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Archive for the ‘Ecology’ Category

It has been a busy month since I last went for a hike with my youngest son. The conditions were totally different (See “Winter Hike” for comparison.). The temperatures eased into the lower 70’s with breezy patches of clouds passing over revealing and obscuring the sunshine. We started off on a crowded trail where most everyone strolls in the South Mountains.

Soon we started off up the ridge onto a trail I observed to my son that I had not been on for perhaps 20 years. He replied that was one way to reveal your age. I did not recognize the trail, however, because it had recently been reworked because of a forest fire that cleared some areas and thinned others.

In one clearing where pine saplings were drinking in the full sunlight, we could see High Shoals Falls on the other side of the gorge. Can you pick it out?

A little snack was in order and more water than we would have expected to drink on the last day of February due to the temperature.

The old man enjoyed a little rest in the warm sunshine before continuing on. In reality, the major part of the climb was over at this point.

One hates to see so many large trees down, but there are advantages like better views, increased sunlight and the renewal it brings to the forest. On the other hand, fires also allow erosion of topsoil from rainfall, which has been heavy the past two years. Take note that every picture showing the ground has bare mineral soil. Notice also the beautiful blue skies when the camera was not facing south (glare).

When we reached the ridge, the breeze was a stiff but pleasantly cooling wind from the south. My son pointed out the peaks he had been on the day before with his father-in-law. We need to form a party of three for a hike sometime soon.

The marked overlook was down to the left of the ridge trail. It had an impressive rock outcropping, but not being near the top of the ridge, it had a limit angle of view. Also, the dude on the rock was listening to loud music and imbibing the combustion products of an aromatic herbaceous species familiar to the olfactory sensors.

I quickly took a picture of some “overly cooked” metamorphic rock with iron deposits, which was quite brittle and sharp.

Then we promptly left for a location of more sensory satisfaction on top of the ridge. There we found a less impressive rock outcropping with far more impressive view. It was the site I had remembered from many years ago but with a 270+ degree panorama due to downed trees. We could see deeper into the mountain range, across to the other side of the gorge, and east toward the Piedmont (swinging around from south to east to north in the following pictures). See if you can spot the bright shirt on the lower lookout in the last picture of this sequence.

Snack and portrait time

Earlier and further down the slope I had hoped outloud that the fire would result in a quicker transition to hardwoods as it sometimes does. You have probably already discerned how wrong I was. In fact the top of the ridge, where it is quite dry, was spread with Table Mountain Pine saplings, whose seeds only germinate with assistance of fire.

I don’t get many pictures of my son looking at the camera. A certain degree of camera shyness or camera apathy is involved, but also he may be getting back at me for those hikes years ago when I expected him and his brother to keep up. Now the old man mostly sees the his back side as he glides away. The next picture is the very top of Chestnut Knob. I am very skeptical that the top of the knob ever had a Chestnut tree on it. More likely it was named downslope where the abundant producers of food for forest ranging swine were fed.

I asked my son at one interesting turn in the trail on the way down to take my picture when I got to a rock below. That picture actually didn’t turn out so well but several before I got there did.

At the bottom of the gorge my son checked the temperature of the water. It is amazing how much a week of warm weather can warm up a creek after it had been filled with ice just two weeks ago.

The company, conversation, temperature, wind, trail, and views were pleasant. It is always good to get out into God’s Creation for a few hours to reset and recharge.

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The tradition in my family for about 30 years has been to gather at my oldest brother’s house for Thanksgiving. Numerous traditions grew up around this basic idea. One of the most enduring is the day after hike (see “Cascades and Escapades” and “Ebb and Flow of a Tradition” as two recent examples).

Of course, you can guess that this year was different. We didn’t meet at the elder brother’s house. His immediate family did. They also went on their hike. A good portion of my immediate family met at my house on Friday for thanksgiving reflections and a meal. There was plenty of good food prepared by numerous hands. We read psalms of thanksgiving and sang hymns and shared things we are thankful for.

On Saturday, prompted by two of my sons, we took a hike. My youngest and a young friend were beginning a one night backpacking trip, and the rest of us were along for the views and conversation. The slope had been burnt over twice about 15 years earlier and eliminated much of the topsoil. Regrowth has been slow, but the views are good.

The backlighting turned out OK, but since we did not know that at the time we shifted 180 degrees and posed again for the friendly hiker that I asked to record the images.

My son admitted that he was overly packed for a one nighter.

There are patches where it was not completely burned off and the younger trees come back faster here with the presence of more soil.

New growth is heartening.

The previous pictures show the relatively shallow slope the southeast face of the Shortoff Mountain. The next one shows where the trail comes along the edge of the vertical northwest facing precipice.

Table Mountain Pine predominates the stressed conditions of shallow soil, wind blown and otherwise drying conditions.

You wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this young friend is a tri-athlete. He stands upon metamorphized layers that are common to the Gorge.

Lake James actually dams three parallel streams, two of which are visible here. The South Mountains are visible in the background, being the last foothills before subsidence into the Piedmont region.

Wind is a creative and random sculptor of trees, imparting to this specimen a bonsai appearance.

There are many lone trees hanging onto the cliffs but the pine on this vertical section seems somehow “braver” or “more determined” as anthropomorphisms would have it.

Table Mountain Pine is also one of those species that require fire to open the cones and germinate the seeds. The cones appear to be fortresses against their time of opening.

Shortoff Mountain is amazingly flat on top as seen in this view along the Mountain to Sea Trail.

I know that fire is necessary and unavoidable, but I hate what it did to this little pond. First of all, it is amazing that a pond exists at the summit of a flat-topped mountain. It is not a mere wet weather pool. It used to have shade, open water, abundant frogs, small fish with only minimal vegetation in the water. Now the pond has eutrophied to such an extent as to hold no discernible animal life.

Not knowing that it was there, I had to point out to my young friends that we should stop and look at the best view of Linville Gorge available. Because the Gorge turns slightly at the mouth, you stand here on the rim looking straight up the majority of the length of the Gorge.

You can tell by the quality of the colors that this picture was not taken with my phone. I credit my daughter-in-law for this good picture.

And here she is with her husband.

Near the previous view is another one facing out of the mouth of the Gorge, revealing ridges more than 30 miles away.

I conclude with a picture of me contemplating the change and continuity of God’s nature. We can design our Biosphere 2 in an attempt to copy the real thing*, but our attempts cannot hold a candle to the ability of God’s designed Biosphere to absorb stress in the form of weather and natural disaster and human pollution and still recover and adapt. Man may have caused the fire that so affected this pond, but lightning could have just as well accomplished the same thing during drought. The pond may be changed for the duration of its existence or it may eventually recover its shaded, lively charm. Either way it is and will adapt well.

*If you don’t believe in design in nature, just consider the extent to which scientists go to design experiments like Biosphere 2 and they don’t even work that well.

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For various reasons the hike schedule I had intended to keep with my great-nephew has been delayed. But this Monday we got out on our 3rd day hike, this time to Mount LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Many years ago I had attempted a winter assault via the Bulls Head Trail with a college friend, only to be shut down by icy trail across slides. The thought of slipping down the thousand foot plus slope of cleared forest covered in ice on rock, runs shivers up my spine even now. We crossed one slide ever so tenuously only to be confronted by a second one a short distance later. We turned back, knowing we still had to recross the first one to be delivered to safety. For all of those many years I had wanted to complete this trail. Now my young relative was getting to go up Mt. LeConte for his first time while I completed the only way I hadn’t been to the top. The trail starts in Cherokee Orchard above Gatlinburg. Both of us having stayed at my oldest brother’s house in Knoxville and getting up early, we were on the trail at 7:15. There were actually two cars in the parking lot and one man and son starting up the Grotto Falls Trail as we left. From there you take a 0.4 mile jog on the Old Sugarlands Trail to Bulls Head Trail. It is obvious from the pictures that this has been a high precipitation season.

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Short way over to the turn up the mountain

Log bridges are a staple in the park. The one pictured is longer than usual and the nearness to the road means that gravel is put down to reduce rutting and erosion.

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first bridge

I remember well the pictures of Gatlinburg burning in the fires of 2016. I also knew that the national park had sustained damage. Of the 16,000 acres that burned, 10,000 were in the park. We were about to see the remnants of those fires.

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Contrast

There were great swathes of mountain slope that no tree was left alive by the fire along side other areas where no damage seemed to exist. Very few areas had brush fires that didn’t get up in the treetops. There was a goodly amount of natural charcoal. Secondary Succession is in full swing these four years after the fires. Root sprouts of trees, seedlings of Table Mountain Pine whose cones need fire to open, and abundant annuals covered the ground. 

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Death and renewal

All of this clearing results in non-stop views around every corner. You can see in the next picture the large cylindrical hotel that is built just outside of the park at the entrance to Cherokee Orchard. Two ridges beyond that hotel you can see the strip that is Pigeon Forge. This line of sight convinces me that the far ridges on the horizon are toward a stretch of mountains on the far side of the Tennessee Valley from LaFollete northward to at least Cumberland Gap.

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Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and beyond

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Wooly Tops Mountain?

The exclusively mineral soil speaks strongly of the degree of erosion that took place on these slopes that receive over 100 inches of rain a year. It saddened me to consider what had been lost. As I discussed this with my sister-in-law in the evening, she reminded me that when my father was young, the area had been logged extensively*, rendering it much the same as these smaller areas now. Some 80 to 100 years later it was the lush forest I so loved. It can repair again. 

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bare, mineral soil

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Secondary Succession well under way

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continuous views

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some type of wild grapes

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Lampshade Spiders

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glimpse of the top

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gap between Bulls Head and Balsam Point

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Oswego Tea

I asked myself why some places were completely burned and others seemingly untouched. When we entered the woods from a burned over area, there were almost always coneflower and Oswego Tea which grow in wet seeps. Even in significant drought like was occurring when the wildfires hit, these areas have abundant water under the surface. The fire was doused by the seeps, preventing wholesale destruction.

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Where there were seeps, no fire

There is a constant battle for resources in the forest. When life is good- abundant sunlight, rainfall, nutrients, temperate climate- the battle is intense. Parasites are opportunistic. When life is good or when it is stressed, parasites find resources that are being squandered or difficult to use, and they rob them from other organisms. A common example of plant parasite in the mountains is Dodder.

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Dodder (Cuscate sp.) on Stinging Nettles

Lichen comes in deliciously diverse forms. The texture and variety in this next picture could keep my eyes busy for hours.

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Love the texture

If you can’t find anything else interesting to look at, check out the mushrooms. They come in so many shades and sizes.

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Caught in the forest on the run

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Classic Toadstool look

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Ancient looking Yellow Birch all fern and moss decorated

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Spruce, fern, and moss! We must be above 5000 feet.

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The lush, highland forest

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The fir trees persist

Balsam Firs! Now we are above 6000 feet. A bit of the Canadian Boreal Forest in the Southern Appalachians (There are no long a’s in that word.) Clifftop is not quite the highest point on Mt. LeConte, but it is the most visited for the views of steep, cloud cloaked ridges beyond.

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near the edge

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Over the Alum Cave Bluff Trail ridge

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over the edge

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My phone camera is not the latest generation and digital zoom is pitiful, but sometimes you have to emphasize what you are taking a picture of.

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Newfound Gap

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windblown Heather and Spruce

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Clingsman’s Dome almost revealed

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LeConte Lodge

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Mountain Boomer

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Shelf Fungus

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Rainbow Falls

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There are few healthy Hemlocks after the wooly adelgid, but the park service treats some of the tree to preserve them.

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A healthy Hemlock

The lower part of the Rainbow Falls Trail may be one of the most heavily traveled stretches of trail in the park due to the large waterfall and distance from Gatlinburg. To prevent the erosion from destroying this segment of the forest the park service has put in segments of permanent rock steps. I’m thinking these had to be placed by small skid-stears (like a Bobcat, etc.). I don’t know if even four stout men could lift many of these stones.

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The hike was 14 miles on a high overcast day with thunder on either side of us as we neared the end. It was a good outing, a goal accomplished, an enjoyment of God’s green earth that can so well repair itself and be beautiful in the process and at the conclusion.

I end this entry with a little camera envy. I have an older version cellphone. My great-nephew has one with a far superior camera. I guess when my first blog entry goes viral and get requests to have sponsors, I’ll get some good camera equipment. Anyway here are the pictures I asked him to take mostly of smaller things I knew my camera wasn’t up to:

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Caught in the Crossing

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“Bull’s Head Gap” overlook cairn

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Panarama of 180+ degrees

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*History of logging n the Smokies: https://www.smokiesadventure.com/smokymountains/history/logging_in_the_smokies.htm#:~:text=Before%20the%20boom%20of%20logging%20in%20the%20Smokies%2C,attention%20of%20logging%20companies%20in%20the%20late%201800s.

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‘For me this place is therapeutic, but I don’t know why exactly’, my partner mused.

Black Fork 1

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Table Mountain Pine

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Clouds cruising over the ridge (Colors were more vivid in person.)

It is the most isolated place in our county, thoroughly quiet and secluded, but opens up on a view of the valley a distance across several miles of woods. It feels like you are alone with God in this small wilderness with time to reflect.

The clouds and low sun made a significant distinction and contrast between the wooded draw and the valley and mountains beyond. We felt set apart. The clouds with evening colors rushed over the ridge like great ships entering harbor and yet there was no wind at the surface. The barren trees lay quietly in their winter snooze. A lone train whistle on the far side of the ridge quietly reported its presence at a far distance in the next valley. It was a time to praise God in prayer and quietly reflect on the peace it brings to the beleaguered mind and heart.

The Table Mountain Pine is not common unless you are on a south facing, shallow soil of a flat cliff top. It’s spiky cones suggest the struggle it has to tolerate the harsh heating and drying conditions where it outcompetes other conifers. My rough fingers, tape, and chalk suggest the cherished struggle I had with rock faces moments before.

It was a good day to climb, a good day to reflect, and a good day to imbibe the tranquil therapeutics. I am so blessed to have this outlet in seasons of stress. The focus and intensity of climbing and the reflection and relaxation of time in the woods and views from the clifftops are a gift.

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Life is good because God is good.

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One of the projects I am involved in is the development of a trail behind our school. Given the committee’s desire to include the community, churches, and 4 schools in the development and use of the trail, I suggested naming it the Enola Community Trail (ECT). And so it is. The timing of this community trail was sequential to a student initiated emphasis on helping others, exercise, and the outdoors. An English teacher at my school took  their idea and coupled it with a trail I had already developed in the woods behind our school. (I may ask her to guest blog that huge side of the story.) She asked me how we could use the trail to get students outside and moving.

The idea for a trail originated with a class I taught for about 6 years called Advanced Biology. I basically wrote the curriculum, a fact that I should not admit to in public. That was probably the demise of the class, since it did not have a state mandated test and didn’t have an approved, curriculum specialist, set curriculum.

Now that doesn’t mean we didn’t work and learn, because there is nothing I hate worse than wasting time. In fact, if a class of 30 students wants to pack up 5 minutes early, I point out that they are intending to waste 2 1/2 man-hours of work. The class included the indoor studies like dissecting cats (once or twice a piglet and shark as well) along with a body organ quiz and extended discussion on binary classification, using stereoscopes to identify student made collections of insects, spiders, wildflowers, and also trees as the season allowed, preparing powerpoint presentations about a body system to present to the class, and researching and writing a paper on an organism of the student’s choice which included characteristics, ecological importance, range, population (including level of endangerment), and usefulness for food, medicine, shelter. The outdoor studies included making collections, trap and release studies, game cameras, succession and soil studies, reflections, creek studies (from dissolved oxygen and macro-invertebrates to erosion) and building projects. We built two bridges, one to cross a creek and one to cross an erosion ditch, two bird nesting boxes with a camera in one, and a pole with bat box and raptor nesting site above. Behind the school there was a small kudzu patch, a large briar patch, two old fields overgrown with trees (one dog hair stand and one with young trees and vines so thick you couldn’t see 15 feet), a monoculture of Eastern White Pines, a large lawn, a hay field, a riparian zone and creek, a small intermittent wetland, and a patch of what seems to be virgin forest (…or at least long undisturbed. It is still there with old growth trees next to a meander in the creek at the odd corner of 5 properties. Mayapples, Doghobble, heavy leaf cover, and 10+ varieties of large hardwoods grace the scene. I call it ‘Beauty Spot’.)

To access these places I had the students begin to build a trail. It was a narrow, single-track path, with two grades cut into the side of banks with mattocks and shovels. The students dug, trimmed, cut, sweated, and occasionally played in the creek. We would frequently stop to talk about a spider someone saw or wildflower, or a bird overhead, or the change in type or smell of the dirt. At first the students whined about the work, but by halfway through the semester they would beg to go out and work, or sit and talk about nature.

One project was fun to surprise the students with. I would lead them down to ‘Beauty Spot’, a solid 1/2 mile walk from our classroom. Then I would explain that they were to lie down in the leaf litter to look, listen, smell, and feel the surroundings for 10 minutes in stillness and silence. It was very difficult to convince them that it is OK to lie down in the leaves. Questions of bugs, snakes, spiders, filth, and more were common. I usually had to plop myself down and call for them to lie down around me. Then I would quiet them and say no talking or movement, or we start over. When I called time, I told them to write down as many things in their journal as they could remember. Next we discussed what we observed. I added as many other things as I could to help them see the need to hone observation skills. Several students would reflect then or later that it was the most amazing outdoor experience they had ever had. I was always amazed since I have spent many hours over many years doing just this, especially on backpacking trips. The opening of their minds and hearts to the significance and love of nature I called ‘Affective Biology’.

I guess we would have run out of trail building and significant maintenance eventually, but it didn’t happen in the six years I had the class. One regrettable reason for this continuance of need to maintenance the trail was the growing kudzu patch. I wrote above that is was a small patch. I warned and pleaded about the coming doom to the wonderful variety of habitats in such a small area, but to no avail. I even had borrowed a goat from a student’s grandfather to test the idea of goats controlling kudzu. In this preliminary study, we checked on the goat every school day to give it water. It was confined in a ten by ten, portable chain link enclosure. That little goat could denude 100 square feet of ground with chest deep (on a human) kudzu every 3 days. Oh, to have a little flock with fencing and small shed to solve the problem ecologically and educationally. Instead, the goat was stolen by a ‘concerned’ student and her uncle who thought we were being cruel to animals by ‘experimenting on a goat’. Never mind that kudzu is nutritious and edible by humans as well as goats. It was quite a surrealistic scene when the goat was returned a week later before the eyes of the class and grandfather.

To say the Advanced Biology class was the best part of my teaching career is an exaggeration and misunderstanding. It was good because of the challenge to me to find new things to study, the truly hands-on activities that didn’t include more than about 3 or 4 lectures from me the whole 90 days, the time outdoors, and the change I saw in students. But the best part of education is the interaction with young people at their moments of wanting to understand the world around them, the meaning of and best way to live life, and humor and warmth of relationship. You have to plow through a load of interaction that is anything but that to experience it, and it doesn’t seem worth it much of the time. I have had those significant discussions with individuals and whole classes in all of the various classes I’ve taught. You just have to seek it and wait for it.

So, I guess this whole blog entry is a side-track, since the title has been largely neglected thus far. When others got involved, they envisioned more of a walking, jogging, eight feet wide greenway style trail, and so it is becoming. In reality, it does not detract from my original intent of nature studies in various habitats, because the trail mostly traverses the growing kudzu patch and might hopefully be the final demise of the same. “Beauty Spot” is still there and the creek is largely undisturbed. The new trail may even result in an outdoor classroom and a wetland/catchment basin to solve an erosion problem. 

One of the problems of such a project like this is conveying and passing on vision. You might have thought I would say getting funding, but as individuals and organizations understand our vision, they want to help. But how do you get the wider community excited about something they can’t see or is only partially formed? It is as if you must reach critical mass of manifest vision before the many contribute money and manpower. We may be approaching that mass, or at least, we hope so.

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Overflows from the Heart

"But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart…" Matthew 15:18

CreatorWorship

Pointing to the One who made, saved, and sustains