Nature Imitates Art

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
I rushed frantically to reach the high clearing for a shot of the late afternoon light through a blue fog that lift out of the valley. That, I thought, was my reason to be there.

With great purpose and focus, I rushed from my car at a favorite Parkway overlook, and while stumbling through the windswept forest with tripod and camera bag headed toward the open pasture views of a fog-pale distant landscape, I was struck by the beauty of the autumn woods that I was hurrying through.

But it struck me: if it was the magic of light I was after, why, here it was, just at my feet.

I stopped and spent a precious few minutes there before rushing to the last of the light at the clearing. And in the end, it was these shots of windblown ferns in their last grand display of fall that pleased me most from that afternoon excursion.

Here again at the end of their season of life as at their beginnings, these hayscented ferns have taken on a pleasing translucence. Tattered by the wind, cinnamon and pale green against the dark shadows of gnarled, windpruned treetrunks, there was a kind of magic in the light.

And once home, yes, I’ve added to the fantasy story-book magic by applying my brushes–Photoshop–because this reminds me of the art in the nature we would otherwise rush past. This is the way I remember the moment; this is what I want others to feel when they share it with me.

But the true art comes, as it has for centuries, from those who use real pens, pencils and brushes and palettes to create solely by their imaginations those “effects” I can only bring about by clicking the right buttons. Those artists saw the same magic, and made it real by the power of their eye, heart and hand.

So I consider it the sincerest form of flattery that I imitate artists, as artists draw their vision from landscapes that wait for us to notice.

China Hot Dish

“Skating has been banned on the melting ice of Beijing lakes, trees are blossoming early and people are shedding their heavy clothes as China experiences its warmest winter on record. Magnolias are blooming in Beijing as if it were April.” seedmagazine

Yep. It’s global warming, say Chinese officials. Officials who are as proud of their cognitive dissonance as Americans in the same role, knowing that…

“China is one of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas blamed for global warming, which is released into the atmosphere through the burning of coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

About 70 percent of China’s energy comes from burning coal, and there are plans to dramatically increase production as the energy demands of the nation’s fast-modernising population of 1.3 billion people continue to soar.”

Get ready for this little factoid:

China built 117 government-approved coal-fired power plants in 2005–a rate of roughly one every three days, according to official figures.

They blame existing conditions on the developed world. True enough. But to knowingly invest so heavily in more of the same gives some indication of how well the global community is going to cooperate on this most serious environmental issue of our times. In the end, a solution will come, and the atmosphere will return to pre-industrial levels.

Our species might not be here in significant numbers to see it.

Wounded Wood

Walnut Wood / Floyd County / Southwest Virginia
Back when we first moved to Goose Creek, I was chatting excitedly with a woodworking friend about my idea to grow walnuts on our land as an investment crop for our children’s future. Walnuts make exceptionally beautiful pieces of handcrafted furniture.

“I wouldn’t bother” she discouraged me. “Walnuts growing in Floyd County are often gnarled and misshappen. They can be used for some interesting small pieces, given their distorted grains, but they don’t do much as saw lumber.”

And since then, we’ve burned a good bit of walnut as firewood (culled from the edges of the wannabe-garden). A half dozen cast shadows on (and grew their roots into) where we wanted veggies to grow, and we’re burning them this winter for heat. And they have without exception have had warty-gnarly trunks with little clear grain for more than a foot or two. And my presumption now is that this might be due to genetics: our local walnuts have inherited poor wound healing genes.

You can see in this picture what I found when I unloaded the truck one day recently. I had been cutting up a walnut dropped up the valley along the old postal road that follows alongside our pasture. This tree is only about 45 years old, so the lead bullet slug I cut in half with my chain saw earlier that day couldn’t have come from Daniel Boone’s black power rifle. Shucks. I can’t say when it was shot, but long enough ago that you can see the tree has grown “scar tissue” down over the entry point; you can almost visualize the turbulence created in the layers of spring and summer wood as the bullet arked its way to a stop deep in the trunk.

And it is just this kind of swollen hump that are found so commonly on our walnuts–even those that haven’t been filled full of lead. It may be something as simple as normal limb self-pruning that leads to this unsightly wounding in our genetic population of walnuts, while others elsewhere make nice clean scars that don’t damage the quality of the beautiful purple-brown wood.

On this single-digit winter morning, I have one other observation about walnut: as firewood, it makes more light and ash than heat, and I hope not much more of it goes through the woodstove doors. My kingdom for some oak! Brrrrr! (More on tree genetics and wound healing here for the one person out of a thousand who would care to know.)

HELP! Has my sidebar disappeared in MSIE? Just checked it from work and it’s gone! If it is missing, has it been missing for days? Anybody noticed? – FF

4 PM Tuesday: Home now, and MSIE from here shows the sidebar. AND the Google Ads are more relevant in MSIE than in FireFox, which among others at this minute shows PASCO COUNTY–Florida? Common Google. RELEVANT! Surely you can do better!

Plants and Music

Wildflower Galax / Digital Photo / Fred First / Floyd County, Virginia<br data-recalc-dims=” border=”0″ height=”304″ hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ width=”452″ />
I’d be interested to know how many people recognize this common Appalachian plant in winter. It doesn’t always turn such a nice red color. I think it may tend to do this more in sunny places, and it often grows under Rhododendron in the thickest of shadows. But red or green, in parts of the Southern Mountain forest, it is being gathered in quantity–poached, if you will–and sold on the “green market” to florists shops.

The common name for this plant is based on the latin word for MILK. There are cosmic applications of this term as well, and the name makes sense should you find a thick carpet of this plant in flower in summer: it’s white spikes give the rocky hillsides a milky appearance.

Who will be the first to give this plant its proper common name?

Hint: the nearest town to the Blue Ridge Music Center at Milepost 213 is named after this plant.

On the interpretive signs that someday will be placed along the trails at Fishers Peak, the hope is to tie the plant’s natural or cultural history back in some way to the traditional music. Was it named in a song? Was it used to make instruments or used to treat an illness named in a mountain tune?

Come back later. I’ll have a shot from yesterday’s visit to the Music Center. You can let me know if you think it will work for the upcoming newsletter. More about that directly.

Of Mountains and Molehills

Just so those from *off won’t think life here is unrelentingly lovely, I felt compelled to show you the dark side of country life, with a snippet from a little essay under construction.

Image copyright Fred First Our dog, who scares away more potential animal observations than he produces, has a nose for small mammals, and brought us two mammal sightings this week. As far as his species memory and drive goes, insectivores (moles and shrews underground) and small rodents (voles and mice in above ground nests of pasture grass) are food morsels in a wrap of hair, little legged tortillas, and if not delicious, then at least no small excitement to catch and torment in cat-like fashion.

Yesterday, the dog veered abruptly from beside us as we walked across the pasture, ran thirty feet at right angles to our path, cocked his head raising one front paw to his chest, and pounced. His front feet churned the wet, sandy soil. (Did he smell this subterranean creature from that distance? Or hear it digging?) A half-dozen quick scratches later, a dark grey velour sausage of an animal lay at our feet, eyeless, earless, and covered in dog spit.

*Off: not from these here mountains, a term suggesting a general mistrust, a term that a local would use to distinguish the origins, for instance, of the do-gooders who came into the Appalachian backwaters in the late 1800s to gentrify the mountaineers. An outsider; a flat-lander.