Little Prairie on the Upper Neuse: Horton Grove Nature Preserve

The sidewalk ended. The billboards, gas stations, and fast food restaurants of Durham, North Carolina, faded from view. I spotted a pumpkin stand and a large banner announcing a “Holy Ghost Weenie Roast” before the landscape changed to fields and ponds, livestock and horses. I passed a sign for “Free Frogs.” I blinked hard and looked again. “Free logs.” I pondered the questionable nature of my new contact lens prescription until I was interrupted by Siri, my iPhone personal navigator.

“You have arrived at your destination, 7360 Jock Road.” Siri stated, then fell silent.

I stared down a gravel road with forest on both sides. Was this really Horton Grove Nature Preserve?

It was. All 700-some acres of it.

About a mile down the gravel road, I saw the wooden sign for the preserve and pulled into the wide circular parking area.


North Durham County, North Carolina

Established in 2012, the preserve offers approximately four miles of trails surrounded by tall grasses and forested areas that meander along the Upper Neuse River Basin. Horton Grove, itself, dates back to pre-Civil War times. The preserve was part of Stagville Plantation. (Stay tuned! I’ll be writing all about that historic place soon.)

There wasn’t another car in sight. And, I have to say, it was a bit eerie. Beautiful, yes, but also a bit too remote for a lone explorer. My window was rolled down—as it ought to be on a temperate, sunny day ride. The gentle breeze swept through the pines and oaks like a trumpet call. Insects offered their own harmonious strains, and birds of various voices sang the melody.

I stayed within sight of my vehicle and photographed scenes from the 20-acre meadow surrounding the parking lot.


Information stations by the parking area at Horton Grove Nature Preserve tell about the history of the area, the nature of a prairie and its inhabitants, and a map of the trail system. (North Durham County, NC)


From my bird’s eye view in the parking lot, I could see bird feeders stationed throughout the meadow and along the prairie trail. Perfect for bird watchers! — Horton Grove Nature Preserve; North Durham County, NC


Wildflowers sprout up among the tall Indian grass, a native prairie grass that is allowed to mature to heights of up to 8 feet tall. Pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and bees (like the one pictured here) help sustain plant life and ensure the growth of our food.


God’s amazing creation at work: Did you know that 1 out of every 3 bites of food that we eat are brought to use by pollinators? — Horton Grove Nature Preserve; Durham County, NC


Just off the parking area, in the 20-acre meadow, is the 0.8 mile Holman Loop. There all three trails at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, each one named after a slave family that endured on the Stagville Plantation. The other two trails are the Justice Loop (1.6 miles) and the Hart Trail (0.6 miles). — North Durham County, NC

There are plans to extend the trail system (from four miles to ten) and to link the preserve to the Stagville Historic Site. If you’re exploring Durham and its surrounding resources, consider Horton Grove Nature Preserve. It’s quiet, primitive, and picturesque. Also, consider taking a friend or two. Have fun exploring and be safe!

Raining Cormorant and Ducks


The first part of this week, it rained cats and dogs. Or should I say, cormorant and ducks?

I was passing through Duke Gardens in a drizzle-turned-downpour-turned-drizzle on Tuesday when I discovered a different perspective of the place. It was as though, for a brief moment, the Gardens belonged solely to its ‘natural’ inhabitants—the wildlife.

As I traveled the main path between the Historic Garden and Asiatic Arboretum, a gaggle of ducks congregated along the walk, wading in the puddles and grooming their feathers.


I looked to my right, toward the garden pond in the Asiatic Arboretum. Behold! there was a double-crested cormorant perched on the bank. It was the first cormorant I’d ever seen at the Gardens.


A double-crested cormorant along the edge of the garden pond. — W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens; Durham, NC

The cormorant decided on a dip, swimming around the pond with its hooked bill tipped upwards. Perched nearby was a large duck with a bright red beak. It was a stout sight that looked like a cross between a rooster, a turkey, and goose. It was, in fact, a male muscovy duck.


A double-crested cormorant takes a rainy-day swim as a muscovy duck stands along the bank. — Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens in Durham, NC


A muscovy duck standing in the rain. Duke Gardens; Durham, NC

One by one, the mallards cleared the path, taking flight and touching down on the garden pond, making way for me to pass. As I did so, I looked to my left—over by the Iris Bridge along the edge of the Historic Garden—and saw something that surpassed the mallards and muscovy and rivaled the double-crested cormorant. It was a Great Blue Heron perched atop a weeping tree, right there in the middle of the pouring rain.


On a rainy day, this Great Blue Heron heads for higher ground down by the Iris Bridge in the Historic Garden at Duke Gardens. (Durham, NC)


A Great Blue Heron by the Iris Bridge at Duke Gardens. (Durham, NC)

The rain tapered to a drizzle. Much of the wildlife retreated beneath the trees or behind the brush, and the Gardens slowly filled with visitors once again.


The Duke Gardens Terrace on a rainy October morning. Durham, NC

Sunday in the South: The Hill House Edition

Hill_House_front3 On my way to church this morning, I passed a familiar site: a Spanish Colonial mansion perched atop a hill along South Duke Street in Durham, North Carolina. The white-stuccoed beauty is referred to locally as Hill House. Mistakenly, I thought it was so named because it sits on a hill. Actually, the house is named after its original owner, John Sprunt Hill.

On my way home, I stopped at Hill House to get a closer look. Despite a hospitable sign on the side door that read “Come on in!” the mansion, (which is a venue for meetings and events), was not really open to visitors at that Sunday hour, so my exploration was purely external.

Hill House was built in 1912 by Boston architects, Kendall & Taylor. The two had just completed work on the nearby Watts Hospital, an effort that was funded by ‘tobacco tycoon’ George Watts, Hill’s father-in-law. Hill House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1978.


Baroque accents adorn the Hill House, a Spanish revival style mansion in Durham, NC.


The side view of historic Hill House is as attractive (if not more so) than the front. (Durham, NC)

Owner John Sprunt Hill attended the University of North Carolina (UNC). He was a teacher in the state before going on to attend law school, first at UNC then transferring to New York City’s Columbia Law School. Hill lived in New York for several years, during which time he served in the U.S. Army (Spanish-American War), opened a law practice, and married Watt’s daughter, Annie Louise. After the birth of their first child, Hill and his wife returned to Durham in 1903, where Hill and his father-in law, Watts, forged a powerful business partnership (mostly banking, insurance, and real estate) that generally withstood the Great Depression.

As a lawyer, banker and philanthropist, Hill’s contributions to Durham, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina at large are significant and many. He helped to establish farmer-based state credit unions and served on the state highway commission. He contributed to the City of Durham’s purchase of Durham Athletic Park, which was home to the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. Additionally, Hill donated generously to UNC’s campus expansion and contributed funds to the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library at UNC. Hill also built the Carolina Inn in 1924, later donating the property to UNC in 1935. He was a state Senator from 1933-1938.

Hill died in 1961, at which time Hill House became part of the Annie Watts Hill Foundation, which was established in memory of Hill’s wife who died in 1940. The Foundation exists to support female civic organizations, and Hill House serves as a meeting place to cultivate female volunteerism and leadership in the community.

Today, the weather was perfect for a stroll around the property. Despite being in downtown Durham, with commercial buildings in plain view, there was a quiet peacefulness–and a sense of timelessness– about the place. Despite its representation of wealth and prestige and worldly accomplishment, I caught a few simple, natural pleasures through the lens of my camera.


A mockingbird perches on the roof of Hill House. (Durham, NC)


Along the red-tiled roofline of Hill House, a song sparrow sits on a grassy rain gutter. (Durham, NC)


No elaborate gardens surround Hill House today, but I did spot a stray angel’s trumpet thriving at the rear of the historic mansion. (Durham, NC)


A sun-dappled pergola rests on a knoll at Hill House. Can you spot the squirrel? (Durham, NC)

Adjacent to Hill House is Orchard Park, a City of Durham public recreation spot. The grounds of Orchard Park once sustained life at Hill House. Among other things, it’s where the horses were stabled, and where fruit and vegetables were grown.


The grounds known today as Orchard Park played a key role in day-to-day life at Hill House during its heyday. Today, Orchard Park is a community garden and playground.


In Orchard Park today, remnants of Hill House’s greenhouse remain, with park benches added for reflection and relaxation. (Durham, NC)


The foundation of the greenhouse, once used to grow the flowers and plants for Hill House, still remains in Orchard Park and serves as a labyrinth. (Durham, NC)

As I was driving away, I found myself humming a tune by Shenandoah that I hadn’t thought of in years.

Just another Sunday in the south.

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Sarah P. Duke Gardens: quite possibly the most magnificent place in Durham, North Carolina. From the tall trees to the flowers & foliage to the tiny bird that sings, all things there are bright and beautiful.

Want to know what the Gardens look like in Autumn? Here’s a flurry of photos that I took on my whirlwind tour through the Gardens earlier this week. Enjoy!


Along the allees of the Terrace Garden, the coleuses are still colorful and profuse. Did you know that the coleus is a member of the mint family? — Duke Gardens; Autumn 2014


In the Terrace Garden, I pondered how these flower blossoms and ornamental tomatoes found their way to the fountain statue. The wind? Critters? Mischievous garden guests? — Duke Gardens; Autumn 2014


At the fish pond, the koi (fish) look large enough to ride (my, how they’ve grown!) and the water lilies look good enough to eat. Almost. Almost. — Duke Gardens Terrace Fish Pond; Autumn 2014


A blue dasher dragonfly sits atop a water lily in the Terrace fish pond. — Duke Gardens; Autumn 2014


The Butterfly Garden is drying off. Despite this, I spotted several winged wonders and a few flowers still blooming. — Duke Gardens; Autumn 2014


A male cardinal along the edge of the South Lawn is a nod to North Carolina’s state bird. — Duke Gardens; Autumn 2014


Everything about the magnolia grandiflora (southern magnolia) is magnificent and grand, right down to the seed pod. — Duke Gardens South Lawn/Terrace Garden; Autumn 2014

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colors,
He made their tiny wings.

The purple headed mountains,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning
That brightens up the sky.

The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,
He made them every one.

The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
To gather every day.

He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

– Ce­cil F. Al­ex­an­der (1848)