Don Williams
Photo by Justin Williams

Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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It was one of your more huggable trees
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   07/11/2003)

It was one of your more huggable trees. A tall, rotund sycamore, it leaned into sky above the Little River at Walland, Tennessee, where an old mill wheel once took the measure of time and a stream's kinetic energy. Maybe you know the place.

An ancient dam still provides sport there, though historic Peery's Mill burned years ago. You still can frolic in rushing waters at the dam, but thanks to a bureaucratic policy that falls under the category of CYA, the old sycamore is gone.

Not that people hugged that tree from affection, necessarily. It was what you grabbed onto as you steadied yourself to take hold of a rope and swing out into sky to let go for a quick baptism in chill mountain waters.

On any given Saturday you might find dozens of folks lolling about ready to give it a try.

I never got around to it, though I've swung on many another old rope into the Little River or Pigeon River or Douglas Lake and I've spent many an hour canoeing and swimming the Little River or biking along its banks in Walland and Townsend.

My sister Kathleen and her 10-year-old boy, Joey, on a visit from Nashville, spent a recent afternoon exploring the swimming hole at the dam, and they swung and plunged repeatedly into water using the rope attached to the old sycamore there.

Tuesday afternoon, I had planned on meeting them to take the plunge, myself, but the tree was no more. Only a stump remained--a solid, fine-grained, healthy-looking stump maybe two fee across and low to the ground. It's the footprint of a tree that once stood tall, providing adventure, shade, oxygen and soaking up CO2 in the magic way trees have. Then, just like that, the tree was gone.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency took it down. Too bad. I had admired the boat ramp and parking area TWRA had provided at several sites along the Little River and elsewhere. At the dam they took one of the most interesting and pleasurable spots on the Little River and made it even more inviting. Now they've destroyed one of the main things that made it pleasurable to begin with.

Joe Everett of Maryville, a TWRA wildlife officer, said the agency has a policy against letting people swing out on ropes over rivers. "There's a question about liability," said Everett. Apparently a young girl suffered an injury sometime back when she became entangled in a rope at a site managed by TWRA, although Everett didn't think it was at the Walland site. And while rescue personnel helped a frightened 17-year-old Maryville youth from the waters near the damn, on July 2, Everett said that had nothing to do with the decision to cut down the tree.

The policy came from higher up, but no one in the regional TWRA offices in Morristown was available to discuss the policy, which is as follows: When a swinging rope is discovered on a TWRA waterfront, they cut the rope. If a rope appears later, they lop off the limb it's tied to. If a rope reappears on another limb, they cut down the tree, Everett said. Here's hoping TWRA will reassess this policy.

It rankles that without any ceremony or public notice a tree that has provided pleasure and sport for thousands of people fell victim to a chainsaw. Worse, it's a growing pattern. Little by little, government agencies are insulating the public from nature.

Too bad. The media is filled with stories of how we're becoming obese, how even children are becoming diabetic and how the environment continues to be degraded due to over-development and bad policy and neglect. At the same time, we're moving ever further away from direct contact with the outdoors.

I traveled through a distant town over the July Fourth weekend and happened upon a playground surrounded by about a thousand houses. It was 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evening in 75-degree weather and not one child played on the monkey bars or seesawed or swung or tossed a ball or roller-bladed in this shining park.

Looking around that evening I saw few people out at all. It's no wonder. Times are tough for actual trees of bark and fiber and real green leaves in this age of virtual reality. Why go out and look at a sunset or a rainbow when all the colors of the universe create pretty pictures on your computer screen or TV at home? Why swim in a real, actual river or lake when you can loll about in purified waters of a concrete swimming pool?

Mother Nature is becoming a distant, storybook concept to a generation. Who'll take care of her when nobody cares anymore about the outdoors? Agencies like TWRA can and they often do help, but not when they take away what makes nature fun. Hey, TWRA, whattaya say we get creative in our thinking? Let's find a way to take a chainsaw to bad policy, and keep our old sycamores and swimming holes.