Saturday, May 9, 2015

Stories and Species

It came up about quite naturally the other evening to be enjoying a lovely crepuscular meeting at the puddle halfway between Kristen's and my house, discussing story telling and biodiversity as the last daylight faded and lightning bugs began to flash in the forest. The meeting was initiated as a simple passing of 2 eggs from one neighbor to another, an example of people who live quite rurally using neighbors' pantries as grocery stores. Of course she didn't just hand me the eggs and run; we got into chatting about people and their stories, what fascinating things people have to say when you are willing to listen, how Ira Glass has revolutionized radio with honoring human stories of all manners. We decided that no matter where you stand on this planet, there are captivating stories all around. Any direction you look or listen from any vantage point, there is a good, or at least interesting, inspiring or heartbreaking story to be found. We live in a world of abundant stories.

This paralleled my experience of earlier that day, on a little expedition up to the Lone Pine Gap area of Paint Creek, in the Cherokee National Forest. I went with Mentor and his son to collect pictures of 24 native species of plants for the son's botany class and to do a little bird watching. This section of the forest that we were in was quite different from the moist rich cove where I dwell. Piney and a bit scrubby up top, this hillside appears to have burned relatively recently and no doubt was logged sometime in the not so distance past. Beneath the tiny layer of rich top soil, the ground was greyish and so different from the soils I encounter on a more daily basis. As Mentor and his son scurried around snapping pictures, I had the thought that we could probably stand in one spot without moving and gather 24 species of plants easily. I posed this challenge, and this is what we came up with:

Castanea dentata, American chestnut
Rhododendron calendulaceum, Flame azalea
Vaccinium ?, Deerberry
Vaccinium ?, some other species of wild blueberry
Lysimachia quadrifolia, Whorled loosestrife
Kalmia latifolia, Mountain laurel
Pieris floribunda, Fetter-bush
Acer pensylvanicum, Striped maple
Acer rubrum, Red maple
Sassafras albidum, Sassafras
Oxydendrum arboreum, Sourwood
Quercus prinus, Chestnut oak
Quercus rubra, Red oak
Pinus rigida, Pitch pine
Pinus virginiana, Virginia pine
Cornus florida, Dogwood
Robinia pseudo-acacia, Black locust
Nyssa sylvatica, Black gum
Gaultheria procumbens, Wintergreen
Epigaea repens, Trailing arbutus
Rhododendron maximum, Rhododendron
Liriodendron tulipifera, Tulip poplar
Carya sp?, Hickory
Rhus toxicodendron, Poison ivy

I suppose just like people, the biodiversity of the flora around here also has stories to tell. Fire. Erosion. Time. Decay. Adaptation. Speciation. Evolution.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


Lindera benzoin, commonly known as spicebush, is a keynote understory species in these parts. Favoring moist soil and part shade/ part sun, it grows to be a large shrub of the laurel family, often under the protection of our prevalent tree species- black walnut, tulip poplar, hickory and ash. Spicebush are most showy in the early fall, when they are bedecked with hundreds or thousands of blood red jewel-like berries. In the spring, spicebush are one of the first flowers to appear in the woods. Their leafless twigs grow the sweetest, most delightful little yellow flowers all up and down them. The flowers are simultaneously stunningly beautiful and humbly understated, if that could be. 

Last spring, while tinkering around the yard one early evening, I was stopped in my tracks by a subtle whiff of what was possibly the best perfume smell I had ever caught wind of. Being a very scent-oriented person, I followed my nose here and there, and within a few minutes I found myself face to flower with a blooming spicebush. The delicate but powerful smell was absolutely perfect. A breath of spring. Palpable freshness and fertility. I hesitate to compare it to anything, but for the sake of this imperfect discourse, I will liken it to a flowery, lemon-like smell, with something almost tangy. 

The next day, I excitedly relayed my experience to my next door neighbor, and we hurried to the nearest spicebush and inhaled. Nothing. We went from bush to bush, sniffing in anticipation. Still nothing. The perfume was gone, and I was left wondering if I had imagined it altogether. 

Within the week or two, a Cherokee friend of mine showed up one afternoon with a buddy to harvest some sochan and bloodroot, two other very abundant plants in these parts. They showed up with lye corn cakes in tow, and came in for tea before heading out to forage. We ended up harvesting a few twigs of flowering spicebush, and the friend showed me how to prepare spicebush tea in a traditional Cherokee way. The little twigs, early in the spring are taken and simmered for 15 or so minutes. The tea is drunk for cold or fever.

From the Iroquois tradition, spicebush is called Duhen Yuks, which might mean something like "helps the man get somewhat excited." It is combined with euonymous and used for gonorrea and syphilis; one root was taken and boiled with 4 quarts of water- boiled down to 1/2 quart of tea. It is also used for colds. A tea combined with jewelweed was placed on the breast for "breast injuries." For cold sweats, colds and measles, the leaves are boiled to a tea. This information was from a text of Iroquois traditional herbal medicine shared with me by dear friend Diana Osborne.

The berries of the spicebush can be used as a spice, similar to allspice. I have used it as a seasoning in apple pie, a mystery ingredient in pesto, and combined in a homemade mead with pears. a little goes a long way. You don't need more than a few berries in a whole pie. 

This evening I was walking along the Laurel River. I turned a bend and was hit again by a subtle but definite perfume. I was distracted by my thoughts and didn't give it my attention right away. When I caught my second whiff, I noticed that I was walking through a little spicebush grove. I stepped to the nearest one and placed my nose directly on a tiny flower. As I breathed in the best smell ever, I noticed a small, pollen- covered fly creeping into another flower, making itself drunk with spicebush perfume. I closed my eyes and breathed as deeply as I could over and over. Clean and timeless. Fresh linens hanging on a precious spring afternoon deep in the mountains. Hard working man and woman sitting down in the evening. Deep and lonely. Light and lovely. A keepsake. The definition of ephemeral. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Doe Posse

The morning of the last day of February found the Starling Gentry Doe Posse bedding in the snow just above one of my astragalus patches in the garden. These ladies slept in. The first one rose at 9:12, and they weren't all up and browsing until 10:30. "Ain't skeered," they said, in deer language.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Late winter

Hard to imagine the Maypole wrapping is coming up in just a couple months

Plum wore out after a session with the bone

Weeping cherry buds, primed and ready

Monday, February 16, 2015

Mount Cammerer

It took me living in Western North Carolina for, um, 18 years before I ventured across the state line and on into America's #1 most visited national park for any kind of mountain exploration. Perhaps this is shame-worthy, but I am not ashamed because all of these Blue Ridge Mountains, including the ones in the comfort zone of my home state, are holy and more than worth my time. That being said, my visit to the Great Smokies National Park was long overdue.

The trip was planned for me. All I had to do was pack some snacks, and some water, and some (I mean lots) of extra clothing just in case and show up. R.E. and I headed across that state line and into Cocke County, through Newport and straight into Cosby. The Appalachian Farmers Market which we were planning to attend at the Visitors' Center was not happening, so after a bathroom break and a peanut stop at a convenience store, we parked in the Cosby Campground and found the trail head. The day was fresh, and the morning chill was quickly fading to a mild, sunny springlike February delight.

It was a 6.5 mile ascent to the summit of Mount Cammerer, which is nearly 5000ft. I forget the elevation that we started at, but it was a lot lower than that, meaning the climb was steep and "relentless." The lower portion was a familiar scene of rich, lower- to mid elevation Appalachian mixed forest coves. Hemlocks and mixed hardwoods provided the canopy as we ambled through doghobble and lycopodium, across a creek with its cold water falling majestically over mossy rocks and boulders. I saw my first spring wild flower of the year down there- a single, humble, pale pink flower at the end of a delicate long stem from a clump of round-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba). I thought February 6 to be early for such a display.

As we climbed up through the middle portion of the mountain, we ventured into snow. First it was little patches, and soon the entire ground was covered. We wound around the steeply mountain, through awesome mountain coves, in an out of the angling sun. I stopped to enjoy a large yellow buckeye tree at the edge of a small branch crossing. The sun shone on a little pool of the clean, clear water, illuminating a small stash of lucky buckeyes at the bottoms, like wishes in the woods.
Buckeyes in the pool like wishes
Before long the snow was rather deep, but the balmy breeze graced us with a hint of the promise of springtime. The snow sparkled in the angling sunlight, and shadows of the delicate skeletons of last summer's angelica were cast in blue. We hiked through blueberries and galax, wintergreen, usnea, and lungwort lichen, hydrangeas, and elders. There are no domesticated dogs allowed in the Smokies, but a set of canine tracks wove in and out of the trail as we ascended- either the ghost of a wild canine or some law-breaking hiker's companion.

From the top of Mount Cammerer, we breathed the air of nearly 5000 feet and allowed our eyes to behold the beauty of both Tennessee and North Carolina. We saw I-40 weave around mountain contours below like a ribbon. Behind Snowbird Mountain was Max Patch, a familiar place never before seen from me from this angle. The sky was big and blue with thin, non-threatening clouds periodically wisping their way lazily across the vastness, casting mild shadows on expanses of green forest. There is so much land in the Smokies. A pair of ravens flew at eye level from somewhere high to somewhere else high, their otherworldly croaking unmistakable.
First mountain in the distance is Snowbird. Behind that in the farther distance with a little patch of snow on it is Max Patch.
On the way down the mountain, I remember feeling how warm the sun was when I held my face toward the sky. My knees creaked, and my feet were wet but not cold. We returned to the place we had started shortly before dusk. An unidentified songbird made a ruckus in a rhododendron thicket, and a chill drifted off of the ice cold streams which flowed over the moss covered rocks. The day was beautiful.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Day After Christmas

Dawn found me waking to a rust colored light cast on the section of Franklin Mountain I can see from my bedroom window. There on my desk is a stack of topographical maps of all these mountains which surround and protect me. They entice me and fascinate me. They intimidate me and feed me. I have more maps now than ever- ridges and valleys and watersheds and roads. Forests and rivers and settlements. Lifetimes' worth of territory to study and explore. May my knees and back, hips and lungs stay strong for so many years to come.

Our bellies are full from backyard venison rump and casseroles and sauces crafted from garden bounty. It was a gorgeous garden year- darn near to perfect. The sun shone at the right times, and the perfect amount of rain fell. The soil was generous, and we enjoyed good health and energy to tend our stuff. The deer were well fed as well, which made our Christmas dinner all the more enjoyable. Mom cooked the roast to perfection.

The year lies before me like a map to be written. The cardinal directions are marked, and there are some key landmarks set in stone, concrete, and blood. The words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart* and the labor of my wrinkling hands will fill in the rest.

Let trust be my compass and humor my faithful companion.

* God bless Pop-a-top rock and all the makeovers it has endured in this year 2014. For my part, I hope it finds it way back to Psalm 19:14 (with possibly the 4 in 14 backward again), the perfect verse for us to ponder on the windy stretch home...

Sunday, November 2, 2014

In between times

Day of the Dead offered us a special, spooky gift from the Otherworld this year- a perfect 12 inches of pure, white snow to cloak our world and allow us a window of time outside of time. Every surface was covered, and for the first day, the sky itself seemed to follow the sentiment. It was white on white on white, a perfect canvas; a magical mirror into the Day and into our hearts.

When the snow is blowing and the wind threatens death by treefall, us mortals retreat to the safety of our hearths, and often, subsequently, into the enigmas of our hearts. Day of the Dead. The in between time. The start of a new season, and, according to some, a new year. Can I still myself enough, by the warmth and safety of my hearth, to listen to the whispers of my heart?

12 inches of freshly fallen snow bequeaths to us a blank canvas, upon which both Life and Death imprint their marks. The bright coal red glow of freshly fallen maple leaves, the gold which is hickory leaves, the sassafras mittens- they all rest upon the white canvas, then slowly melt into it. Their gentle and impermanent imprints are reflective of the very nature of Life itself, making its mark for a brief moment of time, then returning to the the earth and its collective pool of Life-sustaining ingredients. The deer and coyotes leave their tracks, wandering here and there, in search for food and Life. Death begets Life. Hopey uncovers a bloody, half eaten rabbit from the snow on the ridge on Sapling Mountain. I carefully retrace my own imprints when the light lengthens and the wind feels colder and I can feel the beckon of the hearth. A young bear head rots in the snow, skull partially exposed.

Tomorrow the snow will finish melting, and autumn will pick up where it left off when a special kind of Winter intercepted it two nights ago. Tonight the moon rises over the great white blanket and its cold, long glow through the shadowy tree fingers will leave an impression upon our hearts.