Friday, March 23, 2012

The Great Georgia Aster Hunt, Part 2: Appalachian Terminus

A view of a ridge of the Southern Appalachian Mountains of Alabama.
Leaving Talladega, we head southwest toward West Blocton and the very terminus of the Appalachian Mountains.  Being a Californian, I have a truly wretched knowledge of geography (see floraphile, post 1 for explanation), so I was shocked to learn that the Appalachians extend into Alabama.  Here the mountains, perhaps the oldest and once the tallest, have eroded for hundreds of millions of years into a series of ridges and valleys.  The road we drive twists and turns along their contours.  It’s late afternoon and we are scouting locations for the real search tomorrow.  Traveling alongside the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, we look for the turnoffs, bridges, intersections and other features near our map points.  
The same geology that made Pennsylvania, West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia mineral rich is at work here.  This is old coal mining country, but the signs of a once dominant industry are now absent, with the exception of a few historical plaques.  People still live here, but it’s not clear what they do for a living.  The plaques intrigue me.  They commemorate the company towns where miners and their families lived.  My secret hope is that our hunt for Georgia aster will take us to these ghost towns and their abandoned mines.  
The communities along the old highway show signs of poverty.  Unchecked kudzu undulates along with the topography and engulfs abandoned homes.  Below one ruined dwelling I see a kitchen sink lying where it fell through the floor.  More than one emaciated hunting dog approaches the car.  They don’t bark at us, just peer inside with desperate eyes.  This atmosphere and the oncoming gloom of the setting sun put us on edge, so that we jump each time we pass the same waving bag caught in the limb of a tree.
Also eerie are the blow-downs.  Alabama was visited by a series of deadly tornadoes last April, and Bibb County was not spared their destruction.  The road is lined by forest, but when we hit a blow-down, the horizon opens because the forest is lying flat, like God is the middle of a game of Pickup Sticks.  Portions of trees remain vertical, twisted and splintered where the wind sheared them in half.   It must have been terrifying to be anywhere near here.
The effects of one of the tornadoes from last April. 
The blow-down gives me an opportunity to display my abysmal sense of direction.  We see one after another, which prompts me to exclaim, “My God, how many tornadoes went through here!”
Without a hint of disgust, Jenny replies, “Actually, it’s same blow-down.  The road is just winding through the tornado’s path.”
Sitting in the passenger’s seat designates me as navigator, but, as I have just shown, I am hopeless in this role.  Fortunately, Jenny has a sense of direction like some people have perfect pitch.  And she only has to glance at a map to orient herself.  But I am not completely useless.   In fact, as it would turn out, I have a somewhat uncanny ability to spot Georgia aster.  It helps that the flower is a very particular, vivid purple.  If Jenny can get us to the spot—no small feat given the sketchy descriptions we have of sites that haven’t been visited since the early 1990s—I’ll find what there is left find.
Jenny wants to look at one more location before we call it a day.  One of our map points is right next to Highway 10, so we drive through West Blocton and pick up the 10.  We pull over at what seems a likely spot and get out.  We scan the roadside: nothing.  We see a power-line cut that runs along the highway and begin walking, each taking a side to scan.  Still nothing.  The sun is down now, but there is some residual light.  Jenny is utterly unstinting when it comes to fieldwork (and, I suspect, work in general).  On another plant survey, a colleague half-jokingly remarked to Jenny, “You know, the plants don’t glow in the dark.”
Georgia aster: A vibrant, but not bioluminescent purple.
And then I see a spot of purple—The Purple.  It is indeed a Georgia aster, and at its center is a sleeping bee, florets clasped to its abdomen.  A moment before we were ready to turn back, but having found one, we had to look for more.  In the poor light, we stumble over the uneven ground.  But that was it.  Just one flowering plant left in what was once a modest population.  At least we know we were in the right place. 
That night, when I close my eyes, I see asters, or sometimes just The Purple.  Jenny tells me in the morning that she dreamed of grids and maps assembling before her.
See any purple?  Nope, me neither.
The next day is one of frustration. We meet Sarah Clardy, Manager of the Cahaba National Wildlife Reserve. She very generously spends a good bit of the morning with us as we fruitless search.  She is interested in the rare flower growing in her park.  And I am relieved when we that we find a couple of clumps in a power-line cut—Sara sighting one of them herself.  Not a complete bust, but for a small community to count, we need a minimum of 30 stems. Not even close.
Refuge Manager Sarah Clardy and Jenny Cruse-Sanders.
I ask Sarah about Piper, Belle Ellen and Coleaner, the company towns honored on the historical markers. 
“Oh, there’s nothing left,” Sarah says.  “The mining companies bulldozed them when it was no long profitable to mine here.  I heard they offered to sell the workers the houses, but they never made enough to meet the price.” 
I picture bulldozers pushing a wrecked town into a derelict mineshaft. 
Sarah leaves us to continue our hunt, which we do without result.  To stay on schedule, we need to find one more population, and the afternoon is getting on.  We decide to head to an isolated Baptist church, which our map shows had several populations.  Jenny’s navigational exertions are given a rest since a large, white sign with black lettering points the way to the church at each turn.  We arrive in broad clearing in the woods to find a blindingly white church surrounded by a blacktop parking lot.  The lines marking the parking places are so white they could have been painted yesterday.  Directly across from the church runs a creek.  Where the creek widens a bit, there are benches.  It occurs to me that these are real Baptists, who make use of the creek.  

Sadly, there is no point in searching for the creek-side population our map shows, since a lawn mower has been run right up to water.  These Baptists are big on maintenance, which is a testament to how much to revere their church and no doubt is a big reason why the church has survived more than a hundred years. Nevertheless, I take a mean pleasure in imagining the whole congregation, including grandmas and babies, with high and tight buzz cuts.
We walk the line:  Surely we'll find some over the next rise.
Jenny and I scramble across the creek and climb up the steeply wooded hillside opposite.  At the top we find a power-line cut.  It is sunny and hot.  I find an aster and mark the spot with the pullover I’ve shed.  We both expect that over the next rise we will find a true aster community, but what we find is just more pine saplings, shrubby growth, and, of course, catbrier.  The latter I have begun to think of as my personal cross.  Maybe it is the closeness of the church, but as I pull the catbrier from my thigh for the umpteenth time, I decide that when God curses Adam and Eve and speaks of thorns and thistles, He definitely had catbrier in mind.
Back at the car, hot and dispirited, Jenny and I consider our next move.  She fishes in her bag and pulls out a couple of peanut butter cups culled from her kids’ Halloween candy.  As she hands me one, Jenny says, “One of my professors always told us to have a piece of chocolate and look again.” 
According to our information there is an aster population behind the church cemetery.  And conveniently there is paved drive, so we hop in the car.  Jenny drives slowly, and we both chat animatedly trying to cheer the other, but neither of us has any real hope at this point. 
Then I see spots of purple against a low berm on the backside of the cemetery.  We see asters, lots of them.  We get out of the car and leap around.  The chocolate worked!  We have some more to celebrate, although what we both want now are cold beers.  Drinking in a church cemetery seems pretty wrong though (not that we have any with us), especially under such a frankly blue sky.  So, beerless, we set to work lying down our transect and marking stems to sample.  We estimate more than 300 plants.
Our work done, we head back to Atlanta.  It’s good to be going home, but this region haunts me.  It seems forsaken.  The forests were logged and carried away by rail, and what has grown back or was planted appears tenuous.  A once booming industry seems to have evaporated, leaving little of its infrastructure as reminder.  And a formerly massive mountain range has been worn down to inconsequential elevations. 
Nevertheless, there are signs of persistence.  People still make their home here, and they are proud of their history and of the lilies that bloom, like a miracle, in the middle of the Cahaba River. 
Cahaba lilies (Hymenocallis coronaria) blooming last May. Credit: Cecil Holmes.

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