I love the outdoors. I'm not exactly what you'd call a trekker or a hiker or a survivalist, but there's something about walking up a mountain trail or standing beside a swiftly moving creek in the middle of a forest that thrills the senses and touches the soul. Recently, I had the opportunity to interpret for a client who was attending a training program up in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As reluctant as I was to leave home for a week, I was nevertheless excited about the prospect of being out in God's country for several days. To be honest, the week was hot and sweaty. The group spent more time outside than in, and the heat was brutal. Even so, I had one of the most memorable and enriching experiences of my life, and I'll be forever grateful to the fantastic team working at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, which is an invaluable resource for nature education. If you have some vacation time, I highly recommend that you enroll in one of their courses and participate in a little citizen science. If you're a birder, check here for a chance to take part in a great project!
Throughout the week, the client (and, therefore, the other interpreters and I) learned a great deal about the national park and its resources, as well as the threats it faces. For example, at the time of its charter in 1934, the park was home to settlers who had moved to the unspoiled area in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Hundreds of families, who had farmed and cut timber for generations, were bought out (or forced out, since the government exercised eminent domain) so that the land could be preserved as closely to its natural state as possible. Far before the European settlers found the land, the Appalachians had been the longtime home of the Cherokee Indians, who were forced out during the late 1830's in a deadly march west to reservation lands that later became known as the Trail of Tears. As you can imagine, the area is rich with the heritage of both cultures: the mountain folk, who fought harsh winters and carved farmland out of the sides of mountains, who stitched faith, hope and the human spirit into their soul-stirring music; and the Principal People, the People of the Caves, the Cherokee, who embraced a deep connection with the land and its creatures, and whose beautiful creation stories still warm the heart with powerful imagery.
Through lectures, hikes and impromptu in-the-field learning moments, we were shown how the forests have been ravaged by acid deposition and the introduction of non-native invasive species, both the result of man's exercising his perceived authority over nature. Even so, there is still a wonderful variety of plants and animals in the park. For example, the park is home to 31 species of salamander, 200 different types of birds, dozens of mammal species, more than 80 kinds of fish, and innumerable varieties of insects.
The most notable of all the critters to be found within the park are the black bears, of course. Sadly, these beautiful creatures are regularly threatened by the very visitors to the parks who wish to admire them. We were told (and shown photos) of a bear that had to be euthanized last year after it "attacked" a human. The attack occurred because a group of people had surrounded the bear and, after feeding it, were taking pictures and talking excitedly. One of the group decided that petting this wild creature would be a great idea. The bear, startled, bit the person on the foot. Even thought the bear was not at fault, it still had to be destroyed because it had lost its fear of humans. Common wisdom holds that once a bear no longer fears humans, it will eventually consider them a viable food source if necessity demands it. The thought that an innocent animal had to be put down due to careless and arrogant behavior on the part of park visitors sickened me. If one chooses to enter nature, one should be wise enough to understand and follow its rules.
Despite the damage done to the forests by logging and farming, the losses suffered to native species due to pollution and human encroachment, and the changing of the beautiful blue mist that once shrouded the mountains to what occasionally appears to be a sallow smog, the Great Smoky Mountains are nevertheless still a majestic testament to the power of the hand of the Creator. When standing still in the midst of the hushed forest, one can almost feel the pulse of the earth thrumming to the rhythm of God's heartbeat. The connection to things invisible and ineffable becomes palpable, and the sensation of being tiny but integral is overwhelming.
If you've never taken the short drive up to the Great Smoky Mountains, you don't know what you're missing. If you can tear yourself away from the contrived, commercial cuteness of Gatlinburg and the gaudy, over-the-top Pigeon Forge, move further up into the hills and visit the park. Drive the Cade's Cove loop, step out of your car and step back into history at the Primitive Baptist Church or one of the many homestead sites. Put on your hiking boots and make the treks up to Laurel Falls and Clingman's Dome. If you do, bring your camera. And your sense of awe.