Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category

Our Natural Gardens

Friday, May 21st, 2010

The 1967 edition of Naural Gardens

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has a wonderful exhibit up about B.W. Wells. It’s a great introduction to the man and his work.
Wells’ contribution to the preservation and scholarship of North Carolina’s natural world is a unique achievement for one person in one lifetime.
I’ll not dwell too much on the man’s biography as there have been many more able than myself who have more greatly described Wells and his impact.
Among them is Ken Moore, who has written extensively on his mentor. In taking up Ken’s advice to visit Wells’ homesite on the day of the annual celebration, I got at least a good grounding in what he was about. [You can see a slideshow of the site on the Almanac's flickr site here.]
The modest home and workspace are not the star attractions. The beauty of the place, now part of a state park, is in the lands that surround these structures. The Neuse River bends gracefully there and on the walk along the river, rock outcroppings jut out in places inviting one to pause, have a seat and watch the current flow and the birds work their way up and down the waterway.
We are much indebted to Wells for many years of service. Perhaps the most lasting of his accomplishments was helping us understand the variety of environments within our state’s borders. His book, The Natural Gardens of North Carolina, first published in 1932, put the ecosystems and plant communities of the state in context.
Starting with the seaside plant communities, the book takes you on a tour west through the marshes, swamp forests, bogs, sandhills, grasslands, uplands, great forests and the high mountains. All along the way, Wells lays out in meticulous detail the formation and dynamics of the natural gardens within these regions. The work is scholarly, but not dry. He clearly has favorites among the species surveyed.

So let me suggest to my reader in the Piedmont that the next time you pass a broom-sedge field, pause a moment and in imagination picture the valueless areas of bare, red clay ridges running helter-skelter in all direction which would surely be there were it not for the early capture and preservation of the land by this grass, which holds it well and, in turn, eventually passes it over to the even better safekeeping of the forest. — Chapter VIII, Old Fields

You can pick up an updated version of Natural Gardens at the Garden or online through UNC Press. If you look hard enough and long enough in the used bookstores around town you can also find one of the precious old copies of the previous versions of Natural Gardens.

Malaria in North Carolina

Monday, June 26th, 2006

This is mosquito season and news of flooding from heavy rain from the coast usually means a bumper crop. In some parts of the world this would mean a season of death and sickness, but here the malarial cycle has died out.
The path of malaria through western culture is an extremely fascinating story. It was not really associated with mosquitos until the mid-1800s. Mal-aria is Italian for “bad air” as it was thought that air from the swamps around Rome brought the fevers.
Each year, 1 million people—mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa—die from Malaria’s fevers, weakness and hemorrhaging. Visit the CDC’s malaria project and Bill and Melinda’s foundation to find what’s going on and ways you can help. While you’re at the CDC site, buy someone a bednet.
Malaria in North Carolina


In North Carolina, malaria was around in strength into at least the 1940s. State records show that in 1900, there were 92 deaths from malaria more than typhoid, whooping cough, measles or accidents. As Margaret Humphreys notes in her book Malaria : Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States , the death rates were disproportionately high among African-Americans. The state’s 1900 figures show 62 colored and 30 white deaths from the disease with most of the reported cases from the alluvial plain.
Getting away from the swamp air in said plain was one reason the government relocated on occasion to Hillsborough. New Bern must have been a bit like Eden in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.
In her Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History (Electronic Edition), Guion Johnson notes a malaria-driven custom that became imbedded in the culture of the state:

To escape the heat and malaria of the coastal towns the people of Eastern North Carolina had retired in colonial times to the edge of the piedmont where they might find cool springs out of reach of the “miasma.” This custom was continued in the antebellum period until it came to be a means of distinguishing those who were fashionable in town life from those who were not. There were some who made a yearly pilgrimage to Saratoga and other northern resorts as well as to springs in Virginia and North Carolina. “The ‘Spring season’ is almost at hand, and soon the moneyed part of our population, who have time at their command, will be moving off on various lines of travel, in pursuit of health and excitement, at the numerous watering places and fashionable resorts of the Union,” wrote the Southern Weekly Post of Raleigh on July 2, 1853. “Newport, Saratoga, Niagara, Cape May, the Virginia Springs, Old Point, Nag’s Head, and many other places of less note, will be thronged with visitors, and almost every one of these will have some plea of ill health, some dyspepsia or rheumatism or other, to reveal to their acquaintances as the true cause of their travels.”

Of late, there has been at least one recent case of congenitial malaria in Raleigh and other non-congenital cases among Montagnard refugees in the 1990s. There is concern, however, that climate change would aid the reintroduction of malaria to North Carolina. The disease and the response to it, both societal and biological , remains an intense subject of study.
Feverish Book
The best book I’ve ever read on malaria was The Fever Trail, which focuses on the “discovery” of quinine and its attempted exploitation by the West. At one point, the book notes, Bolivia and Peru were exporting millions of tons of bark each year to Europe. Though they were clear cutting huge stands of particularly potent species, the South Americans realized they had a treasure and outlawed exportation of seeds or plants. The western empires saw control over their own supply—through plantations in India and Java—as essential to their expansion. The Brits, in particular, needed it for conquest in India and Africa.
Author Mark Honigsbaum does an amazing job of weaving this all into a brilliant narrative. Throw in a couple of eccentric Royal Academy scientists, a monk-like hypocondriac and some of the nastiest jungles and hillsides on Earth and you’ve got one of best quest stories ever. Great for reading on those feverish, mosquito-filled nights of summer.