Afternoon in the clouds

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We ventured into the heart of the Cumberland Mountains once again, to look for birds.

When we visited the same spot last week, it was a sunny day, crisp for late spring, and the trees at the top of our preferred mountain were not yet in full leaf. This week a different atmosphere had taken hold. A storm system was blowing through the valley, sending tendrils of mist up the hillsides and making the gray sky growl with occasional thunder. Chill winds alternated with those damp, balmy breezes that feel like animals’ breath. The sheer amount and variety of green before the eye, green pressing in on all sides and made even more vibrant by the gloom, dazzled us as we made our way up the old mining roads and into the clouds. The Cumberlands were in a serious mood, fecund and brooding.

What a difference a week makes.

We spent a lot of time traipsing wetly through managed elk habitat, the closest thing East Tennessee has to moorlands. The grass was festooned with spittlebug foam. Trilliums and mushrooms sprouted in the bushes. A number of birds were enjoying the diversity of food available at the woodland edge, including an American redstart with vivid orange patches on his tail and two chestnut-sided warblers with jolly raspberry-jam-red streaks running down their flanks. A pair of field sparrows mated right in front of us. It all bespoke a mad early-summer rush to grow and procreate, so much so that I was slightly embarrassed to bear witness to it in the company of my mother and stepfather.

We had fun, though. We had so much fun that recent photographs of my mother and I not looking stiff and unnatural are now in existence:

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My mom looking for roadside ginger

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Me being hammy

It was very quiet for an accessible wilderness area in our tourism-happy region (no, I shan’t tell you exactly where it is), perhaps because it’s in what’s understood to be coal country. If you look off the road on the mountain, you will see land formations like broad shelves where seams of coal were sliced out many years ago. The much more gruesome scars of mountaintop removal are visible in the distance at certain overlooks. This may be too depressing for many nature lovers. I would argue that when you are listening for the ethereal calls of Eastern wood-pewees in the handsome second-growth forest atop this mountain and others like it, you come to focus not on what has been lost but on what has been preserved, and on what you would be willing to fight for.

This is what I do on Sunday instead of church. I highly recommend it.

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