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By the Light of the Fireflies

12 Jun

It was Thursday, May 18, 2017. Dark was falling and a storm was in the air. My husband John and I, along with our good friend Taylor, were traveling south along Tennessee Highway 352, back to our home in Flag Pond from Johnson City, where we had been to a Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy fundraiser. Though it had been a long week and we were all tired, we were deep in conversation about the most important topic on our collective mind: our backyard, Rocky Fork.

The 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed—roughly a fifth of which recently became Tennessee’s newest state park, the rest remaining part of Cherokee National Forest—has been inventoried and studied by scientists as a biodiversity hotspot for the Appalachians. Its cove forest and pristine mountain streams are home to Peregrine Falcons, the Yonahlossee salamander, the woodland jumping mouse, and delicate pink and yellow lady slipper orchids. The property is also part of the Unicoi Bear Sanctuary and lies within an Audubon Important Bird Area.

Taylor, John and I were talking about the fact that, although the tract was spared from being purchased by trophy-home developers a decade ago, it might now face another threat just as damaging to its fragile ecosystem. The park, which currently has no facilities and only limited parking, is accessed via a narrow one-lane paved road, tightly wedged between the gorgeous Rocky Fork Creek on one side and steep-sloping rocky embankments on the other. We were soon to pass this road en route to our house. Rumor had it that this enchanting corridor that led into our favorite slice of Appalachian Heaven on Earth might soon be widened to support the passage of huge RVs and that a large campground with all the amenities might be built there to accommodate up to 60 of them.

“Let’s go up in Rocky Fork for a minute,” Taylor suddenly suggested when we were about a mile from the turn. “I think the habitat could be perfect up there for Blue Ghost Fireflies.”

Not putting much stock in the possibility—and quite honestly not really knowing there were different kinds of lighting bugs to be found—I conceded. John, who had seen the creatures a few times on the Appalachian Trail, was intrigued. Taylor described Phausis reticulata and told us what to look for. We drove in a little ways on what John and I refer to as “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” until Taylor said, “Okay, stop here, and turn off all the lights.” We complied and, in a few moments, our eyes began to adjust to the darkness.

And there, back a bit off the road, in the trees on a craggy bank near the gushing Rocky Fork Creek, I saw a group of 20 or so tiny lights moving around and toward us, somewhat like one might expect an inquisitive fairy colony to do. They weren’t exactly blue, but they did seem ever so ghostly, yet in a friendly way.

We made our way to the park’s entrance where, in an open area that used to be the field-like yard in front of an old homestead, we noticed a different small group of fireflies were blinking off and on, sometimes seemingly in unison. After watching them for a while, Taylor realized these must be the emerging Synchronous Fireflies that we all knew created one of the most exciting and fabulously popular displays each year in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The next night, John and I returned to Rocky Fork, this time entering the park and checking the newly created parking lot area for fireflies. And what we saw now nearly blew our minds. In the woods right in front of us were hundreds of the same Blue Ghosts we had seen on the paved road the night before. These seemingly sentient little beings moved around each other slowly, some coming curiously closer to us, keeping their friendly lights on for minutes at a time, reminding me of the fictional Eywa, the shimmery-light-clad ancestors who would occasionally visit the characters in the movie Avatar.

Off to our right, in the open field where we had heard the park’s new visitor center might be constructed, more Synchronous Fireflies had gathered than the night before, and their rhythm (six flashes in unison, then all dark) had gotten stronger, more in sync. The flashy mating ritual of Photinus carolinus was unfolding before our eyes, and our first rational thought was that we couldn’t wait to tell Taylor, then Tim and Jesse, our friends the park ranger and park manager. We knew they would be thrilled that our park had these amazing creatures—just like the Smokies!

That spring, during the four to six weeks of the two species’ peaks, Taylor, John and I were obsessed, burning the candle at both ends, seizing every opportunity to visit with our newfound insect friends, getting to bed after midnight each night, and rising early the next day to meet all our responsibilities so we could do it all over again. Rocky Fork State Park became more than just our Shangri-La; it was a wonderland of mystical lights, and we delighted in an ancient dance preserved through ages of genetic code.

Synchronous and Blue Ghost fireflies in Rocky Fork State Park

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Having made my living as a writer and editor, foreshadowing is rarely lost on me.

Not long after Taylor, John and I discovered that Rocky Fork had the charismatic fireflies, I got an interview for a new job, and a few months later was asked to be the publications director for Great Smoky Mountains Association, an important nonprofit partner to the most visited park in the U.S., the park known for its fireflies. Since then, I’ve learned a tad of the science behind the glowing creatures. I’ve talked to experts like Will Kuhn, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, who explains that “bioluminescence is the process fireflies use to create light. These biological processes are the result of millions of years of evolution and are extremely efficient—much more so than light bulbs.” There are 19 species of fireflies known to exist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Lynn Frierson Faust, author of Fireflies, Glow-worms and Lightning Bugs, has identified 24 different species on her farm near Knoxville.

But for me, the science is secondary to another kind of message invoked by being in the presence of the fireflies. I’m reminded of a passage from one of my favorite writers, David Brill, from his book As Far As the Eye Can See, that describes two kinds of AT thru-hikers. The peak-baggers “viewed completing the Appalachian Trail as a Spartan feat that would enhance their sense of machismo without reconfiguring their attitudes or values.” But the other camp were “those intent on savoring the trail experience… They tended to measure the miles in terms of quality—of events and experiences—rather than quantity. These were the hikers who… learned and grew the most while on the trail.”

The scientists of future generations will probably speak of our time in history as the era when homo sapiens became so disconnected from nature that we romanticized and objectified it as something totally different and apart from ourselves. More than 80 percent of the world’s 7.5 billion people now live in urban areas and experience the natural world mostly through artificial constructs like educational television series and movies (like Avatar) about humans having adventures in forests and jungles, and on rivers and oceans. Rather than surviving sustainably on the landscape for 70,000 years like our cave-dwelling Neanderthal predecessors, we have industrialized, digitized and cyber-sized ourselves out of balance with what is left of our wild spaces in just a few centuries!

Yet there is at least one place where modern humankind still has an opportunity to coexist with nature. In the U.S. alone, our 58 national parks and more than 10,000 state parks provide us with some of the last refuges in which to create a harmonious balance with the plants and animals of planet Earth. Visitors to the 520,000-acre haven of wilderness in the Smokies and the 2,058 acres of Rocky Fork State Park alike represent some of the few human beings who still seek to physically connect with nature in some tangible and meaningful way.

The trick of the firefly light is a complex topic about which many books and papers have been written. But the light also communicates something intangible that cannot be explained by measurements and algorithms. My feeling when in their presence is that the fireflies represent an ecosystem that still has some semblance of balance, even though we have likely reached the tipping point beyond which humans can no longer live in harmony with nature.

It’s a language beyond words, but if I had to give it some, I’d pick: hope, mystery, love and acceptance that transcends death and the millennia.

Synchronous Fireflies in Elkmont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by Radim Schreiber. See more images at fireflyexperience.org.

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Irony rarely escapes me either.

Much has changed since last spring. Because we shared last year’s findings with Tim and Jesse, thousands of park visitors are also excited to come and see the species in action. Thus our own viewings of Phausis reticulata and Photinus carolinus in the park two miles from our home have been drastically curtailed. Rocky Fork State Park closes at dusk, and so unless we were lucky enough to score a ticket to a park-sanctioned firefly-viewing event in the five minutes during which they sold out on June 1, we cannot regularly visit our flashy floating friends this season.

But our concern remains that the habitat of these and many other fragile species may be in peril, and that those who love the diversity of Rocky Fork as we do might not get the chance to learn about the state’s plans for the park until it is too late to have a voice in the matter. Our greatest fear is that well-meaning politicians seeking the boon of economic development for our community would inadvertently destroy much of what makes this fledgling new park unique. If its beautiful entry corridor and parkland can remain pristine with only primitive camping and no large-scale development, with vision and foresight from local leaders, Rocky Fork has what it takes to attract a huge piece of the global tourism market: ecotourists, who are willing to pay up to three times more for the quality that comes from a rustic, biodiverse park experience.

While we wait for officials in Nashville to let us and other friends of the park in on whatever plans they have in store, we hope our discovery may be somehow fortuitous. If our sharing of the news of these species means that “the prettiest mile of road in Tennessee,” can be spared the ravages of huge construction equipment and that a large visitor center might now not be destined for the woods and field that host the hatching and mating grounds of the Synchronous Fireflies and their Blue Ghost neighbors, then all will be well that ends well.

We will be the lightning bug viewers who valued the quality of our experiences rather than the quantity—and used the light of the fireflies to see our way to save them, at least for a little while.

Blue Ghost exposure by Radim Schreiber. See more images at fireflyexperience.org.

Press Release

8 Jan

NEWS RELEASE
January 8, 2016

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACT: Frances Figart
ffigart@gmail.com

francesfigart.com
859.351.9939

Editor of The Laurel of Asheville Publishes  Collection of Autobiographical Essays

ASHEVILLE, NC (January 8, 2016) —Frances Figart, editor of The Laurel of Asheville, has published a collection of essays that is now available through Amazon and select booksellers. The 92-page illustrated paperback, titled Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die, chronicles a powerful time of crisis, transition and resilience.

In 2010, Figart (pronounced Fié-gert) was running kayak ecotours in Costa Rica and Canada’s Bay of Fundy, swept up in an international travel adventure. Back in the States, her mother was becoming weakened by the combination of a leaky heart valve and a chest wall damaged years before by a mastectomy and cobalt radiation.

“I made the decision to return and care for my mom in my old hometown of Winchester, Kentucky,” says Figart. “So I wouldn’t lose touch with my writing, I started a blog about my experience as a caregiver.”

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Beginning just before her mother died and stretching over the last four years, the essays follow Figart’s transition to Asheville and share wisdom gained through caregiving and embracing grief in a healthy way. “Last year, I realized I had written my best essays during this time. It hit me: Why not publish them as a book to honor my mother’s life and help others dealing with loss?”

With inspirational quotes, song lyrics and literary references sprinkled throughout, the book is not only a personal account of loss and grief, but also a universal meditation on hope, spirituality and self-actualization. The essays are accompanied by stunning nature photography, colorful illustrations and graphic design elements that take the reader on an introspective journey of healing.

“If you or someone you know has experienced a loss or change, this book will touch your heart,” says reviewer Leslie Donovan on Amazon. “The beautiful photography and illustrations add to the story of adventure, loss, change and renewal. As a Hospice nurse, I will recommend this book to my patients and families.”

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UPCOMING BOOK SIGNINGS

Friday, January 27, at Metro Wines, Asheville, NC, 5–6:30 p.m.

Saturday, February 25, at Gingko Tree Gallery, Black Mountain, NC, 3:30–5:30 p.m.

Part of the proceeds from sales at these events will be donated to a Gatlinburg family who lost their home and pets in the November fires.

Thursday, May 25, at Bentley and Murray, Winchester, KY, 5–7 p.m.

Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die, autobiographical essays, 2016, softcover, $19.95, amazon.com, by Frances Figart. Learn more at francesfigart.com.

 

Intention, practice and writing your own future

25 Dec

I once heard Kurt Vonnegut deliver an absolutely riveting talk. At its climactic crescendo he exclaimed, “You want to know the future? Just wait around for about five seconds. It’s happening right now. You are creating it through your every thought and intention. You want to change the world? Change your thoughts!”

STL14KURT_336623kI remember including this and several other kernels of Vonnegut-inspired wisdom in a presentation I gave to various writers’ groups in Kentucky. One was: “Not sure you’re a writer? Check and see if you’re writing.” In other words, aptitude alone doesn’t make you a writer; you need to make writing a daily practice.

About five years ago, a fork in my life’s path could have easily swayed me from that practice. But I chose instead to use the circumstance to deepen it… and to add a new element to my writing: intention.

In October of 2010, I had just stepped away from an adventurous career in Costa Rica to spend time with my mom in Kentucky. I knew that I would be staying with her for the rest of her life. As the marketing and communications director for a kayak ecotour operation, I had been immersed in writing every day—handling all company communications and maintaining the web site and social media program I had created.

Rather than set aside the practice of writing each day, I started this blog.

Any body of work starts with a consideration of its audience. Even if we don’t realize it, the person or group for whom an article, essay, poem or book is written is with us on a subconscious level. Sometimes we know the audience, and sometimes we write to attract an audience not yet within our sphere.

I started this blog with two audiences in mind: one general, and one very specific.

First, I wanted to keep my broad network of travel industry contacts abreast of what I was doing and to express myself personally and professionally to that global audience, which included members of The International Ecotourism Society, Sustainable Travel International and the Adventure Travel Trade Association.

Another, as yet invisible, audience was more specific: I was writing to an unseen publisher who would someday discover my work through taking the time to read this collection of reflective essays (as well as the parts of my blog that are a virtual résumé) and deem me worthy of investing in as a writer, editor and leader. This person would not just think that I was good, but would completely “get” me and fully recognize and utilize my potential to take a product or company to the next level.

I was setting an intention with the blog site. While I was putting my career on hold in order to care for my mother, I was at the same time creating a way to continually demonstrate my abilities by writing about my current role as a caregiver.

It’s good to have intentions. What is sometimes hard is waiting for the time to be right.

IMG_0679Many lessons were learned and incredible growth took place in the fertile ground of my commitment—though I felt hopelessly unqualified—to help my mother die and then manage her estate. I didn’t do it perfectly, nor did she. It was hard, we were awkward, but we muddled through. While I could never master patience while she was here, once she was gone, miraculously, I had somehow become a much more patient person. All along the way, I wrote about the experience. Four of my best essays came to be penned throughout four difficult seasons: the spring of my mother’s last days; the summer of her passing; the fall consumed by the luxury of grief; and the winter when I finally understood… she wasn’t really gone at all!

That last essay, Changes are shifting outside the world, tells what it was like for me to be with my mother during her transition. It concludes thus: “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? 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.”

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A year later, I had relocated to Asheville, North Carolina, and was trying to find a job in which I could use my writing. On the morning of February 1, 2014, I got the following response to the essay Changes are shifting outside the world.

“Beautifully stated! Your heart was opening to a wonderful knowing, love transcends all that is…. Peace of mind only comes thru the heart and is felt sometimes long before it is known. I am happy for your knowing so thoughtfully expressed.”

As I read that comment on my blog, I knew that my intention was now actualized. I had found my publisher.

P2P filler copyAnd so, largely because of the events that have transpired through the act of visioning and creating my own future, I now have the great privilege to work as a magazine editor once again. It is my J.O.B. (joy of being) to direct the work of some 50 contributing writers, photographers, illustrators and members of an advisory council for a fledgling print publication that celebrates the farm-to-table culture and community in the foothills of South Carolina, western North Carolina and east Tennessee.

Because of the magnitude of energy required in this new role, I have not posted an essay on this blog for an entire year—since my marriage January 1, 2015. It is my new intention to return to this practice of blogging, even as I devote myself wholeheartedly to my role as editor of Plough to Pantry.

12143356_1031905556839960_1656737984944827605_nMy audience for this blog has multiplied since my move to the Asheville area. So I write this to all my new friends, as well as all my long-time friends everywhere. I also write this essay for and dedicate it in utter thankfulness and humble appreciation to my very specific audience: To Jerry, who took the time to read, to see, and to believe.

“You want to know the future? Just wait around for about five seconds. It’s happening right now. You are creating it through your every thought and intention. You want to change the world? Change your thoughts!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

View the digital Winter edition of Plough to Pantry here:

http://edition.pagesuite-professional.co.uk//launch.aspx?pbid=241bbb12-ba78-484a-9b9c-d9e37ccf4782

 

 

 

Hike #5 Mountain Springs Road

13 Apr

DSC06454“Look, Daddy, it’s a natural tree tunnel,” shrieked the six-year-old girl in delight.

From behind the wheel of the sky blue Valiant Station Wagon, Ross Figart clapped his strong, olive-colored hands together once and smiled his biggest, sweetest smile. This signified his approval of the moniker his daughter had coined for sections of curving mountain roads where the trees were so old and their branches so outstretched that they literally joined each other over the roadway, forming a canopy.

The diminutive child arched her back, lifted her pointed little chin, pushed her unruly camel-colored hair behind her elfin ears and breathlessly took in the overwhelming vision of deep green hues rushing by and encasing them in wonder.

“It’s like a dream world,” she cooed, peering out the window and into the shady branches as they careened past, hoping to glimpse at least one fairy.

DSC04799The year was 1970 and the roads took us through the forested hills of Eastern Kentucky, where my father made his living as a Southern Baptist minister. He preached not hell and brimstone, but compassion and forgiveness. People adored him wherever he went, whether it was to Hyden or Hazard, Pikeville or Prestonsburg. And he adored the mountain people and their culture, a love he also instilled in me – along with his love of nature and of trees. The greatest gift he and my mother would give me was an idyllic childhood that could rival that of Wordsworth in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, on the wooded premises of a summer camp that was part of their ministry.

After I grew up and left Kentucky, whenever we would connect on the phone, I could hear Dad smiling as he’d say, “You’d like where I went today.” He would have just returned home from a trip to some remote community like Whitesburg, Grayson, Pippa Passes, or Booger Branch (yes, this is an actual place). “There were lots of natural tree tunnels.”

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Thirty years later in 2000, eight years after my dad had passed on, I finally got an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream: I went on a quest to find some forested property to purchase in Eastern Kentucky. I will never forget the first time I ever drove down Mountain Springs Road in Estill County, in search of a remote cabin that was listed for sale in an area called Furnace.

DSC06151My sidekick that day was my spiky-purple-haired New Yorker friend Cindi, who had implanted herself in Estill County a few years prior, and quite staunchly I might add. Even streetwise Cindi, who is rarely caught off guard, was taken somewhat aback when I began to shriek like a child at the amazing trees, whose branches bent and met as if in prayer over the winding gravel road. “These are the natural tree tunnels!” I screamed at her over the din of the Rav4’s tires on the thick gravel.

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The cabin itself was situated on a knoll that crowned six acres, two miles in at the head of this heavenly mountain “holler.” The greater forest of which this small plot of land was part teemed with wildlife! To a wood spirit like me, the place was perfect. Tree-covered, rustic, comfortable, private (the nearest communities were all 30 minutes away) yet accessible (I could get to my office in Lexington in an hour) – and with a few improvements and embellishments, it became utterly and completely home. My plan, very simply, was to live out my life on Furnace Mountain.

But fate had other ideas. In a few short years, everything would change. And it all started because I loved – and lost – the trees.

DSC06115About five years into my stay, much of the land around the cabin was unsustainably and mercilessly logged, the beautiful forest habitat ravaged by the largest and most ruthless equipment used in the state. Catalyzed by this catastrophe, which I worked for a year to try to prevent, changes would lead me to let go of the one thing I thought I’d always keep: I sold the cabin.

DSC04808But letting go of what we can’t imagine letting go of always leads to new adventures – to realities that before could have only seemed like dream worlds from a childhood fantasy. Before long, I would be riding through natural tree tunnels in the lush forests of Costa Rica. And from that land of diversity, I’d eventually return to Kentucky to help my mother die, two decades after losing my father.

As I write this, I’m getting ready to spend my last day as a Kentucky resident. Tomorrow I’ll head south and try to make a new life for myself in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ll be living at 3,000 feet elevation overlooking the city and surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains, with abundant bird life, resident white squirrels, black bears passing by and natural tree tunnels surrounding me once more.

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Last week, I returned to Mountain Springs Road for a hike with my dear friend Jane, who now has a small cabin not far from my erstwhile home, which is well cared for by its new owners. Every bend in the two-mile road brought memories flooding back. We hiked on Forest Service Road 2057, which I used to walk with my dogs almost every day for the six years I lived there; I was walking on that road when the planes hit the towers. We visited the special rock sanctuary there, a sacred formation known only to a handful of locals. And I said my goodbyes.

I love Eastern Kentucky. And, although I’m not sure what is coming next, I cannot deny that I also love change – probably as much as I love mountains, mountain people, and trees. North Carolina, ready or not, here I come.

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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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Songs of a new order

4 Oct

My mother gave me many gifts, one of the most treasured being the sensibility to appreciate the artistic marriage of music and words. Those who were able to attend her funeral heard an array of classical, traditional and contemporary compositions that were chosen and put in order by her – not recently, but years before she passed. She included on her program (which she helped to design and approved just before her death) some special lyrics from a hymn she loved, Lead, Kindly Light.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now, lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; Remember not past years.

Music became a part of my grieving and my mourning even during the long night spent clearing and cleaning immediately after Mother’s body had been taken from our house. For several days I could only find solace in the offerings of Bruce Cockburn, a Canadian singer songwriter I’ve always loved for his ability to write about spiritual matters from a Christian foundation moderated by a cultural perspective that does not diminish others of the world’s religions. I chose to place some of his lyrics from the song The Rose Above the Sky on the back of Mother’s program:

Something jeweled slips away
Round the next bend with a splash
Laughing at the hands I hold out
Only air within their grasp
All you can do is praise the razor
For the fineness of the slash

Some weeks ago, I was able to get out the tiny tape recorder that I kept near the piano for the times when Mom could sit there and allow some of her favorite pieces to fly from her weakened fingers. I listened one whole afternoon to the scattered recordings I’d made, remembering the joy that overwhelmed me each time I heard her play once again when I had begun to doubt she would make it back to the bench. On some of those occasions, she would play My God and I, which was sung by a friend at her service according to her plan.

My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

A few weeks (maybe even a few days) before Mother passed away, she had just finished playing the piano when she asked me a painful question: “Do you think there is any way that I can possibly get better?” As I was trying to formulate my response, I thought immediately of Cindy Bullens and her CD Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth.

I don’t remember how I learned of Bullens and the 1999 album of 10 songs she recorded as a tribute to her 11-year-old daughter who died of cancer – but the work has long been an inspiration. The genre is light progressive rock, influenced by the likes of Carol King, Joni Mitchell, Heart and the Indigo Girls. Lucinda Williams and Bonnie Raitt make small contributions to a couple of the songs. But it’s the introspective lyrics in combination with the poignant melodies that give this work its ability to help anyone who is mourning. Bullens unabashedly carries the listener through the various stages of grief, with tangible examples like a trip to Paris seeming dull in comparison to memories of her daughter and the impossible hope that a scientific discovery like finding water on the moon can somehow mean young Jessie will find her way back to earth.

With Bullens and her acute loss in mind, my answer to my mother took the form of another question: “What if there was an 11-year-old child here, whom we loved, and who had cancer – and we knew she was going to die? What if she asked us this question? How could we answer her?” I then told my mom that it was time for her to practice what she preached, and to talk to God, in her own way, so that she could prepare for where she was going. I told her, in effect, to let go of the things of this world, and to begin to look forward to the next.

And now it is me who is left here trying to let go – of her. It’s hard when your mom was cool, was someone you hung out with, loved the things you loved, understood human nature in all its flawed nuances and exercised her sharp language skills and dry sense of humor up until a few hours before she took her last breath. It’s hard when you’re a relentless perfectionist constantly plagued with feelings that you could have done more, should have done better as a caregiver. It’s hard living right where it all went down, the set and setting for our last two years together. And it’s hard when a relatively non-material girl has an accumulation of 81 years of sentimentally charged high-caliber material possessions to sort through, deciding what to keep, and doling out the rest as best she can to those who will appreciate them as much as Ruthe did.

But one of the lessons I have learned from my grief is that if I can do some good now for others around me, then Mother lives on… because in some way I become her as I move forward.

And move forward I have decided to do. I have the beautiful house we shared in Winchester, Kentucky up for sale, and whether it sells in two weeks or two years, I am soon headed to the mountains of Western North Carolina to seek work and a new beginning. When my father was working at Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center outside of Asheville the summer he was courting my mom, he took her on several memorable hikes; she even made it up the strenuous trail to Catawba Falls, which is no small feat. They loved the mountain forests there – and so do I.

Another lesson I have learned from my grief is this: When someone dies, there is a shifting and a shuffling that happens in preparation for the “new order” left behind. To use a baseball analogy (and I did go to a Reds game last month in honor of Mom), when one player is out of the game, the lineup changes. Since losing Mom, I have gotten closer to some folks I’d never really known before, including some of her close friends and members of our extended family who’ve come forward to lend support. Even among my own close friends, the shifting and shuffling is apparent; new bonds are formed as everyone rallies to take a position that will not only offer me strength, but also allow for growth that somehow just wouldn’t have been possible before.

True, like the protagonist in Gillian Welch’s traditional-sounding song Orphan Girl, “I have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother” – but I feel more whole and connected each day, nonetheless. Some lyrics from Cindy Bullens express it best:

There’s a curious freedom rising up from the dark
Some kind of strength I’ve never had
Though I’d trade it in a second just to have you back
I gotta try to make some good out of the bad

So I laugh louder
Cry harder
I take less time to make up my mind and I
Think smarter
Go slower
I know what I want and what I don’t
And I’ll be better than I’ve ever been
Better than I’ve ever been

Find Cindy Bullens “Between Heaven and Earth” on Amazon

Listen to Orphan Girl by Gillian Welch

Listen to Bruce Cockburn’s The Rose Above the Sky

Let’s roll: A tribute to Ruthe

9 Aug

My mother did not want it said that she died peacefully. True, she was in her home, surrounded by the people and things she loved. But despite the fact that she had no fear of making the transition out of her earthly, physical form, she fought willfully for more time here, mainly to be with me, her only child.

In life, however, she was a peacemaker, helping dissenting parties to focus on common ground long enough to realize the folly of their conflict. She was a teacher, a student, a leader, a speaker, a writer, a decorator, an accountant, a musician, a nature enthusiast, an animal lover, a baseball fan, a fashion maven (she could tell you exactly what she wore at every important event of her life) – and a spirited woman who wholeheartedly supported her family and partners, while paradoxically remaining staunchly independent.

The third of four daughters born to a farming couple in Clark County in 1931, Mom gleaned her sense of fashion from her father, who wanted his girls stylishly clad, even during the Depression. If growing up with few possessions created in the sisters a penchant for the finer things, they were nonetheless well aware that spirituality trumped materialism every time.

Losing her mother at age 16 must have contributed to Ruthe’s early individualism and maturity. Georgetown College student Ross Figart was the visiting youth minister at Carlisle Baptist Church the summer of 1948 and he couldn’t help but become fascinated with the most beautiful and interesting girl in the choir. Some of her favorite memories are of staying in the original Rucker Hall at Georgetown during their courtship. They were married in 1950.

My parents had been pastoring the county seat church in Vanceburg, Kentucky, for seven years when I arrived in 1964; Mom nearly died having me and doctors cautioned, “Don’t try this again.” Not one to gravitate toward anyone else’s children, she loved her only child fiercely and spared no energy in teaching me her spiritual values, her thirst for great literature and music, and her love of all creation, especially birds and cats. My earliest memories are of her scrubbing coal dust off of me and off our black and white tomcat in Hazard, Kentucky, where she would emerge from our tiny mountain parsonage ready for church looking like a combination of Donna Reed and Jackie Onassis.

Throughout my life, I’ve been told by Kentuckians of all ages how much my parents influenced their spiritual development. During my dad’s 13 years as director of missions for Boone’s Creek Association, and his 11 years as director of missions for the Kentucky Baptist Convention, I watched my mom live her roles of “preacher’s wife” and “missionary’s wife” to their fullest – from the slate-rock hills of Eastern Kentucky to the jagged coastline of Brazil, South America. She had a gift for helping others to reach their potential, whatever the field of interest.

Growing up in the idyllic setting of Boone’s Creek Camp, I tagged along as Mom led campers on nature hikes and bird walks through the wooded hillsides. I watched her transform the tiny timid Corinth Church choir into a forceful ensemble that could deliver a cantata to rival those she’d been a part of during music weeks at Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina. Sometimes we’d arrive at a church where Dad was slated to interim preach, and when no one came forth to play the piano, Mom would matter-of-factly assume the bench, unrehearsed and unruffled.

Any time I heard her speak publically – from small circle gatherings to state WMU conventions – she always made herself vulnerable to her audience by sharing a moving anecdote or reciting a powerful verse that would inevitably bring my highly emotional “Mom Bit” to tears. But this caused others to respond on a far deeper level than would have been possible if she had refrained from crying.

After my dad died in 1992, Mom finally had her own college experience when she majored in English at the University of Kentucky in her mid 60s. She won awards for her writing, as her daughter had done decades earlier – not surprising since my communications talents were obviously inherited from her. She won an entire piano once for writing in 100 words, “Why I love my Baldwin.” Never forgetting her Georgetown connection, she supported the school whenever possible as a way of honoring my dad.

When Mom fell in love with Bill Sphar in 1999, she cycled back to the farm life she had left behind in childhood. After five years of traveling and enjoying Spring Hill together, he became ill and she managed his daily care for two years. In the stressful throes of caregiving, she accidently ran over her own dear cat, Louisa, and a part of her soul never recovered from this trauma. Her strength and determination made Bill’s final transition a comfortable one. When she left the farm, she took with her his faithful hound, Bebe, and gave her a life of luxury until her death this past January.

When Mom could no longer continue teaching her beloved adult Sunday School class at FBC, she turned her creative energies to writing a memoir of her bucolic childhood, “A Feast for Charlie,” which was published earlier this year. About the same time, God sent Paula Underwood Rhodus – who was born and raised in Vanceburg a decade after we left – to help me care for my mother. Every day Paula came, Ruthe taught her something new – about birds, about flowers, about language, about music, and about life. Paula gave Mom a new connection to one of her favorite communities and provided an opportunity for her to continue to teach at home.

Ruthe never lost her sharp mind, offbeat sense of humor or “the-show-must-go-on” poise. Whenever she became bored with crossword puzzles and Neiman Marcus catalogs, Mom would gaze resolutely at me or Paula and say, “Let’s roll.” We’d get her into the small transport chair and she would pedal along as we rolled around the house–first to the screened-in back porch to see her squirrels, rabbits, finches, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, cardinals, wrens and blue jays; her roses, crape myrtles, hydrangeas, herbs and tomatoes on the vine. Next she’d visit favorite books in the library, gleefully wake the cats from their naps, watch fervently from the front door as we went to retrieve her abundant mail, and sometimes she would play hymns on her piano, as she always had, by ear.

On the night of July 23, Mom watched with satisfaction as the Reds trampled the Astros. As the game ended and we got ready to go to sleep, she looked at me on the couch beside her bed and said earnestly, “I love you too much.” I responded, “And I you.” After that, she closed those piercing eyes that remained ever clear and bright, and I imagine she must have said to her Lord something along the lines of, “Let’s roll.”

~ff

The Georgetown College flag was lowered to half-staff for two days after Ruthe’s passing to honor her inimitable spirit. Her ashes will be scattered in Vanceburg’s Kinniconick Creek. We will all miss her grace, humor, insight and unconditional love.

Scrabble in the dark with Annie

2 Jun

Last September, I started a new job. I didn’t expect to get it; I didn’t even apply. It’s not 9-5; I’m on the clock for all three shifts, every day, 24/7. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding. And, thankfully, there are a lot of perks.

I’m caring for my mom, at home, by myself. She has congestive heart failure. Without going into medical details, what I am doing on the physical level is kind of like the first year with a newborn – meals every couple of hours, up several times during the night – except that in this case, what everyone is “looking forward to” is not growing up, but transitioning out of this life.

“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 Beattie

Every caregiving situation is different, with a myriad of complex nuances and ups and downs specific to the patient and the family; in our case, I am the only child, so all of the responsibility to meet my mom’s needs and communicate them to others rests with me. “The family caregiver is the backbone of our broken health-care system,” writes Gail Sheehy in her book “Passages in Caregiving.” We do it out of love, we do it because our parents did it for us, but make no mistake, it is work and it is a job.

Social acquaintances see me these days and say, “Wow, you look so tired. Don’t you have Hospice? And didn’t you hire someone to help you?” As if these make everything peachy keen.

Having Hospice is great; it allows me to keep Mom at home where she wants to be and make quick decisions about managing her care. A nurse visits once a week; someone can come if we have a crisis; most of Mom’s meds and other equipment like oxygen are provided. But Hospice does not physically help someone like me take care of an elderly person at home on a day-to-day basis. If I want help – with cleaning, with cooking, with everything! – that part is up to me to figure out.

Mom and I did hire a wonderful caregiving assistant a few months ago, and that does allow me to take some vital worry-free breaks. (Without the respite I have gotten thanks to Paula, I wouldn’t even be able to write this blog entry!) But even families who are well off are hard put to have people working round-the-clock in their homes; we have our caregiver between 12 and 24 hours a week, which is only a fraction of the time I’m on duty. So ultimately, I still have the three-shift job that has been compared to that of a combat soldier in terms of the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal gland to cope with the stress of a typical day.

I do get to take naps whenever I can squeeze them in. They are usually cut much shorter than I would want – when I hear my mom stirring on the baby monitor – but they are a lifesaver. On Pauladays, I may get to take a walk before grocery shopping. About once a month, I try to get away for a weekend, which requires coordinating several sitters; and all such plans are subject to change if Mom is feeling especially bad. Sometimes by the time I get a break, I’m way too tired to enjoy a long hike or a concert; I just need rest.

HYDRANGEAS, GROSBEAKS AND BASEBALL

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” ~ Albert Einstein

Before taking on this role, I was an “adventurer.” I lived to travel and have new experiences in exotic natural settings. Now, I am learning to see the adventures, even the miracles, unfolding before me right where I am. Like the amazing hydrangeas in our garden this year. I have given away at least a dozen arrangements of them, and every time I cut one, three more grow back in its place. Or the amazing two-week visitation to our yard of a group of migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks earlier this spring. What a gift it was for my mother to be able to sit on our screened-in back porch and enjoy these special birds. These are glorious adventures for me!

In the few years leading up to this acute stage of Mom’s illness, I was always subjected when visiting her to the incessant Cincinnati Red’s baseball games blaring at me over her radio. I resisted learning about the game and tolerated the noise without paying much attention to Mom’s commentary about her favorite sport. I took her to a game once a few years back, and I admit it was slightly more interesting to see the action live. When Mom got really sick last fall, I decided she needed to be able to see all the Reds games this year on television. We bought a package of some 200 cable channels just to get the ONE: Fox Sports Ohio. And now, guess who’s watching and cheering on the team every night right along with Ruthe, even though she can’t stay up for a whole game these days. I like to think it’s no accident they are ranked first in their division this year.

A STEP BEYOND WORDS
Back about November, a friend turned me on to Words With Friends, an online version of Scrabble I can play on my iPhone with Facebook friends. This became a wonderful stress reliever, especially while sitting up with mom during difficulties in the night. I soon found myself playing lots of games with Annie, a friend from high school that I never got to know very well. We made a good match, enjoying some very close games. When we started chatting, I learned that she, too, was caregiving for her mother, who had the same disease as mine. Like me, Annie found the game a great diversion. We had lunch, caught up and shared our caregiver woes, some similar and some very different. Every night, when things would finally settle down at home, I’d look forward to making my plays in my four or so games with Annie, either in the dark of my mom’s room as I watched over her, or in my own bed just before falling asleep.

A few weeks ago, I was super busy with watering the gardens, friends visiting, getting out for a rare hike in the gorge… and in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I hadn’t seen Annie make a play for several days. When things calmed down, I checked her Facebook page and found that what I feared was true. Annie’s mom had died.

Immediately I began to cry really hard… for Annie, and for me, too. It was one of those rare times, during the hectic day-to-day business of this caregiving job, that I realized fully what is coming, and how completely unready for it I will always be.

I fled to the garden, unable to really see through the tears, and cut all my favorite hydrangeas for Annie; this was the most important step I could take at that moment. I called her later and heard some of her story, feeling new pain because I knew that many of the symptoms her mom had to endure, my mom has also. The next day, I left the flowers on her porch. She wrote and told me that the hardest time is waking up in the morning, and so she has the hydrangeas by her bed so she will see them first thing, and remember that life goes on. A few days later, when I checked my Scrabble games, there was Annie, constant as the northern star.

“Your entire life journey ultimately consists of the step you are taking at this moment. There is always only this one step, and so you give it your fullest attention. This doesn’t mean you don’t know where you are going; it just means this step is primary, the destination secondary. And what you encounter at your destination once you get there depends on the quality of this one step.”
~ Eckhart Tolle

Virtual Meditation Retreat December 26 to January 6

26 Dec

I have been yearning of late to renew my meditation practice. Simultaneously, I noticed that several friends were taking a hiatus from Facebook to focus on family and other interests during the holidays. When I put these two thoughts together, the idea that most readily presented itself was to take time off from Facebook and use that time rather to cultivate my practice.

Further reflection brought to mind the fact that even when I have done meditation regularly at home, I always feel more encouraged and inspired in a retreat setting. But, given the constraints of my current caretaking role, participating in a retreat at some physical place like Furnace Mountain Zen Retreat Center is not feasible. Then I recalled that once I participated in a “virtual retreat” that was really successful and helpful.

The premise behind the virtual retreat is that participants in various locations agree to meditate for certain amounts of time each day for a period of days or weeks. To bring solidarity and morale to the practice together, there is a host who facilitates the virtual communication about the retreat (this was done via e-mail in the one I did years ago), and with whom participants check in daily to report the times of their participation.

So I asked my partner, Nate, who lives two states away, if he would like to participate with me in a virtual retreat for the next 12 days. He embraced the opportunity to support each other in our practice, and agreed. We joked that I should make it a Facebook event, which was funny given that the initial thought was to replace social media time with meditation time.

But upon greater consideration, I do see a great deal of merit in using Facebook as a hosting tool to open this retreat to anyone, anywhere, who would like to be involved. I suspect that the encouragement of a virtual community of others committed to a 12-day renewal of practice could be helpful to many.

If you would like to join us, simply go to my Facebook page and sign up by commenting on the link to this blog or posting on my wall. Then, starting today, you pick your own time and place for sitting. When you sit is totally flexible and up to you. The amount of time you are committing to per day is very small, and increases incrementally every three days, according to this schedule:

Dec. 26, 27, 28 – 15 minutes

Dec. 29, 30, 31 – 20 minutes

Jan. 1, 2, 3 – 25 minutes

Jan. 4, 5, 6 – 30 minutes

Each morning on my Facebook page, I will put up a wall post that reads “Virtual Meditation Retreat Sitting Time Check-in.” After you do your daily sit, any time in the 24-hour period, just comment under that day’s post what your time period was (i.e. 8:45-9 a.m.) as a way of showing your participation and encouraging the rest of the group in their practice. You may also write a short comment if you like.

I will also create a discussion group for anyone participating who would like to talk about meditation, and decide together on intentions we may wish to focus on as a group in our daily practice. Involvement in the discussion group is optional.

If you miss the first day of the retreat, today, please join in whenever you like. If you miss a day along the way, do not worry and feel free to stay with the group when you can. If you have to drop off before the ending date, that is fine too.

Nate and I are going to coordinate our sitting to be simultaneous. If you would like to do this with us or with a close friend, that would be great. If you already have a daily practice, and would like to show support for this group by joining, please do! It will help us all.