by Hope Yancey
I walk the ¾ mile trail along the banks of the Catawba River and emerge at an overlook, where a mass of dark green stalks several feet tall and topped with large white blossoms is on view in the middle of the water. The lilies are a white shawl draped almost as far as I can see in each direction. At first, I gaze at them as one continuous group, then focus on individual clusters and clumps in the shallow water of the shoals.
This place in Catawba, South Carolina, boasts one of the largest colonies of rocky shoals spider lilies in the world. The rare lilies’ prime bloom is in May and June each year. They prompt a festival in their honor and eco tours.
I’ve developed a minor fascination with unusual natural phenomena that can only be experienced for a limited time, in a specific place, or both. I remember the mystique of a childhood visit under cover of darkness to my parents’ neighbor. An avid gardener who grew orchids and other plants, Irene extended the invitation because she wanted us to observe a particular nocturnal flower. I forgot the name of the floral wonder in question (could it have been night-blooming cereus?), but retained the feeling of excitement accompanying the quest. I was Nancy Drew, solving the mystery of potting soil and garden gloves.
And I have yet to glimpse – but it’s on my list – the blue ghost fireflies and their bluish light that appear like delicate nature spirits for a short spell at the DuPont State Recreational Forest in western North Carolina. Someday, I will see these fairies perform their nighttime dance through the forest.
Then there are the synchronous fireflies I’ve heard about at Great Smoky Mountains National Park that coordinate with each other the patterns of their flashing lights, the behavior peaking for a couple of weeks during May and June.
South Carolina’s Landsford Canal State Park, where the beauty of the aquatic lilies can be seen, still has historic stone ruins from a 19th century canal system. Sit on the benches at the river overlook and listen, and the lilies elicit exclamations such as “Wow!” and “Aren’t they gorgeous?” as one park visitor after another arrives with a smartphone to take a picture. They are young and old; on foot, and pushed in wheelchairs. One person claims to detect the lilies’ fragrance perfuming the air.
A man asks what I am doing as I scribble observations in the slim notebook I carry with me. We talk, and I learn he is from Charlotte, North Carolina, where I also live.
Many things divide people, but somehow we still come together in mutual admiration for nature’s perennial cycle. To do so seems more vital now than ever.
Few in this pilgrimage seem to mind enduring the afternoon heat for the prized scene at the end of the trail. Other than their voices, the only sounds this Sunday in May are birds chirping, water bubbling over rock, and an occasional and needed breeze stirring the trees.
The kayakers who paddle the shoals for a closer look have the best vantage point. Then again, maybe the better perspective belongs to two bald eagles that make their home up in a tall pine tree, not far from the riverside path.
Eagles mate for life, and this pair are permanent residents, opting not to migrate as others do, according to a sign erected in the vicinity. I don’t catch sight of the raptors, but do spot their massive nest in the distance. Eagles can live 40 years in the wild, I learn. A female is said to have begun laying eggs at this site in the mid-1990s.
I wonder what has held this eagle pair in the same location for so long, not tiring of it when they could have moved on elsewhere. Perhaps they, too, appreciate the springtime show on the water, as well as the display we humans put on as they watch us with their keen vision from a high perch above. We may not be able to entertain an audience with the bioluminescence of fireflies, but I expect we are a spectacle, and I like to think we make a kind of light.
Hope Yancey is a writer and native North Carolinian. Her work has been published in The Charlotte Observer and on Our State magazine’s website. Hope is a graduate of Queens University of Charlotte and Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. She enjoys wandering in the woods as often as she can.
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