kin, whatever it takes to link lives across the species?

Think of these squiggly scribbles on water, the young translucent
ones preparing for the planet, for clumsy leaps through circles
of slime.
And not far from here in the woods, the discarded clothes
of childhood lay buried — softened shoes, patched woolens and denim.
An owl dives for the red-headed woman as she weeds a small plot.
Her fickle mane is something that bird wants, sweaters clumped
underground with the winged mittens.

In a flash, that woman rises, out of synch with the concrete maiden
who pours water endlessly for the frogs.
One by one, the stories
diminish, and outgrown body of clothing at home in the dirt.

Katherine Soniat

from The Swing Girl, Louisiana State University Press, 2011

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Katherine Soniat lives in Asheville, NC and teaches in the University of North Carolina at Asheville’s Great Smokies Writers Program.  The Swing Girl  was selected as Best Collection of 2011 by a North Carolina poet (Arnold Oscar Young Award) by the Poetry Council of North Carolina.

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I’m going to bet your family is a lot like mine.  Sometimes my parents come to stay a few days over a holiday, with Margaret and her Josh in from Raleigh, Mary Ellen down from Sylva (and all with dogs-squared), and finally Josh, Allison, and Saul all squeezed in.  Then it starts.  First hugs, then catching up and gossip, meanwhile eating, momentary pause in eating, start eating again.  Finally, if we’re all under the same roof for long enough, the stories begin.

Haven’t you heard them?  Stories that start out with, “Oh, I remember when you were six and you . . . .”  “Right, and remember that time we thought no one was looking and we . . . .”  “Sure, and can you remember what Nana would say when we . . . ?”  We’ve heard them all a thousand time, but we can’t help ourselves.  We have to re-tell them.  It’s the stories that bind us together and remind us we’re a family.  Those stories make us a family.

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I was at the Zoo about a year ago when Batir was smaller (though not by any means small).  She still kept pretty close to her mother, Tonga, and they would frequently caress each other with their trunks or even interlace, touching . . . touching.  Today they still spend much of the day near each other; is Batir leaning against her mother’s side?  They’re that close.

Yesterday at the aviary, besides watching the Yellow-rumped Cacique add fronds to a large unruly nest in the very top of a sapodilla, I saw a pair of White-headed Mousebirds that evidently also had nesting on their minds.  They nibbled at each other’s beaks, and then one would preen the neck feathers of the other . . . and they were perched pretty darn close together on that branch.

One morning this week I entered the Park early while the alligators were still bellowing at each other (there are two separate ‘gator enclosures so the males can’t get physical with each other).  As I passed one pool, a larger ‘gator was rubbing his jaw up and down the neck of the smaller, and then she (?) would return the gesture.  I’d have a hard time calling it “nuzzling” when your skin is smooth as an old shagbark hickory, but I can only assume they were making friends.

With such a large extended family of baboons, you can’t pass them by without noticing that there is always some grooming going on.  Sometimes it’s a female picking through the thick mane of a large male; sometimes two females; frequently a mother and child, and then they reciprocate.  The younger members of the troop sometimes stop chasing and wrestling to comb each other out with their claws.

Somehow each species communicates that they are a family.  It may be the complex subsonic telegraphy of elephants or the ritual stereotypic breeding displays of birds, but the message is received.  The bond is forged.  The family prevails.

We humans prevail through the stories we tell.  When that gets old, we tell stories about telling stories. As Zoo ambassador, here’s my challenge to you:  tell me a new story.

I am leaving the Zoo after this week-long residency with a headful of stories.  You’ve got some, too.  Discover them.   Tell them.  You don’t have to visit a zoo, or an aquarium, or a botanical garden, or a national park.  You have a backyard, a neighborhood, a schoolyard.  There is something about any one of those places that can remind you what family you belong to.  Do I have to come right out and say it?  It’s the Family of All Life on Earth.

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Maybe you’ll encounter a creature you’ve never paid much attention to before.  You might learn to recognize a bird’s call or look up the name of that big butterfly hanging around your bushes.  Perhaps you’ll gain some new understanding about how creature A depends on creature B, and vice versa.  Could be you’ll discover that something you’re used to doing every day actually harms creature C.  You know you’re going to feel invigorated after you get a big dose of Vitamin N (“Nature”).

And you’re going to have some stories. I can hear you now, each time you get together with your Family and spend some quality time under nature’s vast open roof – “Hey, do you remember when we . . . ?!”

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A Prayer for the Mountains

Let these peaks have happened

The hawk-haunted knobs and hollers,
The blind coves dense as meditation,
The white rock-face, the laurel hells,
The terraced pasture ridge
With its broom sedge combed back by wind:
Let these have taken place, let them be place.

And where Harmon Fork piles unrushing
Against its tabled stones, let the gray trout
Idle below, its dim plectrum a shadow
That marks the stone’s clear shadow.

In the slow glade where sunlight comes through
In circlets and moves from leaf to fallen leaf
Like a tribe of shining bees,
Let the milk-flecked fawn lie unseen, unseeing.

Let me lie there too
And share the sleep
Of the cool ground’s mildest children.

Fred Chappell
from Spring Garden, 8 1995 by Fred Chappell, Lousiana State University Press.

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You don’t have to visit the Zoo, but it couldn’t hurt.  It’s done me a world of good.  Next time you’re there, see if they’ve started displaying poetry around the Park.  (It won’t happen until after all three of us Poets-in-Residence have submitted our suggestions, but if you don’t see any yet it’ll just be the perfect reason to make another trip before too long.)

Meanwhile, I thank profoundly Ellen Greer, Sue Farlow, and Dr. David Jones as well as all those on the steering committee that developed the vision for this Poetry of Conservation project.  And to all the rest of you folks – design staff, animal handlers, Zoo Com, volunteers, interpreters, Sodexo, Schindler House folks – you welcomed me into your NC Zoological Park family, and I am humbled and grateful.  In sheer awesomeness you are equal to any of the other animals in the Park!

Love, BILL

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