Nature Celebrated–and Missing–at Mt. Rogers Rally


This year, the 34th annual Mt Rogers Naturalist Rally happens on May 9-10 and I will go. It will be like going home. But then again, neither I nor the world is the same as it was the first time I gathered with others for the Saturday morning field trips at Konnarock.

It was the spring of 1976 and as a twenty-something new faculty member, I’d successfully petitioned the community college to let me offer a new “plant life” course that I would gladly develop–a class I envisioned as field trip intensive, wild foods and ecology minded, hands-on botany. The class was offered, and students (from local freshmen to retired world travelers) signed up. We began our field excursions right away in a small caravan out to stalk the wild asparagus!

I was told about a new outdoor event in May at Mt. Rogers and was intrigued: a congregation of fellow tree huggers! Ten students went with me; we pitched our tents Friday night after the dinner and speaker and awoke at daylight to a light frost.

Saturday morning, more than 120 participants gathered to be matched with the designated field trip leader of a dozen scheduled events–birds, plants, geology, small mammals, mosses, salamanders and more. But one of the leaders had become ill at the last minute. Could anybody lead a wildflower field trip, the organizers asked from the top of the steps of the old CCC building?

My students volunteered me, and I reluctantly agreed. It was such a rewarding experience, I went back for eleven years after that to lead the same field trip over the same familiar terrain of Grindstone’s nature trail across gentle slopes of rich cove forest–a 3/4 mile loop where year after year I repeated my little speechlets at the same bends of the trail about this fern or lichen or wildflower. I came to know the place by heart.

In 1987 we moved away, and not long after returning to Virginia in 1997, I revisited Grindstone and the Naturalist Rally–a kind of double homecoming. Many of the human faces were the same, save for the passage of time. Some folks in my long absence had never missed a single year. But much about the natural face of the area was not the same, even in the short span of years since ‘76.

The dark visage of the area’s 5000-foot mountain crests (Rogers, Whitetop and Pine) are less dark now than they were then. The evergreens (spruce-fir, white pine and eastern Hemlock) are under siege by adelgids and beetles, the trees’ abilities to resist compromised by acid precipitation and climate change. The summit trails are strewn with unnatural blow-down of dead treetops, open light reaching the mossy forest floor that was for centuries in dark shade all day long.

The birders at Mt. Rogers see a different mix of birds now on their field trip, some species less abundant, others missing entirely, many showing up at odd times as the northern migration season warms earlier than what has long been normal. The accelerating disappearance of tropical forest converted over the past four decades to pasture for beef production and now to biofuel crops spells doom for many once-familiar Virginia summer songbirds that winter in shrinking South American habitat.

And saddest of all for me: on my solo reunion walk around Whispering Waters trail at Grindstone in 1998, some of my old friends–rose twisted stalk, showy orchis, umbrella-leaf, and yellow trillium–were not there where I had always found them all those May field trips before.

I want to stick my finger in the dike, to click my heels and have the natural order right again. Can humankind live in harmony with this world for good? Can we as good stewards keep an eye on the sparrow even while we live off the bounty of our finite home place?

If in the end it turns out that we can successfully be both stewards and consumers of our vanishing natural wealth, that change of heart and habit will come in no small measure from those across the world who live in nature, who are attuned to its nuances and small wonders and who by necessity or choice, immerse themselves in the outdoors–many for the sheer love of it.

So I’ll be pleased to cast my lot again this year with the bird-watching, stream stalking, butterfly-netting, tree-hugging naturalists at Mt. Rogers–a group who, as a whole, are filled with wonder in the out-of-doors. And in wonder, it has been said, is the beginning of wisdom.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Lovely post, Fred… and a tragic tribute. If only someone had the foresight to keep detailed lists each year, wouldn’t that be revealing of how these changes occur? Of course, we can’t expect things to be exactly the same over time, but…