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

  • Requiem for the Lord God Bird
    in News
    Movie footage from Louisiana, 1935 by Arthur Allen. Courtesy of Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

    The ivory-billed woodpecker is officially extinct, and it strikes a chord in Knoxville

    Clinging to a maple in the bayou, Jim Tanner finally had the rare nestling in his grasp. 

    He fitted it with a numbered leg band and placed the bird back in its hole high off the ground. 

    But true to its seldom-seen self, the juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker squirmed free and fluttered to the base of a giant maple tree in a southern Louisiana swamp owned at the time by the Singer Sewing Machine Co.

    The year was 1936, and Jim Tanner was in the midst of doctorate research at Cornell University funded by the Audubon Society as part of a push to prevent the pending extinctions of multiple bird species, including the California condor, roseate spoonbill, whooping crane and ivory-billed woodpecker. Eighty-five years later, the regal woodpecker would be the only one grounded for eternity.

    In the heat and rain of mucky, gassy bayous, Tanner compiled data on the range, population, habitat and prevalence of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He camped for weeks at a time in the swamps of the birds’ original range.

    On this day, his only goal was to band the bird but he rushed down the tree and picked up the agitated but uninjured woodpecker.

    He also wanted photographs.

    Tanner took advantage of the moment.

    He placed the bird upon the shoulder of an accompanying and accommodating game warden for 14 shots from his Leica.

    They were probably the first, and perhaps the last, photographs of a juvenile ivory-billed woodpecker photographed by Tanner in its natural habitat. He named the bird Sonny, and he was the only known member of the species to be banded with a number.

    The regal, smart, athletic bird, which peaceably flew over its small slice of Earth for some 10,000 years, was declared extinct last month by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Twenty-two other species also qualified for removal from the Endangered Species List — in the worst possible way.

    The ivory bill inhabited the swamps of the Deep South, far removed from Rocky Top, but old visages of the departed were found in Little Switzerland in South Knoxville. The work of Tanner, who would go on to complete a rich ecological research career at the University of Tennessee, has been memorialized by a talented East Tennessee science writer.

    And the Southern Appalachian region has other long-gone kinships with species that vanished from the Earth a long time ago. 

  • Tennessee Aquarium floats citizen-scientist app to extend the reach of public research

    Black Crappie in the Tennessee AquariumA black crappie is seen in the Tennessee Aquarium. Citizen scientists across the region can now plug their fish findings into a new database. Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

    So you want to be a citizen scientist? There’s a new app for that!

    The Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute wants to assess the status of various fish populations throughout the Southeast so it released a new app to help outdoor folks and anglers identify the fish they spot, report the sighting, and enter their discoveries into a regional fish database.

    The Freshwater Information Network (FIN) accepts and includes data for three major watersheds: The Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and Mobile Bay.

    Tennesseans may be familiar with the two rivers, but may think of Mobile Bay as a distant place with no connection to them, but its headwaters touch Tennessee in the Conasauga River. With its geographic isolation, the Conasauga is home to species of fish found nowhere else in the world.

    Our region has more species of fish than any other part of the country, and the open FIN database and application includes information on nearly half the U.S. species of fish. When hikers, boaters or anglers spot a fish, they can participate by first photographing it and then uploading the photograph to the app.

    The app can help citizens themselves identify the fish, and when paired with GPS location data it becomes a part of the FIN database, which also includes museum records and interactive maps. The app also allows a user to enter their address to find their watershed and access a list of the fish that live there.

    FIN Watershed Map

  • State’s fight against Asian carp scales up

    WATE: Commercial fishing pulls out 10 million pounds of exotic carp from Tennessee River system

    If you never thought there’d be an Asian carp commercial fishery in Tennessee waters, you were wrong.

    Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Asian Carp Harvest Incentive Program has yielded 10 million pounds of the exotic fish since 2018, the bulk caught downstream on the Tennessee River system at Kentucky and Barkly reservoirs. The fish has been spotted as far upstream as Knox and Anderson counties.

    The Tennessee Valley Authority and TWRA are experimenting with acoustic barriers to prevent further upstream spread of the fish, which compete with native fish for food and habitat.

    “There are four types of Asian carp: bighead, silver, black and grass,” WATE reported. “Experts say the species threatens to disrupt aquatic ecosystems and starve out native species due to their ability to out-compete native species for food like plankton.”

    So what do fishermen do with 10 million pounds of carp?

    It can be sold to wholesalers for distribution abroad and also makes for really good fertilizer.

  • Scott Schlarbaum speaks for the trees and the future of Tennessee forests
    in News

    IMG 8094Tennessee Tree Improvement Program director Scott Schlarbaum stands among a collection of grafted and cloned native trees at the program’s grafting facility off Alcoa Highway. Thomas Fraser/Hellbender Press

    2-minute video on hemlock genetic diversity conservation added to this article on September 2, 2021

    UT Tree Improvement Program prepares for its greatest grafting season yet

    “What you have here is the future of Tennessee forests,” said Scott Schlarbaum, a professor and director of the University of Tennessee Tree Improvement Program.

    You can tell from a chuckle he thinks his statement might sound hyperbolic and a bit dramatic, but it’s really not.

    He gestured across an unassuming but important UT facility just off Alcoa Highway tucked within the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center that will be the main base for a historic tree-grafting effort that will commence this winter. 

    The goal: Create trees with high-quality genetic traits ranging from wildlife and habitat qualities to timber value.

    Heavy traffic hissed down the nearby highway as it passed by the modest understock yard, greenhouse, raised beds and small house containing offices used as the main grafting facility for the UT Tree Improvement Program (TIP). At least 50,000 vehicles pass by the site every day but most drivers and passengers are oblivious to the existence of this small but important outpost of forest conservation skirted by a Knox County greenway.

    The Tree Improvement Program was first established in 1959. It survives as a notable exception to the cost-cutting of such projects in other states at both university and government levels.

    “These days we tend to look only at the short term. UT did not.”

    Beginning in January, Schlarbaum, director of the program since 1983, will oversee grafting efforts on some 3,600 trees. Last year, during which TIP efforts were disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, about 2,000 trees were grafted.

    “We are gearing up for our biggest grafting year ever. That’s a huge deal,” Schlarbaum said.

  • Tracing the historical course of the Tennessee River through Knoxville

    ACE097A1 B57D 45ED B235 4D93EBC89DD8A wharf seen along the Tennessee River in Knoxville in the late 1800s or later. Knoxville History Project via Hard Knox Wire

    Q&A with Knoxville historian illustrates the importance of the Tennessee River to nascent Knoxville

    Rivers didn't need early American cities, but the cities certainly needed rivers.

    Knoxville historian Jack Neely and Hard Knox Wire editor J.J. Stambaugh lay out a fascinating history of the Tennessee River through Knoxville in their latest collaboration. And yes. It has several references to “Suttree” by Cormac McCarthy. Of course.

    “Beyond in the dark the river flows in a sluggard ooze toward southern seas…. afreight with the past, dreams dispersed in the water someway, nothing ever lost.” — Cormac McCarthy, Suttree.

    The Tennessee River doesn’t loom large in the daily lives of most contemporary Knoxville residents, but two centuries ago it was literally why there was a city here in the first place.

    In fact, it’s impossible to discuss Knoxville’s history for long without the river cropping up in one way or another. In the earliest days of the community’s existence, settlers drew water from and washed in the creeks that fed the Tennessee; the river itself carried boats laden with goods hundreds of miles before ending up in New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.

    Since then, the city’s relationship with the river has evolved steadily. It was an economic lifeline for generations, but railroads and automobiles eventually cornered the market when it came to shipping both cargo and passengers. Today, it’s a safe bet that when most people think of the “Riverfront” they’re thinking of restaurants or maybe a fireworks display; for the lucky few who can afford to belong to the yacht club, they’re maybe thinking about Labor Day weekends spent sailing with the Vol Navy.

    In the latest edition of Hard Knox Histories, local historian and journalist Jack Neely discusses the ebbs and flows of Knoxville’s connection to the river with HKW’s editor, J.J. Stambaugh.

    J.J.: When the first settlers arrived at the site that would be Knoxville, what role did geography — especially the Tennessee River — play in their decision to settle here? How important was the river commercially in the early days? The river, of course, was fed by numerous tributaries and creeks. How important were relatively small waterways like First Creek to the early city’s growth?

    JACK: The river was elemental. It was hard to start a city without one. It was transportation, it was water for drinking and cooling, it was waste disposal. And, of course, the Tennessee reached from here into Cherokee territory, beyond into Alabama, then through West Tennessee into Kentucky, and all the way to the Ohio and the Mississippi.

    When it came to locating a city, First Creek was probably as important as the Tennessee because it provided mill power. There were several mills up and down First Creek, as well as Second Creek. The two downtown creeks were the eastern and western boundaries of the city for its first 70 years or so.

    The river was extremely important commercially, even though it was a mostly one-way thing. In the early days, when Knoxville was a territorial and state capital, there was a demand for liquor here, and folks apparently got so good at producing cheap whisky and brandy that they loaded flatboats with it and floated them downriver, all the way to New Orleans, where it could be sold for several times the cost. I love the fact that riverboat crewmen would bust up their rafts and sell them for hardwood in a city where there wasn’t much of it. A lot of the wooden buildings in the French Quarter, especially in the interiors, show traces of the rope holes and grooves characteristic of flatboats.

    Go to Hard Knox Wire for the rest of this fascinating story.

  • Tennessee Aquarium and partners are stocking another East Tennessee mountain stream with imperiled Southern Appalachian brook trout

    Juvenile Brook Trout swimming into the water of their new homeJuvenile brook trout swim into the water of their new home during a joint effort to return the species to its rightful range in the Tellico River watershed in the southeastern Cherokee National Forest. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium.

    In a virtuous cycle of life, native brookies return to Tellico River watershed in southeastern Cherokee National Forest.

    (The writer produced this original piece for the Tennessee Aquarium).

    Navigating through a thicket of branches while clambering across slick boulders in a rushing mountain stream is a difficult task in the best of times. Doing so while attempting to balance 40-pound buckets of water filled with imperiled fish takes the challenge to an entirely new level.

    A team of scientists from the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute drove to one of the lush, high-elevation streams in the southern reaches of the Cherokee National Forest. During a brief lull between rainstorms, they were joined by Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency representatives and the U.S. Forest Service to celebrate a homecoming for 250 long-lost residents of this gorgeous landscape: juvenile Southern Appalachian brook trout.

    Carefully navigating through a snarl of streamside vegetation, participants paused to release five or six trout at a time into pools with overhangs where the young fish could hide from predators and ambush floating insects that washed into the stream. The going was tough, but those involved in the effort to restock almost a kilometer of this pristine creek say the challenge was worth the reward of seeing Tennessee’s only native trout back in its ancestral waters.

    “The days when we release fish, especially brook trout, are really special moments,” said Tennessee Aquarium Aquatic Conservation Biologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda. “We’re with these fish all the way from when we first bring adults into the Conservation Institute to spawn, to watching the eggs start to develop, to the juveniles that are just a few inches long and ready to release here.

    “It really is knowing that we get to help restore trout to the full circle of life. Days like today are the culmination of all that work to put trout back into the Southeastern streams where they belong.”

    Like many Appalachian streams, this tributary of the North River in the Tellico River watershed hasn’t hosted the brook trout for almost a century. Clearcutting of forests in the early 1900s made waters in the region too warm. Combined with the introduction of brown and rainbow trout, “brookies” were effectively lost from more than 75 percent of the waterways where they once thrived.

  • Keep your butts out of the Tennessee River

    Cigarette butt recycling bin 4

    Dollywood joins Tennessee Aquarium effort to limit the introduction of cigarette butts to our shared waterways.

    “As all humans need access to clean water, it’s an incredibly important treasure to protect.” — Dr. Anna George, Tennessee Aquarium vice president of conservation science and education.

    Cigarette butts are everywhere, and are perhaps so familiar they go unnoticed by the millions of people who pass them on our streets and roads.

    Not only are they unsightly, they contaminate our water resources — the puddles after a sudden rainstorm, the streams that flow through our landscapes, and the stormwater drains that ultimately lead to the Tennessee River. The butts quickly break down, polluting water with “tiny plastic fibers and a devil’s cocktail of chemical compounds,” according to the Tennessee Aquarium.

    The Chattanooga aquarium has partnered with Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, an affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, to stem the rising tide of cigarette butts in our waterways.

    Dollywood has also embraced the effort, making it the first theme park in the world to recycle all properly disposed cigarette butts.

    “One cigarette filter can contain enough toxins to kill aquatic life within two gallons of surrounding water,” said Kathleen Gibi, executive director of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful.

    The action fits the mission of Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful, which is to inspire the public to take action to protect and preserve the Tennessee River and its tributaries across a seven-state region encompassing Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

    Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful and the Tennessee Aquarium have partnered to install cigarette-butt recycling receptacles on the aquarium’s campus. They placed eight of these bins in heavily traveled locations.

    “Everybody contributes to the river, whether positively or negatively, so finding stakeholders and inspiring them to take action is what will make the biggest impact,” Gibi said. She also emphasized the importance of the Tennessee Aquarium’s educational programs in protecting water quality.

    The aquarium’s eight cigarette-butt bins are among more than 480 such bins that Keep the Tennessee River Beautiful has installed within the river’s watershed. The shared effort will install another 90 during the coming months.

    Dollywood is among the 73 sites that have installed bins, making it the first theme park in the world that recycles all the cigarette butts it collects, Gibi says.

    Partnering to remove cigarette filters from the river is only part of the aquarium’s ongoing mission to understand the impact on freshwater habitats from microplastics pollution.

    Dr. Anna George, the Aquarium’s vice president of conservation science and education, said, “It’s urgent to understand better ways to manufacture and dispose of plastics, so we reduce their impact on the environment.”

    The Tennessee Aquarium recently installed a new exhibit in the River Journey Building where visitors can discover the impact of microplastics on freshwater environments. The Tennessee Department of Transportation funded this exhibit as part of their Nobody Trashes Tennessee litter reduction campaign.

    In September 2020, the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and the University of Georgia River Basin Center convened a digital gathering of 50 researchers conducting pioneering studies into the impact of microplastics on freshwater systems.

  • It's Epic: 7,500-acre Roan Mountain wild land donation largest in North Carolina history

    CItizen Times: Roan Mountain donation will protect vast stretches of forest in Roan Highlands

    Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney donated 7,500 acres to the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, an area described by an Asheville Citizen-Times reporter as "A high-elevation hideaway for birds, bears and salamanders, a massive piece of Western North Carolina’s famous mountains left unmarred, and a refuge for rare species in the face of climate change...

    "The property includes the largest American Chestnut restoration project in the country, extensive boulder fields, rich coves, old growth forests, six waterfalls, and a system of rare heath balds," according to Citizen-Times reporter Karen Chavez. 

    The land area is at least equivalent to the size of some highland state parks. 

  • It’s time we start wearing our hearts on our sleeves!

    In the spirit of Thinking Globally, Acting Locally, consider what you can do to help Mother Earth and its inhabitants.

    Adopting a more sustainable life style to reduce one's personal ecological footprint is easier to wish for than to accomplish. Some measures that would reap a significant  environmental benefit, such as making a home more energy efficient, may require a substantial investment of physical effort, time and money that will pay back over time only.

    Deliberate choice of clothing, however, is a simple course of action for anyone to start making a big difference in social justice, climate impacts and environmental conservation.

    The fashion industry is responsible for around 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — more than maritime shipping and international flights combined!

    World production of clothing has doubled in the last 15 years. Until the 1950s, it was common for garments to be used until worn out after having been passed along to second and third wearers. Nowadays, that's a rare exception. Most items end up in a landfill within days or weeks after having been purchased and worn just a few times. Massive amounts of overstock items are routinely discarded, not having been used once.

    Low prices — made possible by cheap synthetic fibers produced with fossil fuels and by sweatshops that churn out textiles under often inhumane conditions — contributed to this relatively new phenomenon of consumerism.

    Along with single-use packaging, plastic fibers common in today's textiles are a major source of invisible microplastic fragments that float in the air we breathe and get into the water that leaves the washing machines. Some of these particles may absorb toxic chemicals and be taken up and accumulated by fish, livestock and, eventually, humans.

    Sustainable Jungle, an Australian nonprofit, has an excellent article about the global predicaments caused by the fashion industry. This is a treasure trove of great ideas, practical suggestions, experiences and links to further how-to instructions. It will not only help you get off the fast-fashion treadmill, it will aid you in discovering or creating a style that accentuates your personality.

    Sustainable Jungle: How to Avoid Fast Fashion
    See also ScienceDirect: Plasticenta — First evidence of microplastics in human placenta
  • The orphaned mayonnaise jar of Fort Sanders

    What stories could the lonely Fort Sanders Hellmann's jar share about its weekend excesses?

    Whites addition 1886 tn1The early Fort Sanders neighborhood is shown here in the late 1800s. Many, but not all, of the architectural period homes have been demolished.  Wikipedia

    (Note from the author: This piece is about my neighborhood — Fort Sanders in Knoxville near the University of Tennessee. I wrote this for my environmental journalism class with Dr. Mark Littmann. We were tasked with writing a sketch about the world around us. I wanted to paint a picture of what I see outside every day when I walk around Fort Sanders.) 

    There’s a half-full jar of mayonnaise in the front yard.

    Its lid is gone, nowhere to be found. Next to it are a trio of Bud Light Premium glass bottles, lounging in the mud.

    Up the street are two smashed cans, three Styrofoam to-go containers, and a smattering of cardboard, all left out in the cold to weather the harsh judgement of Sunday morning.

    Every few feet more treasures appear. Cans, bottles, broken glass, clothes, needles, and old furniture. None of it looks out of place here. The green crab grass grows through the pull tabs and gray squirrels play with leftover food on the sidewalk.

    Nothing is where it should be, but it all feels right; it's an extra blanket of junk tucking the earth in for bed.

    Except for the mayonnaise jar in the yard.

    Collecting these treasures off the street feels hopeless. The moment a piece of garbage makes it into the trash bag, two more pieces appear.

    Memories of Saturday night are left out in the gutter, no one to share them with. It happens every week. Stories of a fun night with friends cast aside into the storm drain. A nice meal left out in the rain. Cigarette butts from a moment alone.

    What story does the mayonnaise in the yard have to tell?