The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Marking points in time: The Hal DeSelm Papers

Written by
 Deselm 004
 Hal DeSelm takes a break during an outing in the Smoky Mountains in the 1970s.  Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program

A life dedicated to the flora of Tennessee

Dr. Hal DeSelm clambered around the crest of Cherokee Bluff in the heat of a late Knoxville summer 22 years ago. The Tennessee River flowed languidly some 500 feet below. Beyond the river stood the campus of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Institute. The towers of the city center rose to the northeast beyond the bridges of the old frontier river town.

DeSelm was not interested in the views of the urban landscape below. He was interested in the native trees, shrubs, herbs and grasses that clung to the ancient cliffside with firm but ultimately ephemeral grips on the craggy soil.

The retired UT professor, a renowned ecologist and botanist who died in 2011, had been sampling the terrestrial flora of Tennessee for decades. The life-long project took on a new urgency in the early 1990s, when he accelerated his data collection in hopes of writing the authoritative guide to the natural vegetation native to the forests, barrens, bogs and prairies of pre-European Tennessee.

Between 1993 and 2002, DeSelm collected 4,184 data points from 3,657 plots across the state. Many of those plots have since been lost to development, highways, and agriculture, or overrun by exotic species, but he assembled an invaluable baseline of the native landscape. Many of the sites he recorded have since been lost to development.

“We’re literally losing ground, and that’s not going to stop,” said Todd Crabtree, the Tennessee state botanist and member of the state Natural Heritage Program.

“To prioritize protection, we need to know where ecologically valuable species exist,” said Crabtree, whose conservation work has been guided at times by DeSelm’s analysis.

Were it not for the efforts of some determined individuals at the University of Tennessee and beyond, DeSelm’s collection of precious point-in-time terrestrial data might have been lost forever. Instead, researchers, botanists and conservation specialists have an immense collection of data about the state’s natural landscapes as they were, are, and could be again.

The records from the small white-oak copse atop Cherokee Bluff represent the challenges inherent in compiling the database.

knoxcomapkey3This is one of DeSelm’s quad maps, on which he scrawled plot locations.   Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program

DeSelm, a Marine veteran, recorded his findings the old-fashioned way: on field sheets, index cards and dog-eared maps. Using multiple codes and values, he noted by hand the forest type and dominant tree and ground cover; herbaceous growth; tree size; understory; canopy; soil type and a variety of other observations. DeSelm assigned a plot number to the small patch of forest perched above the river, and determined its coordinates. He would later add geology and bedrock values.

fullsizeoutput a1bThis is the view from one of DeSelm’s vegetation plots atop Cherokee Bluff in Knoxville.  Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

“Hal was one of the last, true boots-on-the-ground naturalists,” said Belinda Ferro, an ecologist with the Clinton, Tennessee office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

She was searching for historical literature and research related to the relationships between  soils and plant communities — especially barrens and glades — when she got wind of DeSelm’s collection just a few months before he died in 2011.

True to his old-school methods, Ferro wrote DeSelm a letter asking for access to his research. DeSelm, whose health was failing, responded enthusiastically, and the two met, just once, to discuss his collection.

“He knew his time was limited,” she said. “He was desperate to get that work out into the world."

Esham went to Scott Schlarbaum, a UT professor she knew would be interested in preserving the DeSelm archives, and the two hatched a plan to form a “ragtag” DeSelm Papers committee via the UT Tree Improvement Program and secure some funding and labor to preserve and digitize the vast paper collection. The oversight board was largely made up of DeSelm’s previous graduate students — now respected professors, ecologists, foresters and researchers.

The committee received permission from DeSelm’s widow, Bea DeSelm, a longtime Knox County commissioner, to move his vast data and correspondence collection to the UT Herbarium, then housed in the Hoskins Library.

Schlarbaum and De Selm were acquaintances, but “I had no idea he had been taking all this plot data,” Schlarbaum said. He went to the herbarium to take a look at the data collection, and he was both fascinated and alarmed.

“This dataset is irreplaceable,” he said. “I knew that right away.”

Boxes were on tables. Some were in cabinets, and some were on shelves. People would come in occasionally and view some of the files, and Schlarbaum knew from experience this paper data had to be preserved in a more secure environment. “People come and pick through these things, and a lot ends up getting pitched,” he said, referencing the loss of some early Tennessee Valley Authority natural history records. Schlarbaum’s work to preserve the records wasn’t “out of sentimental reasons. I knew how valuable they were,” he said.

But before the papers were secured for posterity’s sake, they had to be assembled into a useable database that could be shared upon request with conservationists, botanists and ecologists. That task fell to project manager Allison Mains, who had earlier worked for Schlarbaum as a research assistant.

“It just so happens I’ve always wanted, oddly enough, to take somebody’s full set of data and put it in digital form,” Mains said. She was already familiar with field work through her previous masters research on threatened and endangered birds, so she was somewhat intuitively and experientially prepared to create the database.

There were challenges, though, when she began the database project in 2012. It took her four years to digitally catalog all of DeSelm’s work. She entered all plot data and codes by hand into a database; she took and stored digital photographs of his worn field sheets and topographical and county maps covered by his scrawl.

Each point had at least two 8-by-14 paper field sheets of data connected to it, including vegetation, understory, types of plants, and tree size. She entered it all by hand, and learned some of DeSelm’s quirks as evidenced in the data sheets. Sometimes he’d trip up on some math, or be slightly off with his coordinates. And his “handwriting was an art form.”

If Mains couldn’t decipher something, she’d send it to herbarium manager Gene Wofford, who worked with De Selm for years in the UT botany and ecology departments. If Wofford couldn’t read it or explain it, he’d pass it down the line to another De Selm associate.

Some of his records and maps were even bloodstained. He apparently squished a bug or two while filling out his field sheets. He would also include random notes to himself, such as “need new shoelaces.”

“I felt like I was in his world but I never met him,” Mains said. “He had an incredible amount of data he continued to collect on his own time and own dollar; he just kept plugging away.”

The database includes DeSelm’s sampling conducted primarily from 1993 to 2002, but there was likely some overlap with his earlier academic work.

Despite the relatively archaic data-collection methods, he was very systematic in the way he collected and stored information, she said. “He was very organized and very deliberate about what he wanted to do.

“Everything was neatly filed and tucked away, but there was a lot of it. He was incredibly organized, though. He saved everything,” Mains said. Not just the raw data, but correspondence and notes of conversations he had while out in the field. The files also included newspaper clippings of articles he thought were important, thank-you cards, letters and correspondence with other botanists.

Some of the correspondence included responses to notes he’d leave on property owners’ mailboxes after canvassing their land. Many were curious and appreciated his efforts; however, “He got one that threatened his life with a rifle,” Mains said.

notelandownerThis is an example of a note DeSelm would leave with property owners before embarking on a survey of their property.   Courtesy UT Tree Improvement Program

Despite the occasional threat from a landowner, he completed his mission of sampling virtually every vegetative community in all but one Tennessee county, though he ultimately ran out of time to compile the information into a book.

But there is now a database accessible (by permission) to those interested in the original — and changing — composition of Tennessee’s terrestrial landscapes and some of the state’s most sensitive plant communities.

DeSelm visited dozens of other sites in Knox County over the course of his canvass, painstakingly recording the forest and other natural landscapes in his quest to document the true terrestrial nature of Tennessee before European settlement.

The oldest data point is from 1973, but he was most active from 1993 to 2002. He compiled a rich trove of data from every Tennessee county (except Lake), from the Great Smoky Mountains and Roan Highlands to the Cumberland Plateau and bottomlands of West Tennessee. His ultimate goal was to publish “The Natural Terrestrial Vegetation of Tennessee,” a comprehensive look at the native flora of the state.

De Selm’s records provide a natural baseline and reference point, and “you can learn what’s happened to a piece of land over time,” Ferro said. DeSelm had plots all over public lands such as Great Smoky Mountains National Park (including Cades Cove and Thunderhead Mountain) and Tennessee Valley Authority land, but he also sampled many landscapes on private land.

Plot by plot, as he worked over the course of his career and into his retirement, he was amassing a valuable trove of data for scientists like Ferro. “There are places I never would’ve found,” without DeSelm’s data, she said. “I use it all the time. I’ll use it to the end of my career and beyond.”

The information has been used by Esham to describe the relationships between some soil types and plant communities, and Tennessee Natural Heritage Program scientists have used the database to identify rare or threatened plant communities. Plants of economic and cultural value, such as ginseng and goldenseal, also appear in the database, which is among the reasons the database can only be accessed with permission.

“His data gives me hints there are some things out there we need to investigate,” said the state’s chief botanist, Todd Crabtree. DeSelm focused on evergreen barrens rich with rare and threatened species for a large part of his career, and many such sites are included in the database.

The DeSelm Papers, however, describe many ghosts of landscapes long gone. A pawpaw patch he noted above the Little River in Townsend was paved over during the widening of U.S. 321. Many sites in West Knox County are under asphalt thanks to the boom in commercial developments such as Turkey Creek. Skeletons of once-great hemlocks stud entire Appalachian slopes, victims of the exotic woolly adelgid.

DeSelm’s work, and those who labored to organize it and share it with the greater science community, also provide hope for restoring the forests, barrens, bogs and natural prairies of Tennessee to the way they really were before exotic plants and insects, mining, logging, farming, reservoirs and commercial and residential development cast many such natural areas into oblivion.

“He described a world we don’t have access to anymore,” Mains said.

In a lot of cases, however, the plots remain and retain the features DeSelm described. Like the grasses and upland plant communities of Thunderhead and Cades Cove. Like a vine-draped expanse of mixed-oak forest off Mount Olive Road in South Knoxville. Like a bog off the Alcoa-Maryville greenway. Like the mixed-oak woods atop Cherokee Bluff, which still exist, largely in the state DeSelm described — just in another point in time.

Rate this item
(10 votes)
Published in Earth

Related items

  • Doing good deeds for the Tennessee River, and enjoying it, too

    Suttree LandingRacers of all stripes assembled Saturday for Cheers to Clean Water boat races on the Tennessee River. Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

    Cheers to Clean Water celebrants race, learn and scrub the river at Suttree Landing Park

    KNOXVILLE Beneath the sound of a beckoning banjo, partiers and athletes alike paddled the shores of Suttree Landing Park, picking up trash as they floated down the Tennessee River.

    The fifth Cheers to Clean Water Celebration on Saturday (June 11) featured 4k- and 8k-kayak races, a cleanup in and around the Tennessee River, and a central gathering area punctuated by booths for land- and water-based advocacy organizations.

    “It’s both on water and on land, cleaning up this section of the Tennessee River,” AmeriCorps member Madison Moore said on Saturday from the park. “After the boating is over, they’ll come down here for the celebration, where we have a whole bunch of other vendors that are helping us make this day a possibility.”

    The celebration promotes the importance of maintaining and cleaning major waterways like the Tennessee River.

  • UTK has quite the collection of earthly remains

    Editorial cartoon depicting Charles Darwin as an ape 1871

    WBIR: UT got good bones

    KNOXVILLE The University of Tennessee boasts an incredible collection of animal skeletons — from hummingbirds to bison, according to a story from WBIR. It’s among the largest such assemblages in the country. (There are also skeletons at the Body Farm, but that’s a different story).

    The skeletons are part of the UT Anthropology Department’s Vertebrate Osteology Collection.

    “We have over 12,000 vertebrate specimens in our collections. So that’s 12,000 skeletons of individual animals,” Dr. Anneke Janzen, an assistant professor in UT’s Anthropology Department, told WBIR.

    The collection includes skulls and skeletons ranging in size from small bats to bison. It also includes skulls of dolphins, ostriches and alligators.

    “Beyond just being able to identify bones and identify different species based on tiny bone fragments, I think students have a much greater appreciation for, you know, the diversity of animal life out there and much greater appreciation for animals in our backyards as well,” Janzen told WBIR.

    The collection is available for analysis by professional researchers, and parts can be seen by the public during the annual Darwin Day at the university. 

  • Hellbender Press nets two top awards from Society of Professional Journalists

    KNOXVILLE Hellbender Press took home two awards from the 2021 Golden Press Card contest sponsored by the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists.

    Hellbender Press was recognized with two first-place awards for East Tennessee digital journalism: The Hal DeSelm Papers and Requiem for the Lord God Bird

    The Hal DeSelm story chronicled his decades-long effort to document terrestrial biomes in all but one Tennessee county, and subsequent work by the University of Tennessee to craft his datasets into an accessible database.

    The other award was for reporting on the extinction of the ivory-billed woodpecker relying heavily on the work of Ijams Nature Center naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales.

    Judging was conducted by the SPJ chapter in Cincinnati.

    “We are incredibly grateful to our editorial board, readers and others who helped with this great win,” said Hellbender Press editor Thomas Fraser. “Our stories are only as good as the sources.”

  • Sam Adams raises trees like healthy children at the University of Tennessee
    in News

    IMG 0122University of Tennessee arborist Sam Adams stands in front of a blooming dogwood on the campus of UTK.  Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

    First campus arborist continues climb up Utree Knoxville

    KNOXVILLE Students at the University of Tennessee walk by hundreds of trees every day without thinking about them.

    Sam Adams was thinking about them even before he became UT’s first arborist.

    Adams, 58, has cared for trees in the field of arboriculture for decades. He’s worked privately and publicly, including as arborist supervisor for Sarasota County, Florida. He graduated with a degree in environmental studies at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, where he initially pursued a degree in English.

  • Fire, fog, floods: Scientists probe climate-change impacts in Smokies
    in News

    iiif service gmd gmd390 g3902 g3902g np000243 full pct 12.5 0 defaultMany climate-change related issues have appeared since publication of this vintage map of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Library of Congress

    Invasive insects are among the vanguard of noticeable climate changes in America’s most-visited national park

    GATLINBURG Ants scurry beneath the carpet of last year’s leaves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The native ants are busy spreading the seeds of violets and bloodroot, preparing a new carpet of spring wildflowers to draw thousands of visitors.

    But the local insects aren’t alone under there. They have become prey to venomous Asian needle ants that also prowl the leaf litter.

    These invaders dine on termites, other ants and insects, while stealing habitat from them. Unlike invasive fire ants, needle ants can live in pristine forests and build large colonies with hundreds of queens. But like fire ants, needle ants have a painful sting that can trigger an allergic reaction. 

    Climate change is expected to make it easier for invasive species like needle ants to upset the delicate balance of this temperate rainforest full of rare plants and animals. That’s just one example.

  • Bobcats vs. pythons in the swamps of Florida

    Bobcat vs. python 2USGS

    New York Times: Evolving native predation may help stem invasion of Burmese python

    The proliferation of the exotic and invasive Burmese python in the swamps and wilds of Florida is demonstrably bad for native birds and mammals.

    Researchers now have evidence the best solution might have been there all along.

    A bobcat was captured on a trail camera by the U.S. Geological Survey eating python eggs and challenging one of the gigantic snakes. It was the first instance of natural, native predation on the snake’s eggs. Bobcats are already known to target reptile eggs, including those of sea turtles.

    “While it is possible that this interaction was just an isolated incident, it is also possible that native species are beginning to respond to the presence of the python," the New York Times reported.

    “‘Most cat species adapt their diet to what is available, so bobcats predating on python eggs is actually not that surprising’” said Mathias Tobler, a wildlife ecologist at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.”

  • Zigging and zagging to find the Zigzag
    in News

    Zigzag salamander UT doctoral student Bryce Wade examines a Southern zigzag salamander he found at Ijams Nature Center in South Knoxville. Keenan Thomas/Hellbender Press

    On the happy herping trail: Bryce Wade searches for salamanders

    KNOXVILLE Bryce Wade scours the nature trail, turning over rocks and logs. On this overcast day at Ijams Nature Center, he searches beneath the leaves on the ground for one creature: salamanders.

    Underneath the rocks, logs and leaves, salamanders populate the cool, moist earth, avoiding the sun whenever they can. Wade is looking for a particular type: a winter species informally called the Southern zigzag salamander (Plethodon ventralis). 

  • Vulnerable and venerable Appalachian lily is a beautiful sign of the times
    in News

    Gray’s lily, photograph by Ben BrewerGray’s lily  Courtesy Appalachian Voice/Ben Brewer

    Rare plants flourish on Tater Hill

    This story was originally published by Appalachian Voice.

    BOONE For Gray’s lily, 2021 was both the best of times and the worst of times.

    The vulnerable lily, which grows only in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee, is a species of particular interest at the Tater Hill Plant Preserve in Watauga County, North Carolina. Here nearly 1,600 acres of land, including a rare mountain bog, are devoted to the study and protection of rare and endangered plants.

  • Hope floats in Third Creek
    in News

    IMG 5517Maddie Spradley 

    UT students, professors and staff scrub up for ‘creek kidney transplant’ in Knoxville

    Imagine you’re a kid again. It’s a Saturday afternoon in July and after a morning full of rain the clouds begin to clear and the sun peeks out.

    You run outside in your rubber rain boots to meet your friends down by the creek in your neighborhood, carrying a large bucket, boots squeaking as you go.

    Once there, you and your friends carefully wade down into the water, curious to see what creatures lurk beneath the surface.

  • Clemson University honors Smokies chief for conservation excellence

    Superintendent Cassius Cash 2021

    Clemson University awarded Great Smoky Mountains National Park Superintendent Cassius Cash the Walter T. Cox Award for conservation excellence for his dedication to preserving the natural resources of the most visited national park in the United States.

    The Clemson University Institute for Parks, in conjunction with the George B. Hartsog Awards Progran, bestows the annual honor “to recognize individuals who demonstrate exemplary leadership in the field of conservation,” according to a news release from the park service.

    “The Walter T. Cox Award recognizes park administrators who exemplify Dr. Cox’s distinguished career in education and public service. Superintendent Cash was one of five individuals recognized this year alongside other national and state park leaders.” 

    The institute said it gave Cash the award because of his “sustained achievement, public service and leadership in conserving and managing public lands. including the most biodiverse and most visited national park in the U.S.”

    In acceptance of the award, Cash acknowledged the difficulties faced by managers of wild lands and other public conservation resources during the Covid-19 pandemic.

    “Leading staff in providing high-quality services and protecting resources during the pandemic, coupled with an extreme rise in visitation, has been challenging,” Cash said in the release.

    “I’ve been inspired by our staff, partners, and communities as we work together to care for the park and to continue to welcome people to this space for rejuvenation and healing. It is an honor to be recognized for this work.” 

    Visit Clemson Institute for Parks for more information about the award and a full list of honorees.