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,

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Inching toward a Paleo Diet: My Ongoing Effort to Eat in Balance with Nature

by Mark Miles

This blog post may seem to be a departure from my usual stories, but it nonetheless relates to nature through that most intimate and personal relationship which all of us have: our relationship with food. When you realize that everything on your plate originates from the natural world either directly or indirectly–plants grow directly from soil; animals feed indirectly on soil through the plants and animals they eat–it’s easier to understand how the food on your plate changes the way you perceive and engage with the natural world. Additionally it’s important to maintain some degree of health and fitness if you plan to do any amount of serious hiking, making the topic of food and diet relevant in that way as well.

With that said, I should explain that I haven’t always been fit and healthy. On the contrary, I’ve struggled with obesity, binge-eating disorder, and prediabetes more than once in my life, especially in my early twenties. Thankfully I have few photos to show of my obese former self, but if you could have seen me at twenty years of age weighing 250 lbs. with a 40” waist and the jowls of an old man, you’d realize where I’m coming from. Nonetheless, I did manage to become fit and healthy around twenty-four due to a complete reconfiguration of my diet and exercise regimen, and I remained fit and healthy from twenty-four until thirty-two years of age, during which time I adopted a gluten-free, low-sugar diet that drew a great deal of inspiration from the paleo diet.

Then in 2016 I went through a terrible breakup–which I’ve written about at length in a previous blog post–and found my self-esteem absolutely shattered. After Bobby disappeared, I questioned whether anything I was doing in my life was right, and in the process I ended up undoing a great deal of the progress I’d made in my physical fitness. Above and beyond anything else, I started eating refined sugar, which I had avoided almost entirely for eight solid years. At the time when I started eating refined sugar again, I rationalized my decision by telling myself that I needed a break, that I needed something different in my life, that I needed a change. Unfortunately the change I made was unquestionably for the worst.

From March of 2016 until May of 2017, I indulged in basically every sugar-laden sweet treat which I had avoided for nearly a decade. I started baking and eating pineapple-right-side-up-cake, brownies with chocolate frosting, and my favorite of all: chocolate-peanut-butter-oatmeal cookies. For fourteen solid months, I allowed myself to go downhill. And it wasn’t long before I started noticing that my pants didn’t fit as well as they used to, that there was the beginning of a gut hanging out where my abs used to be, and that even my face was starting to look positively plump.

Finally I woke up one morning in May of 2017, got out of bed, looked at myself in the mirror, and didn’t recognize my own face. It may sound like an exaggeration, but the fat which I was accumulating was easily visible everywhere, including my face, and altered my appearance so much that I considered applying for the job of Pillsbury doughboy. At that point I knew I had to do something, or the changes I was experiencing would have soon become frightening and irreversible.

So I cut the refined sugar along with processed foods in general, increased my consumption of natural protein and fat, and added a whole host of fruits to compensate for the loss of sweets. I had done it for eight years previously, so I knew I could do it again. But it was still frightening when I considered giving up so many of my favorite foods all over again. Fortunately some awareness of the paleo diet lingered in the back of my mind, and even though I had never fully implemented it I decided that I would use it as an inspiration for my attempt to regain balance in my relationship with food.

Amazingly the act of cutting refined sugar/processed foods, increasing protein and fat, and adding fruit was much easier than I thought it would be. It was also a huge relief. Within a week of my dietary reconfiguration, I was feeling more energetic, focused, enthusiastic, and positive about my life. I started losing weight around my gut noticeably within a month, and within two months my face was once again recognizable in the mirror. I knew I was on a good track, and I’ve persisted with that track to this day.

But I realized recently that I still have further to go. What instigated this was my reading of The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. I had the vague recollection of hearing about the book when the paleo diet started to become popular several years ago, but I never took the time to read it until recently. To my surprise, within the first hundred pages I found the motivation to finally eliminate three food groups that have remained in my diet despite the changes I mentioned earlier. These are dairy, legumes, and grains.

Dairy:

I’ve always loved milk. From my earliest childhood, I can remember pouring a plastic jug of watered-down skim over my prefabricated imitation of breakfast known as cereal. Despite having the nutritional value of a cardboard box and the addictiveness of a mild opiate, I loved that milk. Even after I gave up processed food, I still loved and adored whole milk as well as butter. I still love butter in fact. Until a matter of days ago, I used it to fry my eggs in the morning and make stir-fries on the weekend.

But the sad fact is that milk contains lactose, which is a significant allergen that can contribute to the development of irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Additionally most milk is derived from cows who’ve been progressively poisoned with antibiotics, hormones, and grains which they were never intended to eat. This invariably affects the quality of the milk and its impact on anyone who consumes it. Consequently I will now be eliminating milk and dairy in favor of coconut oil, which is incredibly tasty and stable at high temperatures, making it ideal for cooking.

Legumes:

A very close second in terms of difficulty will be the elimination of legumes, specifically peanut butter. I’ve loved peanut butter for as long as I can remember, but over the past ten years it’s really become a staple for me. The simple reason for this is that I adopted vegetarianism for a few years in my early twenties and needed to find a good source of protein from a vegetable source. But it turns out that peanuts–which are legumes–are rich in phytic acid, an antinutrient that inhibits the absorption of micronutrients in the gut. Peanuts also frequently contain aflatoxin, a carcinogen which has deleterious effects on the liver and can be particularly harmful to children. In place of peanuts, I’ll be consuming almonds and walnuts, the latter of which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Grains:

Though I do love a slice of fried toast in the morning with my eggs, grains in general and wheat in particular will probably be the least difficult to eliminate of the three food groups listed above. I’ve already substantially reduced my intake of wheat over the past ten months, and there’s no meal in the course of my day that depends on it to a disproportionate extent.

The reason for eliminating wheat and grains is that they can contribute to the development of serious digestive complaints, including irritable bowel syndrome and celiac. Grains also have a tendency to accumulate in the lining of the gut, where they interfere with nutrient absorption and increase the likelihood of unhealthy weight-gain.

So those are the big three that I will be eliminating for at least the next month. I haven’t decided yet if I’ll try reintroducing any of them after a month; that depends largely on how successful I am with cooking and meal preparation using the paleo staples of meat, fish, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. I’m not a huge carnivore, so there will certainly be a degree of transition for me, but I’m excited about the prospect of finding a way to eat that’s consonant with human prehistory, physical fitness, and the health of the gut.

Hopefully this will also be an inspiration to you to attempt something similar with your own diet. If I could make a recommendation from personal experience, I would start by eliminating refined sugar entirely and replacing it with fresh, dried, frozen, or pureed fruit. Just make sure whatever fruit you get is free of additives, since sugar is commonly used to enhance the flavor of fruit, defeating any beneficial qualities it would otherwise possess.

Along with preservatives, artificial colors, flavor enhancers, and the above-mentioned toxic food groups, the presence of sugar in the industrial food supply demonstrates the degree to which agribusiness is intent on keeping all of us addicted to harmful products which do nothing but enrich the wealthy at the expense of health and life for millions. This situation is sick, deranged, suicidal, and downright evil, and it’s also ubiquitous in modern, industrialized societies where food is no longer an embodiment of our relationship with the natural world but merely a commodity for sale to the highest bidder. But this situation–as sick and twisted as it is–is also the greatest possible motivation to get off your couch, get angry as hell, and make a change in the world that your future self will be proud of.

References:

Aflatoxin,” Wikipedia, accessed February 8th, 2018.

What’s Wrong with Beans and Legumes?”, Paleo Leap, accessed February 8th, 2018.

Wolf, Robb, The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet (Las Vegas, NV, USA: Victory Belt, 2010)