appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society


Photo Credit: Wiki-Commons (

Freedom, consciousness, and wildness are all around and ever present as our feet lightly jog across an old wooden dock. We move gently in the golden light of an aging afternoon sun. With each stride I sense everything. Blushing coral clouds travel as vessels across a cerulean sky. Brilliant flowers, their blue, yellow, white, pink, and purple bracts blossom and pop along the sandy lakeshore. A full lush green of developed trees, brush, and ferns sway all around. Their leaves and leaflets, simple and compound, rustle an ovation across a vivid and aureate hour. Tall grass moves, dispersing floating seeds in a light breeze. A bright reflection across our mountain lake, dancing in brilliant soft ripples, shimmers as an apparition of something unexpected and remarkable – a bright Mind Essence unique to this place, this terrain, this floating pale blue rock across all the heavens. The cool soft wind, the sounds of spring, comfort a warm humidity on a pleasant Mother’s Day weekend in 2016. I feel weightless as my body leaves the Earth, in a leap, for just a moment, as we seemingly fly. I feel as if I could reach upward forever. A sudden splash into the waters of Lake Santeetlah is rejuvenating, grounding.

The water is very comfortable. I open my eyes briefly on my swim back to the surface. Rays of sunlight pierce the oscillating waves above. The sun illuminates a clean, organic rich mountain lake – like a twilight sword with all the powers of our galaxy. At the surface, Santeetlah feels refreshing and smells of iron. I hear laughs and giggles all around.

“Come on now, boy! Hop in, we got you!” I holler out to my two-year-old.

“Yeah! Jump in Elijah, the water is perfect!” Katie echoes.

The boy just giggles and squeals. He ran the dock with us, in his life vest and all, but stopped short of jumping in the water. With his parents beckoning, he turns back to run again, and again, and again down the dock – each time stopping just short of a jump with hearty laughs and expressions of joy. Katie and I laugh right along with him, enjoying pulses of warm and cool water. We are free, in tune with our lives and all the wonder around us – we’re experiencing some wildness as we laugh, hoot, and holler about.

Lake Santeetlah is surrounded by the wild and mystical Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina.  The lake, part of the Tennessee River watershed, was produced in 1928 when the Cheoah River was dammed by the Alcoa Corporation to produce hydro-electric power in Graham County, North Carolina. Surrounded by the Nantahala wilderness, though, the river, lake, and broader reservoir are still relatively unspoiled. Under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, swimming, camping, pick-nicking, fishing, boating, and hiking trails are readily available for public recreation.

Santeetlah, often covered in a cool mist, is beautiful. Vegetation is abundant, diverse, full, encompassing, and musical all around. The lake boasts roughly seventy-six miles of shoreline. Her waters provide necessary habitat to trout, muskie, crappie, bass, and numerous other species of fish – not to mention the algae, fungi, herbaceous and woody plants, along with all other invertebrate and vertebrate communities supported by the system. Observing Santeetlah, the raw umber lake, bronzed by dissolved organic matter, is clean and pure enough to shimmer and reflect the environment that envelops the waters. Surrounded by healthy forest, the dense vegetation provides plentiful organics to seep as tea in her waters. In turn, the nutrient dense lake, through evaporation, transpiration from plants, and with the help of predators carrying off aquatic prey into the surrounding forest, serves as a nutrient source to the surrounding ecosystem – resources are acquired from Santeetlah and distributed throughout the Nantahala.

Our afternoon slowly, but noticeably, begins a turn toward early evening in the waning light of the afternoon. The air feels cooler, our spirited colors muter, our clouds lucent. This change in environment signals our time to get back to camp – we’ve a kindling fire to build and food to cook.  

Back at our spot in Horse Cove Campground, I prep and ignite our charcoal tower.  As the smell of charcoal wisps around camp, silver grey smoke curls and shifts like a ghost in the breeze as I arrange kindling in our fire pit. The boy plays with his favorite toy, making engine noises as loud “vrooms” as his tiny red racecar explores camp. Katie sits at our picnic table, finely slicing an onion and dicing a green pepper as I join her to chop a few strips of bacon into small pieces. We’re having what I like to call our “fancy cowboy dinner” this evening – fixed up baked beans and ribeye steaks.

With the charcoal hot, the fuel has turned from black to ash gray. Time to empty our chimney atop the kindling. Our fire dances as the grill grate cranks and clashes in a heavy fall over the flames. In our cast iron Dutch oven, rubbed with olive oil, I add the bacon. Almost instantly, the meat begins to sizzle. When crisp, I add our onion and green pepper. I stir in garlic powder, celery salt, cracked pepper, cumin, chiles, and mustard seed before placing the food over the fire. Our plants swelter as our spices crust. As the bacon renders, our flames die down, so I crack a can of homestyle baked beans and mix them into the pot, adding more spices as everything blends. Once I see a simmer, I cover the food, leaving just enough of the lid cracked for steam to escape. Now, time to focus on the steaks.

The trick about cooking a good piece of meat over a campfire is to let the flames disappear so we’re left with only smoky, smoldering red embers. Most folks rush the roasting process and singe over a tall flame. One risks charring their food with this method, or worse, their own limbs as they move about the fire. Waiting for hot embers provides several benefits. For instance, there’s a much lower risk of injury, burned hands for one, or worse, a burnt meal. Plus, dripping juices and fats create wafts of smoke to flavor the meat – a fire too hot will simply singe this process away immediately.

With the embers just right, I pull our three richly marbled steaks from the cooler. They’re brined in a generous dry rub of kosher salt, cracked pepper, garlic powder, dried thyme, and a liberal coating of butter. The ribeye’s sizzle and pop immediately as their protein unwinds and fat sears. Drops of butter, fat, and juice drip onto the embers, causing tiny flashes that dance and puff smoke towards the meat. Another common mistake folks make when grilling is fidgeting and flipping meat far too many times. The goal is a solid sear – best to simply let the cut lay over the heat. After about seven minutes, I flip the steaks and add a dab more butter to the cooked side. Another five minutes pass before I pull the bean pot, then the steaks, from the fire. We then let our meal rest for roughly ten minutes. Finally, time to eat.

I won’t bore folks with savory, smoky, spicy, sweet descriptions – ember roasted ribeye’s and bacon laden beans are damn tasty. My small, speckled, enamel mug, solely used as a vessel for twelve-year George Dickel whisky, helps wash everything down perfectly. With our bellies full, and our cleanup routine now down to a science, camp leisure comes together swiftly. The calming afterglow of dusk settles in on our ka-tet. The air, growing continually absent of light, grows cooler. Nearby, the soft pulses of a rushing stream, Little Santeetlah Creek, award hypnotic ambiance – time for a roaring bonfire.

I pull on my Baja and set the boy on my lap as Katie, the fire wizard, gets to work on building our flames. I pull a sweater over Eli and wrap him in my arms as I begin a story to lull our son to sleep.

“Once there was a boy named Eli, and he has started a grand adventure.”

Hearing his name, the boy looks to me with a smile. His eyes droop as he lays his head on my chest. I continue with the tale.

“The boy with curly hair races through the forest; his bearded dad follows. The forest is everything and everywhere.” I gesture my hands calmly but widely all around. “Their trail is deep within the Great Smoky Mountains. The boy and his dad are on a quest – one hundred miles together in the Appalachian wilderness to celebrate the centennial birthday of the park service.”

With this simple introduction to a bedtime story (another long tale for another time), I look down and find the child fast asleep in my arms. I stand and carefully tip toe the sleeping boy to our tent. I snug him tightly in his pintsized sleeping bag and return to the fire. Katie and I talk very briefly about our plans for tomorrow – breakfast then a hike or two. Tired, my wife quietly settles into a book. I pour myself another mug and enjoy the cracking fire, melodies of night, eerie moonlight, and a mysterious Appalachian dreamscape.

Campfire cooking, along with campfire stories, are engrained into our primate brains. Fire and tectonics – heat energy and the power of changing climates to force migrations – bore our unique human linguistics. Fire and good ole story telling made us human. Our mammal bodies, all things considered, hardly distinguish us from other primate species in any way. We can run long distances, helpful for persistence hunting, for sure, but other than that, there is nothing all that special about our physical form. The mind, however, allowed our hominin ancestors to view signs and listen to sounds in the environment. They turned these signals into thoughts, language, and meaning. When our ancestors learned to harness fire we cooked, and our brains grew.

Around 200 million years ago, right at the end of the Triassic period, when the early dinosaurs roamed the Earth, our distant mammal ancestors first appeared in the fossil record. When we think of mammals, particularly noteworthy evolutionary advancements, many scientists point to the placenta. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time discussing the importance of the placenta in regard to kinship, gestation periods, and our reproductive fitness in my lectures. Another great evolutionary advancement, however, an enlarged cerebrum, paved way for our intelligence.

An enlarged cerebrum is mostly unique to mammals – birds, our still living dinosaurs, have enlarged cerebrums as well. This adaptation helped our furry mammal ancestors with social organization, kinship, and care for the young. The age of the mammals really began with a bang some 65 million years ago with a bolide impact that finished the reign of the big dinosaurs. This extraterrestrial impact loaded the skies with a thick dust. Temperatures in the deep-sea, and across a rifting continental world, climbed as greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere. But, with the giant predators gone, mammals explored the world. Our ancestors left their safe havens in the limbs of trees, as others left burrowed ground, and experienced a grand development of new forms. Our human place in Earth-system-history was on the horizon.

Geologically speaking, climate change is the norm of our Cenozoic era – an era punctuated by regressive and transgressive seas. The Cenozoic is perhaps most famous for the ice ages and periglacial intermissions. Each progression and recession of glaciers molded the landscapes we experience today. Furthermore, one can argue, these geologic processes allowed for our chance existence, crafting the conditions necessary for human civilization. Some 56 million years ago, plate tectonics isolated Antarctica over the south pole. The other continents continued their tectonic migration toward the geography of today. With Antarctica fixed at the pole a long cooling trend advanced. The conditions were ripe for animal life to continue rather unique genetic mutations. Cloven-hooved herbivores, for example, the early ancestors of our agricultural species of today, adapted to the new landscapes.

A common principle in ecology is that diversity breeds more diversity. This grand radiation of fauna was preceded by an even greater ecological shift in flora. Plants boomed. Angiosperms, the flowering plants, came to dominate the global system. Color erupted across the cool Earth. Radiant yellows, reds, purples, greens, and so much more, appealed to animal species. Nectar filled the air. I am envious of our mammal ancestors, witnessing for the first time in our planet’s history, a true explosion of color. How wonderful a feeling to have breathed deep of the sweet, lucid air.

Then, some 36 million years ago, a mutation occurred in one of our primate ancestors – one small part of a single gene changed. This change in our genetic code programed our cerebrum to grow larger still. Another piece of our evolutionary puzzle fell together.

For a species to maintain a larger cerebrum, the whole brain must grow because a large surface area is necessary to support a growing consciousness. This, in turn, changed everything – the brain became an incredibly hungry organ. The growth of our cerebrum is likely linked to the selection pressures for a higher metabolism – our brains and food intake increased in unison. This showcases greater cooperation with kin groups for food. As intelligence heightened, so too did social harmony. Mammal groups are social, we need each other – individuals build a prosperous collective.

Further still, some 125,000 years ago, another mutation allowed a gene to fix in our direct human ancestors. The Fox P 2 Gene mutation allows control over thought and tongue. For the first time, our species, Homo sapiens, could translate thoughts into words. Knowledge was passed down from generation to generation. Our species began using a voice, then writing words down to teach ideas. Our species, by evolutionary chance, has built a network of minds that transcend time and space – this is immortality in the mortal realm.

Our consciousness rises from 100 trillion connections and is fueled by electrical signals from 86 billion neurons. These nervous system cells initially developed as an environmental response for the need to move, to navigate an environment, sense food, and escape predators. Now, neurons are used for thinking, memories, sensations, dreams – we’ve used our brains to explore space, cultivate civilization, produce music, literature, and so much more. We are no longer sole individuals alone in the dark.

This strange rock we float on, our very planet, shapes our senses. Our mammal bodies evolved for planet Earth. Our home has no borders, everything is interconnected. Our Earth is varied and dynamic, same as our populations, communities, and ecosystems. Experiencing life is beyond emotion, understanding, comprehension – beyond any and all words of poetry, science, or mythology. In ourselves, the universe found a way to express itself. We’ve a rare cosmic existence in the cold darkness of interstellar space. Our lives are beyond imagination. Here, together in the 21st century, we continue an odd, grotesque, beautiful, human journey. We are souljourns. We are Earthlings.

“Ha, ha, ha!” I laugh loudly, out of nowhere. Katie has long gone to bed. I’m surrounded by the sounds of chirping insects, stealthy mammals, croaking frogs, rambling waters, and the ovation of leaves. My fire is but a flicker, the air is cold. I take a final pull from my mug to finish off the brown water within.

“The landscape of our origin provides the canvass for our ingenuity,” I mumble to myself. “These are the whisky soaked ramblings of a dreamer. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! I should write that shit down.”

I pause for a few moments, look around at the night. With a sigh and a smile, I acknowledge my time for bed.


Nantahala Mountains Lookout – Wikimedia Commons

The tent appears a little blurry, I must admit, as my eyes wrinkle open. I peek out our tent door, in a fresh morning glow, to find Katie cooking breakfast by the fire. Scratching my eyes, I reach for a water canister and take cool refreshing gulps. Elijah, still in his sleeping bag, is fidgeting, but he’ll be awake soon. I pull on my Baja and join Katie by the fire.

“Need any help?” I inquire.

“No. I’m good here. Instant coffee is made, just heating up the leftover steak from last night with cheesy potatoes and eggs.” Katie is smiling as she works, she’s just as much an early bird as I am a night owl.

“Had myself a little party last night,” I giggle scratching my beard. “Was a nice night.”

“I think I heard you come to bed. You were quiet though. I was just in and out all night. I think there is a hole in my sleeping pad.”

“That sucks. We can trade tonight.”

“No! I don’t want you to do that.”

“I don’t mind – I’ve more whisky to help me sleep. Plus, can’t have you waking up on Mother’s Day tomorrow morning all out of sorts.”

I take a small sip of instant coffee swirled with hazelnut powdered creamer. The hot, sweet, and bitter liquid is a delight camping. To up the coffee game, I sprinkle and mix just a little bit of hot chocolate into my thermos. I take another pull and relax as breakfast comes together. Seems everything tastes better when camping. Must be the air, or perhaps the setting just allows us to slow down a bit – savor the moment. I’m not sure how the senses change really, but I do know there’s no way we’d look forward to instant coffee at home.

The pull of a zipper tugs at our tent door. On all fours, our wild, joyful boy crawls into the morning before standing and beaming a smile our way. His long curly hair rests as a mop on his head, his face still covered in sleep.

“Bunny!” Katie hollers to Eli as he waves. She walks over to him and places the child on her hip. “How are you doing this morning?”

Acting silly, the boy simply sticks his tongue out like a dog, nods his head in an agreeable fashion, and pants.

“You are so goofy. Go see your daddy while I finish up breakfast.”

Still groggy, Eli clumsily, but quickly, pitter patters over to me. He wipes some sleep dust from his eyes as he stumbles over. I pick him up by the arm pits and hoist him into the air. Holding him over my head, I gently wiggle the boy as we laugh together under the shade of hemlock, tulip poplar, and sycamore.

“Here’s breakfast, Eli! Mind cutting it up for him, Dad?”

“Sure thing.” We move to the picnic table to cut the kiddos steak into small pieces. I enjoy a “taste test” of my own of course. As his ribeye, scrambled eggs, and cheesy potatoes steam in the cool morning air, Katie cracks our eggs into the cast iron – we’ll take ours hot and over easy.

With breakfast done, we tend to our morning chores – get the boy dressed for a hike, brush our teeth, clean up camp, apply sunscreen, and tend to the trusty red backpack. I, by the way, love our trusty red backpack. I carry Eli on my back in this sucker when the boy tires. There is a surprising amount of cargo space underneath, and a nice seat at the top for the boy to ride. Today I’ll carry snacks and a picnic lunch, an overkill supply of backup diapers, extra pairs of shorts, t-shirts, a sweater, and a rain jacket for our little one. I’ll also strap up with bear mace, a snake bite kit, a couple emergency blankets, pop-up shelter, and roughly five liters of water – always travel prepared. With our chores done, we hop into the family wagon, and travel a quick ride to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Joyce Kilmer is one of my favorite destinations in the Southern Appalachian rainforest. The hike around the small wood is not very long, nonetheless, the towering grove is very impressive. A walk here is a journey back in time – a magnificent journey across ecological timescales to the Appalachian forest of some 450 years ago. Tulip-poplars first catch the eye, some more than twenty feet ‘round. They stand as sentinels over one-hundred feet in the air. The old-growth calls to something primal in the human animal. I find the virgin growth grove inviting and chanting. Below the canopy, an array of wildflowers, ferns, and moss-covered logs of some fallen giants all glow in morning glory. Capping all of this wonder off, the only way to see this old growth sanctuary is on foot – no automobiles will bother our world anymore this morning.

The forest is named after New Jersey born poet and soldier Joyce Kilmer. Kilmer was killed in action during World War I as he led a team to scout a German machine gun bunker. A bullet tore into his skull and split his brain. Kilmer was a respected soldier, with a renowned love and admiration of nature. Thus, the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked the United States Government to set aside a tree stand as a memorial. The forest tract was officially dedicated in 1936. A plaque inscribed with his famous poem, “Trees,” welcomes visitors as they enter the grove of giants:

“I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast.

A tree that looks at God all day

And lifts her leafy arms to pray.

A tree that may in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair.

Upon whose bosom snow has lain.

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.”

We begin our hike through the memorial forest. Almost immediately, Katie and I are struck by the cove-hardwood wonderland. This grove is one of the most beautiful living beings in all of time’s creation. Tall, looming, ultimately comforting, this old forest escaped the plunder of loggers. Laden with rich, nutrient dense soils, constant smoky moisture, and a dizzying abundance of plants, a piece of Earth most holy and heartbreaking still breathes.

In all the grandeur, one can easily recognize these old trees are in danger. Today, invasive Asiatic insects are rotting the giants. The trees die slowly, losing their limbs with each creak, break, and thunderous crash to the forest floor. Here, there are two worlds thrust upon each other – an old grove as mystic and special as Appalachia herself, pitted against habitat loss, invasive species, and a creeping ecological crisis. The grove was first protected by humankind for her beauty and majesty, only to fall ill, even on accident, from human trespass.

We are a global, planetary species. A bolide collision is the least of threats we now face as a population. All of our biomes are immediately under attack from climate change, environmental pollution, habitat destruction, and other risks associated with human dominance over this global system. In our age of the Anthropocene, we’d be wise to carefully consider the threat of nuclear war as well – a much more pressing State issue than many of us care to realize or even think about. Our planet is beautiful, isolated, and in ominous times.

Humans are wonderfully absurd. Progress always ensures the best of humanity. Advancements do not stem from State edict, but sprout from human potential. In times of stress and consequence, individuals come together to link our collective minds, dreams, aspirations, hopes, fears, ugliness, and shortcomings. As a result, as years roll on, we’ve plenty stories to tell of ingenuity and inclined labor. Here in the beginning of the 21st century, I cannot help but think sometimes change is moving too slowly. Perhaps too many opportunities are being missed – we’re too tribal, partisan, too focused on the here and now. Our labor is split by policies that stem from systems of power and domination – such edict is very often a hurdle to adaptive governance and collaboration. However, I know the open possibilities of human labor still call, like the distant memories of childhood, the comfort of a grandmother, a song, memory, or feeling of belonging that pulls us out of the darkness. For all our vulnerabilities, selfishness, failures, anger, pain, and despite our biases, limitations, missed opportunities, we humans are capable of greatness. A spark is coming, the fire will burn.

Today my family and I wander, laugh together, sing songs. The boy falls a few times, cries, and we calm him down. We hold each other, link hands, take time to smile under the sun. A gentle breeze moves through trees. Towering above, their leaves sing, rustle, wave, bow, and breathe. The ferns dance. The moss is a brilliant green. We stop to hug the largest of the giants. Our hands feel the bark and glide across the leaves. We look at the phantom nature of these respiring organs under the golden light of the sun. Our trail gently ascends into a staggering complexity of yellow-poplar, oak, basswood, beech, and sycamore.

We miss the American chestnut, though. Once the dominant tree in this forest, the chestnut fell victim to an invasive blight from Asia. Though their presence in the canopy is missed, their massive logs and stumps still decorate the understory. Just as the chestnut, the dead limbs of hemlocks, infected with the invasive woolly adelgid, appear spooky and lonely as they droop from the corpses of these once living evergreens.

In the tall ferns that decorate the windthrow of fallen limbs, on a gnarly, twisted trail, roughly halfway through our voyage, Eli tires. I carry him out of the loop in our trusty red pack as the late morning sun rises further still.

“Time for lunch?” Katie questions as we reach the car.

“Not sure.” I slowly turn around and show her the boy, “Is he awake?”

“Aww, sweet boy. He’s out cold.”

“Well, let’s drive up yonder to Little Huckleberry then. He might sleep long enough for me to carry him up there and we can picnic with a view.”

I’ve been visiting Little Huckleberry Knob in the Unicoi Mountains since my senior year of high school.  The Unicoi rise along East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. These rolling monuments of fortitude are a part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Province of our wild and wonderful Southern Appalachians. Most of the range is protected as National Forest land – chiefly within the boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee, and the Nantahala of North Carolina. True to form, the Unicoi here in the Nantahala region are primitive, eerie, spiritual, and full of wild, inspiring, unimaginable beauty.

At the base of these mountains, river valleys and creeks travel across ancient rock, forming deep hollows and a mix of forested ecosystems – most notably to cove-hardwoods of Joyce Kilmer fame. As elevation gains, coniferous temperance, rolling grassy meadows, accompanied by heath balds, decorate the higher elevations. The Cherohala Skyway, a renowned and beloved National Scenic Byway, takes travelers across the Unicoi, just past Robbinsville, North Carolina, into our Appalachian Highlands. There is no place on Earth I love more than any rolling Appalachian vistas above 5,000 feet.

We park at the entrance of Little Huckleberry Knob and prepare for a short but rewarding hike. As I load our still sleeping boy into our pack, Katie organizes our picnic of summer sausage, French baguette, brie, olives, apples, and berries. She places our lunch, and a bottle of red wine, to wash everything down or course, in her pack as we start our hike.

We start just before noon. Fitting time to start our hike, as in the Cherokee language “Nantahala” means “land of the noon day sun.” Our sky is blue, marked with scattered, streaked, cumulus clouds. Our wind is chilly, but the sun, in still air, is hot. Lower elevations are so forested that noon is the only time of day the sun can reach the forest floor through the protective canopy. Here, as we make our way to the bald, however, the sun is ever present.

When we reach Huckleberry, we’ll stand at 5,560 feet and enjoy expansive, never ending views of the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests. Every time I climb this pass, I think of all the youthful adventures I’ve had up here. Highschool, college years, my roaming twenty-somethings, and my time as a graduate student – all the days, start packed nights, friends, and experiences always flood right back. Admittedly, I don’t come up here as much as I used to. Over the years, the spot has become increasingly popular – as have many once lightly trodden destinations in these primitive mountains. This highlights the great paradox of preservation – we must inspire the need to save wild lands by inviting, evermore, trespass. Today, I am relieved to know our car sits alone in the small parking area.           

Our hike travels a tunnel of mountain brush shaded by a high elevation beech forest. We feel cool and wet in their shade as we trek along an old dirt road. The beech appears haunted. Fog laden mornings have produces lichens and thick mats of moss across bare rock and exposed tree trunks. Just past this wonderfully ghostl-like forest, we traverse an open meadow full of native grasses, pale purple vetch, fleabane, and an array of more wildflowers and mountain herbs that I’ll lever be able to learn. The colors pop and fizzle, patch and glide, creating a colorful mosaic against a tranquil sky. As our old road narrows along the crest of Oak Knob, I hear Eli yawn. This part of the jaunt is easy, but the remaining half mile or so is a bit tougher – best to hurry before the child wants down.

Our trail turns upward, as we shift through patches of isolated, scrubby trees. Our climb grows in intensity, but soon enough we reach the base of the knob. The boy, now fully awake, is wiggling and kicking his legs back and forth. I let him down and sigh with relief with his weight off my shoulders. As we breast Huckleberry, a white cross stands firm in swaying meadow grass. This monument is very familiar to my eyes. The old cross marks the grave of a pair of loggers who succumbed to the elements up here in the December of 1899. I always acknowledge the cross as I pass and move on to the bald. Under the warm sun, in a cool breeze, with green grass and mountain herbs dancing and jumping about, we take in an impressive, unobstructed, 360° view of the Unicoi, Great Smoky, Snowbird, and numerous other mountain ranges across East Tennessee and North Carolina. The blue and purple mountains roll on as waves of Earth across an immortal land. We are enveloped in the gold, green, white, and purple colors of Appalachian majesty. We walk on our planetary rock and feel as if we can fly away and escape towards all of eternity, space, and time – if only we could leap and just keep our feet of the ground, we’d explode like fire across the sky. This is a great reward for only a little over a mile worth of labor.

The boy runs free as we lay a few blankets and prepare our picnic near the communal fire ring that has long persisted on the summit. As Katie uncorks the wine, I slice our summer sausage, brie, apples, and bread. We arrange the food on a wooden chopping board I’ve carried up, and pour our wine into two “fancy,” short, stubby, stemmed, plastic wine glasses. With open olives and berries, we chow, hungry from a full morning and early afternoon in the woods. Delighted, Eli joins us as we pour water from my pack into a small glass for him to enjoy. His favorite part of the meal are the blue berries and sausage – demanding I slice “more, more” as he feasts. Hard not to smile as he smears blue berries across his face, and belches summer sausage readily.

We’re having fun, but we’re also experiencing extremes in weather. When the air is still, the sun burns down like furnace on our skin. As soon as the wind picks up, though, gusts of bone chilling air shiver our very cores. Such is the weather up here. In the past, even in the deep heat of mid-August, I’ve camped up here to awake in freezing temperatures on the bald. At any visit, travelers are vulnerable and exposed. There are no trees to block the wind, no canopy to find shelter from the sun, no place to huddle from the elements. In this wide-open meadow, we find an environment that is inviting and savage all at once. Despite the weather, we kick a soccer ball around with each other and have a merry time.

The plan was to spend a few hours up here, but as we play, the wind picks up impressive gusts. We put a warm coat on Eli, I pull on the trusty Baja over my flannel shirt, and Katie wears an old fleece. My wife’s hair dances in the wind, across her freckled cheeks, as my beard continually slaps my face in the cold breeze. As for the boy, though, the gusts become so strong his face reddens and the wind pushes his tiny body over. As yet another gust blows him backwards, we can only watch as he tumbles through the grass.

“Well,” I notion, “time to pack up.”

The kiddo’s been whipped by the Appalachian environment so much he falls asleep yet again in his pack as we hike out of the knob.

“Let’s just build a fire and hang out at camp for the rest of the day,” Katie pitches the idea as we reach the family wagon. “After a full day, he’ll just want to play with his car and kick the soccer ball around.”

I agree and look forward to what I like to call our “not so fancy cowboy dinner” of leftover beans and all-beef franks. Tomorrow, Mother’s Day, we will stick around camp, explore small trails, and likely take another dip in Lake Santeetlah.

The afternoon readily gives to evening, which passes on to starlight. As my family sleeps, speckled mug in hand, I sit warmly next to our fire wrapped snuggly in a sarape. I had a good time today, in one of my favorite places on Earth. These old forests and rising ridges stand on Precambrian, metamorphic rocks. As the smoke from the fire swirls and puffs into the air, the fire cracks and burns on a landscape over a billion years in the making – one composed of ancient deformed ocean sediments, thrown and thrusted toward the sky some 250 million years ago during a continental collision that would give rise to the greater Appalachian Mountain range. Under a mixed hardwood and pine forest, I peek through the singing canopy to a sky pierced with burning stars and glittering cosmic dust. Here in the cove hardwood, along the gurgling Santeetlah creek, in the soundscapes of night, surrounded by dense rhododendron thickets and mountain laurel, I lay still in wonder.

In the mountain lake built by dams, in the grove of giants infected with invasive insects, next to a cross on a mountain bald, we escaped the burdens of human civilization only to be surrounded by our persistent ecological disturbances. Perhaps a renowned, new preservationist movement, one that examines our place as an animal on this dynamic planet, will raise enough awareness for our species to realize our very survival, our very preservation, is at risk. Protecting wilderness areas, connecting with our origins, may just ensure the survival of the human race. With great risks to our own survival here at home, perhaps the real possibility of needing to leave Earth will give our population a new perspective – one that can unite our species in a common, global cause. Just as Earth holds no boundaries, neither does human potential. If we reach for those stars, we may just protect this very rock.

Our planet congealed out of gas and dust to produce brimstone and water. In this environment, life grew. These pioneers adapted, evolved in complexity over eons, survived several mass extinctions, and put together chemical pathways to award a mind as gifted as ours. In times like these I can only revel in the breeze, admire the burning glow of outer worlds, imagine time across the heavens, smell the iron and lucid sweetness of the natural world, and become overwhelmed only to weep in gratification and grandeur. Our bodies exist in fleeting moments of a mortal realm. Spinning along, our planet glows as a beautiful world, breathing and full of life. Adrift in the void, across an interstellar space composed almost entirely of nothing, an ever-present truth exists: Earth is our home, and our home is good.

A fire is coming. Another world is not only possible, but, in the words of author and advocate Arundhati Roy, “she’s on her way.” In the still of the night, hugged by these Appalachian Mountains, deep in the coves of long-standing tress, I can hear her breathing. 

Note: This post first appeared on



“Hmm,” I muse quietly to myself, “great series.” 

I’ve just finished an old Alan Moore comic book saga – Swamp Thing: The Curse. I like all sorts of books. Usually, I spend my time reading non-fiction, environmental journals, or the Beat Generation  – and a whole lot of  Internet to be honest. A little over a year ago, though, my soon-to-be six-year-old started really getting into comic book characters. To share in his interest, I started revisiting some of my old childhood favorites. Chief among my oldies but goodies is the Swamp Thing – a perfect paranormal character for this time of year, and, too, for the strangeness we’re all living through.

In true form, this character fits snugly within the horror genre – battling vampires, werewolves, ghouls, spirits, and even, rather pertinent during a pandemic, environmental plagues. Further, hailing from the deep south marshes of Louisiana, Swamp Thing is partly a Chloris from Greek mythos and part transmorphic elemental who can harness all the power within the Earth’s plants. Essentially, the green creature is a shape-shifting humanoid associated with spring, flowers, and new growth.

With the book done, I lay the pages on my chest and stretch backwards in my swaying hammock. The early evening has finally arrived after another long, stressful, busy, weird April day full of remote working, physical distancing, and social solidarity. Suddenly, my little boy’s cartoon squeals of joy catch my attention as he and my wife chuckle together inside our South Knoxville, Tennessee home. I gaze through our open windows. Katie is laughing with Elijah while he plays with the newest boy in our family – Coors, the quarantine puppy. After a few moments of quiet observation, I smile, stretch out my hand, and pet our ten-year-old-dog, Sierra.

“No worries old girl,” I whisper to her. “You’ll always be my pup-pup.”

Patting her head, I turn my gaze to the dogwood trees holding me. The sky is an incredible royal blue – free of clouds and plane exhaust. The fresh air is crisp, lucid, and enjoyable. Tinkling wind chimes play peaceful music in an evening breeze. Our sun casts a relaxing glow across our front yard, exciting the virgin green of flora. The gentle wind sways the grass and cools my skin like fresh linen – all while dancing lightly on the flowers and leaves of my favorite spring trees. 

We have seven flowering dogwoods across our outdoor space. Every April they bring me incredible joy. The flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a good, leafy tree. Ours, I reckon, are rather mature. They reach twenty-five feet or so towards the eternal blue beyond. A good number of flowers are still present on the trees, even as their simple, ovate, green leaves develop. These organs of photosynthesis all sprout opposite each other on twisted limbs. 

Dogwood reproduction is a wonderful sight to behold. Ours sprout white bracts that hold the small, humble, flowers. The flowers are the plant’s reproductive organs. They cluster together in a dense, round, umbel inflorescence. The flowers are perfect, both aesthetically and non-subjectively, because they hold both a stamen and pistil. As the seasons roll on, the activity of these flowers produce a cluster of stone fruits that ripen to a bright red late in the waning dog days of summer. Throughout the remainder of the season, on into autumn, the fruit will feed numerous species of birds. In return, the birds, with satisfied bellies, will transport and deposit these seeds across the country in their droppings.

Though dogwood flowers are magnificent, their leaves rival their brilliance. Dogwood leaves are a beautiful color in early spring. This time of day, especially, the sun hits the oval blades just right. The dancing leaves seem almost a translucent gold under the bright light of the sun – our star of life. Even more marvelous, however, is the process we cannot see. These leaves are using light that has traveled some ninety-three million miles to fuel a chemical process that combines water from the ground and carbon dioxide from our atmosphere to form sugar. These leaves remind us that cosmic energy fuels all of life on Earth. 

I find comfort among the trees. Their fresh green stands as a symbol – a message that life is possible. Photosynthesis allows plants to feed themselves – to build complex molecules, to grow, adapt, and reproduce. We animals get to take advantage of this process to fuel ourselves – all of our energy, all that enables life, is provided by the sun. These tiny leaves I quietly admire are simply organs that resemble the observable, true, inspiring beauty of life. 

“Hey Dad! Dad!”

“What’s up, Eli?” I holler as the front door slams behind him.

“Nothing. Just thought I would come out here with you.” The boy grunts as he pulls himself inside the hammock. 

“Almost your bedtime, buddy.”

“I know. I have a question.”


“When will we leave Earth forever?”

I cough a little as his question naturally catches me off guard. 

“Ha!” Katie cackles through the window. “Good luck with that one, Dad. I’m going to bed!”

“Good night!” The boy and I, in unison, wish mom her fair sleep.

I know where this curiosity stems from. We’ve been watching a number of space documentaries because the boy thinks black-holes are really cool. The question of how, and, ultimately when, to leave Earth to colonize other worlds popped up on an episode of One Strange Rock just the other night. 

“Well, buddy, I don’t really know for sure. I have faith we’ll figure it out when we need to though.”

“When do you think we’ll need to, Dad?”

“Well, not in our lifetimes.” I catch myself chuckling a little bit. “I hope we never need to. We can be great stewards of this place to ensure we never need to. I like our planet. We are Earthlings! Instead, let’s set a goal – may our curiosity as a species fuel enough science to bring us to other worlds within six-hundred years. Not because we must, but because we want to leave.”

The sun is setting now as twilight gives to dusk. Our April night is cold and clear. We sit in silence for a couple of minutes. This is really nice, but I know the boy must get his rest. Just as I start to tell him, he looks to me and smiles.

“You know Dad, sometimes I kind of like this virus. I get to spend a lot more time with you.”

“I know buddy, that has been nice. We’ve slowed our lives down a little bit haven’t we?”

“Yes. I mean, I do hate the virus. But I like this.”

“I know what you mean, buddy.” I motion him over with my arms. “Give me a hug and get some sleep, kiddo.”

I could lay here long past dusk with the kiddo, and have plenty of times recently, but not tonight. I’ve gear to organize and we’ve both sleep to catch – unknown to our little one, we’re going to have a very early, adventurous morning.


“It’s time, my love,” Katie says softly and places her hand on my shoulder to nudge me awake.

“I know,” I say groggy but awake. “I’ve been up for a little bit.”

“Good! Then I am going to turn on the light. I have breakfast burritos warming in the oven. Do you mind loading the car?”

“Not at all,” I respond as the lights come on. I squint, allow my eyes to adjust, and notice Katie is wrapped up in a towel. “Did you take a shower?”

“Yeah. I woke up a little while ago and couldn’t get back to sleep. Once we get the car loaded, I’ll carry Eli to his car-seat. Hopefully, he’ll just fall back asleep. Then we can get the dogs.”

“Sounds good.” I pull my trusty baja over my head and eyeball the time – 3:30 AM, we’re right on schedule.

Once dressed, I open the door to Coors’s crate and motion both the pup and Sierra out of the bedroom. I try my best to usher the dogs as quietly as possible. Futile attempt. Instead we rather loudly make our way past our small dining area with wagging tails, clicking claws, and excited yips. Our table is organized with blankets, headlamps, jackets, toboggans, water canisters, and the boy’s traveling telescope. I gathered it all after Eli went to sleep the night before. I then escort the excited dogs into our small den where I can finally open the front door. The mutts will play outside until we leave. As I gather our gear, the scent of breakfast eggs, potatoes, cheese, and chiles fills the air as our Irish Breakfast Tea steeps. Smells like a good morning. A gratified smile spreads slightly on my face. My wife has put in a lot of care organizing this adventure. 

The world feels different now. We’re all stuck in the middle of a Covid-19 pandemic, and our lives have changed. Though we’ve been making the best of our time, all three of us have had our moments of despair. Eli misses his friends, family, school, and sports. Katie and I do the best we can to homeschool, but both of us swear we are far busier now, working from home, than we were when the semester was still trucking along on campus. Recently, Eli felt all the world’s burdens. Just a few days ago the five-year-old had a prolonged emotional breakdown. He was scared  – not for himself; instead he feared he may get us, his grandparents, cousins, or friends sick. Without going through all the details, this really bothered Katie and me. All we could do in the moment was hold our quivering son and whisper reassuring words as he sobbed into our shoulders. To throw salt on the wound, he was stung by a wasp in our basement later that very day.

Though these times are hard, something special can be found in trying moments. That day, the humility I felt while holding my scared child helped me realize how lucky our family unit really is. We are in this life together for the long haul, that’s for sure. And moments like this one will ring in time. He’ll be six soon, and I don’t know where all the time has gone. In a time so fragile we’ll just keep offering our hands. A good man needs nothing more, really, than to feel the grasp of his child’s hand in his own, and what else is there? Much like D. H. Lawrence’s “Piano,” back down the vista of years, I’ll see my child thrown into the boom of life’s tingling strings. Perhaps he’ll remember us, with a smile, as we sing.

This morning we’re breaking the routine – adding a little excitement to our lives. The Lyrid meteor shower is in full swing. The Lyrid is an annual event, but, with the new moon this year and a good reduction in air pollution, we should have a rather good show this time around. We in the Northern Hemisphere can expect some twenty “shooting stars” per hour. When I imagine how excited my son will be, even my eyes smile. Eli has such an obsession with the cosmos that he’s determined to be an astronaut when he grows up. So, this venture is perfect for him. We are traveling to the Foothills Parkway to find a pull-off that overlooks the rolling valleys of Townsend, Tennessee and the rising ridges of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With our gear loaded and telescope safely tucked away, I close the trunk of our family wagon on a cold, perfectly clear, early April morning.

The house door behind me swings open. Katie has the boy tucked across her body. Side stepping the family wagon, I move out of her way as she rounds the vehicle to load him in the car seat. I head past a dogwood, so relaxed and cool in the dark morning, to the side of our front yard and clink open an old gate. Sierra, still very spry and full of energy for a ten-year-old dog, zooms and zags like lightning into the driveway. She snorts, wags, leaps, and moans with excitement. She’s damn excited about a car ride somewhere fun. Coors, on the other hand, very new to life and completely confused, tries to imitate his older wolf counterpart. He takes a puppy leap, only does not fully leave the ground. He somehow stumbles onto his side. Forgetting to fully stand, he tries to take off after Sierra, but forgets that running requires both front and hind legs. His back legs thrust, while the front stay still, so he rolls and lands with a squeal on his back.

“Jeez pup,” I whisper as I bend down and pick up his four pounds. “You’re a total mess.”

The pup quivers and trembles in my arms. I set him next to Eli in the car and wrap a blanket around them both. When I move Sierra hops in the back to ride with her pack. I shut the door as Katie settles in to drive.

“I can drive, I’m good,” I offer.

She hands me my thermos with hot tea and says, 

“I’d rather drive. I’ve been getting carsick . Plus, this way I can control the radio.” And, with that, Dolly Parton’s older country tunes play the soundtrack of our early morning. Very well, the diatonic dulcimer fits the groove of our starlit morning.

The plan was for Eli and Coors, oddly awake just before 4:00 AM, to cuddle together and fall swiftly back to sleep as we traveled an hour or so to the Appalachian foothills. Pretty flawless idea, except Katie and I now realize very early in our adventure that this plan is not going to happen. Eli bursts with joy and it sounds like the bright cracks of thunder underneath flickering spring clouds. His pup, still far too young to have an audible voice, surely tries to laugh with a wide-open smile and a merrily wagging hind end.

Dogs and humans share a special relationship with one another that goes back tens of thousands of years. Dogs are really domesticated wolves. If we think back, some thirty-thousand years ago to the Upper Paleolithic period, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers roaming the Earth during an ice age. They slept beneath the stars. Our ancestors used the cosmos to understand when fruits would ripen, when grains could be harvested, and when herds of game animals would migrate. These populations lived in competition with other predators for resources. They lived with the danger of mountain lions, bears, and wolves that threatened the young, elderly, and ill among them.

Wolves would stalk humans, circle and scout their camps in the dark of night. When our ancestors cooked, they sometimes left calorie-rich bones and leftover organ scraps behind. Wolves would not enter our ancestral camps under starlight because this proved too deadly. Instead, they waited for human populations to leave an area before feeding on the leftovers. Some wolves, though, due to natural variations in their genetic code, carried lower levels of stress hormones than the rest of the pack. These wolves cautiously approached humans and acted as a sort of sanitation squad. They let our ancestors do the hunting and profited biologically from human labor. These dog ancestors manipulated the food web by domesticating humans. As time went on, our relationship with the wolves deepened. The would-be predators gave up finding a mate for a steady meal. Humans bred the wolves that pleased them, while they consistently killed off those that posed a threat. Humans took the power of selection into their own hands, and the result? Dogs.

Dogs, still wolves after all these years, share interesting behaviors with humans. Dogs are rather territorial, hunt cooperatively, hold a range of emotions, and hold to a pack mentality. These social characteristics afford dogs and humans a comfortable relationship – one that allows dogs to help protect the family, play and behave in a cooperative manner, feel excited to see us, miss us when we’re gone, and follow the home’s social order. What’s most interesting about the human-dog relationship is the emotional attachment shared across species. Dogs learn our behaviors, as we learn their behaviors. Further, our species are attuned with one another. We sense each other. Just as we read our dogs’ mood, they, too, know when we humans are happy, sad, angry, feeling ill, and more. Our ability to show unconditional affection for one another has formed a truly unique cross species relationship.

I wasn’t totally sold on getting a puppy for several reasons – chief among them is that puppies are a lot of work. I’ll admit, though, my wife made a good choice for the family. Coors plays well with Sierra, he’s been a good comfort to my wife, and he’s made the boy incredibly happy. We’ve put Eli in charge of a lot of the puppy chores as well, so he’s learning a lot of responsibility. I reckon the brindle pup’s cuddles, kisses, and play, help me too – there’s not too little to say about mental health these days. 

“Ah!” Eli screams from the back.

“What, what is it?” I cough out a mid tea slurp.

“Eli what’s going on, honey?” Katie leans forward in her seat while eyeing the rearview mirror.

“Coors puked!” Eli yells.

“Oh no! We have a carsick  puppy.” Katie then laughs a little. “Sorry he puked on you.”

“Did he puke on you, or just on the blanket?” I inquire.

Eli shifts Coors off his lap and sets him in the middle seat. Pushing the blanket to the floor he inspects his clothes. The boy offers a thumbs up and ensures, 

“I’m good. Just the blanket, none on my clothes.”

As Dolly strums and sings we drive in the dark morning through pastoral Tennessee. Under a sky full of burning stars, along wooden country fences, swaying fields of tall grass, log cabin homesteads, and old red barns, I wonder about America. There’s a sense of freedom out here on the road that feels good. I’m increasingly worried about the nation these days. In these times we experience a serfdom to industrialism, enhanced civilian surveillance, growing authoritarianism, and a renewed pseudo-patriotism, or adherence, perhaps even indifference, to a creeping governmentality – 20th century French philosopher Michel Foucault’s idea that power structures use their influence, or their monopoly of violence, to shape, guide, or dictate the conduct of a “free” people. Further, disinformation, conspiracy theories, and a distrust, even disgust, of intellectualism is sold readily by snake-oil peddlers these days. This is a proven burden and hurdle to accepting truth. Rather difficult to evolve our institutions – federal, state, and local governance, along with private enterprise – for collective action without truth. Snake-oil is snake-oil, lies are lies, and nonsense is nonsense, except when they kill. Conspiracy thinking and authoritarian governance, especially when advanced by all the powers of the highest level of the executive branch of the United States Government, is an existential threat. 

In the darkness, though, a piercing light bears everywhere. Here we are, in the 21st century, witnessing social movements, activism, science, technology, and simple kindness refocus and achieve our collective hopes and dreams. There’s a weight to our darkness and it lies heavy on our future. But this just means there’s also a challenge, a goal, to push through these ominous times, so light may steer our aspirations towards the heavens. We’ll meet the times with grace, humor, and love – I hope. Living through history is exciting and worrisome – where are we going, America? Our witness will be the sky. We have nowhere to go but everywhere under these stars.

As we pull on to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I fondly recall memories from my youth. I spent a lot of time up here in high-school and later teenage years rambling around and getting into trouble with my childhood friends. The Parkway travels the foothills of the northern section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With numerous small “trails,” fire towers, and pull offs, the road offers great views and plenty of opportunity for youthful summer nights full of music and unsupervised fun. 

Today, all facilities are shut-down across the national park – no toilets, no government provided TP, closed visitor centers, shuddered information booths, dry water fountains, and empty concessions. I like things this way out here. Perhaps when humans travel to wilderness areas, we should expect the need to bring our own food and water. Seems today we can learn all about the mountains, their different forests and wildlife, without even having to wander past a parking lot with shitty wi-fi inside park boundaries. Without facilities for a while maybe park visitors will discover solitude and quiet, or feel the importance of sadness and loneliness. Be good to truly disconnect, to feel like an animal in a wild land, instead of constant stimulation and convenience. Instead of sitting in traffic around modern facilities, perhaps folks may find adventure, discomfort, eeriness – something primal and grounding in the great out there.

The mind wanders easy, in such a way, between youthful memories and the importance of wilderness experiences, in these ancient woodlands. Without the slightest feeling of hypocrisy, I’m enjoying our ride on a nice, paved road through the Parkway. The foothills pass a series of low mountains and hills that seem to rest on valleys, sing on slopes, and thrust into peaks. The foothills here build on each other, like wave after wave, as each level rises then expands into the steep slopes of a timeless, humbled, terrain. The rocks here are Cambrian in age – sandstones, siltstones, and shales that range between 300 million to 500 million years of existence. Together these rocks build mountains full of narrow ridges, bulky rock outcrops, long stretches of folded and faulted rock, and an impressive prominence of stone in an ecological community dominated by fresh green plants, opening buds, sweet blossoms, radiant blooms, and all the colors, music, and delight of spring.

We’ve cruised the parkway for about twenty minutes, and suddenly Katie and I eyeball the perfect spot. Katie softly steers off to the left side of the road and parks easily in a somewhat large, empty lot. I step out of the car and the air feels cold and wonderful. I pull my hood over my head and put on my Sherpa lined flannel jacket. Behind us, our view opens to human civilization with all the lights and pulsing activity in the towns of Maryville, Alcoa, and even Knoxville off in the distance. In front of us, though, lie our origins.  A small bit of rural country spreads across, followed by the Appalachian wilderness. All around us is the competing moth-swarm – connection to land on one side juxtaposed against the progress of an advanced technological society. Above, the stars shine bright and magical in colorful, cosmic dust. Though over an hour until sunrise, the sky is so bright the heavens burn like candles, flash as paparazzi, and when the Milky Way pops, we simply say “ahh!”

Katie flips our Mexican sarape’s into the air, and the woven blankets unroll before lying on the ground. Eli runs in the dark, laughing, jumping, and yelling in wildness under the purples, blues, reds, and all the brilliant, pulsing, radiance of the backlit canopy in a joyous sky. Sierra roams free with the boy, Coors is leashed with Katie and relaxes on our blankets. Steadying the finder-scope, and then focusing the eyepiece, I find Jupiter in our night sky with the traveling telescope and call Eli over for a look. The planet appears gray. Under the lens, the stratified planet is both ghostly and beautiful. At this moment, three meteors flash across the sky.

“Ahh! Did you see that Dad?” Eli asks, wearing his winter coat and hat, with a big grin from ear to ear.

“Yes, I did, son. Pretty cool huh?”

“Sure is, Dad. I hope one day, when humans live out there, that they know I helped them get there. I want to be an astronaut. I want them to know I am their ancestor.”

“That is really great, Eli.” 

I don’t know what else to say in response. I’m not sure I can say anything else. He’s always surprised us with his speech and awareness. He’s talked of ancestry a good bit, stemming from a conversation he had with his teacher at Montessori school. A great deal is wrapped up in that five-year-old’s statement. My heart swells with pride, love, and a sadness I can’t put into words. My son gives me a smile, then joins his mom to stargaze on our blankets as she readies our breakfast. Silently, both happy and grieved for his youthful wonder, I watch my family as they eat for a little while before studying the cosmos once more.

A life like ours is unique. Our species (even more, all multicellular life) would not exist if not for a solitary, fleeting chance-event on the scale of the entire universe. Staring up at our galaxy, at all the bright other worlds floating in a cold darkness, I find it hard to imagine we are alone. Life is probable and likely out there somewhere. Intelligent life, though, the lives we enjoy, may just be a rare, once in the cosmos opportunity. Building complexity, the symbiotic relationships between different types of cells needed for multicellular life, is statistically improbable. 

Staring out at the planets and other stars, I think of our flowering dogwood trees once more. Plants are a symbol of a living planet. In plant leaves we know cellular organelles use cosmic energy to manufacture sugar – but the story doesn’t end there. What’s the point of making a lot of carbohydrates if the manufactured molecules for energy aren’t consumed? Plants need to eat just as animals need to eat. Surprisingly, we use the same chemical pathway, cellular respiration, to feed ourselves. Plants, animals, fungi, the odd protista, and many microbes, use oxygen as a means to extract energy from food. This process of respiration is billions of years old. This ancient metabolic pathway is universal in complex life. Respiration comes from a single freak event – trillions of bacteria, eating trillions of bacteria, for billions of years, until one day a consumed microbe wasn’t digested. As a result, the eukaryote, an advancement to build organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed with membranes, was born. This is the very idea of endo-symbiosis – a co-evolutionary, mutualistic existence between two separate life forms.

Over deep time, the surviving microbe became the organelle we call mitochondria. All complex life, the entire domain of eukaryotic life, including dogwood trees and human beings, utilizes mitochondria to harness the power of oxygen. Without this organelle all life on Earth would be unicellular. Most genetic material, the entirety of our human genome, for example, is packaged into chromosomes within the nucleus of our cells. Mitochondria have their own DNA, however, because they are at their core an ancient bacterium. The endosymbiont theory helps us understand how complex life emerged from this chance event. In the cold, black, outback of interstellar space, all available evidence suggests life on Earth is once in the cosmos rare.

Good and necessary for folks to have a planetary experience every once in a while. Fittingly, today happens to be Earth Day. We don’t go out of our way to make a big production of Earth Day or anything, but I do take some time each year to think like a species, as part of a whole, on this day – what will everything be like when we are gone? One day I’ll die and my molecules will be recycled into the Earth – so will all of us. Human civilization will crumble into dust and one day Earth will spin on without us – what then?  

Some folks find these questions silly. Mortality, the fragility and chance nature of existence, are topics usually avoided for consideration in our society. Further, some folks find such thinking dangerous – as if the Earth will keep spinning along and everything will be fine forever and how dare someone question this? Suspicion of environmental thought, and days like Earth Day, usually follow a need to praise human civilization, technology, prosperity, and progress. Further, these ideas question the need to care for the resources we exploit to make human life better. Importantly, that our dominion over these resources, the Abrahamic views of our relationship with the natural world, is just and purposeful and should go unquestioned. Environmental thinking, though, in my view, does not despoil human civilization, but celebrates the alleviation of poverty and the possibility of a new and lasting sustainable peace.  

Environmental thinking simply reminds us if society cuts itself off from the roots by destroying the wild, said society betrays the very principle of civilization. To drive species into extinction, to take a livable environment from future generations, to risk a rare, once in the cosmos opportunity to enjoy beauty, form, and color, is nothing but extreme totalitarianism. So, too, the philosophies that preach otherwise, those of industrial progress and unlimited resource consumption, the philosophies of power and domination, in the words of Walt Whitman, “resist much, obey little.”

Environmental reason is very important today. We face an immediate environmental threat in the form of a pandemic, and the growing, all-too-dangerous and encompassing threat of climate change. Though these issues seem separate from one another, they are, in fact, linked. Climate change, for instance, alters the way human civilization relates to other species. This potentially raises risks to public and environmental health, especially in terms of infectious disease. The more civilization pushes into wilderness, as natural climate regulation is reduced by anthropogenic activity, a human dominance of land and all natural cycles, wildlife, both terrestrial and aquatic, currently migrate in response across the globe. These new migration patterns allow populations to mix that normally wouldn’t. This creates an opportunity for pathogens to find new hosts. Further, many of the causes of climate change, especially habitat loss in the form of deforestation, forces even more wildlife migration and increases the risk of pandemics.

With our current threat of COVID-19, while also considering pre-existing conditions, age, socioeconomic status, and quality of healthcare, research from Harvard University (Xiao et al., 2020),  indicates people who live in a polluted environment, especially an environment with poor air quality, are more likely to die from the disease. Aside from the current pandemic, a long list of research indicates the habitat range of many viruses has expanded, as poor air quality leads to regional warming. Lyme disease, for example, and waterborne infectious diseases such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, mosquito carried pathogens like the Zika virus, malaria, and dengue fever, are all spreading well outside their normal contagion zones due to changing climate conditions. Their warm habitats are expanding.

Over the last several decades, scientists have demonstrated a notable trend in a rise of infectious diseases. Most of these diseases affecting the human population came from wild animals. In the past century, human civilization has greatly raised demands upon nature. Conservationists agree that, as a result of this activity, we are currently living through a sixth mass extinction crisis. We’re losing species at a rate unseen since the extinction of large dinosaurs, thus terminating the age of these dinosaurs – the Mesozoic Era. This time, however, there is no asteroid – human activity is the culprit. This rapid extinction falls on the ultimate problem of habitat loss and a totalitarian view of human dominion over natural spaces. Climate change feeds habitat loss. As ecosystems are destroyed, resiliency is reduced, the self-regulation capacity of ecosystems becomes increasingly difficult, which alters suitable living places for different plants and animals. Throughout human history, our species has grown and adapted a partnership regarding the plants and animals around us. As climate changes, as our ecological communities falter, this disruption of natural systems will affect our health.

There are still those patches of light in the darkness, however. Science still offers a very optimistic dream of the future.  Plenty of evidence suggests that with action we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but, in doing so, we will have to adopt an environmentality – an ambition of greatness to reconcile our relationship with the natural world, and thus our own governance. By practicing restoration ecology, a field that repairs damaged habitat,  civilization can simultaneously produce new jobs that restore natural landscapes like the Australian wilderness, the plundered Amazon, and even the moonscapes left behind by strip mining right here in Appalachia. 

I dream of a new preservationist movement, one that expands the global protection of not only wilderness, but one that cultivates native plants and habitats in our own urban landscapes. Imagine a city full of wildlife corridors, rooftop gardens, wetlands along our rivers, and plant communities all around. This would let our advanced technological society prosper and heal the wounds of the Industrial Revolution. This type of future is possible, and not just because I’m a dreamer, but because the sciences, social and natural, offer us a pathway forward.

When my son talks of ancestors, I hope his life-dream is fulfilled. I hope we rise to our challenges and unleash all the creative power and inclined labor of human beings. I believe in a world of sustainable markets, mutual aid, relief, decent societies, and finally peace. Not the peace of dreamers, but an institutional peace, a real and lasting peace that makes life on Earth worth living – a peace for every child of humanity. Where are we going, America?

“The sun is coming up just over the horizon,” Katie whispers to Eli and catches my attention. “Should come right over the peak of that mountain over there.”

The sun, our star of life, is changing the Appalachian range all around us. Rising up, massive and splendid, over the ancient mountains in the east, our star shines on mist and fog that hugs the singing mountains. The air brightens, feels pure and perfect. Blue creeps into the sky as the sun touches rock and everywhere a radiant dawn molts into purple, red, and orange. Everything is lovely and wild. The lucid sweetness of spring is everywhere. The Appalachian Mountains themselves, ancient, magnificent, strange, inspiring, grotesque, possess an incredible amount of eerie beauty. Their stones and rock are exposed on steep cliffs, while their valleys and rolling ridges expose naked the grandness of life – all the flora and fauna of our special, mortal realm. Even covered in life, the observer finds evidence of a tilted, warped, broken, thrusted lithology formed by the pressures and processes of a dynamic planet. Ridge after ridge is crafted by erosion and weathering – producing an elemental land that’s existed before time and will stand long after. The intricate patterns of life, the grottoes, meadows, forests, faults, and passages – some well-traveled while others isolated and lonely – offer a grandeur unique to our living planetary rock. I feel as if I could run and jump into eternity, as if the holy void of creation rises just east, radiantly shining across anything and everything. I love it, I love it all – the boy, my wife, our wolves, the pines, grass, blooms, cold, fog, the melodies of birds, twilight to starlight, dawn’s shedding luminance, the portals and alters of ancient rock. Everything is deserving of rhapsody.

**Image source:  provided by Grant Mincy, photographer.

**Note: This originally appeared on


This March evening is perfect – one that flickers like a motion picture. I am enjoying myself heartily with good food, music, and drink. I’m accompanied by my little family in a tiny cottage in rural Southwestern Virginia. Our lamp light rests at a low dim that accents the rustic wood, stone, and clay that built our two-room bed and breakfast. Outside, the air is cold. Mist sods the groggy Appalachian countryside as the sun’s twilight gives rise to a backlit canopy of starlight heaped and piled with heavy clouds. I sit at a small wooden table with a bottle of red wine and each drink comforts my belly. My wife, Katie, cuddles up with our five-year-old son, Eli, and reads a Harry Potter novel. A single lantern lights our room as a wood-burning stove warms the air. Night music, expansive and hypnotic, plays low in the background. When Katie has finished the chapter and the boy’s eyes are barely open, we kiss his forehead and lay him down to sleep. Katie and I quietly exit to the adjourning room and lay ourselves down for the night. We’ll be taking a family bike ride down the Virginia Creeper Trail tomorrow.

The Creeper is a steady, downhill adventure full of native flora and fauna, old growth forests, rebounding ecosystems, and rural country. The long seventeen-mile descent we’ll be taking, seventeen miles, around these parts is rather perplexing. Appalachian terrain is rough and rugged. Our adventure will be full of sharp ups and steep downs. In the depths of mountain country, having a chance to sit on a bike and coast for a good while is, to me, a bit unfathomable. I’ve hiked a good number of trails in these mountains, driven a good number of roads, but I’ve never seen a country pass of such gradual, prolonged, steady elevation.

The Creeper gets the unusual name from early steam locomotives. The engines would struggle, or creep, if you will, through the area to haul lumber out of Appalachia. This lumber was used to fuel the economy of developing port cities during the Industrial Revolution. Later, the Great Depression ensured a slow decline of industrial scale logging in the area, and the last creeping train ran in March of 1977. The old railway was subsequently transformed into a trail for hiking, running, angling, camping, and, of course, biking. In 1984, the year of my birth, this “Creeper” trail was designated as a National Recreation Trail.

The Creeper Trail has matured into a regional, arguably national, treasure. Over 150,000 people enjoy the trail every year. The boy, my wife, and I will now join the party. Eli is quite the biker these days, and he’s begged for a full day on his wheels for weeks. As this trail is famous for a leisurely, relaxing, easy ride through forested mountain country and rolling pastoral hills, we think he’ll have a big ole time.

When I wake in the morning, grey light from a cloud-covered morning pours in from a single window. I turn to Katie and place my hand on her shoulder. I can tell she is awake, but she lays on her side, with her back to me. She is tense. There is no need for me to ask what’s wrong – she is reading the newest reports of the respiratory virus spreading across the globe.

“Hey babe,” I say while softly scratching her back, “everything okay?”

“No.” She exhales deeply. “I don’t think we should be here. We need to go home.”

“We’re totally isolated out here.” I try to reassure her. “This vacation is fine. If we were in Gatlinburg, or something, I’d be worried, but we’re all alone here.”

“I just think we should be home. I want to be with our community, in our neighborhood, snug at home.”

I understand, but I do not want to go. We have a week of wilderness and isolated activity planned – today’s bike ride on the Creeper Trail, tomorrow’s wild horses and mountain meadows exploration in Grayson Highlands, another day’s leisure in Jefferson National Forest, and more. I wanted to enjoy some area pubs, but I’ll forgo those desires. On the brink of a global pandemic, I know this will be the last vacation we’ll take together for some time.

“We’ve been promising the boy his day of pedal biking, our family description of bicycling since Eli graduated from his balance bike, for weeks. We can’t take today from him, and –”

“I know that, Grant.” She says with a furrowed brow. “I don’t want to do this, make us leave like this. I don’t want to think about what is happening, and I really don’t want to feel like this, so anxious and just. . . weird. I really think leaving is the right thing to do.” Her voice is strong and sincere, I know she’s worried. I reluctantly back down.

“Okay, I’m sorry. Let’s cook a good breakfast, ride the trail, and then head home.”

We dress and walk into the next room – one that serves as a den, dining nook, and kitchen. The morning’s puffed and wispy clouds peek through the windows behind Eli’s soft bed. March is an interesting month – one full of transition. The Earth yawns to life, emerging from a deep, dormant, winter slumber. Soon enough, the smell of golden breakfast waffles and sweet maple syrup, the sound of savory crackling sausage links, and the subtle colors of mixed berries fill our tiny rental. As we cook and prepare our plates, we explain to Eli that we need to pack up our things because our vacation needs to be cut short.

“But I don’t want to go home, this is family vacation!” In his frustration, our boy slaps his thighs. His lip pouts and his quivering voice is high-pitched and strained. Katie and I have been rather busy this semester, even more so than usual, so we promised him a spring break full of quality family time, one free of phones, email, and other such distractions.

“I know, honey.” Katie picks up the boy, sets him in her lap, and speaks softly, “But there are some things going on in the world right now,

“Plus, dude,” I ensure as I set down his warm plate, “you’ll still get a full day on your pedal bike. We are going to ride the mountain today just like we promised before heading back to Knoxville.”

The boy buts his head down and sighs. Of course, he doesn’t understand the sudden change in plans. He’s been looking forward to this vacation as much as we have, if not more. We will surely have some long talks about the trials of the world soon enough. Katie and I need to find the right words to explain our global situation, but not today. Today is for fun.

We leave the cottage after just one night and cross an orchard on the property. We stop along a fence that overlooks rural farmland and the forest edge. The morning is a bit blustery and chilly, while grey, puffy clouds appear smeared and stroked across the distant horizon. There is a rising, virgin green in the mountain forest peppered about, and tulips – a true sign of seasonal transition – sprout here and there across the country. Eli’s deep cartoonish giggles echo as Katie loads him into our trusty family wagon. The sweet sound of childhood breaks my gaze. I turn from the morning view and happily drive us to small-town of  . I’ve never been here before. In fact, I’ve hardly spent much time in Virginia at all. Upon entering this Appalachian community, however, I smile.

“Damascus is so cute!” Katie obviously shares the same feelings as I do.

Damascus is nicknamed “Trail Town USA” because seven nationally known trails intersect within the town’s borders – the most famous of which is the Appalachian Trail (AT). Katie and I love mountain towns along the AT. These communities are humble, quaint, unique, and, most importantly, small. The rugged, primeval Appalachian forest hugs the Damascus valley. Creeks gurgle and murmur under numerous bridges, and picket fences line close-knit neighborhood roads. These AT towns are authentic. They offer us urbanites a glimpse into small-town and rural life. In doing so, they steal my heart every damn time. Life here cherishes the local – laborers, artisans, natural beauty, hometown memories – and the residents hold a welcoming appreciation of us tourists.

The small, rustic way of mountain life is a wonder to behold. The security of kinship, with a dignified independence and beautiful lifestyle, offers incredible reflection to those of us from the homogeneity of contemporary urbanism. Seems urban planners, commissioners, and developers attempt to mold all of nature to terraform, to deliberately modify all of nature, our lives, and the very Earth into a boringly uniform, corporate mediocrity. Urban neighborhoods, mom-and-pop shops, and individuals, battle a technocratic, capital existence, for independent character.

On the other hand, Appalachian rural towns, are full of wonderful folks who are contemptuously called hillbillies thought deserving of an elegy by the same technocrats forever ignorant of their own privileged, boring, uniform existence. Truth is, the people of Appalachian hollers, and the markets they build, provide us with an all too important vision into living-in-place – one that is modeled by neighborhood mom-and-pop shops. These folks fight the same battles as our neighborhoods in larger cities facing off against the gentry.

Small towns and the rural country have resisted and survived various forms of industrialism – logging, strip mining, dam building, the TVA, and the type of corporate neo-colonialism on full display in towns like Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and countless others. These systems of power and domination seek to reduce the Appalachian wilderness and her people to the rank of curiosities. In these rural towns the resistance holds roots deep in place – bless them.

We pull into a local bike joint, called Sundog, to rent some wheels for the famous Virginia Creeper Trail. I look in the rearview mirror. The boy is very excited. Still buckled in his car seat, he’s already strapping on his Spiderman helmet. We’re raising a little athlete, I think. I am always amazed at how hard he works and how easily he tackles physically demanding tasks.

“Hey boy!” I holler back to him. “Your mom and I don’t even have our bikes rented yet!”

“Well, we have my bike right here, Dad,” he squeaks with a good Southern twang as he pats the wheel of his bike. “So, maybe you guys should hurry up or something. You reckon?” With this, Eli tilts his head to the side, winks, and clicks his tongue – the little squirt.

“I reckon so, boy,” I reply. “I reckon so.”

The store is full of hiking memorabilia – stickers, magnets, shirts, gear – and I find myself wandering through the aisles eyeballing more clothes than I could ever reasonably afford. I’m relieved to stop shopping when I am called over to be fit for a bike. Soon enough, thank goodness, we are on a shuttle destined for Mount Rogers National Recreation Area to ride the Creeper Trail. Katie and I share a side eye of viral concern with each other as the ride starts. Our van is almost full as we pull out of town, and I realize Katie is right – we do need to go home. The virus is a part of our lives now.

Mount Rogers is the highest natural point in Virginia. The forested mountain landscape stands with a summit over 5,700 feet. The mountain’s National Recreation Area contains a unique record of geologic history. Igneous rocks of volcanic origin are visible across the area in giant sections, slabs, and protrusions. These volcanics date back to the Precambrian super eon and, from forces powered by Earth’s fiery heart, are the product of continental scale rifting. As ancient land masses diverged from one another, giant volcanoes erupted across the backbone of what would eventually become the Appalachians.

Igneous rocks in Appalachia fascinate me because they are proof of an ever evolving, incredibly dynamic planet. Today, the Appalachian region, though mildly affected by earthquakes, lies in a tectonically passive margin. The axis of Appalachia, however, erupted as fire and brimstone during an Earth changing rifting event some 700 million years ago when our planet was a ball of ice floating in space. This Snowball Earth, such a dramatic global climate change event, was caused by microbes. Pre-Cambrian microbes pioneered photosynthesis, a process that combines carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with water to produce sugar and oxygen gas. The liberated oxygen helped build the ozone layer, protecting the planet from our sun. Meanwhile, atmospheric carbon removal initiated a global cooling. This change in climate covered the Earth in glaciers and if not for volcanic activity, life in the cosmos, as we know it, would have been erased from existence. The rocks here provide evidence of this time and offer clues into the warming trend, led by volcanism, that brought all of life back from the brink of a frigid extinction so long ago.

Appalachian geology affords the greatest example of mountain structure in the world. These humble, weeping mountains, in all their environmental wisdom, reveal an engaging story. This range once stood as titans on a scale of magnitude greater than the Himalayas. All stages of deformation – from undisturbed stratums, folded beds, overturned, broken, thrusted, mashed, and metamorphosed sections of rock – are seen throughout the entire length of the Appalachian system, from Alabama to Newfoundland. The rocks exposed unfold the mysteries of deep time – where the depths of Earth are laid bare in the heart of the range in a manner nowhere equaled.

As we’re shuttled across this geologic wonderland, we pass by a rolling Christmas tree farm and enter a cloud.

“We are really high up, Dad.” Eli’s staring out the window, anxiously rubbing his tiny hands through his curly light brown hair.

“Not getting nervous, are you?” I ask.

“If we are so high up, that means we will have to go straight down cliffs to get down, right Dad?” He looks at me with pouty eyes – he’s a bit tense. A family of four in front of us, with two children who appear a couple of years older than Eli, overhears our exchange.

“No need to worry!” One of them assures. “There is only one spot that’s a little steep, but other than that, it’s a clean ride down the mountain. You are going to have a great time!”

The boy seems to relax a bit at this, but shyly snuggles up next to his momma.

Soon enough, we reach our destination. We hop out of the van and wait for our bikes to be unloaded from the hitched trailer. We stand on a ridge next to a desolate mountain road on Whitetop Point in the The air is cold. A high-country breeze is steady and crisp as a light fog moves across our mammal bodies.  Broken ribbons of clouds move all around us and everything in elemental wonder. Above, the sky is grey and appears as if giant pillowed clouds were smeared by a painter’s brush across the horizon. The rock, detritus, and understory plants are beaded and damp. We cover Eli in his Sherpa lined, hooded sweatshirt, strap on his helmet, and begin our ride into the forest.

As we coast, the cold breeze bites. I am rather comfortable in my trusty hooded baja, and I’m glad I opted for my hiking boots for today’s adventure. I was half tempted to ride in a trusty pair of sandals. Eyeing the environment, I see we are in a transition ecosystem. Mount Rogers is home to the northern most habitat of the haunting spruce-fir forests of Southern Appalachia. We aren’t high enough in elevation to see this special ecological community, but some balsam understory plants offer a scented resin that is slightly woody with hints of cinnamon – smells that remind me of spruce-fir temperance. The air is fresh, crisp and gleams with mist. In this moment, I am happy.

The trail starts gradually, then the grade picks up enough for us to ride our brakes a little bit. Katie hollers out to Eli a time or two that he needs to slow down. In response he laughs and roars with all his might. The boy has a good laugh, an honest laugh, deep from the belly. We round a corner and come to a long bridge that soars across a deep mountain gorge.

“Yeah! Woo!” Eli howls with excitement as we leave the security of the forest and fly into the wind. His mom and I howl right along with him. As we cross the gorge, water beneath us carves its way into the rugged mountain system in sheer geologic might. The spectacle exposes a mosaic of habitats – unfragmented forests, cliff and rimrock, and mature bottomlands. The water’s ovation echoes and crescendos into a loud celebratory chorus that seems to rejoice in mountain grandeur.

Though we cruise an old railroad bed, from this view we encounter a surprising lack of human disturbance all too prevalent elsewhere in these weeping mountains. Here, deep in the Blue Ridge, we are lucky to enjoy a piece of old-growth forest – free from skidder trails, felled logs, and cut stumps. Though these mountain habitats are still yawning out of dormancy, I can tell these woods welcome a mixed-age canopy rather typical of a mature system. When trees die of old age, or are uprooted by powerful storms, gaps in the canopy occur. These gaps allow buried seedlings a chance at the sun, thus allowing young trees to grow. The result is a wonderful mosaic – a mixed temperate rainforest.

We cross the bridge and again enter the shelter of woodland. In the mixed forest, large, old, dead trees lay and rot with other detritus on the forest floor. The elders seem peacefully at rest, covered in moss and lichen. The lichen population, symbiotic organisms composed of fungus and algae, is especially abundant here and adds a sense of maturity to the woods. A good number of snags are here as well. These still standing, though dead trees are important habitat spaces for numerous avian species and the American black bear. Ah yes, old forest, thank you for the reminder – we are in bear country.

Black bear used to inhabit most of North America, but, like all too many animals, habitat loss has significantly reduced the species range. So here in a mixed forest with plentiful snags, bear find a safe haven. Bear are interesting mammals. They’re omnivores who enjoy berries and nuts. Surprising to most folks, pulpy mountain fruit and nuts from the ground, bushes, and trees comprise most of a bear’s diet. Rotting dead animals and insects provide bear with an important source of protein, but the plants truly feed the majestic mammal.

Bear are rather active in the spring, but we’re still in mid-March, so I find no need to alert my family. I’m not overly concerned of a run-in with bear, anyway. The animal still scares easily. Besides, they’d prefer to be left alone in the woods – smart beasts. The most dangerous animal in Appalachia is, by far, the Homo sapiens. In the woodland, bear claim dens in hollow stumps of old trees, or often in the cavities of snags. These hollowed woods offer a view into a peculiar and interesting behavior of the Appalachian bear. They prefer to be high above the ground in standing trees. Most folks scan the understory for these impressive beasts, best to eyeball the sky, too. I’ll be looking, but I expect no evidence of bear activity out here today.

An even larger mammal, however, occupies the high-country woodlands these days. Appalachian elk are growing in numbers across the Blue Ridge. These populations declined sharply during European settlement of the mountains during the 15th and 16th centuries, and the later Industrial Revolution almost ensured their extirpation. Today, thankfully, their numbers are growing due to conservation efforts, reintroduction programs, and preserved, protected, wildlands. This time of year, the large deer species is rather active during the day. This time of year, specifically, male elk shed their antlers. Autumn is mating season in the grasslands for Appalachian elk. Late in the year, male testosterone rises sharply, and their antlers grow large to attract mates. Here in March, on the other hand, testosterone levels are at their lowest and the bone connected to the base of the antler deteriorates. The elk wander into forested habitats where their mantle eventually falls off. Imagine the relief of not walking around with all that weight on your mind. Unfortunately, we won’t be lucky enough to see one of these creatures today.

We’re about two miles or so into our long bike ride and come upon a small group of fellow travelers who’ve paused along the trail. They strap their helmets back on and remount their bikes as we arrive. I notice a pull off behind them with a trail heading through the trees. When we dismount, we exchange some cordial “hellos” and “goodbyes.” They continue down the trail while we pause.

“Boy,” Eli sighs, “I sure am tired. Time for a break!”

“Okay!” Katie chirps brightly. “Let’s have a look see what’s up there.” She points her finger towards the social trail and we oblige.

After only a few steps through a droopy rhododendron thicket, we find ourselves standing on a wide-open mountain grassland. The classic rolling hills of Appalachia are exposed, displaying a great view of rural farmland off in the distance. All around, grey, puffed clouds wisp across our view. Their shapes mimic the steep ridges of the mountains themselves. Instinctively, the boy opens his arms and runs through the tall green and copper colored field of swaying grass. I smile.

I have deep, lasting memories of running through fields from my childhood. There’s something so inviting about cool wind, crinkly dancing blades, and the old dry flowers that disperse seeds as a child passes by. I remember feeling as if I could run forever, as if all of life’s energy was no longer bottled up and restricted by some unknown force. With every pulse, every step, I felt as if I could burn, burn, burn, and explode as fire across the land. From his roars and honest laughter, I can tell my son feels the same. The boy bounds with a fearless, howling joy across an immortal land as rays of brilliant, radiant light slip through a gap in giant clouds and appear to signal we’ve found the Elysian fields.

Katie is smiling as she watches our boy, but she stands with her arms pulled towards her chest and her hands tucked under her chin.

“You cold?” I chirp. “You’re only wearing a thermal with a t-shirt over it.”

“Yup. I was going to get my jacket when we were back at the bike shop, but then you started being a butt-head and making fun of me for liking the cold so much.”

My wife does love the cold. She would, literally, sleep with our bedroom windows open all winter if she could. Katie enjoys the weight of blankets, finds their warmth rather comforting. So, when she wanted a jacket back in town, I cracked a few jokes. Now I reckon it’s time for me to eat my words.

“Here,” I offer, “give me your thermal and you can have my baja. It’s really warm.” After some back and forth, I convince her to trade. We call Eli back and resume the Creeper Trail.

The next section takes us on many more bridges. We soar over rushing river waters and the very forest canopy itself. We travel along gurgling creeks, out of the mature highland forest, and through pastoral valleys of wind kissed farmland, small businesses, local churches, and solitary homesteads. Rural Appalachia is vast and rolling. Though homes and buildings are sparse, the communities are incredibly tightknit – with each other, the countryside, and native flora and fauna. There’s a palpable care for and connection to the land in rural country. Our trail along the beautiful farmland is relaxing and enjoyable, but, soon enough, the wide-open spaces are left behind as the trail takes us back into the forest.

The wood here is noticeably younger at a lower elevation. The deciduous forest is thinner and stands closer to the Earth. The thickets are not as robust or hearty as the highland. No doubt this early successional forest is rebounding from 20th century logging. Though this system is rebounding, the woods appear healthy and vibrant. Birds call and echo across the woods. We see numerous feathered friends hop, skip, and flutter from perch to perch in search of seeds, fruit, or unlucky insects.

Southern Appalachia is especially important for warbler species. Throughout the southeast, migrating warblers nest, breed, and raise their young. In a recovering forest like this one, chestnut sided warblers, a species at risk of extinction, do particularly well. In the surrounding leafy, second growth woods, these small birds, with yellow feathered skulls, black and white eye patches, white under belly, and streaked black and yellow wings, hop about the sapling and low-lying thickets. Recovering areas are important, because the ever-present loss of habitat, and the hardships of a changing climate, are leading to declines in breeding success rates for all warbler species – including the charismatic chestnut that calls forest stands like this home. As we travel, I can almost hear the bird sing, emphatically, pleased, pleased, pleased to meet cha!

We find ourselves along a beautiful stretch of trail, right next to the roaring Whitetop Laurel Creek that has provided a crisp and welcome ambiance throughout our journey. In the mixed forest, the rhododendron appear more awake, healthy hemlock shades the stream, and light starts to brighten our day. The grey, billowed clouds have all broken. Now, white clouds lightly decorate our view as a blue sky pierces the heavens. Mosses shower the understory in a breathtaking green, sunlight splashes and flickers across the stream, and springs warm transition is welcome on my skin. In all this beauty, we bump into a serious problem.

As noted, the Creeper Trail is a steady downhill, for seventeen miles, back to the bike shop. Thing is, this steady downhill is very little work for adults. Our weight and gravity do most of the hard work for us. For Eli, though, hovering around forty pounds, this relatively stable bit of trail along the creek requires a tremendous amount of labor. We’ve taken numerous breaks, but we ride now. Suddenly, I hear a loud skid of gravel. I pull my gaze from the water. Eli struggling to hold his handlebars With an incredible stroke of bad luck, he rolls right over a stray stick that catches his back tire. In a flash, he and his bike pop into the air and crash in a mean, sliding crunch, streamside.

“Ow! Ah!” He yells. I dismount immediately and wrap my hands under his arms to pick him up. Unfortunately, his knee catches the bike seat and a whole new rage of screams flee from the child.

“I can’t do it! I just can’t!” He breathes heavy and sighs. Tears roll down his cheeks as he wipes them forcefully away.

“Come here, Eli, come here.” Katie speaks softly and calmly as she approaches him. His momma sits down next to him and pulls him onto her lap.

“You’re doing such a great job on your pedal bike.” Her voice is easy and reassuring. “I am so proud of you. Not many five-year-olds can say they biked down a mountain, across the woods, along a loud and roaring river, and especially not so fast!’

Katie amplifies her voice with each phrase. I smile as they talk. She is so good at calming him down and building him up. After a good break, and lots of drinking water, the boy silently stands, enlarges his chest, broadens his shoulders, straps on his helmet, and remounts his bike. He looks at me as a wry, but sure, smile spreads across his face. He nods his head and carries onward.

We pass small islands, and, among wide meanders in the stream current, I see a couple of gentlemen fishing. Just behind the pair lies a large dam constructed of wooded debris. The largest rodent species in North America is showing off an impressive display of labor along this section of trail. The semi-aquatic mammal I speak of is, of course, the beaver.

Beavers spend most of their time in streams just like this one. The mammal is very well adapted to river life. Their webbed feet make beavers incredible swimmers; dense fur insulates them from the cold water; their ears and nose close when underwater; and their broad, flat tail enables swimming and dam building. My favorite little factoid about beavers is that they’re monogamous and mate for life. These social, nocturnal animals take family life very seriously. Both parents and older siblings take care of newborn family members until, of course, the kits are old enough to venture out and start a family of their own.

Beavers are incredibly important ecologically. We conservation types call beavers a keystone species – one whose population may be small, but whose Beaver dams alter the flow of streams, creating areas where water stands are lower and warmer and pools of water are deeper and cooler. This is important for migrating fish in need of a place to rest. Additionally, this resting pool affords freshwater mussels a chance to spread their young to the gills of a host fish for transport. Beaver dams also filter silt from water, increasing the habitat purity for all aquatic flora and fauna. These mounds of sticks, branches, and small logs help control flooding in a habitat. The beaver dam here is large and impressive, obviously alters the flow of water, and creates a visible array of microhabitats.

We are well on our way to finishing our ride, but Eli is rather tired. I’m very proud of my son, and his wild, loving, humorous approach to life is really something to admire. Birds sing and the river joins their melody while the three of us sit and rest along the stream bank. As we break, I admire the beaver dam until the boy lets me know he’d like me to take him fishing sometime. I look at him and see his gaze settle on the two fishermen. I’ll, have to oblige the kiddo’s request. Besides, fishing will be a new activity – I don’t believe I’ve cast a freshwater line since high school.

I reckon the gentlemen here are after trout – or, at least, I like to think they are. I love a good trout, especially one cooked fireside in a cast iron pan loaded with butter, garlic, salt, pepper, and plenty of smoke. Thanks to the beaver, and all of its purification work, this is great habitat for the Southern Appalachian brook trout. The fish is gorgeous, speckled like small, olive-green river rocks. Their scales shine like the sun bouncing of ripples of water. Like the beaver, these trout have found a home here and are dependent on densely forested systems with abundant rainfall, mild temperatures, and cool groundwater. Clear, cold water is crucial for spawning success. Mountain waters, shaded by hemlock, also allow insect species to grow their populations – a very important food source for brook trout.

“I have an idea.” Katie has a smile on her freckled face. “Stand up for a second, Eli.”

The boy, with red cheeks, shrugs and slowly rises to his feet. Katie reaches into her pocket and pulls out her phone. Eli and I watch curiously while her fingertips slide across the smooth surface. Her idea perks up our ears. She’s started the boy’s music mix.

“I want you to know I am so, so proud of you. You have biked over twelve miles down a mountain! I bet this music will fire you up and get you the rest of the way to Damascus.” Katie talks cheerfully as Eli’s expression brightens.

“I’ll tell you what,” I add, “when we get done, we’ll stop and get a giant milkshake!” Eli’s well-known wry, but proud, smile creeps back on his face.

The boy owns a mix I am rather proud of. He has a wide range of musical interests. On this mix, however, he’ll coast the four or so miles left with tunes from Black Sabbath, Tool, Led Zeppelin, Red Bone, Cheap Trick, The Americans, David Bowie, and more. Momma’s plan works, he’s in the zone and pedaling well. As we approach the small mountain town, two vines grow abundantly as the trail takes us closer to a state road.

One vine is woody and deciduous – the native Virginia Creeper Vine. This vine grows and climbs with disked tendrils that hold fast to wooded trees or bare rock. The leaves have five, coarse, toothed leaflets with a pointed tip. Small, light green flowers will bloom in clusters soon enough as the mountains welcome spring. The vine grows quickly, dependent on cool, wet climates for survival.

As we ease ever closer to town, with Black Sabbath’s metal riffs from “Iron Man” pumping the boy along, we pass homes along the Virginia Creeper Trail as the pathway brings us within eyesight of the state highway. Here, another creeping, climbing vine competes with the native creeper for habitat space. This vine, however, is a non-native species – and the invasive is blanketing the South. I speak, of course, of kudzu.

Kudzu is native to southeast Asia and was first brought to the United States, deliberately, in the late 1800s. Folks enjoyed the large leaves, sturdy vines, and admittedly lovely white, fragrant blooms. Then, beginning in the 1930s, for twenty years the United States government promoted the plant as a means of erosion control on the moonscapes left behind from strip mines, logging, and industrialization across Appalachia. Kudzu grows with vigor. The plant’s stems root on contact with damp soil. The invasive can grow at a rate of one foot per day. Mature vines reach about one-hundred feet in length. Quick growth, coupled with the absence of natural competition, allows kudzu to easily out-compete native species for habitat.

Appalachian ecosystems are resilient, though. Across the mountain highlands, and mixed lowlands, the more biologically diverse a habitat – in terms of species richness, number of species, and genetic diversity – the more resistant ecosystems are to invaders. Kudzu is rather common in human dominated landscapes, and certainly encroaches on wilderness, but protected lands, those protected from human perturbation, have largely resisted the invader. Natural systems and their processes are interdependent on, and interconnected with, one another.

These natural processes and resulting resiliency are on full display today as we travel Appalachian mountain country, rural farmland, and the small mountain town that hosts us on a trip cut short. As our region transitions to spring, the infant colors of life, the easy, virgin green of waking plants, the vapor and mist all around, the bright sun, remind all who care to notice the need for stewardship on our living planet. Land, sky, river, rock, the living communities, are proof that life both creates and destroys – life terraforms the planet.

As we ride an old rail system utilized for industrial logging, a welcome sight appears – Sundog bike shop! We’ve made it!

“Yeah!” I call to Eli. “There’s the bike shop, dude! You did it!”

Our boy is exhausted, but, when he sees the store he speeds up and races to the finish line. As we return our rental equipment, an employee tells us of an ice cream shop down the road – we’ll be stopping for a frozen treat.

As I drive back to Knoxville, zoning out to my music, Katie silently reads a book, and Eli naps in his car seat with a belly full of French fries and a giant vanilla milkshake, of course. So, I listen to my music and recall the old growth forest at the start of our journey. The forest is covered and bearded in lichen and this symbiotic relationship is powerful enough to change rock formations. Composed of fungus and algae, lichen mechanically breaks down rock by exploiting grooves and cracks to grow. The fungal film chemically alters rock as well by secreting powerful acids into the environment. These acids externally digest and then absorb surrounding nutrients. After thousands of years these processes,

Living on a dynamic planet means our home in the cosmos is always changing, always evolving across time and space. The rocks we traveled today, across just seventeen miles, tell the story of a snowball Earth rescued by volcanism, plate tectonics, and the evolution of life. We also witnessed the scars and scratches of humanity on the surface of our planet – evidence of industrial logging, several species with reduced habitat, some struggling to survive an extinction crisis largely molded from human industrial activity.

There is an ecological disturbance we did not see today, however. This phantom interruption of our seemingly settled and peaceful condition is the scariest. Throughout our planet’s long history, shifts in the Earth’s climate have posed incredible threats to the world’s living inhabitants. We humans transform our atmosphere every day, adding carbon and climate warming gases to the environmental system far faster than any recorded natural process. Additionally, we push further and further into the wilderness, thus depleting habitat and ecological resiliency. We see today, in a global biodiversity crisis, in a regional diversity crisis, that these emissions, coupled with habitat loss, threaten species – including our own – with extinction. This is not meant to be a grim tale, though, but rather one that celebrates life and all the biotic labor that molds our living rock.

Life is resilient – as evident from the rebounding forest the warbler calls home, the land the elk roam, the streams where brook trout swim, all communities who have survived industrialism, and from a boy who pedaled long across mountain country with his parents. Earth system history tells the story of a cosmic dance that took billions of years to form our planet, and billions more to allow the chemical conditions necessary for the evolution of life. As a species, one day we will be gone. We have a precious moment together, spinning along on a lonely blue rock in the infinite solitary echo of the cosmos – we are alive in the Elysian fields.

**Featured Image:   Whitetop Mountain along the Creeper – Flickr, mightyjoepye

**Note: This piece was originally published by Appalachia Bare in two parts. Part I and Part II.



“I like the old stuff, man.” Steve’s voice is soft as he sips gas-station coffee and cruises the Little River Road. “I mean, just listen to this, dude. Sounds like you’re supposed to rock Bob Seger in the mountains.”

We are heading to Rainbow Falls trailhead to climb Mount LeConte. I am excited to hike on a bright and cold Saturday morning in February. Over the past two weeks or so, we had warm temperatures and an aggressive amount of rain that caused flooding in the greater Tennessee Valley. I am relieved to see a bold sky and feel winter’s chill. Steve squints his eyes in the morning light as we meander our way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We get a good view of the Little Pigeon River as we drive under tall hardwood trees without foliage. The waters are high as rapids surge across rock and eddies tornado the banks. The whole system gushes and roars.

“I dig old tunes, too,” I reply, scratching my reddening beard. “Seger just plays three major chords, followed with a minor chord, and sings songs about traveling, gambling, booze, and women – number one hit!”

“That’s right man, that’s right. These songs are all about the important stuff in life – the open road, vice, and heartbreak.”

As we pass the entrance to Elkmont campground, the sun shines bright overhead. The naked hardwoods are silent and grey; they reach skyward with gnarled limbs. The grasses, moss, and shrubs of the understory all shine in powdered glistening radiance. The plants are frosted. Their ice appears as a natural beard that shimmers and reflects the sun. Feels great to be up early. Steve stops his Bob Seeger CD and opts for one of my favorite musicians, Neil Young. I nod my head to the low bass hum and high twang guitar that gradually rattles the opening of “Down by the River.”  This is right; this music fits the scene. Moreover, Steve and I have many memories of many adventures listening to this song together. As the song builds, I grin.

When we reach our destination, the Rainbow Falls parking area is full. I find this odd because we arrived early, at nine o’clock in the morning, with a freezing temperature at a frigid 27 degrees. Luckily, we find a parking place only a little beyond the entrance. We step out of the car and pull on our packs. We crack small but crude jokes and our breath creates small mists. I recognize and find comfort in the scent that surrounds us – the familiar hint of winter.

This winter season had a few cold days, but they have largely been absent. Here, in February 2020, we have witnessed notable extremes in weather, from brief bouts of snow, to heavy rain and even thunderstorms. But, for the most part, the weather has been spring-like. Our days have hovered near 60 degrees, which is not the historical normal this time of year, but the number of warm days this season have grown more common over the last decade. As mentioned, in the past week this warm weather brought with it a ton of rain. Flash flooding gripped our respective towns of Knoxville and Maryville. The water level in the park is still high. Today, though, I find comfort in the smells of pine, wood, frost, and cold air. In the seasonable winter, atoms of these odor molecules are rigid and move slower through the air. The smells are very subtle, unlike the warmer months when distinct odors cloud the senses. In the winter season, these smells run together to stimulate olfaction – memories of cold days past. The world, this morning, seems as it should be.

With gear on our backs and layers on our bodies, we begin huffing and puffing up the Rainbow Falls Trail. The sun illuminates the royal blue sky, producing mesmerizing rays that pierce through the absent canopy cover. Our hike begins with a gradual climb across a large moss and lichen-ridden boulder field. The smell and sight of frost laden leaf decay is beautiful. We welcome the rushing ovation from LeConte Creek. The low rumble of water fills the silent void of February.

“Uh oh.” Steve points to a sign that reads, “Rainbow Falls Trail Impassable When Water is High.”

“Well, shit.” I stop hiking and take a moment to catch my breath. “I reckon we can go a little farther and see how this works out. We could always turn around and head up Trillium Gap to reach LeConte. What do you think?”

“Well, I’ve never been up that way either, but let’s push ahead and see how this works out. I really want to come down Bull Gap.” As Steve talks, he removes his jacket. I do the same. Though the morning is frigid, we have already worked up a good sweat.

Our footpath is rough, rooted, and rugged. Our journey is a constant climb on completely exposed terrain. As we gain elevation, the understory fades from frost-laden plants to rock and larger shrubs. With every crest of a switchback, we earn an amazing view of rolling mountain country, and a reminder of a wildfire that raged in this area back in 2016. Our climb is steep across narrow corridors. To our relief, at our first true stream crossing almost two miles in, we pass our footbridge with only a little extra footwork. Looks like we will be able to summit LeConte after all.

Though the footbridge is passable, the water does roar as we cross. Rushing water always catches my attention. I stop for a moment. I look downstream and watch the force carve and plummet through this Appalachian terrain. When I turn to face the surge, I bathe in morning’s glory. Small falls roar as a single sunray shines through the canopy bright like fire – like a glowing Gungnir – across the water. My breath lingers in the air. As we move on, water trickles across our trail in all directions. The pathways of feeder streams are full of clear water that produce small puddles and moving springs. These springs flash with bright waves that hold and reflect the sun. We splash across mud and sodden Earth. I smile at the openness and freedom as we climb closer to Rainbow Falls.

As we emerge from a trail fully enveloped by burned hardwoods, charred rosebay rhododendron, sleeping teaberry, and lazy mountain pepper bush, we first hear, then see, the popular waterfall. The water plunges eighty feet and is completely visible under a sky only lightly feathered with clouds. Further, the cold allows impressive ice formations around the pathway of the plummeting water. Icicles shine faintly under the sun on exposed bluffs as they construct a fortress of solitude. With all the rain we have had recently, the falling water pours and roars like an Appalachian marvel. We watch our footing since the rocks and footbridge are laden with mist, ice, and algae. Despite these small dangers, we stop for a brief rest and admire the falls. We have had a good time so far – already gained 1,685 feet in less than three miles. After what feels like a mere moment with the waterfall, we look up trail to a winding path of bush, rock, cobble, water, ice, and old growth forest. Time to carry on.


Our climb to LeConte begins in a mature stand of mixed forest along a boulder and cobble strewn pathway. As our trail winds, we earn incredible woodland views. At this point, Steve and I are huffing and puffing too much for small talk, but we stop on a metamorphosed rock outcrop to take in the view all around us. The winter forest is inspiring. Water crashes and cascades across the system. As a winter’s breeze passes through the tree limbs, a low whistle whispers. Birds tweet a quaint melody. Our own breath adds to the living system. Steam rises from Steve’s head. On this frigid morning, under the illuminating sun, we labor our way skyward.

Steve turns his attention from the valley and looks up the slope. Through the unclothed limbs, he points to a towering peak in the distance.

“Hey man, we only have to go up there.”

Steve pulls my attention to LeConte. From where we stand, we clearly see the physical change from hardwood to coniferous forest. All the grey limbs decorate the lower elevations, while hemlock, spruce, and fir streak the higher country in ornamental green.

“Piece of cake,” I huff. We climb onward.

In a few moments, we cross a switchback and, instantly, everything changes. We see no more rhododendron or sand myrtle. The hardwood trees lying dormant but alive in winter slumber on the other side of the mountain are all dead here. Their limbs and trunks are no longer a living grey; instead, their bark is burned and covered in torched ash. Dead conifers are here as well. The trees are so tortured I cannot tell what they are – perhaps hemlock, pitch, or white pines. The scorched coniferous skin is eerie, but more shocking are the cones still hanging from dead limbs. The contrast is spectacular. We are standing on a wet trail, looking at black ash and bare, grey trees. When we look up to the cones, the trees’ reproductive organs, we see they are all just scorched carbon, dusted with grey ash. They are now nothing more than dead seeds holding would be future generations. This death is juxtaposed against a bright, royal blue sky. Suffice it to say, I find the imagery profound.

The earliest conifers in the fossil record date back some 300 million years ago to the late Paleozoic. The adaptation of pollen and seed embryos was an incredible, momentous, and important event in plant evolution. The early cone producers, the first gymnosperms, paved the way for all our modern evergreens. The advent of pollen allowed plants to reproduce without water. Pollen, with the help of wind and insects, took reproduction airborne. This allowed plants to adapt fully to terrestrial landscapes. Today, conifers have separate male and female cones. The male cones are rather small and produce pollen. The female structures are larger and produce ovulate cones. When pollen and ovulate cone come together, the next generation of conifers develop within a tough, resistant seed coat. At maturity, the seeds fall from the parent plant. These seeds will eventually grow the next generation of genetically unique coniferous trees. Sexual reproduction is the greatest evolutionary tool for complex life on Earth. The mixing of genes is responsible for all the beauty and diversity of life in the known universe. The seeds in the soil along this stretch of trail may get a chance to sprout new life, but those burned in the sky will not pass on their genes.

Natural fires are good for ecosystems; control burns can alleviate the disruptive nature of fire suppression, but the wildfire of 2016 raged out of control, and was the result of delinquent human hands. Throughout the summer and autumn of that year, the Southeastern states experienced an incredible transition from excessive amounts of rainfall in the winter and early spring, to extreme drought conditions. Making matters worse, temperatures soared above historical norms. In the Appalachian rainforest, plants had to transpire for food production, but this loss of water to the atmosphere dried out the soil. Drought specific wildfires became abundant across the Southern Appalachians. The early forest blazes started in September. In the national park, though, a devastating burn started as two teenagers flicked burning matches into dry brush on a mountain trail. The fire spread badly enough, but park officials quarantined the slow burn. Five days later, a windstorm producing gusts near ninety miles per hour whipped through and tossed ash and flames from the isolated burn across the wilderness. The fury raged out of control, eventually reaching the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The blaze consumed more than 17,000 acres of forest and township, and claimed the lives of fourteen people.

Such a calamity is unthinkable, and I cannot express in words how deeply troubled I was watching the news of the disaster unfold. I can say though, that I am glad the legal system did not, unnecessarily, ruin more lives. The teenagers were surely reckless, ignorant, and immature. Their actions will forever burden and haunt their lives. Yet, they did not set out to harm or kill anyone, and they never intended to burn thousands of acres. There is no way they could have predicted the windstorm that brought their fire out of containment. Drought and a changing Appalachian climate are the culprits – the kids are no more responsible for the severity of the fire than all of industrial society. My opinion may not be popular, but it’s the argument I hold. Extremes in weather are becoming our new climate norm. Those of us in the Appalachian region can expect more floods in the winter, shorter spans of spring temperance, and more droughts throughout the summer and autumn seasons. With more drought, undoubtedly, there will be more fire. Reaching the next switchback, our climb turns steep again. Soon enough, our view of the burn area is gone.

“Ah! This is starting to hurt.” Steve notes his discomfort but is steady on the trail as we dig into the climb.

“Yeah,” I moan. “But, if we are marching up with no breaks, I reckon that means we get to march down with no breaks.”

“I hope so. This is a killer. I even tried to behave last night.”


“Yeah tried. You know how it is.”

I grin because I know exactly what Steve means. “Sure do. You know, I think there are two of me sometimes. One Grant likes to exercise, has a newfound interest in the martial arts, and likes to try and be a little intellectual every now and then. The other Grant, well, he likes to eat and drink and party heartily.”

“I’m right there with you. I’ve got responsible and diligent, Steve, and I’ve got destructive, vice-laden Steve.”

“Thing is,” I offer, “I like both Grants. I just think they’re both trying to kill me sometimes.”

“That’s just because we aren’t in the same bodies we were a decade ago, but we’re still the same people”

My friend is right. Our human animal, Homo sapiens, is made of thirty trillion human cells – even more bacterial cells. In our bodies, conservatively, hundreds of millions of human cells die every day. To keep us going, our bodies must expend energy to balance this death with new cellular production. With each new cell, with every tick of the clock that keeps us going, the cells our bodies build to replace the dead become just a little more damaged. This damage is why we age and why we die on this harsh, demanding Earth. I really am not the same person I was a decade ago. Of course, I have gained life experience, grown and matured along the way, but my very body is different. The blood in my veins, the skeletal system that frames my person, the cells of my skin, almost all of me, is new and a tad damaged. This fact is amazing to me, though. As evident in our planet’s evolutionary history, life finds a way to survive the extremes – our own mammal bodies are evidence of this. We keep going. I find comfort in this knowledge – nice to know “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Steve and I have climbed a considerable distance and now find ourselves in the highland spruce-fir forests of Mt. LeConte. This forest type is the highest and coldest in all of this amazing Appalachian terrain. The montane wonderland thrives at elevations above 5,500 feet. Interestingly, we are hiking through an ecosystem that is a relic of the last Ice Age. The great glacial period ended some 11,700 years ago. The lower temperatures of this event allowed the migration of northern boreal plants to the Southern Appalachians. As our long and current periglacial period advanced, the climate warmed. What we call the mesophilic, or mixed hardwood deciduous rainforest, is now the dominant ecosystem across the southern mountains. Our warmer, modern climate preserves this boreal ice age system in only the coldest habitats in all of mountain country. Unfortunately, because of invasive species, air pollution, and a warming modern climate, this balsam realm is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.

Photographer: Grant Mincy

A mere half mile from the summit, our trail becomes treacherous. We are on the outskirts of the LeConte Lodge area. The spruce and fir, dressed in eternal green, are all around us. Their needles are healthy, their bases stubby, their seed cones a young but a healthy brown. Some of these ancient plants even grow rather tall and protect us from howling winds. Still, the air is bitingly frigid. The ghostly moans of the high mountain breeze transcend the alpine forest and remind us we are in one of the harshest ecosystems in Appalachia. In these conditions, the air smells fresh and clean. The harmonizing aroma of spruce-fir temperance comes from the production of organic compounds called terpenes. These terpenes fill the air with a scent that is sharp, sweet, and refreshing. The smell of ice adds to the atmosphere. With all the downpours lately, the pathway water traveled down the mountain is apparent – the thick current froze on the trail system in front of us. Seems like we’ll be climbing over a frozen flash flood to summit this damn mountain.

Steve and I start up the trail system by holding fast to the limbs, trunks, and roots of trees. I take my time, snapping pictures and examining my surroundings, while Steve climbs on ahead. The ice is incredibly slick, and the path does not offer a single dry area of relief. Even the moss lining our trail is frozen in ice. Eyeing the slick pathway, I reckon the freeze is about three to four inches thick. I can almost discern ripples in the icy current. I cannot imagine how cold the area must have been to freeze such a torrent of moving water.

Suddenly, I hear a faint “whoosh,” and gravity takes control of my body. I was careless with a foot placement, and my thoughts turned from the power of cold air to bracing for a fall. My knees hit the frozen Earth with such force, I lose my grip on a tree root, and my chest crashes to the ice. I hear myself bellow at the sudden blow to my body. On impact, I slide backwards on the ice, facedown. I repeat to myself okay, okay, okay, as I slip ever backward. I roll to my side and shift my body weight to the opposite side of the trail, so I can grab an exposed rock covered in roots. I pull myself steadily up the bank and watch my every move as I travel onward. I cannot help but chuckle softly aloud. I finally pass the ice and catch up to Steve. Our labor was well worth the trouble. We pick a seat on the footsteps of LeConte Lodge and have a picnic lunch below a thermometer that reads 24 degrees.

LeConte Lodge is rather interesting. I hope to get a chance for an overnight with my wife up here one of these years. Folks can spend the night in a cabin on the mountain, where they dine on sweets, soups, and drink never-ending pours from boxes of wine. Sounds perfect to me. The lodge came about when an Appalachian by the name of Paul Adams led some bureaucrats from the federal government up LeConte to show them the awe-inspiring, natural, rugged beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Adams used this trip to persuade the DC lot in granting national park status to these wispy, weeping mountains. The group stayed overnight in a large tent and likely had a damn good time. The following year, Adams went back and built a cabin on the spot where he and the rule-makers camped. His cabin led to the establishment of the lodge.

The spirit of conservation, of preservation, the importance of wilderness, shapes our very culture, but, so, too, does the progress and woes of a technologically advanced society – not to mention the whims of the economically powerful and politically connected. We live in a culture defined by systems of power and domination – systems that expect us to rationalize our existence through compartmentalizing our lives. We each hold many titles in society, make up different data points, and we are first defined by our roles in the economic system – our jobs. We live under Cartesian assumptions – under industries that ignore evolution and ecosystems, but uphold global, consumption driven, economic systems. We witness declines in biodiversity and ecosystem resilience, only to watch the powerful defend the State’s economic addiction to fossil fuels. Despite it all, I am no misanthrope. Admittedly, though, I am a malcontent.  I believe in place-based thinking and economic planning. I support bioregional connectivity instead of political boundaries. I believe in human labor and ingenuity, so much so I think political boundaries should be dissolved and moved to the dustbin of history. This needs to happen quickly, before we lose our “life place.”

All the crimes of the 20th century, the missed opportunities of the 21st thus far – the wars, the genocide, the subjugation of civil rights, expansion of surveillance, the destruction of healthy ecosystems, all the other crimes of power and domination – were all committed by human beings. Nevertheless, human beings also achieved all the great advancements, all the profound struggles, all of the hope and integrity that has moved and expanded the floor of the cage. Against all odds, we fought back. I bring all of this up because the mountains inspire.

The preservationist movement of the 20th century was an incredible human undertaking, one that still preserves some unimpaired wildlands for all species. The wild offers our species enjoyment, education, and inspiration today, and holds the same promise for all future generations who take the time to know and care for her. Time for an organized 21st century new preservationist movement, as ever evident on this trail through an ancient, wounded ecosystem. In 1978, American Biologist Raymond Dasmann wrote:

Living-in-place means following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site . . . It is not, however, to be thought of as antagonistic to civilization, in the more human sense of the word, but may be the only way in which a truly civilized existence can be maintained.” 

These are wise words as climate change, very literally and without hyperbole, threatens organized human existence. Human civilization needs wilderness. To plunder and destroy her graceful grandeur defies the very notion of a civilized society.

Steve and I finish our lunch, pack up our waste – leave no trace, folks – and start our descent from the Ice Age forest. I will miss this haunting and endangered montane environment.

The ecosystem here is constantly changing, though. Much of the hike we take towards Bull Gap follows a trail lined with what looks like a wooden boardwalk. Many of the trees along this section of LeConte are either dead or actively dying. The main culprit is the invasive wooly adelgid. The insect drinks sap, causing these plants to lose vigor and drop their needles. Dead balsam wood litters this area all around the mountain. Since the early 1960s, more than 90 percent of the Fraser firs in the national park have been destroyed.

There is room for hope, though. A second generation of Fraser firs are beginning to grow across the balsam woodland – and some evidence suggests there may be some genetic resistance to the adelgid among the new generation and surviving trees. Hope lies in the seeds. Sexual reproduction and genetic diversity may just sustain this special place a little while longer. As we wind our way down the trail, we cross over several large Precambrian aged quartz outcrops that look like ice. A cold wind howls above us, but a stand of healthy, thick-needled evergreens once again block the air. We stay warm.

The invasive insect is not the only threat to this relic ecosystem, though. High elevation spruce-fir forests throughout all the Appalachian range are highly vulnerable to climate change. Fewer bird species call the highland cloud forests home these days, which stalls plant reproduction because their seed dispersing animal helpers are lost.  There is also evidence that the cove-hardwood forests are moving up in elevation, chasing a warming habitat zone, thus causing habitat loss in the Montane Spruce-fir climate region. In the Southeastern United States, winters are warming faster than the other seasons. In fact, January 2020 was the Earth’s warmest recorded January in 141 years of temperature records. The four warmest winters have all occurred since 2016. As Steve and I descend into the cove hardwood ecosystem, I wonder if all the spruce and fir here, my favorite mix of trees in all of Appalachia, will be gone, extirpated, in my young son’s lifetime.

Our journey into the broad and bold forest is fun – no other word explains this section of trail. As the highland plants break, rolling meadow hills of swaying grass open all around us. The wide-open, pure, brilliant blue sky is liberating. White clouds smear and brush across the horizon. The sun casts long shadows. All around, a soft breeze whispers across mountain majesty, and my soul is happy. When we cross the transition zone, our trail turns rocky and gnarled, but towering old growth trees cover our descent. Steve and I round a switch back and stand on a metamorphosed siltstone to look out across a rolling expanse of wilderness. We have already climbed down a good deal in elevation, and from this vantage point, among healthy standing sentinel trees, we feel the expanse – almost as if the ancient Appalachian range is hugging us. How small I feel, how happy, and alive.

Our trail goes on like this for a good while. The faces of extravagant and exciting rock cliffs overlook mountain majesty. We arrive at a torched and twisted tree in the trail.

“Damn,” I mutter, as I take a few pictures and turn my gaze upslope. “We are back in the burn area. Looks like a ton of dead rhododendrons through here.”

“Yeah. Just wait until you round this corner, dude. This shit is unreal.”

Steve is about fifteen yards ahead of me on the trail, so I scramble to catch up with him. When I do, I see a hellscape. The terrain is completely charred, evidence of landslides is all around, and, furthermore, the entire mighty rolling expanse beneath us is black with ash and scorched carbon. The view is epic and sad all at once. We hike along in somber silence through all of the fire death. Valley and ridge after valley and ridge, for over ten-thousand acres, lays as waste. The blaze consumed everything and was completely unforgiving.


From death, however, comes new life. This harsh demanding planet of ours is not wasteful – the dead feed the living. Among the tortured, scarred remains of rhododendron, on exposed silt and busted rock, a mountain fetterbush, Pieris floribunda, sprouts mightily. The fetterbush is still small; perhaps a foot or so off the ground, but the evergreen plant is bold and proudly colored against the bare Earth. Further, raceme, a cluster of flowers attached by short, equal stalks along a central stem, are budding. Here, we see sexual reproduction again. A new generation of seedlings are sprouting from the nutrient rich mountains. Soon, the fetterbush is all I notice – the xeric plants are popping up everywhere. On all of the fresh growth, a slightly angled, globular capsule holds their fruit, assuring future generations of the plant will grow.

We are lucky travelers, alive in this incredible, biodiverse world. We are forever part of the beautiful pattern of life. Our special places, our loved ones, will never really be gone. All life is recycled into the Earth – broken down to molecules and nutrients that will feed and sustain this living planet. Steve and I pass the time chatting, as old friends do, about anything and everything. We labor down a steep rocky grade, out of the cove hardwoods, and once again among naked oak trees and pines along the pleasing song of LeConte Creek. As we walk through the whispering forest, winter buds burn crimson as fire in the sky. Together they all Pollock and splash against the eternal blue heavens. Soon enough, these buds will produce young leaves and seeds. Soon enough, the leaves will age and die to feed the soil and new life. Impermanence here in the mortal realm is what makes our lives so special. Death is always clicking at our heels. Yet, against all odds, we are here, and spring is coming.

This post originally appeared at Appalachia Bare.

The Heron.

Image result for great blue heron blue ridge parkway

Today, I am hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’m sharing this adventure with my friend, Steve McQueen (yes, his real name). Pleasant winter morning out here among decaying brown leaves and sleepy rhododendron – pleasant because the day feels more like a warm spring afternoon, as opposed to winter morning. As we travel the gnarled banks of Abrams creek, just beyond the waterfall of the same name, to our delight, a Great Blue Heron with extended neck soars into view across a bright, cerulean sky. The wings beat slowly, but they are audibly powerful. The heron glides with ease across the water and lands effortlessly on a rock in the middle of the creek. As the warmth is unusual – if not scary – for December, mist rises readily from cold water as the bird sits still and attentive.

The heron, species name Ardea Herodias, is large, elegant, and graceful. The bird is a dark blue-gray, but boasts a white crown, cheeks, and throat. The bird is impressive, tall, and holds a wingspan of roughly four feet, if not more. The heron is mostly still and calm, but slowly moves its green feet across the perch. The bird delicately walks into shallow water.

“It’s hunting,” Steve observes of the bird. “The head is still, but its eyes are scanning the creek for prey.”

“Just like a dinosaur.” I realize I’ve uttered this private thought aloud. I follow up my observation, “I love watching large birds walk. It’s like a trip back in time to the Jurassic.”

Birds are living dinosaurs. Biologists even classify birds as dinosaurs. For the most part, the large non-avian dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago, but the small avian communities persist. Our friend the heron here is a direct descendant of feathered, meat-eating predators known as raptors. Steve and I sit and watch the dinosaur for a while before carrying on. We’ve much to learn from the observation of wildlife.


A long time ago, in a system of near emptiness, a nebula, appearing as a dark silhouette against the bright glow of creation, was born. This cloud of gas and dust, under the timeless laws of gravity, eventually collapsed into a star. This new body burned – a dense disk of luminous matter surrounded our young sun. The celestial fog held an intimate orbit with our young star and slowly began to accrete materials together from interstellar space. As these materials collided, according to natural laws acting around us, they slowly formed the planets of our solar system. Universal winds eventually cleared debris from our cosmic home. Earth was born from this process – a strange, hellish, special place.

In the infant solar system, far more planets existed versus what we know today. One such body, Theia, the titan of sight and the shining light of the sky, struck the young Earth at an oblique angle. The collision was violent. Theia was a Mars sized body. On impact the two planets erupted, melted, and, in a dazzling choreography, sent fire, molten rock, and ash to spiral across a solitary infinity. Again, the fixed laws of gravity would pull the Hadean Earth back together. This time, however, our planet held an axial tilt – and still does today. Debris from this collision continued to orbit the planet, and, in a fixed, intimate, gravitational pull, these Theian projectiles built our moon. Our planet would cool, and, by the end of such a violent eon, the chemical physics of the first cell pioneered a grand journey – life was born in the cosmos.

Knowledge always serves as a reminder that we, the royal we, Homo sapiens as a species, cannot escape the cosmic or evolutionary past of our third rock from the sun. Here we all are, spinning along on a tilt, living on a cloudy blue dot, in synchronous orbit with a moon, among the heavens. The calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the very carbon upon which all life is based, was forged from the crucibles of dying, exploding stars. Somehow, here on Earth, a pinch of cosmic dust is conscious. Intelligent life is how the universe contemplates itself.

Our planet continues to evolve. Over the past 4.5 billion years of Earth system history, continents have crashed together only to drift apart. Mountain majesties would rise from the burning mantle only to weather and erode down to clay. Mighty oceans have vanished as landmasses tectonically moved across the globe. Early life responded to these changes in the environment and evolved the physical and chemical conditions necessary to survive. Across the eras, life first flourished in the oceans. Fungi, plants, and animals learned to colonize the land. The processes of life built incredible ecosystems. In a never-ending struggle, mass extinctions are balanced by adaptations of species new to the universe. The Earth we stand on today is a reflection of grand geologic forces, competition in a world of scarcity, and cooperation among organisms across the great domains of life. To borrow from Charles Darwin:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us . . . There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

Ecological competition is understood as the struggle between two organisms for the same resources. Resources, such as food, water, and shelter, are limited. The species who survive the struggle pass on their genetic code to future generations who inherit their successful dispositions. Competition for resources or, just as importantly, a species avoidance of competition, throughout Earth’s long history is responsible for all the biodiversity and ecosystem structures we see today. This observation, first expressed by American ecologist Joseph H. Connell in 1980, is described as a “ghost of competition past.” The ghosts, or, more appropriately, their living activity, ultimately influence what species are successful in modern ecological communities.

Let us consider the tangled banks of Abrams Creek. A temperate mountain climate moderates this valley and ridge geologic system. These mountains are some 300 million years old – making them among the oldest living bioregions on planet Earth. Within the gently contoured mountains of Appalachia, an incredible diversity of plant life flourishes. Here, on the banks of Abrams, numerous flowering plant species slumber on a winter morning. The sun illuminates the gray, leafless, lichen-covered limbs of numerous species of deciduous trees. The conifers, with their cones scattered about, are still green. The trees appear brushy, and are somehow bright and dull at the same. Salamanders and other amphibians make dens beneath the cobbles and rocks of cold creek water. Small mammals forage for food. Native fish rest in pools. Mollusks line the creek as their shells illuminate in the water. Fungi grow beneath the soil and recycle organic matter. These living systems, in competition and cooperation, are everywhere. For all we know our heron, one of two hundred bird species in this national park, will overlook a drter that is well camouflaged in the creek. Perhaps the bird will dine on a slightly more visible, and less abundant, spotfin chub instead. Such a seemingly insignificant act could alter the evolution of life on planet Earth.

Successful species in an ecosystem have a weak interaction with other successful residents. Competition for resources hurts everyone involved – far better to live in a well-defined niche, with maximum adaptation, or to live in mutual fashion with others, than to clash for habitat space or food. If, however, a disruption of habitat occurs, successful species, those better adapted to their environment, will out compete other populations in the grand balance of survival. New ghost species will be made. Their behaviors that long modified the environment will be gone, but their legacy will remain. With a new niche available in an ecological community, populations previously suppressed will adapt and evolve, thus changing community composition. There are indeed many lessons to learn from watching wildlife – and many important philosophical concepts to mull-over.


Our trail is rolling, knotted, littered with detritus, soft, and splendid. Abrams Creek gurgles and crashes among weeping rhododendron, healthy eastern hemlock, and the naked limbs of scattered hardwood trees. Our socks are damp. On the jaunt out to our picnic, we had to cross Cane Creek several times. The rock hops we took were easy enough, but some misplaced footing splashed the creek and soaked our shoes. No bother. The day now exceeds 70 degrees.

We begin an easy gain in elevation as we find ourselves among hemlocks and white pines. With leaf detritus all around, the canopy is wide-open beyond the conifers. I spend most of my time hiking in the other seasons. I must admit, however, that winter conditions in this primeval land are mysterious, inspiring, and gorgeous. Winter can be rather dreary, but, when our star shines bright, like today, the forest looks awake and as alive as ever. To the untrained eye, this time of year everything looks dead. To mountain travelers, however, we simply see the land at leisure. Pines are vibrant; the sun’s light dances and shimmers on their needle leaves. Even the hardwoods still boast an impressive color. Winter buds offer those who notice a variety of purples, reds, browns, and copper colors.

My favorite part of winter hiking, though, is seeing through the trees as bright days cast long shadows all around. The Earth rolls and folds, her anatomy exposed as vegetation rests. McQueen and I roll on until our trail guides us from the creek banks towards the winter sky. Our climb up Hatcher Mountain is long, steep, burdensome, yet rewards us the most amazing view. The immortal ruggedness and beauty of the Abrams Creek gorge is on full display. Without canopy obstruction, looking down on the pale grey trees, exposed mountains roll across the horizon while Abrams, in grand geologic power and comforting perseverance, continually evolves the ancient landscape.

I am feeling the climb. I fancy myself a damn good hiker. I can go for long distances, and usually keep moving at a quick pace. Slender Steve here, however, outpaces me easily – even with a fresh dose of nicotine of carbon monoxide from a morning cigarette.

“Hey man,” I call out, “this will take me longer than you, but there’s no need to wait. I’ll catch up.”

“I’ll rest when you need to, man,” Steve reassures. “No worries at all.”

We keep up our climb. The warm sun rains down on us and reflects off the grasses that move in an eerie spring-like breeze. Gravel and rock crunch beneath and batter our feet. Protrusions of slate shine bright in the warmth. Steve stops to rest on a metamorphosed siltstone shelf and chugs some water. Sweating heavily, but feeling good, I am able to catch up and take in the view.

Steve puts his arms out wide open.

“Ah! Just feel that sun shine down on your skin.”

“Remember that old song from the Postal Service?” I inquire. I then half-heartedly sing the tune, “No concerns about the world getting warmer, people thought that they were just being rewarded, la la la la, something, something, now we can swim any day in November.”

“It’s December, dumbass,” Steve jokes. In response, I flip him the bird.

“Climate be damned, I say.” He carries on sarcastically: “I’ll take patio weather any day. Check out the ridgeline over there.” McQueen raises his hands visor-like above his brow and shields his eyes from the sun. He nods his head across the gorge. “Many of the oaks are missing over yonder; tornadoes took them out in 2011.”

The rest is nice, but time to move on. Soon enough, our view of the majestic gorge is behind us as we crest Hatcher Mountain. We find ourselves in a slightly cooler environment. The trail levels and soothes. The breeze now carries an ever so slight memory of winter days past. Cove-hardwood trees are noticeable and very prevalent on the steep slopes below our trail. We walk relaxing switchbacks through an ecosystem rebounding from a prescribed burn some fifteen years ago.

This is an interesting bit of trail. Remnants of the burn, the dark black carbon of scorched woodland, pepper the hike. Ecological succession is on true display. Yellow pines historically dominated the area, but fire suppression throughout the 20th century allowed maples and other hardwoods to grow and crowd out the needle leaf trees. The control burn was a success. Tall grasses, small shrubs, and a vibrantly healthy yellow pine community now exist. This stretch is fun to inspect and pleasant on the feet after a gratifying, but tiring, uphill climb. We break again for some water in a rebounding ecosystem just three days after the Christmas holiday.


I am very thankful for days in the mountains. I worry about the future. I often lie wide-awake at night wishing for the comfort of sleep. When wrought with despair, I think of all the good in the world. I also recall memories of solace and spaces of peace – places that allow stillness in this mortal realm. I find much of my peace in the cathedrals of nature. Agrarian and Appalachian author, Wendell Berry, in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” describes these moments best:

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

To bask in what the natural world has to offer – in the great, Earthly beauty – is a privilege. The wild is inspiring. Out here with the rocks, the crimson buds, the brush-stroked conifers, the wildlife all around, there is a promise of a radical liberty – a quiet peace of all the grace in the world. Sometimes, though, even this grace is heartbreaking.

In 1949, conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote, “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”  A lifetime later, these wounds are getting deep. Even here, in a protected natural area, invasive species, exotic populations who out-compete our natives for habitat and resources, are making their mark here in the national park. Just earlier today, Steve and I happened upon a stretch of dead eastern hemlock trees. These wonderful stream shading trees have fallen to an insect from East Asia. The insect feeds on the sap of hemlock and spruce in our region. As a result, the invasive critter is killing large numbers of these incredible natives. Large dead trees along the trail are easy to notice, but what of the wildlife that we cannot see, or even hear, anymore?

I like reading old tales of these mountains. Horace Kephart, Wendell Berry, Wilma Dykeman, and many more, have artfully described the Appalachians and their wildlife. As a reader, one can often feel the enthusiasm, or fear, as writers describe wildlife encounters. Common themes in older Appalachian works, dating to the early 20th century, speak to the loud and numerous canopy songs of birds, thick populations of brightly colored butterflies across painted mountain meadows, the animations of amphibians in small creeks and bogs, and much, much more. As wonderful as these scenes are, they offer a twinge of sadness. I love the melody of birds, but they are no longer loud and numerous. I have seen butterflies in mountain meadows, but never so thick a population that I could hardly see anything else. I have seen plenty of salamanders and other amphibians, but have had to hunt for them by turning over rocks for a simple glimpse.

We live in an era of a great mass extinction – one of the largest in all of planetary history. New ghosts are being made, far faster than expected under natural, historical conditions. We are losing species from this Earth faster than the extinction event that marked the end of all those non-avian dinosaurs. Leading the extinction are our insects, amphibians, and feathered reptiles. Far less wildlife exists today. I worry our children and their future generations will never truly understand how much more there used to be – and why it is important to save what is left.

In the bleakness, though, there is always hope. In 2019, scientists discovered seventy-one new species. The list includes plants, fish, corals, arachnids, ants, lizards, and many more. New conservation initiatives now protect large areas of natural land, and some species have come back from the brink of extinction. Though there is still an incredible amount of work to do, these victories ensure that not all is lost – we can win this fight. Canadian naturalist Robert Bateman reminds us that even the Great Blue Heron is a reason for optimism:

Heron and many other forms of progress offer optimism: Few other animals better symbolize a vision of conservation for ecosystems than the Great Blue Heron. It lives year-round and migratorily on seashores, wades on its beaches and in its streams, rivers, and marshes, hunts in grasslands and from kelp forests, nests in old-growth forests and penetrates the urban landscape. As sentinels, the heron’s eggs provide a means to monitor contaminants in the rivers, estuaries and oceans, and its reproductive success might just provide clues to the overall health of water ecosystems. Conserving the Great Blues and their environment would go a long way toward ensuring the conservation of much of the quality of riparian and marine ecosystems throughout the America’s [sic]. 

Today, heron populations are very healthy. We’ve made no ghost of the heron, or ourselves, yet. The kind of intelligence our species has, even life itself, as far as we know, has only evolved once in the eternal history of our universe – right here on this living rock. Life holds massive and common challenges, as evident in all the mass extinctions of our own planet. Perhaps these challenges ensure we are alone in the void. This philosophy provides optimism.

In the lonely echo of space, we are alive. The paradox of protected lands is that they remain spaces of refuge and liberty. In the preservation of the wild things, we find the very preservation of human civilization itself. If we lose the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the wild, we will lose a piece of openness and freedom itself. A new preservationist movement is needed now more than ever.


            Steve and I are bone weary and dog-tired. By the end of this adventure, we will have covered almost sixteen miles of mountain country. We are in the final stretch. We’ve found ourselves hiking, almost jogging, across a wide but cobbled creek-like trail. The air is damp and feels cool. An attractive corridor of towering pines surrounds and protects us. We clear a low rise over a sweeping bend in Abrams Creek, a feeder stream trickles and gurgles across our trail.

The shade of the corridor reminds us our season is winter. The cooler air is welcome on our skin. The forest is dark, shadowed, and wonderfully haunting. As we burst across our trail, the sun hangs low on the horizon. The star flickers and flashes like a bright roman candle popping and dancing in the sky with each step we take. Her cosmic energy casts long, piercing rays through the limbs of trees. Her light reflects, shimmers, and sparkles off the flowing water. With each step we take, water splashes into the air, and glitters under the sun. Long shadows stretch across the Appalachian wild as we bask in our star’s glory. The sensation of life is all around – our experience is elemental, kindred, and soul shaping.

Here we are, just two human animals under the sun in a primeval terrain. Pulling backward, away from the trail and above the canopy, further still from the Southern Appalachian region and beyond, we find ourselves on an incandescent, lonely, tilted, living rock. The sun is a violent burning star in a pitch-black sky. In an otherwise lifeless galaxy, alone in all of the cosmos, we are alive and breathing.

Image Source:  National Park Service, Blue Ridge

Note: This was originally published at Appalachia Bare.

A Night on the Obed


Image result for obed river stars

Our river is the Obed River in southeastern Appalachia. There are five of us. We’re all good friends. We work at the same restaurant and watering hole, the old Sunspot, on the oldstrip – otherwise known as Cumberland Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee. We are coming of age, living in an Appalachian city, and rambling out-of-doors for leisure and fun along this wild and scenic river on a November afternoon in 2008. Here, the Obed’s waters drain from the Cumberland Plateau. We will hike, camp, and party where Native American tribes – the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Shawnee, Yuchi, and Cherokee – used to hunt, gather, and find shelter from the elements beneath rose colored sandstone.

Though a chill is in the air, the late autumn sun still provides enough warmth for our comfort. When our star sets, however, the rising moon will preside over a clear, radiant, freezing night. We have no fear. We have good gear and plenty of long johns, sweaters, coats, and hats – not to mention plenty of whisky, wine, and beer – to keep us warm.

We spend the first little bit of our mini-vacation on camp chores. We are all crashing together in a group tent. Jenna, an athletic, adventurous, and strong-willed woman, along with Joe, a long-haired, grizzly bearded, and friendly fellow, get to work on our tent. Mullaly, a bright, cheerful woman, also my Mechanicsville roommate, strategically places lanterns, coolers, cooking supplies, and camp chairs gently about. I embark on a scavenger hunt with Dave, a tall, quiet, introverted fellow. Our mission is to gather a good number of dead leaves, pine needles, kindling, and sticks for a cooking fire. We are also on the hunt for larger felled logs – we will need them for the late-night bonfire.

Dave, like me, is a budding Earth scientist with a heavy interest in ancient environments. Unlike myself, he is shy and reticent. We chat but mostly scavenge and explore quietly. We both find merriment in the woods as we move across Pennsylvanian aged sandstones and shales. Among the quivering trees, these Paleozoic rocks have eroded into impressive, shallow, abri cliff faces. Standing under these rock shelters, we shiver and share a chuckle. Our November air is noticeably cooler in the damp of these carved formations. Looking out, we see huge boulders strewn across the woods. It seems as if they have fallen from cliff faces just to offer us a chance at some recreation. We oblige the invitation to climb, jump, and whoop about.

After some play, Dave and I are back to the task at hand. We are not far at all from camp, so we begin gathering autumnal debris from broad-leaf deciduous trees and needle-leafed evergreens in what feels like our own personal mesic grove. We make several trips with armloads of fuel. We happily labor under a bright blue sky as golden clouds hang low across the horizon. With their chores wrapped up, the rest of the gang joins us in the deep copper colors of late autumn’s mosaic. We stockpile an impressive amount of ammunition for a warm fire.

Our camp looks cozy. Chairs circle the fire-pit; our gear is all readily accessible. The tent is up with our nap pads, sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets all lined up together in a row – except for Dave’s sleeping gear. Since Dave has demonstrated that he’s a private fellow, he sets up his own one-man tent. He’ll slumber with peace and quiet away from us rebel-rousers.

I do mean rebel-rouser, too. We’re here to enjoy the lucid air and scenic river during the day, and to feast, drink, and carouse all night long. Some of us may be loud and crass. Others have seen their bit of trouble a time or two, but we are certainly not fools or brutes. Now, a rabble-rouser, or, what some consider the “official” pronunciation of the term, could be a politician, a pundit, orator, or some variant of the same cloth. A large swath of these firebrands use their bully pulpit effectively – enough to reach political celebrity. As one hand waves, the other ensures our institutions – state, military, corporate, technological – become more dominant, complicated, and obtrusive. Still, liberty lives on.

I decide to relax so I crack open a tall boy and look to the Obed. This is the first chance I get to observe my surroundings. November is my favorite month. Late autumn feels contemplative, comfortable, and even wise. As autumn matures, the bright glory of October trades for the crimson, brown, deep purple, copper colored wisdom of November. The sun casts a long shadow across the Earth. In the bright background, I silently watch November leaves rattle and hum in the whispering ovation of the Obed River. As the sunlight illuminates their deep colors, the leaves appear as phantoms – translucent, as if accepting their senescence. The blue sky, the grey limbs, the rusting colors, the green understory, the brown decay all offer a heart-wrenching beauty.

Behind all of this elemental wonder is the untamed, steadfast Obed. These waters are so powerful they have carved spectacular gorges from sandstone bluffs. We should thank rivers as old and free as this one. Their labors produce the rugged landscapes, wild lands, and moments of pure freedom that are so precious, fundamental, and soul-shaping. The Obed is everything on this trip. Though impetuous and grand in geologic force, the river’s song, ever present, is intensely bright and refreshingly tranquil at the same time. The river moves and eddies. Patches of deeper water run clean, smooth, and appear as shadow-like. Along the banks, clear water exposes sediment and rounded stones, as small ripples shimmer and playfully reflect the sun. Even still, from observation one can note the river’s awesome power. As rapids crash, splash, and roar, they submerge, conquer, and erode boulders.

At home in the world’s largest hardwood-forested plateau, the Obed offers refuge to species of fish, mussels, freshwater crayfish, salamanders, aquatic insects, and many more. Further, mammalian families of whitetail deer, grey fox, raccoons, rabbits, river otters, bobcats, and more drink from and play in the Obed. Topping off this natural realm are often musical, always inspiring, avian communities including numerous species of hawk, wild turkey, the barred owl, great blue heron, fiery crimson cardinal and so on. And this light doesn’t even begin to shine on the vast diversity of micro-flora, the protozoa at home with the river algae, the fungal families at work in the soil, nor the various plant forms. The biodiversity here is fragile, majestic, and as inspiring as the Obed itself.

Sitting here, taking all of this in, I am reminded of a quote from transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau:

There is nothing inorganic . . . The Earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum, like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which proceed flowers and fruit; not a fossil Earth, but a living Earth.

Now I’m no supporter of the Gaia hypothesis, the idea that the whole Earth is a single organism, but I get Thoreau’s point. We are all just traveling along in space-time. We exist because, and are all built of, the cosmos. In ourselves, the universe found a way to express itself. We enjoy life because of the labor of atoms and molecules. We are inner and outer space. We exist because of our ancestors before us, we carry on our lives, and we are somehow eternal – to live is to die, but to exist in space-time itself.

The sun hangs low. Time to build a fire. Our dinner cooks under headlamp and fire light. As our wood smokes and embers burn bright in the night, we roast meat and root vegetables. Bluegrass from a traveling music box softly joins the background – the fiddles and mandolin play well out here. The wine and whisky provide comfort as the wind bites cold. The Obed whispers.

“Oh, we’re eating well! My belly is so full!” Mulally says.

“Of course we’re eating well. We all work at a restaurant – even if you’re all just a bunch of front-house servers and bartenders,” Dave says, laughing weakly. He is the only one of us out here who works in the kitchen.

“You didn’t even help,” Mullaly quips.

“Why would I help? It’s my night off!” Dave responds.

To accompany our savory meat and salted root vegetables, I have brought a baguette and brie – I’m so fancy, after all. So, I figure some wine would go well with what I consider to be French staples. I pull out a hearty red wine with some nice calligraphy on the front of the bottle.

“Damn. Good wine!” I say, excited about my pick.

“Yeah. Bottle looks nice. Must be French,” Joe says.

He’s pretty matter-of-fact as he tears his teeth into some meat from the bone and chases it with a large gulp of red. He is so matter of fact I do not even bother to look at the bottle and sing my agreement. The two of us spiral into a discussion about how the French make the best wine and this bottle proves it.

Chuckling, Jenna investigates the wine, “This is Spanish wine. It says so right here on the front of the bottle in big, bold letters.”

“Spanish? Damn!” Joe bellows.

The night goes on, jovial, and full of plentiful eating and drinking. We stack our wood and build a bonfire in the woods. The flames flicker and bounce off the surrounding bluffs and plants. The smoke rises, swirls, and puffs to the heavens. The night is beyond brilliant. The air is cold but we do not mind, hell, we barely notice. The sky is crisp and clear. All the heart-stopping glory of the cosmos is above us. In our remote camp, surrounded by gorges and hugged by the Cumberlands, the sky is unobstructed by human civilization. Starry skies across Appalachia, the nation, and the world for that matter, are a vanishing treasure as light pollution washes away the cosmos. There is refuge here – a place where one can contemplate the expanse. Streaking above us is what seems like a million stars. The dust of our Milky Way is alive in the night. We feel the pure exhilaration of a freedom, which, I for one have not felt in far too long.  This moment seems eternal – as eternal as the endless abyss pierced with brightly glowing other worlds above us. We have no choice but to go wild. We are madly alive in the night.

With the stars above – all our passions, hopes, and dreams join the river’s ovation across sandstone bluffs. We travel skyward toward the glowing, still eternity. With my friends, among form and color, life and decay, the alteration of matter, I realize this is immortality. This experience is the freedom only nature can provide. For now, among the white-tailed deer, red-tailed hawks, the mussels, crayfish, and the living river, there is no stopping our burning desires. Like the flickering flames of our fire, we are just dancing in the dark.


Spirits Rooted to the Soil

Image result for walker sister cabin

The air is cool as dark, billowy clouds let loose a light mist, and a gentle breeze rustles the brightly colored limbs of deciduous trees. Leaves, in all their late October glory, with their deep reds, dark purples, bright golds, and fiery oranges, appear to dance in the air. Their colors seem enhanced – like a bright natural quilt against an ash colored sky. Here and there, some of them lightly feather towards the ground in a dazzling, soft choreography. This brilliant dance creates a beautiful mosaic, a magnificent natural masterpiece, on the forest floor. Adding to the wonder, the waters of the Little River echo their pleasing ovation across Metcalf Bottoms. October in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sure is special.

I leave my car at the popular picnic area. Despite the light sprinkle, a number of families, dressed in hooded sweatshirts and plenty of flannel are unpacking an early lunch along the river. I am sure they are in for a good time – eat well fellow travelers. My family is sitting this hike out. They have opted to cheer on our school’s soccer team this afternoon instead. Normally we would hang out together, but I need some mountain time. This lazy late Sunday morning I am out for a short but necessary solo adventure in the Appalachian Forest. I have spent the majority of the last two days curled up in bed fighting strep throat. Not fun, in fact, torturous. I’m not speaking about the pain that is, of course, bearable. Rather, the fact of being quarantined and bedridden this time of year strikes my nerves. Further, the bacteria soiled what would have been a great weekend of damp outdoor play. I’m happy to be out of the sheets – antibiotics sure are wonder drugs.

This morning I am taking the long way to the Walker Sister’s place, then down to the Little Greenbrier School. I’ll get a couple of hours in nature to myself. I like being alone in the woods. I never feel lonely or isolated; instead, my cares fall away like these autumn leaves. I enjoy the quiet, still solitude.

Moreover, along with the foliage, the cabin and schoolhouse offer a quick history lesson. When the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was established back in the 1930s, roughly 5,500 people lived within the political boundaries of new federal land. The residents, including the Cherokee and scattered others, would eventually have to move. Most folks, begrudgingly or not, sold their land and moved outside of the park boundaries. Those who resisted paid rent to the federal government and found themselves just tenants on land they once owned. I love this park more than I can express, but I loathe the authority of state power. This is one of the reasons I enjoy this hike so much:  The Walker Sisters were too proud of their family heritage to leave. They lived right here, dug in their heels, stuck to the old pioneer way of life, and pretty much told Uncle Sam they weren’t going any damn where. And they didn’t. They sold pies and crafts to park visitors on into the 1960s when the last of the seven sisters died. Land is legacy and space is place – the Walkers have surely dug some deep and lasting roots.

I cross the bridge over the Little River’s chanting chorus waters. This is my favorite river in the park. Like the falling leaves, the river seems to echo a relaxing hushh – as if to tell me to let my cares be.  Across the bridge, I pick up my pace. I need to hike rather quickly up the narrow Wear Gap Road. The scenery is enjoyable, but the passing vehicles are not. Most everyone is courteous, but one pickup truck passed way to close for comfort. I am happy to turn onto the Little Brier Gap Trail.

I last hiked this trail in the long summer of 2016. I traveled with my then two-year-old curly haired boy. I remember the forest that day was hot and particularly dry. That year we saw an extended drought that lasted well into the autumn and early winter. We also experienced record-breaking temperatures throughout the summer and on into the colder months. The changing climate resulted in extensive forest fires across the region – including right here in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A similar climate worry exists here in 2019. Highs stayed in the 90s through the first week of this month – nowhere near average for our temperate rainforest in autumn. Luckily, our temperatures, though still largely above average, have leveled out. Along with the cooler air, we have also received some much-needed precipitation.

Today, the detritus laden understory sparkles and shimmers in Mountain mist, as water droplets bead on fallen leaves. Rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets, beneath a colorful canopy of yellow poplar, sweet hickory, and the wonderful scent of evergreen, seem refreshed, eternal. Amid the ferns, fragrant sassafras, and sourwood leaves, it is comforting to enjoy the sounds of katydids. The rummage of chipmunks over chestnut oak abscission, and the melodious songs of hooded warbler add to the music of mountain country.

The forest is too pleasing to describe. The entire environment is rejuvenating. The mist softens my beard, the air smells fresh, and, though the canopy is brilliant, the plants along the forest floor are a deep green – a remarkable green only possible under a cloud-laden sky. I stop several times just to take in my surrounding environment, to look at the contrast of plant forms, to breathe deep the sweet lucid air, to smile and enjoy my life.

The first little bit of the hike was a steady climb that raised my heartbeat a bit, but I’ve breasted the hollow along Cove Mountain and now enjoy a relaxing downhill stroll. The fog-shrouded forest envelops me – so beautiful I can only describe the scene as haunting. At this time, roughly half a mile away from the Walker Sister’s Cabin, I notice an oncoming traveler.

He’s a tall, slender man with a gray combover and a long, fluffy, white beard. As he approaches, I scratch my own reddening mane. Though my beard is getting rather long, this stranger has me beat by a couple of years. In addition to the facial hair, I cannot help but notice how the man is dressed. He dons old work boots, wool pants, and a buttoned vest, complete with what appears to be a Union Army jacket circa the1860s. As we pass each other, I give a friendly “hello.” In return, he flashes me a very kind smile, takes a bite of an apple, and waves. A few seconds later I turn back to catch another glimpse of the fellow, but he’s mysteriously vanished into the fog.

Eventually, I travel down the mountain far enough to reach the split towards the old Walker Sister’s place. The gravel leading toward the enduring homestead crunches beneath my feet. The plant community has changed, revealing dogwoods, more poplars, a littering of hemlock, and the longstanding apple orchard planted by John Walker, the sister’s father. The colors of the canopy have shifted a bit too, from gold and orange to crimson red and deep purple. Much of the understory is no longer green, but in full seasonal transition. As I reach the homestead, the mountain mist turns to a light sprinkle, and I cannot believe my eyes.

Seems the park service has spent some money down here for the autumn season. The old cabin, springhouse, and shack look completely redone. Even more, smoke is rising from the old cabin’s chimney. I peek in and see a woman dressed in hand knitted wool clothing relaxing next to a steaming kettle. The smells of apple cider and sweet dessert fill the air.

“Why hello!” I holler as I approach.

“Martha! Hettie!” the woman calls. “We’ve ourselves another visitor.”

At this time, I peer through the fog and see two women sitting on the covered porch. I shout a greeting to them.

“Hello to you as well!”

“Goodness!” They exclaim. “You must be cold and a bit hungry, come on in for a spell.”

I am excited at this point and am enjoying the historical representation of the Walker family. I walk inside the old wooden homestead to a warm and cozy fire, where two other women offer me a hot cup of cider and some apple pie. Rugs lay across the floor, along with comfortable looking chairs, a couple of tables, artwork, and several lanterns. The house smells of cinnamon, butter, brown sugar, and, of course, apples. Simply incredible.

I decline the cider, though the drink smells delicious. I don’t want to risk passing on any lingering germs. They are serving the drink out of mugs. I do oblige the apple pie. I bite into the treat, tilt my head back, and sigh with a smile. The crust is flaky and savory. I taste a hint of animal fat that must have been used to gold the flour. The apples are sweet and taste of cinnamon and spice.

“This is delicious. Thank you so much.”

“You’re too kind, young man, glad you like it.”

“How much do I owe you?”

“Well, you’ve just missed Father so I’ll cut you a deal. A dollar fifty, on account of all the inflation,” laughs a sister.

I pay and exit the cabin to savor my snack outside in the comfortable meadow. I am surrounded by tulip poplars, white oak, maple, beech, and others. As I chew, I enjoy observing the cabin and listening to the actors talk. While I take in the scene, I accidently drop a bit of food on my rain jacket. I pull a handkerchief out of my pocket and wipe away the pie. I snap a few pictures of everything, and, after a few moments, I say my goodbyes and head on.

My hike is almost over. Just a quick jaunt to the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse is all that remains between Metcalf Bottoms and me. As I hike toward the old schoolhouse the forest changes – a thick, dense fog moves across the trail. I feel mist bead on my beard and shiver briefly in the cold. I cannot see but three feet in front of me, and then, just as quickly as the cloud rolled in, it vanished in the dazzling autumn forest. I now walk among the deep greens of rhododendron and hemlock, whose elemental presence offers stark contrast to the blazing gold leaves of all the deciduous plants. Again, so beautiful I can only describe the scene as haunting.

At the old school, I stop and snap a few pictures. I also check out the nearby graveyard. Seems a fittingly spooky thing to do so close to Halloween. As I look around the area, the old Blue Oyster Cult song, “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” the classic guitar riff, and of course the cowbell, play in my mind. I love this song. One of my favorites. I have long told my wife that when I’ve earned my death and it is my time to be buried in the cold, hard clay, I want this song played – “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun or the rain.” Time to head home.

“Bummer!” I exclaim. I know for sure my boy is a bit upset – he’s a big fan of the sport.

“How was your hike?” Inquires my wife. “Did you have fun?”

“I really did. The Park Service actually had some employees out there all dressed up like the Walker Sisters and they repaired a lot of the old cabin and the other buildings.” I go on to tell her about the pioneer clothing, the kettle, the fires, all the decorations in the cabin, the cider, and, of course, the delicious apple pie.

“That’s cool. I wish we’d of known the game was going to be canceled sooner; we would have gone with you. You get any pictures?”

“Sure did, check them out!” I take out my phone and pull up my pictures. The hiking scenery is all there, but when I swipe the cabin, everything is empty. There are no actors, no fire, no decorations, no food – no nothing but the old homestead. It’s like the entire scene has been erased from existence.

“Ha, ha, ha,” my wife laughs sarcastically, “good story.”

“Dad, ghost stories are supposed to be scary,” my kid informs. “They aren’t about nice people with pie. Don’t you know that?”

I am a bit distraught and excuse myself from our living room.

“What the hell? Jeez, Grant, you’re coming undone,” I mutter to myself. The only reasonable explanation I can reach is my over active imagination really took hold of me. Often, on my solo outings to the primeval forest, my mind runs free and wild. I very often think of stories or essays I want to write, or other activities on which to spend my productive labor, but imagining the Walker Sisters? And what about the bearded man in the Union jacket? Did I imagine the spirit of John Walker? He was a veteran of the Union Army. Still, this is all to strange.

“Their spirits must be deeply rooted to the soil,” I mutter quietly to myself. More likely, I must still be fuzzy from the strep.

I head to our mudroom and unpack my gear. I hang up my raincoat and empty my pockets – my heart skips a beat as my stomach pits. A thrill bursts from my core and spreads all over my body. In my hand is my kerchief, and on it is a small piece of spiced apple pie.

An eerie feeling consumes me. All I can do is croak a single word:




This story was originally published for Appalachia Bare.

Photo credit: National Park Service

Spaces of Peace

Peace on Earth and goodwill to all — in a world of conflict, ’tis the season of peace.

A season of peace it is. Thankfully my family and friends are safe, happy and (mostly) together. I greatly enjoy the Christmas/holiday season. Winter has arrived in my scruffy town of Knoxville, Tennessee. The weather is cold. Mist and fog are a constant these days along the southern banks of the Tennessee River. Church bells chime as trains whistle forlorn across our Old Sevier neighborhood. Lights decorate this southie community, glasses clink at our local watering holes and children laugh and play in their newly constructed public waterfront park. We maintain a cautious optimism regarding the gentrification. At night we huddle in around our bright trees full of clunky figurines and bulbs, drink egg-nog , sing carols, eat too much and watch holiday themed movies.  It’s cozy — no better way to put it.

We enjoy silent nights in our world of conflict. On every continent, save Australia and Antarctica, wars rage. I don’t know what war is, but I know there is too much of it. I know there is far too much violence in the world. There are the armed conflicts of states and the ideas of terrorism; rising poverty and wealth disparity; climate change and environmental degradation; the crimes of humanity and our creeds. Though ominous I find comfort in my belief these threats hold no candle to the better angels of our nature.

At times, however, I am very worried about the future. But, only at times. When wrought with despair, I think of all the good in the world. I also think of times of solace and spaces of peace. Places that allow still reflection. I think of the wild. I find great peace in the untouched cathedrals of nature. Agrarian and Appalachian author Wendell Berry, in his poem The Peace of Wild Things, describes these moments best:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

With this in mind, I am saddened by a recent move to reduce the size of public lands throughout canyon country. On December 4 in front of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, the head of state noted he would drastically reduce the size of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. He stood in Salt Lake City and declared: “No one values the splendor of Utah more than you do and no one knows better how to use it.”

But, that’s just it. Who will use it?

In moments like this it is important to peer through the linguistic trickery of politicians. The administrators view wilderness not as canyons, rivers and mesas, but instead as political terminology. This is not a reduction of state power. Instead it is the first step in a transfer of power to unaccountable private tyrannies.

If this were a true reduction of state power, a gift of property back to all the people of Utah, a system of Adaptive Governance and Collaborative Management would be put in place. Democratizing public lands in such a fashion requires autonomy from the heavy hand of government. All stakeholders, user associations, collectives and individuals with a desire to engage the democratic process would be called to the management table. No such thing is happening. Instead it is only the politically connected who stand much to gain.

The people of Utah, and the rest of us, will see the wilderness, our wilderness, enclosed and scarred for capital.

True shame. The desert country of Utah is something special. Incredible sedimentary rock formations weather and erode in the harsh desert climate. The horizon in all directions grows, builds, but does not peak. Instead the rock flattens across a great wilderness expanse. The horizon is crowned in a strange majesty, the marvelous wonder of the arid plateau. The terrain is carved by water, allowing a great testament to life. Even in the solitary, desolate, bleak world of scorched sun life persists. Wildflowers bloom, plants survive, the fauna carves out a life in a land of surprising form and color.

As a lucky younger man I was able to ramble around this wilderness with friends. I’m lucky enough to know the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the high desert. It was some nine years ago on a road trip across America I discovered canyon country and the Utah Desert. As the United States burned from a financial crisis, in a time of transition, my  fellow wanderers and I lived on the road and in the wild. It was October. Under western skies, among sage brush and rolling hills, there was already a bit of snow and ice pack around. Our trio arrived in the desert at night. I was driving, one of my buddies was standing through the moon-roof of my trusty, cross-country proven, 1993 Accord (Norma Jean) howling into the otherwise quiet night. We set up a modest camp, drank whisky and red wine then passed out under the stars.

We spent the next day among the anticlines, synclines, thrust faults and paleosols looking for signs of ancient life. And these signs were abundant. Especially, if I recall correctly, ancient marine life — perhaps even Cambrian in age.

As the day came to a close we made our way to camp, set up our tents, rolled out our sleeping bags and began our preparation of the bon-fire. Fire is a necessity on such a trip anytime of year — but especially on cold western nights. With the fire soon roaring, the night young, and our trip new, we settled in around the blaze. We filled our bellies with loaded mashed potatoes, a good, warm, carbohydrate laden meal for the chill awaiting us. As the hours went by, beneath an array of twisted lodgepole pine’s, we had plenty of laughs, built upon the foundation of our life long-lasting friendship, nipped on some whisky and enjoyed red-wine — boxed of course, only the best.

The paradox of protected lands is that they remain ungoverned spaces of refuge and human liberty — free from the Leviathans of modern human civilization. Authoritarian systems have no choice but to loathe and fear the wild. If we lose the eerie, haunting, dangerous, heartbreaking beauty of the high desert we will lose a piece of openness and freedom itself.

A new preservationist movement is needed now more than ever.



287(g) Threatens Human Liberty

There we stood, just a group of Knoxvillians rolling into the July 4th weekend. It’s June 30th at 9:30 am. Rain patters and dampens the Scruffy City. We stand across the street from the City County Building in the thick ambiance of Knoxville. Trains whistle forlorn on a gray morning, cars and city trucks hustle and bustle about while church bells chime in the background. There are 18 of us from all different walks of life. We stand in an inter-generational meeting, some of us people of faith, university professors, community college professors, Knox County school teachers, retirees, lawyers, laborers and even a young one donning a “Change the World” t-shirt. We have gathered on this humid and weepy morning out of collective concern for our great city and neighbors.

The concern? Well, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently approved Knox County’s involvement in the 287(g) program. Term limited Knox County Sheriff JJ Jones looked for participation in this program with no input from the public and has yet to make a statement regarding the effects this new government authority will have on our neighborhoods. In fact, he simply refuses to publicly acknowledge Knox County’s approval for 287 (g). The sheriff claims he needs more details before he is prepared to talk to all of his constituents and local media about it. Perhaps one shouldn’t hold so much ignorance when inviting the long arm of the state into Knoxville? I digress.

As reported in the Knoxville News Sentinel, 287 (g) will deputize local law enforcement officials to act on behalf of federal immigration authorities in exchange for federal training of local officers and funding to the Sheriff’s department. The long shadow of Washington now lays over our town and only our town. Knox County is the sole jurisdiction in the state participating in this federal government program.

Huddled in a tight circle a number of us discuss our different concerns regarding the bill. It is an expensive big government program that will lead to big government waste of local dollars. The program invites federal law into local policing, making it harder for everyday Knoxvillians to shape law and policy. It jails suspected immigrants for minor charges, like a busted headlight, thus perpetuating institutional racism. The program often leads to indiscriminate deportation of people who pose no threat to community safety. 287 (g) encourages racial profiling, another form of institutional racism, that in turn erodes trust between immigrant communities and local law enforcement. Worst of all, 287 (g) falsely portrays the entire undocumented community as a danger to society.Our communities will become less vibrant. We will lose an incredible amount of knowledge, labor, culture and human potential.

Well, time to cross the street to speak with our elected official. Each of us enter the City County Building, remove the contents of our pockets and walk through the police scanner. Some of us have further scanning to go through, pesky belts and steel toed boots always set those buzzers off. One by one we go through and congregate with one another on the back wall to stay out of the way of folks carrying on with their daily duties. Once through, we are ready to migrate toward the office, but instead standing in front of us is an armed Lieutenant of the law. Standing casually behind him are two other armed officials, one in the normal regalia of law enforcement and the other in a suit. A quick scan of the area actually notes eight officers standing all around us. We will not be meeting with the Sheriff or any members of his staff today.

The Lieutenant is nice, if not a bit timorous, and asks if he can take a message. Meghan Conley, who works closely with Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN), steps up to schedule a meeting with the Sheriff or at least a member of his administrative staff. The Lieutenant tells her that the Sheriff and key members of his administration are absent from the building. Meghan then asks why we cannot proceed, odd to be stopped in the lobby. In the past Meghan and others could at least get to the front desk to leave messages. The officer informs her that because there are so many of us we would be restricted to the lobby. Still odd. There are 18 of us, in the past 25 people entered the office. He again asks for a message – well, how about 18?

We are handed memo paper and fish for pens and pencils. Each of us write our individual concerns in a note for the sheriff. I over hear Meghan inquire about the acceptance of Knox County into the 287 (g) program. The Lieutenant with a chuckle responds, “Ma’am, you probably know more about the program than any of us.” Imagine that. Not only is the public at large in the dark over the effects of the program, but the officers seem to be as well. The lack of transparency is staggering. Not only is Sheriff Jones remaining silent, his deputies are in the dark while his office stops concerned citizens in the lobby with law enforcement. So much for reasonable governance.

When finished writing our concerns we thank the officers, who in turn thank us back and we exit the building. Law enforcement does not leave the hallway until we have all exited the building.

As the Independence weekend rolls on and out this experience brought me pause. The nation celebrates the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, the inalienable rights of the constitution, the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The central holiday of the summer revolves around the revolutionary principle of human liberty.

A society rooted in liberty would be free from oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one’s way of life. Increasingly in this country we see that we do live with and enjoy degrees of freedom, but that said freedom is not absolute. As the years roll on, more and more, we are confronted with the fact that there currently exist aggressive barriers to achieving a free society and that said barriers are institutionalized, protected and upheld by over reaching government power. On this July the Fourth weekend it is important to remember that human liberty is an incredibly important ideal and it will not be maximized by ICE agents in our neighborhoods. It is important to remember that legality and justice are not identical, that patriotism is not allegiance to government or obedience to law, but rather defending and advocating moral positions even in spite of law.

John Adams believed Independence Day would become a great anniversary festival. He was right. On the fourth folks celebrate with pomp parades, sports and games, the cracking of rifles, the blaze of bonfires and the pop, flash and fizzle of fireworks. It is a fun day, a great day — full of cheer and a collective expression of solidarity. It’s a day we celebrate independence and human liberty. This past holiday I was troubled. I hope we can come together, differences aside, and really think about what it means to live in liberty.  Does 287 (g) represents the ethic? Should a concerned group of peaceful citizens be ignored and denied the right to sit at an elected officials table?

Information Ecology: (fo)Rest in Peace

Photo Credit to the Sierra Club Article Move Not Those Bones:

Photo Credit to the Sierra Club Article Move Not Those Bones:

In an age of excitement and uncertainty it is comforting to know that we live in an era of mass communication. At this point in human history communication costs are incredibly low and, with the help of the Internet, such communication is truly global in scale. Even better, information spreads with ease.

The nature of this phenomenon holds incredible implications for society. Human communication plays a vital role in elevating voices and progressing social movements. As the voices of the world are elevated it becomes apparent that there are shared, global struggles. As we work locally we can feel solidarity with human beings we may never meet – a most powerful notion. The smallest of actions can cause a global cascade in the dawning age of information ecology.

With all this in mind I turn my attention to the forests of Spain. The past week I’ve read a great deal about the ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula. Extending across the northern region of Portugal on into the Spanish wild are a series of mountain ranges rich with flora and fauna. These mountain forests host arguably the greatest biodiversity in all of Europe. Regulated by the Mediterranean these far-away ranges are defined by a humid climate in the warm months, chilly winters and an abundance of precipitation year round.

I can imagine these forests, their detritus decaying into the damp soil from a deciduous canopy of oak, ash and hazel. I can imagine a solitary walk under the Mediterranean sun, rounding cool and warm slopes further decorated by beech, birch and fir before letting loose to bald meadows riddled with wild rose and blackberry. The colors are as lucid as the taste sweet. I hope to visit this Iberian forest some day. Perhaps even shake the hands of those in the Spanish Forest Firefighters National Association (ANBF) who fight both fire and law to protect the landscape.

In 2015 Spain’s Congress of Deputies amended the language of their Forestry Act. The new language now allows developers to build public and private infrastructure, such as neighborhoods, schools, business complexes and recreational centers, on burnt ground. As a result of this rule change, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) notes that now 55% of the forest fires burning this unique ecosystem are human induced. These wild lands are no longer protected. Deforestation leads to urban sprawl.

Members of the ANBF are not sitting idly by, however. They are using legislation to combat the new legal decree.

Under Spanish law new infrastructure cannot be constructed within a 500 meter radius of a cemetery. The ANBF are invoking this inconsequential piece of legislation where woodlands are ablaze, registering the burnt woodlands as cemeteries. They have deemed their campaign (fo)Rest in Peace.

ANBF spokesman Iñigo Hernandez, speaking to The Independent, took the idea world-wide. In his interview he noted that no bodies will actually be buried in these graveyards. Rather, these cemeteries are simply symbolic, a weapon used to halt arson. Hernandez explains: “Creating cemeteries in burnt areas aims to discourage the intentional burning of the forests. Allowing the building on burnt down forest areas leads to fires started intentionally, which result in the destruction of natural ecosystems, where animals, trees and plants live.” The ANBF hopes the forests will regenerate in peace.

I did not know about any of this until the ANBF sent me a personal email. I was sitting in the faculty lounge, drowning out conversation behind me, reviewing my emails and thinking of the day’s lecture. I took pause when I opened their message. The firefighters asked for help. They asked I share their mission so as many people as possible could know what was going on. As I read their email I felt their urgency and was immediately sympathetic to the cause. When I read about their action I felt an all too familiar twinge of sadness, then I sat back in my chair and smiled. A similar situation is unraveling right here in Southern Appalachia.

Here in the valley and ridge, strip mining is the region’s number one cause of biodiversity loss. The Appalachians are a temperate deciduous rainforest laden with beautiful, endemic flora and fauna. In fact, the Appalachians are the most diverse temperate forest on the planet. Here too registering family cemeteries protects a most fragile ecosystem.

Strip mining occurs in rural Appalachian communities. These communities experience some of the worst poverty in the United States. Many of the cemeteries throughout coal country are old family cemeteries. Thus, they are not federally registered. Without such distinction, many of these family graves are blasted away for resource extraction. Many families have to be accompanied by industry personnel to visit the buried because the graves are near company property. Community organizations are in a push to register these cemeteries, rendering mining operations invalid. This allows the dead to rest in peace and keeps the forest whole.

I suppose I could have been angry when I read the message from the ANBF. Beside myself that all over the world natural heritage is plundered for capital. Nevertheless I was not angry; I was happy. Here, oceans apart, communities and organizers share the same struggle. Even more, similar tactics are proving successful at protecting place.

There has been a constant push throughout human history to question and block the illegitimate forces of power. Now, in an era of low communication costs and emerging technologies, we may see enhanced cultural and social evolution, a stronger push to decentralize and the emergence of small social networks that can cause big changes in how we live our everyday lives. Information technology is beginning to impact our neighborhoods, cities, work places and our governance.

An old mantra of movement building asks us to think global but act local. Today we can all be global actors. We are connected – in short, we talk. We resist. We win. In the immortal words of Howard Zinn:

The good things that have been done, the reforms that have been made, the wars that have been stopped, the women’s rights that have been won, the racism that has been partly extirpated in society, all of that was not done by government edict, was not done by the three branches of government. It was not done by that structure which we learn about in junior high school, which they say is democracy. It was all done by citizens’ movements. And keep in mind that all great movements in the past have risen from small movements, from tiny clusters of people who came together here and there. When a movement is strong enough it doesn’t matter who is in the White House; what really matters is what people do, and what people say, and what people demand.

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