Monday, December 19, 2016

The Third Chimney

For several years I’ve been snooping around many under-the-radar nooks and crannies of our beloved Smoky Mountains, and one of the great spots in the park for engaging in this quest is the area surrounding the Chimney Tops. Rather than lament the fact that this area has just been burned, I’m going in the opposite direction. Several formerly-cluttered (with rhododendron, thorns, and blowdowns) ridges and rocky outcrops are now open and visible, and I am looking forward to hiking on them.

For example, most folks have probably never noticed that there’s a long ridge that leads from the Second/Lower/North chimney down to a nice, rocky outcrop just above the Newfound Gap road. It’s not extremely visible or obvious, but if you look for it, it’s there. In fact, enough people have found their way to that spot that a 3’ high rock cairn has been built on this rocky prominence. For several years some of us have been calling it the Third Chimney. We invented that name after we had bushwhacked up to the Second Chimney from this lower, Third Chimney, and as we were looking back down the route we had just followed, one of us said, “You know, if that ridge and outcrop were denuded by fire and rain, that would be known as the Third Chimney.” However, we never expected that the denuding would actually happen. Well, the fire has begun the process.

To see the full effects, you need to get beyond the Chimney Tops trailhead – probably Cliff Tops on LeConte or Big Duck Hawk (off-trail). If you can find a way to get this view, you’ll see the long, now-open ridge leading down to the Third Chimney. There are also a couple of magnificent, rocky ridges leading up to the First and Second Chimneys on the east side. I’ve been up all these ridges before, but it was almost too much work to be fun. They were heavily cluttered with briers, blowdowns, and other junk. Not anymore. The fire has opened them up. If the NPS doesn’t forbid hiking on them, they will be every bit as interesting (or “scary,” whichever synonym you prefer) as the ridge between the First and Second Chimneys.

Chimney Tops, upper left
Third Chimney, far right

Zoomed in on Third Chimney

On a related note, the burning in the park – I’m not including the tragedy in Gatlinburg — is not nearly as bad as I expected. There were a lot of burned patches, but they were scattered and mostly minor. We saw many places where the ground and shrubs had burned, but only the bottom three or four feet of the trees had been scorched. We saw very few places where entire trees had been completely burned. It looks to me like there are two questions: Did the scorching of the trees seriously harm them? And, did the burned ground kill and remove all the shrubs and their roots systems that were holding the soil in place?

If those scorched trees die, then there will be many small, deforested patches in the Sugarlands section of the park for many years. Likewise, if the root systems of the groundcover were destroyed, there will be some modest mudslides which may uncover more bare rock. Both of these effects will be noticeable but neither will be catastrophic. The park will bounce back quickly, but we won’t know how far it needs to bounce until May, as we see whether or not the trees were seriously harmed by the scorching of their trunks, and how well the soil stays in place this winter and early spring.

The real catastrophe was in the hills surrounding downtown Gatlinburg and other outlying areas outside the park, but as we’ve seen in many different times and places, ecosystems and forests aren’t the only things that can bounce back. People bounce back, too. I suppose this is where I am supposed to say that the people around here are special, and they will rise again. Instead, I’ll be a bit more realistic… the folks around here are like folks everywhere. Some people will give up, but most will pick up the pieces and move on. Both the national park and its surrounding communities will rise from the ashes, not because they are better or stronger than every place else and everyone else, but because nature and people are resilient, everywhere. The will to live is powerful. They get knocked down, but they get up again. That’s what forests do. That’s what refugees do. That’s what victims of all sorts do. That’s what the people of Sevier county will do.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

God's Country

It’s been a long, hot, dry summer… and fall. Much of Gatlinburg lies in charred ruins. About 11,000 acres of the Smokies are charred and still smoldering, waiting for more rain. By the time you read this, the rain either will have come, or it will have fizzled to a drizzle or perhaps nothing at all.  

We had become accustomed – maybe to the point of neglect – to the distant haze and slight smell of smoke. We’d note the air quality alerts. Folks with asthma would stay inside. We’d hear occasional reports of small wildfires burning throughout the southeast US, but not massive tragedies. It got so bad, I even spent several hundred dollars watering my grass, something I never do. Then came Monday, November 28.

I was indoors most of that day, but out the window I could see a strange, yellow tint. I wondered if it was the sun reflecting off the many, recently-fallen leaves. Then in the late afternoon I went outside for the first time and saw the blanket of yellow-brown smoke in the air and ashes on my truck. Apparently, there were fires burning vigorously somewhere nearby. Only that night when I got home did I hear that Gatlinburg was burning, along with areas in Wears Valley and Cobbly Knob.

I had been in the Smokies a couple of days earlier and drove right past the Chimneys early on Saturday morning. There was smoke and fog in the air, so I didn’t actually see the Chimneys 2 Fire that had been smoldering for several days. I was on my way to meet several other folks to hike on and below Mount Kephart and the Jumpoff. Everything seemed normal, but behind the fog-smoke curtain, the Chimneys were slowly burning.

Strong winds on Monday changed everything. These winds blew embers down the valley into Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Branches falling on power lines created sparks which ignited new fires. Buildings burned. People and animals died.

Then rains came, several inches in twenty-four hours, which was about as much as we had received in the previous four months combined. That few inches didn’t extinguish all the fires, but it may have saved Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge from complete devastation. What would have happened if the rains had not come? On the other hand, maybe none of this would have happened if the rains had come a few days sooner.

On the natural side of things, fires happen and forests burn, but the ecosystem bounces back as different species take advantage of the new situation. In a few years the landscape will be fully resurrected and clothed in new garments, mostly in greens and browns, with a dash of whites, purples, pinks, and yellows.

On the human side of things, disasters happen, but in spite of the loss, people bounce back. The Red Cross and churches and families and neighbors spring into action. Prayers are uttered. Donations are made. Slowly, but with great resiliency and resolve, faith overcomes tragedy.

As a person who believes in God, faith, and prayer, I have always struggled in moments like this. Yes, the rains came to quench the fires. But why didn’t they come sooner? Yes, a chair that someone had prayed in was spared while the rest of the house burned. But many people prayed, and they lost everything. Many people of faith find comfort in knowing that “God is in control.” They see the hand of God everywhere, in every detail, even tragedy. On the other hand, the forces of evil also have a plan of death, suffering, and tragedy. Yes, in some eternal sense, God is in control, but there may be many sad, tragic details of which He is not the cause. So, some find comfort in the belief that God does not dictate every detail, every disaster, every tragedy.

And yet, even in the midst of sadness and suffering, I’ve learned to live with those unanswered questions. I’ve learned to live with ambiguity. I am at peace with not knowing all the answers. Maybe that’s what faith is.

But one thing I do know. In a time of tragedy, it’s good to live in the Bible Belt. Quite honestly, there are ways in which I don’t fit in here. I’m not a gun lover. I’m not a Trump supporter. I don’t think ObamaCare is a sign of the end times. But I am thankful to live in a place where people will pray for one another openly, without embarrassment. I am thankful to live in a place where people at local businesses will say “Have a blessed day” without being reprimanded by their boss. It’s good to live in a place where there is no rioting and looting after a disaster. Instead, there are prayer meetings.

Yes, there is death and destruction in the natural world and in our towns and countryside, but there is also faith and resurrection and comfort and new life… here in simple, rural East Tennessee.