With over 100,000 acres of public lands in Transylvania County...
With over 100,000 acres of public lands in Transylvania County...
Experiencing the Forest Through All Five Senses
With over 100,000 acres of public lands in Transylvania County, there is no shortage of experiences one can enjoy by getting into the woods. This month, Field Notes has enlisted the help of Torry Nergart, conservation easement manager at Conserving Carolina, to give us some insights on how you can get the most from Transylvania County’s treasured public lands.

Torry, why is it important to try and engage all five senses when you’re enjoying the outdoors?
“When I think about engaging the senses, I think about all five of them working together, collectively. You could call that ‘mindfulness’ and one of the easiest places to do that is in the forest. When we find natural connections, it gives us what we’re missing from modern living.
Personally, I have to burn off a little energy before I can be more mindful. So, I do a trail run or bike a little bit. Both of these activities have a way of burning off a little of the busy-ness. It kind of rattles out the distractions. Then, I’m prepared to take a deep breath and engage all my senses.”

What are some plant and animal smells and scents I should be aware of when in
the woods?

“It’s interesting, when you’re trying to disconnect from the real world, you’re not turning anything off – you’re actually turning on your senses. And that’s especially true for the sense of smell. For me, smell is really nostalgic. One smell that immediately comes to mind – and is quite prevalent in our part of the southern Appalachians – is galax. It emits a sort of skunky, cannabis- like odor that is disruptive. It stands out. And it’s easy to spot once you’ve picked up the scent of it. There are others I enjoy for their pleasantness. I love sweet Betsy shrub. It blooms for a really long time. There’s camphor in it and it has a bit of a strawberry toothpaste smell to it.”
What can I learn from my sense of touch when I’m in the woods?
“Did you know there is a health benefit to putting your hands in soil? That’s a great way to engage your sense of touch. The earth we are walking on is alive: it is mostly airspace and everything that isn’t airspace is a living thing. Soil consists of organic materials that have to be broken down by something – usually a fungus or bacteria. So, the soil we walk on is air, moisture and little tiny forms of life.

“We think of non-living things in the forest, but the majority of it is alive – especially what’s right under our feet. So, getting your hands in the dirt is a great way to reconnect with that vitality. All the tactile feedback you experience in the woods – whether you’re striving to pick it up or not – provides a benefit.”

The forest is a food source for all kinds of animals and insects. What are some common foods that humans can forage for safely in the woods?
“It’s possible to safely forage for a lot of foods in the forest, but you need to learn from someone who is qualified to teach you about foraging. Botanists are usually a great source. They have both collected ancestral knowledge and scientific knowledge. I would recommend checking out the Western Carolina Botanical Club. They tend to get it right more than most other groups.
“If you’re looking for an entry into foraging, I would start with leafy greens. They often tend to be accompanied by flowers. Green shining coneflower is one example. It’s often referred to as sochan and was a staple of the Cherokee diet. It comes in early spring along with ramps.
“A lot of people go blueberry picking on the Blue Ridge Parkway. My advice would be to take just enough to get a good experience and leave plenty for every “thing” else. I know it’s a popular activity, but if we take them all for ourselves, we won’t leave any for the wildlife that rely on them to survive. When I’m out on the trail and see blueberries, I take just a few. I call ‘em little nibbles. Just a little bit – a little flavor – is all I need.”
The forest and its residents produce a symphony of sound. What are some common sounds to pick up on when you’re on a walk in the woods?
“I think I need to preface my answer with the fact that the majority of the sounds you hear are ‘alert’ calls from one animal to another that there is a ‘great ape’ moving through their environment. In short, your position has been given away. Sitting and waiting and being very quiet is a great way to have a listening session less influenced by your presence.” 
There’s a lot to see in the forest. But what are some new or different ways we can use our eyesight to broaden our understanding of the forest and its residents?
“Sometimes it’s great to have tools. Binoculars are a great example. They aren’t just for birdwatching. Butterflies make excellent subjects for binoculars. I also use binoculars for studying plants. Plants don’t run away. For example, at Devil’s Courthouse you’re not supposed to go beyond certain points because of the rare and threatened plants there. With binoculars you can check them out without disturbing their habitat.”

You’ve spent a lot of time in the forests and on the waterways of Transylvania County. What is the most profound lesson you’ve learned in the great outdoors and which senses did you use

“For me, it’s just recognizing the interdependency we have with our natural world. We seem to think we’re separate from it. When you’re in the woods, you can reestablish that connection a lot easier because you can get away from road noise. It’s an opportunity to just be in a more natural state and think about what’s most important. It’s highly restorative for me to participate in that interconnectedness by spending time in the forest.
Do you have any other advice for folks who want to venture into the woods?
“I would just encourage people to be a little less particular about what they hope to gain and just enjoy being in and becoming more comfortable with nature. It’s a great time to slow things down a little bit and to practice the things we’ve been talking about. Listening. Observing. Being patient.

One easy, low-cost-of-entry item would be a notebook and a pencil. Bring it out there with you. Write down what you see that interests you. Process your thoughts and experiences. You can also learn a lot from social media groups. There’s no shortage of information out there about the things you’re curious about. I would also seek out the various “friends groups” (Pisgah Conservancy, Friends of DuPont, Friends of Gorges). They offer a ton of resources and they’re all out there just waiting for you to call.”

About Torry Nergart
Torry came to Conserving Carolina after spending nearly ten years in the dynamic position of Park Ranger with Gorges and Haw River State Parks. Growing up in the Sauratown mountains around Danbury, NC, Torry fostered a love for the outdoors by poling canoes, camping, fishing and biking. Torry holds degrees in Forest Management and Natural Resources Conservation and Management, having attended Haywood Community and Western Carolina University. A resident of Brevard along with his wife Allison and daughter Avery, Torry enjoys family time in Pisgah exploring and playing in our eastern forests.

About Conserving Carolina
Conserving Carolina’s mission is to protect, restore, and inspire appreciation of the natural world. Since its inception, the organization has helped to protect over 47,000 acres in Transylvania, Polk, Henderson, Rutherford and Buncombe Counties in North Carolina and parts of Greenville and Spartanburg Counties in South Carolina. The organization played a key role in creating beloved public lands, including DuPont State Recreational Forest and Headwaters State Forest in Transylvania County. The organization holds over 200 conservation easements, which give private landowners a way to protect their land forever. The organization also supports good stewardship of conservation lands by helping to remove invasive plants, restore wildlife habitat, and protect streams and wetlands.

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