I’ve come to Weymouth Woods to see as many of our state symbols as possible in one setting. Although the whole of North Carolina is its own bounty, teeming with tremendous plant and animal diversity, the Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve is purported to be something of a fairy land. Sweeping across the sloping sandhills near Southern Pines, it is home to a menagerie of official state flora and fauna.
Here resides the possum, our nearsighted marsupial, that can fight like a tiger and resist rabies but would prefer if we just left it alone to rummage through our garbage cans in peace. The eastern box turtle, a dome of charm, toddling through the understory. The pine barrens tree frog — what a looker! Those pinstripes, those bellows that puff and vanish like fragile balloons. The regal cardinal! Imagine seeing one for the first time: the crest, the impossible cadmium red.
The opossum is the only marsupial in North America. illustration by John Golden
The gentle dogwood, reaching upward in the forest shade. The marbled salamander — it can breathe through its skin! The eastern gray squirrel — its chatter and bushy bursts of joy! And, of course, pine trees. Not just the longleaf pine, though we are the Land of the Longleaf Pine. As far as North Carolina symbols go, any pine tree will do.
I’m ready to find them all, and I’ve brought along Thomp, my 5-year-old son, to help.
• • •
Our sandhills formed when ancient seas that once covered the state receded. They left behind their beaches, with contours of dunes as the ice caps melted and froze. Sand like this makes for an inhospitable home to many plants, but not pines, with their deep roots reaching for water beyond where others can touch.
Longleaf pines once covered a swath of millions of acres this way. When the Highlanders came from Scotland with other settlers, they saw those open forest floors, the flecks of light shifting from the shining needles waving above. Where are the oaks? The carpets of moss and leaves? They deemed the land “pine barrens.” Barren of the signs of the world they understood, but the place was anything but a wasteland. I’m not sure they knew that then.
Those settlers sliced the trees for pitch and turpentine for ships. When the railroad companies started laying down tracks, the trees were felled or bruised to become timber and treatment. The pine savannas were slivered away at first, and then fragmented, then became the small, quiet islands of today, surrounded by golf courses and homes.
The bright green pine barrens tree frog is at home in the Sandhills. illustration by John Golden
Weymouth Woods is one of those islands.
“We’re going to a fairy land!” I tell Thomp. I’ve never been and have imagined, as the Highlanders must have, a forest like the familiar lush tangles of green in our North Carolina home.
But it isn’t working out like we planned. The pine barrens are no fairyland. That’s the first thing we learn as we approach. Thick canopies of needles cool the understory. Everything is soft here, open, hushed like snowfall. The sand is draped in tresses of softer, rufous-colored needles. Footfalls are shushed by the breeze and sand, and blend with the rest of nature. The pine barrens are something older than fairies, quieter, but still magical.
At the visitor center, we meet knowledgeable staff and find a discovery center for children. “We want to see as many animals as possible!” we tell the ranger. He pulls out a map and points us toward a two-mile path that takes us from the barrens to an abandoned beaver lodge in the swampland below.
We have our binoculars. We have our snacks and water. We have our state symbol checklist. We are off.
• • •
“Pine tree!” Check. As you might imagine, plenty of pines grow in pine barrens. They thrive on the lightning fires that used to tear through the forest periodically. The fires wipe out hardwoods and ground vegetation, leaving behind buried seeds and fire-resistant plants like pine trees. Lots of creatures depend on these fires, too, and the wildlife, from weasels to fox squirrels to fence lizards, live in abundance here.
In the land of the longleaf pine, it’s no surprise that a pine tree is our state tree. illustration by John Golden
We see a fence lizard — not the state reptile, but a marvel all the same — peering down at us from the trunk of a pine tree. Mottled with the same grays and browns as the bark, we never would have seen him if he hadn’t lifted his head. We see another nonstate reptile, a cottonmouth — the same color as the gray sticks of the beaver lodge we climb in the swamp.
“Mama, it’s a snake!” Thomp says as it slithers beneath his feet, deeper into the lodge. “Why won’t it wait for you to come see it?”
“It doesn’t know how much we love it,” I tell him.
Nature’s that way. Not only is it unaware of how much we love it, but it doesn’t care if we love it at all. We have no words to tell it. It doesn’t perform on command. It comes for those of us who wait, those of us who are lucky, and those of us who know how to look. Sometimes, it doesn’t come at all.
Does it matter, then, if it comes? Does it matter that we love it? Does it make a difference?
• • •
We find more than 10 species of native bees buzzing between wildflowers by the beaver dam. Not the state insect — the honeybee — but insects all the same, at work in the world that their ancestors helped build. We find other non-state insects as well. A Hercules beetle grub, as big as my palm and as tender as a newborn, beneath a log. Twenty species of ants carrying innumerable prey items. Hover flies and dung beetles. Water striders and damselflies.
We are slow and quiet. Most of the creatures that notice humans seem startled by us. Plenty of life doesn’t notice humans at all. We are pelted by tiny flies hopeful for mates as we accidentally walk through a cloud of them. We watch a wolf spider stalk small life forms, unconcerned by the giants pushing aside leaves ahead of it to form a spider path.
Marbled salamanders are visually striking — when you can find them. illustration by John Golden
We don’t find a marbled salamander or a pine barrens tree frog. But we have great fun watching other toads and frogs burst from the leaves along the trail and glare at us between their warts with wise, old eyes.
We don’t see a possum or even a single gray squirrel. We do find a fox squirrel moving like a cat through the needles. We see a tiny rodent pop up from the ground, think better of it, and pop right back down.
Like squirrels, cardinals and dogwood trees seem to be a given in any outdoor setting in North Carolina. We only see one dogwood planted near the visitor center, which we don’t count, and zero cardinals. But we do see turkey oaks, pitcher plants, redheaded woodpeckers, and nuthatches, and hear a chorus of warblers and sparrows.
• • •
In the morning, we had set out hoping to find everything on our list. By afternoon, we’re willing the symbols to stay hidden. We lie in the sand and needles in the middle of a trail and watch the sun come through the green. We listen to the quiet, a noisy quiet — one built from still breezes and distant birds and insect murmurs. Thomp makes a path through the sand for a wayward beetle; he shepherds ants to a fallen hornet laid open on the ground.
“We could make this our little house,” he says.
“I don’t see why not,” I say.
“These could all be our pets.”
“We have too many pets.”
“Still …” He rolls away in the softness. He looks the wrong way through his binoculars; makes the world seem small enough to sit on his thumbnail.
The gray squirrel is ubiquitous across North Carolina. illustration by John Golden
Just as with nature, Thomp has no idea how much I love him. Just as with nature, I have no way to explain it. If that’s true, does it make a difference how much we love someone else? Does it matter?
So it didn’t work out for us as far as finding state symbols at Weymouth Woods. Back home in Raleigh, we do avoid a dead possum, and, as we turn into our driveway, we find a cardinal sitting on our dogwood tree, a gray squirrel scurrying beneath it. A honeybee on our lavender in the front yard, a pine tree across the road.
Not one thing we planned worked out. We didn’t see anything we came for, but sometimes not working out is better. Sometimes not seeing can mean more than seeing. Sometimes our symbols have other plans. Does it make a difference? Does it matter? Of course it does. Though maybe not in the way that we expect.