Image for the Asking: The Place of the Balsams

Image for the Asking: The Place of the Balsams

Story and Image by Don McGowan

With all of the diverse vegetation that covers Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is sometimes easy to overlook what is underneath. The under layers of all of that biota are rock strata from the basement of time.

Well, let me be completely honest here: the basement of time that I am referencing has a date on it of about 4.6 billion years ago; and the rock layers we’re talking about are between half of a billion and about a billion years in age.

The layers that we are most concerned with in this story are those that make up a group of metamorphosed, sedimentary late-Precambrian rocks known as the Ocoee Supergroup. In terms of the degree of metamorphism, they vary from intensely metamorphosed phyllites and schists to less metamorphosed slates and shales. There are three subgroups to the Ocoee, and one of those, the Great Smoky Group, has a rock formation called Anakeesta that is the focus of our tale.

Anakeesta is a sandstone combination of slate, phyllite, and schist. It’s usually dark gray, brown, and sometimes almost orange in color. Those beloved pillars of rock we crave to climb on, the Chimneys, themselves, are Anakeesta. There is an entire high elevation ridge that towers over Newfound Gap Road above the upper reach of Walker Camp Prong that is Anakeesta in composition. The fabulous trail that takes us from the AT to Mount Le Conte, the Boulevard, runs across a spine of Anakeesta.

In the Tsalagi, or Cherokee, language, Anakeesta translates as “the place of the balsams.” The truth of the matter is that Anakeesta Sandstone forms much of the crest of the Smokies, especially between Mt. Collins and Eagle Rocks on the east side of Pecks Corner; and its name in translation is poignantly descriptive of what is found in those higher elevations of the Smokies.

As moisture laden winds blow into the mountains from the Tennessee Valley, they rise toward the mountain crests, unburdening themselves as they ascend. The high country becomes a collector of storms in whose aftermath low clouds and fogs commonly lie in the high valleys, and the balsam overgrown walls of Anakeesta become a magical kingdom, whether in Kodachrome or black and white.

“The imagination has retained the grace of innocence. This is no naïve, untested innocence. It knows well the shadows and troughs of the world, but it believes that there is more, that there are secret worlds hidden within the simplest, clearest things. The imagination is not convinced by the world of external fact. It is not persuaded by situations that pretend to be finished or closed. The innocence of the imagination is willing to see new possibilities in what appears to be fixed and framed. There is a moreness to everything that can never be exhausted.”

~John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty


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.

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