Inspiration from David George Haskell’s book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature

I wasn’t expecting to have to run back inside for a jacket for my morning walk to the gate, but I did and was still cold. It was right at 50 degrees with a chill stiletto wind that slips down around your neck  and makes you hunch up your shoulders.

The pictures here are ones I took this morning. There was a low cloud cover, with just enough light so that the camera did its point and shoot thang without the flash. So, there’s a little story in the captions. You’ll be seeing lots of these sorts of photos as the year moves on. I want to document the plants here in a slightly more orderly way than I have in the past. Probably because I’ve just started reading David George Haskell’s highly recommended book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. I’d like to take my fingers out of all the other pies they’re in, and hide out to read this book with no interruptions. Thanks to my friend, writer and the BBQ/coffee king, David C. Bailey, for giving me a head’s up on this one. I’m no scientist, but I am surely a loving observer.

I believe that the forest’s ecological stories are all present in a mandala-sized area. Indeed, the truth of the forest may be more clearly and vividly revealed by the contemplation of a small area than it could be by donning ten-league boots, covering a continent but uncovering little.

The search for the universal within the infinitesimally small is a quiet theme playing through most cultures. The Tibetan mandala is our guiding metaphor, but we also find context for this work in Western culture. Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” raises the stakes by shrinking the mandala to a speck of earth or a flower: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” Blake’s desire builds on the tradition of Western mysticism most notably demonstrated by the Christian contemplatives. For Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis of Assisi, or Lady Julian of Norwich, a dungeon, a cave, or a tiny hazelnut could all serve as lenses through which to experience the ultimate reality.

~David George Haskell (from his Preface to The Forest Unseen)

Florida Anise (Illicium Floridanum), photo taken at Longleaf Preserve on April 5, 2013 on bank of natural spring, where it blooms this time every year.
Florida Anise (Illicium Floridanum), photo taken at Longleaf Preserve on April 5, 2013 on bank of natural spring, where it blooms this time every year.

 

Photographed at Longleaf Preserve on April 5, 2013. We were leaving town for several months back in the year 2000. My step-daughter had given me several iris plants, and I had bought a couple, too. Some had yellow flowers, others purple. I slipped them into the stream-bed muck, hoping they would like having their feet wet all summer. Ever since, they continue to thrive and divide, and make a big show for us each Spring.
Photographed at Longleaf Preserve on April 5, 2013. We were leaving town for several months back in the year 2000. My step-daughter had given me several iris plants, and I had bought a couple, too. Some had yellow flowers, others purple. I slipped them into the stream-bed muck, hoping they would like having their feet wet all summer. Ever since, they continue to thrive and divide, and make a big show for us each Spring.

 

Purple Thistle (Cirsium Horridulum) Easily recognizable, a weed seen in ruderal spots nearly everywhere. This one was photographed halfway between house and gate at Longleaf Preserve on April 5, 2013. My husband, Buck, didn't run over it when he ran the bush-hog yesterday because he knows I have a soft spot for blooming thistles.
Purple Thistle (Cirsium Horridulum) Easily recognizable, a weed seen in ruderal spots nearly everywhere. This one was photographed halfway between house and gate at Longleaf Preserve on April 5, 2013. My husband, Buck, didn’t run over it when he ran the bush-hog yesterday because he knows I have a soft spot for blooming thistles.

 

Each fall, Buck and our friend Harold bush-hog the clearing all around the house and plant it with oats, wheat and rye. Deer, bunnies and other critters nibble it and sleep in it all winter and then they eat the seeds. It's a real boon for our wild turkeys and migrating birds. This is how it looked today, April 5, 2013.
Each fall, Buck and our friend Harold bush-hog the clearing all around the house and plant it with oats, wheat and rye. Deer, bunnies and other critters nibble it and sleep in it all winter and then they eat the seeds. It’s a real boon for our wild turkeys and migrating birds. This is how it looked today, April 5, 2013.

 

Henbit (Lamium Amplexicaule) is an annual broadleaf weed. It prettifies our clearing every year and makes for unhappy golfers and happy bees. You can guess which one I care about the most. I took this photo this morning, April 5, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve.
Henbit (Lamium Amplexicaule) is an annual broadleaf weed. It prettifies our clearing every year and makes for unhappy golfers and happy bees. You can guess which one I care about the most. I took this photo this morning, April 5, 2013 at Longleaf Preserve.

 

See caption on the yellow iris for an explanation of how this stunner came to live in the stream-bed. Photo taken at Longleaf Preserve April 5, 2013.
See caption on the yellow iris for an explanation of how this stunner came to live in the stream-bed. Photo taken at Longleaf Preserve April 5, 2013.

 

 

 

 

September’s End at Longleaf

Yesterday morning I walked our woods for the first time in more than two weeks. There were several cool nights while we were away; enough to tinge these oak leaves the colors of autumnal hydrangeas. Today, noisy rain has enclosed me in the sconce-lit dreaming space of my study, where I wear a soft old sundress and pink slipper socks, and drink pomegranate-infused green tea.

Every Blazing Star stalk in the woods seemed to come with its own bee yesterday. The drunken bees were slow and heedless of a camera-clicking person.

The forest was strung with dancing garlands. I wonder if they have tiny bulbs inside that light up at night?

A mushroom with strep throat? Blushing? Don’t believe I should touch or taste this one.

Haven’t you ever had one of those days when you were just too tired to hold your head up a minute longer?

Of course, if you stay down too long, somebody may move in.

Tiny yellow flowers sprinkled as if from a Lilliputian’s basket are everywhere I look. Who wouldn’t be cheered by these bright sprites?

I let a  rafter of 18 turkeys move through the clearing in front of the house before heading out for my walk. They bounded along, stopping every few steps to lunge at something on the ground, either a bug or a seed.  A young deer calmly watched as I moved into the woods. She probably grew up right here and has most likely seen me many times before. Our home, hers and mine.

Conga Drum, Octopus Hunting and a Walk to the Gate

One dream was of a large oak Brazilian timba conga drum. Two almond-shaped eyes were painted on it. It spoke to me in soulful bass tones. “Por favor traga-me uma xícara de café quente.”  I swear, the beautiful eyes did a slow blink.

In another dream, three pick-up trucks drove very fast into the clearing outside my study window. Rough men in camouflage spilled out, popped the tailgate and tugged on something large, a gray-lavender huge squirmy octopus. It had cartoon-round eyes and went galumphing off into the woods. I was on my feet in a flash, ran out the door. “Hey! What the hell is going on here?”  I got right up in their porcine faces.

They looked at me as though I was the strange duck. “Huntin’ ma’am. Don’t you know it’s octopus season?”

What do you think? Am I drinking too much coffee or not enough? Reading too much? Writing when I should be sleeping and sleeping when I should be talking to the Dragon or packing for Maine? Listening to weird music, like “Big in Japan” by Tom Waits? Turn that one up real loud when you’re into the head of a depressive with an attitude in his manic phase. (Hey, I’m talking about my bad guy character I love to hate, Rory Mathis. He must be a Scorpio.)

But in the midst of it all, there are still the sane-making woods walks. We changed weather channels a few days ago, and went from this:

to cooler, much dryer air and clear skies. Our monsoon season has ended. Three nights ago if we had tried to eat supper outside on the patio, we would have been ingesting disgusting black “love bugs” along with the meal. Tonight? Different story. Luscious cool breeze, slow melt sunset in peach sherbet colors, and love bugs gone, baby gone.

Here, then, a few photos from summer’s end at Longleaf.

Surely these wildflowers, so common in the woods, have a name. The naming of things is important. I’ve searched Walter Kingsley Taylor’s book, Florida Wildflowers, from Pine Flatwoods to Ruderal Sites, and cannot find its name.

The shocking purple American Beautyberry (also known as French Mulberry) is a sure harbinger of Fall. This bush is probably spindly because it’s standing in wet ground near the spring.

With abundant acorns, berries, a natural spring, and few people crashing about, the wildlife population thrives. Thousands of green acorns were blown down by Tropical Storm Isaac’s gusts. They make crackle crunchy sounds underfoot.

We’ve had so much rain this summer, I grew afraid of standing still for fear something would begin growing on me.

Looks like this fellow has his morning’s work all planned out.

Some mushrooms are pretty, in a homely sort of way.

And the underside of some are so strange I begin to hum “Also Sprach Zarathustra” while kneeling on the damp ground to get an up-close look. It looks ancient. Petrified.

Lay me down forever in a bed of ferns, my love.

I just remembered I got married once on a September 10 long ago in a land far, far away to a person like “The Stranger” in that Billy Joel song, who became a person “that I did not recognize.” The year I divorced him,  I sang Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover” for months before I finally  filed the motion for dissolution.

August Walk-About in the Longleaf Woods

The honey bee crawled in a circular motion around the ruby heart of this Man-of-the-Earth flower until he emerged, slow, heavy, his pollen baskets full.

It has been so long since I walked the forest fire lines, our woods have forgotten me. Networks of vines, roots, fallen trees and monsoon-like rains have eliminated any trace of footprints I may have left from years of walking from the house into the woods, my two-mile circuit a labyrinthine mantra. Selective forgetting is a good thing.

Standing water from the daily rains has been here so long I believe we could grow rice in this low spot on the fire line road.

I tread lightly at 7:30 this morning. No one, not bird, nor reptile, nor four-legged creature, nor sun-facing green-eye is expecting me to show up on this, one of the steamiest August days in memory.

Bright Balduinas stick their heads up from wind-tossed twigs.

Everything goes about its business like children do before they become awareness of parental observation, and I, too, am free to speak to no one, to poke about, to squish in my sodden, tick trefoil– covered old jogging shoes. When I was a child, we simply called those sticktights by their common name, beggar-lice.

Something has been nibbling on this ‘shroom.

The very woods themselves exuded the earthy scent of fungi. I crept into a copse of young pines to get a better look at a colony of reindeer moss. The mushroom smell there in that damp ground was so naturally strong that it seemed a primordial soup, seeping up from the ground or poured on my hair.

One of my favorite spots is a sandy depression that has become a small hollowed out space with a ledge overhanging it. It is always damp, and surrounded by hat pins, wild bachelor’s buttons, pink sundews and other bog-loving plants. Sometimes it is merely damp. Other times, like today, there is a miniature waterfall. I saw it teeming with tadpoles once, and hope to see that sight again. The sight made me feel incongruously privileged  — I guess, because the fact that I saw those changelings was strictly an accident of timing. I came back the next morning. They were gone.

I walked with a cross-body pouch containing my cell-phone, tissues, sun glasses to trade for my clear ones, two peppermints and my Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol. The grass was high in spots, it’s prime rattlesnake season, several coyotes together might decide I looked like breakfast, and one is never wise to blindly tip-toe through the wildflowers, discounting the possibility of  a two-legged wandering opportunist (a rare, but potentially lethal creature).

The great news I got yesterday from a sports medicine doc who diagnosed a partially torn rotator cuff in one shoulder and a bruised and angry one in the other, then injected cortisone and sent me off with a prescription for physical therapy, lightened my step. Maybe that doesn’t sound like such fine news, but when the alternative diagnosis was degenerative osteoarthritis of the shoulder, I came away a relieved and happy woman, ready to do the necessary to re-hab my wings.  We’ve rejoined our local health club starting October 1, which coincides with our homecoming from a return visit to the Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. The club has yoga classes now, in addition to the usual machines, weights and other classes. I have this dream of being lithe at 98. A yoga practice is a seed I intend to sprout and grow.

I returned to the house, sweaty and content. Buck was gearing up for the day. Granddaughter Andie was snoozing upstairs. I shucked my wet clothes, donned an old, seldom-used bathing suit, and plunged into the rain-cold water.

Wally’s Walk in a Central Florida Marsh

When a thought bubble labeled “good men you know” floats above my head, I fill it up quick as you please with several names: Buck, Wally Jones (my older brother), Charlie Haas (my brother-in-law), Richard Westmark (my step-son),  Richard Gibson (my step-son-in-law), Sid Jones (my nephew), and Harold Swilley. There are many others in my life, but these are the “A” list that fill up that first thought bubble.

One of them, my brother Wally, got a new camera recently, and has begun to photograph subjects of greatest interest to him: his family and nature. Turns out he’s a gifted photographer, and has been kind enough to let me share a recent photo essay from a walk in a marsh near his home in central Florida. Wally’s photos were taken on June 15. There are some birds in this series that I had never heard of or seen before. How about you?

So, get ready for a heavy dose of natural splendor, Florida style. Just sit back and enjoy these stunning photos. Accompanying text and photos below are courtesy of Wallace Jones.

“I took a stroll yesterday morning through a marshy area just south of town. The sun had just broken the horizon, not a sign of a cloud was in the bright blue sky and the air was fresh and clean.”

“As I started down a grassy path, the sentinel of the swamp (Wood Stork) looked down at me from his perch atop a dead tree. I was reminded of Dante’s Inferno and wondered if I was about to cross the River Styx. Instead of abandoning all hope, I trudged onward.”
“The marsh was waking up. Tall trees decorated with Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks and White Ibises came to life with stretching, fluttering and general clucking.”
“A Purple Gallinule with a mouth full of nesting material darted in and out of the greenery, perhaps to throw off any would-be predator from finding her nest.”
“Florida Sandhill Cranes think this is a great place to raise kids. Momma explains to Junior that it’s time for him to start feeding himself. Right.”
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
Cattle Egret
Tricolored Heron
Snowy Egret
Limpkin
Common Moorhen
Dragonfly
“The sun is rising higher and the dew is burning off the Swamp Hibiscus. It’s June in Florida. Hot. Steamy. Time for all creatures to find water, shade and be thankful we have so much for which to be thankful.”

Just Life

It’s Thursday night, I think. Buck and I got back home to Pensacola last night. We made our way from Maggie Valley to Asheville and turned west on I-26 toward Columbia, South Carolina, where we picked up I-95 South to Savannah. I’d love to say we lingered in Savannah’s old town over a romantic dinner and walked along the river, but that would be a lie. Instead, we ducked sheets of rain and dodged wind gusts until about 5 o’clock. We found a bed and a delivery veggie pizza in a Hampton Inn at a motel city called Gateway South on the Jacksonville side of Savannah. Buck, dear soul, found a liquor store and bought me a fine bottle of single malt Scotch sippin’ whiskey to celebrate the eve of my 61st birthday. I didn’t hurt it too bad, though, anticipating the next day’s fasting for our annual Mayo Clinic wellness physicals.

We spent the evening talking about the romantic journey of our history together. We talked about our Maggie Valley stay, the visits with friends, the nice people we crossed trail with, how sweet it was to stay at the  “Awesome View” cottage, managed by Carolina Vacations, and how superb it was to live for two weeks in a Smoky Mountains’ rain forest garden.

I came away determined to garden again, despite arthritis that cramps my hands and shoulders, despite hungry deer that eat up all the proceeds.

Images of these perfect blooms will stay with me all through the heat of our Pensacola summer. We’ll be hunkered down here in the air-conditioned destination resort until September, when we’ll head to Bernard, Maine on Bass Harbor, back to the fabulously rustic “Captain’s Quarters” owned by the very dear golf croquet champion Jeanne Fernald. Got a note from Jeanne today, and she tells me there is still vacancy in July and August at Captain’s.  Shoot me a note if you’re interested and I’ll tell you all about it. We have stayed there at least three times in the past. Great place  — has its own lobster dock, and isn’t far from Acadia National Park.

This sweet little flower is on a vine I spotted this morning on an early walk down to our very own Longleaf Preserve gate. Early morning’s are the time to walk, while the air is still fragrant and cool. Our doc at Mayo said we should keep on keepin’ on, that our formula, whatever it is, is working. We’re apparently poster kids for the older set. Heh.

I’ve been talking to and writing back and forth with my brothers and sisters. Sweet wondrous folk, dear to my heart. Hard to think of old age, separation, illness and, you know. You know. The part I don’t want to think about. None of us do.

Our good friend, Betty Hunter, brought us a bottle of Pear Gorgonzola salad dressing when she and Jim came to see us in Maggie. I used some today to dress a salad of butter lettuce, Carolina Gold smoked turkey chunks, walnuts, red onion slivers, walnuts, and dried cranberries. Just about the best stuff I ever put in my mouth. Ooh, it was good.

Ain’t it pretty? Sockeye salmon in a teriyaki sauce with brown rice, baby spinach and wok-grilled red peppers and onions. Who says healthy eating is some kind of sacrificial act?

And doing a lazy backstroke in the cool blue open air pool surrounded by tall Longleaf pines, singing mocking birds,  flights of swallows,  the high drone of a circling helicopter, and the drifting perfume of vining honeysuckle, can you tell me that it really does get any better than this?

Shape Shifting

Leafy Shadows move on the scored concrete floor

Dark butterflies find their way

Steel birds rumble the valley

The hawk is always hungry.

Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?  (from Landslide, written by songwriter Stevie Nicks)

Tiger Swallowtail on Lily in Maggie Valley

Buck and I balanced bowls of  wild rice soup and a saucer of cheese toast on our laps while we enjoyed lunch on the cabin porch here in Maggie Valley. Just as Buck got to the punch line of a new plot twist he is working on, I saw this gorgeous swallowtail butterfly land on one of the lilies in a cluster not ten feet away from my foot.

I tip-toed indoors to fetch my camera. This beauty not only waited for me, but posed patiently.

Lush, generous nature on display at one’s fingertips is one of the many reasons we are drawn to Western North Carolina. I didn’t lurk for hours in an uncomfortable position with a fancy camera waiting and hoping for these photos. It was serendipity, pure and not-so-simple; something that seems to happen here with delightful frequency.

After lunch, Buck and I drove to nearby Waynesville and walked a section of the Greenway— another happy surprise — near the Waynesville Recreation Center.  More on that tomorrow.

Bryce Canyon: Fins, Windows and Hoodoos

I am doing laundry, cleaning the refrigerator, mopping the floor and packing for Maggie Valley. And I am thinking of the gift I received from “The Figure 8” trail we hiked May 2nd at Bryce Canyon National Park. I was afraid to try it. When we hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I dread the ascent, then sing or whistle all the way down. To descend from the rim at Sunrise Point to the floor, with multiple ascents and descents within the valley, and then — at the end of the day at max fatigue — to make a ferocious (for me) steep climb back out to the rim and end at Sunset Point, was daunting. Buck’s cheerful attitude and spirit of adventure carried the day. When we finished the loops and were looking down in amazement at where we had been, my body was tired, but my heart was emboldened and my spirit restored to venture out into wildness again.

When I start trying to winnow down the photos from Bryce Canyon to post only a representative few, I get totally stuck. I want to show them all. I am evangelical when it comes to Bryce. I want to take you by the shoulders and say “Go. You have to experience this place.”

The National Park Service website for Bryce Canyon is a great place to start planning a trip and learning about the evolution of what geologists call the Claron Formation.

Buck and I spent three nights at the outstanding  Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel.  It’s the latest incarnation of the late Ruby and Minnie Syrett ‘s lodging empire at Bryce Canyon that began in 1919 when they pitched a tent at the rim of the canyon to accommodate visitors. The next year, they built “Tourist Rest,” a lodge near Sunset Point. According to literature from Ruby’s Inn, visitors carved their names in the lodge’s heavy wooden doors, which became a wild west sort of guest register. Ruby and Minnie added several tent cabins and an open-air pavilion for dancing, and never looked back.  Sounds to me like sturdy, fun-loving folk gathered there. I suspect there was whiskey drinking along with the dancing. It’s a bizarre image, and must have been exhilarating,  like a fairyland at the edge of the universe.

Today, in the hub on the outskirts of the park, there’s a dinner theater, rodeo, kitschy shops, gas stations, restaurants, a general store, several inns and an RV park. We were there just before the season got into full swing, so even the park shuttle buses weren’t running yet.

Bryce Canyon rim elevations range between 8,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level, and I’m here to tell you that you will feel effects from that elevation when you’re hiking. Our first afternoon was spent reconnoitering, walking up to Sunset Point, and making plans for a major hike the next day. I’m a coward. I look for the Easy to Moderate Hikes in the Day-Hiking Trail Guide. Not Buck. He skips over those and the Moderate Hikes, and goes straight to the Strenuous Hikes (steep grades with MULTIPLE elevation changes).  The hike listed at the very bottom of that section was called “The Figure 8.” The description for it said, “Combine Queens Garden, Navajo Loop and Peekaboo Loop into one ultimate hike!.”  I could see Buck’s finger, like the Ouija Board of doom, hover and then stop on that one.

My finger stopped on the “Hiking Reminders” part of the description. It included such bullet points as:

♦  CAUTION – Rocks occasionally fall on most hiking trails. If you see or hear active rockfall, leave the area.

♦  Carry 1 liter of water per 2-3 hours of hiking.

♦  Park elevations reach over 9100 feet. Even mild exertion may leave you feeling light-headed and nauseated.

♦  Remember, you are responsible for your own safety.

 The next morning we strapped on our backpacks, laced up our boots, and headed out to do “The Figure 8.”  I started out wearing my warm Cabela’s fleece jacket. It felt good for about 10 minutes. As we descended into the valley floor, the temperatures rose. I lamented the extra weight and bulk of the jacket stuffed in my backpack.

In most places, the path is wide and safe. The connected loops wouldn’t be particularly strenuous were it not for the somewhat extreme, multiple elevation changes.  An excellent slide show and description of this loop by K. A. Bogan on an IPhone app called Every Trail is here.

Windows develop in rock formations. Through erosion, freezing, thawing, and freezing again multiple times, the formations gradually collapse to form hoodoos.

These hoodoos as still connected to one another. Time will pass, and they will stand alone in odd groupings and shapes.

A hoodoo stands alone.

The climb back to the rim was not a series of fairly gentle switch-backs like our entry path. My heart pounded. Here is where I felt the altitude most acutely. I look at this photo today and smile. We did it!

Tomorrow morning we’ll point the car toward Maggie Valley and the rainforest Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I’ll breathe hard and mutter under my breath all the way to ridge tops, then whistle and sing all the way down, and stay up late rocking on the porch under bright stars.

Next: Salt Lake City — our last road trip destination before heading home.