Taxonomic Cornucopia

by Mark Miles

In the spirit of gratitude that ideally characterizes this time of year, I’ve decided to share what I’m thankful for at any time of year, specifically wildlife. Every encounter with a wild animal or plant is a gift and one that’s increasingly scarce in many urban areas. Personally I live in a small town that’s largely rural, but even here you don’t have to look far to find new strip malls, housing subdivisions, and assorted industrial eyesores. Still, there are opportunities to encounter wildlife in almost any region, and each encounter is a reason to be thankful–provided you’re not being eaten for dinner of course.

In September, I stumbled upon this remarkable moth on the siding of my house. I was immediately dumbfounded by the vibrant coloration and markings, though at the time I had no idea what species she was. Despite not knowing the species, I did know the sex from a glance at the antennae–which are thick and furry in males, narrow and smooth in females. It’s easy to remember if you think of antlers, which are morphologically analogous to antennae and which are usually bigger in males than females. In any case, I was able to identify the species after a bit of searching, using the coloration and markings to point me to the orange-tipped oakworm moth (Anisota senatoria).

Though I was thankful to see this little western honey bee (Apis mellifera) a couple weeks ago, I must admit I was pretty stunned. I can’t remember a year in living memory when bees have been active in North Carolina in November. Usually by late September they’ve gone into hibernation. However, with daytime temperatures exceeding 80° F on more than one occasion, it’s not terribly surprising. My rosemary is still more than happy to keep blooming, which gave this worker bee ample reason to make the unseasonal trek in search of pollen to feed her sisters.

Here’s another unseasonal bit of wildlife from the area. In my backyard I have a good amount of sweet violet (Viola odorata) which typically becomes dormant by early October. That’s not the case this year, and it’s only because of last week’s hard frost that most of the flowering plants have started to take the hint that it’s not still summer. Regardless of all that, I’m thankful whenever I see the brilliant white and purple of sweet violet.

For a number of years, the two willow oaks (Quercos phellos) in my front yard have been unable to produce acorns. It started around 2008 when strange markings–which appeared to be holes made by a power tool–appeared on both of them at the same time. For several years after that, my oaks stopped producing any acorns, and it’s only been recently that they’ve become fecund again. Even though these acorns are small for trees that are fully mature, I’m thankful that they’re here to provide food for the squirrels in winter.

Lately I’ve been trying to grow sawtooth blackberries (Rubus argutus) from seed. I gathered some wild blackberries a few months ago, put them in pots with soil, placed them in my sunniest window, and waited… and waited… and waited. After three months, I was pretty convinced those berries were never going to germinate. Then, of all things, I looked at my pots last week and saw–could it be?–actual sprouts. You have no idea how thankful I was at that moment, and I’m not even ashamed to admit it.

At the beginning of November I saw this eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) near the edge of a field that’s been left fallow recently. I thoroughly expected him to run as soon as he saw me, but instead he stared at me with the intensity of a laser-beam. All his senses were attuned to my presence, and I couldn’t help wondering what experiences had led him to be so hypervigilant in the presence of humans. Of course cottontail rabbits have every reason to be terrified of everything since only twenty percent of them survive to adulthood. The vast majority are killed by predators, starvation, poisoning or traffic. In short, their lives are a living nightmare due to the way in which industrial society has decimated their habitats, food-supply, and territorial contiguity. Despite that, I was thankful for the trust expressed by this rabbit who allowed me to be in the same space with him for a few quiet moments.

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Triumvirate of Violet

by Mark Miles

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

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

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

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

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Further Eno River Explorations

by Mark Miles

For a while, I’ve been wanting to visit some new hiking spots. I’m already in the habit of visiting a few parks along the Eno River, so it only made sense to continue to branch out in that direction. I’ve also recently been reading about rivers in medieval England, and it’s interesting to note that they were considered some of the best assets to the traveler in unfamiliar territory because 1) they provide a constant source of fresh water, 2) they lead to the ocean when followed far enough, and 3) they frequently adjoin the sites of towns and cities. For these reasons and many others, medieval people honored and valued rivers in a way that’s largely been forgotten. Nevertheless rivers are indispensable and deserve to be honored for their contributions. For my part, visiting the Eno on a regular basis is one way in which I do that.

One of the best views of the Eno that I managed to capture was this shot near Fews Ford, facing south near a small cataract. There were people wading in the river in the distance, as you can see if you look closely. They were clearly enjoying themselves, and even though I didn’t join them due to my lack of swimming trunks, I was happy to see such simple communion between people and the river.

This is the small cataract near Fews Ford that I mentioned. It’s not very large, but it adds greatly to the ambiance of the area. It also helps to oxygenate the water, keeping it from becoming stagnant and inhospitable.

Near the southern entrance to Eno River State Park is this picturesque flight of stairs leading from the riverbank to an adjoining trail. It wasn’t the steadiest structure that I’ve ever crossed, but it was full of character and retained a sense of the contour of the land that would’ve been absent if it’d simply been a concrete eyesore.

This bench which I found near the southern extent of the park was undoubtedly one of the most artistic I’ve ever seen. From behind it looked to be nothing more than a reconnoitered log which had been hoisted on stilts. From the front it looked as if it could’ve been a piece of modern art, loosely mimicking the contours of a woman resting on her side or possibly suggesting the shape of a beached fish with his mouth open to the right. In either case, it beat any metal-and-plastic bench I’ve ever seen.

Between the artistic bench and Fews Ford, there’s a suspension bridge running over the Eno from east to west. I didn’t have enough time to go exploring in that direction when I was there since it was already near dusk, but I did see a small family crossing it with children in tow. I have no doubt the kids in this group will remember that bridge for many years to come, and I was happy to see such excitement over an experience in nature which children of a slightly older age would probably have been too disaffected to appreciate.

This was one of my last shots at Eno River State Park. The hour was rapidly approaching sunset, and I didn’t have much time before I had to leave. The light was failing, but there was just enough to illuminate this bucolic stretch of water south of Fews Ford. I took the moment to kneel in order to get a better angle on the river, and in the process I found myself saying a mental thank you to the river for an experience that I never would’ve had without it.

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Light and Shadow in the Summer Sun

by Mark Miles

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.