Sabbatical Blog: week seven

Well, the next blog posting will be the last!  I’m back at church on Saturday.  I have to say that the time away has seemed just about right…not too long and not too short.  I do feel energized and while I have accomplished a good many things, it has still been relaxing and a chance to catch up on gardening, reading, and friends.  The very hot weather did preclude some hiking but I’m satisfied with the variety of ones I was able to take. I have a feel for the diverse habitats of the Michaux.  All the reading that I still want to do and need to do, however…well, some wise person once said “of books there is no end.”   The stack on my desk has grown, not shrunk in 7 weeks that is for sure.

I was at Longwood last week to use the library and the staff there are most accomodating.  They had a good selection of books about the great plant explorers and I was able to add to my store of knowledge about the Bartrams in particular.  William Bartram was a product of the age of  Enlightenment and believed that by studying nature one discovered God and the meaning of God’s great plan. “I, continually impelled by  restless spirit of curiosity, in pursuit of new productions of nature, my chief happiness consisted in tracing and admiring the infinite power, majesty and perfection of the Great Almighty Creator.”  I’m working on a list of the native plants whose discovery and introduction is attributed to John Bartram and I keep adding things to it.

I was tickled to learn that Epigaea repens, or trailing arbutus, is one of those plants.  It is everywhere in the Michaux and in the spring has lovely bell-shaped pink flowers.  Several older members of Zion once told me that as young people it was quite the thing to hunt arbutus in the springtime…one of those traditional group activities that occupied people in the days before TV, internet and social media.  We would do well to learn from that!   The arbutus is typically nestled in among the blueberry and huckleberry plants on hillsides.  Another plant in the Bartram pantheon is comptonia peregrina or sweet fern.  This is a nice ground cover that we see quite a bit on sunny banks and hillsides.  It also is often a companion to arbutus.  I learned in the Longwood course on ground covers that sweet fern is a very old plant–at least 80 million years old.  The flowers on comptonia are very primitive and don’t need pollinators, just the wind.  I have it in my bank in front of the house and like to think of it as my dinosaur plant.

I picked up a wonderful book called A Natural History of North American Trees, by Donald Peattie.  It was actually written more than 50 years ago and recently re-published.  It is fabulous. One reviewer said that the author writes about trees the way that Thoreau writes about Walden Pond.  In the little time I’ve spent with it, it has opened my eyes  about our nation’s historic relationship with this precious resource.  I had no idea that original growth white pines grew to a height of 240 feet! Routinely they grew to 150 feet with a straight 80 foot free of lower branches.  No wonder they played such a role in providing masts for the British navy.  Since there were no longer trees of that height in Europe, the British  had to cobble together a mast from Scots pine. When the first Europeans arrived they saw that most of Pennsylvania and New York were nothing but vast stands of old growth white pine.   White pine was the most generally useful wood ever produced in America, and sadly, by 1900 there were no   more virgin stands of white pine timber except the southern Appalachians.  And the timber companies raced ahead of conservation efforts there, so little or none remains in the southern mountains either.

The chapter on sycamores, the largest deciduous hardwood, really amazed me.  “Most Sycamores over a hundred years are hollow at the  heart, which of course does not prevent the tree from continuing to expand through the years. So it was that pioneers often stabled a horse, cow, or a pig in a hollow Sycamore, and sometimes a whole family took shelter in such a hospitable giant, until the log cabin could be raised.” (p 373)  Because sycamore wood is almost impossible to split the pioneers cut trunks of great dimension into cross sections to fashion wheels for their carts!  Honestly the book is fascinating and a wonderful social history as well as a natural history.

Sunday I worshiped at the Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church.  I often drive by it and have wanted to check it out.  It is a very large church of 1500 members or so, and four services.  The really amazing thing is that the services are at 8:45 and 10:30, with 2 services going on at each time in different locations!  They have an auditorium and a sanctuary with different styles of worship in each.  I will share more about this, and other worship experiences in my message next Sunday.  I will say this, there was no printed bulletin and the music words were projected onto a screen…and that was the traditional service!  I will see everyone soon.