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Encounters in Walnut Bottom: Dance of Light and Shadow

עודכן: לפני יומיים

Walnut Bottom is a stunning valley grove nestled in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, about an hour and a half walk from the famous Appalachian Trail. Situated at an elevation of approximately 910 meters above sea level, it serves as a junction for several streams and the endpoint for hikers on the Big Creek trail.

This mixed forest area boasts oak, maple, hemlock, and yellow buckeye trees. Much of the area is covered in primary and virgin forests, and its sacredness is evident in every corner, much like the more famous Albright Grove. The nearby Big Creek river is breathtaking with its clear waters, dotted with small natural pools surrounded by rocks of various sizes and pebbles, inviting for a refreshing dip. The ever-changing landscape includes waterfalls seamlessly woven into the lush green fabric, creating a breathtaking scene. Occasionally, you encounter a tall maple tree growing from a small rock in the middle of the river. We came here for a two-day stay to practice presence and meditation, observe the forest, and learn its secrets.

The area is rich with diverse wildlife: we encountered courting butterflies, unique spiders, and a variety of birds, including woodpeckers echoing through the forest. By the campfire, we discovered a cold-blooded salamander, which appeared in our thermal night vision camera, cooler by half a degree than the rock it rested on.

Unlike the ever-changing Albright Grove, Walnut Bottom offers a different experience: a flat area the size of four football fields, opening up at the confluence of valleys and surrounded by hills. The plain resonates with the sounds of the nearby river, slightly masking the birdsong. The particularly tall trees allow an open view of hundreds of them at any moment and from any angle, at varying distances and depths.

The wide depression between the surrounding hills, with a canopy of trees 30-40 meters high, is immersed entirely in green. Sunlight filters through the leaves, painting everything in shades of green: the air, the tree bark, and even ourselves. It's a light green of spring and grass, an ocean of green where we walk on the forest floor, with birds swimming above us like flying fish. The green energy penetrates everything, unifying the place into a unique frequency, a glowing green aura.

Along the creek trails, the frequency changes; the forest is dynamic, sometimes open and sometimes closed, resonating with changing energies. But at our campsite, near a small waterfall and stream serving as a spring, the green energy prevails. The air is filled with a mesmerizing green scent, and we are enveloped in a cognitive haze of beauty.

At Walnut Bottom Campsite 37 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Plants Play technology reveals the hidden music of nature. Attached to a hemlock tree, it captures changes in electrical conductivity influenced by humidity and mineral content. These changes are converted into musical notes, letting us hear the "music" of plants. This offers new insights into nature's interactions and the forest ecosystem.

At dusk on our first day, I stepped about ten meters from our small camp to brush my teeth. Suddenly, I felt a scrutinizing gaze. I turned my head toward a cluster of bushes to my left and was astonished to see a giant black bear sitting and watching me. Black bears can weigh between 100 kg for small females and up to 400 kg for large males. This one was undoubtedly close to the upper end of the scale.

Initially, I was in shock. I retreated a few meters, called out to my friends, and began shouting at the bear, "Go away!" Although black bears are generally not aggressive, they are curious and can be hungry, and the guidelines for such encounters suggest scaring them away with shouts, as approaching them could lead to a dangerous and even deadly encounter.

The bear began to move away reluctantly. It circled the camp, sometimes turning toward us as if intending to approach, but quickly retreating at the sound of our shouts. It continued to move away reluctantly, resembling a dog being chased off with its tail between its legs. We did not feel aggressive energy from it, only the frustration of a creature that wanted to come closer, perhaps to eat, or out of curiosity or interest in the tooth-brushing ritual.

Our hearts pounded with intense excitement. We had chosen this exact spot to stay the next day for meditative presence and forest observations!

How would we manage to relax and let go, knowing the strongest, biggest and most dangerous animal in the forest was nearby? How would we sleep here with only a thin fabric separating us from the space where bears roam?

We stood facing the darkness, in the depths of the green aquarium that had turned dark, about half an hour after the bear encounter. Suddenly, a light ignited to the right. Our immediate senses, unaccustomed to such intense biological lights, were surprised - who is turning on yellowish LED lights in the middle of the night? Who is illuminating the forest under the cover of darkness?

Another light flickered from the left, moving. In the depths of the forest, more lights appeared. The flying light points were small but strong. They lit up and went out. Sometimes they flashed at a rate of a second or less, sometimes the light source moved, and occasionally it lasted even half a minute continuously! The lights were relatively intense, and when they were close to vegetation, trunks, or the ground, a halo of light surrounded them. The forest was alive and breathing. Another light flared and faded, and here was a flicker right before our eyes, about a meter above the ground, a meter from us. Then - darkness. Was the show over?

The synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) in the Smoky Mountains are a rare and wondrous natural phenomenon. For about ten days only, between mid-May and mid-June, countless fireflies flash in breathtaking synchronization. This phenomenon has been observed in less than one percent of the known firefly species worldwide. The Smoky Mountains are a unique site in North America to witness this phenomenon, with only a few other places in America and Southeast Asia reporting similar sightings.

The demand to witness this phenomenon in the Smoky Mountains is immense, and access is highly restricted. The national park manages an annual lottery system to distribute a limited number of entry permits. In recent years, over 29,000 people competed for only about 1,800 permits. The lucky winners view the phenomenon up close, in small guided groups, with strict adherence to complete darkness to avoid disturbing the fireflies, just a short distance from the parking lots.

Unbeknownst to us, we timed our visit to the forests perfectly at the peak of the phenomenon. We did not participate in the lottery, did not join organized groups, and did not stay near the parking lots. The day after our visit to Albright Grove, we returned to the forest for a challenging ten-kilometer hike with a steep climb, aiming to spend two nights at the same site deep in the forest, for undisturbed presence and meditation. Without our knowledge but guided by the place, we positioned ourselves at the heart of a powerful, rare magic, standing alone before the spectacle in the depths of the forest.

After witnessing the magic last night, and at the end of a day of meditation in the area, we were excited to see it again. Would the forest fairies appear once more? Last night they emerged about half an hour into the darkness, shortly after the bear encounter. Would we once again witness the guiding spirits of the forest, the ancient mothers and fathers, the elves of the Cherokee forests?

And here it begins, this time earlier than yesterday. More and more join in. Dozens, if not hundreds of lights surround us. Like in a planetarium, out of the darkness, we are surrounded by lights. Moving, flashing, rising and falling, forming pairs and triplets. Gradually, lighting patterns emerge. Here a pair flashes in sync! And there a triplet responds with synchronized flashing! Structures form, large groups of fireflies synchronize their rhythm, communicating in Morse code with each other. A group flashes from the right, a group responds from the left, light patterns move through the forest, all the lights seemingly coordinated by a central control, all communicating somehow in an overall dance from all sides.

Sometimes, perfect synchronization occurs, and the entire forest flashes together. Lights up, and goes out. Dozens. Hundreds of tiny but relatively intense light sources. 'Hey! That one is not synchronized! Its light is weak, it's blue, it doesn't flash!' - 'Yes, there are all kinds here, other fireflies are also creeping in.'

The entire forest flashes together. Three flashes, maybe four, maybe ten, the shock erases the ability to count. Then - darkness. Darkness for several seconds, or minutes, it varies, then the dance begins again. The forest searches for its way to synchronize among all the light fairies, and they dance, moving, up and down, between the trees and vegetation. Most are at human height and ground level, some clinging to the treetops. How many do we see? Thousands?

The cycle continues for hours. Separated by varying lengths of darkness, the dance begins again, over and over Gaia displays the most wonderful of wonders. On the eve of Shavuot, the festival of light, the forest scatters its fairy dust out of the darkness. And there was light. And there was darkness, and they are not separate, intertwined they are in a magic that seeks eyes to see.

Research shows that the synchronous flashing of fireflies serves as a sophisticated mating strategy. It is an illuminated courtship ritual, where males compete to be the first to flash in each cycle, and females respond with a single flash after a set delay. The biological mechanism behind the synchronization is still shrouded in mystery but is believed to involve responses to visual signals, environmental influences such as temperature and humidity, and internal rhythms affected by light-dark cycles.

Fireflies produce light through a complex bioluminescence process. What is astonishing is their ability to synchronize their flashes within about 30 minutes of starting their evening activity, with precision to milliseconds. Observations reveal changes in flashing patterns throughout the night: early in the evening the flashes are faster and less synchronized, and towards the end of the night, the pace slows and synchronization improves. It is said that a view from above reveals waves of light passing through the forests in changing patterns over distances of many kilometers.

While it is clear why individual fireflies engage in such a light dance, the intriguing question remains: how and why do masses of fireflies create illuminated mass dances at night? How do they coordinate this, and what is the group purpose? Or perhaps, the mere observation, the mere reporting, our mere witnessing of the magic - that is the only essence.

A day has passed since the encounter with the black bear, until the climax of the firefly display, the farewell show from the primordial worlds of the Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee, a day of stay in the kingdom of maple, oak, and hemlock trees. The trees, like totems of ancient guidance, appear as faces of the ancient inhabitants. Upon returning, I read more about Cherokee mythology and learn that the black bear is a guiding spirit from the west, the spirit of the forest responsible for lessons in harmony and connection to Mother Earth, lessons of courage, determination, choosing the path, and walking without hesitation. Lessons of surrender and overcoming fear, to connect. Lessons that teach that if we do not flee from the monster and darkness within our consciousness, the forest lights will light up before our eyes and say "hello."

I have no photos of the bear or the fireflies, but there are many of the aquarium and its trees.


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