Gingerbread man

wild ginger

Caught out in the open as she trots down the gravel driveway, the feral cat freezes and flattens herself in the track, trying to impersonate a large black stone.

I’ve come outside to take a leak, but end up measuring myself against a bull thistle instead. It stands a little taller than me, and its flowers are still in bud, swelling like green porcupines. There’s something charismatic about this plant: it has style. Every angle of every leaf tapers into a spine, exhibiting a kind of single-mindedness that one does associate with bulls, or human warriors. The Russian thistles massed up in the field are mere foot soldiers by comparison. I aim a jet of urine at its lower leaves.

An hour later, my brother Steve shows up, and we head off down the mountain for a short expedition to a nearby natural area: a north-facing base of a talus-strewn ridge where cold air collects in small pit-caves even in the middle of the summer. We used to go swimming in the adjacent creek when we were kids, but that wouldn’t be possible now — it’s fiercely posted and fenced on the state forest side. These are hotly contested cold waters: Spruce Creek, a trout stream that attracts flyfishermen from around the world, following in the footsteps of President Eisenhower, who discovered it back in the 50s when his brother Milton was president of Penn State. A couple nights ago, Steve and I watched the documentary Why We Fight, which goes into great detail about Eisenhower’s prophetic anti-war thinking — the generally forgotten background to his famous coinage of the phrase “military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation. It’s tempting to imagine Ike crafting his valediction right here at Spruce Creek, standing knee-deep in the current and ruminating on the need for balance.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without asking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.

While I go off stalking photos, Steve stretches out in the largest of the pits, luxuriating in the natural air conditioning and escaping the oppressive humidity above. I guess the way it works is that ice formed last winter and spring lingers deep inside the crevasses of the mountain, cooling the air that drains out at its base.

For someone from out West, or somewhere else in “real” mountain country where snow lingers on high peaks until June, our little Appalachian ridges must seem like a joke. But whatever these mountains lack in size, I think they make up in mystery (not to mention biodiversity: due to its boreal microclimate, this very spot harbors one rare plant, which shall go unmentioned, and at least two other uncommon ones). When I last stopped by here, in the third week of May, there were still several inches of ice at the bottom of each of these so-called caves; a hundred years ago, when hemlocks extended all the way up the mountainside and kept the forest considerably cooler, visible ice probably lasted right through the summer. That was the case up in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, where a much larger ice cave used to be a well-known roadside attraction until the forest above it was cut down and most of the ice disappeared.

hemlock stump face

I find a small hemlock stump that for some reason kept growing after the sapling was cut down, forming a kind of pinched-together face that reminds me a bit of a flower bud. The adjacent root sprout is already almost two feet tall, identical to, yet different from, the tree that was cut down. No wonder the stump got its signals crossed.

When I circle back to where my brother had been lying, he’s gone, so I take his place in the pit for half a minute. It’s odd: there’s no transition from the hot, sticky air above to the cool, dry air below ground level. The sounds of the creek echo strangely off the rock walls; it could be the murmur of a distant crowd, or a radio turned down to the point where you have to strain to make out the words. Somewhere at this very moment, people are huddling in bomb shelters, or crouching motionless among the fruit trees in their orchards as jets scream overhead. Somewhere, bodies are being washed and wrapped and prepared for burial.

I walk quickly back to the car, pausing only to admire a slope covered with wild ginger (Asarum canadense) and briefly imagining the sharp, spicy flavor of their roots. Like the more familiar Asian ginger (Zingiber officinale) whose roots you can buy in the supermarket, this American species was traditionally credited with the power to “quicken the blood.” The refrain from the children’s story goes through my head: Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the gingerbread man! I snap a picture of their rounded, heart-shaped leaves before hurrying on. It looks like rain.

6 Comments


  1. The cool air of caves, perhaps we will all be compelled to find such refuge while the planet heats up. It will be a fitting close to cycle of homo sapiens, a return to our roots. New cave dwellers, and we can paint on the walls the pictures of these old days.

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  2. This post made me remember the times I roamed the mountains of North Carolina as a kid, particularly the times I explored the various caves (old mica mines and gold mines). Yeah, I knew better. But I didn’t go in very far. Just enough to see out from the inside.

    I also lived in Colorado for 5 years and can second the idea that although the mountains are tall, the height is overrated. In fact, I grew quite tired of the simplicity of the mountains there. Dry rock after rock after rock. For the most part, only one type of deciduous tree (aspen) grows in the mountains there due to the elevation, since the base of the mountains starts at 6000 feet. People in Colorado talk about the fall colors. But there’s really only one color – yellow from the aspens. I prefer the dense forests, deep woods and varied colors of the Appalachians. And how could I give up the deep green of natural rhododendrons lining a stream?

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  3. Curt – How fortunate, to have had access to the mountains of North Carolina as a kid! I can see where the imprinting would make the Colorado Rockies seem pretty threadbare by comparison. You sound like a man after my own heart. (But doesn’t it seem almost un-American not to prefer the BIGGEST? )

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  4. What a great read, Dave. Descriptive & reflective in equal measure, & beautifully written.

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  5. Hey, thanks, Dick. When I instituted a “personal/political” category here last April, I had no idea I’d find so many things to fill it, both from the archives and from new posts like this one.

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