DANBURY - In
90-degree heat, Mike Schafale pulled on a long-sleeved shirt to
protect his arms, grabbed a wild rhododendron branch and pulled
himself from a hiking trail into the thicket of Hanging Rock State
Fifteen years into a quest to count every plant in every
important wild place in North Carolina, the ecologist was not about
to let green briar thorns slow him down.
"Is this the way to the bear oaks?" the state Natural Heritage
Program scientist yelled to a park ranger on his crew before
disappearing behind dense bush north of Winston-Salem.
Schafale and a devoted band of fellow researchers conduct
meticulous plant counts every summer in North Carolina. Plot by
plot, they are crafting a first-of-its-kind inventory of what
thrives in the state's least disturbed lands.
The survey could be pivotal in regional ecology studies.
Scientists will finally know which vegetation coexists naturally
from the sandy Coastal Plain to the rocky Nantahala Mountains.
Conservationists will get good statewide maps to viable habitats
suitable for rare or endangered species.
But first the work must get done.
Schafale and a core group of scientists, mostly professors at the
Triangle's two largest state universities, started the project in
1988 after deciding North Carolina had enough committed botanists
and ecologists to tackle so huge a task.
"There was no single, consistent and quantitative database that
covered the entire state," said Thomas Wentworth, an N.C. State
University botanist and a survey director.
Taking a plant census, called a pulse, is painstaking business.
In swamps, longleaf pine forests or Appalachian ridges, the pulse
ritual is the same. Schafale, Wentworth and co-organizers, including
Robert K. Peet and Alan S. Weakley of UNC-Chapel Hill, summon
volunteers to vacation rentals, out-of-session summer camps or even
vacant migrant worker quarters for spells lasting as long as eight
In last week's sweltering heat, they rented two cabins without
air conditioning near Stone Mountain to explore high ground in the
western Piedmont, including Hanging Rock. On Tuesday morning, nearly
20 volunteers were ready to go by 7:30 a.m. Schafale, Wentworth and
Peet broke them into teams no smaller than three. Those most
conversant in North Carolina's 4,100 types of grasses, vines, shrubs
and trees were named leaders.
After an hourlong drive to the state park, leaders loaded
backpacks and their arms with gear most hikers would never carry up
steep terrain: heavy duty reels of measuring tapes, stainless steel
soil augers to drill down to bedrock, hardcover plant guides the
size of good dictionaries and bulky global positioning equipment to
pinpoint the precise longitude and latitude of each count.
Schafale and his two volunteers, young women who work at the
park, joined a mile-plus march up Moore's Wall Loop, Hanging Rock's
most strenuous trail. The ecologist gave up on finding a suitable
spot featuring bear oaks, an endangered tree, after another team
landed a good one. Instead he chose a chestnut oak forest thriving
in the shallow soil covering Hanging Rock's erosion-resistant,
Measuring his plot was no leisurely walk through the woods. While
trying to pull a tape in a straight line for 50 meters through
stands of Catawba rhododendron, mountain laurel, several species of
pine, oaks, blueberry and thorny vines, Schafale dropped or climbed
as much as 6 feet in just a few steps. At times he simply threw the
tape over the dense bush and fought his way around to retrieve it
and carry on.
"Boy, y'all have a lot of green briar here," Schafale said,
struggling at one point to move at all.
But in about two hours, 10 equal-sized blocks of ground within a
10,000-square-meter area were marked with surveying pins and hot
pink and day-glow orange tape. Tonya Nifong, a Hanging Rock ranger,
pounded metal stakes in each corner so scientists could return to
precisely the same parcel again years from now if they want to
measure changes in vegetation.
Nifong and park co-worker Cindy Morefield picked up a Biltmore
stick, a standard forestry measuring tool, and started recording the
type and diameter of every stem or tree trunk, chest-high or taller,
on specially designed forms. Schafale started eyeing every plant
species rooted in the ground.
He scribbled several names a minute on his forms, using the Latin
titles for chestnut seedlings, sassafras saplings, huckleberry
bushes, witch grass, pitch pine, Virginia pine, table mountain pine.
The women marked down the common names of scarlet oak, serviceberry,
black gum, ash, one pine type after another. And on and on for
The most active pulse organizers -- who these days describe
themselves as the Gang of Only Four, or GOOF -- have landed some
money from state and federal agencies over the years. But the money
gets spent on the survey equipment, the lodging, having data from
the field keyed into computers back home and analyzing soil samples
dug from each surveyed tract.
So none of this would be possible without the volunteers, usually
a mix of the professors' students, former students or conservation
workers of one sort of another. For them, helping out is not merely
charity work, said Barbara Hart, an ecological consultant based in
Bryson City who slept on the floor in the women's cabin at Stone
Mountain Monday night.
"You can learn more looking over these guys' shoulders than you
can learn in a year looking at books," Hart said, explaining the
value of working among the most accomplished ecologists in the
And people do make the most of it.
On the way up Moore's Wall Loop, volunteers peppered Schafale
with questions. The Duke University-trained ecologist confirmed that
a brownish bud low on the ground was alive, a parasite with no
chlorophyll of its own that tapped into other plants' roots for
He identified a foamy white fluff on the underside of a Carolina
hemlock as an adelgid, a tiny pest somehow imported here from Europe
or Asia. Because local plants have no natural defenses against it,
it's killing Carolina hemlocks and other evergreens.
When the two young women on his team asked whether a lemon yellow
flower in bloom all over Hanging Rock was tickseed, Schafale said it
was. Then he stooped down to show them how the plant -- Coreopsis
lanceolata to him -- has clusters of two leaves that look like six
because of the unusual way they fold together.
"I'll never forget that," Nifong said.
Each night after a day's count, teams carry plants they can't
identify in the field back to base camp. The experts try to identify
each stem, peering through magnifying glasses and studying copies of
the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas and the Flora of
the Carolinas and Virginia.
Plants that can't be named, or even good specimens that get
identified, are carefully pressed between layers of corrugated
cardboard and feltlike blotter paper for the trip back to the
Triangle. Wafer ash might rest atop a native onion. A wild aster
might get stored under a puzzling sample of sedge.
Scientists and their volunteers have written new entries to North
Carolina's roster of plant life on these outings. A few years back
in the Uwharrie Mountains, they stumbled across a species of
goldenrod not seen here for a century.
Unwittingly they sometimes document how quickly thriving patches
of wilderness can disappear. In one of their first pulses, they
visited vibrant marine forests on the Outer Banks. They estimate
that half of what they surveyed has been destroyed to make room for
the vacation homes now so populous up and down North Carolina's
So far, pulse teams have counted about 3,000 plots covering more
than 800 acres. Time after time, they stake plots about one-quarter
the size of a football field.
The four primary organizers, now in their 40s and 50s, believe
they have another five years of counting left to capture all
significant clusters of wilderness. They intend to write a
substantial book before they retire or get slowed down by illness or
So it's no wonder Schafale was in such a hurry at Hanging Rock.
In the middle of July's pulse, which hit Stone Mountain, Pilot
Mountain and state game land as well as the state park, the
organizers knew how much remains to be done. There's more to count
in the Coastal Plain, in the northeastern corner of the state,
outside the Triangle cities, beyond Charlotte and elsewhere.
"This is our legacy for the future," said Wentworth, a driver in
the caravan carting volunteers from base to the field last week. "We
have to finish."