Fellow retired forester Chris Stuhlinger and I visited the Sipsey Wilderness within Bankhead National Forest on December 5, 2023. Scheduled for total left knee replacement surgery on January 23, 2024, I agreed to the trip with no small level of anxiety. I told Chris I would be content to wander near the parking lot, exploring Nature intensely close by if the trail terrain exceeded my knee-hobbled ability to explore extensively. He could hike the River Trail to his heart’s content; I would be fine until he returned.
Sipsey River Picnic Area
We parked along the State highway at the Sipsey River Picnic Area, from which we crossed under the bridge to enter the Wilderness upstream.
The signage is fitting with the scenery. I appreciate the aesthetic form of the bridge curving south across the Sipsey River. The image emphasizes the signature of the canyon, the river that can rage with runoff fury, and the special sanctity of a Federal Wilderness.
Entering the Wilderness
The stone monument lies just 100 feet upstream of the bridge and memorializes the Sipsey’s 1975 Wilderness designation.
The trail passes gently 20-40 feet above the river on its north bank (view downstream). Although not apparent in this image, the streambank trail occasionally challenged my knees, dropping steeply.
I recorded this 33-second video from the point where I had no choice but to turn back to the parking area, a decision that I made with great frustration.
A lifelong woodsman, former marathon competitor, and committed gym rat, I accepted the inevitable when I turned around. This was the coup de grace! An online dictionary confirmed my choice of the noun:
A coup de grâce is a death blow to end the suffering of a severely wounded person or animal. It may be a mercy killing of mortally wounded civilians or soldiers
Granted, I may be exaggerating the life and death severity, yet the blow to my psyche is real. Over a 27 month period, I will have experienced the following physical difficulties:
- Total left shoulder replacement
- Minor stroke
- Triple bypass surgery
- Transient ischemic attack
- Bilateral inguinal hernia surgical repair
- Total left knee replacement — January 23, 2024
I am determined to recover my ability to wander the forests and trails of north Alabama. I want full license and legitimacy to write, speak, and reflect on Nature-Buoyed Aging and Healing!
Just ahead in each of the photographs below, the steep drop-off without footholds or saplings for gripping prevented my passage.
An empty ache from conceding defeat did not dampen my enthusiasm for gathering fresh observations, reflections, and photographs as I retreated. I even experimented with my iPhone, exploring my perspective preference with these two images. The photo at left derives straight from the camera, the lens peering uphill at about 35 degrees. The angle draws the more distant features toward the vanishing point; the trees appear to lean together. The image at right employs a finishing application that physically adjusts the image to eliminate the lean. The vanishing point, with the manipulation, in fact vanishes. I will continue to review my personal preference. For the moment, I am a lifelong resident of a world that operates with a vanishing point. I prefer the image below left.
I recorded this 49-second video as I headed back to the trailhead.
The Sipsey River ranges from placid to full fury. Along the short stretch I traversed, log jams evidenced the drastic flushes that transform the wild canyon.
Bigleaf magnolia leaves, recently dropped, are North America’s largest simple leaves, carpeting the forest floor in places. The intricate and pronounced venation is yet another feature of Nature’s exquisite artwork.
Nature study raises countless questions. Why does this species bear such a large leaf? Why does sweetgum produce star-shaped leaves? Why needles for pine and delicate needle fronds on cypress? I certainly can’t offer specific answers. However, I can turn to Leonardo da Vinci who 500 years ago thought deeply about such things:
Nature is full of infinite causes that have never occurred in experience.
Nature alone is the master of true genius.
There is no result in nature without a cause; understand the cause and you will have no need of the experiment.
Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.
Nature varies the seed according to the variety of the things she desires to produce in the world.
Facing the Reality of My Knee-Hobbled Hiking Limitations
Chris continued his trail wanderings. I explored the picnic area and environs. The late morning could be considered beguiling, a perfect blue sky and soft breeze. Yet the sign at right suggested that the peace and serenity were not guaranteed. Seeming safely above the current water level, the parking lot must occasionally flood.
The old bridge, weakened by time and flooding, has recently suffered a near fatal blow from a falling streamside giant. I timed the photograph at left to capture a truckload of chip’n’saw logs on the new bridge above, bound for processing. Wood dominated the day: log jams on the river; trucks transporting logs; a tree smashing into an old bridge; trees defining a Federal Wilderness.
I wanted to cross the old bridge. Instead, heeding the candy-striped flagging tape, I stayed off the damaged span. I refused to tempt fate.
A Late Fall Botanical Survey
Allow me a quick review of the plants I photographed while awaiting Chris’ return. A North Carolina Extension online resource described sweetleaf (or horse sugar) as a hardy deciduous shrub or small tree that may grow 20 feet tall. In nature, it can be found in moist bottomland forests, pocosin edges, mesic forests, ridgetop forests, and sandhills. The leaves are alternate with a smooth margin and yellow underside. The leaves are edible and sweet to the taste. In early spring, small, white flowers mature. The small tree produces a 1/2-inch, orange-brown drupe that matures in late summer.
I have known both American holly (left) and eastern hemlock since my adolescent days in western Maryland.
Oakleaf hydrangea did not grace the forests of my youth. I have since fallen in love with its oaky leaves, exfoliating bark, white flowers, drying seed heads, colorful autumn leaves, and dense interwoven branches.
I’ve said often that we really don’t experience a winter season here in north Alabama. Instead, our extended autumn slowly transitions to spring, with a few winter days scattered about to remind people that this is truly the dormant season. Partridge berry (left) is a vibrant green winter groundcover. My more northern orientation has a hard time reconciling deep winter with lush green foliage. Lyreleaf sage (right) is another plant that grows happily during the winter, then produces some of the earliest white flowers of the spring (winter).
Christmas fern (left) is aptly named, adding a rich verdant signature during the darkest day of the season. Anise root foliage is strikingly spring-green. It’s red stems likewise suggest spring growth.
These are not the bitter days of a relentless dormant season, where days stretch to weeks, and to months of frozen ground, disabling freezing precipitation, and crippling cold. Compared to some place where I’ve lived, these are the halcyon days of winter.
Thoughts and Reflections
I offer these observations:
- Nature alone is the master of true genius. (Leonardo da Vinci)
- There is no result in nature without a cause. (da Vinci)
- Although physically limited by bad knees, a surgical fix is within reach!
Inhale and absorb Nature’s elixir. May Nature Inspire, Inform, and Reward you!
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all blog post images are created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2024 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”
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And Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at email@example.com
A reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause
If only more of us viewed our precious environment through the filters I employ. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied by untold orders of magnitude:
Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.
- People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
- They will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and understand their Earth home more clearly.
Tagline/Motto: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!
Steve’s Four Books
I wrote my books Nature Based Leadership (2016), Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017), and Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature (2019; co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Wilhoit) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature.
I began writing books and Posts for several reasons:
- I love sauntering and exploring Nature
- I see images I want to (and do) capture with my trusty iPhone camera
- I enjoy explaining those images — an educator at heart
- I don’t play golf!
- I do love writing — it’s the hobby I never needed when my career consumed me
- Judy suggested my writing is in large measure my legacy to our two kids, our five grandkids, and all the unborn generations beyond
- And finally, perhaps my books and Blogs could reach beyond family and touch a few other lives… sow some seeds for the future
All three of my books (Nature Based Leadership; Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading; Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) present compilations of personal experiences expressing my (and co-author Dr. Wilhoit for Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) deep passion for Nature. All three books offer observations and reflections on my relationship with the natural world… and the broader implications for society. Order any from your local indie bookstore, or find them on IndieBound or other online sources such as Amazon and LifeRich.
I now have a fourth book, published by Dutton Land and Cattle Company, Dutton Land & Cattle: A Land Legacy Story. Available for purchase directly from me. Watch for details in a future Post.