Interview: Tom Earnhardt on Crossroads of the Natural World

Crossroads of the Natural World by Tom EarnhardtIn Crossroads of the Natural World: Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt, a richly illustrated love letter to the wild places and natural wonders of North Carolina, Tom Earnhardt seamlessly ties deep geological time and forgotten species from our distant past to the unparalleled biodiversity of today. With varied topography and a climate that is simultaneously subtropical, temperate, and subarctic, he shows that North Carolina is a meeting place for living things more commonly found far to the north and south. Highlighting the ways in which the state is a unique ecological crossroads, Earnhardt’s research, insightful writing, and stunning photography will both teach and inspire.

In the following interview, Earnhardt delves into the wild beauty of—and the challenges to—North Carolina’s natural environment and illustrates why it is so unique.


Q:  Your book, Crossroads of the Natural World: Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt, celebrates the state’s extraordinary biodiversity. Is North Carolina unique as a natural crossroads?

A:  When you add up many factors—the Gulf Stream (warm) colliding with the Labrador Current (cold), the most 5,000 and 6,000 foot mountains east of the Dakotas, 17 river basins with more than 40 inches of rain per year, a complex geological landscape ranging from over a billion to a few million years old, and an ecological tapestry has never been reached by glaciers during the Ice Ages—North Carolina is in fact a crossroads of the natural word. In a relatively small area of land, we are at the same time sub-tropical, sub-arctic, and temperate. Taken together, all the elements above make possible our remarkable biodiversity.

Q:  Your cover is a composite image of the seashore, mountains, forest, and swamp. How does this picture depict the biodiversity you’ve experienced while traveling extensively throughout North Carolina?

A:  The cover is a sampling of the diverse biological communities and topography found here—including vegetation on sand dunes, eastern hardwood bottomlands (found along coastal rivers), Longleaf Pine savannahs, Piedmont hardwoods, and our very old/high mountains. If you leave Wilmington and drive toward Asheville on Interstate 40, all of these features and communities can be experienced in less than one day. I have made the journey many times and still marvel at the natural bounty along the way, which we too often take for granted.

Q:  You are the writer and co-producer of UNC-TV’s Exploring North Carolina, which has been on the air since 2003. What new perspective would fans of your Emmy-nominated program gain from reading your latest book?

Tom Earnhardt, author of Crossroads of the Natural World, photo courtesy of Rachel Earnhardt
photo by Rachel Earnhardt

A:  Public television is a wonderful venue to tell compelling stories in words and film that highlight North Carolina’s natural resources. It is not the proper venue, however, for me as a longtime environmentalist to air personal experiences and opinions on conservation and public policy issues. Writing this book has given me the opportunity to comment on our state’s successes and failures with natural resources, and to weigh in on the choices we face in the decades to come.

Q:  Your love of all things natural is evident in this collection of essays and photographs. When did you first develop this passion for the outdoors?

A:  From my earliest memories on Bearwallow Mountain in the late 1940s to this very moment, the natural world has been integral to my life and that of my family. I was especially fortunate to have parents who tolerated, and even encouraged, my “collection of the month”—rocks, beetles, butterflies, pressed flowers, and arrowheads. Because we protect the things we love, it is easy and entirely natural for me to write about wild things and places in North Carolina.

Q:  Crossroads of the Natural World has the feel of a lifelong collection. What process did you go through to accumulate the material for your book?

A:  After years of listening and observing from the mountains to the Outer Banks, I have come to believe that important lessons from the natural sciences are more memorable—and palatable—when wrapped in a story. Therefore, it was only natural for me to attempt to relay complex lessons in geology, climate, and biodiversity by wrapping them in stories about people and events. By choosing stories that have been part of my life in North Carolina, I hope to enhance the reader’s personal connection with the natural world.

Q:  This book contains more than 100 of your own photos. Why are they such a key component of your book? Were there any that were particularly challenging to take?

A:  For several decades now I have seldom traveled without a camera when I hike, travel, or fish. Good cameras need not be expensive, and I often carry a couple of different lenses. It is hard for me to ignore a spectacular sunset, a special wildflower, dew on a spider web, or ice on a swamp. Some of my photographs, such as hummingbirds hovering next to Trumpet Vine, require lots of patience. Other photographs required the help of friends who will told me when and where the Prothonotary Warblers had arrived (page 112) or the Oconee Bell (page 178) was in bloom. I have never thought of myself as a great photographer, but as a photographer with a great number of images from which to choose.

Q:  Can you tell us why you selected “Three Elephants in the Basement” to be your first essay?

A:  We sometimes forget that change can occur rapidly. In the last two hundred years North Carolina has witnessed the extirpation (elimination from this region) of elk, buffalo, wolves, and mountain lion. The American Chestnut, once the most common tree in our western forests, disappeared. The Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet became extinct. The first essay, “Three Elephants in the Basement,” allowed me to transport the reader back to a time not very long ago—just a comma and three zeroes ago—when the land that would become North Carolina was populated by three species of elephant and a menagerie of strange animals as large as any in Africa today. The essay is a reminder that ecosystems are fragile and that even the largest and most powerful creatures can disappear.

Q:  Crossroads of the Natural World will be published on April 22, 2013, which also happens to be Earth Day. As an avid naturalist, what does this day mean to you?

A:  Earth Day is for me a time to celebrate the wild places and things here in North Carolina. You don’t have to travel to Yellowstone Park or the tropics to be wowed by nature. From our mountains to the Gulf Stream, and in every season, few places can compare to our corner of the world.

Q:  You often stress the need for preserving North Carolina’s biodiversity through conservation. What small step could people do every day to help protect their state’s and their planet’s matchless natural world?

A:  I have grown concerned that the biological diversity that has defined our state is giving way—especially in urban areas—to homogenization. The streets and roadsides of North Carolina should feature native plants and trees, yet all too often highways and neighborhoods have been planted with the same alien, exotic vegetation. Small steps we can all take include planting native vegetation in our own yards and encouraging local/state leaders to utilize a variety of our native plants on roadsides and in all public lands.

Q:  Often, children only experience nature in the classroom or at the museum. Can you give us any tips for getting the next generation outside?

A:  Many of us are familiar with the “Hundred Acre Wood” in A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books. For young children a quarter-acre yard or a small park can be that “Hundred Acre Wood,” especially if the space contains a variety of native plants and creatures—butterflies, beetles, birds or salamanders.

Find “wild places” near your home or apartment for children to explore: they are never too young to benefit from the natural world. Team sports—soccer, baseball, or basketball—are important for children, but should never take the place of time outside with friends or with parents—playing in a creek, fishing in a pond, or hiking in a state park.

Q:  Why is it important to look at North Carolina’s natural world from a historical perspective?

A:  I have always been frustrated that natural history has frequently been treated as a stepchild of recorded, written history. The written record relied on by historians is important, but equally important is the natural history of our region as revealed in stone, bone, and DNA. I believe that for parents, politicians, and leaders of business that the natural history of North Carolina and the planet Earth is just as relevant to our survival, prosperity, and understanding of who we are as are histories from the written record.

Q:  How does your love of North Carolina and its biodiversity go beyond “pride in king and country?”

A:  I am very much aware of the great biodiversity found in the tropics and in other regions of the United States, but no matter how much I have traveled to other states and countries, I have continued to be excited by the quantity and quality of wilderness in one relatively small place—North Carolina. Simply stated, Tar Heel green spaces and wild places should evoke within each of us a sense of awe and establish a “sense of place.” By all means, travel to the wild places of the world if you have the opportunity, but don’t miss the best of North Carolina in the process.

Tom Earnhardt is author of Crossroads of the Natural World: Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt. A lawyer by profession, he is a committed conservationist and environmentalist. He is also the writer, coproducer, and host of the popular television program Exploring North Carolina, which airs on UNC-TV.