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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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[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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