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, Cyrilla racemiflora, in brilliant fall colors



~A poem by Melissa Dowland, images by Mike Dunn


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

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

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

Eastern Wood PeeweeThe wood-pewee sits still on a branch,
watching and waiting.
Then dashes to a flower
and seizes a brilliant yellow
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.