Solace and joy during pandemic (head to the woods now if you want to see mountain laurel blossoms)

Story and photos by Mary Ann Zehr, contributor

When I moved to Harrisonburg in July 2018, after living in the D.C. area for 27 years, I was eager to connect with nature. I intended to visit the mountains to walk in the woods every week. But during my first 22 months living here, I made it to the mountains only once every couple of months.

The coronavirus pandemic changed that. In May, I’ve had minimal part-time work, so I’ve spent hours in the mountains. It’s all been at one place, Hone Quarry Recreation Area (in the George Washington National Forest), a gem for its diversity of flora and fauna. My personal project of noticing and learning the names of plants, insects, birds, and other creatures there has provided purpose. It has also been a source of solace and joy.

On my first spring visit to Hone Quarry, I hiked the Cliff Trail. After a half mile of walking up the mountain, I came to an overlook, which has a view of a valley and layers of mountain ridges. Seeing the expansiveness of the space in the valley framed by mountains and available for exploration counteracted the sense of confinement I’d felt in the previous six weeks. My job as an adjunct writing instructor had gone online in mid-March, and I’d spent a lot of time inside my apartment at a computer sending emails, grading papers, and teaching classes on Zoom.

I had cell phone service at that overlook, so I posted a message on Facebook, “The mountains are open at Hone Quarry.” Posted signs said facilities at Hone Quarry were closed for COVID-19. But trails were open, and I felt elated that something was “open,” given that theaters, restaurants, libraries, churches, and other places I was accustomed to visiting for intellectual, spiritual, or social engagement were closed.

On that first visit I stumbled upon a single, bright, bluish-purple flower blooming against a backdrop of drab dead leaves and pine cones. The juxtaposition of new plant life with deceased plant material seemed symbolic of the juxtaposition of life and death during the pandemic. The bright bloom represented the hope I felt in how people were spending quality time with their families, gardening, or getting acquainted with neighbors. The dead leaves and pine cones represented the mounting death toll from Covid-19.

Later, with the help of a Google image search, I identified the bluish-purple bloom as a Virginia iris, also called a Southern blue flag.

On that day of the visit to the woods, dogwood trees were in full bloom, scattered among bare trees or trees with new leaves. I took a photo of one such dogwood tree and dubbed the image “Dogwood Impressionism.”

Three days later I was back on the same trail, but this time, I hiked a loop. The trails that made up the loop ran on and off my printed paper map. I expected to hike about six miles, but, in fact, I hiked what seemed to be a very long 8.6 miles and I would have had to walk at least one more mile on the service road to my car had a fisherman not given me a ride on the back of his truck. My legs were stiff for three days after that, but the hike had cured me of any pandemic “stir craziness.”

I had spotted numerous stands of Virginia irises on the loop hike. I’d also heard a lot of birds chirping, so decided that I would start carrying binoculars. Through the bare limbs of trees, I’d also seen views of the Hone Quarry Reservoir and grand views of layers of mountain ridges.

On May 15, I spent most of the day hiking a loop made up of three trails: Heartbreak, Hone Quarry Mountain, and Big Hollow. I was met with a surprise when I reached the top ridge of the mountain. A forest fire had cleared out the underbrush, leaving room for meadow-like vegetation, such as grass, to flourish. Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies chased each other. I spotted numerous clusters of four-petaled dainty blue flowers (later, I learned they were bluets). I challenged myself to fit as many bluet blossoms into a photo as possible.

With the clearing of the underbrush, the forest fire had created the opportunity for hiking with other mountains in clear view. My AllTrails app said the loop was 5.4 miles long. But my cell phone recorded that I hiked eight miles that day; I’d done some backtracking.

In mid-May it rained a lot, so I speculated Hone Quarry’s waterfalls would be beautiful. On a misty Sunday morning (May 17), it was just people fishing and me at Hone Quarry Reservoir. I started walking at the reservoir and passed wetlands with cattails. Most of the Waterfall Trail, which is 4.7 miles roundtrip, is made up of a poorly maintained service road. Two waterfalls are located about a mile into the woods from the service road. In one of them water drops about 15 feet and in the other falls, water cascades over several tiers of rocks. The falls were refreshingly spectacular and I spent 10 minutes alone with them.

Because of more rain over several days, I didn’t get to Hone Quarry until the following Saturday.  I spent the most glorious day there of all of my days in May in the woods. I hiked the same loop I’d hiked before that incorporated the hike along Hone Quarry Mountain Trail where the underbrush has been cleared out by fire. Streams were gushing with water. Near a stream I spotted a bright-orange creature I later identified as a red-spotted newt. Hiking the trail involved a couple of tricky stream crossings. At one, I took off my hiking boots and socks and carried them. Wading in the cold water made me feel alive.

I noticed a plant with a pouch by the side of the trail. After the hike, I identified it as a pink lady’s slipper. Once again, butterflies were in abundance on top of the ridge.

What made this day so glorious was that many birds were singing and foraging. My eye caught a glimpse of a spot of bright red. With the help of the binoculars, I could see the bird was a scarlet tanager (red body, black wings, white beak). My bird guide, which I had along with me, said scarlet tanagers like oak stands. I looked down and saw the forest floor was thick with brown fallen oak leaves.

Soon, I also caught a glimpse of the distinctive orange of a Baltimore oriole. Then during lunch, I saw at a distance a rather large bird perched on a branch. It flew away, but I followed its sound through the woods. It was a red-headed woodpecker and I watched it search for insects for a while. I was delighted because I’ve only seen red-headed woodpeckers in one other place, Sky Meadows State Park in Virginia. I’ve more often spotted all other kinds of woodpeckers, even the large pileated woodpecker, found in the eastern United States.

I captured one other image in the woods that day, both on camera and in my mind. Mountain laurel bushes had started to form buds. I predicted the buds would burst into blossoms within days. I visited the woods again on May 26. Sure enough, along Cliff Trail, at lower altitudes, blossoms on mountain laurel bushes had already opened. Soon the mountainside would be full of pink and white clusters of blossoms.

It’s somewhat of a mystery to me how noticing flora and fauna in the woods provides solace and joy. Photographs freeze images so I can reflect on them later. But even images I haven’t captured on camera, such as that of the scarlet tanager perched on a bare branch or the red-headed woodpecker foraging for insects, stick with me and evoke happiness when I’m not in the woods. The images remind me of the diversity and expansiveness of the natural world, which makes matters in my own small world seem less urgent or significant. Perhaps it’s that understanding that provides solace. Noticing nature and being surprised by it sometimes become a form of prayer for me; the prayer is embodied in wonder. The images show beauty in the world. And when I reflect on beauty, particularly the fragile or fleeting beauty I’ve had a chance to experience in nature, I feel joy.

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