Finding Musical Inspiration among the Rocks 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.)

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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.

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.

Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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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Original prints by the author are now available on a limited basis.

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.

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: a Reflection on Eno River State Park

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.

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.

A Snow White Sea with Water Music in Mind

by Mark Miles

I’ve been thinking about arctic voyages lately. Two weekends ago was the big snowstorm, and with it came a volume of white fluffy stuff that I haven’t seen in more than two decades. There was so much of it that I began questioning my latitude; it was practically Nordic around here. Of course it didn’t last; the snow had melted by the following Wednesday, and temperatures exceeded 70° F before the end of the week. For a few days, however, we were surrounded by a snow white sea.

Around the same time I recorded The Merry Sailors by Telemann. It’s the last movement from his suite of dances called Water Music. He wrote it for the Hamburg Admiralty in 1723, and it comprises ten movements which depict mythical deities of the water and their associations with everyday life. It’s a remarkably evocative and accessible work that’s been a great pleasure to learn and play on my YouTube channel. Needless to say, that’s not true of every piece of music I commit to memory.

With thoughts of water and winter floating through my mind, I decided to take a hike through the snow. There were weather advisories warning against any transit that wasn’t absolutely essential, so I avoided driving to one of my usual hiking destinations. Due to the accumulation of snow and the incompetence of local authorities–who somehow managed to clear commercial thoroughfares but refused to do the same for pedestrian walkways–it was more of an adventure than I would’ve thought.

Crossing the railroad tracks that bisect downtown, I came to the first residential area north of the tracks. I wasn’t particularly interested in the houses, but the trees were something to behold. These were the first to really catch my eye. On the left an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and on the right a pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) greeted me with their outstretched boughs. Normally they draw the eye, but with a snow white sea on every side and a clear blue sky overhead they were phenomenal. I couldn’t help wondering if a winter voyage to Denmark, not far from Telemann’s stomping grounds, would’ve looked similar to the composer.

Down the sidewalk and to the right I passed a quaint field adjacent to the local elementary school. Rows of corn have graced the field in years past, but it was allowed to go fallow over the last growing season. In place of corn there were numerous opportunistic plants that filled the gap, and they added a rusty brown to balance the blue and white of sky and snow. A swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) in the background overshadowed the scene with silent magnificence, evoking a sense of grandeur which Telemann might have recognized in the fjords of Norway, not too far from where he lived.

Around another corner and down another block I sighted this stately sentinel, a longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). I’m not sure of her age, but judging by height and width of trunk it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that this pine has seen forty winters or more. It’s sad to say, but in this area that qualifies any tree for retirement–which has less to do with tender loving care than it does with the chopping block. I could only imagine how the evergreen forests of Sweden, near Telemann’s neck of the woods, looked in the composer’s lifetime by comparison.

After trekking for another half-mile through side-roads and snowdrifts, I came to this idyllic scene. Standing at the edge of a field extending another quarter-mile in the distance, I saw this lone tree, too distant to identify, looming over the crest of a small hill. With the play of sunshine and clouds overhead, the scene was constantly undulating with light and shadow, as if the snow white sea covering the landscape was more than mere snow. I had to wonder if some lone island off the coast of Finland could’ve aroused the same feelings in Telemann, who lived along shipping routes that frequented the Finnish coast.

Finally I said goodbye to the snow white sea extending toward the horizon. There were snowclad trees in the distance, but they were so far away that it seemed they were in another country, maybe even in another era. Being in such a place at such a time, I was overwhelmed by the sense of history that pervaded the land, the sense that so many people have lived and died and been lost in the mists of time, forgotten in our era of digital overexposure. I wonder if Telemann would’ve looked into this landscape and seen something of his own time and place, and I wonder if he too would’ve done everything in his power to preserve the land and the water for generations to come.

In Search of Holden Mill, the Historic Ruins at Eno River State Park

Last weekend I was finally able to explore the ruins of Holden Mill at Eno River State Park. I’d been wanting to for a couple months, but finding the requisite three hours of daylight proved to be more difficult than finding honesty in a politician. I made an unsuccessful attempt in November which resulted in my turning back before reaching the mill due to lack of daylight. As a result, some of the photos in this article have more autumnal color than others; those are photos from my incomplete November hike. The photos that have more wintry color are the ones that I took last weekend. And while most of this story will be a recollection of my December hike, there will also be minor elements of my November hike interspersed. With that covered, let’s begin.

I arrived at Eno River State Park in Durham, North Carolina, on Sunday afternoon to find that there were a good number of other people who had the same idea. It’s not uncommon to find a crowd here, but I figured the 40° F temperatures would be enough to dissuade my fellow Carolinians from venturing into what’s considered by many southerners to be intolerably cold weather. My assumption was wrong, but I was right in assuming that I’d be the only one not wearing anything on his head. Being the son of two midwesterners well accustomed to blizzards and snowstorms, I’m inclined to regard 40° F in December as a heatwave. Thus headwear was superfluous.

Stone Staircase by the Eno (Mark Miles, 2016)

Starting northward on Buckquarter Creek Trail, I rounded the curve near Outhouse Ford and continued westward, encountering a few other small groups of hikers who were finishing the trail I was starting. Before long I came to Buckquarter Creek footbridge and crossed gingerly before coming to a fork in the trail and taking the northern course. I had now come to Holden Mill Trail, which consists of two closely linked loops. The first of these is considerably larger than the second and extends from the banks of the Eno to a neighboring hill which provides decent elevation.

Ascending Wintry Hill (Mark Miles, 2016)

Cresting the hill, I noticed how the lack of foliage increased the visibility of the area considerably. When I came in November, there was still enough foliage to obscure a great deal of the surrounding landscape, giving the sense that so much legwork had been for naught. This wasn’t the case last weekend, and I was pleasantly surprised by how invigorating it was to see so much of the surrounding terrain with the chill December air goading me to breathe deeply of autumn’s last days. The visibility increased further still, however, when I reached a clear-cut of power-lines, which looked as if a giant had used his scythe to scalp the land of her foliage.

Powerlines Scalp the Land (Mark Miles, 2016)

By this time I was getting close. The trail had turned from westward to southward, and Tranquility Creek came into view. The trail continued on a course parallel to the creek for a little way before turning right abruptly at a shallow ford and leading me to the last stretch before the mill itself. I was pretty excited by this time and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’d seen a few photos of the mill previously, but none of them had been particularly detailed. Thus my senses were fine-tuned and ready for anything.

The first thing to come into view was the defunct dam which once blocked this stretch of the Eno. It was very primitive and appeared to extend no more than ten feet in height, though it may have stood taller when it was intact. I wasn’t able to get any decent photos of it, but there wasn’t much to photograph in any case.

Ruins Loom in the Distance (Mark Miles, 2016)

Then came the good stuff. Looming amongst the bare sycamores and oaks was a considerable stone structure that looked as if someone had transposed a fragment of Hadrian’s Wall to central North Carolina. Standing twenty feet in height and leaning ever so slightly forward, it was an imposing sight and lent an air of dubious antiquity to the landscape. In front of it stood two other fragments of the same structure, the first of which was no more than eight feet in height and the second no more than twelve. Together the three stone structures formed a kind of maze that simultaneously invited and dissuaded exploration. On the one hand curiosity urged me to take a look for the sake of posterity, but on the other hand precaution urged me to watch for falling stones from a very old structure that’s clearly seen better days. I adopted the middle path, exploring what looked safe and avoiding what didn’t.

Not-So-Hadrian’s Wall (Mark Miles, 2016)

There weren’t any plaques or signs in the area to indicate what the ruins had previously been, but I have my own ideas. The tallest structure in the back appears to have been the site for the mill-wheel, which was probably considerable in size to provide sufficient force to power the internal mechanism of the mill. The second wall may have redirected water from the adjacent canal to a spillway which emptied into the Eno. The third wall might similarly have provided the means to retain water in an enclosed area without spilling into the river prematurely.

Mill Spillway after Two Centuries (Mark Miles, 2016)

All of this is guesswork of course, but I was also able to find something more substantial than guesswork in my research. As it turns out, Holden Mill was founded as a corn, flour and saw mill in 1811 by Isaac Holden. He owned and oversaw the mill for nine years before passing it to his son, Thomas Holden in 1820. Thomas Holden expanded the mill’s workload to include cotton, oil and threshing before passing it to his son-in-law, John Lyon, in 1851. John Lyon retained the mill until 1868, when the mill was closed due to financial difficulties. For fourteen years it remained shuttered. Then, in 1882, Samuel Cole reopened the mill and changed the name from Holden Mill to Cole Mill. He oversaw the operation of the mill until 1893, when the mill closed for the second and final time. The development of factories had rendered the water-mill obsolete, and its role in the economy had become a footnote in history.

As I began the return leg of my hike, I still had visions of decaying stone structures in my head, attempting to reconstruct themselves into their original form to show me how everything worked. I still don’t know if my guesswork is accurate, but I do know one thing. The river which was the real reason for the operation of Holden Mill is the real reason why anyone should come to Eno River State Park.

How the Eno Stole My Heart (Mark Miles, 2016)

On the banks of the Eno I can hear the running water and the voice of the land, leading me to imagine how our world would be without toxic industries poisoning the water and fouling the air. On the banks of the Eno I can feel the rush of a crisp wind on my face and the sharp pull of nature on my soul, whispering to me to respect all that’s green and good in this world. On the banks of the Eno I can see that beauty is everywhere and that another world is possible, expectantly waiting for us to join in common cause to end the reign of money once and for all.

Clowns in the Woods at Eno River State Park?

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.

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Echoes of History

In July I made my monthly visit to the Eno Riverwalk. I paid special attention to the remains of the Saponi Nation’s traditional dwelling, sitting in a field where the structure was displayed some years ago to demonstrate aspects of Saponi culture. (The Saponi are an indigenous nation who once lived in this region but have been largely dispossessed and displaced.) I wasn’t able to see the dwelling when it was on site, but I do admire the log-posts that still stand. They’re silent reminders that there was once a time when the land was regarded not merely as a resource to be exploited but as the sacred and indispensable source of all life.

Heading west, I passed under the Exchange Bridge, which in its own way stands as a monument to the greed of colonizers who dispossessed the original inhabitants of this land, such as the Saponi. Acting primarily as a commercial thoroughfare which facilitates the pollution and degradation of the land, the bridge is a stark reminder of how much things have changed since the time when Hillsborough was founded. For the record I love the town of Hillsborough, but the history of this town and of this culture is covered in the blood and pain of native people, who are largely invisible to the casual observer.

Beyond the Exchange Bridge is one of my favorite views of the Eno. It’s easy to forget about all the history that resides in a place like this when looking at a scene so peaceful and beautiful. I wonder sometimes how much the river has changed over the course of history and how much more it will change in the future. I want the river to be healthy and whole for as long as water runs in this world, but there are so many forces in our culture that threaten the health of rivers and humans alike. I don’t know if the river will be healthy in the future. However I do know that if we want to preserve human health in the future, we have to preserve the health of our rivers and watersheds today.

Another result of the colonization of this land is the proliferation of opportunistic species such as the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which have become overabundant in the absence of keystone species such as the mountain lion and black bear, which were once far more prevalent in this region. I love these deer, but the damage they can do to vegetation and forests is a reminder that the history of colonization is around us at all times, even when we can’t see the people who originally lived in this land centuries ago.

Light and Shadow in the Summer Sun

Toward the end of June, I went to Occoneechee Mountain for the sixth time this year. I’ve been making it a habit to go at least once per month, and that schedule has allowed me to enjoy the fluctuations of the seasons without becoming inured to the place by visiting too frequently. As a result, the mountain remains fresh and exhilarating to me whenever I visit.

Cresting one of the first slopes along the main trail, I came within view of the early evening sun. It was dazzling after the gloomy atmosphere of the hill leading up to it, and I stood for a few moments to soak in the moment.

After branching off on the mountain loop trail, I descended again into the relative gloominess of the forest. It wasn’t in any way unpleasant, but I have to admit I was slightly unnerved on my first few visits when the canopy seemed to become much darker much quicker than the open terrain around the mountain.

On my way up the side of the mountain toward the overlook trail, I stumbled on this beauty. Appropriately enough, its common name is Maryland meadow-beauty (Rhexia mariana), which I only found out after searching for a solid forty-five minutes on my phone through an online database. It’s a perennial with spiny stems, lanceolate leaves, four-petaled flowers, and drooping anthers. And it lives up to its name too, being one of the most beautiful flowers to be found on a western slope in the early evening, when the orange sunlight accentuates its innate magenta coloration.

To my surprise, despite arriving at the park later than I wanted, I had almost perfect timing for sunset, making it to the overlook itself within minutes of the last peek of the sun over the horizon. There were two other people there to savor the final rays of the day, and together we shared the moment on the edge of the mountain-face before going our separate ways.