Craggy Life Lessons

“Yonder were the mountains:  The sunlight revealed their tiny heads and wide shoulders, craggy and purple, with small black trees, delicate as eyelashes, on their slopes.”–Paul Theroux 

It never ceases to amaze me the ways in which life can manage to not only survive, but thrive.  As an experienced educator, I have worked with countless students, including those who come from the most anemic of backgrounds–impoverished in experiences, impoverished in love/emotional support, or impoverished financially.  Miraculously, many of those disadvantaged students still manage to not only survive their hardscrabble circumstances, but also find enough sustenance outside of their own rocky homelife for growth.  These kids are like camels–able to soak up enough goodness and nutrition from one or two smaller sources, such as a church, school, sports, and so forth, that allow them to flourish through long stints of inadequate and insubstantial living situations.

Craggy Pinnacle, elevation 5,817′, can be driven through via Blue Ridge Parkway tunnel or hiked to the top for epic 360 degree views.

Visiting Craggy Gardens, north of Asheville, NC and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, I was reminded that not only can humans survive ramshackle environments, but also a wide array of plant life can likewise do the same. Craggy Gardens are part of the Great Craggy Mountains, or “the Craggies,” which is a rock-filled area of approximately 194 square miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains that border the Black Mountains.  The highest point of the Craggies is Craggy Dome rising at an elevation of 6,105 feet, but there are several other high peaks of interest in this unique geological and botanical habitat, including Craggy Pinnacle, through which visitors can drive and/or hike to the top along the scenic BRP. 

A few ancient symmetrical trees dot the bald of Craggy Flats which is mostly covered in grasses, shrubs, rocks, and few flowering plants.

The Great Craggy Mountains are known for its exposed rocky, aka “craggy,” surfaces, high altitudes with spectacular vistas, and an elevated bald known for its rhododendrons, mountain laurel, flame azalea, other colorful wildflowers, and heath.  There is both a picnic area at milepost 367.6 and the Craggy Garden Visitor’s Center at milepost 264.4; plus, there are several hiking trails for a variety of hiking skill levels. Additionally, the Craggy Mountains are known for its twisted trees, May-apple flowers, Turkscap lilies, autumnal leaf colors, the clusters of red berries that decorate the Ash trees in the fall, and its rare and endangered plant life.  In fact, according to the Blue Ridge Parkway Guide, “Craggy Gardens has been recognized by the state of North Carolina as a Natural Heritage Area and has also been recommended as a National Natural Landmark.”

During our visit to the Craggy Mountains, John, my husband, and I stopped at the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.  At an elevation of 5,497 feet, the air was significantly cooler than when we left town, hovering in the high 50s.  Inside the visitor center, a warm fire blazed in a wood burning stove in a far corner with several rocking chairs around its hearth.  Outside, posted along the front wall, was a map of the different hiking trails in the vicinity.  

The Craggy Pinnacle Tunnel as seen from the Craggy Garden Visitor Center.

As newbies, we decided our first hiking experience in the Craggies should be uphill along Craggy Gardens Trail which led to the Craggy Flats at an elevation of 5,892 feet.  Since our visit was in late June, we were hoping to see the renowned Catawba rhododendron; however, John had already been warned that these infamous flowering pink and purple shrubs had come and gone with little fanfare.  Nonetheless, I was not to be deterred in my enthusiasm for the potential adventure that awaited along the trail.

Craggy Garden Trail

  “Nature is a book of many pages and each page tells a fascinating story to him who learns her language. Our fertile valleys and craggy mountains recite an epic poem of geologic conflicts. The starry sky reveals gigantic suns and space and time without end.”–A. E. Douglass

Trekking along the path, twisted trees and shrubs formed tattered tunnels through which we traversed higher into the altitude until we reached Craggy Flats.  This area is signified by a large shelter with paths going uphill to either side of the shelter.  Once at the top, the views were spectacular, allowing us to see layer upon layer of mountain line overlaid with cloud shadows.  While as a general rule, a bald is considered a treeless area, the Great Craggy Mountains’ bald was not entirely treeless as there were a few beauties with their broad limbs fanned out in perfect symmetry.  Mostly, the bald was covered with small flowers, grasses, dirt paths, and a few shrubs that were ablaze with orange flowers–a type of rodondendum called a flame azalea due to its flamboyant flowers.  

Vantage point of tree limbs

The Craggy Gardens Trail is often identified as one of the busiest trails in the area, but on the day/time John and I chose to explore it, there weren’t too many other hikers.  The hikers we did encounter were friendly and helpful, offering different pieces of advice for locating specific scenery.  In fact, one pair of sisters that I met during my exploration of the bald area remembered I was from Ohio and referred to me by shouting “Ohio!” whenever they found something of interest along the trail they thought I would want to see. 

The search for the Catawba Rhododendrone

On the way down from the bald, at the base of the flat, was a rhododendron upon whose backside (the back of the official Craggy Gardens Trail) was covered in purple Catawba rhododendron blooms!  I trotted back up the off-the-beaten-path to the top bald where the two sisters were admiring the flame azalea. I recalled they were looking for Catawba blossoms to photograph, and I wanted them to know about the hidden purple gems I had just found.  Excitedly, I led them down the hill while they readied their cameras; then I headed back to a shelter area where John was resting.

It seemed that while I was helping the sisters find rhododendron, John had made an acquaintance with a hungry squirrel that had discovered an abandoned banana peel.  It was quite the scene as John attempted to move in closer with his camera to video the squirrel. Meanwhile, the squirrel entertained John with its acrobatic attempts to eat the inside of the peel. It was certainly an “appealing” sight!

After the squirrely entertainment, John and I meandered down the hill to a gazebo overlooking the mountainside.  If we had chosen to continue further downhill, we would have traveled into the official Craggy Garden Picnic Area, but since we still wanted to visit Mount Mitchell, a bit further down the BRP, we chose to retrace our steps back to the visitor center.

Walking back allowed me to more thoughtfully take in the gnarled trees and shrubs with roots winding over, around, and sometimes even through the rocky and rugged terrain.  Several roots appeared to have a large hole at the base of their trunks, and they still seemed to support life.  In fact, it was a marvel that any life at all could be supported in such a craggy area.

It further occurred to me that most lives–at some point in time–become rocky, rough, and even craggy, like several of my past students’ lives.  The miracle is that no matter how broken and stony life becomes for any of us, we have the ability to survive. Like the Craggy Mountain plants whose limbs twist this way and that to find the sunlight while their roots lengthen and stretch to find nourishment and water, we too, through faith and perseverance, can find ways to stretch, grow, and resiliently root into sources of life-sustaining nourishment.  Even if our roots develop a hole of loss, we can still rise up like the trees, shrubs, and other plant life of the Great Craggy Mountains.

May There Always Be a June

“Even the prettiest flower will die one day. It’s nature’s way of teaching us that nothing lasts forever.”–unknown

“Hmm . . .” I think, more than say, with a deep inhale as I yawned awake.  It was a rare, cool morning–a break from the typical heat and humidity of early July.  The bedroom windows were open, and I breathed in the fragrance of dewy grass, damp earth, and flowers. It was the lingering sweet floral scent that began a series of reflections regarding the significance of June and its likeness to the human life cycle.

At the time I am writing this, it is the July 4 weekend–marking, in my mind, the midpoint of summer.  Once July 4 begins, it feels like the rest of summer swiftly sails by.  Ah, but June.  June is sanguine–full of enough bright cheer to hold old-man winter at bay.  The early spring blossoms such as daffodils, crocus, and tulips have long passed.  Aromatic honeysuckle begins its fading away as the summer perennials and annuals begin blooming brightly in rapid succession.  July may be full of celebrations, explosive displays–all red, white, and blue–but, I adore June–modest, optimistic, June, and the colorful, unique flowers that blossom and thrive with its invitation to summer.

Photo by Suvan Chowdhury on Pexels.com

One morning, this past June, I was in Ritter Park to meet a friend for a walk.  However, the friend was running late, so I decided to meander up the old stone steps to the rose garden.  Sunshine, brilliantly glowed in its mid-morning slant, created a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, varying in texture, size, and shape. With no purpose other than to enjoy the moment, I wandered around the garden, drifting from one rose bush to the next, fascinated with all the minute differences not only among the varieties of rose bushes, but also among the flowers within the same bush.  Meanwhile, a gardener attentively tended the blooms.

Examining more closely, I noticed the various insects drawn to the roses. Bees, ants, beetles, moths and butterflies, flies, and even a few mosquitoes crawled, hovered, dove, and darted–busily buzzing about the roses with purposeful missions.  In one of the more isolated sections, closer to the wooded area of the park, I also observed a hummingbird dipping and diving among the various blossoms in a delightful, whirring dance of flight. As I let my gaze wander, my mind relaxed and began to make correlations with June, its flowers, and life.

“A rose can never be a sunflower, and a sunflower can never be a rose. All flowers are beautiful in their own way . . .”–Miranda Kerr

Each flower–from the number of petals to the size of each petal, from the varying life stages of each flower to the variances of color in each blossom–whether it be a rose in the Ritter Park garden or any one of the wide variety of flowers found in resident yards and public spaces–was, and is, a unique creation.  This is similar to the way each person, within the same family, or outside familial ties, is likewise a one-of-a-kind individual.  Flowers go through a dormant and a growing season of varying lengths, but all bloom seasonally, until they come to an end–whatever the life end may be. So it is with June and human life. 

The season of summer officially begins in June.  The air is sweet and heady with the fragrance of flowers. Winds and sunshine warm the air, and rain falls with purpose. Many plants are rooting and establishing while early spring greenery and blossoms are fading away into their dormancy. Daylight reaches its apex in June, while nighttime descends to its lowest point.  

Likewise, several key life events occurred and are honored in my own life each June.  I graduated from Ohio University in June.  Within that same month, I signed my first teaching contract, thus beginning the start of my career as an educator. Two year later, in June, I married my husband, an anniversary we have celebrated for 32 years.  Ten years later, our daughter was born in June.  As educators, my husband and I experience the arrival of each June as the beginning of a dormant period–an opportunity for reflection and renewal before a new school year begins in August.  Births and weddings, ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, and even celebrated endings.  It’s all there in June.

“All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.”–Indian Proverb

I am but one person in the garden of many: my family, my work site, my community, and so forth.  All around me, younger lives are taking root, growing, and blossoming into their own personal expressions–making our collective garden more colorful and vibrant–buzzing with energy.  Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice that just as the flowers of June replace spring’s early blossoms, July has taken June’s place.  

Of course, one could argue that like the flowers, humans seem to be planted in dirt and threatened by weeds and all varieties of pestilence. However, when I was visiting the rose garden in June, it was the array of blossoms, in a rainbow of colors, that caught my eye, and made my heart smile.  They too were planted in dirt, confronted by pests and disease, but a gardener was there watching over them just as we have the Ultimate Gardener attending to our needs. 

The flowers offer their seeds and pollen to insects and birds to eat and disperse, ensuring more and different blooms for the future. Likewise, I pray that until my last petal drops, I am offering seeds of hope for others as June does for me.  One day, my memories of past Junes will fade away into permanent dormancy. In the meantime, I will savor the memories made this past June, find nourishment in the full blossoming of the July summer, and, in the weeks to come, accept August as the petals of summer begin to fall away, one by one.  

May there always be a June.

Birdsong: A Harbinger of Hope

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” –Rabindranath Tagore

It is typically during the seventh hour of the day at some point in February, when there is a noticeable shift in the time the sun rises, that I become aware of their return.  Upon first hearing their growing morning melodies, while walking into the school in which I am an educator, their sweet sounds encourage me that winter will not last forever. With the arrival of March, there is a gradual shift in the start of their chorus as it begins earlier like the daylight.  As March melts into April, and April fades into May, their symphonious soundings continue to advance, in sync with the brightening of the sky.  Softly their voices appear, as darkness begins lifting its veil, until the cacophony of their songs reaches full crescendo with the rising of the sun.

“Birdsong brings relief

to my longing.

I am just as ecstatic as they are,

but with nothing to say!

Please, universal soul, practice

some song, or something, through me!”–Rumi

As one who rises well before dawn, but does not necessarily enjoy such premature risings, I do, nonetheless, appreciate the moments before the brightening of the sky:  birdsong.  These hopeful melodies, it seems to me, offer praise and thanksgiving for the arrival of the new day.  Birds sing regardless of the temperatures, whether there is frost or dew on the ground, or whether there is a bitter bite of the wind or the air is utter stillness.  Their animated voices echo among and around the hills of our area, playing a sort of hide and seek with the give and take of the various songs of each species.

I once read that because King Solomon understood what the birds were saying in their chirpings, they often remained near him.  Supposedly, St. Francis’ presence was so calm and reassuring that songbirds frequently alighted upon his shoulders.  While I am not sure that either of these accounts are much more than lore, they are certainly lovely images to contemplate in the midst of a morning birdsong performance.

Photo by Jess Vide on Pexels.com

This year, it seems to me that the birdsong of sunrises is a metaphor not only signifying the arrival of spring, but also life after the pandemic–at least for those of us fortunate enough to live where those affected by COVID seem to be decreasing.  Like a great collective exhalation, the birds’ songs reflect the hope and freedom that is life after quarantine.  The freedom for humans to flit, flutter, and fly from place to place, as if riding on the wings of these birds, seems as welcome as the spring weather.  Of course, I would not yet throw caution to the wind, but it does seem, at least for now, the worst is behind us.

This weekend, for the first time in months, I met a friend, and we walked together on a local walking path.  In spite of the early morning chill, the give and take of conversation while exercising felt as victorious as the first blossom of crocus emerging through a crust of white snow in late February or early March. As we walked and talked, birds offered a euphonious soundtrack, better than any store muzak, as they chattered, called, and chirped from limbs, lines, and landscape, tilting their small heads this way and that; our great guardians of the walk.

As the birds awakened my later weekend slumberings on the morning of this writing, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, at the birds’ optimism.  Even in the darkest days of quarantine, those harmonious fowls kept up their song.  In fact, they never ceased, not for one day.  No matter the restrictions, the overwhelm, the confusion, and the fear that existed among the human population, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, the birds held fast to their habit of daily, lyrical praise.

There is a scientific theory loosely held by a few scientists that the songs of birds, especially in the early dawn hours, vibrate at an ideal frequency to promote plant growth and yield.  It is theorized that when exposed to bird song, the stomata–the mouth-like opening found on the bottoms of leaves–open wider.  This widening allows for a greater exchange of air–expelling more oxygen–and also permits greater absorption of water and nutrients.  

Photo by Dariusz Grosa on Pexels.com

I can’t help but wonder if that is what the birds are likewise trying to do for humans.  In an act of Divine Instrumentation, a bird’s song is not only to aid in the growth of plants, but likewise in the swelling of the human soul.  Perhaps, those songs occur, in the birth of the day, when all is fresh and renewed from a night of rest, at an optimal time to widen the human heart, providing a greater opening for an exchange and absorption of optimism and aspiration from these winged creatures.  

In fact, one could think of each lifted note sung by feathered friends as a harbinger of the positive possibilities each gift of sunrise brings us–if only we allow our souls to remain open to them.  Working symbiotically with the oxygen expelled from the stomata of a plant, we too, can increase our own personal growth and yield by remaining unrestricted to the promising potential each day offers.  Even though the sky is still dark, the birds faithfully start their singing.  We can choose to do the same. 

 “ . . . . Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.

How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,

They’re given wings.–Rumi

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com

Have Faith Like an Artist

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”–Hebrew 11:1

“Art begins with resistance – at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor.”–Andre Gide

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

After two years of studying the black and white hard facts of science at the university level where she was doing quite well, my daughter, Madelyn, switched gears and decided to study art at a different university.  Nearly one and a half years later, she is thriving with the challenge of the creative process.  At this point in her art journey, she has worked with clay, ceramics, water colors, photography, printmaking, fabrics, charcoal, pen/ink, and several other mediums. I can’t help but feel a sense of wonder, as I watch her transform seemingly nondescript materials into works of art, at the level of her faith throughout each the process.  

It is her example of faith in action that got me thinking about my own faith and the faith of the world around me.  Personally, I catch myself repeatedly clasping and grasping for the way-it-should-be, the if-only-things-were-like-this, and the when-it’s-normal-again, rather than, like my daughter, trusting the process and allowing Divine Providence to work through her.  Instead, I keep resisting change and focusing on the down-side of 2020: negative attitudes possessed by so-called “others,” negative outcomes, negative requirements, negative situations, and on-and-on the list can go.  And, guess what, 2021 is just around the corner, and from the looks of things, the new year will continue with much of the same so-called obstacles of 2020.

This beautiful watercolor painting study of leaves took much effort, adaptation, and was an opportunity to learn a new skill that Maddie may not have otherwise learned.

When Madelyn first started in the art program, I witnessed her very real resistance to the process. Gone were the structures, rules, and methods of the scientific process on which she had relied for years. Instead, she was now being asked to create, out of a wide variety of materials, unique creations that adhere to the rules demanded by each requisite medium, course, and/or instructor(s).  While at the same time,  she is likewise expected to “break the rules” in order to avoid creating pieces that are commonplace, cliched, or conventional .

During these early months of her transition, Madelyn would make statements such as, “I don’t like ______;” “I don’t know how I’m supposed to create _______ with ________;”  “I don’t know why I have to ________;” and so on. The first few times this happened, I began to wonder if the field of art was the correct call on her part.  She seemed so opposed to the various requirements and loosely formed experimentations/expectations.  Nonetheless, by the end of each of those early projects and classes, she exited the other side having mastered a new skill and with tangible evidence as seen in each of the pieces.  

It is because of Madelyn’s example that I now understand that resistance is part of the process of faith. It is through the act of resistance, as counterintuitive as it may seem, that her faith is ignited.  Then, as she wrestles with each new style, material, and/or expectation, the embers of her creativity are fed, allowing the heat of the process to lead her through to the other side.  Thus, by acting in faith, Madelyn is able to push through the growing pains of each project and is ultimately able to create something new.

Like Madelyn’s initial struggles with art, I too have been rather contrary with the changes around me.  I have felt the opposition to things-not being-the way-they-used-to-be.   Like an indulged child, my mind has thrown numerous tantrums and protestations. I have mentally muttered countless grumblings and asked numerous questions as to why and how I am supposed to do ______.  Nevertheless, I am now realizing that it is this very resistance that continues to spark, not only me, but all of humanity into adapting, evolving, and creating a new way of living, being, and interacting with one another.  

Faith, I am learning, isn’t blind acceptance that encourages the wave of our Maker’s hand, and, boom, we get our heart’s desires.  Faith is work; it is a labor of love, devotion, AND effort.  It is having the ability to believe in the unseen/unformed and to see that there is something new and original that can be formed through the very real friction of the struggle. Step-by-step, through set-backs, changes, and adaptation, faith is fortified.  Through perseverance, sweat, and belief, the faith process continues to grow and burgeon.  Embracing belief throughout the struggle, The One greater than us is inspiring change and challenging us with new situations and demands in order to foster growth in the same matter as Maddie’s art teachers force exploration of new materials and tools in order to push her capacity for creativity as well as her skill level.

When Madelyn starts a new art project, she typically starts with an idea.  However, I have noticed that she cannot cling to one way strict vision of the concept.  Sometimes, certain materials aren’t available.  Other times, what she originally envisioned would work, does not work in the way in which it was initially conceived, plans get altered, materials and tools are changed, outcomes or time-lines change, and sometimes even temperature fluctuations alter her outcomes/production.  It seems as if there are hundreds of tiny little changes and adaptations that contribute and influence her endeavors as well as the final product.  However, in the end, through the humility of her strivings, a new product is created, and a new skill set has evolved.

That, to me, is 2020.  The canvas that we had at the beginning of 2020 was blank.  Individual and collective visions for the final outcome of the year varied, but we all relied upon a certain amount of consistently available materials, timelines, and predictable outcomes.  Then like the multitude of art projects I’ve observed Madelyn begin, things began to go off-plan. We have been asked to follow some of the same rules, but not all rules, use this material, but not that material; likewise, we are asked to improvise as needed, and, in-the-end, we are now developing a new way of living, being, and interacting. 

Therefore, like an artist, we must overcome our own resistance.  We must continue to work through the process, adapting and improvising when needed.  The end product may continue to evolve and change, but through our collective endeavors, energies, and faith in the unseen, we must trust that Divine Providence is inspiring us to create a new work of life-art. We are but tools in The Creator’s hands.  Have faith.

A reminder for all of us from Maddie.