Story and image by Don McGowan
The dictionary of Appalachian English, courtesy of Wikipedia, assures us that a “cove” is a “valley between two ridges.” It goes on to explain that a “holler” is a “valley between two hills.” Now since ridges and hills can be, and on occasion have been, mistaken for each other, that places me in a bit of a predicament, especially when it comes to identifying forest types in these beautiful, old mountains I call Home.
For example, there are mid- and low-elevation deciduous forest communities known as “cove hardwood forests” that are found in abundance between, say, 2000 and 4000 feet throughout the Smokies. “Deciduous” here refers to those tree species that lose their leaves in autumn. Approximately 80 percent of the trees in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are deciduous, and as many as 60 species of such trees can be found in the sheltered valleys that over the millennia have accumulated floors of deep and rich soil. The nature of the soils that characterizes individual coves helps to determine the particular deciduous species that will grow best there.
In general, there are eight tree species that dominate cove hardwood forests, including the imperiled eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), which is not deciduous, but rather, evergreen. The quickly recognized tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) and yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) are two of the additional seven. Among the understory inhabitants of cove hardwood forests is the perennial favorite flowering dogwood (Cornus florida).
The drive from park headquarters to Alum Cave Trailhead along US 441 provides a showcase of cove hardwood forest examples. But this brings me back to my original dilemma: Given the often overlapping identities between a cove and a holler, why come we don’t call them “holler hardwood forests” instead?
“Light is the great priestess of landscape. Deftly it searches out unnoticed places, corners of fields, the shadow-veils of certain bushes, the angled certainty of stones; it can slink low behind a stone wall turning the spaces between the stones into windows of gold. . . . Unable to penetrate the earth, light knows how to tease suggestions of depth from surface. Where radiance falls, depths gather to the surface as to a window. The persuasions of light bring us frequent mirrors that afford us a glimpse into the mystery that dwells in us. Sometimes in the radiance, forgotten treasure glimmers through ‘earthen vessels.’”
~John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
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.