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 a winter morning. 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 darter 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 (cropped and resized)
The quantum probabilities in my star dust are all lining up in appreciation of your article. You start me out on a contemplative hike and manage to walk me through Earth’s formation and evolution, plus throw in some sweat and poetry to boot – what more could a carbon-based life form want?
So glad you liked it, and thank you for the kind words. More to come!
Lovely article, thank you. But why do you say “heron populations are very healthy”? The great blue heron is not endangered yet but great blue heron populations in Minnesota have declined by about 50% in the past 20 years… and in Maine the great blue heron was listed as a “Species of Special Concern” due to its population decline. Overall bird populations in North America are in striking decline, although some wetlands conversation efforts have preserved some of those populations (see Science https://www.science.org/content/article/three-billion-north-american-birds-have-vanished-1970-surveys-show).