Hope for Hemlocks?

Could there be hope for those eastern hemlocks that haven’t already succumbed to this cottony sucker-of-death? Is the adelgid doomed?

ASHEVILLE ~ A new method of attacking the pest that destroys hemlock trees—a technique that involves the dairy product whey and a fungus—shows promise but may be a long way from making an impact.

About 74,000 acres of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 500,000 acres contain hemlocks, and “pretty much every place we have hemlocks, we have adelgids,” said park spokesman Bob Miller.

The park uses a crew of up to 16 people in peak season who spray about 2,000 acres of trees with a soapy solution and inject the insecticide, a program that will cost $812,000 this year. Predator beetles are employed in more remote areas.

We probably won’t live to see if this experiment makes any real difference. And there will be places–Goose Creek, for instance–where it will already be too late. I doubt we’ll have any living hemlocks left in five years.

There are several massive hemlocks along the steepest part of our road, dead and leaning, and every day I expect to see the last night’s winds or rain have sent a massive branchy trunk down across our single-lane road. Ann is most likely to discover such an event as she drives to work in the morning dark.

When a smaller one fell last winter, the highway department came to deal with it, sure enough. But rather than clear it away, they simply pushed the branches and tops and bark and chunks of rotten trunk down the bank toward the creek. It looked awful, and still does. I can imagine what the debris field will be from one of the giants. Its corpse will be scattered across a half acre. And then another. And another.

But maybe some can be saved. The Smokies have the greatest concentration, and that area still has relatively healthy stands I think. I was happy to see that work still goes on to save yet another forest species under threat from an invasive agent, though this will be scant comfort over the coming decade as ours rot in place. Or barricade our mountain roads.


To have one’s bones picked clean by vultures and live on, with wings.

While this reincarnational idea is more poetic than a statement of my personal future expectations, it is just one among many pondering points in an essay by Radford English prof Rick Van Noy. There were so many out-takes from the piece I am helpless to do justice in summarizing it. Find the essay in the archives of Appalachian Voices here.

For those like me–this includes perhaps a few Fragments readers–who have an inexpressible awe and respect for even the “ugly” parts of the natural world (spiders, snakes, and bare-headed buzzards), I highly recommend this piece. A few small bites from the author about vultures to whet your appetite, so to speak…

Vultures are “Nature’s flying janitors”.

“Raptors hunt with intent, while vultures, members of the stork family, wait for accidents.”

They fly in packs…”nature’s version of a street gang.”

“Their cousins bring babies, but they are the undertakers.”

Van Noy’s account of visiting the Radford, Virginia vulture roost with his children is predicated around what he sees as the solemn fact that his town is making great efforts to discourage over a thousand vultures from making their home near town. And it is not for reasons of health or safety that the masses feel such repugnance.

The author gives us a different view of these birds through the eyes and words of others who have watched and wondered about them, including Cormac McCarthy, Robinson Jeffers, and Edward Abbey. And after pondering the world of vultures with Van Noy, perhaps the next time you watch the dark shapes of these “tearers of flesh” you will hold them in higher regard than the squinty-eyed, sinister, sloop-shouldered cartoon caricatures you’ve harbored in error all these years.

Out of the Cold

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
Well, not quite. Ann left to spend yet another night at the workplace so she’d be sure and be able to open up the pharmacy at 6:00 this morning. We’ve had just enough accumulating snow showers and strong winds to make driving–especially in the dark–something to be avoided.

But this week’s weather promises the possibilities of a return, perhaps briefly, to some low 50’s temps, which will fell positively balmy.

And how happy I am that I took the time to stop for these frozen creek pictures, because the warm rain before the last ice storm sent muddy water onto the white surface of the creek, and its transient beauty was lost. Once again, as if I needed it, I’m reminded of how fleeting each moment’s light truly is. Note to self: be inclined to stop and smell the roses–or capture the moment to digital film; and indelible memory.

How Cold Was It?

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
You know it’s cold when the rhododendron leaves go tubular.

As one of the few broadleaved plants still in leaf over winter, extra precautions are needed.

On the plus side, this evergreen mountain shrub can remain metabolically active all winter long. But that involves water needs (from frozen ground) and water production in photosynthesis (with the risk of cells burst by freezing.)

So rolling the leaves reduces surface area, creating a higher humidity field around the leaf’s lower surface; the top surface is lacquered in a kind of waterproof coating, the cuticle. The substances in rhododendron’s sap (the equivalent of resin in conifers) acts as a kind of antifreeze.

And the tight rolls offer little for snow to settle on, though we have ample evidence in our woods that wet snows have been heavy winter burdens on the gnarled and spindly shoulders of our mountain heaths, creating low tangles that have long been called “laurel hells”. Just try to get through one, especially with a backpack on!

NOTE: Today will be the warmest day in weeks, only to be followed by an ice storm coming our way tomorrow. Doh!

Traces in the Snow

Landscapes from Floyd County, Southwest Virginia by Fred First
After it first falls, thick and smooth, deep enough to cover gravel and ground and all traces of autumn, I go out hesitantly into the new snow and leave the first blemishes in the unbroken white. In the beginning, there are just the boot tracks to the woodpile and the signs of the dog’s quick trips out and back. For a time during the storm, these trampings will fill with the sediments of the next wave of snow, leaving smooth undulations in the surface. But life goes on, and one can do only so much admiring from the windows. By yesterday, there were tracks–our own and others–that showed what a busy place our seemingly-deserted valley really is in winter.

Over there is where the dog and I went down to wade across the creek, to rummage through the barn for the snow shovel that we needed for the first time this season. And there, past the garden, I’d remembered too late to retrieve my maul, and you can see where I rooted around with the toe of my boot to find it buried under six inches of snow next to a rounded mound of split cherry I could smell even through the snow. And those human tracks going back into the valley are not mine; they belong to the friend who called this morning and asked if he could hunt our land. He left a while ago, carrying out only his deer rifle.

Turkey tracks loop back and forth in the pasture between Nameless Creek and the opposite ridge along the old pasture road. Grasses that stick up from the snow have been nipped along the turkey trots. Here and there, the snow has been scratched away and the frozen earth bothered by prehistoric scaled feet, grubbing up a meal. At times their three-toed tracks suddenly disappear half way up the steep bank, and I know they took wing, ponderously, and only because the bank was too slick with snow for their heavy bodies to climb. Maybe they were startled to flight as the dog and I took our first walk along the creek this morning. They will roost in the tall pines up top of the ridge and be back making more tracks down here tomorrow.

Deer tracks are everywhere in the morning, each hoof mark a sharp pair of converging crescents the shape of praying hands; they are creatures of the night. In the daytime, against the snow, their gray-brown disguise is laughable. Only when they run up the hill away from us does the white flag of their tail match their winter hiding place. It is in the snow during hunting season that they are most vulnerable. And about that, I have mixed feelings.
Excerpt from “Traces” in Fred’s book, Slow Road Home