21. Footsteps in Floyd II: “Earth Class.”

Every piece of property around here is owned,” declares Beth Cherrix.

So if you take a step in either direction you’re on somebody else’s property. If you run, you trespass. So you have to find somebody else’s property that’s runnable. You may have what seems a perfectly good road but a lot of times they’re too curvy, so I’m afraid I’ll be hit. Usually you have to go into town and use the sidewalks, or go on a back road that has little traffic, or go on trails [usually along the Blue Ridge Parkway]. They’re nice, but you have to have transportation. For some people that’s kind of hard to do, depending also on where they live.

Despite and because of its rural and mountainous character, Floyd County offers a mixed backpack to walkers, runners, and hikers. This installment of “Footsteps” celebrates a hilly outing that involves boy, snowballs, stream, and newts.

Children in Floyd County may have surprising challenge to get out into nature. Houses often sit near roads, public-school pupils take the bus, cycling is risky. Because a minority (I suspect) do farm work, calories build up–with the help, moreover, of an overloaded diet. This excess of chow is another paradox for a county where one’s first concern was to secure enough food. An example of unhealthy living: in the Jesse Peterman Library three boys played a video game, two lounged like zombies on a padded bench, and the other merely watched, as tubby as he was friendly. By contrast, any offspring of a woman wearing a Church of the Brethren ensemble looks trim. Randall’s prophecy: “Mama’s skirt toucheth the ground,/ Mama’s kids never be round.”

Richard Louv has proposed a “nature-deficit disorder.” Apologizing for the jargon, he says it accurately describes the human costs of alienation from nature. Among them: “diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.” (Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2005, p. 34.)

Trails for Floyd folded like the T-shirt bearing its name and stuck in a drawer. The group’s plan for a circular trail was cut in half by the county, then denied completely, as was the proposal for a trail elsewhere. So the president took a hike. One challenge involved liability: governmental units enjoy a harder-to-sue status than private citizens, but the county has no Department of Public Works that could oversee trails. Another challenge seemed political-cultural. 

So–lucky the resident with friends willing to share paths! A couple of times Fred and Ann First had led us up to nearly inaccessible waterfalls. And now Dennis and Suzie invited us on a hike to the figurative end of March. They had constructed a number of up-and-downhill paths in their acreage off Woods Gap Road, about a half-mile from the Parkway. Randall, daughter Andrea, and her boy Sidney (almost six) arrived minus Gigi, who stayed to watch little ones. Up the steep driveway we drove, past an old farmhouse converted to Suzie’s photography studio and past Dennis’s wood-turning shop. 

Our grandson wore leather boots, jeans, and a gray-armed blue shirt that bore the daunting image of Waste allocator load lifter—earth class. Dennis, who spent a career examining microscopic slides as a pathologist, now has an avocation as botanical observer-illustrator. He showed the lad his Bee Paper Super Deluxe 9 x 6 inch sketch book, a journal he carries in a fanny pack as he walks around or works on the property. He also opened a larger volume used for watercolor and more complete sketches in the field or back at the drawing table. It records details botanical, zoological, directional, meteorological, and sensory.

Page from Dennis's nature notebook that records details over three days.

Page from Dennis’s nature notebook that records details over three days.

We hiked down the mowed hill and crossed a stream that trickled near a pond. Suzie showed the lad a few treasures in the warm, shallow end. Soon his palm held a sort of froggy-lizard that was brown-topped and yellow-bottomed: a newt (i.e., a semiaquatic salamander). The lad stepped farther into the sodden brown leaves as Dennis reviewed the life-phases of this creature. The excited Sheltie bounded around and up and down the trail.

A square wooden raft was tied near shore. “Want to get on it?” A quick smile convinced Dennis to pull the rope, hoist Load Lifter onto the island, help his mother aboard, and shove them off. After paddling to the opposite side, Andrea declared, “We’re not in Charlotte anymore.” Safely back on the ground, the pair were introduced to rattlesnake plantain, a veined leaf that Sidney dropped in his little shopping bag for a possible later drawing. Then he picked up a clump of moss—“moss” being a word he’d just encountered in a picture book on frogs. “No flowers or seeds,” explained Dennis. “Licopodium.” “’Creeping cedar’ is what I call it,” added Suzie.

A white ball flew from Sid’s hand onto Mommy. Indeed the whole slope was still dotted with snow. We climbed to something that looked like a wrecked glider but turned out to be a camouflaged tent used by Dennis that had collapsed during the winter. (Once he came upon a bear lounging inside it.) “My hands are cold,” protested Sid, so Grandpa knew what to do with his own boy-warmers. Then Andrea invaded the lad’s personal space: “Mom, stop following me.” “But we’re on a trail.”

He had to climb a set of thin, parallel, sharp edged slices “I love these rocks.” Grandpa’s commentary followed. “They almost look as if arranged there. If you lie between them on May 18, the sun will rise in that direction” (indicated by a randomly pointed finger and viewed by a skeptical kindergartner). Then we came to a grove of very tall trunks that, hard to believe, were cherries, once part of an orchard, that had climbed like tulip poplars to get sunshine.

“Sid, do you smell the air?” I plucked a little fan of green pine-needles and held them to his nose. “Can you draw a picture of the smell?” An “Oh, Grandpa” grin that was tolerant and appreciative. He pried up a crescent-shaped cone: “Looks like a boomerang.” At a stump, Suzie pointed out the empty acorns and opened cones. Squirrel. To prove that he went to college, Grandpa introduced the term for pines: gymnosperm, “naked seeds.” At the next stump the lad tripped.

We came to an old fence built of partly three horizontal logs arranged in a zig-zag so that corners could rest at an angle for support. Mementos of the old farm, as were the rocks that still made partial fences. “Mr. Thompson’s grandson,” reported Dennis, “told me that back in the 1920s the farmer used to build these fences on Sunday just for recreation.” To Sid I pointed out another historical remnant: “What do you notice about that stump?” “It’s flat.” “Why?” “Sawed.” I added a few words about lumbering as a way to make cash. Another snowball, too hard and one too many. Then I called the lad back to observe fungus on a stump, and into the sack it disappeared to join a piece of earlier bark.

“Look, can you see the pond?” Down the hill below us, murky jade. Now we climbed over the fence and stepped downward. Earth Class slipped on last week’s snow. We traversed the creek again with the help of a log rail and well-placed flat rocks. “I just found this strange leaf!” Into the little twine-handled shopping bag went a long fern.

Again we crossed the stream as it deferred to gravity athwart us. The sound of trickle gleams with sunlight. I am thinking that life can’t get any better when it does, for the boy is now hiking right in the current. Jump, splash! He raises a long branch, lets it go, splash! “I keep hearing this sound, and I don’t know what the sound is” (the babble of the stream). Eyes sparkling hazel, he hoists a flat rock, tosses it. Balances on a limb that gives. Tests a rock for stability.

Uphill again as we start to huff a bit, I hold out a long, moist pine chip: “Smell it!” He does, and it disappears into the collection. Again we cross the creek, this time reaching the pond. Frog splashes; crow caws; bird tweets. Suzie reports that the lad caught two newts. Sid: “At once.” They tend to congregate in the shrubbery and leaves, she explains. “Do they have red spots on them?” “Yes.” “That’s what they’re called, ‘red-spotted newts.’” Her tutee plunges a leg into the drink and grabs no fewer than four. “We don’t have fish,” Suzie explains. “They are predators. The newts,” she observes further, “are pretty squirmy guys.” Into the water they plop.

A distant noise. “Is that a cow?” asks Suzie. Returning to the salamanders: “They like it when it’s sunny–they float alone on top.” Along with sodden brown oak leaves. Grandpa asks the child to regard the two long slopes that meet at the pond. What does he notice? “One side is snowy and one isn’t.” “Why?” “Sun.” The lad now crawls over the trunk of an uprooted pine that I manage to step over.

Back on the mowed slope, “More feathers,” as Sid makes another deposit in the bag-bank. As we sit in the morning light and talk, Sid outlines a smallish rock in the ground with his finger, revealing moist brown dirt. Then he turns another one up and raps the first one with it, pounds. Then he swings the rapper back and forth between his hands. “Look,” I say, pointing to something on the bag. “Bee,” exclaims Sid. Its thorax is yellow and black. In a spring-like mood, I let it crawl on the fingernail of my index finger, then prudently blow it away. Up the hill we trudge in the direction of the house, with a twig sticking out of the bottom of the sack. “Sid, your shadow is dragging along the ground. Hope it doesn’t hurt.” The reply: “Your shadow is dragging along.”