In nature, the ordinary can be awe-inspiring

NCC's Danielle Horne with dogwood (NCC photo)

NCC's Danielle Horne with dogwood (NCC photo)

December 12, 2019 | by Danielle Horne

My friends are good natured about going hiking with me. Those who aren’t naturalists know that it can often be slow. I find that there are so many interesting species out there, and sometimes the most beautiful sights can be found in the most overlooked places.

I get excited over butterflies and flowers and graceful old trees. While working earlier this summer in Tiverton, Long Island, I came across my favourite sighting of the year. Was it an endangered species like the monarch butterfly? No. A stately, and rare eastern white cedar? No, not that either. It was a simple alternate-leaved dogwood.

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I’ve always been partial to this shrub. Its single stem and arching shape seem graceful and unassuming to me. I’ve seen it a number of times, as it is a common plant in Atlantic Canada, where I do most of my hiking. I’ve seen it along the edges of streams, in mixed-wood forests, in deciduous forests and often in more natural areas. It’s not a particularly large or showy shrub; it usually reaches about 1.2 to 2.4 metres in height and is and distinguished by its bright green branches. This summer, I came across the most amazing specimen, however, and proceeded to gush over this not-particularly-gorgeous shrub, much to the amusement of our new intern.

At first, you see, I thought this was an old apple tree. It was about four metres tall and gnarled. It looked half-dead, with bark missing along its trunk. But something didn’t look quite right. Taking a detour from our day of removing garbage and monitoring a coastal property, I went a little closer. I looked at its long, alternating leaves and realized it was the largest and likely oldest alternate-leaved dogwood I had ever seen. Its leaves were burnished red on the edges from the sun, and clusters of new flower buds were just emerging. It was the coolest thing I’d seen all year.

We spend a lot of our time focusing on rare and majestic sights, and I do see some pretty sweet spots every year. I travel all around Nova Scotia, usually visiting more than 40 nature reserves and projects for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, so saying that I hike a lot is a bit of an understatement! I hike through bogs and old forests and alder swamps, across beaches and along coastal headlands. Every year I see something new. But I still find the awesome in the ordinary, and my love of nature is reaffirmed in the smallest and simplest ways.

Danielle Horne (Photo courtesy of Danielle Horne)

About the Author

Danielle Horne is a Nova Scotia-based conservation biologist for NCC's Atlantic Region.

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