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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Usnea

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This little piece of lichen (Usnea Florida) was the first photograph I took in North Carolina when we arrived in late December.  I had always known that the property was surrounded by natural beauty, but I took for granted the embarrassment of natural riches that the property had to offer.

I have spoken before about my reconnection with nature which coincided organically with taking up photography seriously in my late twenties and early thirties.  I had already begun a phase of my photography journey in which I was concentrating on lichen, and mushrooms, and other overlooked pieces of nature, and so when I arrived in North Carolina with that focus, I was almost overwhelmed by the proliferation of mushrooms and orchids pushing up from beneath the dense layer of fallen leaves.

As I mentioned previously, we go to North Carolina with my family – my parents, my sister, my niece and our clan of Nora, Kemper & Anna.  As much as I enjoyed spending time with them (and it was the best vacation we have ever taken in that regard), when everyone else was resting from a long hike, I would often try to sneak off with my camera to capture the little bits of nature that ordinarily go without notice.

Invariably, my father or mother would want to come with me, as they get to spend so little time with me during the rest of the year because of work (even though we live less than half-an-hour apart).  I was always happy to have them come along, and my dad even took it upon himself to be my “spotter” when I was so busy behind the lens to quite literally see the forest for the trees.  When I was accompanied, however, I always felt that my pace quickened, and I was not able to amble as slowly as I would have liked to take in as much as the wilderness had to offer.  That being said, I would not have changed those walks with my parents for anything.  Someday I will get the chance to walk alone through the woods, and I know then that I will long to have my “spotter” with me (or to have my mother asking whether I am taking my vitamins regularly, as mothers are wont to do).

Like this photograph, it is all about perspective.

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Growth

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Christmas break was supposed to be a reset.

Kemper had begun showing out at school, becoming increasingly obstinate to the teachers.  It had not fully made its way home, but we received emails every night or notes home in his folder that he had refused to do work or told the teacher he did not want to do something she asked.  He was five, and she was a brand new teacher, so we thought he might just be going through a phase and feeling out her boundaries.  Little did we realize that it was just the beginning of a truly rough patch.  But Christmas break was going to be a reset.  We would go to North Carolina, and all of the energy that he longed to let loose could be released in the mountain air.

We started the year with high hopes for Kemper.  We had begun to see a child psychologist before we left for North Carolina, and Kemper seemed to react well to him.  He showed none of the behavior that had been plaguing him at school, and we thought that he might have moved past the obstinance that he had begun to show.  The first day back was a disaster.  He yelled at the teacher, swatted at her, and flatly refused to do his math work.  He was sent to the principal, and Anna was called in to pick him up.  We disciplined him as we then thought appropriate, taking away his beloved stuffed animals, and this seemed to affect a change in his temperament.  The next day was as bad, if not worse.  The day after that he barely made it into the classroom before he had an outburst that sent him to the principal’s office.

We had him tested, and he proved to be off-the-charts gifted (which came as no surprise to us), and we thought he was just bored.  After many tears and gritted words, we walked away with a diagnosis of severe AD/HD.  The poor little guy could not physically sit still long enough to focus on his work, which he was being forced to do and then being scolded for not doing appropriately.  The psychiatrist suggested medication, which we very reticently put him on.  The change was immediate. Saturday was his sixth birthday, and we saw for the first time in a while the true Kemper coming back to us.

I took this photograph of a small patch of crustose lichen growing on the fallen trunk of a large red oak (Quercus Rubrum) in passing while on one of the many hikes that Kemper enjoyed (though he lamented his boredom along the way).  It did not mean much to me at the time, but in context it illustrates to me the rebirth of a new year.  Christmas break was not the reset we expected.  The fallen oak did not immediately sprout new leaves.  But in the darkness, there was a hint of life anew.  I may come upon this tree when we go back to North Carolina in June, and the lichen may cover the trunk by that point…or, it may just remain there in that little patch, growing slowly but steadily.  And that progress, as small as it might be, is enough.

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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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Cheeky

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This photograph of Kemper, and my niece Brynn, was taken a few weeks ago in Brevard, North Carolina.  The two cheeky little gremlins had just been sloshing through the creek that was running higher than I had ever seen it on account of the torrential rain and snow melt.  Still, it was shallow enough in places to come just over their wellingtons, thereby defeating the boots’ entire purpose.  I think they had more fun splashing in their boots on dry land, listening to the sucking sounds that their feet made within the boots, than they did in the creek itself.

Living square in the suburbs, Kemper and Brynn play “outside” all of the time, meaning they play with chalk on the driveway, ride their bikes and trikes, but they do not have the chance to slosh through the creeks in Florida.  There are too many unseen dangers, the least of which are alligators and moccasins.  So, to be able to traipse through the mud and cold water in North Carolina was as much a release for the kids as it was to watch for the grownups – my sister, Claire, Anna and me.  We got to see the nature of our kids come out in the natural elements.  Though Kemper lamented the long hikes, he loved to play with the sticks and threw the rocks that he found along the way.  Give him a mud puddle, and he will have fun for longer than any sow or elephant might.  It was heartening to see them both having fun, and whats more, having fun together.

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Quarry

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As I stared at the tall, sheer rock face of the long-abandoned quarry, in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest, my dad reminded me that one of my relatives had been a dynamite man for a quarry back in Maine many years ago.  Whether he was deaf from the work, or simply unsocial, my father never knew.  The long drills would bore vertically into the solid stone, and then he would carefully lower the dynamite into the channel to blast thousands of tons of rock and rubble from the mountainside.  Most of the bores in the Pisgah quarry were high on the stone face at least ten feet long, irregularly spaced, but distinctively smooth interstices in the jagged profile of the mountain.  The small paper birch trees were deceptively omnipresent in all of the photographs I attempted, and I was not satisfied with any of them–even as I took them.

As we began to walk on, however, I saw this remnant of a small bore, and I snapped a quick photograph of it, not thinking too much about it at the time.  This hole was unique from the others.  It was only a foot or so long, and its edges were not smooth like the channels higher up.  The crevasses and splintered stone that surrounds the bore suggests that it was an afterthought, and the jagged striations within the shallow channel evidence a blast that wrought the uniformity from it.

This photograph is a microcosm of the quarry, but far more representative than a wide-angle shot of the sheared-off face of the mountain with its uniform bores.  It is evocative and telling that the work was violent and loud and dangerous, but the quarry no doubt was necessary in supplying building materials for the early denizens of Brevard.  Though Robinson Jeffers noted, as I have quoted before, “Not everything beautiful is pleasant,” I have to believe that the opposite might be true.  The violence of a volcano or a blast-torn bore can be beautiful if the time is taken to appreciate it.

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Panthertown Skies

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North Carolina in the winter is breathtaking.  I haven’t spent a full winter there in over ten years, since Anna and I graduated from Wake Forest.  The little time I do spend there is with family over the holidays, and the less than frequent trip back to our Alma Mater.  So often now, I find myself looking down, whether it be watching the footfalls of Kemper and Nora, or searching out the low-lying objects that I neglected for so many years as I grew taller and less aware of the beauty that only years before had been at eye level.  As a child, though, I often looked towards the sky.  It was a predilection of mine, and was lost through high school, college, law school, and then my post-graduate work.  As a litigator, I have been trained to look ahead and anticipate the roadblocks before me, and  I have, along the way, lost the penchant for gazing into the clouds above the treetops.  Photography, though in many ways a mature art, has brought me back to my childhood wonder of nature, and as we hiked through Panthertown Valley over the New Year, I caught myself looking upwards once again.

This photograph, though a simple composition, captures some of the innocent wonder.  The clouds of the late morning were beginning to roll in, heavy with precipitation, and we laconically raced to avoid the rain that settled in as we reached the trailhead.  The fingers of the maples and sweet gums and oaks looked like arteries against the pale sky, and in many ways this is a fitting simile.  Nature is a lifeblood–one that I am reconnecting with after years of the wonder of it lied fallow.  Even though I am at my desk from the darkness of the morning through to the early darkness of the winter evenings, I catch myself looking often to the sky, especially as the sun rises and sets.  Jacksonville, to its credit, is beautiful at these times of day.  The rich colors wrought by the low sun are no match to a North Carolina dawn, but then I am biased and nostalgic for the old days, when I could skip my morning lectures and find myself in an hour at the base of Pilot Mountain as the leaves were beginning to redden at the first breath of winter.  Until we return, I will always long for those days, simpler by measure and winsome.  For now, I will console myself with the memories and the short trips when I will fill my camera with shots such as this of the mountain skies on a chilled winter day.

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