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.

The Importance of Fighting to Preserve Wilderness

by Mark Miles

Whether we realize it or not, wilderness is essential to all of our lives. A short list of the major ecological services provided by wilderness includes the following: 1) regulating climate by sequestering carbon, 2) retaining topsoil through expansion of root networks, 3) preserving biodiversity by providing habitat and food sources for endemic species, 4) filtering watersheds through microorganismal and vegetal communities, 5) purifying air through respiration and storage of pollutants, and 6) supporting indigenous communities who depend on the land for the necessities of life. And best of all, these essential services are provided to us free of charge.

By contrast, if tech industries were to attempt to fulfill the same ecological services provided for free by wilderness, the cost could very easily surpass the national deficit on a monthly basis. In short, wilderness is doing all of us a favor merely by existing. Needless to say, that should be enough for our leaders to preserve wilderness at all costs. Such is not the case however.

As you may have heard, there were some sobering statistics released not long ago in the scientific journal Current Biology regarding the state of wilderness globally. The bottom line, as with so many issues relating to planetary health, is horrifying and obscene. Over a period of two decades, ten percent of all wilderness (3.3 million square kilometers or the equivalent land area of two Alaskas) was annihilated to feed the engine of industrialization. This may not seem to be much on the surface, but it is when you consider two things: 1) only twenty percent of Earth’s land area is still wilderness, and 2) the rate of global deforestation is only increasing due to the growing appetite for resources of China, Brazil, Russia, and Indonesia. Whether because of construction, manufacturing, mining, forestry, or agriculture, the result is the same: wilderness pays the price while the wealthy who run the global economy walk away with the bank. It’s the very definition of unsustainable, unjust, and unforgivably wrong.

Which is why we should be doing everything we can to protect and support wilderness wherever we are. For my part I do this by raising awareness through my blog, gardening organically, reducing my consumption, buying as little as possible, and encouraging others to do the same. But the reality is that none of these actions will stop the bulldozers, the pipelines, the paramilitary troops, or the endless waves of industrialization that are eviscerating our planet. What we need is an organized, mobilized, and uncompromisingly dedicated army of concerned citizens who want to save the planet and their children’s future before it’s too late.

And one focal point for mobilizing should be our national and state parks. These are bastions of nature, freedom, wildlife, and health which are frequently within driving distance from where we live and which are doing their best to ensure that the little of wilderness that’s left has a fighting chance for the future. To that end I’ve compiled some of my latest photography from three parks in my area of central North Carolina to demonstrate exactly what it is that all of us should be fighting for.

The trails at Eno River State Park are so extensive that even after exploring them on a monthly basis for the past year and a half, I haven’t covered all of them. The park includes 4,200 acres of land and preserves nine miles of riparian habitat along the banks of the Eno River, where I found this bubbling brook nestled amidst a bucolic valley that could’ve come straight out of a fairy tale. There are so many places in Eno River State Park that are equally beautiful and worthy of preservation, but the only guarantee we have that they will continue to exist in the future is our own efforts to fight on their behalf in the present.

The trails at Eno River State Park preserve not only opportunities for hiking but also opportunities for fishing and swimming. Though no one was swimming at Bobbitt Hole when I took the following photo, there was at least one person fishing with his girlfriend on the rocks around it. It may seem trivial to some people to preserve an opportunity for fishing when so few of us depend on the work of our own hands to survive, but it’s a reminder to all of us that our human lives are directly tied to and dependent upon the health of the land, which provides food to all of us along with beauty and recreation.

The Eno Riverwalk in Hillsborough, North Carolina is a stretch of riparian habitat that includes 1.8 miles of trails which border downtown and run through several neighborhoods in the area. It’s one of the most beautiful stretches of riverfront that I’ve ever seen and demonstrates that it is indeed possible to combine some degree of human habitation with wilderness, though obviously there are limits. Even in the quaint and historic town of Hillsborough, however, there is an increasing push to construct ever more housing that will inevitably erode the health of the river and the surrounding land.

Another feature of the Eno Riverwalk is the gradual reconstruction of a traditional Occaneechi roundhouse, which sits just southeast of the courthouse in downtown Hillsborough. The Occaneechi Indians lived in this area through the eighteenth century but were forcibly displaced by European colonization at the end of that century, only beginning to re-emerge from the shadows of history in the last quarter of the twentieth century. They’ve become active in historical recreation and have demonstrated some of their traditional habitation in this roundhouse. This place then is a testament to the importance not only of preserving wilderness but also of preserving cultures that have historically revered wilderness and sought to live in harmony with nature rather than in dominion over it.

The State Natural Area of Occoneechee Mountain is another wilderness area where I go hiking frequently. It covers 190 acres of beautiful terrain and straddles the Eno River along its northern and western borders; it was also part of the traditional territory of the Occaneechi Indians before they were forcibly displaced by European colonization. My understanding is that they regarded the mountain as a holy place where they could commune with their ancestors and the spirits of nature. It’s easy to understand how they could have come to that conclusion when you see for yourself the awe-inspiring beauty of the view from the Overlook, where I took this photo.

Sadly there is also mining for pyrophyllite and andalusite in the area surrounding Occoneechee Mountain, though you would never be able to tell from the view provided by the Overlook. Fortunately Occoneechee Mountain remains protected from the deforestation and contamination which are the inevitable byproducts of mining, but there’s no guarantee for the future. If Occoneechee Mountain were ever to be sold by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation in order to ameliorate budgetary shortfalls, the fate of Occoneechee Mountain would be the same as that of most mining sites: it would be turned into a hollow and lifeless shell of its former self, never to be the same again.

So while there are many stretches of wilderness in my own area of central North Carolina, any or all of them could be clear-cut, bulldozed, mined, or turned into an industrial wasteland at the drop of a politician’s hat. And that is neither ethical nor acceptable to anyone with half an ounce of sense or concern for the future. If we want to live on a planet that continues to be habitable for humans as well as every other species, we need to take action now to preserve wilderness anywhere and everywhere we can, starting with the wilderness in our own backyards. Organizing, mobilizing, and acting decisively to defend wilderness while it still exists is not only our responsibility as inhabitants of this planet, it’s the best way of ensuring our survival as a species.

References:

Eno River State Park,” Wikipedia, accessed Nov. 29th, 2017.

Fraggoso, Alejandro Davila, “The planet is going through a ‘catastrophic’ wilderness loss, study says,” Think Progress, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Harvey, Chelsea, “The world has lost a tenth of all its wilderness in the past two decades,” Washington Post, accessed Nov. 28th, 2017.

Occoneechee Mountain — Active Mine,” Eno River Geology, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Riverwalk,” Town of Hillsborough, accessed Nov. 30th, 2017.

Watson, James E. M., Danielle F. Shanahan, Moreno di Marco, James Allan, William F. Laurance, Eric W. Sanderson, Brendan Mackey, Oscar Venter, “Catastrophic Declines in Wilderness Areas Undermine Global Environment Targets,” Current Biology, accessed Dec. 1st, 2017.

How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a 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.

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.

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.

Adventures in Insect Identification

by Mark Miles

As you may have guessed by now, I’m endlessly fascinated by insect and arachnid life. As a kid, I would often roam in the forest near my house and catch arthropods in jars to add to my collection. Unfortunately I was a child and had no understanding of how to care for these little creatures, and in the majority of instances they ended up dying from starvation or eating one another. One particularly feisty praying mantis even managed to grab my finger and simply… wouldn’t… let go. It was awkward and slightly terrifying.

Since that time, I’ve mended my ways. Now I only admire and take pictures of the insects and arachnids with whom I come into contact. Occasionally they’ll come close to me or will even land on my finger, but I don’t force contact. It strikes me as bad manners and is also unethical. With all that said, here are my latest and most interesting adventures in identification.

This moth was actually in my house when I found him. He was hanging around the kitchen–where most of the moths that come into my house tend to congregate–and climbed onto my finger after I gently nudged him. He was completely calm, and I managed to take several shots of him, of which this was my favorite. It took me a doozy of a time to identify him, but I’m fairly certain he’s a ruddy Metarranthis moth (Metarranthis duaria), which has to be one of the worst names I’ve ever heard. Nevertheless he was a beauty, and I took him outside after our photoshoot, where he has presumably lived out his mothy days.

This cicada turned up in my front yard, dead when I found her. There was a very odd white coloration on her underside, which indicates a fungal infection and which is unfortunately an increasingly widespread cause of death for many cicadas. I was sad to see that she had died in such an unpleasant way, but I couldn’t help admiring her incredible coloration. If you look at the region covering her head and thorax, you can see a mixture of green, black and brown in overlapping irregular patterns. I was later able to identify her as a scissor-grinder cicada (Neotibicen pruinosus), but to me she’ll always be the original camouflage.

I have to admit, I nearly crushed this little guy when I found him at Eno River State Park in August. I had noticed a beautiful sycamore, which I promptly inspected for photographic potential. I didn’t find any particularly good angles; but as I was inspecting the tree, I placed my hand against the trunk and felt a weird, cool, slightly slippery sensation. I immediately retracted my hand and found this beauty. Later I was able to identify him as an iron worm (Narceus americana)–which is by far the most amazing name I’ve come across in a while–though the more common name is the North American millipede. They’re harmless to humans, but they can release an unsavory substance that discolors the skin. Fortunately that didn’t happen in my case, and we parted on amicable terms.

This last arthropod was one I found at a local carwash of all places. She had built her web at the base of the teller machine, and it was impossible not to see her as I inserted dollar bills. After I’d gotten my quarters for the carwash, I promptly swooped down to her level and took several photos, of which this was the best. She was by far the easiest identification of the four arthropods in this post, since I had only recently read an article about the yellow garden spider (Agriope aurantia) and immediately recognized the brilliant black, yellow and white markings and the characteristic zig-zag formation in the center of her web, which is called a stabilimentum. Its purpose is unclear to scientists, but it provides her with another of her common names, the writing spider. For obvious reasons, she may be my new spirit animal.