Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Seeing Red in the River Gorge

On the north sides of the buildings snow persists from a weekend dusting, a fragile sheet of ice covers the pond, and the sun still lingers low as we pass by. The tilt is shifting, though, and these days of crisp, cool, clarity are numbered.

I relish these days when I am supposed to catch up on reading, finish the story I have been harboring two years running, and to wrap up unfinished business. Yet, I find myself sitting and staring at the crows gathering in the top of the persimmon tree, following the deer as they skirt the wood’s edge before not-too-cautiously crossing west by the beehive, heading for some important deer business, or wrapping myself in a scarf and wandering in the cool sun and pondering.

Deer browsing near the grape vines.

To the east, the land rises. So also to the west. Sunrises and sets are quick and undramatic in my little bowl atop the mountain and come neither early nor late. This time of year, I wake before the sun is spun into sight, always hoping for the drama that never comes. The drama of my morning is in the voice of the little wren outside my window, though he does not always rise early. On this morning, it was the crows who first welcomed the day.

It would be easy to say I should be productive today. There is certainly a backlog of work, and I am well rested and healthy. But I resist the shoulds, and try to satisfy myself with the shalls.

And what I shall do will unfold as it does, without pressure or sense of need or obligation, and I will do my best to find peace in that.

That unfolding way does not mean a lack of productivity, or accomplishment, but simply that the productivity must be followed rather than pushed this time of year. For this time of year is also the time of adventure and exploration.

Friday past, when it was still warm, before the snow came, I went for a hike in the Tennessee River Gorge with Rick of the Tennessee River Gorge Trust. We climbed through scree and boulder to a small pond seeping from limestone where something had preceded us, disturbing the shallow. We knelt at the marge, pondering the lack of tracks where the water was stirred and turbid. A bullfrog, hearing our voices, let us know that he was there, this pond was his. I suspect we would not hear him today, but I respect his vigilance and hope he found some warm mud. I want to hear him again in spring.

“Sedges have edges” we reminded ourselves, exploring the flora of the bullfrog world, before moving on.

On the edge of a rain-swollen bog, we wondered if wood ducks might be hiding through the trees, but all we saw was a pileated woodpecker in no mood for hiding.

Looking up at the industrious fellow in the tree top, I was reminded of another bird I have seen only once in the gorge. “Have you ever seen a cuckoo out here?” I asked.

“I’ve heard rain crows in the gorge,” he said. “Never seen one, though.”

My companion told the story of his grandmother who knew how to find catalpa worms by listening for the rain crows. I am sure this is true, but I’m not sure how necessary birds are for finding fish bait. I have heard catalpa worms chewing leaves from thirty feet away. They do a darn good job of revealing themselves.

However you find them, Rick’s grandmother says they are the best fish bait around because they are so tough. One worm lasts for a half-dozen fish or more. Tough as leather, they are. And you can freeze them for use year-round.

As my thoughts lingered for a moment on fishing, Rick’s remained with his grandmother. “She also taught me about the eyesore bird,” he said thoughtfully. Eyesore is an ironic name for the scarlet tanager. That a bird of such striking beauty and stark contrast could have such a name, piqued my interest.

Rick’s grandmother taught him that in the spring, when allergies get your eyes all excited, the way to alleviate the swelling and itching was to rub it with a feather of the eyesore bird. Excited about curing his seasonal allergy, Rick went into the woods and found one of the rich red birds with the pitch black wings and shot it. As you might imagine, Grandma was quick to scold her proud progeny, and to explain that the healing magic is only released when the feather is obtained respectfully. Rick’s action would only ensure more itch, more red, more swelling, and plenty to think about.

By his story, I was reminded of a tanager I found several years ago. A victim of a neighborhood cat, the fellow I held in my hand had lost most of his tail feathers and had a broken wing. Despite my best attempts to nurture him, Infection took the eyesore bird after a couple days.

An Eyesore Bird in the Hand

At the time, I made no correlation between my intervention and the lack of spring allergies for the next several years. Had I known Rick’s grandmother, I might have rubbed the whole bird on my eyes when I had the chance.

As we conversed about the medicine of the red bird, another red medicine grabbed my attention. Fungi fruiting on a tree at edge of the flooded forest pulled me closer. I broke one off and showed it to Rick who wasn’t all that plussed until I dipped it in the water. In an instant, the dull finish more brown than red, exploded with a richness of color. I did not have grandmother stories to share about my medicine, but they have been used medicinally for thousands of years, so I stuck it in my pack for the hike down the stony escarpment.

A Wet and Shiny Reishi
One of Many Fairy Cups

Halfway down, a tree caught my eye. The mixed forest of the cumberland is a cornucopia of tree species, each with its own special niche and relationships. One of my favorites is the bat tree, and this was a grand example. We stopped for a few photos of the great shagbark hickory with her peeling skin that surely provide roosting haven for many nocturnal flyers. We will be back in the summer to test our theory that sunset will present waves of waking bats, crawling from the crevices of the bat tree to begin the night shift.

Rick Posing By the Bat Tree

Just below the bat tree, bright little fairy cups glowed on the forest floor, and I promised myself to come up with a story about these magical-looking mushrooms. Who knows, while it is unlikely that I will ever be somebody’s grandmother, I might run across some young folk in need of stories about the magic of the forest.

Rick and I had a barbecue lunch then crossed the river to the other side of the gorge where we sat down with an old timer to hear stories of a long past moonshining career. But that is a story for another time.

I don’t know what I should be doing this morning, but I feel some things pulling me. I will do something adventurous…

What do you think?