Beneath the Rhododendrons

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The great rhododendrons (Rhododendron Maximum) are thick throughout western North Carolina, no less so in Panthertown Valley.  We hiked through the valley, and though the leaves had fallen from all but the paper birches, even the huge snowstorm the weeks before had not tempered the deep, rich green of the underbrush.

I don’t particularly care for the bare bushes, though in the summer when they are flowering, they can be quite lovely.  To me, they are glorified giant azaleas, which again, are beautiful only when they are in bloom.  Nevertheless, I respect them.  They are a native species, and they have retained their ground (with great aplomb) even where invasive species would have otherwise taken over.  Even the leaves of the rhododendron are persistent, lasting up to eight years on the plant itself, and then they are incredibly slow to decompose.  There is even some believe that the rhododendron is allelopathic (a biological phenomenon by which an organism produces chemicals that inhibit the growth or germination of other plants), which means it quite literally fights for its place in the forests through biochemical warfare.

There is, I admit, something to be admired about the lowly “great rhododendron” and the wide swath it has cut through Appalachia.  I count myself among a group of survivors, whose roots were set down deep by my parents, else I would have washed away long ago.  I feel a sort of kindred with them, and perhaps I did not care for them in the past because I saw a bit too much of myself in them.

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No Handbills

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The floods from the melting snow unearthed two old metal signs on the property in Brevard, North Carolina, which we found on a morning walk.  They fallowed under cover of sweetgum leaves and time.  The signs, rusted and riddled with bullet holes, were still legible, and demonstrated the disdain for the hippies that once made the property their home, before they were forced out by a more puritanical wave of valley residents.

The property sits on a geologic fault line, and the streams on the property are headwaters for the French Broad River, one of the oldest rivers in the world.  The property was a summer camp in a former age, and the ruins of the old stone buildings are still visible.  As I mentioned in a previous post, the property was once a common stopping ground of a folk-singing, free-loving, cache of hippies and musicians, including Pete Seeger and Woodie Guthrie.

These signs are further reminders that we were not the first to enjoy the hills and fields where generations of boys spent their summers away from home and hippies did – well, what hippies do…

In the seven years my family has been coming here, the land has become a part of us, a memory we carry with us in our day to day lives in Florida.  I will never know who put the bullet holes in the signs, but they will remain nevertheless.  We have left our own marks on the property, no less visible or timeless.  Generations from now, the cabins may fall and the sapling white pines may overtake them, but our time on the property will still be felt.

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Steve at the Falls

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My family became the subject of a number of portraits during our post-Christmas vacation in Brevard, North Carolina.  On the whole, the portraiture was done mostly willingly (except my mother, who loathes having her picture taken – much like me).  I did not push her, except for one photograph with the grand-kids and one family portrait, which even I deigned to sit for.  This photograph was a candid of my father admiring Schoolhouse Falls in Panthertown Valley.

Although the falls were admittedly beautiful from the front, the view from behind the falls was something else entirely.  We had met a sweet older lady on the hike, just as we were about to turn around, who advised us to take ten minutes and hike to the falls that were running more strongly than she had ever seen due to the rain and snow melt.  She said that if we were careful, we could even hike behind the falls, which piqued my curiosity.  As soon as we turned the corner onto the side path, we heard the crashing of the falls.  The hike was easy to the falls itself, and I took a number of photographs of the falls that I have added to my portfolio “Falls.”

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Emma

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My parent’s black lab, Emma, was our constant companion on our hikes in North Carolina.  We hiked five miles in Panthertown Valley, and she must have covered at least twice that.  She would run ahead, just far enough that my mother was still in her line of sight, and then run back, as if to report that there were no obstacles in our path to come.  I took many photographs of her along the way, but this one best captured her reconnaissance endeavors.

We have had a number of dogs growing up, and they would all have been faithful companions on the walk.  My parents’ dog, Tam, whom I remember as a kind old yellow rug, came first, and then we rescued Sadie, a bright red golden retriever, who I grew up with as a child.  Dylan, Emma’s great-uncle, came when Sadie was getting along in her years, and brought out the youth in her once more.  Hannah, who was the mother of my sister’s lab Zinger, was my girl all the way through college and law school.

Anna and I now have Zoe, whom we rescued ten years ago.   She is completely deaf now, and Anna claims her sight is going, too.  She has been there through the ups and downs in our marriage, at our kids’ births, and through it all with us.  I know that we will have to say goodbye, sooner rather than later, and it breaks my heart to think that one day, she will not be the first to greet me when I come home from work.  That will be a devastating day.

For now, I am patient with her as she lolls through the backyard when I let her out, stopping and sniffing at the wind, using the one sense that has not yet failed her.  She moves more slowly, and she will not get up from her bed in the morning until she is ready to take on the new day.  I admire this about her.  I took many photographs of her on this trip to North Carolina, because she was in her element in the cool mountain air with new smells to pursue laconically as she ambled ten steps in front of me at all times.  She is more wary of leaving me behind than Emma ever will be, and I am wary of ever leaving her behind either.

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Paper Birch

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The winter leaves had fallen on all of the trees on the property in Brevard, North Carolina, when we visited at the end of December.  The lone holdouts were the thin, wispy leaves of the white birch trees (Betula Papyrifera), which clung on despite the snowstorm that had toppled many larger trees.  The scientific name, Betula Papyrifera, literally means paper-bearer, and indeed the leaves were paper-thin and fluttered at even the slightest hint of wind.  (In truth, however, the “paper birch” is named due to the thin white bark which often peels in paper-like layers from the trunk.)

The paper-birch is a short lived species of the birch family, and in the climate of North Carolina will likely only live thirty to fifty years (though in colder, less humid climates it may live for a hundred years or more).  Despite the relatively short life of the tree, it is a survivor, as the leaves attest.  The paper birch is a “pioneer species,” meaning it is often one of the first trees to grow in an area after other trees are removed by some sort of disturbance. When it grows in these pioneer, or early successional woodlands, it often forms stands of trees where it is the only species.

What struck me the most, however, was that despite the relatively small stature of the trees (there were a number on the property easily recognizable due to its leaves), they were the only ones that held fast to their leaves, almost refusing to let them fall.  I admire this stubbornness, even in a tree.  What’s more, the leaves, though faded and whitened by the fall, were still beautiful, and decorated the tree admirably.  We can, perhaps, learn something from the paper birch about retaining beauty in the winters of our lives.

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Posted

SSA Photography (105 of 400)

The provenance of this post is unknown.  I took the photograph right as I began to become serious about my photography.  The post is within the ruins of what used to be a gym for a boys camp in North Carolina, but the property was also a hippie commune, which the likes of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie graced with their presence.   The photograph is a simple composition, and if I would have taken it now, this one would likely have found itself on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, the photograph is nostalgic, and as my posts have shown, this is a flaw of mine.

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Behind the Falls

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This photograph of my dad standing behind a waterfall was taken in Panthertown Creek near Brevard, North Carolina.  We hiked about three miles and were prepared to turn around, when we ran into a sweet older lady who said, “The falls are really running today.”  We asked for directions, and she pointed us down a side path, which we traversed for about ten minutes until we heard the roaring of the waterfall.  I took many photographs and wanted to get closer.  I found a not so well-worn path, and my dad and I followed it until we found ourselves behind the waterfall.  He remarked that although walking behind a waterfall had not been on his bucket list, it should have been.  It was truly remarkable.  The hike behind the falls had been tough, but it was so very worth it.

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