The Splendor of Nature is Trying to Kill You…But Don’t Take It Personally

IMG_2242     Where I come from, you can at least be certain it will be quite lovely when it does.  I don’t want to discourage you from visiting Northern Georgia, not really.  And I don’t wish to downplay the variety of poisonous creatures and plants you’ll find anywhere else in the country.  In Albuquerque, you have your pick of scorpions and spiders–as well as some disturbing steps between the two–rattlesnakes and a variety of other desert flora and fauna that are distinctly less than friendly to humans.

But while the Southwest is a varied landscape full of beauty and danger after its own fashion, the Appalachian Mountains and the surrounding countryside have a bit of a different challenge to offer you.  Never have I seen so much beauty gathered in a single spot as I did in my Desert Place, but there was a distinctly stark and stripped character to it.  You’d almost expect things that could kill you to live there.  The environment itself is deadly if you’re not careful (please read that as stupid.)

The Piedmont region of the Appalachians is a place of folded hills that stretch into the distance–deep blue in most lights.  It gives birth to tiny, wild mountain streams that eventually join together, a part of a crucial watershed system that drains not into the Mississippi, but flows directly to the Gulf of Mexico via Florida’s Panhandle.  This region is also the second most biodiverse temperate region on the planet.  That’s right.  Just about anything will grow here.  There’s a softness about this place, an apparent gentleness that is misleading.  It is full of things that can and will kill you just as easily and far less pleasantly than the desert.

The incredible variation and profusion of plants and animals, the sheer biomass of the region, still astonishes me.  Imagine how surreal it seems after spending four years in Albuquerque–not the most arid of Southwestern cities, by far, but by comparison, quite dry enough.  Even though I returned after the apex of the spring blooming frenzy had passed, the very lushness, the enormity of the thickly clustering forests, the frills and fans of irises and the almost profane profusion of roses jarred my senses.

Quite beyond the ornamental floral gardens–dusky bowers of all that is delicate and winged–if you know what to look for, you can sustain yourself quite nicely, should you ever become stranded while camping or hiking.  That comes with the distinct warning–know what you’re looking for and what to avoid.  Often, food plants have poisonous imposter cousins.  Or rather, the safe-to-eat food plants have run up the Jolly Roger to protect themselves.  Many of the poisonous plants have medicinal uses in the homeopathic pharmacopeia , but must be prepared in specific ways.  So, unless you know what you’re doing, just leave them alone entirely.

For invasive plants like Chinese Privet, Wisteria, and Kudzu–originally intended as sedate ornamental or ground cover cultivations–it’s a better growing climate than their original home countries.  Now, around this time of year, you’ll catch the phantom drift of honey-scented privet blossoms that tangle with honeysuckle in roadside ditches.  In just a few short weeks I look forward to catching sight of the empurpled skeletons of trees that have been strangled by creeping wisteria.  Beauty and death are so often bedfellows, here, that I’ve become almost callous about it.  I don’t mean to be.

The South is also home to some of the craziest looking insects and arachnids in the subtropical zone–beetles with horns and brilliant carapaces, pincers and barbed legs, bugs that look like they call trilobites grandpa, and spiders that will make you sick or just outright kill you with a single bite.  Of course, for every poisonous insect, spider, or snake there are a number of birds, other insects, or even other snakes that don’t mind the fact that their dinner bites back.  It’s all about balance, really, if you think about it for a minute.

Having briefly cataloged its faults, I should say that I’m kinda used to it…the whole possibility of dying thing.  It’s not something I have in mind all the time, unless I feel the need to do some foraging or I’m going to work in the garden.  Cleaning out utility rooms or garden sheds also get me thinking about bitey things, because that’s where many of them like to live, and it never hurts to be mindful of what you’re disturbing.  But there’s nowhere else I find so easy to live.  I take pride in the diversity of my home.  I like knowing that, because I’ve taken the time to educate myself about the plants and animals found beyond the edge of the Concrete Stain, I have a bit of self-sufficiency to my credit.  It also made me aware of how much I didn’t know about survival in Western mountain country, where things are the same, but different.

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