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OCT. 9, 2018

Rewinding and Re-wilding In The Smokies

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Semester 47 headed out to Great Smoky Mountain National Park at the beginning of last week for Classes in the Field. Each semester, The Outdoor Academy takes a deep dive into the layers of history present in the Cataloochee landscape, with a particular focus on the white settlers of the 1800’s up until the creation of the national park (recognizing that the area has been inhabited by native peoples for much, much longer prior to the white settlers entering the area).

We walk the old trails, imagine life in the old cabin structures still standing, and search for clues of former times in the woods. We learn spoon carving, calligraphy, map-making, fire building, oral storytelling, and Appalachian ballads. We might go spider hunting at night with flashlights or spot a bear and her cubs along the path. We wake up each morning and walk to a spot, solitary, to listen to the creek running beside our campsite as part of our traditional Morning Watch. And of course, we are sometimes gifted with the ancient bugling sounds of the elk—mega fauna reintroduced to the park in the 1990’s. Time slows down.

Dr. Margaret Brown, author of the book Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smoky Mountains (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, April 2000), visited our school a week before our departure and met with students and faculty for a classroom session on the Cataloochee area of the Smokies. She challenged us to consider the different ways humans have defined “wild” and “nature” over the years, particularly in reference to the Smokies. Now viewed as a pristine wilderness of biodiversity, the area served as hunting grounds to the Cherokee, farmland to white settlers, and a moonscape after aggressive logging. As park visitors, we are viewing a “curated” wilderness, with species like elk and river otters reintroduced to the area. It’s stunning to consider how fast human impact can render populations extinct, only to begin the process of “re-wilding” again.

Sleeping beneath the protective gaze of Orion in a field surrounded by towering hardwoods was a dream for us this past week, and we ended the week with a three-day trip of either paddling or climbing. Now it’s time to return to our own “curated” wilderness on campus—seventy-five percent of the land being under conservation easement—and jump back into classes.

By Katie Harris, Dean of Academics