A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail
A WALK IN THE WOODS
REDISCOVERING AMERICA ON THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL
by Bill Bryson
Not long after I moved with my family to a small town in New Hampshire I happened
upon a path that vanished into a wood on the edge of town.
A sign announced that this was no ordinary footpath but the celebrated Appalachian
Trail. Running more than 2,100 miles along America's eastern seaboard, through the
serene and beckoning Appalachian Mountains, the AT is the granddaddy of long hikes.
From Georgia to Maine, it wanders across fourteen states, through plump, comely hills'
whose very names--Blue Ridge, Smokies, Cumberlands, Green Mountains, White
Mountains-- seem an invitation to amble. Who could say the words "Great Smoky
Mountains" or "Shenandoah Valley" and not feel an urge, as the naturalist John Muir once
put it, to "throw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jump over the back
And here it was, quite unexpectedly, meandering in a dangerously beguiling fashion
through the pleasant New England community in which I had just settled. It seemed such
an extraordinary notion--that I could set off from home and walk 1,800 miles through
woods to Georgia, or turn the other way and clamber over the rough and stony White
Mountains to the fabled prow of Mount Katahdin, floating in forest 450 miles to the north
in a wilderness few have seen. A little voice in my head said: "Sounds neat! Let's do it!"
I formed a number of rationalizations. It would get me fit after years of waddlesome
sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale
and beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be
useful (I wasn't quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for
myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in
the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer
have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being
able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly
sniff, "Yeah, I've shit in the woods."
And there was a more compelling reason to go. The Appalachians are the home of one
of the world's great hardwood forests-- the expansive relic of the richest, most diversified
sweep of woodland ever to grace the temperate world--and that forest is in trouble. If the
global temperature rises by 4°C over the next fifty years, as is evidently possible, the
whole of the Appalachian wilderness below New England could become savanna. Already
trees are dying in frightening numbers. The elms and chestnuts are long gone, the stately
hemlocks and flowery dogwoods are going, and the red spruces, Fraser firs, mountain
ashes, and sugar maples may be about to follow. Clearly, if ever there was a time to
experience this singular wilderness, it was now.
So I decided to do it. More rashly, I announced my intention-- told friends and
neighbors, confidently informed my publisher, made it common knowledge among those
who knew me. Then I bought some books and talked to people who had done the trail in
whole or in part and came gradually to realize that this was way beyond--way beyond--
anything I had attempted before.
Nearly everyone I talked to had some gruesome story involving a guileless
acquaintance who had gone off hiking the trail with high hopes and new boots and come
stumbling back two days later with a bobcat attached to his head or dripping blood from
an armless sleeve and whispering in a hoarse voice, "Bear!" before sinking into a troubled
unconsciousness. The woods were full of peril--rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of
copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar; loony hillbillies destabilized
by gross quantities of impure corn liquor and generations of profoundly unbiblical sex;
rabies-crazed skunks, raccoons, and squirrels; merciless fire ants and ravening blackfly;
poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, and poison salamanders; even a scattering of
moose lethally deranged by a parasitic worm that burrows a nest in their brains and
befuddles them into chasing hapless hikers through remote, sunny meadows and into
Literally unimaginable things could happen to you out there. I heard of a man who had
stepped from his tent for a midnight pee and was swooped upon by a short-sighted hoot
owl--the last he saw of his scalp it was dangling from talons prettily silhouetted against a
harvest moon--and of a young woman who was woken by a tickle across her belly and
peered into her sleeping bag to find a copperhead bunking down in the warmth between
her legs. I heard four separate stories (always related with a chuckle) of campers and
bears sharing tents for a few confused and lively moments; stories of people abruptly
vaporized ("tweren't nothing left of him but a scorch mark") by body-sized bolts of
lightning when caught in sudden storms on high ridgelines; of tents crushed beneath
falling trees, or eased off precipices on ballbearings of beaded rain and sent paragliding
on to distant valley floors, or swept away by the watery wall of a flash flood; of hikers
beyond counting whose last experience was of trembling earth and the befuddled thought
"Now what the------?"
It required only a little light reading in adventure books and almost no imagination to
envision circumstances in which I would find myself caught in a tightening circle of
hunger-emboldened wolves, staggering and shredding clothes under an onslaught of
pincered fire ants, or dumbly transfixed by the sight of enlivened undergrowth advancing
towards me, like a torpedo through water, before being bowled backwards by a sofa-sized
boar with cold beady eyes, a piercing squeal, and a slaverous, chomping appetite for pink,
plump, city-softened flesh.
Then there were all the diseases one is vulnerable to in the woods--giardiasis, eastern
equine encephalitis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis,
schistosomiasis, brucellosis, and shigellosis, to offer but a sampling. Eastern equine
encephalitis, caused by the prick of a mosquito, attacks the brain and central nervous
system. If you're lucky you can hope to spend the rest of your life propped in a chair with
a bib around your neck, but generally it will kill you. There is no known cure. No less
arresting is Lyme disease, which comes from the bite of a tiny deer tick. If undetected, it
can lie dormant in the human body for years before erupting in a positive fiesta of
maladies. This is a disease for the person who wants to experience it all. The symptoms
include, but are not limited to, headaches, fatigue, fever, chills, shortness of breath,
dizziness, shooting pains in the extremities, cardiac irregularities, facial paralysis, muscle
spasms, severe mental impairment, loss of control of body functions, and--hardly
surprising, really-- chronic depression.
Then there is the little-known family of organisms called hantaviruses, which swarm in
the micro-haze above the feces of mice and rats and are hoovered into the human
respiratory system by anyone unlucky enough to stick a breathing orifice near them-- by
lying down, say, on a sleeping platform over which infected mice have recently scampered. In 1993 a single outbreak of hantavirus killed thirty-two people in the
southwestern United States, and the following year the disease claimed its first victim on
the AT when a hiker contracted it after sleeping in a "rodent-infested shelter." (All AT
shelters are rodent infested.) Among viruses, only rabies, ebola, and HIV are more
certainly lethal. Again, there is no treatment.
Finally, this being America, there is the constant possibility of murder. At least nine
hikers (the actual number depends on which source you consult and how you define a
hiker) have been murdered along the trail since 1974. Two young women would die while
I was out there.
For various practical reasons, principally to do with the long, punishing winters of
northern New England, there are only so many available months to hike the trail each
year. If you start at the northern end, at Mount Katahdin in Maine, you must wait for the
snows to clear in late May or June. If, on the other hand, you start in Georgia and head
north, you must time it to finish before mid-October, when the snows blow back in. Most
people hike from south to north with spring, ideally keeping one step ahead of the worst
of the hot weather and the more irksome and infectious of insects. My intention was to
start in the south in early March. I put aside six weeks for the first leg.
The precise length of the Appalachian Trail is a matter of interesting uncertainty. The
U.S. National Park Service, which constantly distinguishes itself in a variety of ways,
manages in a single leaflet to give the length of the trail as 2,155 miles and 2,200 miles.
The official Appalachian Trail Guides, a set of eleven books each dealing with a particular
state or section, variously give the length as 2,144 miles, 2,147 miles, 2,159 miles, and
"more than 2,150 miles." The Appalachian Trail Conference, the governing body, in 1993
put the trail length at exactly 2,146.7 miles, then changed for a couple of years to a
hesitantly vague "more than 2,150 miles," but has recently returned to confident precision
with a length of 2,160.2 miles. In 1993, three people rolled a measuring wheel along its
entire length and came up with a distance of 2,164.9 miles. At about the same time, a
careful measure based on a full set of U.S. Geological Survey maps put the distance at
What is certain is that it is a long way, and from either end it is not easy. The peaks of
the Appalachian Trail are not particularly formidable as mountains go--the highest,
Clingmans Dome in Tennessee, tops out at a little under 6,700 feet--but they are big
enough and they go on and on. There are more than 350 peaks over 5,000 feet along the
AT, and perhaps a thousand more in the vicinity. Altogether, it takes about five months,
and five million steps, to walk the trail from end to end.
And of course on the AT you must lug on your back everything you need. It may seem
obvious, but it came as a small shock to me to realize that this wasn't going to be even
remotely like an amble through the English Cotswolds or Lake District, where you head off
for the day with a haversack containing a packed lunch and a hiking map and at day's end
retire from the hills to a convivial inn for a hot bath, a hearty meal, and a soft bed. Here
you sleep outdoors and cook your own food. Few people manage to carry less than forty
pounds, and when you're hauling that kind of weight, believe me, never for a moment
does it escape your notice. It is one thing to walk 2,000 miles, quite another to walk
2,000 miles with a wardrobe on your back. My first inkling of just how daunting an undertaking it was to be came when I went to
our local outfitters, the Dartmouth Co-Op, to purchase equipment. My son had just gotten
an after-school job there, so I was under strict instructions of good behavior. Specifically,
I was not to say or do anything stupid, try on anything that would require me to expose
my stomach, say "Are you shitting me?" when informed of the price of a product, be
conspicuously inattentive when a sales assistant was explaining the correct maintenance
or aftercare of a product, and above all don anything inappropriate, like a woman's ski
hat, in an attempt to amuse.
I was told to ask for Dave Mengle because he had walked large parts of the trail
himself and was something of an encyclopedia of outdoor knowledge. A kindly and
deferential sort of fellow, Mengle could talk for perhaps four days solid, with interest,
about any aspect of hiking equipment.
I have never been so simultaneously impressed and bewildered. We spent a whole
afternoon going through his stock. He would say things to me like: "Now this has a 70-
denier high-density abrasion-resistant fly with a ripstop weave. On the other hand, and I'll
be frank with you here"--and he would lean to me and reduce his voice to a low, candid
tone, as if disclosing that it had once been arrested in a public toilet with a sailor--"the
seams are lap felled rather than bias taped and the vestibule is a little cramped."
I think because I mentioned that I had done a bit of hiking in England, he assumed
some measure of competence on my part. I didn't wish to alarm or disappoint him, so
when he asked me questions like "What's your view on carbon fiber stays?" I would shake
my head with a rueful chuckle, in recognition of the famous variability of views on this
perennially thorny issue, and say, "You know, Dave, I've never been able to make up my
mind on that one--what do you think?"
Together we discussed and gravely considered the relative merits of side compression
straps, spindrift collars, crampon patches, load transfer differentials, air-flow channels,
webbing loops, and something called the occipital cutout ratio. We went through that with
every item. Even an aluminum cookset offered considerations of weight, compactness,
thermal dynamics, and general utility that could occupy a mind for hours. In between
there was lots of discussion about hiking generally, mostly to do with hazards like
rockfalls, bear encounters, cookstove explosions, and snakebites, which he described with
a certain misty-eyed fondness before coming back to the topic at hand.
With everything, he talked a lot about weight. It seemed to me a trifle overfastidious to
choose one sleeping bag over another because it weighed three ounces less, but as
equipment piled up around us I began to appreciate how ounces accumulate into pounds.
I hadn't expected to buy so much--I already owned hiking boots, a Swiss army knife, and
a plastic map pouch that you wear around your neck on a piece of string, so I had felt I
was pretty well there--but the more I talked to Dave the more I realized that I was
shopping for an expedition.
The two big shocks were how expensive everything was--each time Dave dodged into
the storeroom or went off to confirm a denier rating, I stole looks at price tags and was
invariably appalled--and how every piece of equipment appeared to require some further
piece of equipment. If you bought a sleeping bag, then you needed a stuff sack for it. The
stuff sack cost $29. I found this an increasingly difficult concept to warm to. When, after much solemn consideration, I settled on a backpack--a very expensive
Gregory, top-of-the-range, no-point-in-stinting-here sort of thing--he said, "Now what kind
of straps do you want with that?"
"I beg your pardon?" I said, and recognized at once that I was on the brink of a
dangerous condition known as retail burnout. No more now would I blithely say, "Better
give me half a dozen of those, Dave. Oh, and I'll take eight of these--what the heck, make
it a dozen. You only live once, eh?" The mound of provisions that a minute ago had
looked so pleasingly abundant and exciting--all new! all mine!--suddenly seemed
burdensome and extravagant.
"Straps," Dave explained. "You know, to tie on your sleeping bag and lash things
"It doesn't come with straps?" I said in a new, level tone.
"Oh, no." He surveyed a wall of products and touched a finger to his nose. "You'll
need a raincover too, of course."
I blinked. "A raincover? Why?"
"To keep out the rain."
"The backpack's not rainproof?"
He grimaced as if making an exceptionally delicate distinction. "Well, not a hundred
percent. . . ."
This was extraordinary to me. "Really? Did it not occur to the manufacturer that people
might want to take their packs outdoors from time to time? Perhaps even go camping
with them. How much is this pack anyway?"
"Two hundred and fifty dollars."
"Two hundred and fifty dollars! Are you shi------," I paused and put on a new voice.
"Are you saying, Dave, that I pay $250 for a pack and it doesn't have straps and it isn't
"Does it have a bottom in it?"
Mengle smiled uneasily. It was not in his nature to grow critical or weary in the rich,
promising world of camping equipment. "The straps come in a choice of six colors," he
offered helpfully. I ended up with enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of
sherpas--a three-season tent, self-inflating sleeping pad, nested pots and pans, collapsible
eating utensils, plastic dish and cup, complicated pump-action water purifier, stuff sacks in
a rainbow of colors, seam sealer, patching kit, sleeping bag, bungee cords, water bottles,
waterproof poncho, waterproof matches, pack cover, a rather nifty compass/thermometer
keyring, a little collapsible stove that looked frankly like trouble, gas bottle and spare gas
bottle, a hands-free flashlight that you wore on your head like a miner's lamp (this I liked
very much), a big knife for killing bears and hillbillies, insulated long Johns and
undershirts, four bandannas, and lots of other stuff, for some of which I had to go back
again and ask what it was for exactly. I drew the line at buying a designer groundcloth for
$59.95, knowing I could acquire a lawn tarp at Kmart for $5. I also said no to a first-aid
kit, sewing kit, anti-snake-bite kit, $12 emergency whistle, and small orange plastic shovel
for burying one's poop, on the grounds that these were unnecessary, too expensive, or
invited ridicule. The orange spade in particular seemed to shout: "Greenhorn! Sissy! Make
way for Mr. Buttercup!" Then, just to get it all over and done with at once, I went next door to the Dartmouth
Bookstore and bought books--The Thru-Hiker's Handbook, Walking the Appalachian Trail,
several books on wildlife and the natural sciences, a geological history of the Appalachian
Trail by the exquisitely named V. Collins Chew, and the complete, aforementioned set of
official Appalachian Trail Guides, consisting of eleven small paperback books and fifty-nine
maps in different sizes, styles, and scales covering the whole trail from Springer Mountain
to Mount Katahdin and ambitiously priced at $233.45 the set. On the way out I noticed a
volume called Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, opened it up at random, found
the sentence "This is a clear example of the general type of incident in which a black bear
sees a person and decides to try to kill and eat him," and tossed that into the shopping
I took all this home and carried it down to the basement in several trips. There was
such a lot, nearly all of it technologically unfamiliar to me, which made it both exciting
and daunting, but mostly daunting. I put the hands-free flashlight on my head, for the
heck of it, and pulled the tent from its plastic packaging and erected it on the floor. I
unfurled the self-inflating sleeping pad and pushed it inside and followed that with my
fluffy new sleeping bag. Then I crawled in and lay there for quite a long time trying out
for size the expensive, confined, strangely new-smelling, entirely novel space that was
soon to be my home away from home. I tried to imagine myself lying not in a basement
beside the reassuring, cozily domesticated roar of the furnace, but rather outside, in a
high mountain pass, listening to wind and tree noise, the lonely howl of doglike creatures,
the hoarse whisper of a Georgia mountain accent saying: "Hey, Virgil, there's one over
here. Y'all remember the rope?" But I couldn't really.
I hadn't been in a space like this since I stopped making dens with blankets and card
tables at about the age of nine. It was really quite snug and, once you got used to the
smell, which I naively presumed would dissipate with time, and the fact that the fabric
gave everything inside a sickly greenish pallor, like the glow off a radar screen, it was not
so bad. A little claustrophobic perhaps, a little odd smelling, but cozy and sturdy even so.
This wouldn't be so bad, I told myself. But secretly I knew that I was quite wrong.
On the afternoon of July 5, 1983, three adult supervisors and a group of youngsters set
up camp at a popular spot beside Lake Canimina in the fragrant pine forests of western
Quebec, about eighty miles north of Ottawa, in a park called La Verendrye Provincial
Reserve. They cooked dinner and, afterwards, in the correct fashion, secured their food in
a bag and carried it a hundred or so feet into the woods, where they suspended it above
the ground between two trees, out of the reach of bears.
About midnight, a black bear came prowling around the margins of the camp, spied the
bag, and brought it down by climbing one of the trees and breaking a branch. He
plundered the food and departed, but an hour later he was back, this time entering the
camp itself, drawn by the lingering smell of cooked meat in the campers' clothes and hair,
in their sleeping bags and tent fabric. It was to be a long night for the Canimina party.
Three times between midnight and 3:30 A.M. the bear came to the camp.
Imagine, if you will, lying in the dark alone in a little tent, nothing but a few microns of
trembling nylon between you and the chill night air, listening to a 400-pound bear moving
around your campsite. Imagine its quiet grunts and mysterious snufflings, the clatter of
upended cookware and sounds of moist gnawings, the pad of its feet and the heaviness of its breath, the singing brush of its haunch along your tent side. Imagine the hot flood
of adrenaline, that unwelcome tingling in the back of your arms, at the sudden rough
bump of its snout against the foot of your tent, the alarming wild wobble of your frail shell
as it roots through the backpack that you left casually propped by the entrance--with, you
suddenly recall, a Snickers in the pouch. Bears adore Snickers, you've heard.
And then the dull thought--oh, God--that perhaps you brought the Snickers in here with
you, that it's somewhere in here, down by your feet or underneath you or--oh, shit, here
it is. Another bump of grunting head against the tent, this time near your shoulders. More
crazy wobble. Then silence, a very long silence, and--wait, shhhhh . . . yes!--the
unutterable relief of realizing that the bear has withdrawn to the other side of the camp or
shambled back into the woods. I tell you right now, I couldn't stand it.
So imagine then what it must have been like for poor little David Anderson, aged
twelve, when at 3:30 A.M., on the third foray, his tent was abruptly rent with a swipe of
claw and the bear, driven to distraction by the rich, unfixable, everywhere aroma of
hamburger, bit hard into a flinching limb and dragged him shouting and flailing through
the camp and into the woods. In the few moments it took the boy's fellow campers to
unzip themselves from their accoutrements--and imagine, if you will, trying to swim out of
suddenly voluminous sleeping bags, take up flashlights and makeshift cudgels, undo tent
zips with helplessly fumbling fingers, and give chase--in those few moments, poor little
David Anderson was dead.
Now imagine reading a nonfiction book packed with stories such as this--true tales
soberly related--just before setting off alone on a camping trip of your own into the North
American wilderness. The book to which I refer is Bear Attacks: Their Causes and
Avoidance, by a Canadian academic named Stephen Herrero. If it is not the last word on
the subject, then I really, really, really do not wish to hear the last word. Through long
winter nights in New Hampshire, while snow piled up outdoors and my wife slumbered
peacefully beside me, I lay saucer-eyed in bed reading clinically precise accounts of
people gnawed pulpy in their sleeping bags, plucked whimpering from trees, even
noiselessly stalked (I didn't know this happened!) as they sauntered unawares down leafy
paths or cooled their feet in mountain streams. People whose one fatal mistake was to
smooth their hair with a dab of aromatic gel, or eat juicy meat, or tuck a Snickers in their
shirt pocket for later, or have sex, or even, possibly, menstruate, or in some small,
inadvertent way pique the olfactory properties of the hungry bear. Or, come to that,
whose fatal failing was simply to be very, very unfortunate--to round a bend and find a
moody male blocking the path, head rocking appraisingly, or wander unwittingly into the
territory of a bear too slowed by age or idleness to chase down fleeter prey.
Now it is important to establish right away that the possibility of a serious bear attack
on the Appalachian Trail is remote. To begin with, the really terrifying American bear, the
grizzly--Ursus horribilis, as it is so vividly and correctly labeled--doesn't range east of the
Mississippi, which is good news because grizzlies are large, powerful, and ferociously bad
tempered. When Lewis and Clark went into the wilderness, they found that nothing
unnerved the native Indians more than the grizzly, and not surprisingly since you could
riddle a grizzly with arrows--positively porcupine it-- and it would still keep coming. Even
Lewis and Clark with their big guns were astounded and unsettled by the ability of the
grizzly to absorb volleys of lead with barely a wobble. Herrero recounts an incident that nicely conveys the near indestructibility of the grizzly.
It concerns a professional hunter in Alaska named Alexei Pitka, who stalked a large male
through snow and finally felled it with a well-aimed shot to the heart from a large-bore
rifle. Pitka should probably have carried a card with him that said: "First make sure bear is
dead. Then put gun down." He advanced cautiously and spent a minute or two watching
the bear for movement, but when there was none he set the gun against a tree (big
mistake!) and strode forward to claim his prize. Just as he reached it, the bear sprang up,
clapped its expansive jaws around the front of Pitka's head, as if giving him a big kiss, and
with a single jerk tore off his face.
Miraculously, Pitka survived. "I don't know why I set that durn gun against the tree,"
he said later. (Actually, what he said was, "Mrffff mmmpg nnnmmm mffffffn," on account
of having no lips, teeth, nose, tongue, or other vocal apparatus.)
If I were to be pawed and chewed--and this seemed to me entirely possible, the more
I read--it would be by a black bear, Ursus americanus. There are at least 500,000 black
bears in North America, possibly as many as 700,000. They are notably common in the
hills along the Appalachian Trail (indeed, they often use the trail, for convenience), and
their numbers are growing. Grizzlies, by contrast, number no more than 35,000 in the
whole of North America, and just 1,000 in the mainland United States, principally in and
around Yellowstone National Park. Of the two species, black bears are generally smaller
(though this is a decidedly relative condition; a male black bear can still weigh up to 650
pounds) and unquestionably more retiring.
Black bears rarely attack. But here's the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile,
cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and
eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn't happen often, but--
and here is the absolutely salient point--once would be enough. Herrero is at pains to
stress that black bear attacks are infrequent, relative to their numbers. For 1900 to 1980,
he found just twenty-three confirmed black bear killings of humans (about half the
number of killings by grizzlies), and most of these were out West or in Canada. In New
Hampshire there has not been an unprovoked fatal attack on a human by a bear since
1784. In Vermont, there has never been one.
I wanted very much to be calmed by these assurances but could never quite manage
the necessary leap of faith. After noting that just 500 people were attacked and hurt by
black bears between 1960 and 1980--twenty-five attacks a year from a resident
population of at least half a million bears--Herrero adds that most of these injuries were
not severe. "The typical black bear-inflicted injury," he writes blandly, "is minor and
usually involves only a few scratches or light bites." Pardon me, but what exactly is a light
bite? Are we talking a playful wrestle and gummy nips? I think not. And is 500 certified
attacks really such a modest number, considering how few people go into the North
American woods? And how foolish must one be to be reassured by the information that no
bear has killed a human in Vermont or New Hampshire in 200 years? That's not because
the bears have signed a treaty, you know. There's nothing to say that they won't start a
modest rampage tomorrow.
So let us imagine that a bear does go for us out in the wilds. What are we to do?
Interestingly, the advised stratagems are exactly opposite for grizzly and black bear. With
a grizzly, you should make for a tall tree, since grizzlies aren't much for climbing. If a tree
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