Spring in the Appalachian Mountains is hard to beat. Winter transition in the ancient terrain is spectacular. During the cold months snow dusts evergreens and the naked limbs of deciduous trees. The rich summer canopy lies as decaying detritus on the forest floor. Ancient metamorphic rock is exposed. Dark in color this rock shadows the mountains. Ice is everywhere, enhancing the deep green of conifers. Characteristic steep slopes are marvelous, frigid, ominous, dangerous — wonderfully desolate, humbly beautiful. The terrain reminds the human how small they actually are. Good for the ego. We wrap ourselves around silly definitions, official terminology and mock importance in civilization. In this Appalachian wilderness, any wilderness, the human is simply another isolated animal. Simply wild. Happily alive.
Seasons change. In March the lowlands burst into life. Spring! A truly invigorating time to be in the Appalachian wilderness. One is still just another animal, but no longer as isolated. Other’s begin to stir from their winter slumber. We share the forest with a number of beasts — mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, mollusks, insects (particularly present in the summer) and so on. It’s all good and well to flip over rocks and look for salamanders, or study the canopies of trees for migratory songbirds. But, for me, the real story of spring is that of our genetic cousins: Plants!
One of my favorite factoids regarding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is that just one acre of the forest holds more plant diversity than the entire continent of Europe. This is not lost. The resilient nature of the forest will serve witness to the power of natural systems. Our communities can find inspiration in succession. Spring wildflowers are truly an amazing spectacle in the Wildflower National Park. From the grey ground a wonderful mosaic breaks through the Earth. Soil erupts in the mesmerizing hues of purple, blue, white, pink, pale yellow and the virgin green stems of ephemeral flowers such as the hepaticas.
The brilliant dance begins. Spring is a truly extraordinary time to witness the cyclic relationship between life and season (phenology to the experts). The early trillium, for example, grow into life perennially just to disappear in a few short weeks. The plants gather energy from the sun, soak in seasonal mist, reproduce, relax for a spell and are then dormant again not halfway through the season. The forest canopy is blooming. The mighty poplar, the maples, the birch, the devil’s walking stick (brave yet holy name here in the belt, human is beast) and the paw-paw, to name only a simple few, begin budding. This will shade the forest floor. The ephemeral under-story buds have grown to understand this and sleep. They wait once again for their time in the sun. Thus are the workings of the wild. Pulses of life and dormancy, resource partitioning, mutualism, competition — natural splendor.
Other flowers will continue their bloom of course. As the forest canopy buds a light green begins to decorate the landscape. The dogwoods are an early April favorite with their beautiful whites and purples. Herbaceous plants, the rhododendron, mountain laurel, flaming azaleas and many others will wake to life later in the season. Ah, another season of change in the wild. Spring really invigorates the soul and entices the deep evolutionary urges of all animals who breathe deep of the sweet lucid air: Let me tell you about the birds and the bees, and the flowers and the trees, and the moon up above… And a thing called love. Thanks, Jewel Akens.
Then there’s the water. The Smoky Mountains earn their name. I am always in awe of water. Wild waters are truly nature’s greatest spectacle. Water, in its many forms, occupies every part of the valley and ridge. Head water streams, the products of tranquil rainfall, violent storms and frigid snow-melt travel the river continuum and trickle into one another. These tiny trickles evolve over the watershed and form the communion of rivers roar. Water occupies the soil and rock, seeps from springs and puddles the damp forest. Water falls from clouds who themselves travel the temperate woods producing a dense fog. The forest is always soaked.
Clouds are among my favorite forms water takes. There is nothing like standing on a green mountain bald on a cool spring day — the clouds are great entertainment in the ecosystem. Whether weeping grey or a fluffy white, when the land is again bursting with life, clouds hug ridges and occupy valleys in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. The forest flora absorbs this water from rhizoids and roots, utilizes the resource for food production and transpires the molecule back to the environment where clouds again form and the cycle repeats. The forest creates its own climate with this biotic pump. The landscape is indeed alive. The molecule of life deserves our careful reflection. Clouds rewards us with feelings of loneliness, nostalgia, adventure, love and life.
Seeing that I live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it would be irresponsible of me not to go for a few strolls. One early May 2016 morning my best friend, a couple of his buddies and I paid such a visit.
Coming Soon: Smoky Mountain Resilience, Part 3: Day Hike
Photo by Ekaterina Elagina