While I love hiking battlefields as a way to better understand the history that unfolded there, I also love being out in nature. There’s so much cool stuff to see—something my father opened my eyes to as a young boy and something I’ve enjoyed ever since. It’s always with a sense of awe that I walk the fields and hike the trails, and I try to see them not just as battlefields but ecosystems, too.
Yesterday, I followed the Gordon Flank Attack Trail through part of the Wilderness battlefield. Leaving from the Wilderness exhibit shelter’s parking lot, the trail winds a 2.1-mile loop through the northermost part of the battlefield. Here on the evening of May 6, 1864, Confederate Brig. Gen. John Brown Gordon launched an attack against the Federal VI Corps, although darkness brought the attack to a sputtering halt.
As I walked the eastern leg of the loop, I came across an unexpected patch of ground that brought me up short.
All had been brown—dead, crispy leaves that had dropped the previous autumn, lying like a brittle blanket across the forest floor. Bursts of green from holly bushes filled in some of the empty space between tree trunks, but otherwise, the landscape felt monochromatic and bare.
But not far beyond an old CCC building (now used by the park as a maintenance shed), at the bottom of a small swale, a splash of green spilled across the brown ground: a patch of princess pine perhaps an acre in size.
Common throughout the eastern U.S. and Canada, princess pine is a ground-cover plant that grows in mature second-growth forests. It’s there all year round, and in the summer and fall, it sends up small, yellow, spire-like “crowns” that emit spores for reproduction. The plants also reproduce by sending out additional roots—rhizomes—that then sprout new above-ground plants. In this slow-creep fashion, it spreads across the forest floor.
The patch of princess pine reminded me of a mass of seaweed afloat on a sea of large swells. On one edge, the pine washed up against the footpath I was on and ended there—their delicate roots unable to penetrate the packed-down dirt of the path. In all other directions, the greenery fanned away, scattering through the Federal trenches and up to the slopes of the swale. The pine seemed to prefer the lowground, though, and didn’t climb too high up the slopes.
The path did ascend the slope, though, and soon the princess pine fell away behind me. Again I found myself amidst bare trees and dead leaves and the remains of hastily dug earthworks. The holly kept the breaking the monochrome, though. Even on the tale end of winter, the Wilderness reminded me of its wildness.