A Different Shore

In my childhood – all my life, really – the shore was about sand.  Where land met sea, you would find the white of powdery quartz or the orange of crushed shells.   Some were good for dribbled  towers on the featureless shore, and others occasionally offered up sand-dollars or interesting bits of flotsam.

My recent trip to Maine showed me a coastline in rawer form. Schoodic shore

In July I spent a few days on the Schoodic (SKU-dik) Peninsula, where the crashing of the waves sounded like the sighing of wind through my open window at night.  I spent one late afternoon alone on the rocks, watching and listening. Behind me, stunted trees and herbs clung tenaciously to a mantle of dirt only a few inches thick.   Before me,  waves crashed  against the cracked, ancient granite.  It made me think of troops advancing in human waves, charging up the slope before faltering and falling back, only to regroup and charge forth again.

Closer to the huddled vegetation, I saw sharp demarcation in the stone, as a dike of basalt cut through the granite.  A young geologist could have a fine time following the lines of dark stone slashing the open ground of Schoodic, to be fractured and worn down, leaving wide trenches in the harder granite.schoodic basalt

The crashing waves were soothing, but some animal part of me also watched with dread.  This wasn’t the domesticated water of a swimming pool; if given a chance, those powerful, frigid waves would mindlessly sweep you away, break you against stone, rob  you of air, or drain your body of all warmth.   But that’s the way of Nature, isn’t it?  Tornados, volcanoes, cliffside vistas, grizzly bears – we can appreciate the majesty of Nature, but Nature isn’t obliged to return the favor.

I wonder how my thoughts would have turned had there been a horizon for the sun to sink into, and distant islands and coastline to observe.  But the world was confined to a grey dome encompassing spruces, stone, and sea.shiny-jasper-rocks.jpg

On a different day (but no less grey),  my guides drove me far up the coast to a cove south of Machiasport to visit Jasper Beach.  Again, this shoreline was all stone, but stone that had been broken  down and placed in a natural rock tumbler for  a geological moment.  The beach drops down in a series of tiers to the water’s edge, where stones –from  hand-sized cobbles to pebbles smaller than your pinky-nail – are rounded and polished against each other by wave action.   The waves gently rolled in, blunting their power by filling the spaces between billions of stones.  When the water withdraws, the air fills with a sizzling hiss, like a giant rain stick.   It was like a half-mile ASMR trap. I could have spent hours poring over the limitless variety of stones.  Chris Mackowski does more justice to the beach than I can.stone-and-water.jpg

The final stop of the tour was a beach that combined the previous two and added some extra elements.  Quoddy Head State Park is as far up the coast as you can get and still be in the US, and the easternmost point in the US.  The fog broke briefly, and I could just see a bit of Canada.  From the parking area,  I took stairs down the cliff face to the beach.  It sported some cobbles, some bedrock, and some sand – with lots of seaweed mixed in.  There were small columns of rocks here and there, cairns left by visitors.  I didn’t add to them, but understand the impulse.  I stood on a stone surrounded by the lapping low tide, so I could tell friends I was the furthest I could go in the US without swimming.quoddy-point.jpg

These beaches were new experiences for me.  I’m back in the late summer roast that is south Georgia.  But as I write this, the recording I made of  the incoming tide making war on Schoodic Point is playing in the background.

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Stepping Back to Spring

spring flowers

I drove through the Great Smoky Mountains around mid-May.  I started the uphill climb in Cherokee, North Carolina, which (at around 2000 feet above sea level) has been shed of icy mornings for about a month and a half.  I drove through a canopy of mature, deep green.    By the time I reached Newfound Gap, some 3.000 feet higher,  the days of frost weren’t nearly so distant.  Temperature drops with increase of elevation, on the order of 3-5 degrees F per 1000 feet.  So just as the greening of the land creeps northward, it also crawls up the mountains.  Here, on the ridge line that marks the divide between Tennessee and North Carolina, the new leaves were bright green.  In the Autumn, the progression will reverse, with leaves flaring and falling on the ridge before those in easterly Hendersonvile properly start to turn.  So the southern Appalachians have growing seasons as short as those of Ohio or Pennsylvania. Yet with abundant rainfall and moderate sunlight, the mountains are mantled in lush growth.creek-thumbnail.jpg

A Quick Visit to “The Wall”

I found an excuse to make it back to my old stomping grounds for a few days last week, and carved out time for an evening walk to “The Wall”, the ruins of an old stone bridge  on which are tied many memories.   We’ve called it The Wall all my life, and for me it is the focal point of the 200-acre woodland.  It is my church, it is my touchstone, and I think of it often.

On pavement, the walk from the road to the creek would have scarcely been a 3 minute stroll, not the 15 minute creeping meander it turned out to be.  Here, enfolded by forest, I feel compelled to tread quietly, to watch my steps, to look around and listen.  So much to note:  more sourwoods here than I remembered… a neighbor’s horse left its calling card on the trail… armadillos have been rooting through the leaf litter…another old shortleaf pine has fallen victim to time… a loud snort tells me a deer has spied me before I noticed it.  As the warm May air rustles the leaves far above,  I turn off the path, stopping to brush humus and leaf litter off a small fire ring laid down 30 year ago by a smooth-faced youth with a less seasoned view of the woods; then I continue downhill to the Wall.  Loose rubble fills  the space between two massive stone walls, each wide enough to walk on. I perch on the highest end stone and silently survey the land, from where the creek rounds the bend to where it fades away behind fans of leaves.   Birdsong pierces the chuckling of the water tumbling over rocks.  Last year’s tropical storm left several trees lying across the creek, but at the moment the woods are dry enough that the resurrection ferns are curled and brown.Wall snake

The photo of the rocks above isn’t from the normal angle I shoot the rocks because I wanted to include a bystander.  Look down near the base of the tree on the left.

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This fellow is a northern water snake.  He stayed put from the time I saw him as I climbed down the rocks until I left the area half an hour later.  They aren’t venomous, although they’ll bite if they feel cornered and can be aggressive in defending their territory.  I’ve never seen one of these on our land before, and when I came out the next afternoon, the snake was nowhere to be found. The woods are full of life, and you will miss most of it unless you keep quiet and alert.

When you are out and about, try stopping and see what you can see, hear what you can hear.  Be still, and Nature will come to you.

Smoothing the Scars

 

Wall and vine

Although I live in the Coastal Plain of middle Georgia, my family has 200 acres of woods in the Piedmont region of northern Georgia. It is a beautiful property, with stately oaks, hickories, and beeches, but the sharp eye can see the wounds Nature has scabbed over.  Everywhere are gullies and thin rocky soil where farmers asked more of the land than it could provide. Here is a the hole where a moonshiner kept his still, and there is the echo of a sunken road now paved with oak leaves.  An old wall by the creek — probably the remains of a bridge, or possibly a mill dam — is a focal point for my visits when I journey back there every few months.   Humans have altered the landscape to suit their desires for nearly as long as they’ve walked these lands,  and they’ve been especially good at it in the last three hundred years.  Yet, as always, Nature makes do.  Plant succession will turn a fallowed field to a pine woodland in a score of years, so what hope does a Mississippian mound complex have against Nature with a thousand years to work with?

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Thoughts on Walking in the Woods

Reproduced here with the kind permission of  Jerry Knox:

Some will say they fear the woods, for the snakes and such. I have found a different truth.  One who treads the woods with care, to do no harm to tender plants, will never be surprised by any harmful thing.  The very sense that guides your feet away from the violet, will alert you to the poison ivy there as well.  The soft, and measured, step allows both mouse and rattlesnake time to flee your path, or hide, alert and safely unafraid, as you pass by.

But one who crashes through the brushy ways carelessly and unaware will find his way perilous indeed!  Yellow jackets boil to defend their precious nest.  Thorny vines find painful lodging round ankle, neck and arm.  Ticks shower on his shoulders, chiggers cling to pants and legs.  The rattler coils and bows his neck to fight off this bold invasion.  Thrown out, repulsed by vine and fang, the intruder flees with tales of terror, and fearsome creatures lurking in the trees, and fails to see the danger in the woods was he!

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The Country Mouse Replies

Around 15 years ago, I was conversing electronically with a friend who resides in southern California. Although we grew up  around the large town/small city of Athens, our paths took us is opposite directions – hers led westward into bright lights and urban sprawl, while mind headed south and east to more rural landscapes.  When I mentioned in passing the “perks of living in the boonies,” she admitted being stumped on what those could be.  Although she managed to come up with a few — such as being able to play the stereo as loud as one likes — they paled against ordering takeout at will or reliable and fast internet.

The following day, I had mused on the subject, waxing exceptionally poetic as I waited for birds to call in the chill pre-dawn air:

As I write (the majority of) this essay, the dawn’s light barely illuminates the page, which is further obscured by the wisps of my breath in the chill of mid November.  Overhead the larger drops of the Leonid meteor shower still burn despite the morning glow.  I was out before dawn to survey quail, but while I’m no morning person and have lacked a full night’s rest for a considerable number of days, this AM I don’t begrudge the sleep.

You bring up some fair points about life beyond the concrete Pale, and I’m favorably impressed that you spared considerably more than a passing thought in trying to understand why someone with a choice would live where the blacktop ends.  I’ve been mulling over the question, and my sleep-deprived brain has come up with this reply.

My house is about 11 miles from town (population 6000).  The city of Augusta is a good 45 minutes away (and that’s burning up the highway, not creeping through traffic).  The college town of Statesboro is an hour distant (The question of when distance became measured in units of time I’ll leave for another day).  This means that seeing a show at the multiplex is a fair trip in itself – and indie films are out of the question.  The closest bookstore is Amazon.com.  No specialty coffees can be had in this county, at least nothing more exotic than what BiLo carries.  In town, sit-down meal options consist of a diner, Mexican, country buffet, a sandwich shop, two Chinese restaurants and several BBQ joints.  McDonalds is here but BK hasn’t made it yet.  The farm equipment dealers outnumber auto lots.  And you already know the trials of TV and internet access. So by the City Mouse standard – the measure of manufactured conveniences – this haystack just doesn’t cut it.

Luckily, there are other measures and other standards.  You have thought of a few, though it is clear they pale by comparison to life on one pole of the LA-NYC-DC axis.  Still, I’ll list just a few of the conveniences and opportunities:

–Having neighbors close enough to summon in an emergency, but otherwise out of sight and out of mind.
–Letting your dogs bark themselves hoarse without being threatened with legal action (I speak from personal experience).
–Practicing katas in the yard with a real katana without being reported and arrested.  For that matter, walking around in public places with a knife on my hip and not being reported or arrested.
–Clean air.
–Being able to step outside at night and seeing more than the two dozen stars which are bright enough to punch through the haze of pollution and city lights.
–Hearing a car pull up and knowing they’re here to see you, because there’s nobody else around.
–Maintaining the yard at whatever level you want, not whatever the anal neighbors want.
–Don’t underestimate the mental health value of being able to blare the stereo while you’re working outside.
–Exchanging waves with strangers on the road.
–Driving above speed limit most anywhere because traffic is so light.
–Being able to cook over a hickory fire in the front yard.
–Having staring contests with a coyote, surprising a fox, stopping so wild turkeys can cross the road, and shooing spotted fawns out from under your truck.
–Hearing quail whistling to the north, barred owls hollering to the south, coyotes howling to the west, and wood duck wings whisper overhead.
–Anticipating what kinds of critters you’ll see on the way to work, whether deer or bobcats or hunting raptors, or maybe even otters.
–Having people react with interest rather than revulsion when you collect your steaks the old fashioned way.
–Having a job where I can feel the wind on my face outside almost as much as I spend basking in the glow of computer screens.

I know that there are many other ways of viewing the world.  While it is important to me that city folks have some understanding of the value of a rural life, by no means do I advocate they take it up.  The last thing I want is for urbanites to get a hankering for elbow room!  As crammed together as they are, by spreading out they’d take up the whole country. Already my heart sinks every time I visit my old stomping grounds, seeing fields once mantled in wheat now sprouting crops of three bedroom houses.  The Atlanta sprawl has metastasized and now Athens is growing beyond its charm.

I’ll end this reflection with a quote from Leopold:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. Like wind and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth the cost in things natural, wild, and free. For those of us in the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

”These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”

Here then is a partial answer to your honest inquiry.  I think it is safe to say that we both are more or less where we belong; were our locations reversed, you would go nuts with sensory and cultural deprivation, and my soul would wither.

Still, you’re welcome to visit anytime :-).

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Siren Spring

In the way-down end of Alabama sits the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center, a  5300- acre property dedicated to research and education about the ecology of lower coastal plain landscapes.  The workshop I attended last spring was worth an educational blog report in itself, but it wasn’t the group classes or field trips that garnered the strongest memories of that place.

Each evening after supper, the participants were at leisure to walk around the property or make the twenty-minute drive into the nearest town.  One of the staff told me about a spring off one of the back trails, so, with hiking stick in hand. I strolled past the sinkhole lake and into the woods to find it.  The young planted pines gave way to lush hardwood canopies, and I heard the chuckling of running water.  Beside the trail, weathered stairs descended 20 or so feet to the stream.  In a land of blackwater rivers, I was surprised to find the clear, bluish water streaming out of the wall of a greenery.  The interpretive sign at the top of the stairs stated that this spring and its smaller neighbor produce 15,000 gallons per minute of 67 degree F water, running some 350 feet before disappearing back into the ground.   It was clear, tinted blue, and wonderful to visit.

Spring

I couldn’t resist; in short order the boots came off and I stepped into the cool stream a hundred feet or so downstream from where the water rose.   My feet glowed pale blue beneath the surface, and my first step disturbed the detritus of waterlogged bark and leaves at the base of the stairs.  I felt them roll over my feet, and then noticed a rhythmic poking  against my ankle on the leeward side.  Lifting back out and letting the surface smooth, I noticed four or five fish darting around.  By the interpretive sign, I guessed they were Dixie chub. I listened to the rushing of water beyond the downstream bend, felt the flow across my calves, and breathed  A few minutes later, I was back on land, donning my boots as another workshop attendee came down the stairs.  He looked appreciatively but briefly over the spring, then headed on.  I meandered up the path toward the spring, stopping to measure the water’s depth at a narrow point (the part I could reach was probably above 4 feet on my staff).    I was surprised to see a mountain laurel flowering, a mere fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico.    The sign uphill  warned against tearing up the banks looking for sharks teeth; there was plenty of evidence that the sign went unheeded.  For one who is content to bask in the atmosphere of the cove, it saddened me that others would damage it for trinkets – but we all are guilty of this, either directly or at a remove.

At the spring, I succumbed to temptation and waded in to the shallower pool.  I meant to only wade a little way, but the spring me to get just a little closer…just a little closer… until I was thigh-deep and  balanced on rocks within arm’s length from the fern-covered cliff wall.  At my feet, I could  make out deep blue gaps where the springwater rushed out.  The siren song of the narrow cavern  beckoned me to take the plunge and float in the upwelling.  Instead, I stood there and quietly tried to absorb the moment, watching the water roil, the sand swirl.

Spring mouth

Scattered lightning bugs flashed in the failing light as I headed up the bank and back to the dirt road. There was no sound of humanity until I was nearly to the paved road, when I heard the distant moan of a train.