Surrounded by heroes, we hike back in time, alongside a river, which, with the subtlety of a song, has carved its own melody in stone. Given time, a stream can work miracles, and here in the Obed River Gorge, where heroes walk, the years are numbered like leaves--in hundreds of millions.
I say heroes, and I think you would agree if you could hear their voices rising up together to sing "Peace I Give to Thee Old River," as they dedicate 32 acres of newly preserved, but ancient wilderness before our hike on Sept. 13, near Crossville.
To me such acts of preservation represent heroism writ large.
We're used to bestowing hero status on people who rush into burning buildings, or who go far away to fight in defense of freedom, or ride rockets to the moon. We even treat people proficient at throwing or catching a ball as heroes. Think how you'll cheer on the Big Orange Saturday against Florida.
But if a hero is one who goes on a quest to save some precious treasure common to us all, then these folks I'm hiking with--people with stout hearts, stout legs and encyclopedic knowledge of nature, are surely heroes.
There's Dr. Richard C. and Gertrude Camp Braun who donated this land in the name of Elizabeth Camp, a nature lover and missionary. There with his dog, Trouble, is Bob Brown, a true pioneer in the movement to preserve Tennessee trails. Strolling here is John Sheehan of West Tennessee, who's initiated a greenway to run the length of the Mississippi River.
There's Mary Lynn Dobson, singing out the names of plants and wildlife. She contributes regularly to conservation causes. There's Arthur McDade, Forrest Evans and Michael Hodge, state employees who've made tending to parks and preserves their life's work. There's Cookeville Mayor Charles Womack, chairman of the board of the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, and finally, my sister Kathleen Williams, president of the TPGF, who brought these people together. These, along with many other unsung heroes, are on quests to preserve nature. You seldom see their names on monuments and maps, but surely these people on the front lines of conservation deserve more credit than they get, for they're saving Tennessee's special standing as one of the most bio-diverse regions in the known universe.
Think of that and feel blessed.
Humankind has probed the oceans, sifted the soil, scoured jungles and forests the world over. We've examined dozens of moons and planets from afar with telescopes and up close with spacecraft. And after decades of searching, the river-valley system of the Southern Appalachians on Planet Earth remains the gold standard for biodiversity.
Tennessee is smack in the middle of it.
Sadly we're losing species at a faster rate than ever due to rampant development. Our state regularly ranks among the top states in destruction of habitat.
That's why the folks who take time to preserve the tapestry that gives rise to song birds, speckled trout and blue-tailed salamanders are heroes to some of us, though mostly they work far away from adoring crowds.
Hear the voice of Mary Lynn Dobson and others as they exclaim and sing out the virtues of flora that decorate these grounds.
"Oh, there's doll's eyes. Witch-hazel. Look, there's jewel weed and hearts-abustin'."
We pause to take the measure of a giant beech tree. Three hikers reach round to hug it and barely touch one another's fingers. The telltale sharpened logs of smaller trees left by beavers lie all about. We hear a distant woodpecker, the call of a jay.
In the afternoon we wend beneath cliffs and through long, wending crevasses in solid rock, where house-sized chunks of the mountain above us have fallen.
Later, we go down to the river and dip into cold cold waters of the Obed, washing oursevlves in a song from the heart of creation.
You can help save such a river, a mountain, waterfall or meadow and all the many life forms that depend on such vanishing habitat. There are tax advantages for doing so. To find out how, contact me. I can put you in touch with friends and heroes who can tell you more. All I can do is cheer them on.