Tag Archives: North Carolina

Proposed Hunting in Sanctuaries Represents Spiritual Crisis

30 Jan

“No important change in human conduct is ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphases, our loyalties, our affections, and our convictions. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have dodged its spiritual implications.” ~Aldo Leopold

Intelligent bear by Bill Lea

I have spent the better part of two years devoting energy to an effort to help wildlife more safely cross the highways in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. I’ve worked alongside scientists to make their work more accessible to the lay public through branding, articles, a web site, social media posts, a children’s book, and even a music video. 

Now I feel that this work to help allow bear, deer, elk, and many other species the right of way is partially canceled out by a shocking proposal to allow hunting with dogs in the Pisgah, Panthertown–Bonas Defeat, and Standing Indian bear sanctuaries in Western North Carolina. 

“The bear sanctuary concept was based on knowledge of the smaller home ranges of female bears and dispersal behavior of young males,” says Mike Pelton, Professor Emeritus, Wildlife Science, University of Tennessee, whose groundbreaking research helped to modernize black bear management around the world. “Additionally, starting hunts later in the fall protected the females, skewing the harvest ratio toward males. Using knowledge of bear behavior for management strategies assisted in the recovery of the bear population. This success led to the dispersal of bears into new and nonpublic habitats.”

But now, increased populations of both humans and bears means that humans are going to be seeing more bears in developed areas. The wildlife commission wants to open these three sanctuaries to hunting to address this issue by killing off some of the bears. But not all bear “sightings” represent “conflicts.” Those who are not educated about living with bears are exhibiting panic behaviors and turning what should simply be a bear “sighting” into a de facto “conflict.” 

We do not have too many bears; we have too little education. 

“Campers must learn to store their food properly to keep from attracting bears,” says bear photographer Bill Lea, a retired U.S. Forest Service ranger who knows the bears in these three sanctuaries. “Hikers must learn proper behavior when encountering a bear while hiking. Nearby property owners must learn to eliminate the foods (bird feeders, garbage, barbeque grills, etc.) that are attracting bears to their property. The indiscriminate killing of bears is not the solution to resolving negative human-bear interactions. Education is the one and only effective answer.” 

Pelton, who has 30+ years of experience in bear research, reasons that while these three well-established sanctuaries occupy a very small portion of the huge national forests, they provide important refugia for bears and are needed for the long-term stability and resiliency of this species. 

Relaxed bear by Bill Lea

“I am concerned that once sanctuaries are opened for hunting, it will be hard to ever reverse that action,” he says. “As we have all learned from the pandemic, no one can predict the future regarding potential negative impacts due to natural or human-caused events. Holding onto these three safe havens is insurance for possible future issues for bears.”

The fierce green light

The 1949 non-fiction masterpiece A Sand County Almanac by ecologist Aldo Leopold is one of history’s seminal testaments to the environmentalist ethic. One philosophy it espouses is the idea that without preserving some wild spaces, not only animals but humans themselves will no longer be free. 

I can identify with Leopold and his rallying cry against policy makers whose pseudo-conservation efforts vainly mask their desires for economic gain. While our understanding of natural history has tumbled leaps and bounds ahead of where it stood in Leopold’s time—just before the advent of DDT and the subsequent writing of another conservation pioneer, Rachel Carson—our forests are rapidly disappearing, our rivers and oceans face ever more serious threats from pollution, and our planet is entering the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. This is our own doing—and, from one human to the next, the magnitude of having passed the tipping point seems to manifest itself in denial, indifference, nearly unbearable emotional void, or a continuing struggle to attempt to reverse the needle, if only a tiny bit. 

“In those days, we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf,” writes Leopold in his chapter “Think Like a Mountain.” As a mother wolf with injured pups scurrying around her dies at his own hands, he sees “a fierce green light dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.”

History shows that humans evolve at different rates. While some of us understand the value in conservation, others justify willful habitat destruction and species annihilation predicated solely on greed by falling back on the “man conquers nature” mentality that reigned in past centuries. We all want the same thing, ultimately, but it looks different depending upon the level of consciousness from which each of us is acting. 

Whether they be mountains, forests, rivers, deserts, oceans, or bear families who have lived on safe havens in Southern Appalachia for 50 years, it is vital that we strive to champion, protect, and maintain the pristine state of what few natural landscapes remain in the areas around where we make our homes.

Leopold ends his chapter thus: “We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau’s dictum: in wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.” 

Sentient bear by Joye Ardyn Durham

We have to act NOW!

Please consider raising your voice to save unsuspecting bears in three North Carolina sanctuaries from a merciless, torturous, and ultimately senseless death. The deadline is tomorrow!

It’s really as simple as sending an email. Submit your comments by Monday, January 31, via e-mail at regulations@ncwildlife.org or by mail to Rule-making Coordinator, NCWRC,1701 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1701.

Visit the Facebook page Protect Bear Sanctuaries to learn more about the issue or write to me directly for talking points. 

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!

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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Hike #2: Rice Pinnacle at Bent Creek

13 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Distance Traveled: 3.75 to 4 miles

Difficulty: Easy

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

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

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Hike #1 of 2013: Bent Creek

10 Jan

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

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

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

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

132Distance Traveled:
Approximately 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy

Birds spotted:
Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Fox Sparrow

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

Photos by Nathaniel J. Miller

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

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Eckhart Tolle, Nate Miller and the Now of Flowers

28 Sep

We receive the gifts we are ready to accept. In the past six months, two powerful entities have made their presence known in my life at the precise time when I could open to the lessons that each of them have to teach. If I could recommend only one writer and know you would read his books, that author would be Eckhart Tolle. And if I could share the work of one artist and know it would be seen, it would be the nature photography of Nate Miller.

Tolle’s seminal book The Power of Now expresses verbally the intuitions I have had from a very young age about life, death, body, spirit, joy, suffering, language, time, “God” and the nature of humanity in the greater universe. A new peace has descended upon me since reading it, not because the book taught me something altogether new, but because it articulates what I’ve somehow known all along but didn’t have the language – or the presence – to say.

I met Nate Miller six months ago today. He has become my closest friend and confidant, and possesses all the characteristics I have long sought in a partner, exemplified best in his simple statement, “If it’s important to you, then it’s important to me.” When I began to see his nature photography, and in particular his work featuring close-ups of flowers, it was as if The Power of Now had been made manifest for me in visual form.

Another of Tolle’s books, A New Earth, begins with an essay on the relationship between the flower and our awareness. “As the consciousness of human beings developed, flowers were most likely the first thing they came to value that had no utilitarian purpose for them, that is to say, was not linked in some way to survival. Jesus tells us to contemplate the flowers and learn from them how to live. The Buddha is said to have given a ‘silent sermon’ once during which he held up a flower and gazed at it. After a while, one of those present, a monk called Mahakasyapa, began to smile. He is said to have been the only one who had understood the sermon. According to legend, that smile (that is to say, realization) was handed down by 28 successive masters and much later became the origin of Zen.”

Nate Miller is a modern day Mahakasyapa. And like the legendary “sermon” to which Tolle refers, Nate is a man of few words. Nevertheless, he did answer me when I asked him what he is thinking when he guides his lens to boldly peer right into the heart of a poppy, hibiscus, lily, zinnia or morning glory: Nothing.

“When I’m photographing, I’m in the moment. I’m not thinking about anything,” he says. “I want to capture just that moment, something that’s even beyond what I’m looking at. Because the moment is beyond everything and also contains everything, it can allow each of us to see things in an extraordinary way.”

That extraordinary way of seeing is described by Tolle in A New Earth thus: “Once there is a certain degree of Presence, of still and alert attention in human beings’ perceptions, they can sense the divine life essence, the one indwelling consciousness or spirit in every creature, every life-form, recognize it as one with their own essence, and so love it as themselves.”

Just as Tolle extols the flower as “an expression in form of that which is most high, most sacred, and ultimately formless within ourselves,” Nate insists his images are merely “vehicles for the presence of the Now.” He views his photos not as art, but as a form of “visual meditation to transport you into the present moment” and hopes that “maybe that shift into a deeper appreciation of the Now through nature will inspire people to see other things in life from a deeper place.”

In The Power of Now, Tolle reminds us that, “In the Now, in the absence of time, all our problems dissolve. Suffering needs time. It cannot survive in the Now.” When I am focusing on the past or the future too strongly, Nate brings me back into the present, through his way of communicating and through his photography.

Nate developed his style of macro photography as “self therapy” more than a decade ago during a time when he was being a caretaker for his father, who was dying of brain cancer. As I write this, I am sitting beside my mother in her hospital bed. She has irreparable heart failure. And my place is with her, doing what I can to help, but mostly just being here… Now. Her grace, Nate’s flowers and the books by Tolle give me new strength each day. I am practicing Attention, Compassion and Gratitude, out of which this essay was born.

Learn more about Nate Miller on his web site.
Read a blog by Cynthia Cusick about Nate Miller.
Follow Nate Miller Nature Photography on Facebook.