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.

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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.

Image Credits:

1. Honeybee at Work (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Bee Balm in Bloom (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. I Can Almost Smell the Peony Perfume (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. White Clover Dances in the Wind (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Pink Woodsorrel Steals the Show (Mark Miles, 2017)

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.

How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Surprise Discovery of a Breathtaking Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina. I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

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I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.

There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.

Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.

Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail. Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily flummoxed.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Image Credits:

1. Fern Grove in Spring (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Staircase to the Westward Trail (Mark Miles, 2016)

3. Roots Entangled in Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. There’s No Mistaking Sentinel Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Birthplace of a Stream (Mark Miles, 2017)

6. An Entrance to…? (Mark Miles, 2017)

7. The Pocket in the Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

8. View from the Top (Mark Miles, 2017)

9. The Path Less Traveled (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rock Formations at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Inspiration is a funny thing. It comes in many shapes and sizes, can arrive at any hour of the day, and needs no invitation apart from a receptive mind and a willingness to create. It can show up at a museum, in a forest, by a river, at your workplace, or in bed while you sleep at night. It can nag away at your insides until you feel sick and restless, compelling you to find a way to express it meaningfully. And when you do, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life.

I’ve been reminded of this since I started composing in September of last year. When I first considered following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Mozart, however, I was absolutely terrified. “Who am I to think I have the skills to create music that could ever live up to the standard they set?” This thought crossed my mind many times, and I still grapple with it from time to time. It turns out, though, that all I really needed to overcome my initial hesitation was an experience of profound inspiration.

That experience came to me when I first visited Occoneechee Mountain in the summer of 2015. Seeing the rock formations there — many of which were formed hundreds of millions of years ago when central North Carolina was much more volcanically active — planted a seed in my mind that ultimately took a year to bear fruit. But bear fruit it did.

Before I get to that, however, I’d like to share the rock formations themselves to give you a sense of how incredible they are and how easily they could fill anyone with a sense of profound inspiration. (For the record, I was unable to find official names for any of these rock formations in my research for this article. So, in the absence of official names, I’ve come up with my own unofficial names, which are hopefully amusing and memorable.)

Elephant Rock is a tor (a free-standing rock formation that juts directly out of the surrounding terrain) that sits on the northwestern edge of the Mountain Loop Trail before the trail reaches the Eno River. Like many of the other rock formations near the mountain, it appears seemingly out of nowhere, towering fifteen feet over the trail and exerting a magnetic pull on anyone with an ounce of curiosity. The weight of the rock is so massive it can almost be felt simply by looking at it. Staring into the grey and green textures along its flanks, it wasn’t hard for me to understand how similar sites were used by our ancestors as places of worship.

Gumdrop Rock is another tor that can be found a little further along the Mountain Loop Trail. It’s not as imposing or grandiose as Elephant Rock, but it has its own kind of quiet sublimity. Standing roughly eight feet tall and ten feet wide, it makes even some professional athletes look dainty by comparison. Nonetheless it’s one of the smaller rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain and may be overlooked because of it.

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Sentinel Rock is a promontory (an abutment of land bordered on two sides by water which has progressively eroded it over time) that may also be overlooked by the casual hiker but for very different reasons. This rock formation is reasonably well hidden from sight on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain and takes a little looking in order to find. There are trails that lead to it, but they’re not terribly obvious, and they lead through some scruffy undergrowth that smacks and whacks at every inch of your person on the way. After a bit of manhandling from the plants, however, this forty-foot marvel is a sight for sore eyes and easily the most breathtaking of the many notable rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain. To sweeten the deal, there’s even a mountain stream to the side that gurgles gently down the imposing rock face.

Overhang Rock is a crag (a nearly vertical body of rock formed by erosion and weathering over time) that overlooks the Eno River on the north side of Occoneechee Mountain. It directly borders the Mountain Loop Trail and may leave you in fear for your life the first time you pass by it. While my photo shows that the rock face isn’t quite vertical, when you’re underneath it you may think otherwise. Staring thirty feet up the side of a cliff that probably weighs more than twenty tons is nothing if not an intensely humbling experience, which is only accentuated by the twenty-foot drop down to the Eno River on the opposite side.

Reverential Rock is a boulder on the north side of the mountain which may have been formed in the landslide of 2001, when more than five thousand tons of debris crashed down the side of the quarry at Occoneechee Mountain. At the very least, it has many more edges and irregularities on its surface than many other nearby rock formations, which would seem to indicate a much more recent deposition. In any case, it’s become something of a shrine for hikers who wish to express their creativity by making small stacks of rocks called cairns, which abound at the quarry. Looking at the attention to detail in these small structures, it’s easy to see I’m not the only person who’s found inspiration in these majestic rock formations.

Despite the fact that these rocks inspired me from the first moment I laid eyes on them, it took me fourteen months before I picked up a pen and wrote my first musical composition to express that inspiration. Though it’s impossible to say for sure how the spectacle of creation must have looked when Occoneechee Mountain was formed several hundred million years ago, I nonetheless had a mental image of massive boulders being thrown around like pebbles when writing this piece. These descending boulders can be heard in the rapid downward scale at 0:12. The thought of lava being spewed and progressively building up the structure of the mountain can also be heard in the rising trajectory of the ground bass passage starting at 0:31. (Make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel for only the best future videos.)

Though I know mere music can never surpass the mountain that inspired me to compose, I’ve nonetheless tried to capture a faint glimmer of the grandeur of Occoneechee Mountain in this piece. Perhaps just as importantly I’ve tried to create something that may help you to find your own special place in the natural world, where you can find inspiration and share it with others in turn.

Image Credits:

1. Elephant Rock Looms Large (Mark Miles, 2016)

2. Gumdrop Rock in Spring (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. There’s No Mistaking Sentinel Rock (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. The Mighty Overhang (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Reverential Rock, Home to Cairns of All Sizes (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Bradley, Phil, “The (Brief) Geologic Story of the Eno River,” North Carolina Geological Survey, accessed April 18th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

McIver, Hervey, “Occoneechee Mountain Dedication,” Eno River Association, accessed April 18th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area,” Geocaching, accessed April 20th, 2017.

Late Frost with Early Flowers

by Mark Miles

With daytime temperatures in central North Carolina fluctuating between 80° F and 40° F depending on the day of the week, it’s difficult to decide what season we’re in. This is further complicated by the fact that we had frost in March (and may have it again in April), but we had 70° temperatures in January and February. On the whole, one may be inclined to assume that somebody with lots of money and no conscience is presently reverse-engineering the climate.

Still the plants are generally in agreement that spring, however fickle and indecisive this year, has arrived. Truthfully there were distinct signs of it by January, so this should come as no surprise to anyone with half a brain. And while many plants and trees have been damaged or stunted due to the late frost, plenty of others are in full bloom, which recently led me to take photos of the resulting botanical beauty.

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Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) has always been a favorite of mine. From my earliest childhood, I’ve made a habit of picking the small crimson fruits in late May to taste the color of the season. (At the rate they’re growing this year, I may be able to pick them by late April.) They tend not to be terribly flavorful in this region, but I wonder if depleted soils are partially to blame for this. Additionally the leaves of the plant have been used to treat cough and diarrhea in historical times.

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Common chickweed (Stellaria media) is considered by many to be a pest, and there may be some validity to that assessment in some circumstances. However the plant is also a great source of nutrition for many foraging animals, including chickens, pigs, and rabbits. Historically chickweed has also been used by humans to treat coughs, hemorrhoids, and sore eyes. Personally I find its most redeeming quality to be the delicate white flowers which are so small they can almost be mistaken for specks of stardust.

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I must admit I’d never seen this particular plant before my March hike at Eno River State Park. Once I’d spotted it, however, I saw it everywhere. In fact it was hard to take a step in some parts of the park without risking the life of one or more of these dainty flowers. Only after a bit of research at a later date did I find the plant’s identity. Eastern spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a native to this region and also goes by the name fairy spud. The name alone would be enough for me to love the plant, but there’s more. All of the aerial parts of the plant are safe for human consumption and have been eaten by the Algonquin people, among others, for centuries.

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In my yard, I have two examples of peony (Paeonia spp). Due to the late frost and early spring, the leaves and blossoms are frail and skinny, but the plants are doing their best to compensate for their diminished size with an extra dose of magenta along the stems, leaves, and buds. I have a feeling the blossoms will also be diminished in size this year, but that won’t change the fact that peony petals can be steeped in hot water to produce an herbal infusion that’s reputed to be a delicacy in China. To top it all off, certain species of peony have even been used historically to treat convulsions, which makes it the most beautiful anticonvulsant I’ve ever seen.

Image Credits:

1. Strawberry Delight (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Chickweed Has Me Seeing Stars (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Fairy Spud Strikes Again (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Peony with Eager Ants (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Dwyer, James and David Rattray, eds.; Magic and Medicine of Plants (Pleasantville, NY, USA: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1986); pp. 138, 339.

Turning Paradise into a Parking Lot

by Mark Miles

It’s entirely possible that the National Park Service will be eliminated in the foreseeable future. Of course it’s the last thing I would ever want, and it’s one of the worst things that could happen to many wildlands in the United States. There are nonetheless a whole myriad of issues which are threatening the survival of our national parks: 1) increasing corporate interference in the political process is transforming the ethic of government from public service to private profit; 2) declining revenues from decreasing rates of taxation on the wealthy are systematically impoverishing governmental coffers; 3) a ballooning national debt is providing lucrative opportunities for multinational creditors to effectively subordinate national sovereignty; and 4) continued disaffection from a populace alienated and preoccupied by digital technologies is allowing all of this to occur unabated. In short, the days of the National Park Service are numbered.

This has prompted me to start thinking about what my life would be like without those little pieces of paradise called parks. While the ones I regularly visit are managed by the state of North Carolina, they will also be affected by the dissolution of the NPS if and when it occurs. If nothing else, loss of our national parks would set a precedent for the expendability of parks in general and would increase the likelihood that state governments would consider liquidation of their own parks as a short-sighted solution to the increasing issue of budgetary shortfalls at every level of government. This could spell the demise of many state parks, including Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina. Without a park designation to protect this land, it’s entirely likely that it would be decimated in the name of profit, reduced to a hollow shell of its former beauty and vibrance.

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With that in mind, I arrived at Eno River State Park a few weeks ago to explore Cox Mountain Trail for the first time. (I only discovered Eno River State Park last summer, so I’m still becoming acquainted with it.) After parking and joining the trailhead, I found myself confronted by the sight of several trees which had been chopped down alongside the trail. There was no apparent reason for it, but it gave the tiniest of impressions of what might occur if Eno River State Park ceased to exist. I don’t know if and when that will happen, but I do know this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a strip mall.

After crossing the suspension bridge leading to Cox Mountain Trail, I passed a small historic cabin in the woods and noticed the land around me gaining elevation with every passing step. I rounded several curves and twists, noticing more and more visibility as I continued my upward transit. Before too long, I came to the highest point on Cox Mountain Trail, where I found this sight of the surrounding land. Though the powerlines obstructed my view, the scope and beauty of the land were breathtaking. From this point I could see for miles eastward, and I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a subdivision.

From the eastward view, I followed Cox Mountain Trail through woodland until the trail began to descend. I hadn’t realized how high I was prior to this, but with the slope of the land in front of me it was clear to see that the estimate of 270 feet in elevation, stated on the park website, was reasonably accurate. The adjacent hillside loomed larger with every downward step, and it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by the shade produced by the late afternoon sun falling behind the opposite hill. Once the trail had reached the level of the river once again, I noticed small creekbeds converging toward the Eno. One of those creekbeds was mostly dry but provided a nice view which I promptly photographed. As I did so, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a convenience store.

With the sound of rushing water in the distance, I knew the Eno wasn’t far away. In less than five minutes I was once again hiking the banks of my favorite river, looking for any and every angle from which to capture its beauty. The Eno is fairly shallow at this point, and it wasn’t unrealistic for me to navigate my way over stones in the river to try to find a good view. Unfortunately, despite wading a third of the way into the river, the photos I ended up with were less than stellar. Nonetheless I did manage to find a decent view of the old dam, graced by the late afternoon sun. Soaking in the beauty of the moment, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a highway.

From the ruins of the old dam I followed the course of the trail on its eastward circuit. Soon enough the trail veered away from the Eno and made its way back into the surrounding woodland, where I found a rich canopy of oaks, beeches, and pines on every side. The trail continued through the woods for a another mile, providing me ample opportunity to inspect my surroundings. Around this time, I stopped to look through the branches overhead and saw the rotund shape of the moon in waxing gibbous phase. Stopping in my tracks to take a photo, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a factory farm.

Trekking through the woods for another half-mile, I passed several small streams and creekbeds before I found myself at the suspension bridge which provides access to Cox Mountain. The sunlight had dimmed considerably and provided much more even illumination at this time, the hour before dusk. I found the perfect angle to frame the bridge and considered how lucky I was to have such a beautiful place within thirty minutes’ driving distance from where I live. Likewise I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of an overpass.

Finally I crossed the suspension bridge, feeling the gentle swaying of the wood planks beneath me with every footstep. While it wasn’t the most stable surface, it provided a lovely view of the Eno to the north and the south. There were no other hikers in sight, so I had the bridge to myself, which allowed me to take as long as I wanted to get a satisfactory shot. Gazing into the serenely rippling waters of my favorite river, I knew this piece of paradise would only be polluted by the presence of a parking lot.

Image Credits:

1. Trail of Shadows (Mark Miles, 2017)

2. Glimpse into the Distance (Mark Miles, 2017)

3. Blood-Red Creekbed (Mark Miles, 2017)

4. Remains of the Dam (Mark Miles, 2017)

5. Moon Embraced by Branches (Mark Miles, 2017)

6. Suspension Bridge Beckons (Mark Miles, 2017)

7. Brown February Eno (Mark Miles, 2017)

References:

Hansman, Heather. “Congress just made it easier to sell off federal land, including national parks.The Guardian via Business Insider. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Mitchell, Joni. “Big Yellow Taxi.” Ladies of the Canyon, 1970.

Rowland, Jenny. “GOP Platform Proposes to Get Rid of National Parks and National Forests.Think Progress. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Schlanger, Zoë. “What Can a Donald Trump Presidency Do to National Parks?Newsweek. Accessed February 21st, 2017.

Clowns in the Woods?

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Clowns have been in the news for some time. There’s been media coverage of clowns in South Carolina and even in North Carolina where I live, in addition to many other states. In one case a man with a machete was reported to have chased one of these clowns into the woods. That incident took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, which is a mere thirty miles from where I live. So I’ve been thinking about clowns lately, despite my own skepticism regarding the phenomenon.

The reports of malevolent clowns that I’ve read have characterized their activity as consisting in large part of a concerted attempt to lure people into the woods by use of candy or offers of money. Obviously this sounds nonsensical, but the idea caters to certain preconceptions of clowns that have been prevalent on social media for some time, including this notorious meme of a clown in the woods.

As you probably know by now, I love the woods. If I were to choose any place in all the world to live without any consideration of economics and with only my own happiness in mind, I would choose a forest. This probably stems from my childhood, since I grew up in a residential area that was heavily wooded, and I found myself in the woods frequently as a child. Consequently the woods are a place of familiarity and comfort for me. Or at least they usually are.

With the advent of reports about clowns engaging in various sinister activities loosely related to wooded areas, my feelings have started to shift. This shift has been entirely unconscious but noticeable nonetheless. Nowhere was this shift more apparent than on a recent hike to Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, which I took earlier this month.

I arrived at the park around 5:30 pm and immediately scrutinized the trail kiosk to see where I would go for the day. I’d already explored the trails surrounding Fews Ford and the southern stretch of the Eno. But when I saw that there was a considerable expanse of forest to the north which I hadn’t yet traversed, I knew where I’d be heading.

Setting off from the trail kiosk at the park office, I joined the Buckquarter Creek Trail. Following this, I wound my way through the surrounding hills, quickly leaving the Eno in the background and descending gradually before finding Ridge Trail. Joining Ridge Trail, I continued marching steadily northward, thankfully unconcerned about clowns for the moment.

Before long, I heard the sound of rushing water ahead of me in the distance. I looked at my trusty map and determined that the sound was emanating from Buckquarter Creek itself. Reaching the creek, I looked for a bridge but instead found a line of rocks which appeared to be passable but which clearly required sure footing to cross. Before I did this, I had to take photos of the beautiful American sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) which graced the edge of the north side of Buckquarter Creek. Sadly the thought also occurred to me that it might be a good place for a malevolent clown to hide.

After taking my photos, I gingerly hopscotched across the stream, ascended the base of the eponymous ridge, took a right at the fork in the road, and joined Shakori Trail. Judging from the depiction of the trail on the map in my hand, I figured it wouldn’t take more than fifteen or twenty minutes to complete the Shakori Trail, which loops back to Ridge Trail at its northeasternmost extremity. By now the sun was noticeably fading, and I estimated that I had thirty minutes of strong daylight by which to safely navigate these unfamiliar woods.

There were, however, a few caveats. I had set out from my house without charging my phone, and it now had less than five percent power. Additionally my small digital camera which I take on hiking excursions had already died, leaving me to take photos on my phone and thereby expending more of its limited energy. Finally I had no flashlight and knew I would need to use my phone for that purpose if the woods became too dark, thereby expending more of my phone’s limited energy. All of this increased my apprehension about venturing into this stretch of woods; but I did anyway, fully cognisant that this was by far the best place in the entire park for a clown with a bad attitude to be hiding.

I could immediately tell after crossing Buckquarter Creek that the woods to the north were rarely traversed by humans. The trail was narrower, there were more sticks and branches in the way, and at points the trail itself seemed to fade into the surrounding woods. Normally this wouldn’t have bothered me; but because of the lateness of the hour and my unfamiliarity with the area, I was becoming apprehensive. Thoughts of what might be lurking in the encroaching gloom didn’t help.

Despite the depiction of Shakori Trail, there was a greater distance to walk than I was expecting. With every passing minute the sunlight waned, the trail continued, and my apprehension grew. It didn’t help that I happened to stumble upon the largest animal-droppings which I’ve ever seen on a park trail. I can’t say definitively what species made the deposit, but I’m guessing it was a bear. To the casual observer, however, it could easily have been the droppings of a clown.

After passing the poop, I continued on my way. The trail was still climbing upward at a steady rate, indicating that I hadn’t reached the top of the ridge for which Ridge Trail is named. At the same time, the sunlight was still fading. Without warning I heard a rustling in the woods to my left. There was a declivity to that side which obscured my sight, and an image of a clown with a malicious sneer momentarily intruded on my thoughts. By this time, my stomach was fully tied in knots.

Still I was determined to finish what I’d started, and no amount of rustling in the woods was going to stop me from doing that. At last the trail began to level out, and within ten minutes I saw a yellow fence-gate which marked the convergence of Shakori Trail with Ridge Trail. Relief flooded over me in an instant, but I still kept looking for clowns.

From that point onward, I kept a brisk pace. It was 6:30, and I didn’t want to extend my stay any longer than absolutely necessary. The woods were darkening noticeably by this time, and decreased visibility only increased the play of imagination. Every darkened corner of the woods seemed to be the perfect hideout for a clown; every rustle in the branches seemed to be the approach of a clown. I tried to scour these thoughts from my mind, but they simply wouldn’t leave.

At last I made it back to Buckquarter Creek. I quickly hopscotched across and felt a wave of relief at the prospect of being back on a section of trail that was reasonably well traversed by other hikers. To my left, however, there was a deserted cabin in the woods, which under the circumstances didn’t require a significant leap of imagination to be perceived as a potential hideout for a malevolent clown.

With the last stretch of trail in front of me, I saw motion ahead. Immediately my stomach was in my mouth. I’d been thinking of clowns for so long that the first thought to jump into my mind was of course the worst. I was tense and uneasy but continued. Finally I could make out the features of the approaching entity. I relaxed as soon as I did. It turned out to be just another hiker with his dog at his side and his baby on his back.

Finally I was done with the trail, and I got back into my car to head home. There’d been no encounter with clowns, no molestation from clowns, no sinister offers from clowns, no lurking or skulking of clowns. It’d been a good hike, even if I hadn’t arrived as promptly as I should have or with appropriate preparedness of electronic devices. In short, nothing bad had happened.

And this was when it dawned on me. The most harmful effect of recent media coverage of clowns in the woods has been the effect on people’s relationship with nature. Woods have been vilified once again as sites of malevolence, perversion, and violence. This vilification is nothing new, as anyone who’s familiar with the story of Little Red Riding Hood can attest. But the disparaging misrepresentation of clowns in the woods continues the trend and takes it to another level, adding an element of infantilizing terror to the experience and further dissuading anyone, especially children, from ever taking that first step into the woods. And that’s the real horror story.

Triumvirate of Violet

Temperatures have finally started cooling in central North Carolina recently, but there’s been such an inundation of rain that the plants and trees haven’t fully accepted the calendrical arrival of autumn. As such, there are many flowering plants in the area that are still flowering, despite the fact that their flowering time has ostensibly passed. I’m guessing they’re as confused by this climatic havoc as I am. Regardless, their blossoms are still attractive, and they give me an opportunity to share more of nature’s beauty, about which I can’t complain.

The fluffiest of the three flowers in this post is the first. Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) isn’t really blue; it’s actually violet. However, it does have some blue undertones, and its blossoms are immediately recognizable by virtue of their color and texture. I stumbled on this specimen by an old abandoned house not far from where I live on a recent evening walk. The house is abandoned by humans, but it certainly hasn’t been abandoned by nature, which has reclaimed much of the yard. As a result, this blue mistflower has had more than ample opportunity to thrive, for which I’m grateful.

This plant eluded me for the longest time. I actually have it in my backyard, an unsolicited visitor but one which continues to delight me with its azure blossoms and violet undertones. (I know it’s a stretch to include a blue flower under the title of this post, but if someone can label an unmistakably violet flower as blue–cf. blue mistflower–I think I’m allowed a similar indulgence.) I was finally able to identify it after much searching as the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis), though I personally prefer the name of mouse-ears, which is an alternate title for the plant and much more descriptive of the dainty upward-reaching petals. Though it’s considered a noxious weed in many areas, it does have beneficial attributes. In Japan it’s historically been used to make a striking blue dye used to illustrate traditional manuscripts. In addition it has the ability to bioaccumulate heavy metals to such an extent that it’s considered to be a viable candidate for helping in the cleanup of heavily polluted mining sites.

The last of these flowers is also the most easily recognizable for most people. I found this specimen of hibiscus (Hibiscus syriacus) along the side of the road where it’d been largely overlooked and chopped down nearly to the ground. Nevertheless, this one blossom managed to spring forth in the last reaches of summer with the fading sunlight of my evening walk accenting its delicate hues of violet and magenta. I wanted to take the flower home with me, but I left it where it was in the knowledge that I could find other hibiscus blossoms in some of my favorite herbal teas, to which hibiscus imparts its distinctive color in addition to contributing Vitamin C, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. In nature, then, we find that beauty and health are two petals on the same flower.

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So There’s a Lump

Recently I found a mass on Bella’s stomach. She was 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.

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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 mass on her abdomen. 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.