A naturalist finds birds calling his name

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

In one sense, James Poling found a new calling after his days teaching at Garrett Seminary, a graduate school of theology in Evanston, Illinois. On the other hand, his current endeavor is simply an extension of his overall philosophy.

“Basically, I’m focused on life within this universe,” the Black Mountain resident said recently. “For instance, among my interests is social justice. I believe that Jesus was a prophet who was upset over what was going on at the time - a lot of injustice, oppression, and people being mistreated by those who had political or religious power. He challenged everyone to do the right thing, and we do well to follow his example.”

Poling grew up in the mountains of Virginia, hiking, studying science and camping with his family. He wanted a similar culture when it came time to find a place to retire.

“There’s a certain way Southern people treat each other and talk to each other,” he said. “Folks are much friendlier. When I’m walking the nearby trails, people always greet one another. In addition, the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church is most welcoming and has a very strong, socially conscious mission. Taking part in church activities is therefore very appealing.”

As he continued to list factors that drew him and his wife Nancy to take up residence here some nine years ago, he mentioned his current avocation. Being “free to fully engage in my interest in nature and deepen my study,” he said, the first thing he did when he moved here was to go on bird walks and venture over to the North Carolina Arboretum.

The Arboretum is just south of Asheville, within the Bent Creek Experimental Forest. Poling studied “everything from woodlands to flowers, birds, creatures, insects, to the effects of the climate.” There, after two years of study, he earned a Blue Ridge Naturalist Certificate.

He bought a camera, took it everywhere and and compiled “a variety of photos,” he said. “I even just discovered an immature robin taking a bath in our fountain. It has a spotted breast. I’d never seen that before.”

To share his knowledge and ongoing experiences, he initiated a free bird walk, held at Owen Park in Swannanoa the third Saturday of the month at 8 a.m. in summer and 9 a.m. in winter. He also started a wildflower walk, held 9 a.m. the second Thursday of the month March through September at Lake Tomahawk.

“For all these walks,” he said, “I have to do advance scouting. A short while ago, I came upon my first Turk’s Cap Lily out on the Parkway. It was over five feet tall, and then I found a patch just about ready to blossom. Soon they’ll be hundreds of them brandishing clusters of large orange flowers with brownish-purple dots hanging upside down.

“My main teaching out of this is spiritual. How beautiful everything is.”

The one thing he has yet to concentrate on in his life is environmental justice. “Issues of the earth,” he summarized. “How to protect it and the future of humanity.”

In his casual, easy rhythm, Poling carries on. Just recently, he noticed that the yearly barn swallow nesting spot on Lake Tomahawk had been usurped by a wasp nest. He saw to it that it was removed, and the very next week the barn swallows came and resumed their customary activity.

He watched every day until, one by one, the fledglings joined the kindred inhabitants of a nearby tree. At that point, he took a photo of all three species of swallows perched side by side on a limb. He dutifully sent the photo to the website of The Blue Ridge Naturalists and shared the news with his followers, one and all.

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic feature about what draws people to the Swannanoa Valley.