Interview: Christopher Norment on the beauty of the desert ecosystem

Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World, talks with Carson Rogers about the beauty of the desert ecosystem and the challenges it faces to survive.

Carson Rogers: The title of your book, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, speaks to the fragile ecosystems that have survived in the desert, despite change and adversity. Why is this the perfect title?

Christopher Norment, author of Relicts of a Beautiful Sea (photo by Martin Norment)Christopher Norment: The animals that I focus on—the Inyo Mountain slender salamander, black toad, and four types of pupfishes—all are completely dependent upon aquatic habitats, and so have become relicts in an arid world. Without enough water they (like humans) will suffer and disappear. The amount of surface water in the Basin and Range country of California and Nevada, where my book is set, has fluctuated tremendously over the last several million years and the fortunes of the salamanders, toads, and pupfishes have waxed and waned with the advance and retreat of these waters. Imagine standing above Death Valley 150,000 years ago and looking out over ancient Lake Manly, which was six hundred feet deep and eighty miles long. Lake Manly—and Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, and Tecopa Lake, on and on—would have been stunningly beautiful, part of a widespread Pleistocene “sea.” The fishes and amphibians that lived in or near these lakes, or along feeder streams, must have prospered. Now these waters have been replaced by desert and salt pan playas, and “my” species have retreated into refugia, where they persevere, sometimes against great odds.

CR: Why is the issue of desert conservation important right now?

CN: There are a number of reasons, particularly in regard to the American Southwest. First, there still is an influx of people into the region, and they all need water. Clark County, Nevada—home of Las Vegas—and Maricopa County in Arizona have both experienced exponential population growth over the past few decades. This growth is unsustainable and places increasing pressure on the region’s resources, particularly water—and the growing demand for water will in turn affect aquatic ecosystems and the organisms that depend upon them. The increasing need for water will only be exacerbated by climate change and its associated droughts. Decreased flows from the Colorado River and low levels in Lake Mead also pose a problem. California, Arizona, and Nevada all need the same limited waters, and there will be conflict over this resource. Other issues, such as solar energy development, may also be important in some areas, but at the moment population growth, water use, and climate change are the biggest conservation issues facing the region.

There is one positive thing to say about this dire situation, though. It does offer us the opportunity to think creatively and courageously about conservation, ecology, population growth, and economics. We must change how we think about desert waters. As I write in Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, “there is water enough in the desert if you live properly.” The problem is, most of us have not done so, and we show little inclination to change our ways.

CR: In your opinion, what is the greatest threat to the desert and the creatures that live there?

CN: I do not believe that there is one “greatest threat,” but rather that the threat depends entirely upon the particular desert species and ecosystems that you are interested in. For the aquatic ecosystems of the Basin and Range country and the species that Relicts of a Beautiful Sea describes, the greatest threats are overpumping groundwater and ill-conceived surface water diversions. In some situations, though, invasive species such as exotic crayfish and mosquitofish may be a bigger issue. But for other species such as the desert tortoise, solar energy development poses a greater risk. Ultimately, though, the biggest threat to the desert comes from human shortsightedness, stupidity, error, and (occasionally) malfeasance.

CR: You pose the question: “Why should anyone concern themselves with a species that few people know about and even fewer will ever see?” What would your answer be?

CN: This is a question that anyone interested in conserving biodiversity in all of its “forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (that’s Darwin) must deal with, and there is no one set of answers that will work for all species, or for all people. There are good, pragmatic reasons for preserving the species that I write about, as well as all of the other rare species that inhabit this world—reasons that are in the best selfish, material interests of humans. In some cases they may provide services that help protect ecosystems that are important to humans. They certainly act as environmental sentinels, warning us of danger, and suggesting how we might manage our water and future more wisely. And they also provide a window to the natural world, an understanding of how evolutionary, ecological, anatomical, and physical systems work.

But it is not just a matter of cost-benefit analyses, of dollars and cents and balance sheets. For me the most important value of Inyo Mountain slender salamanders, black toads, and pupfishes is the way that they have endured in the face of so much adversity—adversity induced by the natural world and by humans. They are in some ways very fragile creatures, completely dependent on water in an arid world. Yet they also are tough and tenacious. I suppose, then, that for me these creatures work as metaphor and inspiration. They help me go on, and one of the reasons that I wrote Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is that I hope the stories of these animals will do the same for others.

CR: You focus on six desert species: a salamander, a toad, and four different types of pupfishes. What made you choose these particular creatures? Continue reading ‘Interview: Christopher Norment on the beauty of the desert ecosystem’ »

Meet the Families Represented in ‘Tobe': A 75th Anniversary Event

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe

Tobe, by Stella Gentry Sharpe, originally published in 1939.

Happy seventy-fifth birthday to Tobe, a children’s book about life in rural North Carolina. Published by the UNC Press in 1939, Tobe was one of the few children’s books at the time to feature realistic images of African American children. Through a series of stories and photographs taken near the Hillsborough and Greensboro areas, Stella Gentry Sharpe and photographer Charles Anderson Farrell tell the story of a little boy and his family who were tenant farmers in North Carolina.

To celebrate Tobe‘s seventy-fifth anniversary, historian Benjamin Filene, director of public history at UNC Greensboro, will moderate a panel called “Voices of Tobe,” featuring special guest appearances by several individuals from Tobe, their descendants, and members of their community. To find out more about Filene’s research, see a previous blog post about Tobe.

The Tobe anniversary event will take place in the Wilson Library at UNC Chapel Hill on Tuesday, 21 October from 5:00pm–6:30pm. For more information, check out event details on the UNC University Library page.

Guests at Tuesday’s event will also have an opportunity to view the special exhibit: “Where is Tobe? Unfolding Stories of Childhood, Race, and Rural Life in North Carolina.”

A fully digitized collection of Farrell’s photographs can be found at the University of North Carolina’s Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.

Originally published in 1939, Tobe is now available as a UNC Press Enduring Edition. UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

Nathaniel Cadle: Central American Refugees and the “Traditional” Immigrant Narrative

cadle_mediating_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Nathaniel Cadle, author of The Mediating Nation: Late American Realism, Globalization, and the Progressive State. By the early twentieth century, as Woodrow Wilson would later declare, the United States had become both the literal embodiment of all the earth’s peoples and a nation representing all other nations and cultures through its ethnic and cultural diversity. This idea of connection with all peoples, Cadle argues, allowed American literary writers to circulate their work internationally, in turn promoting American literature and also the nation itself. Reexamining the relationship between Progressivism and literary realism, Cadle demonstrates that the narratives constructed by American writers asserted a more active role for the United States in world affairs and helped to shift global influence from Europe to North America.

In today’s post, Cadle discusses how history can lend clarity to the murky contemporary debate about the distinction between “traditional” immigrants and refugees.


The recent debate over the exact status of the tens of thousands of Central American children attempting to cross the U.S. border reminds us that there is often a very fine line dividing an immigrant from a refugee. It turns out that, according to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Americans—regardless of age or political or religious affiliation—view these children as refugees rather than as illegal immigrants. Of course, the term “refugee” designates a special legal status that carries a wide range of political and bureaucratic implications. In citing the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 as potentially applicable in the case of the Central American children, for example, the Obama administration is making a case that these children have the right to legal and medical aid and that their deportation cannot be fast-tracked, as it often is for undocumented Mexican immigrants.

While our current conception of refugees is largely a product of the Second World War, the people that we tend to think of as having been “traditional” immigrants to the United States were often fleeing the same kinds of unrest and oppression that we now associate with asylum seekers. Continue reading ‘Nathaniel Cadle: Central American Refugees and the “Traditional” Immigrant Narrative’ »

Corinne T. Field: Old Age was Once a Feminist Issue

field_struggle_PBWe are pleased to welcome to the blog today a guest post from Corinne T. Field, author of The Struggle for Equal Adulthood: Gender, Race, Age, and the Fight for Citizenship in Antebellum America. In the fight for equality, early feminists often cited the infantilization of women and men of color as a method used to keep them out of power. Field argues that attaining adulthood–and the associated political rights, economic opportunities, and sexual power that come with it–became a common goal for both white and African American feminists between the American Revolution and the Civil War. The idea that black men and all women were more like children than adult white men proved difficult to overcome, however, and continued to serve as a foundation for racial and sexual inequality for generations.

In a previous guest blog post, Field addresses the phenomenon of “boomerang kids,” namely, recent college graduates who move back home with their parents. In today’s post, Field considers first-wave feminism’s hallmark defense of the value of aging.


Old age was once a feminist issue. From Mary Wollstonecraft in the eighteenth century to Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the early twentieth, feminists argued that women could only be free if they were willing to proudly grow old. These early feminists believed that men subordinated women by praising youthful beauty and denigrating mature wisdom. Girls consented to their own subjection because, as Mary Wollstonecraft put it, “the adoration comes first and the scorn is not anticipated.” Wollstonecraft and others urged women to stop trying to look or act young and instead demand respect for female maturity.

This vital link between feminism and aging was severed in the 1910s as American feminists embraced a spirit of youthful rebellion. A century later, despite the many opportunities women now enjoy, unrealistic beauty standards remain firmly in place and few women manage to climb to the most senior positions in business, politics, or cultural affairs. Perhaps it is time for young women as well as old to reconsider their foremothers’ most vital insight—to gain sexual equality, women must demand respect for female elders.

Winning respect for female elders was an issue that cut across the color line separating black and white feminists in nineteenth-century America. Continue reading ‘Corinne T. Field: Old Age was Once a Feminist Issue’ »

Fiona Ritchie: Living Is Collecting

We welcome a guest post today from Fiona Ritchie, coauthor, with Doug Orr, of Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady stream of Scots migrated to Ulster and eventually onward across the Atlantic to resettle in the United States. Many of these Scots-Irish immigrants made their way into the mountains of the southern Appalachian region. They brought with them a wealth of traditional ballads and tunes from the British Isles and Ireland, a carrying stream that merged with sounds and songs of English, German, Welsh, African American, French, and Cherokee origin. Their enduring legacy of music flows today from Appalachia back to Ireland and Scotland and around the globe. Fiona and Doug guide readers on a musical voyage across oceans, linking people and songs through centuries of adaptation and change.

Fiona and Doug will have two North Carolina tours this fall, the first kicking off this Wednesday, October 1, in Durham. For information about upcoming author events and appearances, all featuring live music, check out their author page on the UNC Press website.

In the following post, Fiona shares some of her travels over the years that contributed to the inspiring collection of stories in Wayfaring Strangers.


Living Is Collecting[1]

A collection of neat boxes and peculiarly shaped jigsaw pieces, each state is clearly delineated on the political map of the United States. Yet the names and dimensions of these fifty territories cannot begin to describe, let alone contain, their countless fluid communities. Dynamic neighborhoods spill across borders, ignoring state boundaries, wayfaring in every direction. Along with a miscellany of ethnic flavors, music is often their travel companion, and curious ears can easily detect the free-flowing currents. These are the song and tune streams that standard maps will never reveal. And with music as the key, fascinating stories of historical communities and their migrations are all there for us to discover.

When NPR first partnered with me in presenting The Thistle & Shamrock®, we talked about using my radio show to open a doorway into a world of evolving Celtic music traditions for public radio listeners. I could never have imagined how far that door would swing open my way, too, helping inspire my search for the depth of connection that underpins our migration story in Wayfaring Strangers.

A public radio conference in New Orleans in 1991 gave me the chance to follow in the footsteps of Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers to cohost an NPR event at the legendary Tipitina’s, formerly a gambling den and house of ill repute. After the conference, I headed to Baton Rouge to host a fundraising event for WRKF. This was held in another Louisiana music heritage hot spot, the renowned Cajun restaurant and dance hall, Mulate’s. I cohosted breaks live on air from the dance floor and twirled a Cajun two-step with almost every supporter of the station. Just when I’d collapsed in a chair to catch my breath, the Cajun band took a break and a Celtic four-piece struck up with sets of reels and jigs. From the Canadian Barn Dance to the Cajun Jitterbug, the intense fusion on the dance floor spoke volumes for the potency of musical traditions in Louisiana.

The kilted piper who met me from the plane in the Tanana Valley at 11 p.m. was a brave man indeed. It was January 1994 in Alaska’s interior. My most adventurous public radio station visit saw me fly from Scotland to Fairbanks at the invitation of KUAC and the Fairbanks Red Hackle Pipe Band. I filled a few days with broadcasts, supporter events, dogsledding, and dancing with native Alaskans. I met remarkable people whose Gwich’in Athabascan fiddle traditions were acquired from nineteenth-century Scottish, Irish, and French Canadian fur traders. The people I met displayed tremendous pride in their musical heritage and recounted many details of this dramatic music migration, passed down through a vibrant native Alaskan oral tradition. I returned home revitalized, rededicated, and amazed that a weekly radio hour could be exchanged for such riches at the far horizons of the United States.

Some years earlier, in 1990, I’d hit the road for my second public radio concert tour. We’d flown coast-to-coast the year before. This time our faded Nashville tour bus meandered along the eastern seaboard and no further west than Memphis. In 1954, a young Elvis Presley played his first public concert there at the legendary Overton Park Shell (now the Levitt Shell). Juxtapose the two scenes as, thirty six years later, a half dozen travel weary Celtic musicians landed on that same stage, with a live version of The Thistle & Shamrock®, for a concert sponsored by WKNO. An ancestor in the Presley family had left Scotland for the Carolinas in 1745. Just imagine: he may have known some of the traditional songs and tunes we performed that night, before the same footlights that witnessed the debut of “That’s All Right (Mama).”

The most formative experience from this collection of memories was my encounter with a Scots-Irish man in the mountains of North Carolina. On a battered old tape recorder, he was quietly determined to capture the sound of bagpipes as it drifted up the hillside from the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. His ache for a living connection was almost palpable and, as I describe in the book, the memory of our meeting burned brightly for me as Doug Orr and I collaborated on Wayfaring Strangers. We trace the epic tale of this man’s ancestors and their musical migration from Scotland, through Ulster, and on down the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road into the Southern Appalachians.

Wayfaring Strangers is a story of musical diaspora, reaching back into antiquity and through centuries of turmoil and transportation. Even today it is a musical force that surges back and forth on the Atlantic tide. Now our book is written and the tapestry of Appalachian music is spread before us. The Scots-Irish hues and textures are as vivid and true in the pattern as ever they were. Yet a flicker of temptation may be all that we need to reach out for that tapestry, tease its fibers apart a little, trace a different strand and wonder: where to next? There is always something more to collect along the way.

Fiona Ritchie is the founder, producer, and host of National Public Radio’s The Thistle & Shamrock®. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia is now available. Connect with Ritchie and Orr on the Wayfaring Strangers Facebook page.

  1. [1] “Living is collecting” is a philosophy shared by Appalachian ballad singer, dulcimer player, and songwriter Jean Ritchie, as quoted in Wayfaring Strangers.

What Ken Burns’s ‘The Roosevelts’ doesn’t tell us (but viewers should know) about Josephus Daniels

Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, by Lee A. CraigLee A. Craig, author of Josephus Daniels: His Life and Times, talks to Publicity Director Gina Mahalek about his reaction to the portrayal of Josephus Daniels (who was, at the time, one of the most influential men in the world) in the latest Ken Burns PBS documentary series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

Daniels enters the story in Episode 3, around the 44:00 mark. You can view the whole series at

[ed. update 9/29/14: Episode 3 is no longer available for streaming, so we’ve replaced it with the series trailer. Watch for future rebroadcasts.]

Gina Mahalek: Were you surprised that Ken Burns chose to focus on Josephus Daniels (and his relationship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) as a major figure in the Roosevelts’ story?

Lee A. Craig: No, I was not surprised. Daniels played a very important role in FDR’s life. First, it was Daniels who brought FDR to Washington and gave him his initial opportunity on the national stage. Daniels may have done this for narrow, and somewhat cynical, political reasons (he thought it was a public relations coup to have a Roosevelt in a Democratic administration), and FDR may have been destined for great things regardless of what Daniels did, but the fact is it was Daniels who offered him the chance.

Second, as FDR admitted later in life, Daniels proved to be a valuable political mentor, teaching FDR how to deal with cabinet colleagues and work the halls of congress to obtain his objectives at the Navy Department. This was mentioned only briefly in the film.

GM: In your opinion, is Burns’s depiction of Daniels accurate and balanced?

LAC: No, it is not balanced. Burns treated FDR’s opinions of Daniels, as revealed in FDR’s private correspondence, as unassailable facts. Furthermore, Burns chose to emphasize the tension in their relationship, focusing on their disputes concerning the Great War, rather than their mentor-apprentice relationship.

GM: What if anything, might you have added to Burns’s portrayal of Daniels?

LAC: The most important thing I would have added is a brief discussion of why there was so much tension between FDR and Daniels over the war. First, both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt unambiguously saw the British as the victims of German aggression. Daniels saw the belligerents as equals, and until the United States joined the war, Daniels remained neutral in thought and deed.

Second, Daniels’s position was based on violations of international law by both the British and the Germans. Burns, like FDR and TR, focused on Germany’s U-boat campaign, while ignoring the U.K.’s illegal blockade of Germany. But Daniels recognized both countries were in violation of the laws of war at sea. (FDR’s proposal to mine international waters between Scotland and Norway, which Burns treated favorably, was also a violation of international law.)

Finally, Daniels was constitutionally less bellicose then either FDR or TR. He truly wanted to avoid war if at all possible. Burns noted that when Daniels finally voted for war in a cabinet meeting, he wept. Given the war’s consumption of lives and treasure, they all should have wept!

Graham T. Dozier on a Civil War Soldier Who Became a Civil War Tourist

Civil War buffs and historians are not the only people interested in visiting historical battlefields. On our Civil War blog, Graham T. Dozier, editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter observes how Civil War battle sites have long fascinated visitors of all kinds. Dozier writes:


Of all the ways that Americans demonstrate ongoing interest 150 years after the Civil War, visiting battlefields is perhaps the most popular expression of that attraction. People travel to preserved sites across the country to try not only to learn what happened there but also to imagine what it was like for the men who fought on those fields so long ago. That desire to make sense of those dramatic events is nothing new. In fact, it began for one man only two months after the first major battle of the war had taken place.

Capt. Thomas Henry Carter, the 30-year-old commander of the recently formed King William Artillery, came to the war in 1861 with a genuine curiosity about people and events. He arrived in northern Virginia that September, and one of the first things he wrote to his wife Susan about was the Battle of Bull Run (or Manassas), which had taken place on 21 July. Specifically, Carter told her what soldiers in the Confederate army thought about the way the battle had ended. “The opinion of the army,” he reported, “is that a tremendous mistake was made in not advancing on to Alexandria immediately after the Bull Run fight.” Clearly this notion troubled Tom Carter deeply. When he considered who was responsible, Carter pointed his finger in one direction. He explained to Susan that “[a]ll admit it now & the blame is put on Davis’ shoulders here. Politicians will ruin us forever.”

Check out Dozier’s full post, “A Civil War Tourist in 1861,” at

Excerpt: The Red Atlantic, by Jace Weaver

The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making the Modern World, 1000-1927 by Jace WeaverFrom the earliest moments of European contact, Native Americans have played a pivotal role in the Atlantic experience, yet they often have been relegated to the margins of the region’s historical record. The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, Jace Weaver’s sweeping and highly readable survey of history and literature, synthesizes scholarship to place indigenous people of the Americas at the center of our understanding of the Atlantic world. Weaver illuminates their willing and unwilling travels through the region, revealing how they changed the course of world history.

In the following excerpt (pp. 36-38), Weaver tells the story of Leif Erikson and the Vikings’ 11th-century arrival on the North American continent. In this history, Weaver explains how the kidnapping of two Amerindian boys from what is now Newfoundland set the precedent for non-native and indigenous relations in the Atlantic for centuries.


Two Beothuk Boys

Leif Erikson sighted the northern coast of North America in approximately 1000 C.E., calling it Vinland. Shortly thereafter, around 1003, the Vikings founded a settlement in present-day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. They encountered “Red Indians” (as distinguished from the Inuit), whom they called skrælings, an archaic word of uncertain meaning but commonly assumed to mean something like “wretches.” These meetings are recorded in the Icelandic sagas.

According to the Grænlendinga Saga, encounters with the Natives were initially friendly. Despite the language barrier, trade was opened, but the relationship soon turned hostile.[1] In Eirik’s Saga, we learn that Leif’s brother Thorvald was struck in the groin by an arrow in one skirmish with skrælings. As he pulls the arrow out, he poetically and tragically says, “This is a rich country we have found; there is plenty of fat around my entrails.” Then he expires—nobly.[2]

Controversial historian Jayme Sokolow summarizes: “The Vikings treated the Skraelings as they would any other outsiders. When the opportunity arose, they killed the adults and enslaved their children. On other occasions, they traded bolts of red cloth for furs.”[3] After Thorvald Erikson’s death, the Vikings fled. They spotted five Natives, “a bearded man, two women, and two children.”[4] Though the adults manage to escape, Thorfinn Karlsefni and his men captured the boys, whom they took with them. The boys were taught Norse and baptized.[5] Thus in 1009, Indian captives were taken to Norway (and perhaps Iceland).[6] Continue reading ‘Excerpt: The Red Atlantic, by Jace Weaver’ »

  1. [1] Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, trans., The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (London: Penguin, 1965), 65–67.
  2. [2] Ibid., 102.
  3. [3] Jayme Sokolow, The Great Encounter: Native Peoples and European Settlers in the Americas (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002), 49. I say controversial simply because he was accused of plagiarism.
  4. [4] Magnusson and Pálsson, 102.
  5. [5] Ibid.
  6. [6] Sokolow, 49; Jack D. Forbes, Columbus and Other Cannibals (New York: Autonomedia, 1992), 37.

Season Two of ‘Finding Your Roots’ Premieres Tonight

Thirty million people tuned in to the first season of the PBS series Finding Your Roots. Viewers will encounter a few surprises as the new season of Finding Your Roots airs tonight at 8p.m. ET on PBS. The documentary series investigates questions such as, Who are we, and where do we come from?


The fundamental drive to answer these questions is at the heart of Finding Your Roots, the companion book to the PBS documentary series. As Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. shows us, the tools of cutting-edge genomics and deep genealogical research now allow us to learn more about our roots, looking further back in time than ever before.

Gates’s investigations take on the personal and genealogical histories of more than twenty luminaries, including United States Congressman John Lewis, actor Robert Downey Jr., CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, President of the “Becoming American Institute” Linda Chavez, and comedian Margaret Cho. Interwoven with their moving stories of immigration, assimilation, strife, and success, Gates provides practical information for amateur genealogists just beginning archival research on their own families’ roots, and he details the advances in genetic research now available to the public. The result is an illuminating exploration of who we are, how we lost track of our roots, and how we can find them again.

Don’t miss new Finding Your Roots episodes every Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, September 23 — November 25. Season Two’s special guests include Nas, Ben Affleck, Billie Jean King, and Anderson Cooper, among others. Tune in tonight to view featured guests Stephen King, Gloria Reuben, and Courtney B. Vance as they discuss the mysteries surrounding their fathers in an episode titled, “In Search of Our Fathers.”

Interview: Steph Jeffries and Tom Wentworth on Hiking Appalachian Forests

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 and Tom Wentworth (photo by David Blevins)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!

Exploring Southern Appalachian Forests:  An Ecological Guide to 30 Great Hikes in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia, by Stephanie B. Jeffries and Thomas R. WentworthCR: 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’ »