Thoughts on Cecil the Lion by Guest Blogger Ab Abercrombie

Elephants at a water hole in Zimbabwe

Elephants at a water hole.  Hwange, Zimbabwe.

I want to share the following thoughts by my friend Ab Abercrombie with his permission.

Dr. Abercrombie is a Professor Emeritus at Wofford College and teaches Plant and Animal Resources of Africa and Techniques and Strategies of Wildlife Management at Africa University near Mutare, Zimbabwe.  Africa University is a private university affiliated with the United Methodist Church.  Its students come from 22 diverse countries throughout the continent.

Read along with an open mind.  Abercrombie’s words are in blue:

OF LIONS, SYLLABI, NEOCOLONIALISM, AND DEFERRED DENTAL SERVICES

I really like lions, especially the one that finally decided not to eat me some years ago near Vic Falls. Furthermore, I think that Cecil, a late, lamented resident of Hwange National Park, was a fine lion, a glorious lion if you like. I am saddened by the tasteless manner of his death. Heck, I’m so mad that if Walter James Palmer were my dentist, I might skip one or even two cleaning appointments.

male liono with kill

Not Cecil, but an injured older male lion photographed at a kill.  Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe 2013.  Being a wild lion is not for wussies.

I am also disturbed that Cecil’s death has dominated America’s Africa-headlines for days on end. During this same period, South Sudan has been descending into the

greater kudu

This graceful antelope, a greater kudu bull, is one of the most sought after hoofstock trophies in all of Africa. Hwange, Zimbabwe.

abyss of renewed civil war. Guinea has been racked by scary health-care catastrophes. And in east-central Congo, juvenile higher primates, of a species that y’all know very well, have died because proxy fighters for “developed” nations have sought the cheapest coltan to make for us the cheapest cell phones. Probably some truly wonderful things have also happened in Africa, but how would we know?

OK, I’m upset in general. But I’m also upset in particular because Cecil’s death & the furor surrounding it will affect my own life. In a few days Chrissy Hope and I shall depart for a semester in Zimbabwe. She’ll teach “Rural Development.” I’ll teach “Plant & Animal Resources of Africa” and “Techniques and Strategies of Wildlife Management.”

I have taught the Management course before. And I always spend a lot of time on trophy hunting. Of course I’ve never been a trophy hunter myself; I don’t have the money. But some people do, and I am thankful for that. Ecologically, trophy hunting is very low-impact. Properly managed, it is entirely sustainable. Justly administered, it provides revenue for local communities that are desperate for money.

And thus, when it’s done right, trophy hunting can be a powerful tool for conservation. The death of an elephant by Yankee gunfire can contribute $20,000 to a dirt-poor village. Then perhaps elephants will no longer be defined as five-ton rats that will destroy your maize-crop—and perhaps ivory poachers will be condemned as game-thieves rather than praised as agents of nuisance-animal control. Similarly, a trophy-hunt for a big male lion might generate > $30K; then perhaps a villager can tolerate the loss of the occasional cow and can teach her kids how to be very, very careful. Otherwise, well, poison is pretty darn cheap, and somebody will know how to use it.

female lion on a kill

A lioness enjoys dinner in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that trophy hunting in Zimbabwe always works super-well. Mr. Cecil’s death certainly proves that point! But before you propose a general condemnation of trophy hunting, please scan presentations by Zimbabwean, Namibian, and South African biologists at Plenary Meetings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Or read articles about lion and elephant

lion injured by cape buffalo

Note this lion was photographed at his pride’s kill. Being a wild lion is hard work. He is not bearing weight on his left rear leg, probably from an injury in bringing down the buffalo upon which he was feeding. Hwange, Zimbabwe.

management in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Or meditate on the conservation triumphs made possible by Teddy Roosevelt, the greatest trophy hunter of all time. Or, best of all, come to Zimbabwe and do some serious research. I guarantee that you’ll discover plenty of nastiness, complexity, inefficiency, cruelty, and injustice within the trophy-hunting enterprise. But if you keep your eyes and your mind open, you’ll also recognize some substantial successes—the schools, the clinics, the empowered communities, the changing attitudes about conservation.

buffalo and cattle egrets

A cape buffalo, one of the “Big Five” dangerous game trophies in Africa. Hwange, Zimbabwe.

In the end, of course, you might decide that you still want to oppose trophy hunting. But if you do, management biologists will challenge you to offer a just way immediately to infuse several million replacement-dollars into Zimbabwe’s economy. And if you can’t invent such a plan, then do an honest gut-check on which you like better: tawny-skinned lions or black-skinned people.

ADDITIONAL, PERSONAL NOTE: I do not enjoy killing anything, and therefore I am uncomfortable in supporting trophy hunting. Nevertheless, I am completely convinced that resource managers in developing nations should possess that option within their repertoire of potential conservation strategies. Alongside my students, I’ll think enthusiastically about how this might work. Furthermore, to tell the truth, I’ll be sympathetic when my students brand as neocolonialist certain American attempts to frustrate African-designed and CITES-approved wildlife management programs. And, yeah, you guessed it: for a whole bunch of reasons, Chrissy and I are nervous about this Zimbabwe-semester; we would appreciate your kind thoughts and even your generous prayers.

Grace and Peace, Ab.”

Ab and Chrissy

Drs. Chrissy Hope and Ab Abercrombie off to work at Africa University. Near Mutare, Zimbabwe.

From further speaking with Ab, I know that different African countries are applying varying plans in an attempt to balance wildlife and the revenues that wildlife-watching and legal, responsible safari hunting bring in.  For example, Rwanda charges trophy hunting level fees (Ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching!) for the privilege of watching mountain gorillas in the wild.  Botswana has ended trophy hunting and is experimenting with two different fee structures for wildlife-watchers (camera safaris), something akin to “first class” and “tourist” class.

Ab told me that he would hate to see Zimbabwe price middle-class tourists out of being able to go there and view wildlife.  As a middle-class American, I simply wish I was well-off enough to take a couple of weeks off and purchase a tourist class plane ticket to Zimbabwe!!!

Remember that you cannot generalize about Africa.  It is made of many diverse countries, each attempting to make its way into the 21st century.  It is my opinion that carefully managed wildlife-watching and trophy hunting are important tools to protect their precious resources and bring in revenue.  Sadly these nations also must fight the bushmeat trade, habitat loss and a level of poaching that is tantamount to organized crime in order to protect many game and non-game species.

It is noteworthy that in the United States, much of the revenue used to manage game and non-game species and their habitats is generated from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags and permits.  Hikers, campers, birdwatchers, etc do not have to purchase a license to view animals here. If you like seeing our native wildlife, thank a hunter.  Better yet, purchase a hunting and fishing license even if you do not intend to use it.

Thanks to my sister-in-law Sarah for the photos accompanying this blog.

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From my lungs to his…

…Breathing life into an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake

Crotalus adamanteus

Big Chief, male Eastern diamondback rattlesnake and king of the forest. Photo by Alex Bentley

Handling venomous snakes under anesthesia is never straightforward.  At any moment, an anesthetized snake–particularly during induction of anesthesia or during awakening from anesthesia–can experience enough arousal to snag you with his fangs.

It is my third Eastern diamondback rattlesnake this year, a vigorous 6.5 pounds male sporting a 9 inch circumference and at 66 inches total length, much longer than I am tall.  An impressive individual and a member of the largest species of venomous snake in North America, he is nonetheless fairly easy to handle.    His radio transmitter, thermal recording device and identifying pit tag are already sutured up tight inside his lower abdomen.  Biologist and field coordinator Mike Martin places the sleeping serpent back into his box and three biologists, a veterinary technician and I all walk around muttering, allowing the tension of having handled him before and during surgery to diffuse.

prepping the diamondback

Tension is evident in the faces of biologist Mike Martin and Kathi S. Craft, LVT.  These procedures always carry some risk to the handlers.

After a few minutes, we wander back to the snake’s box and observe him.  He is not waking up, not even a little bit.  This is not unusual; they can wake quickly or slowly.  But we all stare at him with his crazy pattern of diamonds long enough to decide he either isn’t breathing or at least isn’t breathing enough to be conducive to his well-being.

The three biologists rightly become nervous.  They’ve actually seen, assisted in or done many more of these procedures than I, a mere mortal veterinarian, have.  But it is my O.R., a sacred place where I command the bridge and seldom perform my job with an audience.  It is usually just me and one or two technicians.  But their concerns are buzzing in my ears like a swarm of bees.  And I am the one who has to make the call as to what must happen next.

applying glue to incision

The procedure is done, I have removed the drape, cleaned the patient of blood and I am applying a cyanoacrylate tissue adhesive to the incision.  Photo by Charles Smith

I go on autopilot, a place where I am directed by years and years of training and my emotions are checked at the door.  Come, go along with me.

Me:  Do you want me to entubate him?

Them:  It might be a good idea to give him a breath or two

Me:  OK, get him up on the table, head on this end.

Them:  Do you have a red rubber catheter? (a tube used to pass into the glottis of snakes)

Me:  I have a trach tube that will fit him.

Me, to my LVT:  Kathi, I need a tongue depressor.

Kathi, instantly at my side, is bearing a handful of tongue blades:  Right here, doctor.

rattlesnake mouth

Opening the mouth, it’s a tricky thing, whether you are doing it to tube feed the individual, as team leader Ab Abercrombie and I are doing with this one, or whether you are entubating it to assist breathing, as I did with “Chief” and Mike Martin.

Mike silently and carefully considers what he is about to do and then holds the snake’s head up off the table for me.  Then it is happening.  Holding it flat with my right hand, I insert the tongue depressor laterally between the patient’s mandible and maxilla and I turn the blade 90 degrees to open the mouth.  The fangs unhinge and drop down and I hear biologist-intern Alex in the background remarking on how big they might be.

I am not looking at the deadly fangs at all.  My focus is on the glottis–the tracheal opening–in the floor of the mouth just behind the front teeth.  Automatically, I use my left hand to insert the tip of the endotracheal tube and advance it slightly.  It is a snug fit, and I don’t need to put it far.  During this procedure, both of my hands are within two inches of the fangs.

Then it happens.  I lean forward, put my lips on the adapter end of the trach tube and generate a breath from my lungs into his, my face mere inches from his truly impressive fangs.  But I am not looking at the mouth or the fangs or the glottis.  I am looking beyond to watch my own breath expand his glorious body.

At the apex of the breath, I pause.  Air is neither leaving my lungs to go into his, nor is it leaving his lung to come back into mine.  For a second or two, we are one.

I release my lips and take the trach tube out of his glottis and observe a fractional spasm.

Then, perhaps a bit too bitchily, I say:  I think this is unnecessary.  He is getting body tone back.

I might add that I slept like a baby that night.

endotracheal tube

A 3 mm endotracheal tube is designed for cats, kittens and tiny dogs. It fit our patient perfectly, though the majority of snakes need much smaller and more specialized tube.  In a pinch, a red rubber catheter may be used in place of a designated tracheal tube.

 The patient began breathing well on his own right after my gift of breath.  He was rattling and tongue flicking in short order.  Because snakes have only one elongated lung and lack a diaphragm, sometimes they need a little help to jump start their respiration after a surgical procedure.

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DIY Camping Hot Shower

Ready for the camp out

Let’s go camping!

Every Spring, I attend a long weekend camping in the Hell Hole Bay area of the Francis Marion National Forest, which is a swampy area northwest of Charleston, South Carolina.

Twenty miles or so from the nearest decent-sized town, the area is not truly remote in a wilderness sense–there are paved roads that pass right by it.  But cell phone service is spotty to nonexistent.  There are few houses, no stores and what we call a campground is maybe an acre clearing in the pines.  There are two game poles, a cement picnic table and that’s it.  No electricity, no water, not even a trash receptacle.  And especially no showers.

Since we are there to catalog reptile and amphibian populations, watch birds, observe mammals and experience plant and animal communities, we get dirty.  We are in and out of our trucks and cars and in the brush and weeds as well as wading in swamp water.  Mosquitoes descend on us every time we step out of our cars and tents, so we are oily with insect repellent. Sometimes we walk through areas where the woods have been control-burned and we get sooty.  We sleep in sweltering conditions, and we answer the call of nature behind trees in the woods.

Getting down and dirty with a glass lizard

The reptile paparazzi surround an Eastern glass lizard during the Under a Low Country Moon Nature Interpretive weekend. Can you see how we’d get dirty?

We get stinky after a half-day, and positively rank after three.

When we started doing this in 2001, I was a good deal younger.  I had a hard-nosed edge to me and I endured being filthy a lot better.  Nowadays, I don’t like feeling all squishy-nasty-dirty.

For several years I attempted to solve this problem by using commercially available means.  But those cheapie discount store solar showers–the big black plastic bag that you let sit in the sun until the water heats up–mine broke the first time I tried to hoist it into a tree to use it.  An almost-acceptable means of staying clean are the camping moist towelettes which are glorified baby wipes.  They are better than nothing.

One year I just couldn’t take it any more so I went over to a small public beach access campground near Awendaw, paid their parking fee at their honor-system kiosk and went in.  I slipped into their bathhouse and furtively took a five minute shower.  I didn’t get caught, and it felt divine.

Began to use a spayer for showering, 2011

In May 2011, after ten years of being stinky and uncomfortable during the ULCM weekend, I field test the camp shower! This photo is my original one.

In 2010 I was sitting on the cement picnic table in camp feeling like a very. dirty. girl. when I was dumbstruck by an idea.  I could use a pump-up sprayer, the kind you use mix up insecticides, herbicides or other chemicals.  I didn’t get to try it until 2011, and it worked fantastically well!  Using a waterless shampoo and the sprayer, I could wash my hair and it felt like I had really washed it.  Miraculous.

But there’s a funny thing about sprayers.  Around a homestead, they tend to disappear.  Somebody will nab it to mix up chemicals or wash something with it, and next thing I know, I can’t find it, or if I find it, it is all stinky with chemical residue.

Now I want you to think of this as though I am saying “I got religion.”

New sprayer

I purchased a shiny new sprayer that even has a shoulder strap.

I got Pinterest, and my life will never be the same.

On Pinterest, I saw where sorority girls buy cheap coolers and paint them for special weekend events.  And they are awesome-looking creations by the time those girls are done with them.  Lord knows how good their grades could be if they put that much work into their studies.

And so I decided to decorate myself a sprayer for the annual camping trip.  Somehow, I don’t think these men with whom I live will make off with it now, as it’s almost girlie-looking.

Chalk paint can be used on almost any surface--plastic, wood, glass, metal--with minimal prep.

Chalk paint can be used on almost any surface–plastic, wood, glass, metal–with minimal prep.

First, I purchased a new sprayer and painted it with chalk paint.  Note, this is not chalkboard paint.  Chalk paint can be found at craft stores in a variety of colors.  It has a very, very flat finish and can be used on most surfaces–glass, metal, wood, plastic.  I painted my sprayer black to enhance its solar heating capability.  I even taped around the “how to use directions” on the back, lest I ever forget how to use it.

Next, I felt compelled to girlie it up so it’s easily identifiable as mine.  I have a Cafe Press account and most things in my “store,”  Herptacular and Then Some have motifs centered around the annual camp out.  So I ordered myself a big sticker that says Under a Low Country Moon and put the sticker on the front of the sprayer and lettered it as my “Hell Hole Hot Shower” with stick-on raised lettering that I bought at Micheal’s.  To seal everything in, I put several coats of Mod Podge, water-based sealer, glue & finish over the lettering.

This could also be used in hunting and fishing camps and by preppers/off gridders.  A one and a half-gallon sprayer is easy to use and because it isn’t dependent on gravity to work, it doesn’t have to be hoisted into a tree.

I’ll never be dirty again on the camping trip!

Under a Low Country Moon camp out shower

Voila! My solar shower for the camping weekend is da bomb!

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Cue the banjos if you will…

 “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” 

                                                           Norman Maclean

Enoree river up and muddy

Nolan in the Enoree River when she's up and muddy.

The last time I floated this river was about 27 years ago, when I was lithe and strong and filled with enthusiasm.  These days I am troubled by bad feet, hot flashes, night sweats and anxiety.  I hide myself behind hipster glasses, voluminous clothes and work.  I don’t go out—even to the grocery store—unless it is totally necessary or unless my destination is obscure or anonymous.  I can handle walking around downtown Beaufort.  The local Walmart terrifies me.

So I don’t know what possessed me to float the river yesterday.  Perhaps it was a sense of urgency that the lad will be going off to college in less than two months.  And perhaps it was shame that my husband bought two kayaks four years ago and we have never taken them on the water.  Then there was the nagging knowledge that without something to do, I would sit on my bed all day and read or peck around on my iPad.

The plan was thrown out hastily before the boy scooted out the door to church, “Hey, want to take the kayaks down the Enoree River today?”

Sure, why not? Nolan with kayaks

“I want the green one.” Nolan picks his kayak in 2010, not knowing he wouldn’t travel in it until 2014.

In this household, I am never exactly sure whether or not a plan is going to come together until it is actually being executed.  So I puttered around the kitchen with less than 50-50 odds of the kayaking outing becoming a reality.

When it became imminent that I was going to get in the truck and go float the river, I hastily tossed some almost-random things into a gallon Ziploc bag—K-Bar knife, bug spray, Kleenex, a half a 16 oz bottle of drinking water, a floating solar powered lantern, a couple of individual serving packs of trail mix and because no one should ever leave home without enough bags, I threw in extra Ziplocs.  You might need a few things in an emergency, and only two weeks ago there had been a major search on our benign little river for two boys lost on a cheap raft.

We, it turned out, were so poorly prepared for this maiden voyage that I had to turn around and drive back home to get our PFDs.

Joey canoeing

Portrait of Joey canoeing the Okefenokee swamp near Folkston, Georgia circa 1982. Joey used to be my Enoree canoeing partner.

The Enoree is a silty brown river, medium-sized, and in most places sluggish.  We launched down a vertical bank that was maybe 15 feet high, quite a challenge for this old fat woman.  Immediately we ran into a mess of downed trees low across the water that would become strainers after a hard rain.  If I was afraid of spiders, I would have not made it past the first 100 yards.

But the river opened up and I began to point out landmarks along the stretch south from Lanford Station towards the Highway 49 bridge, including a famous fishing hole on the right bank marked by a big rock.  My daddy had loved to fish this place.

Beaverdam Creek near Lanford Station

This may be my lifer bluegill. 1961 with my Daddy.

My son’s experience with rivers had always been high adventure up until now.  We’ve done the Nantahala several times.  The Black River in Georgetown county.  The National Outdoor Whitewater Center in Charlotte, which is intense.  The salt marshes at Murrell’s Inlet.  The Green River, nestled deep in a gorge in North Carolina.  And oh, yes, the Chattooga when he was fourteen.  I almost drowned, though from a simple fluke and not for being caught in something as dramatic as a hydraulic.  The experience was such that I have never wanted to go back.

I wanted Nolan to know there was virtue in this quiet river.

“Listen,” I said.

Him:  “What?”  Wondering, I guess, what bird song or frog call I was about to point out to him.

Me, “Nothing.  You can’t hear anything.  No traffic, no dogs barking, no chainsaws or heavy equipment.  Nothing.”

Pause.

“You’ve been on a few rivers, Nolan.  All crowded with other boats and rafts.  How does it feel to have the river all to yourself?”

“My daddy always says if there are not cars in the parking lot of a restaurant, it’s because the food sucks,” he said.

Learning to Kayak

Nolan casts from my kayak in 2009.

A good ways before the Highway 49 bridge, he began to ask the cliché child’s question.  Are we there yet?  I waved towards the left bank, the Spartanburg County side.  The land there is one of my brother Joey’s primo spots for birding and herping.

“There’s Joey’s river pasture.  It’s Sunday afternoon.  Maybe he is over there herping.” I said, joking.

We got a little silly and started hollering.  “Joey!  Joey!  Are you over there?”  We even went so far as phoning Joey but our connection was bad.

Then I got occupied with spotting softshell turtles and we rounded a bend in the river and the bridge came into view.

“Look, Mama!” Nolan said, pointing at the bridge,  “There goes Joey!  In his Buick!”

It couldn’t be, could it?  We phoned Joey again and this time the call went through.  He verified that he had indeed driven his Buick across the bridge seconds before.

How often, I wonder, do lives intersect in this manner?  What are the odds that we would be floating kayaks under the bridge just as my brother was driving over it?  How many cars cross that bridge on any given day?  Hundreds.  How many kayaks go under it?  Very few.  The fact that our paths crossed, we recognized it and we were able to communicate with each other instantly is mind-numbing.

 

The River of Muscadines

Old bridge abutments on the Enoree River near Musgrove Mill

Below the Highway 49 bridge is the set of rocky rapids that are sometimes fun.  Not on this excursion.  The water was low.  We spent more time pushing off rocks and dragging our kayaks as we did surging over tiny sections of whitewater.  Our new kayak’s seats were horrible, with zero back support.  If you set your feet against the footrests and tried to push off the bottom with your paddle, there was not enough seat for you to do anything but flop backwards onto nothingness.  Every muscle in my body screamed in protest.  And let me tell you this—if a fat woman wearing a life jacket falls out of the kayak onto her back on the rocks, she is more or less stuck there like a box turtle until someone helps her roll over.

Past the rocky stretch, the river returned to its normal taciturn character.  Silent and slow.

Nolan at Sands Beach, Port Royal, SC

Nolan checks out the beach at Port Royal, SC, where we saw my South Carolina "lifer" bald eagle.

We watched the usual species—great blue herons, little green herons, wood ducks, kingfishers and red-tailed hawks.  For excitement, a goldfinch.  We passed sand bars cris-crossed with the tracks of nesting turtles.  We endured a brief stint of traffic noise while floating under I-26, and encountered an isolated rapid that Nolan went into sideways where he rolled his kayak.

He was grouchy, and the trip seemed to be taking far longer than the two hours I thought I remembered.  I was surrounded by water and yet horribly thirsty. Our moods plummeted. I somehow drew ahead of him, as he was not able to get all of the water out of his kayak after his last spill.

I noticed he was missing and turned to face upriver just downstream of a fun-but-tiny rapid.  I was about to paddle upstream looking for him, but at last I saw the movement of his paddle and then his green kayak came into view.  I enjoyed the rhythm of his paddle strokes, my mind a blank, my back temporarily comfortable.

It caught me by surprise, just over his head, circling out over the river.  A large dark bird with an unmistakable blazing white head and tail, flying so easily that it looked…casual.  I threw back my head and laughed, keeping my face towards the sky to watch for a re-run while I waited for Nolan.  I considered that perhaps he fell behind because he was watching this eagle.

He drew even with me and passed me in stony silence.  I turned the boat back downstream and stroked to catch up.

“Did you see it?” I said.Bald eagle

Nothing.

“Nolan.  Did you see it?”

Nothing.

“Nolan!  Did. You. See. It?”

He finally spoke, “What?”

“The eagle,” I said.  “Did you see the eagle?”

He raised his arm and pointed downstream.  “You mean that eagle?”

Sure enough, the bald eagle was perched on the Laurens County side and flew out over the river.  The white of its tail was blinding.  I broke out in cold chills and my eyes began to tear up.

Bald eagles belong to a subgroup of eagles called sea eagles.  They are seldom seen far from really big bodies of water.  In fact, breeding pairs prefer bodies of water greater than 7 miles in circumference.

Sightings away from large lakes, estuaries and oceans are rare.  They eat mainly fish, with a smattering of other birds, rabbits, rodents and possibly bigger mammals such as raccoons and baby deer.  They also eat carrion.

Birders and herpers call new-to-them species “lifers.”  The first Southern hognose snake of your life.  The first prothonotary warbler sighting of your life.  Your first-ever glimpse of a roadrunner or a smooth green snake or spotted turtle.

Joey Holmes with his lifer Heterodon simus

Joey with his lifer Heterodon simus, Southern hognose snake

This Enoree eagle is not my true lifer.

I saw an eagle in the Florida Everglades in 1980. And while I’ve kept my eyes peeled for an eagle in South Carolina for 55 years, I had never seen one until two weeks ago.  Venturing onto Sands Beach in Port Royal, I gazed out over the salt marsh and spied a bald eagle on a man-made nest platform.  Again, Nolan was my sidekick.

The boy has a knack for seeing eagles.  He saw his first at the age of 13, fishing Lake Murray with his dad, and has seen them on two different occasions less than a mile from our house.

Nolan can call the Lake Murray eagle his lifer, and the Enoree River eagle his fifth.  For a birder my age, it is not that simple.  The Everglades eagle, it is my lifer.  The Port Royal bird, my home state lifer.  But this Enoree River eagle is the lifer of my soul.  My stomping grounds.  My Upstate.  My heart’s river.

 

The lad and I finally rounded a bend near the Musgrove Mill Revolutionary War Battlefield to see a cluster of people, adults and small children fishing from a sandbar and teen lovers bobbing in the water.  We passed close to two encampments and were excitedly greeted by country folk—men clamoring towards us, all with the same question, “Hey!  Where’d y’all put in at?”

Cue the banjos if you will.  Open the pages of Norman Maclean if you prefer.

Scraped, bruised, sunburned, tired and thirsty, we pulled our kayaks toward the bank near the concrete pylons of a bygone bridge to the stares of more recreational waders and splashers.  I was so feeble at that point that I washed through the final rapids, dragged behind my empty kayak, too wiped out to curse the slippery rocks upon which I kept falling.  A float I thought I remembered taking two hours ended up being a five hour adventure, and I was shocked when Joey informed me it was ten miles.

Ten miles for an eagle?  Totally worth it.

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Herping the Light Fantastic

 I just returned from a trip to the sky islands, isolated mountain ranges near the junction of Arizona, New Mexico and Sonora, a magic high-altitude oasis that offers world class-birding and some of the most amazing biodiversity of herpetofauna to be found.

At times I felt simply overwhelmed as I attempted to add birds and reptiles to my life list, literally not knowing whether I wanted to look up…or down.

lizard

My first Arizona herp, a plateau lizard hand-caught at the Southwestern Research Station near Portal, Arizona. A lifer.

For those of you who are not familiar with “herping” as an activity, it is similar to bird watching, aka birding.  Birders try to spot different species of birds and add them to their life list.  It is an established fact that birding field guides have a checklist in the back to this very purpose.

In herping, you are seeking to find, view, catch, photograph and then release all manner of reptiles—lizards, snakes, turtles and crocodilians and amphibians—frogs, toads and salamanders.  The individuals who participate in herping are called herpers.  The sighting of a new species is considered a “lifer,” the same as it is with birding.

This is where all similarities come to a crashing end.

Sky Islands

The Chiricahuas--sky islands--a Mecca for Birders and Herpers alike

Birders can often be found slathered with SPF-50 sunscreen and wearing their matching khaki field clothes and Tilley hats with uber-expensive binoculars secured to their chests by straps to make bearing them more, er, bearable.  They sometimes carry ridiculously long-lensed cameras on tripods, and their soft twittering voices remind you of, well, birds. 

The birder’s natural habitat includes boardwalks and nature trails.  Their preferred diet seems to be granola bars, seeds, nuts, berries and expensive bottled water.  They tippy-toe.  They titter.  And they are as pale as albinos.

Mojave rattlesnake

A venomous Mojave rattlesnake being photographed by herpers, all of whom hold at least one doctorate. Cowboys, all.

By contrast, herpers are cowboys, clad in all manner of tee shirts and jeans.   Some don snake chaps, but many simply wear sneakers.  They also strap headlamps to their baseball-style caps and carry snake hooks and tongs.  And remember this: heaven forbid that you ever mess up and call a pillowcase a pillowcase.  It is a snake bag or capture bag.

Their natural habitat—swamps, deserts, fields and forests.  A favored activity is cruising up and down roads that transect these locations.  Driving long distances at 20 mph, they can suffer from road hypnosis with their eyes glazed over in spot-a-snake mode.   If somebody yells “Snake!” (whether or not there is one) the herper will jump out of the vehicle and run around in little circles, cursing.

Tin at the Southwestern Research Station in the Coronado National Forest, Portal, New Mexico.

Herpers often flip tin looking for reptiles that use it as a "hide." Finding tin is like finding hidden gold. Near Portal, Arizona in the Coronado National Forest.

To get going in the morning, herpers might have to swig coffee and prop their eyelids open with toothpicks after long nights of road cruising, and they guzzle colas during the day to stay sharp.  And as their evening of road cruising winds down, out come all manner of alcoholic beverages.  Beer, by and large, is the preferred one, though the brand trends from year to year, as some of us are quite the afficionado.

Preferred foods include a wide variety of the bad-for-you:  jerky, pickled eggs, red sausages, chips, barbeque, hot dogs.  And sometimes, in the middle of a slow day, a herper just might sneak away for an ice cream cone.

While birders seem polite, orderly, refined and quite knowledgeable about bird calls, herpers are people of a rich and varied vocabulary.  Most know the Latin binomials for all of the species they could possibly encounter, and they know the vocalizations of the frogs and toads in their area.  They can go on and on, ad nauseum about the habitat requirements of the various herp species, and they certainly can cuss a blue streak.

Herpers checking out a glass lizard

A glass lizard poses for the paparrazi. Can you tell which ones are birders and which ones are herpers?

A birder may just tippy-toe off a trail to have a little peep at a swallow-tailed whatchmacallit, but a herper will plunge headfirst into a ditch in order to grab a retreating Lampropeltis. Sunburn, skinned knees, ant bites, groin rashes and cactus spines are de rigeur for a field herper.  In fact, coming home without such badges of bravery just might expose one as a weakling, subject to ridicule. 

Baby bird

Photo of a black-throated gray warbler fledgeling, taken by a herper with ridiculously tiny camera who happened to observe it being fed by its mother at very close range!

Return home with leeches and abrasions and you will be long-celebrated as a hero.  Pick cactus spines out of your behind for six years and are a legend.

Birders observe.  Herpers touch.  Birders enjoy decorum.  Herpers are anarchists.  Birders are tidy. Herpers surrender to entropy.

Birder=alt-folk, pop, jazz.  Herper=heavy metal, country, blues.

Birder=butterflies and rainbows.  Herper=ground-in dirt and black soot from a recent burn.

Stay tuned for my next blog with actual herping adventure in the desert Southwest!

Spider

A tarantula assumes a defensive posture while being admired by herpers near Portal, Arizona.

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Angles and Apertures: A Photo Essay of the Carolina Winter

An old baptismal pool's angular wall contrasts with the free-form flow of the spring behind it. The baptistry once was used by Beaverdam Baptist Church, the oldest brick church in Laurens County. Bricks for the construction of the church were made on-site.

Piles of cow patties highlighted against an overgrazed and muddy pasture have always defined late winter in South Carolina for me.  Like a city street photographed in black and white, there is a certain bare grittiness about it.  The pale tan of the pasture.  The dark brown of the muck where cattle push and shove for access to the hay.  The black piles of manure scattered randomly among it all.

skull of a Procyon lotor

The skull of a raccoon rests on the leaf litter

It paints a picture of a struggle for life against all that is cold and wet and meager.

Stark is the perfect word for a Carolina winter.   The very opposite of lush, it is represented by angular light that reflects off bare limbs and trunks.  There are no canopies of green leaves to diffuse the light.  It bounces off of the trees like they are pewter mirrors, dull and spare.

A fallen tree leads the eye to an opening into what you could imagine is another dimension.

I find winter a great time to walk in the woods, scouting for the upcoming turkey season or even next fall’s deer season.  I can see a long way.  Without leaves to interrupt the view, things the next ridge over define themselves. My eyes are drawn to foci that are different—an abandoned fox’s den dug into an embankment, the way a vein of boulders seem to rise from the soil in an organized fashion, the skeleton of a raccoon.  A turkey feather, splotches of owl manure like white paint on brown leaves, water seeping from rocks and the back of an old boat cushion all catch my attention.

Winter, you see, presents itself as a study of light and dark, texture, angles and apertures.

Yet among the hollows, bones and various scattered human artifacts, there lurks the promise of life.

An invasive plant, nonetheless the Eurasian water milfoil brightens up the stark March landscape.

Shoots of new growth rest just beneath the surface, and here and there they push through the leaves. Buds sit on tree limbs, ready to burst themselves open when the time is nigh.  I see things to come in the brilliant green of the invasive milfoil and in the humble yellow of a dandelion blossom.

Come, go on this walk with me.

A study in texture, a dead dogwood trunk lies partway across a path.

Breaking bleak--late winter's harbinger of spring, the dandelion.

whitetailed deer anters nailed to a barn

Stark against weathered barn wood, the bleached bone of these antlers somehow emphasizes that it is still winter.

a hole in a living tree forms aperature

A hole in a living tree forms a lens-like aperture--almost as though you could step through the looking glass.

a vine clings to an old house

A woody vine sinks its fingers into the wood of an old house.

fungi on a log

Curled edges of lacy white fungi punctuate the dark trunk of a fallen tree.

Moss on rock--vegetable meets mineral

A series of boulders on the south side of the creek look as though a giant stonemason cleaved them and left his project unfinished.

a deadfall tree with a hollow center

Aperture--a hollow tree

a series of boulders

Out of place in the Piedmont landscape, a series of boulders descend a steep hillside to the stream below

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Jewels of the Carolina Winter

Ambystoma maculatum

Two spotted salamanders dancing cheek-to-cheek

It is March, cold and muddy, just like a South Carolina upstate winter should be.  Our pickup slips and slides in the mud along the river of muscadines but Joey Holmes finesses the two track and we don’t have to engage the four-wheel drive.  There’s a hint of mystery and excitement.   Joey’s wife’s cousin Leon Cook is here from Maine, and we are on our way to find some spotted salamanders!

Chances are you could live your life in the upstate of South Carolina and never see the official State Amphibian, Ambystoma maculatum.  These hidden jewels spend their lives underground in wooded areas.  This is oversimplifying things a bit.  They have rather specific habitat requirements.

Vernal pool that hosts breeding salmanders

This inauspicious upstate pasture hosts the party of the year for the official State Amphibian of South Carolina.

We run a gauntlet of cattle gates with Leon as gate man before Joey parks the truck beside some open flooded timber.  Quickly Leon and I gather binoculars, cameras, tripods and cell phones while Joey arms himself with a potato rake for turning over muddy logs.  He strides towards the first log with purpose while I whisper to Leon that Joey is like a salamander savant.

“He knows which logs they are under and he turns them in a specific order.”

We work through this temporary wetland with Joey turning over semi-rotten logs adjacent to the water while Leon and I wait for the salamanders.  We are not rewarded instantly, but have to work for our prizes.

Winter is the salamander’s mating season.  The spotteds work their way down from the forest and hide under logs near temporary wetlands called vernal pools.  These pools are filled with winter rainwater now but dry up during the summer, so they contain no fish.  This makes them ideal for the salamanders, because there are no fish to eat their jellylike egg clutches.

Abystoma maculatum pair

Freshly baptized by Joey, these two spotted salamanders pose for their glamour shots

During this time, the salamanders can be found under logs as they wait to deposit their eggs in the nearby water.  Once mating season is over, the spotteds will retreat to their underground home in the forest, where they eat worms and insect larvae.

Ambystoma maculatum, cranium

You can see my self-portrait reflected in this salamander's shiny head.

Joey has herped these vernal pools for well over twenty years.  We are soon rewarded with quite a find—two robust and beautiful spotted salamanders practically cheek-to-cheek under one log.  Leon and I photograph them in situ, experimenting with flash and camera settings, before Joey takes the salamanders out and places them on top of the log for more photos.

Their little bodies, about seven inches long, feel as cold as ice and surprisingly dry, with bits of rotten wood and dirt sticking to them.  The ambient temperature is about 42 degrees.  Joey takes a bottle of water from his pocket that is easily twenty degrees warmer than the salamanders and washes them off for the photos.  In spite of its relative warmth, you can practically see the spots gasp as he douses them.

Ambystoma maculatum

Plump female in situ

We find a total of four spotted salamanders.  One is ridiculously fat, and Joey says, “This fat girl hasn’t let go of her eggs yet.”

Leon and I remark on the texture and temperature of the spotteds.  They are cool and dry, and with their fabulous spots, they seem like jewels of the Carolina winter.  I can’t imagine why everybody isn’t out wearing rubber boots, looking for them with a potato rake.

“Hmmrhh,” Joey rumbles.  “Some herpetologists call them gummi lizards.”

I can’t help but laugh at this.  They do look and feel like gummi bears.

Joey keeps careful records, and knows the salamanders by their spot pattern.  They have a dark brown to black background color with two lines of offset yellow spots along their top line.  Near the head, the spots may be orange or almost red.  I marvel that he can tell them apart by their patterns.  But in real life, he has a little help from his meticulous record-keeping.  He takes photos he will later compare to past photos to see if he has ever found these individuals before.

Ambystoma maculatum

"Gummi lizard"

Spotted salamanders share this wetland with a similar species, marbled salamanders.  I tell him I hope we can find some marbled and he gestures with the potato rake and says, “They’re more likely to be over there.”

“Why?” asks Leon.  “Do they have a different habitat that the spotted?”

Ambystoma maculaum

A rare chance to hold one of these treasures

“No,” Joey concedes.  “They seem to be the same.  But they like it over there, perhaps for reasons known only to themselves.”

We don’t locate any marbled salamanders on this trip, but all four of these spotted gems turn out to be new-to-Joey.  Fair enough for a cold March 1 in the Upstate, herping in winter.

 

All salamanders are documented and released unharmed after their glamour shots.

Upon comparing photos of these salamanders, Joey says he has found eleven new-to-him spotted salamanders this season.

I will add these individuals to my list of “Spottings” (no pun intended) on my www.projectnoah.org.

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Cataloochee. Another NABventure in the Can…

September was slipping away, and with it, our opportunity to visit the Great Smokey Mountains National Park without having to drive an armored vehicle and wear shoulder pads.   October brings out an army of leaf peepers hell bent on seeing the prettiest fall colors ever.

Elk in meadow at Cataloochee

Lone bull in meadow at Cataloochee, NC

And so it came to be that I tiptoed up to my son’s room and disrupted his slumber at five o’clock.  I beckoned him to come downstairs and shower quietly to avoid waking his father.

By 5:35 a.m., Nolan and I hit the road for our latest NABventure.

Another NABventure

Nolan demonstrates that every NABventure has a jumping off point

Way back when his father and I were going through potential baby names, we were mindful of any acronyms the child’s initials might spell.  We hit upon his name and noted—to our delight—that his initials spelled out NAB.  For the uninitiated, “nabs” are what country Southerners call the little cheese and peanut butter Lance crackers that come in packages of six.  Simple working folk in the South don’t take coffee breaks.  They break for a coke-a-cola and a pack of nabs.

So when the lad and I head out for parts unknown, we call it a NABventure.  Sometimes, little cheese crackers are actually involved.

Our destination in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park was the Cataloochee Valley. The reason for our trip there is that elk have been reintroduced into the park.  Before European settlers came, elk were native to most of the country.  But the last elk in the Smokies were extirpated in the mid-1800’s.  The Eastern elk subspecies is extinct.   The initiative to restore elk to the Smokies took flight in 2001 with a handful of animals brought from the Land Between the Lakes herd and was supplemented by Canadian imports the following year.

If you look at a map, Cataloochee is right off I-40 just beyond Waynesville, North Carolina, and quite close to the popular tourist destination of Maggie Valley.  It appears that it would be easy to get there.

Uh, not!

We made exit 40 at 7:30 a.m., came off the exit ramp and almost immediately found our right turn marked by signs.  And we proceeded on a vertical journey that soon left even

iPhone panoramic view

The iPhone with new iOs 6.0 will take panoramic views

pavement behind.   I squinted at the screen of my iPhone and read directions aloud, “Stay to the Right (at one point, the road will “Y”) Road becomes gravel, and very narrow…proceed UP mountain with caution.  After reaching summit, proceed down same gravel/narrow road.  At the base of the mountain, road bears to the left and becomes paved again.”

I am mortally afraid of twisting turning mountain roads and high bridges.  I’m not talking a little bit scared.  I’m talking lie down in the seats.  I’m talking places where I will get out of the car and walk rather than be inside a vehicle negotiating certain tight spots.  I’m talking medications are really needed.

Farmhouse in the Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley Farmhouse

This did not go well.  That part of the journey is 10 miles long.  The dirt road is one lane.  There are no guardrails.  A sixteen year old male was driving.  I was beside myself, digging my nails into the armrest and pressing my right foot through the floorboard.

There is no telling how many times I begged “Slow down!” or beseeched the deity I worship to help me.  Near the summit, my prayers were heard and I was helped by scads of chipmunks in the road.  I would holler “LORD!” with one breath and “Oh, look at the cute little chipmunk!” with my next breath.   Chipmunks, you see, were present in unprecedented numbers and they are some really pretty little squirrels.  They were a welcome distraction.

Amazingly, the road is paved in the valley.  It’s a mystery as to how they got heavy equipment in there to pave it.  I wanted to stop, get out and kiss the pavement, and I vowed to never return.  At least not without Xanax.

Cataoochee valley barn

Barn

Just past the ranger house and the small campground, the Cataloochee Valley opens up into a series of broad meadows.  Nolan focused on the wild turkeys, which were everywhere, but I immediately spied a bedded bull in the field, a nice 6×6.  We passed a man walking a well-behaved golden retriever and I spotted a herd of elk in the field on our left where perhaps a half dozen cars had pulled off the road and parked.

In the chill mountain air, several people were photographing a bull and his harem of cows with cameras that I’m sure cost more than some cars.  There were guys with lenses over two feet long and as big around as my thigh.  I got out my binoculars and fleece pullover to the music of bulls bugling up and down the valley and Nolan whipped out his iPhone and began taking pictures.

People with cameras and elk

Elk paparazzi seeking that perfect shot

I had neglected to bring my tripod and a charged battery for my camera, so we were stuck with our iPhones.  Compared to the serious photographers with their obscenely outfitted cameras, we felt a little like David facing Goliath.

Some of the elk wore radio collars and ear tags, but the herd bull was a splendidly naked 7×7.  He guarded his harem and bugled back when a challenging bugle came from up the valley.  The animals were very close.  Cows and calves feeding to our left brought them ever closer to the line of tripods and cameras.

Dominant bull elk

The splendidly naked herd bull. Photo courtesy of Nolan Burns, taken with this "Redneck Zoom Lens."

Calf nursing his mother

A calf nurses, oblivious to the excitement. Taken with our "redneck zoom lens."

A cow elk is not a tiny little deer.  But a bull is enormous.  Much taller than my horse and armed with about a hundred pounds of sharp headgear, he is a testosterone-charged monster all but bellowing smoke.  As his harem came closer to the cars and photographers and the dog walker came back up the valley, the bull became somewhat nervous.

He began running at the cows and circling the harem, keeping between the cows and the line of paparazzi.  There are park rules against using elk calls and rules about how close you can get to the elk.  The elk were oblivious to the 50 yard limit. Through no fault of their own, many of the onlookers and photographers became too close.  The bull trotted towards the road.  The closest guy folded his tripod and beat a retreat.

Nolan scooted behind the truck.

The dominant bull gives chase to a radio-collared cow

Our Redneck Zoom Lens captures love in the the air

He is always openly skeptical about each NABventure.  In fact, sometimes I don’t let on that we are actually on a NABventure until we are in the truck and halfway there. Earlier this year I sneaked in visits to a Revolutionary War battlefield and the Sumter National Forest.  Just tell him that he gets to drive and he will get into the truck.

On this outing, Nolan seized the day and saved the day.

“Mama, give me your binoculars,” he said.

Nolan’s idea worked.  He stuck his iPhone’s lens up to the binocular lens and began to photograph the elk through the binoculars.  A similar attempt of mine failed a few days before, when I tried my iPhone against my microscope lens at work.   But he was able to get some decent shots with his “Redneck Zoom Lens.”

Belting out a bugle

Herd bull sounds off. The bull elk's loud whistles are called "bugles."

Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States.  In spite of the Appalachians being right in the backyard of most people in the Eastern U.S., they are rugged mountains, nearly vertical.  I’ve visited and hunted elk, deer and turkeys out West.  Many take the Rocky Mountains seriously and take the Smokies for granted.  People, these are some serious mountains.  Don’t take them for granted because they happen to be in your backyard. 

Cataloochee take home points:

  • It’s really hard to get there!  Take everything you think you will need, including nerve pills for the drive in.
  • No fee to get in the park.
  • There is no visitor’s center or store of any kind.
  • There is a public bathroom which is handicapped-accessible but it does not have running water, electricity, climate-control or a baby changing station. There is a dispenser of hand sanitizer.
  • There are old buildings from before the park service bought the land—barns, a school, a house, a church.  You can and should go in them!  They are our heritage.
  • There are hiking trails but you can see the elk quite well from your vehicle or side of the road.
  • Elk are most active 2 hours after sunrise and 2 hours before sunset.
  • The park is most crowded during the summer and during the month of October.
  • The elk rut is in September-October.  Bulls are bugling and mating is occurring then.  Ideal times to see rutting activity and without having to fight crowds would be mid- to late-September.
Subordinate bull with radio collar

Subordinate bulls are often referred to as satellite bulls

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Editing the Bucket List

Nolan at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park, 2011

I worked on my bucket list a little bit this morning.  Its changes over the past six or so years reflect little accomplishment and a lot of mellowing out.  The thing about a list, you see, is that it is ever changing.

  • See my son graduate; live long enough to be a grandmother
  • Go trekking in the Himalayas Mongolia!!!!  Sleep in a yurt, ride those little horses and drink fermented mare’s milk
  • Remember my father every single day of my life and appreciate my mother every single day.
  • Ride a horse across some Godforsaken Western landscape…alone Teach my son to ride a horse; he can fish, shoot, hunt and play guitar.  Learning to ride is the only essential life-skill I think he should have that he has yet to master.
  • Raft the Snake River in Idaho Finish rafting the rest of the Chattooga after almost drowning there last year.
  • Fly over Alaska in a tiny little plane and then set it down somewhere to hunt moose  I’d settle for killing a really big whitetail
  • See a black bear in the wild  (in South Carolina)
  • Bungee jump—Well I did a bungee tower, not quite as high as a bungee jump, but close
  • Take my son and husband to the Outer Banks.
  • Read all the classic (again) from Beowulf to Jayne Eyre to Silas Marner to The Sun Also Rises to The World According to Garp
  • Run a marathon Not so important anymore.  I do want to do more triathlons, maybe up to Olympic Distance.
  • See Hamlet in an off-off Broadway play or college theater group; See Godspell again
  • Learn to scuba dive What was I thinking!?!
  • Go to a cooking school
  • Catch a rattlesnake Accomplished May 2009.  Pin and pick up a venomous snake with my hands Accomplished May 2010.  Catch an alligator (again)
  • Visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras; have coffee and beignets at the Café du Monde
  • Hang my clothes on a clothesline again, on  a regular basis.
  • Work a humanitarian mission, mission trip or field research project in a Third World nation
  • Deliver a calf again
  • Go to a tent revival and really get in the Spirit
  • Go to the Super Bowl!
  • Nude beach?  No, private beach, nude
  • Remember hearing my grandmother giggle
  • Have a really great garden again ; freeze and can things for winter
  • Finally see an Ivory-billed woodpecker  Should I can this?  I’ve made two attempts already that did not go well!!??
  • Take my son to Disney World Accomplished April 2011
  • Go to an Irish Pub and close the thing down, singing too loud
  • Learn to do basic carpentry, and minor to moderate home repair—or learn to sew, which is basically carpentry with cloth
  • Attend La Tomitina, that tomato-throwing festival in Spain
  • Run the Peachtree Road Race again  Set to do this a week from tomorrow.  Pray that I finish!
  • Walk through a street market in a Third World Country and not worry about what (or who) I am eating
  • See a Jimmy Buffett concert again with friends and family
  • Go to the Kentucky Derby  wear an outrageous hat and drink mint juleps
  • Finally get one of my book manuscripts published; I have  five languishing in drawers
  • Spend a month in Mexico, immersion-learning the language
  • Tour Switzerland with my mother (her ancestors came from there) Not looking too likely; her health is not great
  • Take my family on a tour of the American West—Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone.   I hear the Grand Canyon is nice.
  • A day at work where EVERYTHING goes right
  • Watch or re-watch all the movies that won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Well, maybe not all of them; gotta figure some are boring.
  • And my ultimate:  hitch-hike, take a train, walk, ride a horse, sail, etc, etc, from here to Tierra del Fuego Paddle my kayak across the Okefenokee Swamp and ride my bicycle back (accomplishing my first “Century” on the bike and so much more!)

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A Wednesday in September

"The River of Muscadines"

Enoree River -- the river of muscadines

Wednesday promised to be an aggravating day for me.  The afternoon schedule include my annual eye exam and then a dental appointment.  I knew that before it was over, my pupils would be dilated, blurring my vision and increasing my sensitivity to light for several hours.  And I knew that my mouth would be numbed and drilled on. 

Simply, ugh.

Yet it was warm (not hot!), sunny and calm, a glorious September morning.  I decided to go to the river. 

My family’s ancestral stomping grounds–both the paternal and maternal sides–run along the Enoree River from the vicinity of Youngs community down through Enoree and Lanford Station, ending up near Cross Anchor and Horseshoe Falls.  Sometimes it calls to me like a siren’s song.

I went to the falls first and had them all to myself.  Wearing a skirt and flip flops, I walked the path down to the creek, ditched the flops and waded into the water.  Minnows scattered before me  in the clear water around my feet.  I hitched my skirt up around my thighs with my left hand and balanced the camera and truck keys in my right and photographed the falls from several angles. 

Horseshoe Falls

Images played in my mind–flickering, jerky home movies of my mama and daddy.  Mama with a picnic spread on a quilt, the Skotch cooler full of sandwiches and cold drinks.  My little brother Joey, maybe a year old,  playing on the rocks.  Jeff, also still a toddler, standing still for once, mesmerized while my daddy took a stick and dipped up a water snake that he had just killed with his pistol.  The snake was limp and kept sliding off into the water.  Daddy, young and slim,  had his pistol in one hand and the stick in the other. 

Next I drove down the road to the Enoree.  In childhood, this short drive was sullied by litter, a dumping grounds for household garbage, old television sets with shattered picture tubes, cans and broken bottles.  Now it is prisine.  There is a small but tidy parking area with a sign that marks the way to put in kayaks and that gives a brief history of the area’s Revolutionary War significance. 

Again, I waded into the river, clear water rushing under my feet.  My  eyes are peeled for snakes and, unlike my daddy, I am not packing a revolver.  Just my camera.  Snakes, I  love ’em. 

Purple Muscadines

After this I made a quick trip up I-26 to the farm store at Live Oak Farms, where I purchased an organic blue corn taco kit, a pound of butter made locally from Upstate cows and a hunk of local white cheddar with green olives in it.  I enquired about muscadines for my jelly-making enterprise.  She didn’t have any, but soon I was on my way to a small farm between Cross Anchor and Pauline where the owner and I picked three gallons in 15 minutes working in the warm September sunshine, careful around a host of lazy bumblebees.

That night, with the whole left side of my face numb and my eyes dialated, I made bronze scuppernong jelly, gloriously golden. 

When all is said and done, I will have made bronze scuppernong and purple muscadine jelly, peach and pear jam, all from fruit grown within a 30 mile radius of my home.  Why go to all the trouble when I can buy all the jam and jelly I want from the supermarket?   Like my trip to the river, it connects me to the earth, to family, to my past and that of my ancestors.

Purple Muscadine and Bronze Scuppernong Jelly

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