Story and image by Don McGowan
One of the great joys of living in the Southern Appalachians and in close proximity to the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains is the opportunity for close observation as the starkness of winter with its leafless deciduous hardwoods, slowly at first and then in a full-out run, brings to these old hills another season of life and growth.
As the fall ended in a flourish of radiant color with the forest headed into the downtime of temporary dormancy and rest, so then the spring begins in a reverse of this, but with the softer pastels of the budding time. It’s as if they are trying to say to us, “Remember how we were all those weeks and months ago. This is a reminder that we shall be that way again. Watch us carefully as we grow through our new circle of days. The rocks are lovely, but they cannot wave to you when you pass; and the flowers are beautiful, but they cannot give you the comfort of shade on a warm spring day. We alone do this, and more, to give your lives meaning.”
There are perhaps as many as 135 species of trees that call the Smokies home; and it is good to consider that trees, especially those that are more of the broad-leafed, deciduous variety, require quite a bit of water for nourishment and growth. All of that water reaches those trees by way of precipitation: rain, snow, or fog.
So here’s some trivia: Most of the land mass of the Unites States where there are less than 15 to 20 inches of rain per year is treeless. The Smokies, in contrast, are blessed with an average of 60 inches of precipitation annually—an abundance of tree-growing liquid—across their wondrous elevation range of 875 to 6,643 feet.
Around 20,000 years ago during the last glacial maximum, many northern species, mountain maples (Acer spicatum) for example, were pushed south into the higher elevations of the Smokies where they survived even as the massive ice sheets retreated northward.
Between the extremes there is an amazing fairyland of Smokies forests and forest types—deciduous and evergreen—where the blazes of autumn and the subtle pastels of spring grace us with an artist’s palette of visual pleasure.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.