Tree Musings

Trees provide shade. Leaves turn yellow/red and fall off in the fall. Apples grow on trees. Pecans grow on trees. When I was in third grade that was about all I knew about trees, and I never thought about them. Then I learned in science that trees give us oxygen, and I already knew that we needed oxygen! For two or three weeks, wherever I went, I looked around to be sure there was a tree in sight. I didn’t want to be caught in an oxygen famine!

This fixation wore off in a couple of weeks, and again I ignored trees.

Fast forward a few decades — I had learned more about the importance of trees, and began to notice the aesthetics of trees. Occasionally I see a tree with a straight trunk, and at just the right height off the ground there is an orb-shaped crown, with no thin places and no branches sticking out. Across the street from my house is a pine tree whose trunk is straight up the middle, and the shape of the tree is symmetrical; the branches at the bottom are wide and gradually get narrower near the top. But Mother Nature doesn’t do that very often. That would be too “Stepford.”

The strangest tree I’ve ever seen is the Palmetto Palm. When we were in Charleston I looked at some closely for the first time and thought “what odd bark.” The trunk was covered with woody slats that criss-crossed up the tree, making a basket weave pattern. Under the woody “things” and visible between them at some places was a hairy, fibrous, stiff substance.

I did a little research about them when we returned home. One article did not call them “trees,” but “plants.” The “trunk” was called a “stem.” Botanically and structurally, they are different from trees. I never learned what the fibrous layer is, but the woody, basket-weave formation is made of the remnants of frond stalks when the fronds fall off. Fascinating.

Not too many weeks later we went to the NC coast, not to check out palms. But at Sunset Beach we were in a place where there were Palmettos, and a place to stop the car and get out. An opportunity to look up into the palm and see this phenomenon for myself! Indeed, each stalk of a fan-like frond emerged from a slat that looked already hard. I am glad there were palms around the parking lot at our motel in Charleston so I could become friends with this plant.

I enjoy noticing trees. Some are graceful and flow-y, all the branches growing upward at maybe 20° angles off the vertical. Others are full of sharp angles going in all directions. They look hard and rigid instead of willowy, and sometimes even spooky.

In spring the leaves are delicate and fresh; when in sun they appear to be lit from within. In summer the leaves are mature, steady, reliable, sturdy, shading the ground. In fall the paintbrush comes out with all the glorious colors.

But, give me the bare winter trees. With no leaves, their structure, their bare bones show, in all their astonishing variety. I love the mountains in winter when I can look up a slope into the forest instead of at the forest, and see the shapes, and the shadows on the snow or the brown leaf litter.

Like the Lorax, I’ll speak for the trees.

Wishing you a tree you can call your own.

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Wet Shoes, Muddy Jeans, and Waterfalls, O My

It’s just an ordinary thing, a waterfall. A stream is flowing along, the elevation suddenly drops, and the law of gravity requires that the stream drop too. Kurt Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse 5, describes a waterfall as a stream jumping off a cliff. Sounds playful, or suicidal. But, it’s amazing to see this natural law acted out – to hear the roar, feel the spray, sense the power.

A few years ago my brother gave us a book, Great Waterfalls of North Carolina by Neil Regan. The next November we set out on our first waterfall trip. Big Bradley Falls is in Polk County, and we followed the directions to the trailhead and carefully chose the correct path, avoiding the ones described as dangerous. We knew we would have to cross a creek, without a bridge, but we were not deterred. The creek had rocks across it, but they were wet, unevenly spaced, too far apart, so I chose to wade in the ankle-deep water. It was not a cold day, and the water was not too cold, so I sloshed along in my wet hiking boots until we got to the fall, which was worth the effort. Then back across the creek.

Right across the road is the entrance to Little Bradley Falls. Once again, three creek crossings, steep banks to scamper up, and boulders to climb over (we were seven years younger then). Little Bradley was even more fantastic, with several tiers of falls and a pool at the bottom.

A shameless plug for Vasque hiking boots: when they dried, I couldn’t tell they’d ever been immersed in water!

Muddy jeans. The next November we went to Transylvania County, the waterfall capital of NC. Cathey’s Creek Falls was on our agenda for the day, having seen the ones by the highway the afternoon before.

There were some challenges. We had good directions, but of course they didn’t mention the bike race. Forest Service Roads are not paved, they’re narrow, they are hilly and curvy. Add to that many bicycles. We crept along because we didn’t know what was around the next curve or over the next hill. Some hunters who were driving large pickup trucks kindly moved over to let us squeeze by.

Then we turned onto Cathey’s Creek Road (almost there, finally), and after just a few miles encountered a ROAD CLOSED sign. Sigh. No workers or equipment being in sight, we pulled over as far as possible and walked the final 1/2 mile. When we knew we were there because we could catch glimpses of water through the trees, we didn’t see a trail. Actually, the “trail” was a tiny path down a steep bank from the road to the creek. It was muddy and covered with slippery wet leaves; fortunately there were small trees and bushes to grab to keep our balance. We stood amazed at the bottom – amazed that we actually got there, and that this beautiful thing was so hidden. How many more treasures are hidden from us? We thought that not too many people had ever seen this waterfall.

Soon I pointed out that we had to go back up that bank!! There was no way I could walk up it. There was nothing for it but to put knees and lower legs on the ground and use hands on trees to pull up by. Some of the mud and leaves could be brushed off but, well, we were stuck with muddy jeans.

Our next stop was a Wildlife Resources Commission fish hatchery where an enthusiastic volunteer told us more than we could remember about three varieties of trout. It was interesting, but the main effect on me was a strong desire to have local rainbow trout for lunch. The men in the office gave us directions to Pisgah Fish Camp. It was delectable! And by that point I didn’t mind that I was poorly groomed.

I noticed that when we stopped along the highway, walked on a sidewalk to a viewing platform and saw a waterfall, I recognized its beauty, but it didn’t thrill me. The waterfalls hidden away in a forest, requiring effort to reach them, were a different story. I felt that I’d been given a great and valuable gift to be allowed to see such a thing.

Somewhere on one of our waterfall trips I came across this quote by anthropologist Loren Eiseley. “If there’s any magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

Wishing you some magic!

Old Things: Charleston, SC

Astonishing. That’s what it was. Just astonishing. We knew that this live oak tree was 500 years old (maybe more), and that with the sun overhead it would shade 17,200 sq. ft. These numbers meant less than seeing the tree! Even standing back from the tree, I had to turn my head from side to side to see the width. It was much wider than it was tall. The trunk was twisted, knotty, and gnarled. The lower branches were very close to the ground, resting on the ground in some places.

This tree is called the Angel Oak, but no where could I find out exactly where it got its name. The tree is on property a Mr. Waight received as a land grant in the 18th Century. Later a Mr. Angel, who apparently married Mr. Waight’s daughter, owned the estate. That’s a possible explanation. Local lore says the angels/ghosts of slaves would gather around the tree. Now the City of Charleston owns the property.

If you are familiar with Karen White’s novels set in coastal locales, you probably know the significance of this sign.

When I read White’s series set in historical Charleston, I wondered if Tradd St. and Legare St. were real or fictitious. And I wondered if “South of Broad” was a real description of the historical Charleston. It is.

We didn’t take a horse and buggy tour — I wanted to walk the streets, to get a more accurate feel for the place. The architecture of the buildings was another astonishing thing. The street we walked on (Tradd St.) was narrow, of course, with sidewalks on each side. The houses were just beyond the sidewalks, straight up, for three or sometimes four stories, and they were very close together. Each house was different. Some were plain and very sturdy-looking. Others were highly ornamented; all had that thing called “character.”

As we were walking, I was imagining how it would be to live there. I almost felt too small – on a narrow street with tall houses on both sides, “closing in” on me. I couldn’t tell how deep the lots were, but I know many had gardens; they must be behind the houses. And, where does one put the two cars each family would probably have? Certainly different from suburbia. And no cookie cutter houses! The resulting opinion for me: I loved walking there, but wouldn’t want to live there.

The churches in this area were as old as the houses, and were extremely ornate. We didn’t go into any; just marveled at their majesty. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the method of construction – with slave labor I am sure – but without modern equipment. There must have been skilled artisans, with skills only a handful of people possess today.

We visited other places that were not old, but captured the history. The City Market, four blocks long in downtown, featured baskets woven from sweetgrass, pine needles, and other natural materials. This artistry is centuries old – a skill from the Gullah culture that grew up on the barrier islands. At each of the many booth selling baskets, women were working, their hands knowing how to make beautiful, fancy baskets! On a future trip I want to focus on learning more about the Gullah culture.

Waterfront Park and White Point Gardens don’t look old. But the genteel plantings of rows of trees and shrubs complement the old buildings/houses nearly. Both look out on Charleston Harbor. In juxtaposition with the old, a cruise ship was sitting docked near Waterfront Park, being readied for its next cruise. I wondered idly if it would still be sailing 200 or 300 years from now.

This led me to the question, “Will my house be standing 200 years from now, and will tourists walk by to look at it?” Hmmmm……

Wishing you to be sturdy and grand as you age (no matter what your current age).

Yates Mill Park

I was standing on the foot bridge over the pond, watching a cormorant on a stump in the water, its wings spread out to dry. As I lowered my binoculars, a young woman and man standing nearby asked me if I knew what that bird was. Well, this time I did. We noticed two other cormorants swimming toward it, and the one on the stump slid into the water and joined them. We shared a laugh as the bird lifted the front part of its body and spread its wings as he was swimming. Quite an awkward-looking posture!

It happens frequently: birders recognize each other, and stop to chat a minute, with a “Seen anything interesting?” or “There’s a kinglet in that tangle over there.” It’s one of the perks of birding. Even people who aren’t birders forget the don’t-talk-to-strangers rule when they see the binoculars. I love that camaraderie.

This exchange was a Yates Mill Park (Wake Co., NC, south of Raleigh). It was late, late winter, March 15. It alternated between cloudy and sunny; the maple trees were blooming; frogs and toads were calling; every log or stump in the water had one or more turtles resting. There was birdsong, but there would be more later. I walked the Millpond Trail, which goes around the pond, and I saw several common backyard birds. The waterfowl were less common to me. I watched some Buffleheads – of course they were all the way across the pond from where I was. As soon as I got my binoculars focused on one, he dived. They travel so far under water, I was always surprised at where they resurfaced. Repeat. Repeat. Were they playing some kind of game with me?

There are two other trails. The High Ridge Trail leaves the Millpond Trail, climbs a hill and wanders through a forest before returning to the Millpond. And the Creekside Trail goes (you guessed it) along beside the creek that feeds the pond. One can do all three in a day. When I did that about a year ago, I walked two trails, drove the short distance to Cary, got a take-out lunch, and sat in a rocking chair on a porch overlooking the pond while I ate. Then the last trail.

In addition to being a wildlife refuge (leave your pets at home), this is a historical site. The 18th Century water-powered mill has been restored and is well cared for. It is operated for demonstration of corn grinding one or two weekends a month. Water pours over the dam by the mill, and then flows out in a rocky stream.

Have you ever heard NCSU called a “cow college”? Said with a derogatory chuckle? It was probably said by a person who thought a farmer was a “little less,” and that beef, milk, cheese, and ice cream come from grocery stores.

Just getting to this park is a lovely experience – you drive on a road that passes the University’s cattle operations. Picture-perfect pastures and barns. They must raise their dairy cattle right. Howling Cow ice cream – made in the NCSU creamery – is delish! The proof of that is in the l-o-n-g lines to purchase some at the NC State Fair.

Wishing you happy excursions!

Working, Playing

Because our fearless leader (hereafter, OFL) had made superb plans and had things in ship-shape order, when the other 35 of us arrived everything was ready for a great weekend.

We were at Blue Ridge Assembly at Black Mountain, NC. Hibbard Lodge, where we ate, slept, talked, etc., had a large common area and a teensy kitchen area. Who wanted to cook, anyway?! OFL had lots of food in the refrigerator and on the counters and in the cupboards. The salads we each made Friday evening were fresh and healthful. And because S made abundant wake-up coffee, we were all ready to go to work Saturday morning.

So, what was this work we did most of the day Saturday? In Asheville there is an organization called Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry. One of their projects is a Veterans Restoration Quarters (VRQ), a home for previously homeless veterans. The residents live in an old motel, which looks like…., well, an old motel. But in style only. Believing that people are more likely to thrive when surrounded by beauty, the managers maintain the building well, flowers are blooming between the sidewalks and building, and there are trees where space allows. The campus is large, and between the building and the Swannanoa River, which borders the property, there is a grassy hillside with neat paths, plenty of benches and tables, and the residents are welcome to hang out and be nourished by Mother Nature in that space. Part of the space is a garden, where some of the food the residents will eat this summer will be grown. Some of the people garden; some work in the kitchen.

Our contribution: there were six new storage buildings which needed to be painted. We were presented with a couple of wheelbarrows of brushes, rollers, roller pans and cups for paint, five-gallon buckets of paint, and ladders. With six people to a building, it was not “work,” but fun. By afternoon when the sun came out, those buildings shone.

Others of the group brushed sealant on some fencing and new tables and benches. The three toddlers played with rocks and sticks, and ran and climbed, while adults and teens took turns keeping an eye on them.

A special part of the day was eating lunch in the dining room with the residents; we had brought bag lunches, and they had stew and fruit salad prepared by volunteers. I talked to a Navy man who had been in Korea at the same time my father-in-law had, but their paths never crossed.

Mr. R, who introduced us to the VRQ and described what we’d be doing, told us we were doing Matthew 25 work. Look it up!

The mountains surrounding Hibbard Lodge were a WOW sight. Friday evening when we arrived they were shrouded in clouds and fog. Saturday morning continued the softness of gray weather, but by the time we arrived back from VRQ about 3:30 the sun was shining, showing all the contours of the mountains. I was glad the tree in front of the lodge didn’t have leaves yet, and the structure showed.

Someone suggested a hike, to unwind, or just to make sure we were tired enough to call it a day. Led by B, seven of us hiked up the mountain a bit. We crossed a pretty little burbling stream and had to scamper up the bank on the other side. To be an excellent trail, there has to be at least one stream crossing!

Isn’t food an important part of any weekend away? There were Oreos, which I never have at home, for a good reason. But I discarded reason while away from home. For Saturday dinner I was one of six who went to Ole’s Guacamoles in Black Mountain for Mexican food, stuffed ourselves, and had good conversation. Ironically, no one had guacamole.

What do you do in the evening when at a mountain lodge? You make s’mores! There was a fire pit, and a staff member made a fire and came back later to be sure it was extinguished. We sang camp songs, shared some stories of the day and then the marshmallows came out. Someone had gathered sticks for spearing them, and we had a sweet ending to a good day.

Thanks to OFL for arranging this, to Mr. R for inspiration, and to each of the other 35 people, from two years old to…. oh well. We all gave and we all received. And thanks to First Presbyterian Church of Sanford for supporting us!

Author’s note: This is not intended to be a report about the weekend, but my personal musings about the experience.

Early Spring, March 25, 2019

One load of laundry was in the dryer; I put another in the washer, and headed outside to see what was happening in the yard.

The sassafras tree outside my kitchen window had been showing green for a few days and I couldn’t tell if it was leaves or flowers. They were flowers, on a tree that one doesn’t own for its beautiful flowers. Of course trees are flowering plants, but I don’t usually notice them if they aren’t showy blossoms. None of the trees with blooms in my yard on March 25 were showy.

One of the first to bloom is the maple. If the sky had been blue, the red blooms at the top of the would have shown up better. But I did get a photo of some lower limbs. On the tulip poplar tree that had limbs low enough for me to see, I saw a green bud (about an inch long), swelling in preparation for opening into the orange/yellow tulip-shaped blossom. Beside each bud were a few leaves, the same color, and about a half inch across. These buds/leaves, like those on the sassafras tree, were a color Crayola doesn’t make. I suppose the life inside gives it that light, which you can’t get from wax and dye.

The camellia was a bit showy- fuchsia buds and blooms all over. On the other side of it the rosemary bush was blooming. Crab apple trees have their leaves before their flowers, but the leaves are small and don’t hide the blooms. Our crab apple is full of small round dark pink buds; a couple had opened into white blossoms.

I wasn’t looking for it this early but I noticed two blooms on one of the azaleas. The azaleas, bought in 1985 or 86 in gallon buckets from Roses, have been my biggest success in gardening. They’re so big I have to cut them back after they bloom.

The heirloom snowdrops are showing their small delicate blooms, white with a tiny green dot on each petal. When I was a girl they bloomed in my grandmother’s yard. At some point my mother brought some home with her. Because my mother had the greenest thumb I’ve ever seen, they soon spread out of their allotted space, so she gave some to me. It’s a special sight to see them every spring.

With longer days and warmer sunshine, the pansies that have patiently waited all winter are blooming. And I had a surprise with wildflowers. Around the base of a maple tree are pretty little johnny-jump-ups. And in the same bed with the pansies are two small orange blooms of an unknown wildflower. I planted three packets of wildflowers there last spring, not knowing what any of them were or if they were perennials. I won’t know until later if the things growing there are weeds or flowers. Doesn’t matter to me; if it blooms, it stays.

So, I have verified it – spring is coming!

And the poor, pitiful pine trees. Producing pollen in abundance, which they have to do in order to propagate their species. The pollen sacs are large and visible in the trees now, and will be distributed all over cars, patios, and outside furniture soon. And they’re just doing what they are supposed to do.

Wishing you more color each day!

Being Astonished

“Wow! Wow! I can see why they call it the GRAND Canyon!” This was our initial response when we first saw the Grand Canyon. We were truly astonished, using the dictionary definition: sudden wonder or amazement, with great surprise.

True, we had seen many pictures of the Grand Canyon, and knew what to expect. Or, we thought we did. But knowing is not the same as experiencing. There was no word in our vocabulary to describe this. We thought “awesome” would do. But, checking into a motel, we asked about the breakfast they offered. The desk clerk recited the menu for the next morning, adding that someone made biscuits every morning, and that they were awesome. Well, we could no longer use “awesome” to describe the Grand Canyon; it did inspire awe, which biscuits do not. In writing about the trip at the time, I used the word “ineffable” a few times.

As we were driving on one of the roads in the Park, an elk appeared by the road, and advanced into the road. Casually advanced, I thought at first. But as 6 or 7 drivers stopped to gawk and take pictures, I decided Mr. Elk knew exactly what he was doing. Thought the elk, “I know who you are. You are tourists who are thrilled to see me because my kind doesn’t live where you live. I will give you full measure of my magnificance and let you take my picture to show your friends.” He turned his head this way and that so everyone could get a good photo and then strode proudly onto the shoulder. This is reflective writing instead of scientific, so I give myself permission to assign human thoughts and feelings to an elk.

Once I went to one of the State Recreation Areas along Jordan Lake. I had seen a Bald Eagle there once before across a finger of water, but I didn’t see one this time. I walked along the trail back through the woods, seeing and hearing a few songbirds, and got in my car. Backing out of the parking space, a movement above caught my eye. There were not one, but two Bald Eagles soaring in circles over the parking lot! I was too astonished to get my camera and take a picture; I merely watched. Another birding trip yielded a few common backyard birds. As I was leaving, a gorgeous Red-headed Woodpecker was perched on the stop sign. Apparently the parking lot is the place to be!

We took a waterfall trip a few years ago. It had been a rainy spring and summer. The first waterfall on the list, after the one at our campground (it’s a given that we’ll walk to that one), was Crabtree Falls, off the Blue Ridge Parkway. We hiked a mile on a moderately strenuous trail through beautiful forest. Still a ways out, we could hear the roar of the water. At first view, our response was “Wow! Awesome!” Our book Great Waterfalls of NC described the water flow as small. It was not small this July; the great rush of water was awesome. This was before our trip to the Grand Canyon, so we never thought nature’s gifts would have to compete with biscuits for awesomeness.

What has astonished you lately? I’d love to hear about it.

Wishing you at least one astonishment this year!