The Smokies have always held a very special place in Jason and my heart and I know we're not alone. It is our Nation's busiest park, annually drawing in more than twice the amount of people than any other National Park. The largest natural area east of the Mississippi, the park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 and a UNESCO Heritage site in 1983. Over one-hundred species of trees make their home in the Smokies, which is more than in all of northern Europe. All of this diversity is often brought up in documentaries or writings done on the Smokies. Since we live in a world scattered with buildings and drenched in technology there is no wonder why people flock to such natural simplicity. But there is also a human side to it all; a connection that draws people in. A rich Appalachian history where people have always been strengthened by adversary and their ties to the mountains.
When you drive through the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park it as if you're being transferred back in time. Almost as soon as you pass the famous wooden sign you disconnect from the modern world while at the same time connecting to something greater. You don't spot many buildings in the park unless they're historical and cell service vanishes leaving you to focus on the vast naturalness and to reflect. Reflection doesn't come easy these days with all of our distractions pulling us to a "more connected world," but when you're driving Newfound Gap Road it is almost impossible to let go of the things that aren't important and to focus on something far greater than ourselves. It is that freedom that draws us in and gives us that connection we seek.
Famous naturalist, John Muir, described the Appalachian Mountains and canyons of North Carolina as "the face of all Heaven come to earth" and "the finest in America of its kind." Muir knew how special these mountains were even back then. Our Great Smoky Mountains includes more than eight-hundred square miles of Southern Appalachian Mountains and is the most biodiverse national park in the United States. It is home to approximately 187,000 acres of old growth forest, which includes the cove hardwood forests that are among the most diverse ecosystems in North America. The Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest found there is the largest of its kind. As we have mentioned in a previous blog, the Smokies is also home to the largest population of black bears in the Eastern United States and the most diverse salamander population outside of the tropics. Let that sink in. We have a gem in our backyard! We are a culture tied to our land and therefore are called to protect it.
The fact that we live in one of the most spectacular areas on earth doesn't come as a surprise to those who know this land, but one thing is for certain, as beautiful as the land is, the culture here is of equal, if not greater, beauty. I was talking to one of my sons about that the other day. Although the world is filled with amazing people, gorgeous places and interesting cultures, there is just something special about the Appalachian region & its people. When the fires ripped through the Smokies, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, it brought about widespread destruction and many lost family and friends. A heartbreak that is unimaginable. But the people quickly stepped up, so much so that many wanting to help were turned away because there were already too many. That's a good problem to have and also something that is uplifting to hear in our times lately. But they will have a long road to recovery. We need to continue to support them and their local economy, taking trips there whenever possible and spending what we can. Even if it is just a day trip to go have lunch, whatever you're able to do will mean a great deal.
It seems we can learn a lot from nature. Wildfires can wreak havoc, but in the end breeds life for the future. After a forest fire, a process called ecological succession begins, where the ecosystem goes through changes but eventually develops into a mature and even stronger forest. Isn't that amazing! It reminds me of something Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "We acquire the strength we have overcome."
As we go through this Christmas season I can't help but to reflect on all the gifts we're given. Life, and everything in it, is a gift, not a guarantee or entitlement. None of us are immune to such tragedy. It doesn't matter if you're rich, poor, black, white, Democrat, Republican, Christian, or atheist, we are all on this earth together with the same gift of life. We come closer together in tragedy as we realize that all of our differences simply do not matter because our hearts beat the same. In the midst of such horrible circumstances it seems we are reminded how much we have to be thankful for and how much we need each other. We have the ability to take the circumstances given and turn it into not just a stronger forest, but a stronger human bond. A stronger Appalachia.
So to quote the great John Muir again, "The Mountains are calling and I must go." The mountains and their people are calling. They need our help. Let's remember them during this holiday season and our year coming as they work to get back on their feet and overcome their struggle. And they will. In the chaos & beauty of life we walk together. We stand together. In Appalachia, we have always earned strength through hardship and this will not prove to be any different. I hope the spirit of the holiday season does not leave us in 2017 and we will see to it that a beautiful purpose comes out of such devastation. The human spirit is remarkable and the Appalachian spirit even stronger. Let's be the example to the world of how to come together and show them that our mountains & its people will always be a beacon of hope and beauty.