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How to See the Forest...For Real

How to See the Forest...For Real

Jennifer Frick-Ruppert is the author of “Mountain Nature: A Seasonal Natural History of the Southern Appalachians” and a professor of biology and environmental science at Brevard College in western North Carolina.

I am glad to be alive. Really. To be able to walk outdoors into the heat of summer or the cold of winter and feel the air as if it, too, is a living thing. The cold pinch of frost and sharp tang when I breathe the icy air through my nose; the languid, limp, damp feel of a summer afternoon just before a thunderstorm when the air is almost thick enough to drink. To see the golden hues of fall, when whole coves resonate with color until the air itself takes on the tones of a glass of chardonnay. And spring, when the mornings are cool enough for a jacket, the grass shines with dewdrops that sometimes are frosty white, but by afternoon the heat of summer feels just around the corner. These are some of the joys of being in the southern Appalachians, and they change with the seasons.

One of the reasons I wrote “Mountain Nature” was to encourage more people to get outdoors and enjoy the rich biological treasures of the Southern Appalachians. Millions of people live within a half-day’s drive of one of Earth’s greatest biological hotspots, and millions of us even visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but how many of us stop to really see? It helps to know what to look for.

The leaves really are beautiful during this fall season, but have you noticed the mushrooms? I’ve seen cinnabar red chanterelles, purple club corals, orange earth tongues, black trumpets, white oyster mushrooms, and even green-headed jelly clubs. This palate of colors decorates the fall forest floor among the still-colorful leaves from the trees overhead. But to see them, you must be looking.

While there are fewer showy flowers, there are blooms in the fall season that not only delight the eye but encourage a closer view. Stop to look closely at the purple gentians that grace the roadsides of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Each small flower is tubular, like a balloon barely inflated. The even smaller white flowers of Nodding Ladies’ Tresses are also worth the effort of bending down to see. A dozen or more of the face-like flowers spiral up the stalk, each one nodding slightly as if in prayer.

Big, shaggy purple asters and slimmer but numerous goldenrods provide broad swaths of color in fields and other openings to complement the backdrop of tree leaves. But if you stop to look closely at the flowers, you’ll see astounding numbers of insects and other arthropods. These beasts are just so strange to consider; I think their very strangeness is what makes so many people uncomfortable around them. Have a look at the triangular head of a preying mantis and watch it turn to watch you – it is an eerie sensation when you realize its eyesight is probably as good as yours! Crab spiders perfectly camouflaged in green, white, or yellow await on green stems, white petals, or yellow flowers with arms outstretched to welcome a visiting bee or fly. And what a choice of tiny native bees, larger honeybees, bumble bees, and uncountable numbers of wasps!

Watch a goldenrod blossom for 10 minutes and you’ll begin to appreciate biodiversity. In fact, stop nearly anywhere in the southern Appalachians for 10 minutes and just look around, in any season. Look at the small things, nearby, to get a glimpse of the incredible Earth we inhabit. We are right here in the middle of it. Of life.

 

Is There An Appalachian Trail in Heaven?

Is There An Appalachian Trail in Heaven?

I was born September 3, 1926 near Woolwine in Patrick County, Virginia. My oldest brother, Moir, was 12 years my senior. With my two younger brothers, Willie and Richard, we four were a devoted team for exploring, building trails and treehouses, fish...

All Trails Lead...

All Trails Lead...

Fred First lives in Floyd County, Virginia. He is a blogger, photographer, columnist, radio essayist and author of " Slow Road Home " and “ What We Hold in Our Hands .”


Rx: Get Them Outside!

Rx: Get Them Outside!

Rick Van Noy is the author of “ A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids With Nature Through the Seasons ,” and a professor of English at Radford University in Virginia.


A Cosmic Possum On Stage

A Cosmic Possum On Stage

Lee Jones wishes he were a good enough bluegrass musician to make the money he does writing and consulting about poker. That would be way more fun.

Road to Anywhere Else

Road to Anywhere Else

Or so Jane Hicks’ home once seemed to be. The award-winning poet and quilter lives in Blountville, Tenn., from where she coined the term “cosmic possum.”

 


Hollywood to Home

Hollywood to Home

Singer, songwriter and actress Schuyler Fisk grew up on a farm oustide Charlottesville, Va. with her parents – actress Sissy Spacek and production designer Jack Fisk . They chose to live away from the smog and stars of Los Angeles. Today, their daughter li...

Reporting from Wangle Junction… Not Any More?

Reporting from Wangle Junction… Not Any More?

Rex Bowman, born in the mountains of southwest Virginia, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and author of two books. He has worked as a reporter for newspapers in California, Maryland and Virginia.


Oh, what fun I had over the past decade, driving to...

A Different Meaning of Life

A Different Meaning of Life
Gerry Bishop retired to central Virginia from the National Wildlife Federation , where he was editorial director of children's publications and, for 20 years, editor-in-chief of Ranger Rick magazine . He has served as a writer, editor and editorial consul...
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