When I first came to North Carolina, the mountains were a magical, mysterious place. Sunny paths disappeared into dark, gnarled tunnels of rhododendron, creeks burbled with salamanders and fish whose names I didn’t know, and I saw every stump and shadowy rock as a black bear of questionable friendliness.
In six years of living here, I’ve learned. The few actual bears I’ve seen either ran away from me or continued nonchalantly eating blueberries at a distance. I know the landmarks along many trails, that this outcropping is a good stop for a snack because it’s slightly more than halfway there or that those little cascades would be great for a dip… except for the snakes. And I’m blessed with friends that have grown up in or studied these mountains for the better part of their lives. Hiking with them is like hiking with an encyclopedia.
But what if I don’t want to know the name of every plant? Sometimes, while they debate leaf features, I take a few steps back and look out at the forest, notice where the sunlight breaks through the canopy and listen for my favorite bird call.
Because what if that tufted crown of golden petals has a name as unbecoming as lousewort? (It does.)
Or what if instead of admiring a tree’s deep rutted bark, I start analyzing it?
What if instead of looking at the mountains wonderingly, I start looking at them knowingly?
I remembered, though, that knowledge doesn’t exclude the imagination, and often even inspires it. What if that lousewort has been bitter about its name for generations? Suddenly, those regal petals become little tongues sticking out. Jewelweed went from a dainty orange flower to a true forest gem, a cure for poison ivy accompanied by explosive seed pods – booby traps, perhaps, to fend off the jewel thieves.
And more often than not, the truth in these forests is far better than what I could have ever imagined. Now, I’m getting to know these mountains, haunted by blue ghost fireflies, burning with flame azaleas, and impassioned with hearts-a-bustin’.
Still, I’m determined never to know who it is that sings my favorite bird call.
As a writer, I try to keep in mind that my fiction can share knowledge and that my non-fiction can inspire the imagination and instill a sense of wonder. As a hiker, what I’ve learned about these mountains with all the knowledge I’ve gained is that they will always be a magical and mysterious place.