We're Part of Our Environment
The Asheville region has ecology like no other spot in the Appalachians: The elevation and its southern latitude provide warm days and cool nights so that many of the plants and animals found here are found no where else on the East Coast. The ecological uniqueness of our region is due to many factors. You can read other columns and articles in Asheville Magazine discussing why the energy of the area attracts those that are sensitive to it. The energy is due to the unique geology and the high concentration of quartz.
What Im talking about is what I love: Ecology. Our region's ecology. The planets ecology. Why we cannot live separate from it. Why we are a part of it.
Ecology is the study of living systems and their interactions with their environment. Living things have an energy field around them, too. And we exchange energy with each other. We are all interconnected in many ways and depend on each other for survival. Each bite of food you take, comes from another living system. The energy you receive, was first captured by plants. The plants captured the energy of the sun. This is the web of life.
This area's uniqueness is why the Smoky Mountains are a part of the International Biosphere Reserve http://www.nps.gov/grsm, only one of 43 designated areas in the US. This United Nations project reflects how ecologists have come to realize that a few parks here and there will not do; many connected places that are a refuge must exist. The Smokies are a core area, shielded from development, and surrounded by other public lands that are buffering areas.
These areas include the Blue Ridge Parkway http://www.nps.gov/blri ; the majestic Pisgah National Forest and the Natahala National Forest in Western North Carolina http://www.cs.unca.edu/nfsnc; the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee http://www.r8web.com/cherokee; the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia http://www.fs.fed.us/conf; and the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/fms. This area also has one of the oldest footpaths in the country: the Appalachian Trail http://www.atconf.org running from Georgia to Maine. So, if life becomes harder, we can still reach a large portion of the East Coast on foot.
My training only confirmed what the Native Americans have told us for years--we are a part of our environment; not apart from it. What happens to the air, land, and water also happens to us. Polluting food and water supplies can have long-term effects on humans, such as causing cancer, mutations in our genes, and birth defects.
The long-term effect seen depends on which pollutant we are exposed to. Even harder to recognize is that some pollutants interact with each other. This interaction can either lessen the effect of each pollutant individually, or it can cause a greater effect than seen in each one alone. Synergism occurs where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just as we have come to recognize that ecosystems, as a whole, are larger than the sum of their parts.
At one time the Appalachians were taller than the Rockies. In fact, geologists say that at the time of formation, the Appalachians were enormous and probably resembled the Himalayas.(1) Our mountains are just much older, and have been sculpted by erosion for the last 65 million years. This is why our mountains are rounded, contain few rock outcroppings, are cut by many drainage areas, and hold many landslide scars. These mountains are ancient.
What is left geologists call "mountain roots," because the sharp peaks long ago eroded away, and what we enjoy today are the roots of these ancient mountains. During the Ice Ages, glaciers did not extend into this area. They stayed farther north. But the advancing glaciers pushed the surviving species farther and farther south. Some of these species found homes in our mountains and valleys, increasing the biodiversity of our area.
This area is home to an estimated 100,000+ species of plants and animals, and many endangered species, such as the Red-cheeked Salamander and the Indiana Bat. That biodiversity is one reason the Smokies are designated an International Biosphere Reserve, and it is also why hundreds of scientists descended on the Smokies this summer as part of the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI). ATBI is trying to count all the species in the park, just as a similar project is trying to count all species in the South American rainforests.
This is no small task when the park routinely finds at least one new species (especially invertebrates) every year. Rich with plant and animal life, the Smokies are one of the largest protected land areas east of the Rockies. Mountains contain extremely complex biomes. Ecologists recognize that mountains are composed of distinctly different biomes, depending on the altitude, rainfall, temperature, and soil conditions. Our mountains contain many microclimate areas. For example, going up about 1000 feet in altitude is roughly the equivalent of traveling north by one degree in latitude. This creates complex communities that any of us who have walked or hiked these mountains have seen.
Traveling from valleys around 1500 feet, to mountain peaks around 7000 feet is accomplished very quickly in this area. Mt. Pisgah is an afternoon's hike from the parking area, as is Clingman's Dome. It doesnt take long before you bring socks, a long-sleeved shirt, and even jackets and windbreakers if youre staying late on a high, windy mountain.
Walk Lightly . . .
If we walk lightly on Mother Earth, we will have the beautiful mountains for generations yet to come. If we live in harmony with nature, instead of trying to control, tame, and destroy her, we will continue to exist as well. Is it too late? Youve heard many opinions on that question. Some think its to late because we have done to much damage already. Some think there is still time to preserve and conserve what we have left. The choice is up to us. It always has been. Walk lightly so that others do not know weve been here. Take only what we need; not what we want. Think of the repercussions for our children, and our childrens children, then act accordingly. Love our Mother Earth. Respect all her life. And she will love you back. We live in a special area full of energy from its diverse life web and ancient geology. This area is unique, and the rest of the world also recognizes it. Enjoy it. Love it. Look after it. It drew us here. We are its guardians.
(1) Connecting People and Nature--a Lesson Guide. "Tectonic History." National Park Service
Melodie Hawkins is a technical writer who helps people express their visions of a better world