from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

October 7, 2001

On September 19 I met my German friend Sigrid at the Atlanta airport. Sigrid is the chief of the Department of Plant Systematics at the University of Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany. We have worked together on many botanical projects over the years. You can meet Sigrid at

We then backpacked on the Appalachian Trail for a little over a week. We entered the Trail at Hot Springs, North Carolina and hiked toward and then through Smoky Mountain National Park, coming down at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Then we visited my family in western Kentucky, took a brief business trip to the Missouri Botanical Gardens in St. Louis, where both Sigrid and I used to work, and then we came south to Laurel Hill, visiting the Poverty Point archeological site in northeastern Louisiana on the way.

Backpacking along the Appalachian Trail was a pure joy, though our heavy packs made it hard going. The trees were just beginning to show colors at the higher elevations, especially the Sweet Birch, BETULA LENTA, with their yellow leaves. On an average day we might meet 3 or 4 other backpacking groups and individuals, so the Trail itself still affords one the sense of hiking in the wilderness. We saw no bears, though we did see their poop along the Trail, at this season stained red with the juice of Blueberries. The most interesting wildlife encounter was when Sigrid nearly stepped onto a Timber Rattlesnake. Fortunately it moved from her path just before she stepped on it. It was a thick one, rattling its tail as it slithered into the grass.

The most striking feature of the Smoky's vegetation is that at the higher elevations the Spruce-Fir forests have died. White skeletons of trees dominated every view. I mean to say that EVERY large tree on many slopes and peaks was dead. The immediate cause of this is the Balsam Woolly Adelgid, an insect. You can read about this insect and the damage it causes at   You can see a picture of a slope dominated by Fraser Firs killed by the insect halfway down the page at this address.

It is generally assumed that this insect damage was made possible by acid rain, which lowers a tree's immunity to diseases. You can read about the effects of acid rain on the Smoky's ecosystem at We also hiked in the foothills south of Smokys, in North Carolina, and I was pleased to see two tree species which are "endemic," or found only in a small area, the southern Appalachians.

One was the Carolina Hemlock, TSUGA CAROLINIANA, which you can meet at and the other, which a very strange fruit, was the Buffalo Nut, PYRULARIA PUBRA, at

This Appalachian Trail is simply a wonderful thing. You can check it out at and

Fall colors were just beginning to appear as we arrived at my grandmother's home 20 miles south of Owensboro in western Kentucky. However, they were much more obvious in the St. Louis area. As we traveled south from St. Louis, the colors came and went, so at least in that part of the country the fall colors are not advancing in an even line southward. Here at Laurel Hill there are no real fall colors, though I can see that there's a bit more yellow in the green forest than when I left.

Though most of my adult life I have traveled in many parts of the world, both as a botanist and a freelance writer, during this last year I have not been outside of Adams County, Mississippi at all, and only off of Laurel Hill Plantation for those few hours needed to buy supplies during my monthly bike trips into town. This trip has been quite a change for me.

My first vivid impression was that it was a delight to see so many kinds of human. Children playing in yards, the grouchy bus driver, the friendly Mexican traveling to a new town, people in cars sipping Cokes as they drove, people walking down streets with cellular phones at their ears. It occurred to me that meeting a new human was like discovering a new wildflower, except that humans are much more interesting, more complex, offering more levels of interpretation and appreciation.

However, the problem with humans is that there are too many of us. Soon I became desensitized to them, even oppressed by their numbers, and by the destruction they have done to every ecosystem I have seen. I find the Earth to be in a real mess and the mess grows daily. Forests wrecked, air smudged, water wasted and polluted, soil abused, open spaces made junky, quietness spoiled.

Often I thought how wonderful it would be if our human populations were just diffuse enough so that whenever one of us met another we could greet the other as a unique individual worth examining and knowing, just the way Sigrid and I might examine a new orchid found along our Appalachian trail.