Riverdave’s Journal
This essay appeared in the Spring 1992 issue of Explore Magazine, a Duke University Publication
A Naturalist Guide Explores Piedmont North Carolina in the Tradition of Thoreau 
An April morning stroll through the new spring growth of wild grasses near my home along Third Fork Creek in south Durham, sent my eyes upward, searching for signs of avian life in the greening poplars and hickories.  My urgings to welcome that spring messenger from the tropics, the Summer Tanager, had led me forth that morning to wander farther than usual from my house.

Wham! A sharp pain suddenly raced through my left foot.  In a split second I found my mind anticipating the image my eyes were about to behold - a husky brown copperhead lying lazily at my feet.  I ran. By the time I reached the nearest house I had begun to limp, dragging my swollen leg across the front porch.  My pounding on this stranger’s door produced a bewildered face that agreed to taxi me to help.  How quickly life can turn corners on us, I thought.

While lying once again at the place of my birth, Duke Hospital, I mused over the experiences of my recent past.  It had been one year since Earth Day 1990 (which happened to be my thirty-eighth birthday) when I inaugurated my new business as a nature guide in the Triangle area.  However, as a Durham native who had been absent from the area for fifteen years, I sometimes forgot about the diverse life forms to be found in our local forests.  This noble serpentine member of the local fauna in particular had slipped my mind, and I was clearly in need of a review in mutual respect.

I was angered over the probable loss of the spring outings I had planned, and I was concerned about the bill I was running up at the hospital since I had no medical insurance to cover it.  After begging to be quickly released, I was home the next day with a small bottle of codeine tablets and my swollen and bruised looking leg elevated on a pillow.

But after two weeks, signs of clotting set in.  Upon hearing of possible new expenses and with visions of a white-coated sawman bending over my colorful leg, I was soon on the phone with a local herbalist with whom I had studied. ”Five cups of deep red Sassafras tea a day will thin and cleanse your blood,” he assured me.  While being examined at the hospital several days later, I watched the resident jot down on his pad: “no clotting - Sassafras tea.”

This is what exploring Piedmont Carolina is all about. It’s learning to find one’s place in this beautifully rich forest system.  It’s learning how not to disrupt the lives of other native inhabitants with whom we share this bioregion.  After all, if some giant had stepped on me, I surely would have defended myself.  Wasn’t it I who clumsily stumbled through the copperhead’s backyard?  It’s discovering the wonderful native Lauraceous plants of the temperate region - Sassafras, Spicebush and Redbay, which are in the same family as the aromatic Camphor, Cinnamon and Avocado of the tropics.  It’s observing how all these interdependent and co-evolutionary organisms live together and sustain one another.  

It was particularly coincidental that just one week before my encounter with the copperhead, I had read how John Muir, one of history’s most legendary naturalists, came down with malaria while exploring Florida’s Cedar Key.  Though ill, he patiently reasoned, “Why  should man value himself as more than a small part of the one great unit of creation? And what creature of all the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit - the cosmos?”  Yes, the copperhead too has an essential part to play in Piedmont Carolina, and I had better become sensitive to where I place my feet on those sunny spring mornings!

It’s a marvelous natural region that I was born into, this Piedmont Carolina, and only now am I really discovering it.  For the past two years I’ve made my living as a local nature guide.  And conducting outings for two distinct seasons is indeed a challenge. From May through October, I take groups “wafting” on three Triangle area rivers - the Eno, Neuse and Haw.  These three rivers make a triangle formation across our landscape.  By placing my inflatable kayaks, or “duckies,”  behind the old mill dams and heading upstream, I always have enough water for a waft - a slow, relaxing, nature appreciation experience.  

We’ll gently guide our boats over these lazy waters, occasionally slipping out of our boats for a swim, allowing the river to cast its summer spell over us.  We’ll watch for the river otter as we snack on dangling elderberries, muscadines or beechnuts and delight our ears with the cackling call of the yellow-billed cuckoo.  It can be extremely hot and humid in July, but when drifting down a canopied Piedmont river, one finds the right balance of comfort.

For the remaining six months of the year, November through April, the rivers can often be run as whitewater after ample rain.  But since my focus is on relaxation and nature appreciation, I prefer to shift my cool weather activity to the shore and take groups “sauntering.”  During this season, the poison ivy dies back, snakes and ticks retire, the underbrush clears out, and the cool air is perfect for winter or early spring hiking.

I have become something of a connoisseur of winter walks.  Even when the air is cool, beams of solar energy stream through the leafless canopy, adding to body heat generated by walking, and sensuously warm and invigorate my body.  And, though I learned to identify trees as a boy scout only by leaf patterns, I have recently come to know and love them for their unique trunk and branch architecture which stands out so distinctly against the winter skies.  As we walk, I often call attention to characteristics and signs of different plant and animal life.

My destinations have included the isolated chestnut oak habitats of the Triangle area, such as Occoneechee, Red, Edward’s and Hagar Mountains.  Wrapped by a determined river or creek and covered with vegetation and wildlife, the north facing slopes of these local peaks present the saunterer with a subtle infusion of biodiversity representative of more distant  montane regions.  

Henry David Thoreau, who is my inspiration for both my wafting and sauntering terminology, and who continually challenged his community of Concord to appreciate their immediate environment, wrote “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least, sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  This is the goal of my outdoor group experiences.

Duke Medical Center generously relieved me of most of my $1800 bill and I was up and about in a month.  When I hold my bare feet together now, a year later, I can still detect a slight swelling in the left one.  I will always look upon it as a reminder that I share this planet with myriad other life forms.  When confronted with malaria, John Muir surrendered his dreams of the Orinoco and the Amazon, veered from his southward ramblings and headed to California where he found his place on the planet.

I haven’t changed directions so dramatically yet, but the Summer Tanager keeps beckoning me to follow him southward.  Besides my local activities, I continue to lead to lead several ecotourism expeditions every year from the Triangle area to the rainforests of Central and South America.  I invite the readers of Explore to join me and to discover, celebrate and respect the interconnectedness of both our Piedmont backyard and the neotropics of this green field on which we share life.

Dave Owen is a naturalist guide and a part-time Arabic instructor in the Department of Asian and African languages at Duke University.  
Photo by Riverdave: copperhead