Archive | January, 2013

Hike #3 Fighting Creek Trail (a.k.a. The Frog Blog)

29 Jan

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was my hiking destination yesterday. Leaving Asheville at 9 a.m., I traveled to Gatlinburg for a meeting with Todd Witcher, executive director for Discover Life in America, a non-profit organization that manages a thorough scientific inventory of all the park’s species that has been going on for the past 15 years.

After talking with Todd about the project and viewing the park’s LEED Certified Twin Creeks Science and Education Center with its vast collections room, I was excited to get out into the woods and see if I could spot some live specimens. I didn’t have a great deal of time, and so chose a short, easy trail that begins behind the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center. It was 64 degrees and about 1 p.m. when I started out on the Fighting Creek Nature Trail.

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I hadn’t been hiking long when I heard quite a ruckus of high-pitched vocalizations just a “tad” off the trail. Following what I at first mistook for bird chatter, I spied a small green pond, tucked behind a grove of trees. Immediately upon seeing the water, I realized the source of the raucous sounds.

IMG_8844Upon my arrival at the tiny pond’s bank, all was quiet; only the final plops of retreat echoed across the surface, now muddy from what was sure to be dozens of diving frogs!

How long does one have to sit beside a pond before the frogs will start peeping again? I decided to attempt to find out. I sat very still in the soft leaves, watching and listening. Finally, after some 20 minutes, I began to see slow movement in the water, and tiny heads with great bulging eyes began to emerge one by one all over the pond. Before long I realized I could see at least 15 pairs of eyes, all fixed on me!

Once when I lifted my binoculars to get a better view, the gleaming amphibians darted down in retreat once again. But this time, it didn’t take long for them to come back up. They seemed as interested in studying me as I was in watching them.

I adapted to making much slower movements, and they adapted to my presence. Finally, after nearly an hour, they relaxed and stopped staring at me, drifting lazily with out-splayed legs in what I suppose is their usual fashion when unmonitored. Then, with them facing away from me, I was able to get a few zoomed photographs without causing a stir. But, alas, their peeping never did resume during my surveillance.

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What I did was not unlike the way that scientists involved with Discover Life in America’s All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory work to identify and record the locations of various species throughout the park. The people who combine efforts on this project are not just scientists with university degrees but also everyday armchair naturalist types who are, like me, just really interested in nature. They are what DLIA proudly calls “citizen scientists” – and without them the ATBI would not have exceeded all expectations and discovered more than 900 species in the park that are new to science!

IMG_8843The nature trail loop was pleasurable and felt fairly “out there” for being so close to the visitor’s center and a major park thoroughfare, although I’m sure during warmer months there is little solitude here. There was plenty of picturesque intersection with the beautiful creek and signage pointed out a few tree species’ names that were new to me, including Hop-Hornbeam, used by the Cherokee as a painkiller. I was happy to encounter a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos – to balance the taxonomic specimens I had seen earlier. For those interested in historic structures, the restored 1860s John Ownby Cabin stands at about the half-way point. Had I not practiced patience at the peeper pond, I’d have completed the entire hike in under an hour.

After capping off my solo adventure with a quick jaunt up to Cataract Falls (off the nature trail), I rejoined the Fighting Creek loop that led me back near the frogs’ habitat. I could hear their cacophonous chorus loud and clear, and was tempted to return to their secluded domicile for more amphibious fun.

But the sun was getting low in the sky and I had several hours’ drive ahead. It was time to set a course for my own old Kentucky home, where late last night I learned from Wikipedia that in Cherokee lore, the Sugarlands was part of the area known as “Walasi’yi,” or “Frog place.”IMG_8849

Learn more about Discover Life in America and the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory.

Distance traveled: 1.6 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted: Dark-eyed Junko, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse

Flora of note: Hop-hornbeam, Box Elder, Sycamore, Yellow Poplar, Paw Paw, Sweet Gum, Sassafras, Moosewood

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Hike #2: Rice Pinnacle at Bent Creek

13 Jan

Today I returned to the Bent Creek area near West Asheville; it was 72 degrees when I started out on a solo adventure around 1 p.m.

IMG_8819Parking at the Rice Pinnacle Trail Head, I first explored the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station’s Bent Creek Centennial Interpretive Trail. This easy loop offers great signage (although each placard was extremely muddy) about the species and work being done in the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, which comprises some 6,000 acres and houses the North Carolina State Arboretum.

IMG_8814While on this trail, I decided to practice my intuitive navigational skills. When I came to a sign with an arrow indicating I should stay on the trail by going right, I instead deviated from the marked trail and took an unmarked but decent trail to the left. This took me about a mile into the woods, during which time I made at least seven departures onto different trails, ending up at a pump station and a private property sign. Retracing my steps was fun and challenging – and I only saw a couple of other hikers over in this unmarked area.

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Back on the interpretive trail, I came upon a disturbing sight; a grove of pine trees with huge numbers painted on their trunks! I learned from the muddy placard that “canopy density is related to basal area, which is the total area of trunk cross sections. It determines the amount of light allowed to reach growing seedlings. Studies conducted here compare basal area and canopy density to light penetration. Results help foresters make management decisions and predict future tree species.”

IMG_8797Wondering what it means to predict a species, I returned to the parking area, from which I set off on the Rice Pinnacle Trail, which crosses many of the bends in Bent Creek and eventually links up with the Bent Creek trail loops and Lake Powatan. Because this cluster of trails is convenient to town, it attracts a diversity of outdoor enthusiasts, including mountain bikers, joggers or runners, couples or groups sharing time together as they walk, people walking dogs, and solitary hikers like me.

IMG_8833As I passed these various demographic examples, I thought about the fact that people get out into the woods for different reasons. I go for the exercise of hiking and peace that comes from immersing my senses in the smells, colors and quiet of nature, the only welcome sounds being those of wildlife.

But nature is also a backdrop for social activities, and for adventures that bring people closer together, which usually means sharing the trails with those who enjoy being a lot louder in nature than I would ever choose to be. That being said, everyone I encountered today was polite, especially the mountain bikers, who made a point to slow down when passing me and to tell me how many more of their cyclist friends were coming along behind them.

Even with the flurry of activity around me, I was able to find moments of the peace I was seeking. I got just the right amount of cardiovascular exercise as well. And, my favorite part of the trip was hearing pileated woodpeckers at work just off the beaten track. Leaving the trail, I crossed the creek and sneaked up on them close enough to see the pair distinctly (though lighting was not good for a photo) and got to hear their shrill warning calls for a good five minutes before they unceremoniously departed.

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Distance Traveled: 3.75 to 4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted: Black-capped Chickadee, American Crow, Pileated Woodpecker

Flora of note: Yellow Poplar, Black Cherry, White Pine, Mountain Laurel, Club Moss

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Hike #1 of 2013: Bent Creek

10 Jan

I had planned to go to the gym after today’s lunch meeting with a tourism industry colleague in downtown Asheville. But when I emerged from Tupelo Honey, it was a whopping 64 degrees and the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds hovering over the mountains. So I called Nate and suggested we get outside for exercise instead.

117Today we explored the Bent Creek hiking area, located just 15 minutes from downtown Asheville in the northern tip of the Pisgah Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest. This watershed is a federal Research and Demonstration forest that backs up to the Blue Ridge Parkway to the south and a moderately high ridge to the North. The trails here connect with the Mountains to Sea/Shut In Trail, two of Pisgah’s most popular long-distance trails.

The easier trails are close to Lake Powhatan, which features a swimming beach.  Three loop trails – Deerfield Loop, Pine Tree Loop, and Explorer Loop – provide short, easy hikes. We stayed in this area and shared the trails with families, other hikers walking their dogs, and mountain bike enthusiasts.

Bent Creek has a community vibe, yet it does not feel at all crowded. The trails offer plenty of birding opportunities, and run alongside the creek or skirt the lake, allowing many chances to see and hear water. My favorite moment was lying down on the ground near the beach area under some huge white pines and listening to a kingfisher making its rattling call while darting about in the marsh area nearby.

132Distance Traveled:
Approximately 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted:
Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Fox Sparrow

Flora of note:
Hemlock, White Pine, Rhododendron, several varieties of moss

Photos by Nathaniel J. Miller

Learn more on the Hike WNC web site, from which some of this information was derived.

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Changes are shifting outside the world*

9 Jan

As a student of English Literature, I learned that for a narrative work of any kind to be truly engaging, the main character has to undergo a change.

imagesIn the terminology of dramatic structure, going all the way back to Aristotle, there is a climax or turning point that marks a change – for better or the worse – in the protagonist’s affairs. Consider the Shakespeare plays you recall: In the comedies, like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, things had gone badly for the character up to this point, and now the tide will turn and things will get better. In the tragedies, like Hamlet or Othello, the opposite occurs, and events shift from good to bad at the climax.

Of course, by the time we learn about this literary device, we’ve already been exposed to it many times, from the earliest fairy tales and stories that were read to us as very young children on up through just about every form of entertainment that is a part of our particular age group’s contemporary culture. We can all name our favorites: I recall being enchanted by Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe and Great Expectations.

images-3As adults, whether we love fiction, theater, opera or rock-n-roll, we are most inspired by those works of art in which a transformation occurs. I will find myself quite bored by films in which the main character never “gets it” and conversely reduced to tears by those in which the change the protagonist undergoes is portrayed in a startlingly realistic way. Some random examples of favorite films are The Razor’s Edge, The Darjeeling Limited, Sally Potter’s Yes, and most recently, Jack Goes Boating. Similarly the music which affects me most profoundly – penned by artists like Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, James McMurtry, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle and Vic Chesnutt, just to name a few – does so through its ability to portray characters realizing something transformational.

Joseph Campbell took the Greek notion of dramatic structure a step further to define the common plot element in all stories as the hero’s journey. In any narrative, things are going along routinely, and then the main character is faced with an upheaval of some kind in which all he thought was stable has now changed, requiring him to rise to the occasion and fight a dragon of some sort or another, usually representing a personal fear. It is through this battle that transformation occurs and the hero emerges a new, better, stronger person than before. Think Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Castaway, Avatar, the list goes on and on.

62463I recently watched a film called Finding Joe that expounds Campbell’s hero’s journey concept. It does this through interviews with a dozen or so articulate speakers who have achieved greatness, some well known and others who worked quietly behind-the-scenes to accomplish successful projects. “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” This quote, which might as well be Campbell’s tagline, is one of the main ideas behind this uplifting film, from which you’ll come away feeling like an esteemed squad of cheerleaders including Deepak Chopra, Mick Fleetwood and Laird Hamilton is rooting for you personally.

But to witness another person taking on the ultimate hero’s journey leaves us empty, mystified and lost – because when the final dragon is met and fought with, the essence of what the person was here in this realm of form actually seems to leave us, nevermore to return.

In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle writes, “The weakening or dissolution of form, whether through old age, illness, disability, loss, or some kind of personal tragedy, carries great potential for spiritual awakening – the dis-identification of consciousness from form. Since there is very little spiritual truth in our contemporary culture, not many people recognize this as an opportunity, and so when it happens to them or someone close to them, they think there is something dreadfully wrong, something that should not be happening.”

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Trying to come to some terms with my mother’s death over the past five months has been like trying to wake up after being heavily sedated. One is so overwhelmed with the grieving process that it’s like being mired in physical, psychological and emotional quicksand. After many months of struggling just to get through each quagmire of a day, finally, strangely, you begin to process emotions and information like yourself again.

A few weeks ago, I was driving through the woods at sunset feeling as if I had been a victim of amnesia and was trying to remember something about who I had been before. It was like hearing snatches of a melody and parts of a lyric hovering just below the mind’s surface, almost reachable and yet, still distant.*

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After chasing my ethereal thoughts for roughly a 24-hour period, a revelation of sorts began to emerge from the clouds, like mist rising from a mountain ridge. It was slowly dawning on me that just because I can no longer see and hear and feel my mom doesn’t mean she is not still on her journey.

Separate wholly from any learned connection between death and religion, the simple truth becoming less and less dim was that, given our limits of understanding, there is no reason to believe the changes do not go on. Changes are very likely still shifting outside the world as we know it.

As Tolle explains, during illness and finally in death, “what is lost on the level of form is gained on the level of essence.”

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The night my mother died, I awoke from a deep sleep having heard some sound in our shared room. When I reached her, she was unconscious but still living. And then I experienced something I never could have anticipated. Her essence, what some would call her spirit, left her body and very rapidly spread out around me with a palpable aliveness. It is impossible to describe this because I didn’t see or hear it or even feel it. (I was actually quite devoid of emotion at the moment it occurred.) I simply experienced it. And when it was over, her body had become a shell, not unlike that of an insect. Her essence went on. It was tangibly not trapped in the shell, which had died.

From that point on, I knew that to honor my mother was no longer to look at or touch her body, for it was no longer her. And so I sat near the body for only a short time, and then left the room and did not watch when it was carried out of our house.

Mother had fought the ultimate dragon; she had faced her fear and gone through the consummate change. Or had she?

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The way we experience time in this realm of form brings a horrible finality to this type of separation from someone we love. But, we need not lose interest in the plot as we might do when watching a movie where no transformation seems to be occurring. Change can still be going on – and who are we to say that it couldn’t be? Maybe the essence that used to appear in the form of my mother finally found the doors where before there had been only walls. For all I know, Mom is now on some level of the hero’s journey that is beyond my comprehension.

My continued closeness to her essence gives me the impression that changes are indeed shifting outside this world and that she is still learning, growing and changing as she has always done.

Nature photography courtesy of Nathaniel J. Miller. Computer generated paintings by Kathleen Farago May.

*The title of this essay is an intentional misquote from the song No More I Love You’s in which the lyric actually reads, “Changes are shifting outside the words.” The Annie Lennox cover of the song written by Joseph Hughes and David Freeman provides the very personal aural backdrop against which this essay was conceived.