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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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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Cored

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This old pignut hickory (Carya Glabra) has seen better seasons, but the beak of a red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides Borealis) has extensively excavated the trunk, reaching through the growth rings of those seasons for the tunneling larvae of hickory bark beetles (Scolytus Quadrispinosus).  Although I only captured two of the woodpecker’s cavities in this photograph, the length of the trunk of the dead pignut hickory was pocked with them on every side.  I had hoped to capture the guilty woodpeckers in flagrante delicto, but I was only able to capture the evidence of their tenacious, voracious nature.

The black and white captures the deep shadows of the holes, and gives the bark an almost tessellated appearance, which is true to form.  The gray lichen on the bark just to the right of the lower cavity is almost inconspicuous, but I would be remiss to not note the thin layer of crustose lichen, perhaps Pertusaria Epixantha, which gives a more complete vision of this small ecosystem with tree, and bird, and insect, and fungi within millimeters of each other–coexisting in harmony, even after the tree has lost its sap and vigor.  Nothing in the woods of North Carolina goes to waste.  Even the autumnal leaves that fall by the wayside eventually feed the very trees that shed them, not to mention the other fauna and flora that feast upon them.  Thus, even in the hollowed, cored trunk of this long dead tree, I saw embodied a brief arc of the circle of life.

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Posted

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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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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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Symptoms

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These desiccated little smoky polypore mushrooms (Polyporus Adustus), like a resurrection fern, will spring back to life after a brief winter rain.  Unfortunately, for the hardwood trees that they are found on, the time for resurrection has long past.  The enzymes in the mushrooms help to speed the decay of dead and dying trees in forests all over the world, including this one in North Carolina, west of Asheville.  Interestingly, they also can eat away synthetic materials, such as synthetic dies in plastics, and research is being done to see what role these common little mushrooms can play in bioremediation.  This dwarf American Chestnut (Castanea Pumila) still bore leaves, and but for the polypores on its bark, the tree would have otherwise appeared healthy.  But alas, it is the beginning of the end for the august old tree.  The mushrooms are a symptom of death and disease, otherwise invisible until the tree succumbs.

I think of my favorite aunt on my dad’s side, Irene, who died of cancer when I was younger.  I had seen her soon before the cancer took over, and she appeared healthy on the outside — albeit crusty and sarcastic to the end.  I regret not knowing her better, as she was a huge influence on my dad’s life.  My dad and I went to Maine to visit her and my memere, who was in the throes of dementia, and I spent most of the time in the back of Irene’s house on the rocky outcroppings looking for moose and wild blueberries.  I told her that I would bring her a harvest of the blueberries, which grew low to the ground, rooted in the interstices of the rocks.  I failed in my mission, eating at least two-thirds of what would eventually make it into my small bucket.  I told her that I had not found as many as I had wanted (which, I suppose, was true), but my lips, stained a dark shade of purple, belied my foraging skills.  She laughed and smiled her ever present wry smile, and we had an understanding.  I was the chubby kid who was not to be trusted gathering fruit, and she was the understanding aunt, too kind to say anything cross.  Perhaps if there were outward signs, I would have stayed inside longer to hear her stories of my dad and uncle, Harvey, and perhaps I would have been more judicious with the blueberries I promised her.

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