The Transylvania Times -

Pondering The Past, Looking Towards The Future

 

November 13, 2017

Owen Carson

View from the Plott Balsams

The forest was dark, enshrouded in mist that hung thick between the trees like spiderwebs and softened sound. It was cold and damp, the kind of weather that cuts straight through your clothes, and I was alone in the woods. I sat quiet for a while, listening intently for breaks in the silence. Slowly it came: a flitting, a loud 'chirrup', leaves rustling, a pulse of wings behind me. Forgetting about me the forest began to wake, and the life it contained began to stir. Light shifted and around me the colors glowed. I stood to survey the landscape below the outcropping where I rested – black-tipped peaks rose above the mist, cliffs falling from the steepest slopes. Breathing deeply, I closed my eyes to imagine what it would've been like to pioneer the highlands of the Southern Appalachians: the Black Mountains.

When the first Europeans encountered the rugged peaks of the high mountains they surely were intimidated by their prowess. The summit of the range is dark, seemingly 'black' from the dense, evergreen spruce-fir forests that only occupy the highest elevations. A band of similar forest, known as boreal forest, covers the northern hemisphere far and wide, but the spruce-fir forests of the Southern Appalachians represent the extreme southern extent of these evergreen-dominated woods. With elevations maxing at nearly 7,000 feet, seasons are short and extreme conditions are common. This is reflected in the battered look of the high mountains, where trees are stunted and gnarled and reach minimal heights even at maturity. Punishing winds and frequent frosts during deep winter can place incredible pressure on plants to survive. Furthermore, soils in the high mountains are considered to be 'frigid' (versus 'mesic' soils of lower elevations), meaning they experience consistency cooler temperatures and also see great variance between highs and lows, thereby restricting the type of vegetation that can occur.

Nevertheless, the two dominant trees of these environments, red spruce and Fraser fir, have the integrity to withstand even the toughest of storms. The two species are difficult to distinguish at a distance, but get close enough to inspect the form of each and you'll be able to quickly tell the difference. Fraser fir, or 'she-balsam', so-named for the milky white sap, or "balsam," that is emitted from its burgeoning, forked leaf buds), is most concentrated in exposed areas above 6,000 feet where it forms almost pure stands. Red spruce ('he-balsam'), likes slightly lower elevations and more sheltered sites, although they do co-occur in transition zones. In dense, undisturbed stands the light penetration is limited, as is the vegetation occurring beneath the trees; lush moss mats are common, with clumps of mountain wood fern and lady fern popping up between rocks and fallen logs. Although shrubs are not a big component of these forests, witch hobble can form thickets along with red elderberry and gooseberry. Often you will see springs emerging in rocky seepages where wetland plants like red turtlehead and umbrella leaf thrive. Diverse northern hardwood forests abut the spruce-fir; yellow birch, sugar maple, black cherry, and yellow buckeye occupy the richer soils of these slightly lower elevation forests and an abundance of herbs can be seen during spring and summer, including black and blue cohoshes, bellworts, mandarins, phacelia, and a variety of trillium. Aspect helps drive the heterogeneity of these forests, with moist, north-and east-facing slopes displaying greater plant diversity those with drier south and west-facing slopes.

When Andre Michaux visited the Black Mountains in 1789 and again in 1794, he collected a suite of the flora occurring there and returned to Europe to study it. His work represented the first serious inquiry into the biodiversity of the Southern Appalachians and inspired many a botanical adventure to the region. Today, the high elevation environments contained within the Black Mountains are home to a number of rare plants and animals. The federally endangered spruce-fir moss spider lives in dense moss mats on boulders under spruce-fir while threatened saw-whet owls nest in the branches above. Rare pigmy and Weller's salamanders forage on the moist forest floor and in crevices along cliffs where the globally-rare rock gnome lichen grows best. Endangered northern flying squirrels make their nests in stands of yellow birch trees, and rock voles, smoky shrews, and long-tailed weasels scurry amidst boulders and talus. And in the past, herds of elk would roam across the region, grazing in grassy gaps between forested ridges; today those elk are returning thanks to long-term regional conservation efforts to improve and manage for their habitat. Likewise, efforts to protect these forests have led to the preservation and expansion of habitat for the rare pinkshell azalea and mountain paper birch. Miles of pristine streams spring from and drain through the mountains of the region; many locally important streams have headwaters contained on conservation lands within the area. These waters support healthy populations of Southern Appalachian brook trout, an ecologically and culturally significant fish, and also supply clean drinking water for local towns.

Owen Carson

The bluebead lily's name is a reference to the porcelain blue berries produced in mid to late summer.

So as I sat that morning listening to the forest come alive I thought of Michaux, of how his boots may have collected the small copper needles of the evergreens much like mine had. I pondered his voyage into the dark wildness of the Black Mountains, where even the smallest red squirrel can sound like a giant. My thoughts were lulled by the calls of chickadees and nuthatches as they flitted in closer for a glimpse at the newcomer, and for a split second it was as though I was a botanical pioneer, huddled in the dark forest, scribbling notes and bagging samples to take back to a curious monarch. The sun was beginning to fade, the light between the balsams shrinking as their shadows grew. Splashing waters echoed up the valley as I closed my eyes one last time before leaving, taking in a deep breathe of the thick mountain air. This was home.

 
 

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