Hello, fellow plant folks, I’m Paul Sayre, grateful recipient of the gracious Cullowhee Native Plant Conference scholarship. I write formally to express my heart-felt thanks to each of you, and to the North Carolina Native Plant Society, for making my attendance at the 2016 Cullowhee Native Plant Conference possible.

I’m a lifelong “Planthead,” to be sure, but, heretofore, the Kingdom Plantae was for me more avocation than vocation. I am, in fact, a professional musician and had worked as professor of music in Chicago for several years, but the economic calamity of 2008 — and subsequent unwelcome turn in my life’s journey — led me to pursue an encore, or more accurately an additional, professional career. For me, the obvious point for an additional vocation was my love for plants, for they are the second bold, bright ribbon threaded through my life. I wanted  professional work in a new field to employ my interests and abilities more civically and more socially than my musical work typically does. I decided on landscape architecture with a graduate minor in horticulture and completed my Masters in the field in 2015. I’m now a  landscape architect at ColeJenest & Stone in Raleigh, North Carolina.

My interests in architecture, ecology, social justice, aesthetics, design, craftsmanship, utility, and practicality converge in my new vocation, but the core of my pursuits in this field is my passion for plants. In fact, unlike many landscape architects, horticulture and its familial disciplines are the wellspring of my interest, and the miracles of plants and ecological systems continually renew and nourish my interest and devotion.  

With this background, I headed West to the Cullohwee Native Plant Conference in the great Smoky Mountains. Attendees’ experience formally began at 7:00 a.m. sharp on Wednesday the 20th — mine with a group hiking through Panthertown Valley guided by ethnobotanist, David Cozzo, specialist in Cherokee botanics. Cosmo delighted, charmed, and peppered his charges with fact-filled, fun-filled banter and informal instruction amid the sublime spectacle of the Valley. Along the way, quite literally, there were Cherokee love potions, assorted treatments for fever and bleeding, snake-bite cures, and remedies for rheumatism — all of them conduits for the tentative probing and pleasures of human connection; a group that had set out largely as strangers returned, in some measure, friends.

Other hikes included Black Balsam Knob, John Rock Trail and Wolf Mountain Overlook, Highlands Botanical Garden and Other Native Plant Gardens, and — for those who preferred adventures of a different kind —workshops on propagation, drawing, and cast-stone botanical imprints were available at camp.

Formal, high-quality presentations sating broad interests began the following day. My favorites were: New Horizons for The Native Plant Movement, by Thomas Rainer; Where Horticulture Meets Ecology, by Claudia West; Why Do Plant Names Keep Changing?  by Alan Weakley; and Carolina Rice and Sea Island Cotton: How They Changed The Ecology of The Carolina Lowcountry, by Richard Porcher.

Cullowhee days were filled with more information, opportunity, and fun than any one person could absorb, and Cullowhee evenings were similarly eventful: surprisingly good food, contra dancing, impromptu music making, a slapstick talent show (apparently a perennial favorite), a live band and, perhaps most importantly, old friends renewed and new friends gingerly teased from bract, stamen, pediole, and stigma.

Professionals and amateurs, masters and acolytes, veterans and novices all mingled with surprising ease and ranked with impressive equanimity at Cullowhee. Further, the heady mix of assorted personalities, professions, interests, and backgrounds, of young and old, of well-kempt and rough-and-ready, seemed gloriously united in their great passion for plants. However, introverts planning to attend Cullowhee should take care to fortify their strength of spirit before attending the conference. Goodwill and welcome abound at Cullowhee, but long-standing friendships and tight-knit groupings of the like-minded can intimidate newcomers. Further, the intimate atmosphere and rich emotional connection (think sophomore year of undergraduate school) may leave some folks over stimulated. This was certainly true for me. I left well-nigh exhausted, and if I have opportunity to return (and I hope I do), I’ll make provisions to pace my time and to parse my emotional expenditure, and I’ll make sure to get enough sleep! Fatigue aside, I left Cullowhee with gratitude in my heart and with affirmation that there yet may be wonderful things ahead for me. I suspect that’s most folks’ Cullowhee experience. What more could one want?

I’m back home now, back to my little life of music and landscape architecture, but the North Carolina Native Plant Society may be interested to know that during a recent work session on prominent public grounds in Asheville, I had your recommended plant lists at the ready! I’m more committed than ever to advancing awareness for, and championing use of, native plants within the profession of landscape architecture. My sincere thanks for allowing me to attend the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference and for awarding me the opportunity to learn more about the miraculous flora of the great American South-East.

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