in a blaze of glory,
setting trees aflame
in riotous color.
of coming winter.
~John Mark Green, Taste the Wild Wonder: Poems (2018)
|Fall on Little River. Photo by David Knapp.|
John Mark Green’s colorful poem gives voice to the annual phenomenon of the deciduous forests of the Southern Appalachians turning from a deep green blanket in spring and summer to the moody reds, yellows, and browns of late fall and early winter. The phenomenon is nature’s arboreal response to the annual space journey of planet Earth around its sun. We all know our deciduous forests will annually change to a bare and dreary winter appearance, but before that happens, most of us yet again marvel at nature’s big leaf show.
There are more than 120 deciduous and evergreen tree species in the Smokies, the majority of which are native. That’s more than all of northern Europe. And 80 percent of those species are classified as being in the Eastern Deciduous Forest ecosystem, an enormous expanse of trees that annually shed their leaves. The shedding of leaves may be a pain for many homeowners who feel compelled to blow, rake, bag, and remove the seasonal leaf litter visited upon their lawns. But in the Smokies, the immense deposition of leaves is an annual gift to the natural environment. This deposition is ultimately acted upon by fungi, bacteria, and forest animals to provide a rich environment over time for trees, plants, insects, reptiles, and mammals, helping to perpetuate the incredible biodiversity of the Smokies.
In the diverse woodlands of the Smokies, there isn’t just one forest type but several. You can find detailed scientific information about them through literature searches, but one of the most succinct layman’s explanations is included on the free park map available from the visitor centers in the Smokies upon request. On the back of the map is an illuminating display of the Smokies’ forest types identified by elevation as pine-and-oak, hemlock, cove hardwood, northern hardwood, and spruce-fir— the majority of which include deciduous trees that contribute leaves to the forest floor. The map also includes an impressive artist’s depiction of some of the attendant plants and animals in each forest type. On your next visit to the Smokies, stop by a visitor center and request a copy to learn more about the fascinating forests of the Smokies.
Writer Rose Houk, in her book Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Natural History Guide, describes the phenomenon:
In the deciduous forest of the Smokies, an estimated 500,000 tons of leaves drop from the trees each autumn. In addition to this incredible amount of leaf litter, the forest floor is also covered with a host of woody plant parts—twigs, broken branches, even whole logs. All are destined to become part of the soil by natural decomposition from ‘decomposers’ . . . . These decomposers--the fungi, bacteria, and soil animals—perform another essential task. They keep the Earth’s limited supply of nutrients cycling through the forest ecosystem.
|Foggy Fall Morning. Photo by David Knapp.|
A current geology text that I consulted confirms this, stating that “the organic matter in the uppermost layer of soil—humus—comes from the remains and waste products of the many plants, animals, and bacteria living in it.” The annual replenishing of this humus is thus an important part of forest ecosystems in the Smokies.
As we approach the transition from fall to early winter in the Smokies, there might be some who agree with poet John Mark Green’s sentiment that the seasonal change represents a “reluctant surrender/ to rumors/ of coming winter.” But another poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, gives us an optional perspective on our comprehension of nature’s seasonal transformations in his poem “The Harvest Moon”:
All things are symbols:
The external shows of Nature have their image in the mind,
As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves.
Arthur “Butch” McDade is a native Tennessean and a retired Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranger. He’s the author of Old Smoky Mountain Days and The Natural Arches of the Big South Fork. Additionally, he’s a contributing writer to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and has had many articles about the natural and cultural history of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and the Smokies published in various periodicals. He currently works at the Pigeon Forge Public Library.