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From the top of Old Smoky

A national park since 1926, the Great Smokies at times seem overshadowed by the spectacular parks of the west: Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone. In fact, a list I saw of the best national parks only includes one park in the eastern US: Acadia.

Dogwoods in April

I visited this park a few years back, and I can see why some might not be enthralled by the intensely tourist-driven attractions that bump up against the natural areas—Dollywood, Ripley, and Titanic are just a few of the most heavily-visited. (I actually liked Dollywood; there was some nice landscaping and a pleasant, family feel, with very pretty cabins surrounding it. But it was a media tour and we were alone in the park, so there’s that.)

Structures in the park

As for the park itself, it’s beautiful, with streams running through it in most places, grand stands of trees, including gorgeous dogwoods, and lovely wildflowers. I photographed several varieties I’d never seen. The park is also filled with important history of early Appalachian settlements, including cabins, watermills, and cemeteries. After the visit (which, of course, included hiking up to the top of Old Smoky), I vowed to go back someday when I would have more time, when it wasn’t a media trip.

And then, this headline in the Times yesterday: “It was like driving into hell.” Over 14,000 people were evacuated from Gatlinburg and more from Pigeon Forge, where I stayed, after an outbreak of wildfires started Monday, 11/28. As of today, seven have died.

As many Tennessee gardeners have been commenting for the last couple months, the area has been suffering from extreme, crippling drought, which no doubt is instrumental in triggering these fires. North Carolina, Georgia, and other southern states have also suffered this year. I think, too, that dead hemlocks (wooly aldegid), which we all noticed during our visit, could have contributed dry fuel in the case of the Smokies.

It’s not a slam dunk to point the finger at climate change. You have to be careful. But reputable sources do indicate that long periods of drought may become the new normal in areas of the south that a few decades ago were  kept pretty wet over the summer months. We may be looking at regular wildfire occurrences—which is really bad news for this heavily populated area and its beautiful forests, parks, and preserves.

Posted by

Elizabeth Licata
on December 1, 2016 at 12:00 pm, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Ministry of Controversy.


  1. This absolutely IS the result of climate change. Just because it’s not going on outside your window, yet, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Please recognize it, Americans, so we can finally deal with it. There are many, many articles that have reported what is going on, from the ice caps melting to millions of acres of fires all over the planet this last decade. There are powerful forces, political forces working with oil companies, and assisted at every step of the way by the much of the mainstream media, who want to continue business as usual and keep thee money flowing while the devastation continues. Oil pipeline leaks are also commonplace but literally covered up – our water and our land is being destroyed daily. Rolling Stone has written about the fires repeatedly. Here’s one article. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/what-megablazes-tell-us-about-the-fiery-future-of-climate-change-20150915

  2. I grew up in middle TN. We had water restrictions and dead grass (and 95+ degree F heat) by mid-July almost yearly going back to the 1970s. Some years the rain is regular, but those years are rare. Most of the time there is a spring flood followed by a drying out that gets serious in July and August, and may or may not last well into fall. If the spring flood doesn’t come, the drying starts in March. Early summer was actually a lot wetter than usual this year, producing luxurious plant growth that then dried out.
    Climate change? All the time. It made my great-uncle bulldoze the peach orchard in the 1970s due to unpredictable spring frosts. It made an author in Atlanta, GA request plant breeding for heat and drought tolerance in 1857 in an old gardening handbook I downloaded years ago. My ancestors, some of the first European settlers in the Nashville area, lived on barley as their primary grain in the 1800s and early 1900s because it could be grown in short, unpredictable seasons between floods and droughts. It’s terrible, but that fire was probably at least in part due to unwise fire suppression techniques. Climate change is blamed for a lot of foreseeable problems caused by human error. I pray the area recovers soon.

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