I didn’t think we were going to have fall this year. The weather stayed summer so long. I figured we’d get a few mild days and then winter would pounce. And as for the autumn color? The prediction was that we would go from green to brown to gone.
Which just demonstrates how bad our ability to predict what nature will do really is. While autumn has lasted maybe two weeks instead of four to six, it has been SPECTAULAR. I was fortunate to spend some time at home in WV just as peak color was hitting. Which meant I got back to NC just in time to enjoy it here.
I love fall. The tobacco, caramel smell of the woods. The russets and golds of the trees. The incredible blue of the sky. Crisp, sunshiny days. Ahhhh. This year all of that seems to have been condensed and intensified. Here’s a sampling for you:
If you follow my blog and/or my Facebook page you know that I spend time tromping around in the woods almost every day. In theory, I’m taking Thistle for a walk, but I also just love being in the woods.
Which is not to say they’re a perfectly safe place to be. It isn’t the bears, the snakes, or other critters that give me trouble. It’s more the flora than the fauna tripping me up. Turns out there are plenty of plants that will challenge you if you go off trail in this part of the country.
Last week I headed up the mountain behind our house. There are some critter trails back there that we’ve trimmed back enough to allow human passage. Mostly. I hike these trails mostly in the winter when the leaves are down and the undergrowth is minimal.
I jumped the gun going up there in October. While the poison ivy had largely died back, the shin rippers were plentiful. What’s a shin ripper? It’s a briar or other prickly, vine-like plant growing low across the trail. You’re tromping along, you catch one of those briars, and it rips across your ankle or shin. I ran into several. As you can see. And I had long pants on!
Other prickly Appalachian flora challenges include:
- Hollies – these are basically just prickly, although if you step on a leaf barefoot, it can be pretty awful.
- Stinging nettle – what looks like tiny hairs on the leaves and stem are actually needle-like tubes that inject chemicals onto and even into your skin. It will burn, itch, and maybe even cause a rash. The best thing you can do is NOT touch it. If you do, DON’T RUB IT!
- Chestnut burrs – these will be from the Chinese chestnut rather than the American chestnut that died in blight decades ago. Again, BAD to step on barefoot. Also, tricky to open the burrs with your hands without getting stuck. We pried them open with our well-shod feet.
- Wild parsnip – what looks like a friendly yellow flower has a photosensitive chemical on its leaves. Think chemical burn.
Still, I say it’s worth the risk to get out into the woods where I can enjoy the beauty of even prickly things.
I’ve loved Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay since I first saw The Outsiders movie. I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever cried at a movie. The poem is so gorgeously bittersweet. To me, it’s always spoken of that moment in autumn when nature is at it’s most perfect. You just want to seize the instant and somehow preserve it. Well, Robert Frost did and every time I read his words my throat tightens and my eyes mist.
I love autumn in the mountains. The temperatures cool; the lush, summer green of the woods begins to thin; leaves change color; sunset comes earlier; and you wear sweaters even when it’s too warm for them.
And the flowers fade . . .
If you follow my author page on Facebook, you’ve likely seen my Wildflower Wednesday posts. I’m such a wildflower fanatic, I take pictures all summer. But there are fewer flowers as summer wanes. So, I thought I’d take a moment to look back at a summer’s worth of nature’s glory before we step fully into another Appalachian autumn.
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
While in West Virginia last weekend my brother showed me some ginseng plants. He was checking them to see if they had seeds he could plant to spur future growth. He gathered up the red fruit with seeds inside and sowed them in a new spot. Seeds need 18+ months to germinate so if we’re lucky, they’ll sprout in the spring of 2020.
Ginseng is not for those in a hurry.
The native plant is prized for all kinds of curative properties from preventing the flu to acting as an aphrodisiac. In the Orient, the fact that the root is often shaped like a man with a body, arms, and legs, makes folks believe it has all sorts of body-related benefits. Another name for it is manroot. It’s relatively common in Appalachia, although the fact that you can get $500 or more for a pound of the dried root has caused over-harvesting.
Enter sang hunters.
There are lots of regulations around how and when the roots can be harvested. Plants should be five years old or older before they’re harvested. If you plan to export the root, it has to be 10 or more years old. How do you know how old a plant is? The first year, there will be just one, compound leaf typically with three leaflets. After about five years, the plant should be at least a foot tall and will have four or more leaves each one with five leaflets. The plant pictured above with three leaves, each bearing five leaflets is probably three or four years old. Not ready for harvesting.
If you look closely, you’ll see a wee crown right in the center. That’s where tiny flowers gave way to red berries with two seeds each inside. They’ve been planted now.
Ginseng is going to find its way into my stories one of these days. It’s ripe with potential–poaching, stealing, the solitary act of hunting through the woods, the art of digging the plant so as to keep the root undamaged and intact . . . it’s an art and a mystery.
Just the sort of thing I love to write about.
There’s SO much I love about the Appalachian mountains. Here’s the first of what I hope are many videos sharing some of the wonders of my mountain home with you.
There are people who have never seen an animal in the wild. Oh, maybe a city squirrel or some pigeons, but I’d argue they’re not really wild.
My mountains are a veritable zoo of wildlife. Just yesterday Thistle and I encountered a teenage bear on our evening hike. She was easily persuaded to abandon the trail for the deeper woods where she melted into the rhododendron like she’d been a dream. Thistle knows better than to give chase.
But she will chase squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits all day long. As well fed as she is, I suspect it’s just for sport. We’re also knee-deep in turkeys and see the occasional deer. Back in WV you can’t NOT see a deer. They’re frankly too plentiful.
We’re also treated to sitings of raccoons, possums, groundhogs, foxes, skunks, coyotes, and the truly rare bobcat. I saw more skunks back in WV where we had one living under the back porch for a while. He would come out after dusk and see if there were any scraps left in the dog dish. We’d stand behind the screen door, watching, and he’d squint at us (I think skunks may not have the best eyesight). Adorable, but we knew better than to go out there.
I suppose there are folks who would rather NOT encounter wildlife every time they go outside, but it’s one of the reasons I love these mountains so much. Bears on the back deck can be a bit of an inconvenience, but they’re also a living, breathing example of God’s miraculous creation–a reminder I’m glad to have.
Ah, June. Those days of complaining about how cold it is are well behind us. Mild spring days have wound down. Some afternoon it’s even getting . . . hot.
While the first true day of summer may not be until June 21, school is out this week, I’m going bare-legged in skirts and dresses, we’re getting produce at the farmer’s market, and I say this is summer.
Which means it’s time to start complaining about how hot it is. Except I’m trying to learn a lesson from my dog. She doesn’t complain, she just gets cool. And here’s her favorite way to do it . . .