Skip to content

In the footsteps of John Terres

2011 February 10

PHOTO BY KEN MOORE. The open fields of Mason Farm make an impressive backdrop for close-up details like a mantis egg case on sweetgum.

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

How well I remember naturalist John Terres’ last visit to his beloved Mason Farm, back in 1981. During that visit, he led a walk for a group of devotees of From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog, his collection of stories covering six years of daily visits and observations in the fields and forests of the university’s Mason Farm property across Morgan Creek from Finley Golf Course.

John described his first visit: “I first saw the Mason Farm … in February 1961…. Crossing Morgan Creek over a concrete dam, I walked under the winter sun on a road that led over a grass-grown levee, built to hold back the spring floods. I had no thought of what might lie beyond. When I reached the top of the dike, I gasped. For two miles straightaway, and from east to west, windswept fields and woods lay under an enormous vault of blue. A thousand acres of swamps and fields and forest, to as far as I could see, were suddenly opened before me – a vast freedom of land and sky.…This was a wilderness of the land to match a wilderness of the heart.”

Were he alive today, John would be as thrilled with Mason Farm as he was on that first day.

He would wisely reflect on the many changes across that former far-as-the-eye-could-see landscape. That first view from the top of the dike is now closed in by groves of tall trees. Some of John’s studied fields are now young emerging forests. Sadly, the quail field is now a dense forest thicket, but John’s endearing story of the quail that roamed and nested in that former cornfield brings nostalgia and joy with every rereading.

John would appreciate new fields opened under N.C. Botanical Garden management. In time, the bobwhite quail’s plaintive call may be heard from the edge of one of these new fields.

Special places remain, like the corner of Big Oak Woods where the old farm road crosses Yancey Brook. On that walk in October 1981, John stopped and described how he placed a possum carcass inside the base of a hollow tree to test his theory of the turkey vulture’s extraordinary power of smell.

Further along the way, we paused to hear John’s account of spending numerous nights along the roadside to observe the nocturnal habits of the flying squirrel that nested in a dead hickory just inside the forest edge.

Perhaps John’s happiest discovery was the elusive golden mouse, a mouse that makes a football-shaped nest high off the ground. I think of that golden mouse every time I pass the grove of oaks where the little mouse was finally found.

Mason Farm is vibrant in late winter. Signs of spring are everywhere: twigs of trees and shrubs take on brilliant colors, bird activity increases, demonstrative hawks circle high above and burgundy patches of Penstemon rosettes announce the sea of white beardtongue flowers to arrive in June.

Mason Farm is a community treasure to be visited over and over; John Terres’ book is a treasure to read over and over.

Honoring both, the Botanical Garden has scheduled a walkabout on Feb. 20, tracing John’s footsteps around Mason Farm.

See, “Guided Public Tours and Hikes,” for information and registration.

Email Ken Moore at
Read more Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

PHOTO BY KEN MOORE. This grove of oaks is remembered as the site of John Terres' discovery of the little golden mouse.

Comments are closed.