Some of my fondest childhood memories are with my parents hiking around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One memory is particularly vivid. I was six and on the trail to Abrams Falls after a summer rain moved through the forest. The sun was just again peaking through the canopy. As my folks and I moved along the trail I noticed water droplets on the leaves of a rhododendron. We stopped for a rest next to the woody plant along the bank of Abrams Creek. I sat down, letting my hands feel the damp Earth, laden with bryophytes. I studied the beads of water on the plant before turning my considerations to the creek. My love for nature began young.
In the wild I am always in awe of water. Water, in its many forms, occupies every part of the forest. 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 steal the show. Whether weeping grey or puffy white, when the land is again bursting with life, clouds hug ridges and occupy valleys in ways that can only be described as breathtaking. I once had the holy experience of camping in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina on a late Spring evening at over 5,000 feet. As I hiked to camp I moved across mountain meadows covered in a thick fog, but my destination sat above the clouds. That night around a roaring bonfire, in the company of budding plants and a vast array of newly awakened wildlife, there was a piercing, radiant starry night above, and a sea of clouds cracking with lightning below. All of the heavens witnessed Earth’s wonder.
From the clouds, in the chill of January, snow seems to continually fall over temperate Appalachian forests. In the winter, snow dusts the landscape, coating evergreens and the naked limbs of deciduous trees. When running old trails in this ancient terrain in the depths of the season, ones own breath is often visible as it escapes the lungs. If, like I often do, one follows this vapor in the white landscape, it is hard not to notice the depth of the mountains this time of year. Though peppered in white, something about the winter makes the Appalachians appear dark. Perhaps it is exposed ancient metamorphic rock, thick ice that clings to steep mountain ridges and the bare grey bark of trees, but the color avoids a description. The mountains are mysterious and beautiful beyond words.
My favorite time in the woods, however, is Autumn. Fall air is always brisk, the sky is often a beaming cerulean blue, and it is of no mystery why the southern Appalachians are long described as “smoky.” A thick mist settles in the mountains in the fall and the forest changes dramatically daily. Some of my favorite moments of solitude, and thus my life, are experienced in the mountain lowlands in late autumn. Under the splendor of November hue, on the banks of a stream I am often lost in thought as I watch water carve its way through ancient rock while, at the same time, laying the sediments that will tell future travelers of our place in history. I swear one can feel the terrain, littered with a mosaic of detritus, soaked in a thick mist, and carved by the river continuum breathe this time of year.
Natural places are of incredible importance. John Muir once wrote: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” This is a statement of deep ecological truth.
Nature is wild. In the wilderness one is wild. On an early September afternoon a few years ago I escaped for a lone stroll in the woods. I worked my way up and around Curry Mountain, had lunch on a rock in the shade of a great Eastern Hemlock and was making my way back home when I came across two black bear along the switchbacks. They saw me before I saw them. There was a quick dash, a scattering of leaves and I saw the black fur of a cub run down slope – it was then I noticed the mama bear. Standing in front of me some 20 yards away was a rather large beast who was occupying the trail. We stood in silence, staring at one another for sometime until she let out a slow growl. I raised my hands to the air and loudly proclaimed, “I mean you no harm, bear!” She turned and quickly disappeared into the brush.
Knowing they were still near I kept talking loudly to them as I slowly made my way through the switchbacks. As time passed I picked up my pace. Before I knew it I was whooping, laughing madly and running through the woods. I was jumping over trickling springs, tree roots and piles of rock. I was full of joy, my heart pounding furiously. I was myself, simply a human in purest form, all labels stripped away, no worldly burdens — just an animal, wild and alive!
This unbound freedom is possible only in the wild. There await holy experiences everywhere in nature. Whether it is moments of silent, still reflection, or adventurous swimming in the roar of a river, swallowing its current, pelted by rain, breathing hard and laughing under the chill of a night sky with brothers, natural spaces provide us with a liberty that cannot be experienced in urban corridors. Untouched landscapes are the cathedrals of nature.
We cannot truly know freedom, nor understand absolute liberty, without wilderness. The wild will exist long after human civilization. We have only a precious moment on this Earth, the blink of an eye regarding the eons in which we measure geology, to understand boundless freedom. In the wilderness there exist only the fixed laws of nature. There are no economic systems, no political powers, no established authority, but rather an anarchic freedom we are blessed to experience. In open spaces we are free to live, even if just briefly, absent of control or administration from the Leviathans of civilization.
This freedom alone is enough to protect wilderness landscapes, for ourselves and fellow species — nature for nature’s sake. Wilderness can exist without us, but we are doomed without it. May we preserve wild lands – coasts, deserts, forests and mountains – so we may preserve what makes life worth living: Liberty.
Imagine the forest. Suddenly, with a crack of lightning and thunderous boom, from dark, weeping clouds, falls a torrent of water. Plummeting from the vivid horizon towards the lush, ominous hue of green Earth, the cascade crashes into a mixed canopy of poplar, oak, hemlock and spruce.
A rich, harmonious chorus fills the brilliant forest. A howling melody of pattered rain pails the rhododendron, splats the trillium, showers the fern, soaks the detritus and beads the moss before saturating the damp, woodland floor. Beneath the soil, among mycorrhizae, annelids and abundant microbes there is a pull downslope, a burst from a spring and the rush of a high country stream. Along twists and turns, crags and ridge, falls and flow there is a longing for, and final jubilation with, the communion of rivers roar. Among carved rock and knotted limb, the journey across the watershed begins long toward the basin. What a great, dangerous adventure!
Nothing but a dizzying wonder awaits beyond every fall, rapid and maelstrom eddy. As clouds recede the Earth breaths a mountain mist, illuminated by the sun, that instills natures heart breaking splendor. Oh, be free young, wild torrent! In wildness may you travel deeper still! Rush along your crooked channel walls, carve the valley, shape the open plain, welcome the delta, bask in the sea, rise to the heavens and fall once more!
Imagine yourself in this forest. A human animal. An individual. Sitting, legs crossed on a moss laden log. The water showers your spirit. Soul happy! You stare into the canopy. There’s an unbreakable smile on your face. You laugh, roar and howl!
Photo of New Found Gap in Great Smoky Mountains National Park by Jon Bilous