Monday, February 8, 2010

How I got my Trail Name

Cottony egg sacks of the hemlock adelgid
I was up at Mountain Crossings in North Georgia doing Trail Magic with the Trail Dames, full of excitement and waving my hands around and talking animatedly about the the plight of the Eastern hemlocks.  You see, these beautiful trees are at severe risk of going extinct due to the introduced adelgid, which sap the juice from the needles and rapidly kill the trees.  I was still new to the Trail Dames, and though I can be pretty shy and introverted, get me talking about plants and insects, and I light up like a kid in an ice cream parlor.  I find invasive insects, which I spent nine years studying in grad school, completely fascinating.  North Star, one of the Trail Dames and a very insightful woman, said, "Hemlock! Your trail name should be Hemlock!"  And since then the name has stuck.

This name suits me because, first of all, I love plants and trees.  Especially big, ancient trees.  I'm one of those hikers that will go far out of my way to see the largest (or second largest) tree in the state.  I will run up to it and stretch out my arms to see just how massive the trunk is.  I love imagining what changes they've seen in the world, and what it's like to be rooted to the same spot year after year. 

Eastern hemlocks are tall, graceful trees.  They are a dominant tree in much of the southeastern Appalachians, and are an important part of the forest ecosystem, providing shade to Rhododendrons and streamside plants, and food and shelter for lots of animals.   But the adelgid is changing all of that.  Already, I've seen mountainsides of North Carolina dotted with the gray snags of dead hemlock.  It makes me sad to imagine what the all the forests will be like without hemlocks.  Hemlocks make me think about how fragile ecosystems are, how fragile we all are.

I like the name because it also refers to poison hemlock, a herbaceous plant used to kill Socrates.  So "hemlock" has a dangerous connotation.  Maybe the name will remind me to be tough.

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