Along the Escarpment

Photo © Benjamin Erlandson. All Rights Reserved.

April 1, 2018. Easter Sunday and April Fools’ Day. Perhaps there are several other holidays occurring on this day, none of which I am aware. I do not celebrate either of these two anymore, but both are fairly prevalent in the United States of America, the country in which I have always resided. I am spending the overcast morning meandering through Doughton Park, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, situated about ten to twelve miles from my family home, which we established in the middle 1990s. On this particularly beautiful cool spring morning, I am thankful that the wind is not too stiff as I set out to explore a piece of the mapped terrain upon which I have never set foot. Based on views of the topography I have taken in from afar, I have a hunch that what I am looking at on the topo map will be a particularly beautiful spot to which not many people would be willing to venture. There is no trail, and it is probably straight through a laurel thicket.

Assuming I can get to the spot on the map without the need for hand cutting tools, and assuming it is the spot that I think it is, I do not intend to tell very many people about it, if anyone. I need a new spot for reading and writing and meditating on the future of humanity. Other species are always welcome.

I found the spot. And I can count on one hand the number of people I may tell about it. Eventually.

While I am out there, I stop, peer up into the sky, and think to myself: This is the closest thing I have or need as any kind of church. And it sure beats the hell out of any pew or preacher.

As I leave the secret spot and head directly toward a part of Doughton Park I know—as opposed to retracing my steps back to the established trail—I come across a scorched tree. I do not think much of it, and I get about ten yards past it, and something makes me turn around. As I approach, I notice a tiny red dot, and it is moving along the trunk. I get my face as close as I can to the tree while still able to focus without my reading glasses, and I notice what looks like a tiny red spider. If not a spider, it is some kind of arachnid, colored a red vermillion which screams POISON! All I can think is I am glad I have my 60mm macro lens on my camera, much less that I have my SLR with me, as opposed to just the camera on my smartphone, which is still pretty good.

Someone once said that the best camera you have is the one in your hand. And in this fortuitous moment, my hands are well equipped.

I spend the next ten minutes or so following this arachnid around its perceived topography, the varied terrain of the tree: the smooth grain of the scorched exposed wood, the also scorched rough bark escarpment rimming the arachnid’s expansive wooden valley range. There is the occasional lichen tree around which the arachnid must adjust its path as it circumnavigates the scorched rim.

My mind reverts back to frustration as I realize the light is low and diffuse, and if I set the aperture any higher than f/5.6 the shutter speed will be far too slow to get a steady handheld shot, especially considering how fast this arachnid is moving. I come to terms with the fact that I should just set the aperture to f/2.8 and let the super shallow depth of field be a part of the aesthetic endeavor as I chase this arachnid around its temporary territory. Let the limitations be a challenge to heighten the experience, and pay attention to the experience, which you may never have again. Get out of your head and back on the tree, with the arachnid.

After this particular arachnid crawls up to a height beyond my own, focused pursuit is no longer feasible at 60mm, so I stop shooting and take a moment to refocus my naked eyes from my own perspective of the tiny red beast in its world. As I take a step back, I notice several others of the same species crawling along the surface of the bark. I imagine there are hundreds more waiting to emerge from the innards of the tree.

I continue on my own journey back to another favorite off-piste spot within the park, and I pass another tree that happens to be scorched. My interest thoroughly piqued, I inspect this tree for the same arachnid species, and I count several crawling among the scorched wood and bark! Once again, wandering somewhat aimlessly has paid quite the dividend. I briefly consider whether these arachnids only inhabit scorched trees, and make a note to include this tidbit in follow-up research once I’ve got time in front of a laptop with an internet connection. I check a few unscorched trees in the area; no arachnids are visibly present. I recognize the lack of scientific rigor of my investigation, as I am not even sure if the two scorched trees are of the same species. I curse myself for forgetting so much of what I learned in National Camp School as I trained in ecology and conservation to be the nature area director of my local Boy Scout camp. While that training was nearly twenty years ago, I shamefully realize I need to put some effort into rekindling my flora and fauna identification knowledge and skills.

Back home to process my photos and get a closer look at this red vermillion arachnid, I extend my search across several ecological sources on the internet, and the best conclusion I can currently draw is this tiny creature is a red mite, a velvet mite: Trombidium holosericeum. I am forever fascinated by what I find through persistent happenstance as I continue to get to know the escarpment.

I have so much more to find.


What is an escarpment? Basically, an escarpment is a steep slope that typically separates two areas of land at different heights, often flat above and below. In the case of the Blue Ridge escarpment where I live, especially in the area of Stone Mountain and Doughton Park, the escarpment serves as a steep and rugged transition between the North Carolina foothills, approximately 1000 feet in elevation, and the high meadows above, at approximately 3000 feet in elevation. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the top edge of the escarpment. My home is within a mile of the Parkway and the escarpment, in these high meadows, situated at the base of Bullhead Mountain, also called Araniska, depending upon whom you ask.

After nearly a decade away in Arizona and California, I returned to my Bullhead home in 2014. Having been raised on the escarpment, spending countless hours of my childhood hiking, camping, trout fishing, and generally exploring the backcountry of Doughton Park and Stone Mountain with my father, I returned to a place of familiarity only to realize that there was so much more to explore. Enough exploration for the rest of what I hope to be many years left seeking consciousness on this planet.

Sensing a convergence of my naturalist, creative, and narrative experiences and workflows through writing and photography, I spend as much time as possible exploring the wildness that we are so lucky to have at our doorstep. I use an app on my smartphone to track myself along standard USGS topographical maps, which allows me to use the digitized maps to make decisions enroute, and to benchmark specific locations to which I must return, such as waterfalls, old homesteads, unique trees and rocks, and optimal locations for sunrise and sunset photography. These augmented digital layers are for my own reference, not to be shared with others, for fear of intrusion from tourists and locals that will disrupt the wildness of the space more than I, and for fear that these unprepared tourists and locals may perish on the unforgiving terrain. There are stories of mountain lions in the area, and based on topography alone, the escarpment is full of places you could easily die, with other people eventually finding half your eaten corpse, if anything. This reminds me of Bernd Heinrich’s Life Everlasting, with thoughts of a sky burial. Perhaps it would not be such a bad way to go after all.

Based on my preferred photographic pursuits, I spend quite a bit of time chasing waterfalls, seeking plunge pools in creeks and branches which are often so narrow they can be comfortably straddled by a grown man with a 32-inch inseam. These falls are never the same experience twice, thanks to varied stream flow and extreme elevation drops combined with constantly fluctuating microclimates.

Sometime in March of this year I chased several familiar falls on Horse Cove Branch, scrambling down freshly exposed rocks following the thaw from what turned out to be the last big snow of the winter. Thanks to the snowmelt, streamflow was probably the highest I had ever seen on Horse Cove Branch, and as I precariously braced myself between the rocks to steady my camera without my tripod, I found the cacophony of the water crashing off the concave chambers to be almost deafening. At one point I heard a hint of an incongruous roar above the waterfall, and looked up just in time to see the all-too-familiar sight of a fighter jet flying overhead. Pilots from a relatively nearby military air base use the mountains on the edge of the escarpment—as well as other topographic features in the mountains further west—to practice low altitude mountainous terrain maneuvers.

As it turns out, the same jet circles overhead at least a half dozen times while I am down shooting the waterfalls, but it gets easier to ignore each time, as the waterfalls get louder and louder the farther down the escarpment I go.

I never know just what I will find when I set out on any given day across, down, and back up the escarpment: amphibians, bears, birds, bobcats, coyotes, ferns, fish, flowers, fungi, reptiles, rocks, slugs, snails, trees. Invaded by a plethora of roads along every ridge and into every cove and holler, this escarpment is a network of some former civilization from a simpler time.

The telltale sign is the daffodil.

One of my friends has land along a creek at the bottom of the escarpment, and he and I hike up the escarpment from his house into places he has not often visited, some unseen since he was a child. He knows the human history, though, as do many of the locals in the area. Recently he took me up a ridge to benchmark a turning point to connect into a road I had previously hiked down, allowing me to visualize yet another full escarpment descent or ascent path in my head for later exploration. After making this connection, we had the opportunity to take a side trip up to the Campbell homestead, which sits near the summit of Campbell Mountain (not named on the map) in Stone Mountain State Park.

On this site is where Dolphus and John Andrew Campbell, the sons of Solomon Campbell, a freed slave, published a newspaper called The Intelligent Banner. Standing in this place, staring at the crumbling remains of a fireplace and what appears to be the depressed footprint of the modest home, I cannot help but think about the expressions of human livelihood possible within a much less industrialized existence. A newspaper with supposedly national distribution (expansive, at the least) created and manufactured by the sons of a freed slave living what I imagine to be the typical subsistence lifestyle of the time. I try to imagine how two men in that time period (perhaps the 1890s?) would have been able to support themselves as farmers and take the time to write, edit, print, and distribute a national newspaper. Perhaps they had quite a bit of help. I also realize, in that moment, that I must do more research on the topic. Luckily, a quick internet search upon returning home that evening awards me two articles from the Wilkes Journal-Patriot revealing the fact that one of the descendants of Solomon Campbell has written down the family story, and a copy is supposed to be in the collection of the Wilkes Heritage Museum.

Beyond human history, there is a calling to dedicate myself to capturing and curating a perpetual portrait of the ecology of this escarpment. I am not yet sure how these curations will best manifest, but I am sure that maps will be involved in some way, shape, or form. We’ll see how the next few decades unfold, and to what purpose.


Spending as much time as I can walking along or upon the escarpment, often with my camera in hand, a tripod strapped across my back, I find ample time for presence, observation, and deep thinking. I look for signs of other humans, and often try to gauge how long it has been since another person visited whichever spot it is that I have found. I look for landscapes as seen by other species, especially insects. Often, when I shoot a particular moss, fungus, or flower, one or more insect species will join the show—things I would likely never see were I not looking through a camera lens.

It is somehow easy to work through design concepts and problem solutions as I hike; I like to say that I wrote most of my dissertation while pedaling my bicycle during the grueling 40-60 mile training rides of my racing days in Arizona. So, along and upon the escarpment there is plenty of time to think and be surprised by what I find. How big of a permanent structure could I build here that nobody would notice? What if I just started planting perennial food sources in various wild places for future shared interspecific consumption?

I wonder about all the small mill towns that have only ever existed for the purpose of a singular industry that is no longer viable and certainly never was ecologically sustainable. I think about the sense of desperation inherent in a terrified redevelopment effort to create tourist economies in a place that nobody really wants to visit, especially when peak oil tells us that air travel and tourism in general must be on a permanent decline, whether we like the idea or not. My hometown of Elkin, North Carolina—housing a now-defunct single family global textile company—comes to mind, and I wonder if it wouldn’t make more sense to simply dissolve the town and tell everyone to find somewhere else to live, either as subsistence farmers or city dwellers. For most of us humans, there is no good solution, especially if we can’t break ourselves and others out of the capitalist and consumerist mindsets imprisoning us in this terror.

As a longtime reader of David Quammen, E. O. Wilson, and a range of many other science and environmental writers, I wonder about Wilson’s half-earth proposal for saving life for all other species on the planet—and thus the biodiversity we depend upon—despite the massive destructive tendencies of our species: How do we actually do it? Can we make convincing arguments to non-believers? How?

Along these same lines, I think about the dissolution of the United States of America, and whether or not it will happen in my lifetime. I think about all of the nations that actually exist on the North American continent, including those American Nations identified by Colin Woodard. I think about continents and watersheds as the only true physical boundaries of interspecific interaction, and the arbitrary nature of political lines we draw on ever-changing maps of human civilization. I wonder if the current President is accelerating the dissolution, and I think about the potential for human communities in watersheds to band together in grassroots governance, seceding from the formerly defined states within which they exist. I wonder if perhaps my New River watershed might be one of the first. How far are the state capitals of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia from the boundaries of the New River watershed?


The Mountains-to-Sea Trail lies within short walking distance of my home. I think about the fact that I could leave my house with a backpack and boots and walk all the way to Cape Hatteras or Clingmans Dome—with requisite resupply drops, of course—even though most of the trail east of Stone Mountain still requires walking on roads, which does not sound at all appealing to me. I could join the Appalachian Trail at Clingmans, continuing the pedestrian journey to Springer in Georgia or Katahdin in Maine. I wonder how much farther and further I could go beyond these points.

I think about the logistics of making this trip and turning it into a longitudinal photojournalism experience. This sounds like a job for Patreon.

As I face the entrance to my fifth decade on this planet, I think about what I can do with the rest of my life—which is also likely on the downward slope, even though I’d appreciate healthy longevity—to be as non-destructive, creative, and useful as is possible, both individually and collectively. Using my photography and writing fiction and nonfiction to show and tell the stories that need to be heard seems it should be a high priority, as does composting and gardening, not only to grow food, but to grow local ingredients (including the hops!) to go into the beers and ciders I brew. Often I consider again going commercial with my brewing operation, but the idea of all the paperwork gives me pause. Rekindling my kefir brewing, yogurt making, and other types of fermentation and preservation seem like worthy pursuits. Finally, I continue to design and practice building sustainable, human-scale, biodegradable structures for residential and productivity purposes—and I regularly reflect upon how all of these pursuits are some part of the practice of becoming and continuing practice as a loving resistance fighter, as described by Neil Postman: continuous critical skepticism of human technologies and usage patterns.




I think about the feasibility of forming some order of loving resistance: an idea and place, and what that might be, and how it would work. Would people join me?

By default, I continuously circle back to my own dissertation work, completed upon the urban heat island paved desert of Phoenix, Arizona. As I walk the escarpment, I think about my own real experiences and the experiences of others in contrast to my work on virtual worlds and simulations, including cognitive approaches to authentic performance assessment for learning through behavior change over time based on perceived instrumentality. I think about the topographies I meticulously coded into the terrain of Cloverdale (my world) and how difficult it was to build a realistic watershed that would still be engaging for undergraduate students as a virtual space to be interacted with in two-hour vignettes, especially a dying town with residential, commercial, and industrial features, not to mention a two-dimensional map of the world that constantly showed a user’s location—as well as the multiple levels of virtual presence that this coordinated map represents, all while a person never leaves his or her chair. And I think about the non-sustainable footprint for virtual worlds: these worlds are extremely expensive, time-consuming, and socially inequitable—because too many pieces of equipment full of precious metals are necessary for immersive individual interaction with the world(s).

I constantly consider our constructed digital layer around the world as one big simulation. All the apps and devices and the clouds that connect them: the layer is an integral part of our current experience. Why not use this layer for better data-driven assessment and behavior change as we make the relatively fast-slow deindustrial transition on the downslope from peak oil? I remember one of my statistics professors at Arizona State University telling me that the first thing to do in any analysis is to draw exploratory pictures of the data you have collected, look at the pictures, and make sure that you are on the right track to do the more extensive analyses you intend. That’s just it: data tell stories through pictures, and we can continue to build data-driven stories with advanced statistical tools that provide opportunities for critical qualifications of quantifiable phenomena.

It is just one piece of the puzzle, but it is a corner piece.


And yet, the entire escarpment is an edge piece, full of corners in all three dimensions. In the early days of the westward push of European immigrants across the continent, escarpments such as this one served as enormous signage to all but a few settlers: turn your wagons around and find another route. The same goes for many attempts to build railroads to the top, eventually running out of money, willpower, or perhaps dynamite.

As I continue to understand potential human futures as we flog our way into the shallow end of the fossil fuels pond, I have come to realize the varied pitch and topography of the escarpment as metaphor for the stepwise decline of deindustrialization, and the variation of interconnected and divergent pathways as dissensus. The old wagon roads allowed folks to slowly but surely find every potential homesite, pasture, and spring, and then connect them together in ways that horse and foot travel would give them access to their miles-distant closest neighbors as necessary. These same varied pathways will help us blaze many interwoven trails back down the escarpment of post-peak oil and, at some point, the human population decrease.

Hopefully there will still be plenty of bears and bobcats across the escarpment after we deindustrialize ourselves back down to the bottom. Maybe even mountain lions. Hopefully they will still have their own networks that we have not destroyed as we continued to forge our own paths of restraint.

Dr. Benjamin Erlandson is a perpetual skeptic, longitudinal thinker, brewer, gardener, photographer, learning systems designer, and writer of fiction and nonfiction. Dr. Erlandson has published extensively in academia, including several peer-reviewed articles and co-authorship of the graduate-level textbook Design For Learning In Virtual Worlds. He has self-published the narrative nonfiction work Winter South 02014, about a road trip from California back to his home state of North Carolina. Born and raised in Elkin, North Carolina, Dr. Erlandson has degrees from UNC-Asheville, Emerson College, and Arizona State University. He currently resides in North Carolina.

Appears In

Issue 5

Browse Issues