In a place as biologically diverse as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is always something to attract the eye. Showy species can catch the attention of a trail runner at top speed, but to truly appreciate the full measure of this place, even a slow hiker like me must occasionally set aside a day or two to explore life at leisure and take time to tease interesting tidbits from the ecological fabric of these mountains. A macro camera lens to capture tiny details brings a multitude of fascinating organisms into sharper focus and helps craft beautiful narratives that might otherwise be overlooked.
In the Greenbrier area, there are two unofficial trails tailor made for macro exploration. Injun Creek, adjacent to the ranger station, does not appear on the trail maps but is well used and seems to be reasonably maintained. It heads southwest and ties into the Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Mary suggests another unmarked trail that runs past the Plemmons Cemetery on the far side of Porters Creek, tracking above the creek and some of its tributaries flowing through the valley below. I spend two days happily piddling along sections of these trails.
Just past the bridges to Ramsey Cascades, there is a chained gravel road leading up to the cemetery. A short distance up this road is a side trail that veers off to the right, but it is best, at least for the first visit, to follow the road. It narrows to a path and climbs steadily to a fairly large, flat expanse of land once known as the Greenbrier Cemetery. It is a lovely and peaceful resting place for many members of the Whaley, Bohanan, Mayes, Ogle, Ownby, and Rayfield families among others, but no Plemmons. According to a relative of these Greenbrier families, Plemmons was a preacher who donated land to enlarge the cemetery just prior to the park’s establishment. Park officials named it after him.
The Whaley name has been prominent in the Greenbrier community from the very beginning in the early 1800s. Aaron Whaley and his wife Sarah Ownby are interred in the cemetery’s front right corner. Sarah, lovingly known as Aunt Sally, lived nearly a century, and her grave is beautifully tended with bunches of colorful artificial flowers. Nature lends a hand too, planting a Southern Grape Fern among the bright bouquets, something I suspect Aunt Sally would really appreciate.
At the front left corner, a clear path descends from the cemetery to that side trail noted earlier. For a short loop, turn right and head back to the gravel road. For a quiet walk in the woods, turn left and saunter to your heart’s content. There are frequent flat areas to the left of the trail where some settlement activities (farming, etc.) must have taken place as evidenced by rock walls. The second day I walk at least a mile or more to a small stream crossing before turning around.
I am looking for cool mushrooms but am ready for anything of interest. It is very dry which isn’t an optimal condition for fungi. The pickin’s are a bit slim, yet worthy specimens are found. I must acknowledge I’ve had no instruction in fungi identification. It’s just me with a field guide and a textbook. Therefore, it would be prudent to declare these as my best guesses. Orange Earth Tongue (Microglossum rufum), Black Velvet Earth Tongue (Trichoglossum hirsutum), Fluted Bird’s Nest (Cyanthus striatus), Turkey Tails (Trametes versicolor), Orange and Yellow Spindle Corals, Puffballs (I can’t tell if they are older Gem-studded (Lycoperdon sp.) or fresh Poison Pigskin (Scleroderma sp.), and Rough Hydnellum (Hydnellum scrobiculatum), a tooth fungus, are found. The Rough Hyndellum looks like a tempting confection from Hostess or Little Debbie – white icing rimming a chocolate center! There is a tiny branched fungus, perhaps related to the genus Xylaria, growing on fallen tree leaves. While photographing a mushroom, I notice the bright red and yellow stems of emerging Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) among Red Oak trees. Script Lichen (Graphis scripta) and the leafy liverwort (Leucolejeunea sp.) decorate a tree trunk. I even find a fresh deposit of Wild Turkey scat.
The most exciting find though is the easiest to spot. All along the trail and around the cemetery are small, multi-stemmed plants with tubular white buds. They are Triphora trianthophora, Three Birds Orchid. Threatening weather brings a rapid end to day one along with a brief shower and slightly cooler temps. I’m determined to return in hopes a couple of these buds might be ready to open. What a difference a day makes. The following morning, the sun is shining and every orchid plant is graced with fully open flowers just begging for a closeup.