Cypress Cities

Visit the only bald cypress blackwater swamp habitat in Wake County and you will feel like you’ve stepped back through the ages.

~from Robertson Millpond Preserve brochure, Wake County Parks and Recreation

I finally had a weekend “off” and was able to join Melissa and Megan on a Museum educator workshop, Find Your Muse on the Millpond. It was a collaboration with the 2017 Piedmont Poet Laureate, Mimi Herman, with a focus on experiencing nature and writing poetry in a beautiful setting, Robertson Millpond Preserve. The millpond was created in the 1820’s to run a grist mill that stayed in operation for over a hundred years. Though the mill was demolished in the 1970’s. the dam remains intact. It was built on Buffalo Creek, so named for herds of bison that once roamed the area. Wake County purchased the millpond and some surrounding land (85 acres total) in 2013 for a nature preserve due to its unique flora – it is the only bald cypress habitat in Wake County and is more similar in species composition to a Coastal Plain habitat than one in the Piedmont.
Cypress trees

Robertson Millpond with fall colors tinting the swamp in reddish brown bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) needles (click photos to enlarge)

If you know us, you know that Melissa is the poet in the family, not me. But I thought this would be an opportunity to take some time and try to write, and, hopefully, get some tips on the craft. And it certainly is a beautiful place, so what’s to lose??

group on millpond

Part of the group of educators on the workshop at the millpond

It was a hearty group of folks that assembled Saturday afternoon, ready to paddle into the swamp on what turned out to be a very brisk day (highs only in the 40’s). The marked paddle trail winds through the cypress trees for a little over a mile, with a nice change of view from sections of narrow, twisting trail, to small openings or “rooms” in the otherwise heavily forested swamp. I had helped Melissa lay out some signage in the swamp for use during the workshop before everyone arrived and was struck by the diversity of plants growing on the small cypress islands.

cypress trees 1

The swamp consists of numerous cypress islands, most with one or two bald cypress trees and a host of shrubs and herbaceous plants underneath

As our line of kayaks snaked through the swamp, I enjoyed the fact that I was a participant, not in charge. It gave me time to observe and help others as they pondered some natural history mysteries.

wheelbug egg mass

A beautiful egg mass of a wheel bug provided a nice surprise on one alder trunk

We paired up at one point and took some time to observe the communities on several cypress islands. One team found a fascinating mini-sculpture of a wheel bug egg mass.

cypress flower midge gall

Cypress flower midge galls

Something else we saw as we examined the tangle of life on the islands were hundreds of tiny whitish, vase-shaped structures scattered among they fallen cypress needles. At first glance, they resemble a tiny fungus, but they are actually caused by the larvae of a gall midge fly classified as Taxodiomyia cupressi. Galls are formed in response to chemicals injected by the adults at the time of egg laying, or produced by the developing larvae and are characteristic shapes on specific areas of certain plants. Each type of gall insect creates a unique structure on a particular species it favors. It would be like living in our refrigerator – a nice, relatively safe home, with plenty to eat.

journaling in kayaks, Roberston Millpond Preserve

Writing our poems with the darkening sky reflected in the blackwater swamp of Robertson Millpond Preserve

After paddling, stopping, observing, and writing for a few hours, I finally came up with a poem. Mimi instructs her students to not have any disclaimers about your poetry (this isn’t very good, I am not that pleased with it, I’m not really a poet, etc.), so I’ll leave all that off (sort of)…here goes:

Cypress Cities

Paddling on this glassy highway, through a city of islands

Taxodium towers, gray-trunked skyscrapers

Sentinels, watching over their tangle of tenants

Crowded storefronts with strange names, hawking their winter wares.

Dodder has braided bracelets.

Alder, catkins and cones.

Titi, with patches of red and green.

And dried flower bouquets from Itea.

Beneath each tower, a rust-colored carpet, soft and spongy,

A welcome mat and refuge for weary drifters

Traveling with me on this highway of wind and water, all seeking sanctuary

titi

Titi, Cyrilla racemiflora, in brilliant fall colors

Longleaf Lost

The power of the ocean
in what does it lie?
In the endless, timeless roar of the surf?
In the immense vistas – the view to the end of the world?
In the glowing spray as it diffuses
the light of the rising sun?
In the power and mystery of its
dark depths?

Scenery-324

No matter—
it brings one to scale
it breathes into one serenity
it insists that one pause…

Once—
was the world filled with
such wild landscapes?
With these tests and salves for the
human spirit?
Before we spent what we did not own?

Were the monarchs of the southeastern forest
as the ocean?
The longleaf pines—
In their endless and timeless ranks
With their immense vistas—
views of waving grasses
as far as the eye could see?
In the power and mystery of their length and breadth?

longleaf-5

Would one have found scale? Serenity?
Would one have been impelled to pause?

Do we mourn for what we have not known
but by glimpses
through another lens?

longleaf savanna-4

Joy in Parting

What Joy Can There Be In Parting?

~A poem by Melissa Dowland; images by Mike Dunn

_-125

The bluebird perched on the branch
right in front of me.

I could see his sharp beak,
his rusty breast,
his snow-white belly.

Eastern Bluebird with Dogwood berry

Then he turned
And became a dazzle of blue
as he flew between the trees
and out of sight.

What joy there can be in parting.

Red-belly

Red-belly

~A poem by Melissa Dowland, images by Mike Dunn

img_2809

Down in my woods grows a graceful old oak
With a stout trunk and a crown of branches,
Splitting like feathers, reaching for the sky.
It has stood, thus, for centuries.

maple snag

Nearby, a smaller maple.
Its crown lost in an ice storm,
A few broken branches strain upward
with peeling bark remaining, like something partially remembered.

Red-bellied woodpecker male on branch

Guess—
              Which tree does the red-belly love?
              Which tree do I?

Now, More Than Ever

A poem for the new year, accompanied by a short video clip of a sunrise with tundra swans at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge last week. May we all find peace in the coming year.

The Peace of Wild Things, by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Follow the Nuthatch

Another of Melissa’s poems about birds (and one of the few rhyming ones she has written)…

Follow the Nuthatch
by Melissa Dowland

When searching for a bird of prey
On a fall or winter’s day
Never trust the noisy titmice
Only the nuthatch will suffice.

_-109

The titmouse is a busy soul
Forever making a dreadful scold.
He flits about the whole day long,
Rarely pausing in singing his song.

Caroilna Wren

The busy wren, he too will cry
So loud, he calls, though small in size.
But he is easily distracted by
The lonely squirrel who wanders nigh.

_-406

So would you like to spot a hawk
On your hike or winter walk?
Then heed the nuthatch’s nasal cry.
For when the hawk his eye does spy

White-breasted nuthatch 1

Out rolls his nasal, cranky ‘yank’
Heard over hill and down the bank.
The nuthatch is a wise old bird
So listen closely to his words.

_-73

“There goes the hawk, warn one and all!
Oh forest, listen to our call!”

_-499

So look, oh wanderer, for the source of that sound
Up in the trees and on the ground.
If you’re lucky you might be blessed
If the nuthatch and hawk make you their guest.

Red-tailed Hawk pursued by crow closeup

Swamp’s Sentinels

Here’s another of Melissa’s poems that she read at the recent Poetry with Wings event at the NC Botanical Garden (paired with some of my images from our trips on the Roanoke River) …

Swamp’s Sentinels
by Melissa Dowland

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek

In the blackwater swamp
The creeks are lined
With cypress-sentinels
Left whole by the loggers—
Because they were too hard to reach?
Or perhaps, intentionally left,
with great foresight
to remind us of what once was?
The swollen bases are buttressed
and surrounded by their subjects—
Knees, barely poking above the dark surface.

Huge cypress along Gardner Creek

These trees have seen decades, centuries—
Wild times, when they were left alone
They’ve seen the river become
a highway
They’ve seen
bulldozers
pavers
fishermen
and me, in my canoe.

Bald cypress pair in black and white

They are not tall—
Their crowns flattened by
the wind of innumerable hurricanes.
Their sprawling branches
covered in resurrection fern—
they who need no resurrection to live for centuries.

TRee cavities

And everywhere—
Holes.
Cavities.
Hollows.
Crevices.

Prothonotary Warbler singing at nest cavity 1

Some so large I could crawl inside
Some just right for a chickadee,
or a prothonotary warbler
who brings such song to these solemn swamps!

Screech owl in wood duck box close up 1

 What lurks inside these hollow
Monarchs of the Swamp?
Were I to knock, what might I see?
The dark fur of the bear
who could smell me from a mile away?
The sharp face of the screech owl,
ready to pull back and hide in a second?
The secreted nest of the prothonotary,
cloaking her bright yellow in
the cavity’s darkness?

Bald Cypress along Conaby Creek 1

Or are these holes
Simply the eyes of the trees?
Windows into their ancient souls?
Tired eyes that have gazed
down the years,
Longing to be left at peace
for yet another hundred years?

Poetry with Wings

There was a poetry reading yesterday at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill entitled Poetry with Wings. As part of the Garden’s Saving Our Birds programming initiative this Fall, five local poets were invited to read poems that touch on birds in some way  It was a wonderful event with a wide range of poetry and presentation. Melissa was one of the poets and presented ten of her works. From time to time, I will share one of her poems, along with some accompanying photos. Here is one of my favorites from yesterday’s reading…

porch viewThe View From My Porch

by Melissa Dowland

When did we forget how to be kind to other another?
When did we stop listening
to all but our own voices
and those shouting the same things?
When did we start judging others so closely
that we forgot that we all learn
by making mistakes?
When did we allow fear to become the driving force
behind our decisions
as individuals, and as a culture?

_-12The male woodpecker
just fluffed his black-and-white feathers
and, head down,
drove the female
from her perch.

_-204Then the blue jay swooped in,
loud and raucous
with his threatening hawk-mimic call
and drove even the bossy woodpecker
away.

Eastern Wood PeeweeThe wood-pewee sits still on a branch,
watching and waiting.
Then dashes to a flower
and seizes a brilliant yellow
butterfly
that was, a moment ago,
floating on a slow current of air.
With a quick shake and gulp
the butterfly is gone.

hummingbird threat display with another bird in viewFour hummingbirds zip about
in constant motion, wings an emerald blur.
With a clatter, two collide,
then zoom apart, unhurt.
They are so keen on protecting
their spot at the feeder
that none can stop to drink.

box turtleA box turtle slowly moves
through the strawberry patch,
her nails shuffling the soil,
the soft leather of her legs and neck
contracting with each movement
her head outstretched,
seemingly unafraid
though the cleft in her shell,
just above the neck,
should give her cause to behave otherwise.

I often write about my deep desire
to step away from my humanity
and connect with the natural rhythms,
to live in tune with the natural world.

But maybe, it is our humanity
that we truly need.
Maybe our humanity allows us
to experience the joy
of watching a box turtle
and see the harsh beauty
in the instinctual behavior of a bird.
Maybe our humanity is what allows us to be kind.

Maybe, my desire is,
in fact,
to be more human.

 

Following the Nuthatch

I recently had a discussion with someone about sitting quietly in nature and just observing your surroundings as a way to relax, increase your observation skills, and just get in tune with a natural place. It reminded me of a project I had heard about several years ago called The Sit Spot. There are various iterations of the idea, but, basically you just go outside some place that is close enough to visit frequently, and you sit. That’s right, sit, for 15 – 30 minutes, or however long you can. It is a place to commune with your surroundings, ideally with no distractions (no phones or cameras, although I do take binoculars). And you observe, listen, think about what you are seeing. When you sit quietly, the world starts to come alive around you. So, Melissa and I have been trying to go out whenever we can and sit in the woods and watch. On a recent weekend, when I was leading a tour down east, she sat and observed some of the goings-on of some of the birds that call these woods home. She later wrote a poem about what she saw. Here it is, with some photos of the birds taken at other times and in other places.

Following the Nuthatch

by Melissa Dowland

When searching for a bird of prey
On a fall or winter’s day
Never trust the noisy titmice
Only the nuthatch will suffice.

The titmouse is a busy soul
Forever making a dreadful scold.
He flits about the whole day long,
Rarely pausing in singing his song.

Tufted Titmouse 3

Tufted titmouse

The busy wren, he too will cry
So loud, he calls, though small in size.
But he is easily distracted by
The lonely squirrel who wanders by.

Carolina wren

Carolina wren

So would you like to spot a hawk
On your winter hike or walk?
Then heed the nuthatch’s nasal cry.
For when the hawk his eye does spy

Out rolls his nasal, cranky ‘yank’
Heard over hill and down the bank.
The nuthatch is a wise old bird
So listen closely to his words.

“There goes the hawk, warn one and all!
Oh forest, listen to our call!”

White-breasted nuthatch on tree trunk

White-breasted nuthatch

So look, oh wanderer, for the source of that sound
Up in the trees and on the ground.
If you’re lucky you might be blessed
If the nuthatch and hawk make you their guest.

Red-tailed hawk

Juvenile Red-tailed hawk