Visitors in Vinegar Hollow: Bee and Bear

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Vinegar Hollow on a late July morning.

 

I am back in the hollow and there is ongoing news as usual. For me, it is a self-imposed writer’s retreat with the dog and the cat as I rework a book on primroses and nurse a collapsed ankle. The latter is good for the book and, as it turns out, natural history observations.

Sitting on the terrace with a cup of tea near the end of the first day of my visit, I heard a busy buzzing at my left elbow. My tea cup was to the left on a low stone wall that separates the terrace from an overgrown garden bed. The buzzing came from a straggily maple sapling that loomed over my tea cup. It was a compact bee, with yellow markings, its wings about as wide as the length of its body, not one that I recognized. It had business with the maple sapling. It buzzed away abruptly but in a minute or so was back and I watched as it snipped a piece of leaf from the edge of a maple leaf. Years ago I had seen leaf cutter ants marching across the jungle floor in Panama, snippet of leaf overhead like a sail.

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Leaf cutter bee at work just left of center.

There were five visits that day. The bee fell onto the surface of the leaf on two visits but mostly worked quickly and efficiently. Each snippet had a smooth, tidy edge and was about the size of the bee, though there was variation. The bee would zoom off to the left with the snippet held underneath the body. That night I was looking at natural history sightings on my Twitter feed, and there from @GranthamEcology was the report of a leaf cutter bee in the UK. I had never heard of such a bee, but soon was reading online about the Megachilidae, a group of solitary bees that includes the masons and the leaf cutters. Masons use soil and the leaf cutters use leaves to line their nests. The Megachilidae are said to be “gentle” and “charming,” qualities that I felt instinctively. I was inches away and the bee attended to its purpose calmly and industriously.

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View of maple sapling from above. Leaf cutter work somewhat camouflaged.

I kept a log of the bee visits for several days. On July 28:

5:25 the bee is back, 2 visits with no snip

5:28 the bee is back but buzzes off quickly; thunder

5:29 back but off quickly

5:30 back but off quickly; more thunder.

I couldn’t decide whether the thunder or the shiny lid of my laptop distracted the bee from its leafcutting. In the past tens days I have observed that the bee visits from noon on and the leaves of the maple now look like the crafting of a fanciful cutout artist. One website has posted videos of a leaf cutter bee at work.

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Maple leaves showing leaf cutter activity.

Solitary bees receive more attention these days because they are efficient pollinators. One alfalfa leaf cutter, for example, can do the work of 20 honey bees. With honey bee populations struggling, it’s important to encourage solitary bees by placing a bee hotel or two on one’s property. There are a number of models available. In nature, leaf cutter bees nest in hollow cavities, so placing hollow canes or logs with holes in the garden may attract them. @GranthamEcology says that leaf cutter bees are known to like rose leaves. In rural settings there are many nesting sites, but not so in more suburban, manicured yards. Dr. Bryan Danforth of Cornell University has ongoing research projects devoted to the Megachilidae. One project involved asking sponsors, friends and relatives (like me, a second cousin), if he could place bee hotels for solitary pollinators in their yards and check how readily they attracted residents. At the time I didn’t realize how appealing solitary bees can be.

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Lifecycle of a leaf cutter bee. (Lydekker, R. 1879. The Royal Natural History. Volume 6. Frederick Warne and Co. [from http://www.archive.org]). (Public Domain, wiki).

As for the bear, when I first arrived, I found a puddle of butterscotch kittens curled up by the back door of the “new” house, which is where I was going to park. Luckily I hadn’t driven in. There was a gate to open. I called Mike because he feeds the barn cats and knows their ways and I was worried that handling the kittens might cause the mother cat to abandon them. Mike said that mother cat had probably brought them out from a hiding place to get some sun. He picked each kitten up by the nape of the neck and placed him/her in a box I provided. On the way to the barn we skirted a prominent bald-faced hornet’s nest hanging at eye level in a window frame. Mike said that he would spray it the next day. I nodded. The hornets had clearly taken control of the walkway. Having been stung multiple times on the face by bald-faced hornets, and greatly incapacitated, removal seemed a good plan. By the next morning mother cat had removed all the kittens from the box and placed them in hiding again.

A few days later as I set out with Belle the dog for our morning walk, I met Mike getting the cats’ morning ration of dog food from the old house. Half of the hornets’ nest was the ground, its streaked gray and white paper shredded.

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Mike looked surprised.

“Did you do that?”

“Me? No!”

I must have looked even more surprised. Mike started examining details of the “crime scene.” As a former game warden, he is very knowledgeable about wildlife and is an excellent tracker.

“It was a bear,” he said.

“Gee.”

I was taken aback that a bear was prowling around the garden and glad that I hadn’t gone out to look at the stars at midnight.

“The bear was after the grubs in the nest,” he said.

“It seems like dangerous work for a small meal,” I said.

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Bear’s paw print  (with author and her iPhone visible above).

Mike pointed out that most forms of wildlife barely eke out a living.  The garden is on the foraging path of both bears and coyotes. On cold winter mornings he finds the tracks of coyotes leading to the yard. They look for frozen songbirds that fall out of the overgrown boxwoods onto the lawn. I said the bear’s visit made me feel a little uneasy. He said that where he and his wife live down the road on 220, a bear visits the pear tree right next to their bedroom window. The bear grabs entire branches that then rattle against their bedroom window. Exasperated, his wife asked him to get his gun. Mike refused. “No, I’m not going to kill a bear for a pear,” he said.

North on 220 I talked with some friends who also had a recent bear experience. Their neighbor called them one morning to say there was a bear heading their way and to get prepared to shoot it. Jerry grabbed his groundhog-shooting gun and opened his back door. There he found himself face to face with the bear. A very large bear. He looked at his gun and said to himself, “I don’t have enough gun for this bear.” He turned around, went in, and shut the door. The neighbor upon finding out that the bear had not been shot, asked for directions. Jerry’s reply was, “If you want to shoot that bear, you’re going to have to find it yourself.”

Long live bees and bears!

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The way out of the hollow.

It’s hard to leave Vinegar Hollow. There’s so much going on!

 

 

 

 

 

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The uncertainty of winter: the primrose and the hellebore

The view to Stark's Ridge.

The view to Stark’s Ridge, where Lawson’s Knob overlooks Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

January 1, 2016

Apparently it is a fact that Monet thought the Christmas rose (hellebore, also known as Lenten rose; Helleborus sp.) and the primrose, Primula sp., belong together. See New York Botanic Garden’s “Monet’s Garden: Creation, Facts & Secrets.”  Monet was right, of course, because  he is reported to have said “I cannot live without flowers.” So, he surrounded himself with flowers– in order to survive.

I agree, though I have never been able to have a grand garden like Monet’s, but even a few flowers here and there are enough. Groundhogs in Virginia eat my snakeroot; beloved dogs in Ithaca sit on my primroses, though that has failed to kill them. So be it. My policy is share. No violence.  Right now I am looking at one hellebore and one primrose, and I am glad that I’ve gotten the pairing right according to Monet.

 

The primrose and the hellebore.

The primrose and the hellebore.

 

I am here again in Vinegar Hollow where Angus cattle, their black bodies and white faces are silhouetted against the copen-blue sky behind the Peach Tree Hill, three bluejays are splashing in the gutter, flocks of juncoes swirl over the sinkhole, and I see the unexpected shades of pink and rose in the garden. Unexpected for the first of January.

The primrose in the noon sun.

The primrose in the noon sun on January 1, 2016. This is a polyanthus, a hybrid primrose. Notice the circle of anthers resting in a golden yellow cup slightly raised above the petals at the center of the flower. This is called the rose-crown or the rose-eye. When this occurs in a thrum-eyed flower (anthers visible, stigma invisible), one has “the last word in Polyanthus elegance” according to Florence Bellis, renowned primrose breeder (APS, 1943, p. 35).

 

It has been unusually warm here in western Virginia as in most of northeastern North America. Last year when here in the hollow I reported about reading Antarctic explorers and braving a blizzard to experience the chill. It is has been spring-like here for a month. I am not surprised the hellebore is budding and even opening flowers. Every year it pops up in snow in the coldest of temperatures here in the hollow. The plant now has between 50 and 100 buds. If winter comes now, when all these buds, so delicately striated pink and white, are ready to open, what will happen? It will survive. Hellebores are tough.

 

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

Buds and foliage of the hellebore.

 

 

The flower of the hellebore.

The one flower of the hellebore open in Mustoe today.

 

The primula will survive also, though its more delicate greenery will get glassy, frozen looking if very low temperatures come. But it will survive. Primroses are tough.

I think again (see previous blog called “Snow as Metaphor:  Revealing and Concealing”) of the very old 15th century Christmas carol “Es ist ein ros entsprungen.” Its centerpiece is a rose that blooms in winter. At that time “ros” or “rosa” was a generic term for flower. Although of metaphorical import here, it is important to remember that a literal flower is at the root of the metaphor. Some think that the song’s rose is a hellebore. But it could have been a primrose. “Roses” of all sorts do bloom in winter. A version that I like is sung by the Ensemble Amarcord. Or this one using the words of Praetorius. There are various translations of the original German. Here is one:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

The primrose on January 3, 2016.

In an interview the poet James Wright quoted from memory a passage from a letter that Tolstoy wrote to a pacifist group, where he talks about spring (in relation to religion). He writes:

I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question.

We can’t have spring without winter.

 

January 4, 2016

 

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Winter arrives in Vinegar Hollow with a dusting of snow.

Winter arrived with a dusting of snow, and tonight it will go to 13 degrees F. This feels right. I will cover the primrose tonight just to ease it into this sudden drop from 40-50 ish degree F weather to the teens.

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Snow continues its dusting throughout the day. Black locust in the center and old apple trees to the right are still.

 

January 5, 2016

Second morning at 4 degrees F. Three blue jays are back with a flock of juncoes. They have  spread themselves all over the lawn in the morning sun and eagerly peck the ground, perhaps finding seeds of the red spruce and the beech? There was a howling wind the night before that might have dislodged seeds. But this is just a guess. I have no idea what they are so excited about. They are tapping at the ground. The three blue jays retreat to the gutter occasionally to splash. It is hard to describe the beauty of the translucent white fan that the ends of their feathers make as they alight and depart. There is more white to the blue jay than one realizes. The primrose has shrunken within itself, the vigorous green departed, the vivid rosy pink now a troubled purple. There were no pollinators for it, but a primrose lover has seen a “ros” in winter.

p.s. The hellebore is a really extraordinary variety called Helleborus x ballardiae ‘HGC’ ‘Pink Frost.’ I lose my plant labels, or maybe I can blame it on the dogs, but this label I saved in my writing desk. It certainly can handle the ultra cold.

 

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“It Was Blowing a Blizzard.”

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window.

Setting sun gilds the icicles hanging outside the bathroom window. These are relatively small.

 

The mantra of the naturalist is “Pursue direct experience outside every day.” I have been struggling to keep faith with the mantra, in the coldest February on record in Ithaca, New York. The temperature at 7 am a few days ago was -20 degrees F without a wind chill factored in. Houses all over town look like jails as enormous, life-threatening icicles hang from gutters. It’s a little grim, from the inside looking out.

However, throughout the prolonged deep cold a tufted titmouse has been singing at dawn every morning in the apple tree outside my bedroom window. This particular individual’s whistle-like call is an insistent reminder: Go out, go out, go out. Breathe the bracing air, rejoice, and shiver to acclimate and become one with the outside.

 

Tufted titmouse, slighting to the right and up from center, in the branches of the apple tree. Only the buff belly is visible.

Tufted titmouse, slighting to the right and up from center, in the branches of the apple tree. Only the buff belly is visible.

 

However, sometimes it is easier to be pulled out than to go out. My husband and I took leave of the bitter cold here in Ithaca and made a dash south to Vinegar Hollow in Mustoe, Virginia, to be with family at our homeplace. We were not expecting it to be much warmer because the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia usually report very similar temperatures to those of upstate New York.

The end of Vinegar Hollow.

The end of Vinegar Hollow, cold but calm.

It was bitter. A brief warming trend lightened our spirits, melting much of the snow, but then a blizzard roared up from the south, filling the hollow with whirling, horizantal streams of snow. One by one the locusts, maples, and cucumber trees on top of Stark’s Ridge became ghostly, as did the hills and meadows and fence posts. In the yard the big yew and the big boxwood fluffed out like giant white owls. The cottage seemed to spin inside the whirl winding snowflakes.

 

The colors of winter: white on gray.

The colors of winter: white on gray.

 

My husband loves inclement weather. He was out there somewhere in the forest chopping wood. When poor visibility made chain sawing a hazard, I presume, he came to the sliding glass door. “Come out for a walk!” he said. “You don’t want to miss this!” I looked at the fire. I looked outside. “A walk?” The double sliding glass doors gave a full view of the white out conditions. I was no naturalist if I chose sitting by the glowing fire instead of going outside to be inside a small blizzard.

 

Author poses for husband in blizzard.

Author poses in blizzard for husband.

 

It was glorious. I could not see very far in front of my feet, but we walked on known land, around the Pine Tree Hill where the family cemetery awaits me. Yes, the sounds of the blizzard in the forest and the whizzing motions of the thousands of snowflakes stinging my face, ping, ping, ping, hypnotized my thoughts, commanding my attention to just one thing. Being there outside.

Trees silvered by snowflakes.

Trees polished to pewter by wind and snowflakes.

 

The next day I found an old paperback in my parents’ library room over the root cellar. There it was, an appropriate choice for the season–Scott’s Last Expedition: The Personal Journals of Captain R. E. Scott, CVO, RN. Found next to his frozen body, the diary is compelling reading even though we know the tragic outcome. One can read it over and over, trying to comprehend the predicament of this small group of men. Scott and his team are very near the South Pole traveling under extreme conditions when they find a black flag and sledge and dog tracks indicating that the Norwegians had made it there first. They had lost “priority.” Scott writes, “Many thoughts and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go….”

"All the day dreams must go...."

Published by Tandem Books, in the Great Ventures Series.

“All the day dreams must go….” The poignancy of this comment haunts me. But they must walk on, though emaciated and frostbitten. They do leave their mark at the North Pole proper, but then turn around in the worst blizzard they have yet encountered to head to the closest storage depot. They die just 11 miles away. But in what manner should they compose themselves for the end?

Scott makes a number of entries about his subordinate Titus Oates:

Should this be found I want these facts recorded. Oates’ last thoughts were of his Mother, but immediately before he took pride in thinking that his regiment would be pleased with the bold way in which he met his death. We can testify to his bravery. He has borne intense suffering for weeks without complaint, and to the very last was able and willing to talk about outside subjects. He did not—would not—give up hope till the very end. He was a brave soul. This was the end. He slept through the night before last, hoping not to wake; but he woke in the morning—yesterday. It was blowing a blizzard. He said, ‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.

Scott himself at the time of writing has one foot so badly frostbitten that he knows it will have to be amputated should he live. The temperatures are -40 degrees F day after day. On March 22/23 he writes:

Blizzard as bad as ever–Wilson and Bowers unable to start–to-morrow last chance–no fuel and only one or two of food left–must be near the end. Have decided it shall be natural–we shall march for the depot with or without our effects and die in our tracks.

The reader hopes this is the end of the text and a merciful ending to their lives. But there is one more entry on March 29th. The last line of the diary is “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.”  Roland Huntford in his book The Last Place on Earth gives an account of the interval between March 22/23 and March 29. Scott and his two remaining subordinates, too debilitated to move,  stayed in the tent in their sleeping bags writing letters to loved ones, documents that have become the subject of scrutiny by historians. Scott’s reputation as heroic explorer has been the subject of controversy.

 

Modern Library Edition of Roland Huntford's account of "Scott and Amundsen's Race to the South Pole."

Modern Library Edition of Roland Huntford’s account of the race to the South Pole: Britain’s Robert Scott vs. Norway’s Roald Amundsen. His critique has been challenged by subsequent historians. The photo of Castle Rock on the book cover was taken on 17 September 1911.

 

Huntford critiques Scott as inept, but recent evidence indicates that Scott faced harsher than usual weather and one of his orders that could have saved him was never carried out. Despite getting to the South Pole first, Amundsen lost the battle for renown, in part, Huntford says, because Scott was the better writer.

My blizzard was small. I was not at the North or South Pole, suffering the Homeric conditions that plagued the famous Arctic and Antarctic explorers, who fought their way to the poles for nation and glory. I knew exactly where I was, and it was not far from a fire, so I was no heroine. My reward was exhilaration, not renown, as I went outside to feel the weather, rather than look at it from the inside. The naturalist has a different temperament than the polar explorer, happily from my point of view, but the polar explorers have left us with diaries that exemplify heroic aspects of human beings, inept or not, under duress in the great outdoors.

I am back in Ithaca, the tufted titmouse still singing in the apple tree  at 1º F.

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree.

Tufted titmouse slightly up from center in the apple tree. Profile view.

 

Today I decided to stand at the window observing. I stood and the tufted titmouse sat, silent for once. This went on for quite a while. Sometimes the branches of the apple tree distracted me. That’s when I noticed the second tufted titmouse. There she/he was, higher up in the tree. So, silence because mission accomplished? The mate has acquiesced? I don’t know, but I will be looking into the habits and psychology of this hardy little bird.

The second tufted titmouse.

The second tufted titmouse almost dead center in the photo.

 

So, have I rambled? What do the tufted titmouse and the blizzard have in common? As John Muir said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where have all the flowers gone–and their Monarchs?

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Monarch visiting thistle in Vinegar Hollow, Highland County, Virginia.

 

It’s a lonely fall for those of us who love being observers of the annual migration of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) back to Mexico, a 3,000-mile journey that is breathtaking for its scope and its beauty. If we could connect all the dots of all the trajectories and innumerable stops for nectar to fuel the journey, we would see a pattern, a living tapestry, so instructive of the importance of thinking ecologically.

I have recently been migrating myself, from Ithaca, New York to Harrisville, New Hampshire, back to Ithaca, and now south to western Virginia. Having heard that a 90% decline in migratory numbers was predicted for this fall, I have been looking for monarchs in old and new haunts. In Harrisville, I saw one monarch, in Ithaca three, and one in Vinegar Hollow. In past years,  significant numbers have accompanied me on my daily dog-walking rambles. Being with them, admiring their determined, zig-zaggy flitting, from blossom to blossom, I have felt part of the hero’s journey, the voyage home, a mythology rooted in biology.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch on Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Monarch visiting Verbena bonariensis in my garden in Ithaca, NY.

Underside wings of monarch still visiting Verbena bonariensis. It’s easier to write about monarchs than to photograph them, which is a dizzying experience.

The media have documented the decline in monarch numbers more authoritatively. The figure given since January 2014 is a 90% decline. For graphs, see the website of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and an article in the Washington Post by Brad Plummer. Plummer reports a conversation with Lincoln Brower of Sweet Briar College, one of the world’s foremost monarch experts, who outlines three causes for the decline:  deforestation in Mexico, severe weather issues (e.g., the 2013 drought in Texas), and herbicide-based agriculture. I remember a lecture given by Brower at Cornell a few years ago, in which he noted that efforts to create a monarch reserve in Mexico had in fact led to more poaching by illegal loggers than before its creation. All monarchs have to fly through Texas, so not much can be done to prevent a decline due to drought. It is important to know, however, that monarchs flying south need to feed heavily on nectar, some of which they store for use during the winter “hibernation.”  You might say that blossoms are their gas stations. The issue of herbicide-ready agriculture is big and contentious.

Citing the figure of a 97% decline, Richard Coniff in a post on his “Strange Behaviors” blog is pointed in stating that it’s now a question of Monsanto vs. the Monarchs. Since Monsanto developed Round-up ready soybean and corn seed in the 1990s, the widespread of this seed, which enables large-scale herbicide spraying, in the Midwest has wrecked havoc with the life-supporting patchwork of milkweed species hanging out here and there in fields and along roadsides. It takes four generations of monarchs to hatch and breed and feed on milkweed foliage, on their way across the United States to Canada. Milkweed species are said to show a 67% decline in numbers.

Coniff notes that farmers are not the problem and believes that Monsanto has the money to establish milkweed-friendly zones around agricultural fields. Apparently Monsanto is presently studying whether the fear of monarch extinction is legitimate, and whether it wishes to be part of conservation efforts.

We can all plant milkweeds. There are 110-120 species, of which 32 are particularly helpful for monarchs. Coniff offers a link to supplier of milkweed seeds and plants. Milkweeds in themselves are a wonderful group of plants with a  unique floral structure (see this additional Xerces posting) (and this one showing the common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca]), complete with horns, hoods, and corpuscula. Many of us in the northeast know the common milkweed, its fleshy, drooping, dusty-rose flowers, hypnotically scented, but there are many other milkweed species

 

Milkweed flowers with visitor.

Milkweed flowers with visitors, seen summer 2014 (Enfield, near Ithaca, NY)

with the same fascinating flowers perfected in different sizes and shapes (scroll down to the bottom of this link).

MonarchWatch.org, led by Chip Taylor, is an excellent organization/website offering information on the biology of monarchs and milkweeds and on conservation efforts. Many people are now hosting monarch “waystations” under the guidance of MonarchWatch.

Monarchs have been called “iconic” and their flight “epic,” and rightfully so. Every school child in North America has known their story. Many have watched, as I have, the chrysalis become butterfly in just seconds, miraculously, as the molecules reorganize themselves from immobile jewel case into polka-dotted flight machine. And there is more to learn. Just last week, National Geographic posted an article on new discoveries about the genetics behind the white monarch and the efficiency of  flight muscles in the migratory monarch. They continue to inspire our creativity, as in this book shown below about a biologist coming home to Lake Erie to study monarch migration, or this new Harrisville Watershed yarn called “Monarch” (click on it, sitting to the left of “Barn Red,” for a close-up).

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

A new book whose title perhaps draws inspiration from the plight of the monarch.

There are many good people working to ensure a future for monarchs, so that they do not become part of a mythic past. And there are many good weeds and wildflowers ready to be part of the ongoing story.

P. S.  For an article on the migration of Fall 2014, see this article titled “For the Monarch Butterfly, a Long Road Back” by Liza Gross.

 

If You Must Talk, Whisper!

Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, Virginia

Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs, Virginia

It was a spur of the moment decision to stop at the baths in Warm Springs, Virginia, which are officially known as the Jefferson Pools because Thomas Jefferson soaked in the men’s hut in 1818 for 22 days. I did not have my bathing suit but remembered that there was always a basket of bathing dressses inside the door of the hut. Although not fashionable, they provided full coverage and were made of cotton in colorful designs.  I went into the cottage adjacent to the hut to pay. I mentioned that I did not have a bathing suit, but hoped to use one of the bathing dresses. The woman at the counter informed me that the woman who made the little jumpers had died and the suits had been removed.

“I would have to bathe naked?”

“You would,” she said.

A cheerful young man who probably monitored the men’s hut, and was carrying cheeseburgers in baskets for the woman and himself, said, “It’s not so bad. There are three ladies in right now who faced the same issue. They decided to bathe anyway. You can just sneak in. Besides, they are about to leave, and the two young women in there now will have to leave soon.” It turns out that the Homestead bus service would be retrieving them for return to the resort hotel.

I pondered this, but no doubt looked fairly hesitant. The woman attendant said, “If you choose a dressing cubicle right next to a stairway, you can drop your towel right by the stairway and slip in and out without anyone seeing you.”

Had the time come to be more adventurous than I usually am? I do not swim au naturelle. I have never worn a bikini and it is safe to say that I will die without ever having worn one.

“Ok,” I said. “Could I have two towels?”

“Yes,” they said.

For a fee, one has an hour of soaking time. I paid and proceeded. I met the next attendant, a woman who sits in the entry way of the hut dispensing towels. I found a cubicle right by one set of stairs into the pool. A nervous mermaid, I unswathed my towels and slipped in without the two young ladies in bikinis noticing me, I believe, and soon they were called away, so I had the healing springs to myself. I poked my head out to the bathing attendant, “Can I take photos?” “As long as no one else is there,” she answered.

Inside of circular hut showing noodles tucked in spaces of the wall.

Inside of circular hut showing noodles tucked in spaces of the wall.

Inside the hut white paint peels artfully over wooden boards. Some visitors have commented that the whole appearance is run down. So it is, but run down straight from the 18th century to the 21st, and I find that extremely beautiful. Yes, restoration is in order, but I feel as if I am right there with Thomas Jefferson, though I am glad that he would be in the men’s hut, and I would have privacy. He was a complicated man, and I am sure that he benefitted from his days of reflective soaks in a men’s-only hut. While he came for his rheumatism, I can imagine his mind drifting to thoughts of his past and his future. He wrote a letter from Hot Springs to his daughter noting that the baths were first rate.

Another view of curving wall with noodles.

Another view of curving wall with noodles.

Although the noodles in bright shades of lime green, pink, purple, and blue look out of place perhaps, they are indispensable for a really comfortable soak. One can drape oneself over one, two, or three to find a position for total relaxation, for instance, floating on one’s back. I drift like the clouds in the blue sky visible through the opening in the roof.

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I have tried before to describe the architecture of the open roof in words and found it difficult. The view of the sky and the clouds piecemeal through the spokes of the dome captures attention. I have never been in a space similar to this, though my husband reminds me that the structure is very much like the oculus of the Parthenon in Rome, but so much the better to be immersed in healing waters, which are warm, about 98 degrees, and clear. There is a very slight sulfurous smell. The Homestead‘s website conveys some of the 9,000 year history of the baths and interesting statistics about the rate of flow and qualities of the water.

I floated with the noodles, I let the bubbles swirl up around me, and I stared up at the ceiling of the hut through which I could see the sky and passing clouds. I meditated on time and space, and then I slipped into my towels and commenced taking a few photos with my i phone. I knew I had a unique opportunity. It is hard to convey the magic of the bathing hut without a photo or two.

Another view of roof.

Another view of roof.

Reflection of central post attaching to center of roof in the healing waters.

Reflection of central post attaching to center of roof in the healing waters below. Pebbles appear luminous in the slightly blue-green water.

But as I was going in and out, mermaid like, taking pictures and soaking, I noticed that the design of the roof was even more beautiful reflected in the water. The reflection accompanied me, swirling from little to big. I put my hand in it, causing the reflection to wobble and gyrate. It was mesmerizing watching the reflection settle back into itself.

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Reflection of roof architecture in water.

Reflection of roof architecture in water, wobbling.

A wobbling reflection

Wobbling even more.

I emerged from my soak relaxed, wholesome, a noodle, a strand of perfectly cooked spaghetti. The waters are body temperature and flow at 1,700,000 gallons per day, conditions that render the human body mellow and agreeable. Departing in excellent spirits, I thanked the attendants for their encouragement: the au naturelle method of bathing is fine. The bubbles that percolate up one’s torso and the wobbling reflection of the oculus at one’s elbow distract body and mind from anxious concerns. I hope Thomas Jefferson achieved similar moments of serenity.

I understand the admonitions posted at various point around the pool. Like the reflections of the oculus, human beings wobble and wobble and wobble in so many forms of uncertainty. Drifting this way and that, I soon hear a serene silence inside my body, so soothed by the warm spring with its minerals and cheerful bubbles.

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Finding the Lonesome Pine

 

 

Vinegar Hollow. Stark's Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Vinegar Hollow. Stark’s Ridge is the farthest bare mountain top (left of center). Back Creek Mountain stretches off on far top right.

Trekking abandoned logging roads by ATV with a chainsaw in the back of the vehicle is a new experience for me, but happily so. As a young girl I wanted to be a plant explorer in the great tradition of “Chinese” Wilson and Reginald Farrer, who brought back garden treasures from the remotest parts of lands still foreign to westerners at the time. Farrer roamed craggy mountains and misty valleys in Burma, China, and Tibet in life-threatening conditions armed with whiskey and a set of Jane Austen. So here I am, exploring remote mountain tops and glens of the Allegheny Mountains, fulfilling youthful dreams. I am home and do not need to carry whiskey and Austen.

 

Back Creek Mountain.

Back Creek Mountain  meets the sky above Vinegar Hollow.

 

The folds of Back Creek Mountain, which forms one of the north-south borders of Vinegar Hollow, looks impenetrable and pristine from Stark’s Ridge, the highest point directly opposite on the other side of the hollow. The wooded undulations of the mountain range reveal little of the history of human use of the landscape. In fact, it has been logged and relogged for the last several hundred years. Rough trails criss-cross the forest floor in a maze of switchbacks and curlicues. The forest giants are long gone, but secret gardens remain and a hoary pine native to the Appalachian Mountains.

Younger son on ATV.

Younger son on older son’s ATV.

 

ATVs are bumpy, noisy, and smelly, but they aid enormously in botanizing and can be turned off while one explores on foot. My husband and I had driven up this part of the logging trail maybe half a dozen times, but never stopped to get out at this particular turn in the road. Maybe it was the morning light shining on an expanse of silvery pale green lichens that caught our eyes, but soon enough we were trying to hop about on delicate feet, in thrall to the wonders underfoot in what I am calling the pine cone garden.

Lichens and pine cone.

Lichened branches and pine cones.

 

Pine cone and lichens.

Pine cone and lichens.

Whether nesting in lichens or pine needles, each cone seemed to be at home. Like sunflowers, pine cones have a deeply satisfying architectural form, the scales overlapping in an arrangement reflecting a sequence of numbers called the Fibonacci series. These cones are striking for their silvery gray brown shading and the curving, decorative prickles at the end of each scale.

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

 

Pine cone.

Pine cone.

The cones are stalkless, seemingly having sprouted out of stout branches.

Fallen branch with cones.

Fallen branch with cones.

But where was the parent tree? I looked up finally.

Parent tree.

Parent tree.

The morning light shone on its lichened, outstretched arms. One branch lay blasted on the ground.

Branch bent to the ground.

Branch of parent tree bent to the ground.

Lichens covered the bark exuberantly.

Lacy lichen.

“Lacy lichen” on parent tree.

 

Lichen on parent tree.

“Hoary lichen” on parent tree.

Further walking on this rocky slope by the side of the logging road revealed some dainty lichens displaying a  lovely pastel, slightly orange-pink coloration, something that forest fairies might have planned.

Fairy lichen.

Pink earth lichen.

 

Dainty lichen.

The extremely photogenic pink earth lichen again.

I know I wrote in my last blog about the importance of identifying small life forms, but I decided not to pursue lichen identification here (it would be like Alice falling into a wonderland of splendid but strange forms and vocabulary) because my primary goal now is to honor the pine and its cones. “Hoary lichen” and “lacy lichen” are just my own bland names, not proper common names. It turns out (courtesy of my husband’s research) that the lichen with the pink knobs is easy to identify via Google images. It is known by a lovely common name–the pink earth lichen. Its scientific name, Dibaeis baeomyces, is not at all user friendly. Project Noah offers a photo with a description offering the information  that the knobs are filled with “cottony fibers.”

My husband and I got busy taking measurements and assessing characteristics that would identify the pine.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

Pine cone display technician David Fernandez.

 

A 2-3 needle pine!

A 2 (-3) needle pine! Apparently the number of needles per bundle is not totally constant.

 

One thing that makes pines fairly easy to identify is that there are not many different species of them in the world. Further, pine needles are arranged in little bundles bound in a common sheath, and the number of needles in the bundle (fascicle) is distinctive for each species. The familiar white pine, distinctive for its long, graceful needles, has five needles per bundle, for example.  So, it’s pretty easy to count the number of needles per bundle on a pine sample–we found two needles per bundle in this pine–and look up a list of 2-needle pines in North America. The list is not that long. Also, the pine cones of our pine were unusually prickly, which proved an excellent identifying characteristic. First we settled on Pinus echinata, the shortleaf pine, because it has prickle-tipped cones and it’s native, but its growth habit (overall shape) wasn’t right. We moved on through the list of 2-needle pines.

Voila Pinus pungens, commonly known as the prickly pine, table mountain pine, and hickory pine! Prickly pine  is certainly a suitable common name because of the cone, and table mountain because of the high elevation at which it likes to grow, but hickory pine? A hickory tree is in a completely different family and order and is known for its shaggy bark and edible nuts. I love it when the common names of life forms become interesting metaphors, connecting the unlike through some hint of likeness, so I puzzle over its derivation.  Hickory trees are often gaunt and gangly in shape, which is perhaps the likeness that inspired the common name of hickory pine because Pinus pungens is  described as having a “rounded, irregular shape.” Another possibility is that the common name recognizes the fact that Pinus pungens likes to grow with hickories. However, there were no hickories on this rocky hillside.

It is a lonesome pine. Unlike most species of pines, this pine is known for growing as scattered individuals, rather than in large groves.  Lonesome but not unsung. John Fox Jr. made this species famous in his book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, a top-ten bestseller of 1908-1909, and a book still dramatized in yearly pageants in Big Stone Gap, Virginia where John Fox died in 1919. Fox’s book beautifully describes the Appalachian mountain culture and landscape, and the confusion and disruption that occur when modern civilization arrives, here in the form of the train and coal mining. Fox describes the lonesome pine repeatedly so that it becomes a character in its own right, representing the isolated individual struggling to retain identity. The main human protagonist is a young man from “civilization” who arrives to bring change to the area but is nevertheless sensitive to the value of what he finds there. Fox writes from the point of view of this character:

He had seen the big pine when he first came to those hills—one morning, at daybreak, when the valley was a sea of mist that threw soft clinging spray to the very mountain tops: for even above the mists, that morning, its mighty head arose—sole visible proof that the earth still slept beneath. Straightaway, he wondered how it had ever got there, so far above the few of its kind that haunted the green dark ravines far below. Some whirlwind, doubtless, had sent a tiny cone circling heavenward and dropped it there. It had sent others, too, no doubt, but how had this tree faced wind and storm alone and alone lived to defy both so proudly? Some day he would learn.

–John Fox, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine   

He suggests a parallel and a connection between the plight of the lonesome pine and the human being. Defiance in the face of unaccountable whirlwinds, like World War II. My parents loved this book for its description of the mountains they settled in post my father’s service in the war. With all their hearts they aspired to be mountain folk, fierce individuals never at peace when far from lichen-covered trees and forested vistas. Their grandson has now purchased some of this mountain land to protect–from the “green dark ravines far below” to the rocky slopes of the ridge tops where the lonesome pine survives, casting its prickly cones into a garden of fantastical lichen, both tender and tough.

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Trees rising from one of the deep, green glens of Back Creek Mountain.