Visiting the mighty before they make their final—and unplanned—departure
In the 1800s, naturalist William Bartram once remarked that you could swing from limb to limb from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River without ever touching the ground. He didn’t know at the time, but were anyone to take on his challenge, they would cross over the oldest mountains on the planet—so old, in fact, that they once rivaled the present heights of the Himalayan Mountains. Hard to imagine that Clingman’s Dome just over the Tennessee border in North Carolina could have been Kanchenjunga and Mt. Mitchell to its east once an Everest.
However, nestled in a basin called Poplar Cove near Little Santeetlah Creek is a vestigial sliver that will make you a believer. Joyce Kilmer National Forest is the home of giants; a real-life land of lost time. It is a fold in the universe that lets you walk 500 years through a hidden doorway to the real America. One hundred species of trees thrive in this primeval canopy. Buxom ferns, the envy of any florist, nudge rattlesnake plantain so tall I thought it had to be another plant.
I’m between twin poplars that tower 150 feet above me with a girth that defies three big human hugs. My neck is straining to catch errant rays of sun filtering through their crown. Alongside me is the biggest beech tree I have ever touched, its smooth bark irresistible for me and vandals. The Cherokee used to say that the beeches resist lightning, but that immunity sadly does not extend to graffiti. Moving on we weave between hemlock totems—soldiers who have fallen in battle with the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid. Despite their misfortune, their hollowed trunks still reach 60 feet or more, a testament to their former glory.
Joyce Kilmer’s words inspired a wilderness. “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Like these mighty hemlock, Kilmer fell in a battle not of his choosing in World War One, never to rise again. Two decades back, I saw quite a different forest here, but you can never climb the same mountain twice. An ecologist told me back then that all I can do is go see them while they’re still here. I would advise you to do the same.