Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Not So Scary Leaf Pile

For some reason, a pile of leaves can trigger fear in people. There are all sorts of scary rumors about what happens when you make a pile of leaves. Might the leaves attract rats, or catch fire from the heat of decomposition, or cut off oxygen and water to the ground underneath and thereby harm nearby trees? My experience provides these answers: no, no, and no. Then there are scary stories about what a leaf pile won't do. My radio alarm woke me up one weekend morning to a segment of You Bet Your Garden, the entertaining and informative gardening program out of Philadelphia. There was our normally spot-on Mike McGrath warning listeners that a pile of unshredded leaves will not decompose nor reduce in size. Come on, Mike. Just because shredded leaves are a handy item in the yard doesn't mean whole leaves are not.

Still, a scientific background will train your mind not to take any knowledge fully for granted, so I decided to put whole leaves to the test. This past spring, I "corralled" some wet, red oak leaves left over from winter in a circular corral made of green garden fencing. By early August, the pile was 2/3rds its original size.

By October, they had settled to a third the original bulk, and it was time to check inside the pile to see what sort of decomposition had taken place, and also to check what the soil and tree roots looked like underneath the pile.

On the outside, the leaves didn't appear to have decomposed, but that proved to be just a facade disguising the transformation the pile had undergone inside. Peeling away the outer layer of leaves revealed a core of rich, moist compost--enough to fill a large plant pot.

A three foot diameter leaf corral produced twenty pounds of compost, without any effort expended beyond tossing the original filling of the leaf corral this past spring. I may have tossed a shovel full of dirt on the leaves, to "seed" the pile with the micro flora and fauna that do the decomposing, but those would have migrated upward from underneath the pile anyway. There was no mixing of the leaves--the pile did all the transformative work on its own.

And did the pile of leaves, originally three feet high, cut off water and air to the soil underneath? The soil underneath the pile was moist and thick with tree roots. The leaf pile was not killing trees but instead feeding them. Just as the decompositional flora and fauna migrate upward into the pile from the soil underneath, groundwater will "wick" upwards in the soil to keep the underside of a leaf pile moist.

Red oak leaves are some of the more decay-resistant leaves homeowners encounter, and yet they broke down in an untended pile in less than a year. It may have helped that they were wet when they were made into a pile, so the next experiment may be to fill a leaf corral with dry leaves, and see what happens. Hypothesis: Rain, snow, and soil moisture will seep into the pile from above and below, and the pile will decompose in a way that is beneficial to all living things around it.

A leaf pile like this is about as sustainable as you can get. Instead of piling leaves in the street, where they must then be trucked to a composting site, ground, mixed in windrows, turned, screened, re-piled, then carted back into town, with fossil fuel burned for every step, make a pile in your own yard and let nature do all the work. And to model good behavior for your neighbors, integrate a leaf corral into your front yard landscaping rather than hide it in the back.

Make use of the resulting compost, or leave it all for the trees to feast on, so that the leaf corral becomes a bottomless channel for transitioning leaves back into soil. If enough people do this, government expense will go down, and the quality and permeability of urban soils will go up.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Chicken's First Egg!

We've been without egg production in our backyard for awhile. Daisy the duck, who had laid one egg daily like clockwork for several years, suddenly stopped some months ago. And Buffy, the white Aracana on the left, also decided her egg laying days were done. The three new Aracanas, bought as chicks from Rosedale Mills in the spring, were keeping us in suspense as to whether they'd start laying before winter comes. For the first time in years, I found myself in the grocery store facing shelves stacked high with eggs, trying to make sense of all the cagefree, natural, hormone-free, organic, brown or white, plastic or paper possibilities.

But over the weekend I did a full cleaning and rearrangement of their coop, and changed up the yard a bit, installing my own design of a leaf-corral/food-scrap-composter in a few spots. (More on these nifty devices in a future post.)

Maybe one of the birds took the changes as a cue. Or maybe there's some magic in the date, 11/11--that being the number I see on digital clocks far more often than chance would suggest likely--because the first egg in months appeared in a back corner of the coop this morning.

Now the question is which chicken laid the egg, and will the other two follow suit, ushering in a new era of fresh eggs from the backyard.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Who Put the Honey in Honey Locust?

A quick tidbit here about the pods that fall from honey locust trees around town. There's a honey locust near the old gas station at the Princeton Shopping Center, and another at the entry to the Princeton Healthcare Center just up Harrison Street. Each produces lots of pods that fall and sit on the ground uneaten.

The tree's scientific name, Gleditsia triacanthos, has always jumped immediately to mind since field botany days. Maybe sweetness helps the memory, a sweetness that can be found in the inner lining of the pod. I finally tried it this fall, and found it tasted very strongly of something very familiar, but I couldn't say what. Some flavor of bubble gum? My younger daughter tried it and supplied the answer.

Dried mango.

Of course, do your research and make a positive identification before you try eating anything out there, and there's not a whole lot of it when you break open the pod, but it's fun to think there's a taste treat akin to dried mango going begging in well-traveled spots all over Princeton.

Update, Nov. 9: I forgot to answer the question posed in the title. The answer as to why something sweet is not being eaten, by wildlife or people, is the same as when I posted about the honey locust's seemingly useless thorns two years ago, and is most finely stated in this succinct article: The Trees That Miss the Mammoths. The article will be transformative for many, and comes with a warning:
Warning: Reading this article may cause a whiplash-inducing paradigm shift. You will no longer view wild areas the same way. Your concepts of “pristine wilderness” and “the balance of nature” will be forever compromised. You may even start to see ghosts.
The article bases its view in part on the research of Dan Janzen, whose course on ecology I took back in the '70s. Megafauna like mammoths, giant sloths and mastodons would have eaten massive amounts of vegetation, certainly creating much more open habitats than we have currently. Rereading the article, the thought occurs that the American Indians', who certainly helped bring about the extinction of America's megafauna, may have learned to do frequent burnings of the landscape in part to sustain the more open habitats that would otherwise have been lost after megafauna disappeared.

Thus, in a scattering of seed pods across a groomed piece of turf, can be seen the challenge of defining what is natural as the pieces of the earth's great ecological puzzle continue to be lost.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Naturalist As Actor--Onstage Performance Sunday, 3pm

We briefly shift focus here from outer nature to inner nature. A community documentary theater group I'm in, called Onstage, will perform "A First Time for Everything" this Sunday, November 8, in the Princeton Public Library community room at 3pm. We are based at McCarter Theater, under the direction of McCarter's brilliant assistant artistic director, Adam Immerwahr, and perform at many venues in the area. This is one of our few performances that we can invite the public to attend, so check it out.

More info about our mission and the stories we collect and tell, with a different theme each year, can be found at That's John Abrams and Cecelia Hodges in the photo.

And that's me, at Passage Theatre, just as I first noticed the bald eagle swooping down from stage left in the middle of my monologue.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Close But No Persimmon

Each year, I play this game, and someday soon I'm going to win. In autumn, usually on my way to a university soccer game, I stop by the bridge over Washington Road to see if the persimmons on the trees rising around the bridge are within reach.

Planted as part of the landscaping, the persimmons have that Princetonian orange appeal. Unfortunately, the tight mesh of the fencing discourages any reaching through, even though the persimmons are just a couple feet away. Once they reach the fence, they surely won't taste as sweet as the grapes that Charlie Chaplin plucked from his window in Modern Times, but that seems beside the point.

The Princeton Tiger women's soccer team had a winning season, but for the Princeton Persimmons, it was another building year.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

A Steamboat Called SPLASH--Riding the Real Deal on the Delaware River

There's a most improbable coming together of nature and culture, environment and history, on the shores of the Delaware River. Docked in Lambertville, NJ, a short drive from Princeton, it's a steamboat called SPLASH, one of the more serendipitous acronyms to ply the placid waters of a mighty river. SPLASH is short for Student Participation in Learning Aquatic Science and History, and the boat itself is a 40 foot version of steamboats that once stretched to 300 feet in their heyday in the 19th century.

All the splashing water is in the stern, where an authentic and fully functional paddlewheel propels the boat forward, but as a fully functional steamboat, the vessel and its mission make quite a splash on the Delaware River scene.

I can identify with this boat. It has midwestern roots, came of age in Ohio in the 1970s, went through a number of metamorphoses while casting about for a purpose in life, and finally found meaning doing environmental work in New Jersey.

Offering rides for school groups or private events, it was in full environmental mode when I took a ride at the invitation of Eric Clark. One of the "floating classrooms" is in the bow, where we scooped up some river water and tested its quality.

Pour some water in a test-tube, add a drop or two of diagnostic solution, and match the resulting color to colors on a chart. I forget the numbers we ascribed to the water that day, but the overall sentiment was "not bad".

Meanwhile, upstairs Kelsey McNeely was describing how she uses an Enviroscape to teach kids about how rivers receive pollution from streets and chemically treated lawns.

Squirt bottles of colored water represent the different sorts of nonpoint pollution that flow, silently and usually unnoticed, downhill into the Delaware. The rain we view as a cleansing of the cityscape is experienced by the fish and other aquatic life as a pulse of pollution. Hardly seems fair. Kelsey offered suggestions of how to reduce the pollution towns generate.

Since the steamboat is called "America's first great invention", it was appropriate to have educator and inventor Brian Patton displaying robots made by some of his students, with some of the parts constructed using 3-D printers.

The cleverness that goes into making these robots was also applied to Brian's Midget MG, a tiny sports car that he and his students converted to electric after a rod in the engine broke. Its bank of lead acid batteries has enough range to dependably get him around Lambertville.

Take some steps down to the third classroom to journey back a couple hundred years to the beginnings of the steamboat era. Food was provided, lest we run out of steam during our time travels. Engineer Pete Burns explained the workings of the steamboat while he tweaked the controls to keep the boat running smoothly.

Seems to me paddleboats marked a pivotal point in our relationship to nature. Prior to the steamboat's invention, the paddlewheel had harnessed water power to drive the machinery in watermills. In a steamboat, a machine drives the paddlewheel which in turn moves the water.

Along with the fragrance of well-oiled metal, there's a Rube Goldberg quality to the elaborate sequence of rods, joints and dials that make the steamboat work. Those cups of oil in the upper left marked a big step forward in steamboat technology. Invented by Elijah McCoy, son of fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada before returning to the U.S., the cups automatically dripped oil onto moving parts, greatly reducing the maintenance required to keep steamboats running. McCoy was a prolific inventor who made his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan, which by coincidence is where my older daughter was born.

Some internet searches later on revealed how deeply connected the invention of steamboats is to the Delaware River and the birth of our nation. The steamboat era is said to have begun in 1787 when the first successful trial took place in Philadelphia, viewed by members of the U.S. Constitutional Convention.

There is an incredible backstory to this boat now known as SPLASH. Once called the "Shawnee Princess", the boat was abandoned in the 1990s and became a home for critters in an Ohio park, when a Princeton University psychology professor named Bert Hoebel tracked her down. Overcoming what for less passionate people would have been insurmountable problems of transport, he was able to bring the deteriorated remains of the boat to New Jersey, where it underwent a total rehabilitation, funded in part by money raised by preserving his farm through the sale of development rights. Six years and nearly $200,000 later, Hoebel's dream was realized when SPLASH was launched in 2004. Though Hoebel died in 2011, his vision continues through the nonprofit Steamboat Floating Classroom.

Like all nonprofits, they need volunteers, donors and support. Though the boat goes into hibernation during the winter, their website offers lots of info, including a fuller telling of the boat's amazing history and rehab.

Beyond the admirable educational mission, there's an authenticity to the boat and to the setting that seeps in during the ride. I grew up on a lake where a vessel called The Lady of the Lake would make the rounds, carrying tourists. It looked like a steamboat, but there was no real steam, and the paddlewheel's rotation was for show, not propulsion. It's a double deception, because the expression, "the real McCoy", comes from the steamboat tradition.

With SPLASH, the authenticity begins with the massive ash tree that stands on the bluff overlooking the dock. The tree looks like it could have witnessed the first steamboats on the Delaware 200 years ago.

The steam rising from the stern is real.

The dials in the engine room all function.

We passed enduring icons like the Bucks County Playhouse, 

the bridge to New Hope, PA, 

took in some of the river scene, with rowers and dragon boaters honing their skills, and felt above all the influence of the water, which in its easy acquiescence to gravity demonstrates how to relax. My favorite spot on the boat is in the bow, which glides quietly forward just inches above the water, offering endlessly varied reflections and a view of the river bottom.

With some nature and culture, education in history and environment,

it's all sure to bring a smile.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Resplendent Fall Colors at Plainsboro Preserve

For anyone seeking a good dose of fall color to carry you through winter's deprivations, the Plainsboro Preserve is just fifteen minutes away. I had heard they have a nice pond, but it's a full-fledged lake, born of a sand quarry operation now long past. As with the Fourth of July fireworks seen above Lake Carnegie, the lake's reflection amplifies the color of leaves and sky.

The main trail's to the left, but the ground's dry enough that you can take a lengthy walk around the lake to the right, where you find sandy soils a la the Pine Barrens and lots of blueberry bushes, red maples,

and sweetgums. The trail sometimes fades, but just stick close to the lake.

I'll write more about the place, but wanted to get the word out while the colors still hang on the trees. They have a nice Audubon visitor's center perched overlooking the lake, and lots of programming. There's a "full moon Friday" beaver walk on Oct. 30, and an open house on Nov. 7. More info on their website.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

PU's "Hidden Valley" Nature Trail

Make yourself like rainwater, follow Princeton University's slopes down to the graceful Streicker Bridge that straddles Washington Road, and there you will find a trail through what I call the Hidden Valley. The trail begins under the bridge, branching off from a paved bikepath that goes around the back of the Chemistry Building.

The valley's steep slopes and canopy of 200 year old trees give a sense of seclusion, despite being a stone's throw from Washington Road.  Okay, "stone's throw" is an old expression, and probably should come with a cautionary warning in this safety-conscious era. By accidentally using it, I didn't mean to encourage or condone the actual throwing of stones, particularly with the off chance of hitting two birds, or a car driving by.

It's a very stony valley, though, and when I was a boy, the impulse would definitely have been to toss a stone at the water in the stream, to get that satisfying kerplunk. The stream was restored to kerplunkable condition by the university. Bulldozers and backhoes lumbered up into the woods to carefully place boulders in the shape of "cross veins" which manipulate the scouring effect of the water to form a series of pools and riffles, which in turn make good aquatic habitat.

There's evidence that nature's been throwing stones--big ones. The same powerful stormwater runoff from the campus that had degraded the original stream has also pushed some of the carefully placed rocks out of position. That got my land manager's mind going, which is to say I started noticing all the little interventions that could make a big difference for this small gem of open space. Call it a passion for maintenance, which either turns this post into a timely call for action (university grounds supervisor, please read!) or makes me something of a rude guest in this Hidden Valley, pointing out the flaws.

A workday with some university students could get those stones back into place before surging stormwater pushes even more out of position.

And the white oak on the left, 200 years old if it's like others in the valley whose rings have been counted, is having to compete with a smaller but quickly growing Norway maple that has invaded the valley.

Norway maples are notorious for their aggressive root systems and a capacity to grow up in the shade, eventually outcompeting and displacing the native trees above them. The same slow drama is happening along the fencelines of people's backyards. Looking up, one sees the dense green leaves of Norway maple, not the oak's.

Here, one of the old giants has succumbed, perhaps from the trauma of Hurricane Sandy, or the soil trauma of the stream restoration project, or from the root competition of Norway maples. Maybe all three. It would be relatively easy to cut down all the invasive maples, which otherwise will expand their impact on native shrubs and old growth trees. If we're going to be active, we might as well be pro-active.

And porcelain berry, "kudzu of the north", has gotten a hold, here seen climbing over one of the witchhazels the university planted as part of the restoration.

The extensive replantings of forbs, shrubs and trees, by the way, was very successful, despite the tough work of planting into shale, and it would be a shame if it all gets overrun by invasive vine. I'm sure the university tries to instill the values of early intervention and followup in its students. No better place to get a hands-on experience with that than in this Hidden Valley. Muscles remember far better than the mind does.

This little foot bridge over the stream has an unfinished quality to it, unless it's designed to help athletes hone their sense of balance while walking between sports fields and boathouse to the west and the Jadwin Gym complex to the east.

The main trail ends at Faculty Road, with the big field and Carnegie Lake just to the left in the photo. It's a fine little trail, sustained mostly by hikers and deer, with a mowed branch that heads over to Jadwin Gym, and another across the unfinished mini-bridge to Washington Road. The university's intention, according to those who designed the stream restoration, was to make this little valley welcoming to students and the general public. With its towering old trees, lovely stream and sense of seclusion amidst the university's bustle, the valley is rewarding to visit now, and could be even more so with some periodic informed intervention.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Canoeing the Mighty Mullica--Fire, Water, Sand, Sound and Sense

We recently received a spirited invitation in an email. Some new friends, Tom and Inge, were heading to New Jersey's pine barrens for an overnight canoe trip, and invited a bunch of us to go along. I was quick to say yes, but wondered what all the excitement was about, in canoeing down a river in the Pine Barrens an hour down the road from Princeton. How much "down" could there be in that flat, sandy expanse, and what sort of river is it, anyway, if it doesn't get much more than fifteen feet wide? How rich in pleasure could a barren be? Nothing but the enthusiasm of the invitation gave any evidence of the charm, challenge, and beauty that awaited.

Canoeing for me had always been the white water rivers of northern Wisconsin, where the rapids could swallow your boat and your gear if you made a wrong turn. Mostly we made brave family jaunts to the Flambeau River, the last journey being many years later, to let our father's ashes mingle with the bronze, tannin-rich waters, like grey flakes of sand catching flashes of sunlight as the current carried them away. That's how much love we had wrapped up in those rivers.

Rapids or not, current or not much, we were now headed on an overnight canoe trip down a river I chose to call the "mighty Mullica", no matter how mighty it might turn out to be. Their generous offer had turned the tide enough to lure my urbaphilic family out of its routines, to venture beyond the limits of creature comforts and into the New Jersey hinterlands.

The Mullica, draining the largest watershed in the pine barrens, was as advertised--narrow, slow-flowing--and yet its tight-cornered meanderings presented a surprising challenge even for a seasoned canoeist. Put your paddle down long enough to take a photo and the current might carry you gently but surely into a tangle of shrubbery.

I had to draw on muscle memory to bring back the variety of paddle strokes needed to maneuver past lovely obstructions like this pine tree fallen across the water. There always seemed to be just enough room to slip by.

The narrow channel offered a more intimate encounter with the surroundings than a big river, akin to a magical boardwalk that carried us along through an unspoiled landscape.

Being the designated botanist for the journey, in the great tradition of early European explorations of America, albeit on a somewhat tamer scale, I immediately started grooving on the foliage. Hey. Sweet pepperbush, everybody! Also called summersweet because of its fragrance, which must really be sweet when canoeing this river earlier in the season, because it lines the banks for miles. Alas, no one was listening. The kids on the trip--enough to make a ten kid pyramid later in the trip--had all raced ahead in their sporty kayaks.

We canoeists, laden with camping gear, held down the rear, allowing time to admire the beauty of the current's play on some sort of underwater grass. The grasslike clumps on the banks are actually tussock sedges, which year by year build their own individual pedestals to levitate above the muck.

Every now and then, a patch of higher ground rising out of the marshy expanse would show off the underlying sand.

Elsewhere, the vistas opened up with broad wet meadows, each having its own special mix of sedges and rushes.

There were occasional backups where fallen trees or beaver dams stymied our multi-generational flotilla.

Later on, round the campfire, the younger generation charmed us with spirited renditions of Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Goodnight Irene, Cumbaya and--just kidding! Somehow those tunes have not transferred to the next generation, which instead launched into a brainy, animated discussion that pivoted rapidly, in internet surfing fashion, from relativity to their favorite sci-fi flicks, to playing a game that required everyone to shut their eyes--a smart game to play when wet firewood is generating a lot of smoke. We could at least thank the rains the week before for making the mighty Mullica more mighty.

If I had given a post-dinner lecture on the botanical world that surrounded us, I would have begun with a big tip of the hat to forest fire, which we reflexively think of as destructive, but not so. The charred bark on this shortleaf pine offers evidence of periodic "cool" fires that sweep through the forest, cleaning the ground of accumulated pine needles and fallen limbs and creating a beautiful, park-like landscape that welcomes light and exploration. Without periodic fire, the pine forest would become choked by debris. Seeds couldn't sprout through the thick mulch of pine needles. The trees and other plants are in fact cleverly adapted for fire. The pines and oaks grow thick, fire-resistant bark. The pine needles and thick, waxy oak leaves resist decay, and so continue to accumulate year after year until there's enough fuel to carry a fire through the forest. Pitch pines produce serotinous cones that only open after being heated by a fire, fortuitously spilling their seeds onto the bare mineral soil and nutrient-rich ash left behind.

Fire's varied intensity kills some trees but not others, leaving an open canopy that allows enough light through for blueberries to flourish. Though the bushes get burned, they quickly resprout, to produce crops for a few years until the next fire comes along. Because fire is so important to this landscape, many are "prescribed"--intentionally lit by crews under optimal conditions of wind, fuel loads and humidity.

That so few people know about fire's important ecological role speaks to how poorly we are served by the news media's reflexive portrayal of forest fire as a story about victims and perpetrators, a battle against nature. Those mis-portrayals lead to policies that suppress beneficial fires, thereby insuring that fuels in the forest will build up until the next fire will burn too hot, killing the trees and sterilizing the soil. Fortunately, the pine barrens is one place where enlightened management persists.

After growing accustomed to the urban landscape, where anything dead must be swept away as quickly as possible, it's a relief both spiritually and aesthetically to enter a land where trees can have a long life after death, standing against the sky like sculptures in nature's garden, to weather slowly in the sun and rain.

For a botanist, the word "barren" is associated with richness. Poor soil can actually foster high diversity, perhaps because the lack of nutrients reduces the aggressiveness of plants. Rich soil can empower one species to grow too vigorously over all the others.

My campfire chat about the trees whose wood we burned might have included some tree identification. The pitch pines and shortleaf pines have needles grouped in threes. In contrast, the white pines planted around Princeton have groups of five, like the letters in "white". The post oak leaf on the right has a characteristic cross shape with rounded lobes. The blackjack oak leaf in the middle has a broad, rounded look, much bigger at one end, like a bison. The black oak on the left has small points at the tips of its lobes.

Blackjack oaks don't grow much more than twenty feet tall in the poor soil, and when laden with acorns have the look of a fig tree.

You can see how thick their bark is, even when young, the better to resist the flames that are sure to come.

I might have talked about why the river was so zig-zaggy, how the forces of erosion work on the outside bank, causing the curves to become more and more pronounced. This photo is from the outside edge of one of those bends, which has become so sharp that one can catch both upstream and downstream in the same photo.

I might have talked about the red maples, bright with fall color, that line both this river and Princeton's streets. They are adapted not so much to wetness but instead to the low oxygen conditions of soggy soils where water has displaced most of the air pockets. That adaptation works well for dry urban soils, where compaction also leaves little room for air.

Overnight, we were treated to a coyote chorus, which started out sounding like a solitary owl, then quickened into a collective call. One of the Pinelands Adventures employees told me the coyotes are a coyote/grey wolf mix, with the grey wolf element having somehow made the journey from Michigan.

One level of added pleasure on this trip was the silence, broken only periodically by a distant airplane. The background noise of the urban world is like static on a radio. What a relief to shed that clatter and enter a high-fidelity world where sounds are crisp and clear. Though the western horizon glowed with the light from Philadelphia and Camden, the night sky, too, was less cluttered with the urban static of light pollution. Stars were bright enough to give a hint of the Milky Way.

Even the less than comfortable night spent on hard ground--mental note: bring better padding for underneath the sleeping bag next time, or try one of those hammock tents we saw at the next campsite over--led to an early morning walk to loosen up the back, and the chance to witness one of the most beautiful sights of all, the thick clouds of mist rising from the river as chill coaxed vapors skyward from the warm waters.

Our campground stay concluded with a traditional pyramid photo session, with the pyramid orchestrated by Zoe Brooks, of Trenton Circus Squad fame.

The Mullica was mightier the second day, with faster current and broader channel bordered by groves of Atlantic white cedar, whose tall, straight growth contrasted with the gnarled look of the pines and oaks at the campsite.

Along more open stretches, switch grass lined the banks--switch grass being one of the grasses of the tall grass prairies where buffalo roamed. It surprised us all years back when it made a cameo appearance in a State of the Union address in George W. Bush's vision for a biogas future.

The botanist went back to botanizing, finding old, improbable friends from his North Carolina days, like bushy bluestem,

and split-beard bluestem, a beautiful grass that looks like cotton when backlit.

He collected specimens of this mystery grass to take back to the King of Princeton, as evidence of the richness and promise of these newly explored lands to the south.

But mostly, he and everyone else brought back memories, of young voices around a campfire, the green of craggy pines against a deep blue sky, the crispness of sounds against a backdrop of silence, the relaxed flow of water, and a reflection or two.