Orange County Gold.
John is excited. We had walked side by side through the woods for nearly half an hour, but now he runs ahead, kneels down on the brown carpet of leaf litter and examines his first find of the hike. He gently cradles a small cluster of delicate, white and pink flowers for me to examine and photograph.
"Spring beauties. Look at them all!" He points to a huge carpet of these early wildflower arrivals. Then he is ahead of me again examining a beautiful trout lily growing at the base of a huge tree. I get my picture of the yellow lily and we walk to the edge of a wet area where hundreds of skunk cabbages are beginning to emerge through the marshy ooze.
At the far edge of the wet area rises our destination -- a rock face nearly 30 feet high and 100 feet in length. "That, my friend, is the treasure chest we've been looking for and in a few weeks I'll show you the gold it hides," he says with a gleam in his eye.
It is the end of April on a cool day in Orange County. The leafless trees allow us a good look at a rather rare occurrence in this region -- an exposed limestone formation. The cliff face protrudes from the heavily wooded hillside and faces a low, wet area fed by a meandering stream.
Limestone is a highly water soluble type of sedimentary rock formed chiefly by an accumulation of organic remains. It consists mainly of calcium carbonate. Exposed to the weather and slightly acidic groundwater runoff, the cliff face is crumbly, pitted, cracked, pockmarked and full of sweet nutrients -- an ideal growing area for a multitude of mosses, lichens, wildflowers and ferns.
My companion is John Yrizarry, a noted wildlife artist, tour leader and naturalist. A walk in the woods with John is not just a hike, a forced march or a mind]ess meandering; but rather an in-depth lesson in natural science and woods lore. He may point to a tiny twig or pluck a leaf and speak volumes about its significance to the grand scheme that we call nature.
Now we are standing at the base of the outcrop and John is like a kid in a candy store -- pointing in all directions. Names of plants and ferns flow off his tongue with ease: Columbine, bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, hepatica, rue anemone, nodding trillium, maidenhair spleenwort and rattlesnake fern. Many of these have just emerged and he makes his identification by shapes of leaves only, which really amazes me.
The cliff face is not the only place where rare or unusual plants grow. The moist area at the cliff base stretching out toward the stream is a botanical marvel. John finds an uncommon wildflower named blue cohosh right at our feet. Its leaves and stems have a strange, bluish-gray cast.
A few days later we return to the site to find blooming Dutchman's breeches, named for the shape of the flower, that looks like a pair of pants. On another ledge we find a bloodroot growing from a narrow crevice. John makes his way around to the back of the outcrop that is still mostly covered by the hillside. He points to an insignificant looking small plant. The walking fern is not particularly pretty, but one of great importance to the naturalist. The presence of ferns indicates that the area has been undisturbed by man and grazing animals for at least 50 years or longer. The walking fern is rarely found in large quantities. However, at this spot we find 15 separate plants -- an extraordinary number. Other species of ferns include ebony spleenwort, maidenhair spleenwort, rattlesnake fern and purple-stemmed cliffbrake.
A week later, we return for further exploration. Wild columbine is growing in profusion along the ledges. The colors of red and yellow flowers, green ferns and gray rock make for wonderfully vivid photographs. The cliff face contains an incredible variety of mosses, lichens and ferns that create colorful and intricate mosaic patterns.
As I reach the high ground behind the exposed cliff, I find my friend lying on the ground peering at a strange plant protruding through the forest leaf litter. "This is squawroot, a parasitic plant that gets its nutrients from root connections to oak trees," he says -- pointing to a towering oak overhead.
John grabs a stick and draws a line on the ground. "From here on out we have granite, the most abundant surface rock in this region and what amounts to a barren desert on the forest floor," he says. "However, look back here toward the exposed limestone and we have a unique and diverse habitat -- a Garden of Eden."
Rarities in nature fuel John's passion for the outdoors and he quickly relates the important connection of the roundleaf ragwort as a food plant of the northern metalmark butterfly. This insect has not been recorded in Orange County in 50 years, but with a large amount of its food supply located near the ledge, it may make an appearance here.
We've been to John's "treasure chest" three times now, but he still hasn't shown me the "gold". "When the time is right -- probably in a few days," he says with that gleam in his eye.
In the meantime I'm intent on photographing any wildlife living on the ledge. I return early the next morning with my friend and fellow naturalist/photographer, Fabrice de Lacour. He has a wonderful instinct for finding wildlife and within minutes he scoops a redback salamander from beneath a log. Our next subject, a slimy salamander, secretes a very sticky substance that is difficult to remove from the fingers, so he handles him with care. As we photograph a green frog near a pool of water, a chipmunk appears along the narrow ledge to investigate. A male ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on the columbine, a star-nosed mole lives beneath the cliff, a pickerel frog shares the pool. Robins, tanagers, phoebes and rough-winged swallows fly above the cliff Flying squirrels live in a hollow tree nearby. It is likely that many more creatures call the limestone ledge home. This half-acre is, indeed, an area of great biodiversity.
The next evening I receive a phone call from John. "Go to the cliff tomorrow and see the gold," he shouts excitedly. He says I will get the chance to view a rare wildflower in Orange County -- the beautiful wild orchid known as yellow lady's slipper. He has found seven plants in the wild, but only three are in bloom -- quite possibly the only three in the entire county.
As I prepared to record both the delicate beauty of the yellow lady's slipper and the immediate habitat that allowed this rare occurrence, my mind flashed back to something John recently told me about the rarity of what we are now witnessing. A botanist that John knew has been searching Orange County for 40 years and has never seen even one yellow lady's slipper in the wild. I gently press the shutter to record this golden treasure.
The orchids are nestled in the protective shadow of an overhanging ledge, shielded from pelting rain, high winds and browsing deer. Surely, if these golden orchids were out in the open and easily seen, they would be eaten by any browsing animal or picked by a thoughtless human. They are, indeed, in a very special place, a place as rare as the very plants it supports -- a place that provides all of the ingredients for a recipe of gold. Such is life on a limestone ledge.
James H. Moerschel is a photographer/writer living in Monroe, Orange County and co-owner of Trekkers Photo Tours, Specializing in adventure trips to some of the world's most photogenic areas.