Roadside Butterfly

A flash of color tumbling through the air
graceful even in the wake of the farm truck
doing fifty-five on a country road;
The driver gave the runner space, but could not avoid the butterfly;
now fluttering unevenly to the pavement in the turbid after-current.

I thought she was dead, struck by the windshield,
but her wings and body and tiny antennae were intact;
I could not bear to see the delicate wings
crushed into the rough black pavement
as though her brief and beautiful life did not matter.

I bent to pick her up, gently clasping her wings together.
Standing there on the side of the road,
I silently admired the intricate patterns of color and spots,
the rolled-up tongue for sipping nectar,
her fuzzy brown body and spindly legs.

Her wings opened suddenly, orange and vibrant,
and I discovered that she was yet alive;
Perching unsteadily, and maybe invisibly damaged.
Beyond hope? I could not be sure.
I wondered if she could taste the salt on my sweaty hand.

Cupping her in my palm, helpless–
I walked into the ditch, the tangle of weeds and poison ivy,
opened my hand around the Queen Anne’s lace,
setting her down in the center, to rest awhile, or maybe to die
next to the blue chicory along the fence row.

Remembering Mary Oliver

I ran early this evening
Thinking of her, and missing her voice
Shadows growing long,
then fading into twilight–
In January you can see
A long way through the woods
Stripped of leaves and other finery
Earth’s bones, contour and shape
Truth without adornment
Like her words, precise and spare.

Pausing at the lake, daylight fading
Two ducks silhouetted against
The orange-stained mirror
I watch, find the words and continue on—
Moon rising now through the trees
Casting a silvery light on my path
Up ahead, pale reflection on Sycamore Creek
I hear splashing below the bridge
And realize that it is always there
But I did not hear it until nightfall.

Climbing now, I pass the red oak
Two years since her proud limbs reached skyward
I grieved the loss each time I passed
But today I see her
Sinking gently into Earth’s embrace
Sharing energy and minerals and earthy rot
Housing wild creatures as always
Feeding hungry young seedlings—
Nurturing tomorrow’s forests with unbridled joy
She is here; her words are everywhere.

Umstead Lake at sunset. Two ducks in the middle.

Thank you, Mary Oliver. Rest in peace.

MST Sunday

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The day is just awakening,
Feet falling, easy rhythm
Broken only by the short step or lengthened stride
To avoid an errant root or rock,
Breathing regular, though not effortless,
Engulfed in wild silence—
The kind that allows space for a mind to wander,
Not the “silence” of white noise machines
Designed to dull our reality.

This silence is full and round,
Leaves blowing, water lapping at the lake’s edge,
Bickering redheaded woodpeckers—this year’s brood, no doubt,
The crickets, of course, plus whatever brethren
Make all those different sounds, which I do not know.
Weird snorts and screeches from deer
That I have to see first to confirm they are really deer
Squirrels’ light patter, lighter still for the fence lizards
Sometimes only movement, not sound, draws my eye.

The wild silence of a very alive forest
Is the kind where I can hear myself think.

Tuesday reflection

Tuesday after work. I am
camping with Stephen at Shinleaf,
on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail,
after he has spent much of his day
slowly moving himself and many
surprising (to him) pounds of gear from
Bayleaf Church Road, about
ten miles away. Tomorrow,
he will walk another thirteen to
Rolling View and await pickup
after I finish work. An experiment
in carrying everything you need and living simply.

He is tired and sore, but clearly pleased with
his accomplishment. Yet he’s puzzled to also
feel somewhat disappointed, and I see it
gnawing at him. I let him talk
but don’t say much, allowing him
space to think more and return later.

As for me–I sit outdoors at 8:45 pm
watching the waning sunlight,
an early bedtime whispering the
sweet promise of rest before the
sun rises on Wednesday. And I can
tell you that I feel content
with this ordinary
yet extraordinary
evening.

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FORECO Daily: Whiteside Mountain

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Alan Weakley asking our crew of 8 students to assess the unique seepy rock face below the Whiteside summit. This unusual community has too little soil for trees and takes a constant beating from rain and ice, but it makes an ideal habitat for other species, some of them rare. In the foreground you can see stately Turk’s cap lily, aptly named Lilium superbum. The hula hoop was my idea for a teaching exercise and so far has raised some hilarious questions and looks from fellow hikers.

2017 Forest Ecosystems

For the next 2 weeks I’ll be teaching my summer field course, Forest Ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians, at the Highlands Biological Station with my friends and colleagues Julie Tuttle and Alan Weakley. It’s my 7th time here: 1999 as a student with Tom Wentworth and Dan Pittillo, as a teacher in 2005, 2007, and 2009 with Tom; and 2013, 2015, and now 2017 with Julie Tuttle and Alan Weakley. There is always at least as much learning as teaching in this course. As always, we have what looks to be a great cadre of 8 students from a mix of backgrounds and experiences; we’ll also have several guests with us who will contribute their knowledge of ecology and conservation.

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Field notebooks from 1999, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2013, and 2015, with a new one for 2017.

Field courses are fun and intense. We often have 10-12 hour days in the field and students will earn their 4 credits in two weeks’ time. Our evenings (as instructors) are spent reflecting on the day’s teaching, what worked and what didn’t, assembling gear and planning for the next day, and checking directions. It is pedal to the metal.

We are leaving for the Smokies early tomorrow for 3 days. I’m especially excited about the second day of our trip, which Julie planned, to see some of the sites that burned in the severe fires that hit Gatlinburg, TN last fall with Rob Klein, the leader of the Fire Effects crew for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and hike a new elevation transect on the Trillium Gap Trail.

A few stats from past courses: ~900 miles driven, 13 days in the field, 27 sites visited, 40 miles of hiking, 80-page field notebooks filled by each student with their take on the day’s events and each site visit.

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Sites we’ll visit, color-coded by day. We project a good illusion of organization. 

I need to get to other tasks and the wifi is sketchy here, but I do hope to post a daily photo like I did in 2015. To find those, search Forest Ecosystems in the search box.

There’s always something new in Forest Ecosystems: the new sites we’ll visit above, a neat cove forest I found outside of Franklin, trying out a new assignment and teaching strategies. I love the dynamic teaching and knowing that things will happen that we don’t expect and we’ll be adjusting accordingly. Stay tuned!