What I Didn’t Do at the 2013 Master Naturalist Conference by Carl W. Cole

What to NOT do was the most difficult decision of the 2013 Master Naturalist Conference.   Each attendee could choose four activities (morning and afternoon, Friday and Saturday) from a list of thirty five (counting full day choices as two).  That meant choosing to pass up more than thirty activities!   There were sessions on the natural history of the Jocassee Gorges area, on its geology, on its cultural history . . . .  There were sessions on wildflowers, on ferns, on birds, on butterflies, on rock art, on journaling, on photography . . . .  There was not a single session that I could easily omit.

Having made my difficult choices, I spent Friday with Dennis Chastain explaining the natural and cultural history of the Jocassee Gorges area.  Dennis is a colorful fellow.  A lifelong resident of the area, he’s an interpretive naturalist and frequent contributor to the South Carolina Wildlife magazine.  For topic after topic, it got to be a standing joke that “You might not believe it but I wrote an article about that”.

We spent the morning in the Pickens Country Museum and then drove to the top of Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in the state.  Among the many endemic species he pointed out was Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia).  He told about the local practice of “breaking ivy”, which is collecting Mountain Laurel for sale to florists.  Because the new green foliage is suitable for picking for only a brief period and because that is a major source of cash income for some families, an entire family will participate, with the children simply disappearing from school for awhile.   Breaking ivy was not the only whole family activity that causes such behavior.  Dennis’ wife, who is a retired kindergarten teacher, told of asking students who returned from an unannounced week-long absence “Where have you been?” to which the 5-year old would reply laconically “Bear hunting”.

Dennis also crushed leaves from the mountain’s namesake Sassafras Tree so that participants could recognize the familiar aroma of the beverage made from Sassafras root, viz. “root” beer.   That was clearly news to some but, growing up in NW Arkansas, I used to collect Sassafras root from the hillside we lived on.  Initially, my folks chastised me a bit for damaging the trees but I protested that I only collected erosion exposed roots where Sassafras saplings had volunteered on the roadside cut leading up to our house.  In those days, one could still buy bundles of Sassafras root in grocery stores, from which people made a “spring tonic” tea.

Dennis has been involved in fund raising for the proposed observation tower on Sassafras Mountain that will give a 360-degree view of mountains in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee and he shared much about the history and design of that tower.  We also visited the monument on the top of the mountain that marks the highest point.  Dennis was present for the surveying that marked that point and told us that the actual highest point is at the base of the tree a few feet behind the monument.  As the group moved away, I went over and stood briefly at the tree where I was a few inches higher than the monument base.

On Saturday, I spent the morning with Dr. Patrick McMillan visiting the South Carolina Botanical Garden.  Most Master Naturalists are probably familiar with him from his Expeditions program on SCETV and perhaps from other talks and nature walks but may not be aware that he is also Director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden on the Clemson campus.   As the group was gathering in a parking lot, I got to chat with him for a few minutes.  Telling him that I’d been in the audience when he spoke at Sewee some weeks before and overheard a rained-out Bulls Island nature walk get rescheduled for the day after this particular Master Naturalist event, I commented that was a brutal schedule.  He said he’d come home from Arizona the day before and, with a touch of weariness, agreed that it was brutal but then brightened up and said “That’s my life.”

Most of the morning was spent visiting individual habitats in the Natural Heritage Garden that he’s building within the Botanical Garden.   By taking advantage of locations that have appropriate soil chemistry and other characteristics,  he’s planting species native to particular habitats and removing non-native species in order to create a living representations of many of South Carolina’s ecological niches:  an acid cove forest, a rich cove forest, a Piedmont woodland, a Longleaf Pine forest, a Carolina prairie, even a Carolina Bay, and many others.  The project, even the entire botanical garden, has precious little budget and staff.  It’s being carried forward largely on Patrick’s enthusiasm and determination.

At the area that will one day be a Carolina prairie, he’s been planting fire-evolved native grasses and is just waiting until he has enough of a stand established to start a fire and burn out the fire intolerant weeds.  “If I can just start a fire . . .” he said more than once.  Some comedian quipped “Where are you going to get the buffalo?” and, without skipping a beat, he mused “I could support a couple of bison here . . .”   It was fun just to be around such enthusiasm and focused determination!

Saturday afternoon was “Dancing with Dragonflies” with Dr. Austin Jenkins, who is a naturalist for the SC Wildlife Federation and teaches at USC Sumter.  Using the shade of a tree as a classroom, we stood and sat in a semicircle as Austin took us through the basics of dragonfly anatomy.  We then gathered around a pond – the leaking pond that will someday be Patrick’s Carolina Bay representation – to observe and capture dragonflies, damselflies, their larvae, and whatever other interesting creatures we could scoop up from the bottom of the pond.   The afternoon ended with us following a stream through the gardens in search of odonates that frequent moving water.

Austin identified a wonderful field guide (that I ordered as soon as I got home):  Dragonflies & Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast  (ISBN 9780820327952).  The author, Giff Beaton, is a Delta Airlines pilot and part-time naturalist. 

Evenings were dinner and a guest speaker, so the choices seemed less difficult but, it turns out, were fortuitous for me on Saturday.  I chose simply to sit near friends from Coastal Master Naturalists and to sit where I’d be up front to hear the speaker.  Friday night, the speaker was Dr. Ben Still presenting “Little-Known and Seldom-Seen Birds of North America”, excerpts from his field guide by the same name (ISBN 9781561457281 available for preorder).    Ben’s dry wit and flawless timing was perfect for his hilarious presentation of species such as the Blunt-Billed Woodpecker that inhabits the Petrified Forest.

Saturday evening, the guest speaker was Rudy Mancke discussing the “History of Natural History in South Carolina”.  Rudy and his wife joined us for dinner and – here comes the fortuitous part – chose the two empty seats beside me.  What a treat!  I not only had a good seat up front for Rudy’s talk, I got to chat with him throughout dinner.  I’ve met him before on nature walks at Bull’s Island and at Caw Caw before the park opened but this was a special bit of luck.   I also discovered that interesting things happen if one is just hanging around near Rudy.  I got up to refill my coffee and returned to find a naturalist sitting briefly in my chair as he gave Rudy a sample from his research on a fungus that parasitizes ants.   The fungus takes over the ant’s nervous system, causing it to climb a tree – such as, he said, the American Holly all around the conference center – and hang from bottom of a twig.  Then the fruiting body erupts downward from the ant’s body, just like the one in the corked test tube the naturalist handed Rudy.  Wow!   I won’t admit how much time I spent, after I got home to Charleston, on a step stool under the holly in my yard.

What I didn’t do at the 2013 Master Naturalist Conference, was spend a single moment wishing I was doing something else.

Additional reading:

Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower


Natural Heritage Garden


Giff Beaton’s Website


Cordyceps parasitic fungi