Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. Wentworth, authors of Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests: An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, talk with Carson Rogers about how to get the most out of your hiking experience.
Carson Rogers: You take a holistic approach to the forest, showing readers how to look at the bigger picture of the environment rather than just the hiking path. What made you choose this approach, and why is it important?
Steph Jeffries: When we teach our two-week field course, we jump right in and during that first week, we are relentless—traveling to many stops each day and constantly asking the students what they see and what they think about what they see. Quite honestly, we nearly break them. But in the second week, a funny thing happens. The students gradually assume the lead—making observations, asking questions, probing current hypotheses, speculating. In short, they are thinking like ecologists and it is dawning on them that science is really not about what we already know, but instead about discovery. The transformation in such a short time is incredible. We think that anyone can learn to do this, to see the forest and the trees, so to speak. In doing so, your connection with nature broadens immeasurably, because you have a holistic understanding of why the forest you’re standing in looks the way it does. So many connections are formed that you’ll never look at a forest in the same way, ever again.
CR: What do hikers and outdoorspeople miss when they do not use this approach?
Tom Wentworth: Imagine strolling into one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe with no understanding of the building’s rich history, no idea about what went into its construction, no concept of its purpose, and no sense of how this cathedral differs from others. You would doubtless be awed by the sensation of standing in that magnificent space, but think how much richer your experience would be if you appreciated its history, construction, purpose, and uniqueness. It’s much the same with forests and other natural communities. You may have a very pleasant experience walking through a forest, but you will have a much deeper connection with and appreciation of the place if you understand how it came to be, what its components are and how they interact, and how it functions. Our approach to natural ecosystems provides that gateway.
SJ: I recently started re-reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, a hilarious account of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Bryson begins nearly every chapter with his observation that he’s walking among endless trees along an endless trail that all looks the same. I love his story, his perspective in rediscovering America, and his colorful characters, but it’s hard not to think of how much richer his experience would have been if he could see the forest for the endless trees. Our four hikes on the Appalachian Trail are, in fact, very different from one another.
In addition, I think most of us are “destination-oriented”—focused on the trail’s end, the scenic vista, the waterfall. Many of our hikes have points of interest such as these, because we love them too. By using our book, you can become a “journey” person as well, someone who sees something new and exciting around each bend in the trail. We want you to start seeing the forest intimately, instead of a background of green noise.
CR: What makes your “ecological guide” different from other hiking books?
TW: Many other hiking books are focused on the details of a trail as a way to get from point A to point B. This is not a bad thing—we all need to know trail conditions, elevation gain and loss, points of interest, directions that keep us on track (and not lost), and so forth. Indeed, we love and use such trail guides ourselves. However, we offer our readers something entirely different. While some guides will comment briefly on historical events, forest types, or points of particular interest, none offer the holistic, ecological view that we provide. We teach hikers how to read the landscape and to appreciate the ecological components and processes that make these forests what they are today. We feel that this is a unique contribution to the hiking literature.
SJ: To add to what Tom said, what excites me about ecology is its accessibility. Ecological concepts are often intuitive and fun to share. What makes the science challenging is that it requires you to pull together everything you know to solve a puzzle. When you walk into a forest and want to understand what you see, you’d better bring along everything you know about biology, geology, chemistry, physics, geography, and history. The complexity of nature is what makes it so hard to decipher, and at the same time, so fascinating. You really feel like a Renaissance scientist!
CR: How do you envision readers using this guide out on the trail?
TW: First, I believe that readers should consult our book before hitting the trail! The hiker who has previously read the hike’s narrative, its sidebar, and some related sidebars and relevant community descriptions is then prepared for a most rewarding experience. Once on the trail, I would envision the reader pausing occasionally to pull our book from its home in the backpack and then consulting it as a reference. In this way the hiker would be prepared for and could quickly find answers to questions like: What did Steph and Tom say about this waterfall? Why did they say all the trees are small and of similar sizes? Which way did they say to turn at this trail junction? Which natural community is this? Which maple am I seeing? I also imagine and hope that readers might reach the destination summit or overlook, find a comfortable place to sit, and read again the hike’s narrative and sidebar, letting their immediate experience and the book’s content mingle in their minds. Perhaps this last step might even happen later that evening, in front of a campfire or in a cozy chair back home.
CR: How many walks are featured from each included state? Continue reading ‘Interview: Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth on Hiking Appalachian Forests’ »