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The Book is Available Now!

10 Dec

I am excited to announce that you can now order Seasons of Letting Go on Amazon.com!

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From the time I began the blog that spawned this book, I had all of my large network of friends in mind as my audience. If you know me at all, whether through the travel industry, as a Facebook connection or as a friend, there is something for you in these 12 essays and 92 illustrated pages.

If you have experienced a loss, this book is especially for you. Yet, although it came to be through the event of a death, this book is about life and living it to the fullest. Happy Holidays!

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22 Easters gone: Lessons from my dad

19 Apr

IMG_5064Legend has it that, as a child, I slept through a lot of my dad’s sermons. In fact, I can remember doing this. I’d curl up beside my mom on the padded pew and drift off into the deep slumber of an active preacher’s kid growing up at a camp, lulled by the rich and familiar tone of my dad’s stentorian voice.

Even in my sleep I believe the structure of the sermons reached me on some level, as when I consider the way I construct my own essays today, I believe they are derived somewhat from the sermons my dad so eloquently delivered, speeches that were essentially essays themselves.

Dad had a great formula. He’d start on a personal level, relating an everyday down-to-earth anecdote to establish a bond with his listeners. Then he’d read a passage of scripture and do some analysis of it, bringing to bear on the text the words of contemporary scholars, professors and his own insights. To me as a child, this part seemed to go on and on.

But then came the part I liked best: some story or illustration that, at first, would seem completely out of the blue. When he’d start telling this story, some compelling, magical quality came into his voice that usually caused me to wake up to listen to it. I learned that the tale would have pertinence to the topic beyond all expectation. As the voice of Francis Ross Figart, Jr., built up into an insistent crescendo, it suddenly became clear to all that the point of this analogy was exactly what the scripture was saying.

I remember two such illustrations in particular: one about not judging and one about trust.

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The first story was about how my dad went to the airport in Louisville in the late 60s to pick up a “summer missionary” from some other state who would be working with the small churches in Eastern Kentucky to help them run programs like Vacation Bible School. I think her plane was delayed and when he picked her up they basically had to drive directly to a church service up in the mountains.

When Dad met the young woman at the airport, he was startled to see that she was dressed impeccably from head to toe in an expensive white suit that was the fashion of the day. Dad worried on the way to the hollers whether this gal knew what she was getting into, and was concerned she might not be well suited to work with the people in the impoverished area they were driving to.

As they made their way up into the foothills of the Appalachians, it was evident that recent rains had brought flash flooding and creeks were running high. When they got to the small mountain mission, the people from the community were also arriving and a group of little children were playing in the churchyard.

KY - two girlsUnlike the new summer missionary, these kids weren’t wearing their Sunday best. Families in that area often did not have running water, kids were usually covered in coal dust, and in fact, Dad said, they had gotten pretty muddy playing on the soggy grounds of the tiny church.

Dad held his breath and watched as this woman who was dressed so impeccably got out of the station wagon, and immediately went toward the little kids, getting down on her knees to greet them with hugs and smiles. They instantly loved her because she talked differently and was so beautiful and interesting. She paid not one bit of attention to her attire, nor did the kids, and she turned out to be the best person for the job he could have ever imagined.

lrc-87-451x300The other story was set on the campus of Kentucky’s Georgetown College, my dad’s alma mater where he was number one dude on the debate team. One of his good friends was a fellow student who, if my memory serves, was named Ernie. The fact that Ernie was completely blind didn’t prevent him from being totally self-sufficient. He walked all over campus by himself because he had learned where everything was; he didn’t let his disability slow him down.

One fall, Dad had just arrived back on campus to go through registration for the new semester. He was walking out of the admissions building and looked across the quad and saw Ernie, striding rapidly as usual across the courtyard. At the same instant that he saw Ernie, Dad also noticed that during the summer break some construction had begun on the main campus thoroughfare: where normally there had been a sidewalk, now there was a gaping pit, taller than a person. Ernie was confidently pacing right toward that huge hole!

imagesErnie was pretty far across the campus, but my dad had this booming voice that those who knew him distinctly remember. He called out the command: “Ernie, STOP!” And as Dad’s voice echoed across the quad, just one step before disaster, Ernie did. He recognized the deep voice of his friend, trusted it, and obeyed. Dad went running over to Ernie to explain, and the two had a good laugh.

Just before my mom died, she and I talked about these illustrations and she remembered them too. Maybe she recalled the details a little differently than I do – and even knew the scripture that went with them – but that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is, the messages behind these modern day parables got through – to both of us.

My turn to pull it all together.

One of the big reasons I came to Western North Carolina has to do with the adage of not judging a book by its cover. Here in Asheville, it’s common to see stereotypes of dress defied; often the person in a crowd who most resembles a homeless vagrant may be the one who has the most money; I have seen it over and over again in the retail store where I work. Conversely, it’s not unusual for those who appear in the most fashionable attire to be the nitty gritty, hard working volunteers who help needy animals and children with deep commitment. Grubby Appalachian Trail hikers walking into a mountain town may just as well be doctors or lawyers as students or “trustafarians.” I love being in an area that has this equalizing factor.

My dad would probably call it the voice of God, but I think of it as my intuition when something tells me I need to slow down lest I fail to notice a gaping hole in front of me. Whatever it is, when it says, “stop,” I trust and stop. And when it says, “go,” well, as Daddy would say, you better believe… I go!

Trusting that intuition once again as part of an almost two-year long transition to a new place and new life, I’ve become engaged to an amazing person who defies many stereotypes and possesses wisdom and balance that I haven’t encountered for about 22 years.

Dedicated to Ross Figart, Sept. 30, 1926-April 10, 1992.

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50, here I come: 11 lessons from my 40s

24 Feb

Tomorrow I turn 50. This afternoon I got a birthday message from Laura, a younger friend I met in Switzerland around the time I turned 40. Over the years I’ve known her, Laura has had many ups and downs and now has created a successful culinary business for herself on a Swiss farm. We have only been together twice, but shared a deep connection and enjoyed comparing notes about how to deal with life’s challenges. After an initial greeting, her opening words were these:

390864_352805314794540_1782318286_n“I often think about you and imagine you are happy. 50 now… I remember last time when you were 40. Loads of questions and thoughts about life: How is it today? How did these past 10 years help you find peace and answers?”

Wow! These immense, broad questions came to me at just the right moment, as I’d already been formulating the vague idea for a blog to reflect on the past decade in some comprehensive way.

My 40s were incredible, and I migrated through many changes, the culmination of which was the death of my mom, and the realization that she was the true love of my life – even as I was flitting about on several continents during my stint in the travel industry. Finally going home to Kentucky to help her die was the best decision I ever made and although I didn’t do it perfectly, I was strong and I helped her live her last days the way she wanted to.

IMG_0909In 2013, I sold a house, moved, rented for six months, got a part-time job, and then bought a house and renovated it… all of which have led me to my current situation, a new resident of Asheville, NC, still recovering from loss, but growing stronger as I connect with my new community, and find my niche socially and professionally.

What follows is a collection of salient lessons from the past decade, each supported by a favorite quote.

LESSON 1: LOVE YOURSELF

“The most important relationship you have in life is the relationship you have with yourself.” ~Diane von Furstenberg

IMG_2646Last year’s birthday came at a time when I was still grieving the loss of my mom so heavily that I expected others in my life to somehow compensate for the internal void of having no parent left to celebrate my life in the way that only parents can. I learned then the final lesson of independence: that I really needed to only have expectations of my own self, and to face the fact that I was truly alone – and be OK with that. And that helped me to focus on my relationship with myself more in the past year than I ever had previously.

LESSON 2: LOVE OTHERS

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” ~Thomas Merton

This is only common sense, but with those expectations mentioned in the first lesson always creeping into relationships, keeping the right attitude toward love of any kind can be a challenge. It’s good to be reminded day after day that what we love about others is what makes them different from us and it our not our job to shape them or mold them into something we think is best for them – or for us. I think I finally learned this lesson during my 40s and am ready to practice it well in the next decade.

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LESSON 3: ACCEPT WHAT IS

“Stop resisting. So much of our anguish is created when we are in resistance. So much relief, release and change are possible when we accept, simply accept.” ~Melody Beatty

During my 40s, I think I adopted a more natural acceptance of reality, learning more about not pushing for things but allowing them to come to me organically. A huge lesson of grief is the acceptance that you cannot change what has happened, what is. Learning to relax into the “luxury of grief” and allow it to consume you for a period of time is actually healthy, and takes you on a tour through all of your emotions so that none is left unvisited – and then you are ready to move on, to move forward.

LESSON 4: BE HERE NOW

IMG_6134“If you no longer want to create pain for yourself and others… then don’t create any more time… realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.” ~Eckhart Tolle

I can’t stress enough how much reading Eckhart Tolle helped to shape my outlook during my 40s. It was like a homecoming finding his writing, because so much of what he says, I feel I’ve always operated on, and just thought that no one else was like me. These were lessons hard-learned and I made plenty of mistakes, but meditation and focusing on the Now helped me prepare to help my mom die, and live through it and on beyond it with a new enthusiasm for life.

LESSON 5: BE STILL

“It is said that all you are seeking is also seeking you, that if you lie still, sit still, it will find you. It has been waiting for you for a long time. Once it is here, don’t move away. Rest. See what happens next.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estes

As a natural progression of learning not to push so hard for what you want and to accept what is, there comes a realization that you are moving toward things as they are also moving toward you – that its not up to you to facilitate getting there yourself; the movement is one greater than you can orchestrate. This doesn’t mean do nothing; it means be open, listen and conserve energy in preparation for what is coming rather than spending it all. A great convergence is occurring and things are being worked out that you cannot imagine. So be still.

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LESSON 6: BE IN NATURE

“I have passed the Rubicon of staying out. I have said to myself, that way is not homeward; I will wander further from what I have called my home – to the home which is forever inviting me. In such an hour the freedom of the woods is offered me, and the birds sing my dispensation. In dreams the links of life are united; we forget that our friends are dead; we know them as of old.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Time in nature I always find to be my greatest teacher. Moving to Asheville was largely about connecting to natural areas and a sustainable lifestyle that values the environment. From my base in my new home here in the mountains, my intentions are set to contribute personally and professionally to the health of our natural resources, our true home. Through moving in this realm I know I will be comforted and cared for in many ways yet unforeseeable.

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LESSON 7: BE ALONE

“To make the right choices in life, you have to get in touch with your soul. To do this, you need to experience solitude, which most people are afraid of, because in the silence you hear the truth and know the solutions.” ~Deepak Chopra

I remember at a younger age a feeling that for any experience to be truly meaningful, I had to share it with someone. As I’ve aged, I’ve become more and more comfortable with having amazing solo experiences, and enjoying them just for me, not even telling anyone about them. But this took a long time for me. As an only child, it was a hard lesson; I wanted to always be with others. This past year I’ve been alone more than ever before, and now I even have my own house. I confess I’m happier when others are visiting, but my alone time does provide many answers and insights. I feel I have more balance in this respect now than ever before.

LESSON 8: GROW

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” ~Albert Einstein

As we continue to evolve into higher consciousness and greater awareness, we find ourselves able to tackle challenges that previously seemed beyond our grasp. Lessons learned become the foundation for new ways of taking care of our self, interacting with others and moving through our sphere of existence. Suddenly some things that always seemed hard in the past are now parts of everyday life. This is growth.

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LESSON 9: EMBRACE SURPRISES

“So hold your head high
and don’t be afraid
to march in the front
of your own parade
If you’re still my small babe
or you’re all the way grown
my promise to you
is you’re never alone

You are my angel, my darling, my star
And my love will find you, wherever you are.”

~Nancy Tillman from “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You”

Whenever I have extra time at my job at The Compleat Naturalist, I take a moment to read some of our wonderful children’s books. Many of them remind me of the love of my parents, and none more so than “Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You.”

I had thought that once I found romantic love again, I would be so sad that my new partner could not meet my parents or know them that it would make the relationship somehow impossible. But something happened that I could never have imagined.

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I met someone who loves me in so much the same way that my parents did, that it is as if this person was sent to continue that deep connection – and that through him, their love has found me. So what I thought would be a desire for them to have met each other is transformed into a serendipitous feeling that they are the same energy, and know one another through understanding and loving me. This is a form of being surprised by joy that I could never have anticipated. I feel that all the other lessons somehow prepared me to be open for this one!

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LESSON 10: KEEP MOVING FORWARD

“Inner strength comes only to those who move forward in the face of adversity.” ~ Phil Stutz & Barry Michels in “The Tools”

The Andean Torrent Duck spends its entire life swimming upstream against a strong current. You can see some cool video of it in the PBS nature movie “An Original Duckumentary.” This species, now in decline due to pollution, forest destruction and hydroelectric damming, really inspires me! No matter what your passion or intuition, it’s all about picking a path and moving forward on it… whether you’ve got the perfect plan or not. Sometimes going out on a limb will create adverse situations, but learning to persevere through the storms will make us stronger – and help us appreciate the calmer days.

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LESSON 11: DON’T FEAR MISTAKES

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” ~Neil Gaiman

IMG_0804_2My closest girlfriend in my new town I met through my time in Costa Rica with Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours. Nina is a constant inspiration and has given me a great deal of emotional support in my new life here. She posted this quote before the dawn of 2014, but it is apt for the eve of a new decade for me as well. It sums up much of the feeling behind this blog, in that I intend it to be helpful to others, and in no way to say that I have not made tons of mistakes along the way. I have made them… and I encourage you to make them too. And then forgive yourself, and move forward.

50, here I come.

Photos by Joe Lamirand, John Beaudet, Frances Figart

Hike #10: Coontree Loop

10 Sep

512DbD3pegL._SY346_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_Several weeks ago I visited a trail that I learned about from a great new book collecting 35 trails in and around Asheville. The author is Jennifer Pharr Davis, who took on the entire Appalachian Trail solo at age 21; since then, she has hiked the AT twice more, setting endurance and speed records. She is going to be a guest of The Compleat Naturalist (where I work) Friday, Nov. 15, to speak as part of our “Meet the Naturalist” series.

The trail I chose to explore is called the Coontree Loop. It’s actually what Pharr Davis calls a “balloon,” which means there is a “string” that you hike in on, and then the trail divides into two directions. I went left, at the book’s suggestion, so that the grade would not be as steep heading up to the ridgeline.

One of the great things about this little hiking guide is that it shows a diagram of each hike’s elevation gain. This one is basically a typical bell curve: the hiker starts out going up up up, and finishes going down down down.

Something else that sets Five-Star Trails: Asheville apart from other area guides is that all the trails are rated for scenery, condition, difficulty, solitude and appropriateness for children. Also provided is a list of which of the 35 hikes are best for: convenience, geology, history, kids, scenery, seclusion, waterfalls, wildflowers and wildlife.

IMG_2156Pharr Davis divides her book into geographical sections: Central, North, East, South and West. Coontree Loop is in the South section and is part of Pisgah National Forest not far from the town of Brevard. It is accessed across US 276 from the popular Coontree Picnic and Parking Area, which is right beside picturesque Coontree Creek, also visible from much of the loop itself, along with another small mountain stream.

The weather was perfect for mid summer and the dense canopy on this trail provided a natural cooling system that comforts the ascending hiker. However, I was thankful that I had chosen to bring along my Camelback to stay completely hydrated during the somewhat strenuous climb.

One of the mild disappointments of hiking the Coon Tree Loop in summer is that after one has ascended approximately 1,000 feet, the reward of a sweeping view of the landscape below is never delivered. The upper part of the trail is a wooded ridge, whose overlooks of Chestnut Knob and Black Mountain are only easily visible during winter.

Going downhill is always easier for me than up, but for those with knee concerns, this trail may not be the best choice. Pharr Davis warns that during rainy periods the descent can be tricky due to some erosion; she suggests bringing hiking poles.

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While I’ll never have the endurance of a Jennifer Pharr Davis, I am thrilled that I can tackle a trail with the short but steep elevation gain of Coontree Loop. As I write this, exactly 30 years ago this week I was on a respirator in an intensive care unit in Kansas, having had a code blue – I stopped breathing following an asthmatic episode. For years after that I was on many asthma meds and rarely walked far. Today I take only seasonal allergy meds, keep a mostly unused inhaler on hand and get out in nature and hike as much as I can.

I’ll remember Coontree Loop as a beautiful short trail providing a nice, steady workout. Wading in the rocky Coontree Creek at the picnic area is an exhilarating way to cool off and relax after the hike.

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Distance traveled: 3.7 miles

Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous with some erosion

Flora of note: sycamore, beech, hemlock, mountain laurel, rhododendron, several fern and moss varieties, oyster mushrooms, red brick top mushrooms, Heal All or Prunella Vulgaris

Some photos by Nate Miller

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Hike #8: Laurel River Trail

18 May

A week ago, I found myself alone in my new town on Mother’s Day weekend, and decided to do a solo hike to a place I’d been before, the Laurel River Trail.

IMG_9851When I left Asheville around noon, it was starting to rain, but I decided to think positively and by the time I’d passed the turn for Marshall and reached the gravel parking lot near the intersection of Hwy 25/70 and Hwy 208 in Madison County, I’d made it out from under the clouds.

Not long after you set off from the parking lot, a string of out-of-commission train cars can be seen resting peacefully through the trees on your left. Converted from an old railroad, this trail follows the tumultuous Laurel River as it reaches the larger French Broad River, for which many things are named in Western North Carolina, including my favorite chocolate lounge.

What’s most energizing about this trail is one’s proximity to the ever invigorating river. Not only the sights, but the accompanying constant rushing sound of water gushing through the rocks, keeps one feeling perky and quite alive!

When I visited here two years ago, I saw highly skilled and experienced kayakers making their way through the awe-inspiring rapids, which are ranked at Class III-IV at normal water levels. But on this day, if I’d seen a paddler, I would have considered them “loco,” as the water level was very high from recent rain and the current extremely swift through the boulder-strewn passes.

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I usually keep my camera in my pack until something comes along to prompt me to get it out. Last Saturday that something was a cute young garter snake, which I watched glide off into the woods and into a hiding spot from which she peered out at me curiously for quite a while. I thought how many times we are probably watched as hikers by a silent and camouflaged resident that we’d never be able to spot unless we happened to see them retire to their hideout.

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The Laurel River trail is ideal for families or groups in which someone is moving slower, as it’s fairly level and there is little elevation gain. However, low areas can retain mud and in many places your path is covered with thick roots, and in others laced with embedded rocks. Footing can be tricky in these sections.

IMG_9864After about two miles in, the sky began to turn dark and I took this as a warning sign to turn around. About a mile from the trailhead, the rain did come – and I was prepared with my trusty Patagonia rain jacket, in which I stayed dry and warm. I kept a slow pace in the slick mud, made my way out while watching the water beside me slowly rising, and headed for the French Broad Chocolate Lounge.

Distance traveled: 4 miles

Difficulty: easy with some mud, root and rock obstacles

Flora of note: rhododendron, mountain Laurel, pine, maple, oak

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The elusive white squirrel

30 Apr

When I started visiting Western North Carolina, I was enticed to consider moving here by the notion of living where more wildlife viewings are possible – a value that has driven my choices all my life. Over a couple of years of visits, I was fortunate enough to see a mother bear and two cubs, a bobcat and – on one visit to Brevard – white squirrels!

Legend has it the first two white squirrels in Brevard were escapees from an overturned carnival truck back in the 40s – and the dominant gene prevailed among the squirrel population of that region. During the past year, I’ve heard locals mention having seen them closer to Asheville, in Hendersonville and Candler.

So imagine my delight upon hearing from my new landlord that there are a couple of white squirrels that make Town Mountain their home. Figuring it might take quite a while to see the elusive creatures (they seem to know they are easy targets and shy away from movement), I settled into my apartment in the clouds two weeks ago without giving too much thought to the prospect of spotting them.

And yet, on the morning after spending my first night in my new place, no sooner had I driven around the first bend out of my driveway, than I suddenly saw a furry white flash dart in front of my Prius. Looking to the right, I could just make out a flamboyant tail the color of Edgar Winter’s hair disappearing over the bank and into the terraced yard below.

Since then, I’ve seen the squirrels several times, and even been lucky enough to point them out to my friends. On one recent stroll I confirmed that indeed at least two exist here, as I saw them simultaneously, vigorously digging up hidden nuggets in the dirt and cautiously staying out of range of my camera.

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Yesterday I took a walk around my neighborhood with the express purpose of capturing one with my zoom. I did succeed, although my evasive subject preferred to be photographed ass first, as you can see in this short series.

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I’ll attempt to get more and better photographs of these charismatic yet timid beasts. And I’d like to ask you to e-mail me at ffigart@gmail.com a photograph of your favorite member of the animal kingdom that you see within a mile of your home along with a short caption about your sightings. I’ll collect and post these in a blog after May 15.

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Hikes #6 and #7: Pisgah National Forest

28 Apr

Upon officially resettling in North Carolina two weeks ago, one of the most important items on my “to do” list was to go on a hike with the friends who helped me move into my new apartment overlooking Asheville and the surrounding mountains. We ended up choosing two short hikes in different parts of Pisgah National Forest; it was my second visit to both.

IMG_9375The early part of the afternoon was spent exploring the Shope Creek section of the forest, a trail system in the Riceville area near Oteen. Old wide logging roads lead up and into a series of forested footpaths that traverse Shope Creek at various points. Many tall old growth trees shade the trails, despite logging in the not-so-distant past.

Getting across the creek makes for some tedious balancing acts when water is running high, as it was this day due to recent rains. My crossings reminded me of how you sometimes have to make decisions fast and intuitively to keep your balance when in the middle of transition.

Whether you decide to de-shoe and cross the creek barefooted, as one of us did, or keep your hikers on for better traction, which was my choice, you’re bound to come into direct contact with the cool water at some point. Three of us came out of the woods with damp shoes and socks.

In two visits to Shope Creek I’ve only seen one other hiker, so it’s a wonderful choice if you want to be out in nature without a crowd. This is a good place to hunt for morels, I am told. Birding is also great here, with many spring migrants flitting about, including fast-moving warblers high up in the dense canopy.

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Finishing a loop slightly more than a mile long, we headed out of Riceville under impending rain clouds and headed for Barnardsville and the lower approach to Douglas Falls in the Big Ivy section of Pisgah.

IMG_9458Some hikers like to approach these falls from Craggy Pinnacle just below the Blue Ridge Parkway. But the way we love to go is via Dilligham Road, which turns into a gravel road, FR 74. Amid a few raindrops, we climbed slowly up the mountain in the Prius for nine miles of gorgeous scenic woods, passing a dozen small waterfalls along the way! On an earlier visit, we actually saw two Barred Owls along this nine-mile stretch.

By the time we got to the parking area, the sun was out and the trail only a little muddy in places from recent showers. Along the short hike into the 70-foot waterfall, we were surrounded by thick forest that includes large Eastern Hemlocks, dead due to the Wooly Adelgid. The trail is moderate in places, but mostly easy with no elevation gain unless you go beyond the lower falls.

The falls themselves were enchanting, relaxing, marvelous and rejuvenating. What a fantastic reward for our long drive and short hike! We all just wanted to stay and bask in the sights, sounds and smells of this picturesque wooded scene.

Returning to both these favored hiking areas of Pisgah gave me a feeling of coming home. Going to the woods, I am making North Carolina mine, and loving it.

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Distance traveled: less than 3 miles

Difficulty: easy to moderate in places

Flora of note: Hemlock, Pine, Rhododendron, Trillium, Violets, Fiddleheads

Guest photographers: Joseph Lamirand and Nate Miller

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Editors, the conductors of the publishing world

6 Mar

I was recently asked by a potential employer to describe the editor’s role within the publishing process. I immediately thought of Swiss conductor Mario Venzago, former Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Music Director.

mariovenzago001_webEach time I have attended a performance by a symphony orchestra, most memorably those directed by Venzago, I have sat through most of it in tears. Whether Bruckner or Wagner, Schubert or Liszt, Dvorák or Ravel, the music always moves me deeply. But the emotion comes more from the fact of identifying so strongly with the conductor, and seeing what he does as the quintessential metaphor for what I do, and what others do, when we are editors in every sense of the word.

We put it all together. We choose the material. We set the pace. We communicate and network with all the community stakeholders involved. We choose the players we feel can contribute the most effectively to our ensemble.

We coach others on minute details of their style and performance and somehow keep them feeling not criticized, but motivated because we are working together for something greater than us.

mariovenzago003_minWe hear and see the big picture of how everything needs to come together in the giant whole of a publication. And yet we orchestrate every single detail of everyone on the team pulling together to make it all happen as perfectly as possible.

We cross t’s and dot i’s a lot of the time. But we also plan, prod, goad, think at 20,000 feet so others can focus on smaller parts, coach, mentor, teach, challenge others to reach their potential, juggle all the balls at once – all the while keeping time for the entire group.

Even now, having gone several years without seeing Venzago in action, without hearing the product of his amazing vision in the musical realm, I’m still stirred and motivated by remembering the times I was in his audience. And although he was released unexpectedly and inexplicably from his duties in Indianapolis, I know I join throngs of others in wishing him well as he continues to inspire those fortunate enough to see and hear him in Newcastle, Bern and beyond.

mariovenzago004Not long after being asked to reflect on the editor’s role, I attended a networking luncheon in Asheville, North Carolina. After everyone took turns delivering one-minute introductions, a woman came up to me and provided the name and e-mail address of someone she knew in publishing. “He might not be much help, though,” she said. “He’s just an editor.”

Just an editor? No, I thought. No one is just an editor. Our role is akin to that of Socrates, whom Plato described in his Apology as having said, “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, all day long… arousing and persuading and reproaching… You will not easily find another like me.”

Perhaps like Mario Venzago, I continue to be amazed at our current economy and life’s unexpected crescendos and diminuendos. But in the face of uncertainty, and when I wonder what comes next, I know one thing, and that is that I am proud to be an editor.

We are the conductors, the visionaries, the directors and the gracious gadflies of the publishing world.

Learn more about Mario Venzago.

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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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The lesson of the Kudzu Bug

27 Nov

Having always gravitated toward creative and imaginative interests, I recall very few scientific concepts from my school days. One of the ones that stuck is the idea that if we study a living thing, we change it by the very act of examining it.

I’ve recently relocated from Central Kentucky to Western North Carolina, with the express purpose of living in a densely forested mountainous area with habitats supporting a diversity of wildlife. On recent visits here, I’ve seen three bears, one bobcat and many, many birds, my personal favorite.

For the past month I’ve been living in a cozy Asheville condo with mountain views, a temporary house sitting gig I arranged in order to get my bearings and learn more about where I want to live permanently – and most importantly to job search. It’s very quiet here, but I’m surrounded by plant life: dozens of orchids, geraniums, African violets, Buddha’s curls, succulents and bromeliads have been left in my care.

During my first week, I was working quietly on job applications when I began to get that eerie sense that the plants and I were not alone. There were tiny nondescript sounds of life in the condo, but I couldn’t place the source at first. Then, I noticed a small dark bug crawling on the wall near some of the plants.
Another living, breathing creature! How lovely, I thought. He was smaller than a ladybug, but with a similar type of diligent movement across surfaces, vertical or horizontal. Perhaps out of loneliness, or maybe because I’m just crazy, I started talking to the bug, and by the end of the day, I had dubbed him Wilson. (Ever see Castaway?)

As the days passed, I was always pleased to spot a Wilson moving around the apartment in its slow methodical way, occasionally making a brief flight from one part of the room to another. And, I noticed that for every live one, there were a couple of dead. I reflected that, had there been a lot of them, it might have been freaky, but as I only would see one or two each day, they became welcome companions and it was somehow comforting to hear and see them, my new imaginary friends.

Such is the way of the human being that I began to wonder: What is Wilson? So I located a pair of biologists in my part of town, and they encouraged me to bring the bug to them to identify.

It was a beautiful sunny Saturday morning with unseasonably warm weather and gorgeous clouds hovering over the Blue Ridge Mountains when I brought a Wilson out of the condo and down to meet the biologists. Wilson rode along perched somewhat perilously on the top rim of an empty salsa container; he didn’t want to get into it and I saw no reason to force him.

No sooner had I showed the container to the biologists, than Wilson was whisked from his roost, suddenly sealed in a tiny plastic bag and subjected to intense scrutiny under the bright hot light of a high-powered microscope. After several minutes of hushed conversation, rapid keystrokes and flipping insect field guide pages, the humans all unanimously pronounced Wilson a Kudzu Bug!

I looked at him there turned upside down and wriggling, his tiny red eyes bulging, seeking to make sense of this new, unchosen landscape. After he was unceremoniously flipped over, it was fascinating to see Megacopta cribraria in all his detailed glory and true colors, his little back an artistic mix of various browns and beiges not unlike a tortoise shell. It was cool to finally know what he was. But, for me, the more important truth was, the bug looked distressed and I couldn’t stop my mind from dialing in what I suppose was a correlative emotional image: row upon row of lifeless Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encased in glass at universities, their extinction likely contributed to in great part by those who, probably with every noble intention, chose to study them.

It was then that I remembered why I am not a scientist.

I know bugs don’t live too long or feel too much. And if you read about the Kudzu Bug, and what it’s doing to soybean crops in the South, you’ll learn that chances of it being wiped out any time soon are slim. I appreciate that we all know more about the natural world because of the tireless efforts of those who not only ask the questions, but also create and perform the experiments that help to answer them. But I guess I’ll always be an overly sympathetic armchair naturalist, tiny bugs roaming unencumbered through my various woodsy dwellings, binoculars and guidebooks serving as much to fire my imagination as to provide absolute knowledge, whilst I remain content to wonder at this amazing world without knowing firsthand exactly what things are or why they do the things they do.

I left Wilson with the biologists to add to their collections, in deference to the scientific protocol that is their norm. I even promised to bring back the dead specimens I find at the condo. But before I departed, I did request that Wilson be taken out of the plastic bag and allowed to die in his own time, which would no doubt be within a 24-hour period, based on my non-scientific observations. My new acquaintances complied, looking at me with what can only be described as amused pity. But I didn’t care if I seemed to them to be a lunatic. I was glad to be the way I am.

That afternoon, Nate and I drove to nearby Brevard to see the white squirrels that make that small town their home. Legend has it the first two were escapees from an overturned carnival truck back in the 40s – and the dominant gene prevailed among the squirrel population of that region. It was a delight to drive onto the campus of Brevard College and search for the skittish white anomalies among the ordinary cavalier gray rodents, like the joy of an erstwhile Easter egg hunt.

We deduced that there seemed to be roughly one conspicuous white for every three common grays. Watching the little white acrobats, we noticed things about squirrel behavior we’d never seen before. And we speculated that probably all squirrels do these things, but we were only just now noticing them because the white specimens stand out so much from their environment – and loom so large in our imaginations.