FEB. 12, 2018
Although it is seemingly quiet these days in the woods around campus and we often think of winter as a dead time, the natural world in our southern mountains never really goes quiet. Few mammals actually hibernate here, really just some bats, since their extremely high metabolism forces them to shut down when their insect prey is unavailable. Bears, squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice, and even groundhogs may sleep through a cold snap, but they are up and about again during any warm spell. True hibernation in the endotherms (warm-blooded mammals) requires a drastic lowering of the heart rate, respiration, and metabolism and our winters are just too mild and short to call for such measures.
Life is definitely different for the ectotherms whose internal temperature reflect the ambient conditions. These reptile and amphibian species must have some adaptations to cope with those sub-zero days. Snakes are barely functional below 50° F and seek out deep dens (or the barn) to find stable temperatures. The Eagle’s Nest frogs and snapping turtles have burrowed into the mud at the bottom of the pond. One of our few terrestrial frogs, the wood frog, can be frozen solid for months due to antifreeze compounds like propylene glycol and glycerol in their systems. In this torpid state, its breathing and heartbeat actually stop, defying the definition of the word “alive”. Normally, the formation of ice crystals means death for cells, but these frogs have sidestepped that particular fate, with as much as 65% of the water in their bodies crystallized into ice. When warmed, they immediately go about the business of finding mates, none the worse for wear. Not surprisingly, scientists are interested in borrowing this adaptation for the cryopreservation of living human organs for transplant.
Certainly, not all of our summer Appalachian birds leave during the winter. Our feeders are full of chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and finches. Some of these birds are northern migrants, but many have only migrated down the mountain into our protected Little River valley. They have a short trip back to their breeding territories in the spring. And some birds, like the kestrel, a tiny falcon, come from colder northern habitats to spend their winters hunting here. Even most of the insects aren’t really gone or dead. Many species overwinter as larvae or even as adults and can occasionally be found out and about. Every rock you turn over in the Davidson River in February will be crawling with mayfly, damselfly, stonefly and alderfly larvae. Our yellow jackets colonies, so numerous and feared in the summer, are represented by young queens, the only survivors of the swarms we run from in panic in August. They have been fertilized by males in the late fall and will spend the winter in barn attics or under the bark of a dying tree, ready to start new underground colonies in the spring.
Well, I guess what I’m getting at is that there is always something stirring around here, even in the depths of winter. I’ve heard spring peepers call during every month of the year; Great Horned owls calling for mates in December, fox tracks in the snow, spotted salamanders eggs in March, copperheads sunning in February; groundhogs eating greens in a frosty pasture; and springtails—tiny, hopping insects—leaping on snowy rocks in a frozen river. The natural world doesn’t ever really stop, so don’t let the cold slow you down either – get out there with your binoculars and magnifying glass.
MAR. 31, 2017
An astonishing discovery at Eagle’s Nest this spring has set the herpetological community afire. “We drain the swim lake every winter, and I’ve never seen anything to suggest we had a monster living here” stated Taylor Mackay, livelong Transylvania County resident and Eagle’s Nest Staffer, adding an understated “yikes!”
Apparently this year was different. A small hole, about the size of one of, Eagle’s Nest Chef, Mark Walker’s meatloaves appeared under the diving board as the waters receded. When prodded with a broken canoe paddle, the waterlogged soil gave way, exposing a gaping entryway into an unknown underworld. When a headlamp’s beam revealed the glow of two eyes in the slimy abyss, amphibian expert Posey Lester-Niles was called in to investigate. “Step back – I want everyone out of the lake!” she commanded in a surprisingly authoritative voice, (because, you know, we all think she’s still eight. Ah, they grow up so fast . . .) Then, to everyone’s shock, she disappeared headfirst into the black void, trailing a old yellow canoe painter that should have been replaced years ago. Those things were always too thick to actually tie. An unseen but obviously violent struggle ensued. A stomach-churning moment of silence, then a cheer as Posey backed out into the sunlight, straining at the rope. First, tantalizingly, a tiny tailtip, then a growing and seemingly endless wall of amphibian flesh was dragged into the light of day, ending in a flailing head the size of . . . well, you know that sun medallion thing hanging on the back wall of the Sun Lodge? It seemed that big, but probably was a little smaller, given most Eagle Nester’s tendency to exaggerate. Still – really big. OA student, Cedar Ann Skeen, at the scene, said it best. “No, so wait, it was like, LITERALLY, huuuuuuge. And this time I’m using literally correctly! No, really! Why are you laughing at me?”
Accurate rendering of a Hellbender (trees added for scale)
So, the great beast was finally subdued and carried by six OA students to the little plastic swimming pool that Camp uses for basketmaking class – the one we keep under the dining room porch, you know? The Leviathon finally stopped thrashing and was stuffed into the pool and only fit after its tail was wrapped around a few times. It was accurately keyed out as an abnormally large hellbender with Peterson’s second edition of A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern/Central North America – the slightly dog-eared copy that lives on the little white shelves next to the computers in the Sikwayi library – not the regular built-in shelves that look like solid wood but are actually that weird flakeboard. OA students added Feeding the Beast to their daily chore list and it has thrived on stale cho-chos and day-old mac and cheese.
Although Smithsonian officials have requested that the gigantic creature come to live at the National Zoo, the all-wise and powerful Eagle’s Nest Executive Council has decided to return the creature to our pond. “Given the fact that we already have Big Lex in the Fishing Pond, it only seemed right to have a gigantic Cryptobranchus alleganiensis to terrify the kiddies in the Swim Pond” stated OA Director Roger Herbert, who knows a thing or two about being amphibious.
T. Wesemann, OA Faculty
(You know – that gray-bearded guy you always think must be somebody’s grandfather, not a teacher. I mean, how old is he?!)
NOV. 18, 2016
Smoke is in the air at The Outdoor Academy. For the past week, we have breathed the exhaust of external fires, questioned the effect of drought on our temperate rainforest, and caught echoes of political turmoil swirling through the U.S. Yet, it seems turbulence in the larger world has little power to negatively influence our small community. We continue to chug along despite the harsh climate, singing a mantra of ‘I think I can, I think I can.’ Or perhaps, ‘Inch by inch, row by row’ may be more accurate for readers familiar with our Eagle’s Nest repertoire.
At the beginning of the week the students took pleasure in the smoky red super-moon, curling howls into the cold, fall air. Some of my peers on the faculty undoubtedly joined them from the top of Looking Glass rock, after completing a night-climb of the classic North Carolina Route ‘The Nose.” In the world of intellect, my students in Algebra II powered through our last week of class before break. The entire class of Environmental Seminar wrote letters to their respective senators outlining steps we may take as a country regarding environmental policy, putting to use the knowledge they’ve earned. And, as always, our faculty meeting last night resounded with reports of this or that student stepping up in Crafts, English, or Science.
I see now I misspoke earlier; our community is not just chugging along, we are thriving. The smoke of external fires does nothing to slow our progress ever forward. At the core, we at the OA try never to see problems, only challenges. A step on the crumbling edge of the trail with a heavy pack, a fall to a twisted ankle; these are elements to a recipe for a painful and challenging trek. However, there also lies the chance to find new strength, to learn reliance on your peers, to find further limits to your endurance, to ice your swollen ankle in the freezing skinny-dip falls, and to feel the wonderful warmth return when you can bear the water no longer. These are the lessons our students will remember the longest, when things were dang hard, and they kept moving anyway. In the spirit of the upcoming holiday, I am most thankful for the inevitable proof our students give that there is no hill too big to climb together (I think I can, I think I can).
Math Teacher, Medical Coordinator, and Wilderness Instructor
NOV. 7, 2016
Community is one of our four Cornerstones here at The Outdoor Academy. It is a main focus of our students’ education during each semester. We have Community Meetings weekly that provide a space for the students to come together to work through issues or develop plans for student driven initiatives. We eat meals together as a community, we make decisions as a community, we experience the highs and lows of life as a community. Community is more than a number of people who coexist together in the same location. It is a body of people who genuinely care about each other and want to grow together.
Our community nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina is so strong that, oftentimes, it is easy to forget that the world moves on outside these mountains. We all know, however, that very important national events are stirring beyond our idyllic campus. During this historic presidential election, Semester 43 is taking the initiative to witness these events that will certainly affect their lives, perhaps profoundly.
At our last Community Meeting the students brought a plan to the community to ensure their presence during the live broadcast of the presidential results. Students worked together to develop a plan that included equipment, faculty and staff involvement, and timing. The hunger for knowledge, the drive to be part of something bigger than themselves, and the fact that these students are not able to cast their personal vote for a candidate speaks volumes of the ownership they exhibit for their own learning and place in this world.
To add to the election night interest, Roger, Director of The Outdoor Academy, has been supplementing media stories of this election with insights from political science, which he has offered the community during daily announcements and also down times throughout the day. Questions such as ‘What is the Electoral College?’ and ‘Where does my vote go?’ are abundant. These future voters are getting more than a current news story; they are learning how a president comes to be. They have a chance in my class to study the electoral map and calculate mathematically the various scenarios that would lead one candidate or the other to the White House.
It is incredible to serve at a school where a student can be interested in something and seek it out, with enthusiasm. It is incredible to serve at a school where faculty and staff jump in with both feet in order to guide students in finding answers and solutions to the questions they’re asking. And it’s no wonder that the sentiment expressed at our last faculty meeting was: “Aren’t we lucky to teach these students?” Our answer was yes, we are. We definitely are.
Racheal Duffy, Math Teacher and Wilderness Leader
OCT. 11, 2016
Last weekend our students were on campus and planned a Fall Fun Day, reenacting a few of their favorite childhood activities from autumn and Halloween. We had just returned from an idyllic ten days in the field – five on the Appalachian Trail and five at our base camp at Cataloochee in the Smokies. Clear fall weather, the most stunning views in the Blue Ridge, true friends that are evolving into a solid and meaningful community, the Andromeda Galaxy wheeling overhead at night, bear cubs frolicking at a mountain cabin, solo hikes under the huge trees of the Caldwell Fork, and songs and stories in a hillside graveyard under the Milky Way. Life just doesn’t get better; this group knows that and made the most of our time away.
Around the campfire our last evening at Cataloochee, I overheard an intense conversation between Andrew Steed, a student, and Roger, our Director. Roger had led a discussion on ethics that day at an abandoned farmstead deep in the woods and with the fire flickering on their faces, they were now deep into Aristotelian virtue vs. deontology vs. utilitarianism. Yes, take a second to read that again. And this was on the heels of a conversation I had that morning over the campstove about genetic engineering and another some days before about Russia’s militarization in Syria. This fall – outside of the classroom – I have been part of conversations about the feminists of the 1970’s, the Balkan War, Woodstock, Angela Merkel’s refugee policy in Germany, the feasibility of an Islamic State in the Mideast, climate change, NASA’s Mars program, artificial intelligence, the electoral system, capitalism, slavery vs. state’s rights and the Civil War, Brexit, FDR and our entry into WWII, Black Lives Matter, NC’s HB 2, government regulation of Wall Street, and those are just the ones I recall now.
So yes, those six bear cubs were cute, and bobbing for apples is fun, and backpacking is a blast, and s’mores are delicious; but don’t think for a second that American teens are vacuous and self-centered and glued to their phones. Not these kids anyway. I am always, always pleased and proud to know that these are my colleagues and friends. They surprise me everyday with their curiosity and enthusiasm and empathy and, without any overstatement, I think the future is in good hands.
Natural Science, World History, Appalachian Craft
SEP. 14, 2015
Fecund, from the Latin fecundare, I believe, which means to make fruitful. I’ve never cared for this word, it seems awkward to me, but it shows up in natural history readings a lot because it is the first requirement for the processes of natural selection to function. Lots of babies, as we say in Natural Science class here. Charles Darwin came to understand from his reading of Thomas Malthus that organisms use excess calories to make all the babies they can which tends to flood the market, providing excess energy to others which powers the food web and biodiversity – the economy of nature as they called it in Darwin’s day.
So, last Friday, we waded into the Eagle’s Nest economy of nature and took a stab at identifying our diversity of life. These marathons are sometimes called BioBlitzes, or Inventories of Life and they are tackled regularly in National and State Parks. We had six groups: Vertebrates, Invertebrates, Flowering Plants, Trees, Non-flowering Plants, and Aquatic Life. I think it’s safe to say that above all we concluded that this task is complex and difficult. The Flower team got bogged down on goldenrod hybrids; the Aquatic folks found it’s really hard to actually catch organisms in the canoe lake and in the Little River, much less identify minnows; the Vertebrate researchers found they don’t know their bird calls very well; the Non-flowering Plants team threw up their hands in the face of the moss diversity; and the Invertebrates squad were simply overwhelmed by the number of taxonomic groups and the subtle genera identifications of things like little brown moths.
Not to say we didn’t have some success stories. We found we have otters in the Little River, a species that is slowly rebounding in the Blue Ridge; at least some of us have a handle on mushroom identification; the Flower team knows a dozen or so species now without the field guide; we have a good start on the spiders in our neighborhood; praying mantises are abundant at the end of the summer here; and a few of us know the major tree species in the mountains. For a first effort I think we learned quite a bit and we’ll be more prepared next time.
It’s certainly accurate to conclude that we were pretty impressed by all the flora and fauna on this little patch of the mountains, even if we had trouble identifying most of it. And I think we were encouraged to find that with good field guides and a little focus, those identifications could eventually come our way. The economy of nature seems to be quite burgeoning and busy here when one swings a collecting net or gets on their hands and knees with a magnifying lens. Little brown moths look out!
Ted Wesemann, Natural Science & History Teacher