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.
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.
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.
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.