First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

by Mark Miles

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s more easily understood if you think of it as a climatic fever. When you have a fever, your temperature is elevated, yet your body experiences chills as it attempts to fight off infection. This is precisely the situation in which our planet finds itself, attempting to deflect the worst ravages of industrial extraction by hobbling the climate on which industry depends for ease of extraction and transportation. In the process, however, there are numerous side-effects which most media outlets conveniently blame on the natural world rather than the extractive industries which are truly responsible for destabilizing the climate.

This pattern of climatic destabilization – which includes the undermining of established patterns of temperature and precipitation globally – is an increasingly common phenomenon throughout our world and represents another aspect of climate change. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains. What we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and highly inhospitable global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

At Occoneechee Mountain, this climatic transition was more subdued on my first visit of 2018 than it was in 2017. In 2017, there were flowering plants of every stripe putting forth new growth by January. When I visited Occoneechee Mountain in February of this year on the other hand, there were comparatively few flowering plants in bloom. There were some, however, and there were other signs of spring to be found as well, despite the fact that spring in central North Carolina doesn’t typically arrive until the beginning of April at the earliest.

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential and unseasonable rainstorms that have recently become common in central North Carolina during the winter months. The land was still drenched from the latest rainstorm, and with temperatures in the 60s it felt more like April than February. I got out of my car, started hiking the Mountain Loop Trail, and tried to keep solid footing on ground that might as well have been the last remains of a mud pit.

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

References:

Erythronium americanum,” Missouri Botanical Garden, accessed March 7th, 2018

Callery pear (Bradford pear), Pyrus calleryana,” Invasive.org, accessed March 7th, 2018,

Protecting Pollinators in Your Own Backyard and Beyond

by Mark Miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

Spring Arrives Early, Stupidity Stays Late

by Mark Miles

It amazes me that there’s any debate whatsoever over the existence of climate change. So much evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that our world is changing for the worst and doing so at an alarmingly unanticipated rate. Let me give a short list of examples. The polar ice caps are melting. Forest fires are becoming increasingly common and increasingly dangerous. Birds are migrating earlier in winter and later in spring. Cold-dependent species are being forced to higher altitudes and are becoming smaller in size. Plants are blooming earlier and losing their leaves later. Parasitic organisms that thrive in warm climates are slowly but steadily expanding their range into previously uninhabitable territory. In short, the world is being radically and detrimentally altered in front of our very eyes, and yet corporate media and the political establishment continue to engage in the highly refined art of calculated stupidity. Even the newly elected American president refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change and the devastating effect it’s already having on millions of people globally.

I’ve witnessed this change firsthand. In previous stories I’ve mentioned how I’ve been noticing the earlier arrival of warm temperatures, the earlier emergence of hibernating animals, the earlier growth of plants and trees. This year is no exception. On the contrary, it’s been a bigger verification than any year previously. Despite the shortlived snowstorm we had in mid-January and occasional bursts of cold in general, daytime temperatures in North Carolina have lately been hovering in the 50°-70° F range. This is unreal. In the months of January and February historical highs for the state of North Carolina have been in the range of 30°-40° F. Any temperature exceeding 50° F at this time of year is a veritable heatwave. Yet temperatures have exceeded that threshold by 20° F on at least three separate occasions thus far in 2017.

I’m seeing plants blooming now which aren’t supposed to be blooming until March at the earliest. I’ve taken a few photos over the past few weeks to give examples of the unseasonable conditions. Though I’ve tried to make the photos as appealing as possible, the fact remains that warm temperatures at this time of year promote the growth of parasites that can harm or kill plants in the coming year. Additionally the stress which plants endure by virtue of violently fluctuating temperatures can be damaging or fatal with repeated incidents.

More than a week before the first day of February I was taking an evening walk across the railroad tracks to the north of where I live, following the local highway. Passing a law firm, I noticed a shot of yellow to my left between the sidewalk and the road. At first I thought I was seeing things; dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) don’t start blooming in this region until March at the earliest. Yet there at my feet was the first blooming dandelion of the season, a full six weeks early.

On another walk during the same week, I’d made my way past the highway and the local elementary school to the corner of a street leading into one of the first residential districts north of the railroad tracks. I was rounding the corner when I noticed a burst of red to my right. Stopping to inspect, I once again found it hard to believe my eyes. There in front of me at waist-level was new growth on a swamp magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). New growth is rare on these trees before early April. Yet there could be no doubt that new growth was present and that it was a full ten weeks early.

On the same walk I continued toward the local fire station and passed an abandoned house with an uncultivated yard that’s been allowed to grow haphazardly. There are plants of every size and shape, some wild and some domesticated, who’ve taken up residence at this spot. It’s a kind of urban wilderness sanctuary without the usual tending of a garden. By this time I was beginning to expect the unexpected and was less surprised when I saw a cluster of purple blossoms staring up at me. Leaning down to the ground, I found a purple dead nettle (Lamium purpurea)–which is much more eloquently called “purple archangel”–with fresh flowers and verdant stems. Once again the appearance was a solid six weeks early.

During the same week I decided to check my garden for any unusual growth from my herbs. The rosemary hasn’t gone into dormancy for the entirety of winter, which it normally does for at least two months. The sage and fennel didn’t become dormant until December, and with the growth of other plants in the area I expected they would be putting forth their first stems. True to form, my expectation was greeted with confirmation when I looked at my sage (Salvia officinalis) and saw the first new leaves of the season. Sage doesn’t generally start growing until the end of March in this region, so this was a full eight weeks early.

On the same day I decided to check my backyard for any early vegetal risers. It took a little bit of searching, but before long I’d spotted some birdseye speedwell (Veronica persica) between the black walnut tree and my compost pile. I stooped to the ground, in a position that was far more uncomfortable than I care to admit, and took several photos. Despite my happiness at how well the photos turned out, I couldn’t escape the fact that birdseye speedwell normally doesn’t bloom until late February at the earliest, making this appearance a full four weeks early.

All of this is fine and dandy, but there are still people who choose to engage in calculated stupidity by claiming that all of this climate change is merely an aspect of nature, a cycle of temperature fluctuation that has nothing to do with human activity. Either it’s el niño or la niña or a little ice age or a warm spell. Of course this is insanity, but it doesn’t stop people from believing it and from using this calculated stupidity as an excuse to do nothing.

The fact is that industry has collectively reengineered the planet by means of water, fire, and air. By clear-cutting forests and removing the bioregulatory cooling provided by their internal repositories of water, industry has gravely disrupted the natural means of cooling this planet. By burning fossil fuels in refineries, automobiles, and power plants, industry has added an appreciable input of heat to the atmosphere of this planet. And by adding greenhouse-gases to the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, industry has increased the insulatory potential of the climate considerably. It’s the equivalent of turning off your air conditioner in the middle of summer, starting a bonfire in your living room, adding a few layers of fiberglass to the insulation in your house, and then pretending everything is fine. It’s complete insanity.

Of course there’s still a significant chance that temperatures will drop before winter officially ends. If that happens, corporate media and the political establishment will hail it as further confirmation that everything is normal and nothing should be done and we can all go home and zone out in front of our phones. Of course that’s what most people in our increasingly dissociated culture do anyway. And that’s precisely what we need to stop doing, because the fact remains that nothing of a sufficient magnitude is being done to stop the ongoing slow-motion cataclysm of climate change. No one in a position of power is willing to risk that power for the prospect of pursuing a course of action that will be beneficial for people but detrimental to profits. And once again the planet will be the one to pay the price.

And that’s why it’s up to us. The fact of the matter is that if we want to stop this planet from being turned into an uninhabitable wasteland with oceans of acid and continents of plastic, we have to do something. We have to hold our leaders accountable. We have to demand decisive action to stop this ongoing cataclysm before it reaches its conclusion in the extinction of our own species. We have to get out on the streets, stop the pipelines, end corporate personhood, defund polluters, and establish that people matter more than profits. We have to rebuild communities, reestablish alliances, regrow local food networks, support local businesses, foster landbased ethical practices, and make sustainability a way of life. We have to do something, anything, whatever it takes to stop this cataclysm before it’s too late. Because if we don’t, then no one will.

References:

Howard, Brian Clark. “Mountain Goats Are Shrinking—A Lot—Because of Global Warming.” National Geographic. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

Mooney, Chris. “The huge crack in this Antarctic ice shelf just grew by another 6 miles.” The Washington Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.

St. Paul Pioneer Press. “It’s a deadly parasite, and it’s spreading across lakes in the U.S.” The Denver Post. Accessed Feb. 3rd, 2017.