Summer Botanical Hiking at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

I’ve been quiet on my blog for the past four months. You may have realized this, or it may have escaped your attention. In either case, there is good reason. Since February, I’ve been dealing with a case of severe and prolonged polyneuropathy, which is the presumable symptom of latent multiple sclerosis. As a result, I’ve been far more fatigued and depleted than usual and have had to reduce my activity on this blog in order to focus on regaining my health.

In the interim, I’ve still been hiking and exploring trails in the area. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that one of my favorite trails is at Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough, North Carolina, where there’s an abundance of botanical life that continues to surprise me. On a recent hike, over the last weekend of August, I was able to take photos of some of the best botanical specimens in addition to my usual trail photography, which I will share in this post along with an identification and brief description of each botanical specimen.

I arrived at the Occoneechee Mountain parking lot in the late afternoon on Sunday, August 26th. The weather was absolutely perfect, hovering in the low seventies with minimal humidity and almost no cloud cover. It was so nice, it was hard to believe it was still summer. The sunlight was golden, bathing everything in a shade of welcoming radiance and promising many photographic opportunities. There were only a few vehicles in the parking lot—which meant I didn’t have to wrestle anyone for a spot—so I promptly parked and embarked on the Mountain Loop Trail.

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After hiking the first few hills, I came to a red oak that had a noticeable coating of shelf fungus on the north side. The fungus turned out to be mossy maze polypore (Cerrena unicolor), and the wood of the oak underneath the fungus was brittle and decomposing, indicating that the tree was in poor health and probably wouldn’t live much longer. I stopped and took a look at the fungus, noticing the delineation of colors, which alternated between white and green in clearly identifiable bands. A fungus with this alternation of color is called zonate, and this distinction can be helpful in identifying many species, as it did in this case.

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Upon passing the first of many rock formations on the Mountain Loop Trail, I noticed a juvenile loblolly pine tree (Pinus taeda) on the side of the trail and stopped to take a look. There was a mature female pine cone on the underside of one of the branches. Since female pine cones—which are the hard, woody cones that most of us associate with pine trees—often take a year and a half or more to mature, it was clear to see that this loblolly pine, however juvenile, was not to be dissuaded from reproduction by youth.

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Hiking further down the trail, I came to one of the most photogenic locations at Occoneechee Mountain. At this point in the trail, there’s a fairly steep hill, at the crest of which is a clump of pine, maple, and oak trees, all of which overlap one another and filter the rays of the late afternoon sun. In late fall and midwinter, when the sun is closer to the southern horizon, the rays of sunlight overlap the trail almost exactly, creating a compelling photographic effect when properly timed. As you can see in this photo, however, it’s still a little early in the season.

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After descending the photogenic hill, I followed the Mountain Loop Trail on its course, veering sharply toward the east at the edge of the park. At this point, the trail enters the floodplain of the Eno River, which is still to the north of the trail. Before you see the river, however, you can feel it, as the temperature drops noticeably due to the proximity to water. Another indicator of proximity to water is the increasing prevalence of sycamore and beech trees, which are scattered along the banks of the river and the edges of the trail.

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Hiking along the banks of the Eno River, I came to another striking botanical specimen, a yellow wildflower with eight thin petals—each petal is actually a ray floret, an entire flower unto itself—waving in the wind at the top of a four-foot-tall plant. This thin-leaved sunflower (Helianthus decapetalus) is native to the region and predominates in woodland and riparian zones where birds, bees, and butterflies benefit from the added food source.

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Following the trail, I climbed a flight of stairs embedded in the side of a hill and came to this escarpment of rock. Along the edge of it, there are numerous maple and beech trees which have taken residence. The escarpment itself is part of an old abandoned rock quarry, which now provides one of the most distinctive sights in all of Occoneechee Mountain. Walking underneath it is something of an exercise in faith and hope, and it’s easy to see how precarious the lives of the adjoining trees must be as a result.

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As if in confirmation of that fact, I came to a fallen maple tree, bisecting the Mountain Loop Trail, before I reached the old quarry. There was apparently a fungal infection at the base of the maple’s trunk which eroded its structural integrity over time and left it prone to collapse. With the torrential thunderstorms and heavy winds we’ve had in North Carolina lately—which are becoming increasingly frequent as our planetary climate continues to unravel at the seams—the maple tree wasn’t able to withstand the stress and came crashing to the forest floor.

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After passing the fallen maple and the old quarry—where I wasn’t able to get decent photos due to the insufficiency of my phone and the sharply contrasting light—I diverged from the Mountain Loop Trail and joined the Brown Elfin Knob Trail. (There are some names you simply can’t make up.) Shortly after joining the new trail, I noticed a small white mushroom to my right and stopped to take a look. What I found was an ivory funnel mushroom (Cerrena dealbata), one of the more poisonous fungi at Occoneechee Mountain, which produces a nerve toxin that causes salivation, palpitations, and asphyxiation if ingested in sufficient quantities. Fortunately I wasn’t hungry.

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There wasn’t much of the trail left after this last botanical encounter, and I returned to the parking lot in short order. With the crisp air and fading light to guide me, it was easy to feel nostalgic. In light of my own health issues over the past four months, I was keenly aware that there will only be a finite number of times in my life when I will be able to see the beauty of late summer at Occoneechee Mountain. Like the fallen maple, my time will come to an end at some point, whether in the near future or many decades from now.

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In light of that, I have decided to open the door to possibility. From this point forward, I will be reducing my own input on my blog and making room for others, who share an interest in the preservation of nature and culture and who want to make a difference for the good of our planet. To that end, I will start accepting submissions of original stories addressing personal experiences of nature and culture in daily life. The submissions page (accessible at the top of the page or by clicking here) will be open to anyone and will be your best way to contact me in regards to submitting your own original story for publication on this blog. In the meantime make the most of the time you have left, for life is a gift, not a given.

References:

Cerrena Unicolor,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Clitocybe dealbata,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Fungi growing on trunk/branches,” University of Minnesota Extension, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Helianthus decapetalus,” Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, accessed August 29th, 2018.

How to Identify Oak Leaves,” Wikihow, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Mushrooms & Fungi,” Northland Paradise, accessed 27th, 2018.

Pinus taeda,” Wikipedia, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Pippen, Jeffrey S., “North Carolina Wildflowers, Shrubs, and Trees,” Jeff’s Nature Home Page, accessed August 29th, 2018.

Ten-petal Sunflower,” Illinois Wildflowers, accessed August 29th, 2018.

What Tree Is That?: Tree Identification Field Guide,” Arbor Day, accessed August 27th, 2018.

Inching toward a Paleo Diet: My Ongoing Effort to Eat in Balance with Nature

by Mark Miles

This blog post may seem to be a departure from my usual stories, but it nonetheless relates to nature through that most intimate and personal relationship which all of us have: our relationship with food. When you realize that everything on your plate originates from the natural world either directly or indirectly–plants grow directly from soil; animals feed indirectly on soil through the plants and animals they eat–it’s easier to understand how the food on your plate changes the way you perceive and engage with the natural world. Additionally it’s important to maintain some degree of health and fitness if you plan to do any amount of serious hiking, making the topic of food and diet relevant in that way as well.

With that said, I should explain that I haven’t always been fit and healthy. On the contrary, I’ve struggled with obesity, binge-eating disorder, and prediabetes more than once in my life, especially in my early twenties. Thankfully I have few photos to show of my obese former self, but if you could have seen me at twenty years of age weighing 250 lbs. with a 40” waist and the jowls of an old man, you’d realize where I’m coming from. Nonetheless, I did manage to become fit and healthy around twenty-four due to a complete reconfiguration of my diet and exercise regimen, and I remained fit and healthy from twenty-four until thirty-two years of age, during which time I adopted a gluten-free, low-sugar diet that drew a great deal of inspiration from the paleo diet.

Then in 2016 I went through a terrible breakup–which I’ve written about at length in a previous blog post–and found my self-esteem absolutely shattered. After Bobby disappeared, I questioned whether anything I was doing in my life was right, and in the process I ended up undoing a great deal of the progress I’d made in my physical fitness. Above and beyond anything else, I started eating refined sugar, which I had avoided almost entirely for eight solid years. At the time when I started eating refined sugar again, I rationalized my decision by telling myself that I needed a break, that I needed something different in my life, that I needed a change. Unfortunately the change I made was unquestionably for the worst.

From March of 2016 until May of 2017, I indulged in basically every sugar-laden sweet treat which I had avoided for nearly a decade. I started baking and eating pineapple-right-side-up-cake, brownies with chocolate frosting, and my favorite of all: chocolate-peanut-butter-oatmeal cookies. For fourteen solid months, I allowed myself to go downhill. And it wasn’t long before I started noticing that my pants didn’t fit as well as they used to, that there was the beginning of a gut hanging out where my abs used to be, and that even my face was starting to look positively plump.

Finally I woke up one morning in May of 2017, got out of bed, looked at myself in the mirror, and didn’t recognize my own face. It may sound like an exaggeration, but the fat which I was accumulating was easily visible everywhere, including my face, and altered my appearance so much that I considered applying for the job of Pillsbury doughboy. At that point I knew I had to do something, or the changes I was experiencing would have soon become frightening and irreversible.

So I cut the refined sugar along with processed foods in general, increased my consumption of natural protein and fat, and added a whole host of fruits to compensate for the loss of sweets. I had done it for eight years previously, so I knew I could do it again. But it was still frightening when I considered giving up so many of my favorite foods all over again. Fortunately some awareness of the paleo diet lingered in the back of my mind, and even though I had never fully implemented it I decided that I would use it as an inspiration for my attempt to regain balance in my relationship with food.

Amazingly the act of cutting refined sugar/processed foods, increasing protein and fat, and adding fruit was much easier than I thought it would be. It was also a huge relief. Within a week of my dietary reconfiguration, I was feeling more energetic, focused, enthusiastic, and positive about my life. I started losing weight around my gut noticeably within a month, and within two months my face was once again recognizable in the mirror. I knew I was on a good track, and I’ve persisted with that track to this day.

But I realized recently that I still have further to go. What instigated this was my reading of The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. I had the vague recollection of hearing about the book when the paleo diet started to become popular several years ago, but I never took the time to read it until recently. To my surprise, within the first hundred pages I found the motivation to finally eliminate three food groups that have remained in my diet despite the changes I mentioned earlier. These are dairy, legumes, and grains.

Dairy:

I’ve always loved milk. From my earliest childhood, I can remember pouring a plastic jug of watered-down skim over my prefabricated imitation of breakfast known as cereal. Despite having the nutritional value of a cardboard box and the addictiveness of a mild opiate, I loved that milk. Even after I gave up processed food, I still loved and adored whole milk as well as butter. I still love butter in fact. Until a matter of days ago, I used it to fry my eggs in the morning and make stir-fries on the weekend.

But the sad fact is that milk contains lactose, which is a significant allergen that can contribute to the development of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Additionally most milk is derived from cows who’ve been progressively poisoned with antibiotics, hormones, and grains which they were never intended to eat. This invariably affects the quality of the milk and its impact on anyone who consumes it. Consequently I will now be eliminating milk and dairy in favor of coconut oil, which is incredibly tasty and stable at high temperatures, making it ideal for cooking.

Legumes:

A very close second in terms of difficulty will be the elimination of legumes, specifically peanut butter. I’ve loved peanut butter for as long as I can remember, but over the past ten years it’s really become a staple for me. The simple reason for this is that I adopted vegetarianism for a few years in my early twenties and needed to find a good source of protein from a vegetable source. But it turns out that peanuts–which are legumes–are rich in phytic acid, an antinutrient that inhibits the absorption of micronutrients in the gut. Peanuts also frequently contain aflatoxin, a carcinogen which has deleterious effects on the liver and can be particularly harmful to children. In place of peanuts, I’ll be consuming almonds and walnuts, the latter of which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Grains:

Though I do love a slice of fried toast in the morning with my eggs, grains in general and wheat in particular will probably be the least difficult to eliminate of the three food groups listed above. I’ve already substantially reduced my intake of wheat over the past ten months, and there’s no meal in the course of my day that depends on it to a disproportionate extent.

The reason for eliminating wheat and grains is that they can contribute to the development of serious digestive complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome and celiac. Grains also have a tendency to accumulate in the lining of the gut, where they interfere with nutrient absorption and increase the likelihood of unhealthy weight-gain.

So those are the big three that I will be eliminating for at least the next month. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll try reintroducing any of them after a month; that depends largely on how successful I am with cooking and meal preparation using the paleo staples of meat, fish, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. I’m not a huge carnivore, so there will certainly be a degree of transition for me, but I’m excited about the prospect of finding a way to eat that’s consonant with human prehistory, physical fitness, and the health of the gut.

Hopefully this will also be an inspiration to you to attempt something similar with your own diet. If I could make a recommendation from personal experience, I would start by eliminating refined sugar entirely and replacing it with fresh, dried, frozen, or pureed fruit. Just make sure whatever fruit you get is free of additives, since sugar is commonly used to enhance the flavor of fruit, defeating any beneficial qualities it would otherwise possess.

Along with preservatives, artificial colors, flavor enhancers, and the above-mentioned toxic food groups, the presence of sugar in the industrial food supply demonstrates the degree to which agribusiness is intent on keeping all of us addicted to harmful products which do nothing but enrich the wealthy at the expense of health and life for millions. This situation is sick, deranged, suicidal, and downright evil, and it’s also ubiquitous in modern, industrialized societies where food is no longer an embodiment of our relationship with the natural world but merely a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. But this situation–as sick and twisted as it is–is also the greatest possible motivation to get off your couch, get angry as hell, and make a change in the world that your future self will be proud of.

References:

Aflatoxin,” Wikipedia, accessed February 8th, 2018.

What’s Wrong with Beans and Legumes?”, Paleo Leap, accessed February 8th, 2018.

Wolf, Robb, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet (Las Vegas, NV, USA: Victory Belt, 2010)

Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

By now most people are aware of the fact that honeybees are facing the very real threat of extinction due to the devastating effects of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire hives of honeybees are progressively annihilated by a combination of chemical, biological and environmental contaminants that result from industrial agriculture. This is awful for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that honeybees are primarily responsible for pollinating food crops in the US and many other countries. Their role is so crucial in fact that many foods — including but not limited to almonds, tomatoes, onions, peaches, coffee, raspberries, and cocoa — could disappear altogether with the extinction of honeybees. Imagine going into your local grocery store and not finding your favorite coffee, fresh fruit, trail mix, or chocolate and then realizing that it’s not merely a momentary hiccup; it’s gone forever. Regardless of whether genetic engineering will ever be able to bring a species back from extinction — and it hasn’t done so yet despite the extinction of millions of species in the past century — it will never be viable to bring back every last species of food crop that we will lose if every honeybee dies.

In the face of this I’ve given active consideration to what I can do to help honeybees, and pollinators in general, to survive in the face of looming extinction. There are many things that we can and should be doing as a society, but I’m only one person and have to deal with the limitations of my constrained economic circumstances. In light of that, I’ve adopted a few tactics to help tip the odds in favor of our essential and underappreciated pollinators: 1) I cultivate native flowering plants in my garden and allow wild flowering plants to bloom whenever possible; 2) I use compost made from my food waste to enrich the soil and make the plants in my yard healthy; and 3) I avoid the use of any kind of pesticide, insecticide, or synthetic chemical on my yard. Almost without a doubt the most important of these three tactics is the very last, since the most likely cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is the use of pesticides on commercial crops, which progressively poisons honeybees over time and annihilates entire colonies with impunity.

Also important however is the cultivation of flowering plants, especially native and heirloom plants, that are specifically suited to particular regions and growing conditions. Even if you can’t get your hands on native or heirloom plants though, any kind of flowering plant (that’s not invasive) would probably be helpful to your local honeybees and would provide an additional food source that could make the difference between life and death for pollinators in your area. To that end I’ve taken a few photos of flowering plants which I’m cultivating in my yard with the intent of assisting our essential pollinators.

One of the most recent additions to my arsenal of pollinator plants is bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), a plant that’s native to North America and produces some of the most brilliant magenta blossoms I’ve ever seen. The plant has been used historically by Native Americans to treat medical conditions ranging from gingivitis to skin infections to fever. Though I haven’t tried it for myself, the leaves of the plant are said to taste like a mixture of spearmint and oregano. I’m not sure how I feel about that combination of flavors, but some Native American tribes thought it was an excellent seasoning for wild game. And there’s no doubt that pollinators love this plant, as I’ve been able to attest in my short time cultivating it.

One of the longest lasting of any of the perennial flowering plants in my yard is white peony (Paeonia spp.). There are two specimens of it, both of which were planted by previous owners of my house at some point in the indeterminate past. They bloom like clockwork every year in early summer, though this year they bloomed a full six weeks earlier than usual. Regardless of their timing, these peonies are beautiful to look at and to smell; they’re also hugely attractive to sugar ants, another kind of pollinator that assists in the opening of peony petals, receiving much-needed nectar in return for much-needed effort.

I must be perfectly honest here; I don’t always allow white clover (Trifolium repens) to grow as much as I’d like. It grows wild here in central North Carolina, and it’s consequently taken up residence in my yard, providing a deep emerald green to the carpet of grass which no other species has been able to compete with. White clover is also a nitrogen-fixer and enriches the soil wherever it’s grown, giving added reason for my affection toward it. Most important however is the fact that it’s hugely popular with honeybees and bumblebees, both of whom frequent the tiny white blossoms with the enthusiasm of children at a candy store.

Another pollinator plant in my yard — that has blossoms with the color of hot pink and leaves with the taste of lip-puckering lemon — is pink woodsorrel (Oxalis debilis). This plant loves the shady spots around my compost pile and in past years has produced leaves almost of the size of dinner plates — which is coincidentally one among many reason to compost. Even in areas of my yard which don’t have the abundant nutrients of my compost pile however, pink woodsorrel shows her tiny yet vivid blossoms and provides another opportunity for pollinators to get a bite to eat without risking their lives on a toxic chemical soup of pesticides and synthetic chemicals.

For all of my efforts at creating a sanctuary for pollinators in my own backyard, I’m not kidding myself about the future of honeybees, who will face extinction much sooner than any of us would like to think if we don’t act decisively as a society to put a stop to the destructive practices which are threatening their survival. To that end we need to do a few things. 1) We need to hold biopharmaceutical corporations — which are primarily responsible for manufacturing pesticides — accountable for their devastatingly criminal activities. 2) We need to stop the production and use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals for any purpose but especially for dispersal on food crops. 3) We need to support local organic farmers who are doing their best to preserve the health of pollinators and people. 4) We need to get our hands in the dirt and grow as many native flowering plants as we can. 5) We need to show enough love and appreciation for those essential pollinators in our own backyards to help them in whatever way we can. For without them, life on this planet will be a waking nightmare for all of us.

References:

Batsakis, Anthea, “What Is Colony Collapse Disorder — and Is There Hope for Bees?Cosmos Magazine, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Ellis, J., “Why Are Honey Bees Disappearing?” University of Florida, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Sarich, Christina, “List of Foods We Will Lose if We Don’t Save the Bees,” Natural Society, accessed May 19th, 2017.

Shell, Robbie, “What We Know — and Don’t Know — about Colony Collapse Disorder,” excerpted from Bees on the Roof, accessed May 19th, 2017.

The Lump on My Dog’s Breast and What I’m Doing about It

by Mark Miles

Recently I found a lump on one of Bella’s breasts. She turned nine years old in July, so I wasn’t terribly surprised by this; she is after all reaching an age at which medical issues frequently begin to emerge. Still it was an unpleasant reminder of mortality, of how limited her time on this planet is. I look at her, and I see such energy and youth. In my mind, Bella will always be an eternal puppy. The way she whines when she wants something, snuggles up to me when I need a hug, and broadcasts her every thought without hesitation reminds me of nothing so much as a hot-headed, sweet, indomitable child. I speak only from observation on this point, since I have no biological children of my own, but the point remains. She’s my kid, and she may have cancer.

In response to this, I’ve done my best to remain level-headed. Sometimes I think I’m too level-headed in these kinds of situations, since a casual observer could easily assume that I don’t care. On the contrary, I care so much that if I allow my feelings to get carried away I’ll probably become useless, terrified and inert. On the other hand, if I keep my emotions to a minimum, I can maintain some clarity of thought and pursue a rational course of action. Faced with this dilemma, I choose the latter option, even though some people may draw erroneous conclusions from it.

So I’ve kept my cool and made a plan to do what I can without resorting to potentially lethal treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation-therapy. I’m making sure that Bella eats as much organic nonprocessed food as possible, that she drinks filtered water, that she gets a daily walk, that she has plenty of fresh air and sunshine, that she avoids environmental toxins, and that she has a good life for as much of it as remains. I know there are medical treatments available, but each of those entails a risk which is, in all probability, greater than the risk of letting her live a healthy life without medical intervention.

There’s one part I haven’t mentioned. Her sister Abby (a mixed German shepherd and my first canine companion) died of lung cancer in 2013 after developing a similar lump on one of her breasts. The length of time between when the mass developed and when she died was approximately four years. For the record, I hope Bella lives another twenty years–which I’m fairly certain is biologically impossible. But I have to face the fact that she may live for a much shorter length of time. It’s not a pleasant thought, but it’s reality. And in the face of that, the best I can do is to love her and make sure she has a good life for as long as she has left.