I was in the mountains of North Carolina earlier this month for a short bout of fieldwork. It wasn’t my first time in those mountains – I’ve hiked there in the past, and collected insects on multiple trips, but it was my first trip there on my own. The solitude was a real change.
My first stop was Carver’s Gap, a 5512′ (1700 metres in the rest of the world) pass on the Tennessee/North Carolina border where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road on its way along the crest of the Roan Mountains. The catawba rhododendrons and flame azaleas were blooming, always a big draw up in the high Appalachians. There were many other vehicles in the lot. We were all in the same place, to see much the same things, but many of us were seeing those sights in very different ways. Most of the people there were taking photographs – some with small point and shoot cameras, some with lenses the size of rocket launchers. Two men had set up easels and were making paintings of the hillsides as the summits drifted in and out of the clouds. I was armed with field guides and notebooks because I was there to do some site descriptions and identify (or try to . . .) some of the less spectacular and photogenic plants out on the hillsides.
The Roan Mountains are much better known among botanists than entomologists, and not just because of the huge rhododendron gardens that blanket the high ridge. This place is a crossroads in the early history of North American botany. The nearby town of Bakersville has historical markers along the main street commemorating Andre Michaux and Asa Gray, two pioneers in the field who wandered these mountains two centuries ago, identifying, collecting and studying the plants. There are many unique and special plants still growing on Roan Mountain today and, in fact, I first heard about this mountain from botanist colleagues. I don’t think entomologists make pilgrimages here. Maybe they should.
On a deeper time scale, these mountains are also a crossroads in the history of the continent itself. The rock underlying these rhododendron groves and fir forests and hiking trails is probably a billion years old. It’s part of the heart of the continent, the ancient core of North America that’s persisted through the formation and breakup of supercontinents in the deep past. The Appalachian mountains were pushed up during the formation of one of those supercontinents – Pangaea – when Africa ran into eastern North America about 400 million years ago. These mountains used to look like the Rockies when they were young, until time and rain and wind and roots and lichens wore them down to the rounded slopes we drive and walk over today. There were no rhododendrons then, no flowering plants at all – they didn’t evolve until a couple hundred million years later. The earliest ancestors of plants were just colonizing land when the Appalachians were pushed up. And most of the animals were still in the ocean.
My birthday was looming while I was out on the sites that day, trying to identify some frustrating ferns that weren’t quite unfurled enough to be easy. I suppose I’d been feeling a little . . . old . . . that morning, maybe a consequence of a long drive the day before. But walking over billion-year-old rocks on a 400-million-year-old mountain trying to put names on 200-million-year-old plants while insects mostly unchanged from their ancestors millions of years old buzzed over the 50-million-year-old flowers puts Human Time in a much bigger context.
When I got back to the parking lot the photographers had mostly filled their digital memories and had headed off down the road. But the painters were still happily filling in some details on their pictures (time is relative). I was feeling quite a bit younger, thanks to the ancient rocks. And a little bit healthier, thanks to the air and the walk. And a little more like a botanist, thanks to being able to put names on some plants. So with my worldview nicely reset, I headed for the next set of mountains. The field is good for you.