Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
What gives a tree its density? Is it the substance of the soil—the potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the earth? Or is the water absorbed through a tree’s roots and pumped up through the trunk, along the branches, and up into flexible leaves? It’s no mystery that a tree needs soil and water to survive. But are these the elements that form a pine’s tall and solid structure?
From its flimsy seedling beginnings to its woody maturity, the shaping of a tree hinges on an incredible transformation of elements, derived from—not earth, not water—but thin air. A tree gathers its primary mass from atmospheric carbon, synthesizing the carbon from the air into its solid structure. With a little help from the sun, trees all around us are turning air into wood, like spinning straw into gold.
It had been years since I had visited the Great Smoky Mountains. I remember the stretch of stubby peaks straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border from visits when I was a kid, rambling over the misty hills in search of black bear poo and slippery salamanders while hiking on family vacations. The mossy stone-filled creeks and cascading waterfalls stirred my imagination, and the blue ridges that lined the far horizon gave the landscape a sense of boundlessness. I felt that anything could be hiding—and therefore discovered—in the nooks and crannies of these ancient peaks.
A few weeks ago, while ascending a steep and far-too-narrow road to Abram’s Creek on the southwest corner of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I remembered the familiar embrace of this enchanted forest. Abigail and I were more than ready for a few days on the trail, out of service and out of reach of notifications. After each juggling the tasks of our respective milieus, our directive shifted to addressing the refreshingly simple tasks of walking, breathing, and feeding ourselves. As the late afternoon sun sank behind the ridge, we loaded our gear into our bags and cinched our packs tight around our waists.
We balanced our way across rocky streams, hiked through groves of towering pines, and ducked through dense tunnels of rhododendron until we arrived at our first campsite. Though we had reserved a spot in advance, there were more campers at the backcountry site than we felt comfortable sharing the air space with, so we decided we would reroute. But there was one minor problem in relocating: we hadn’t thought to bring a map. Luckily, we remembered a sign further back on the trail pointing toward another backcountry camping area only a few miles down another trail.
We shrugged our shoulders with a “how hard could it be?” attitude, and bravely, or rather naively, adjusted course for the new campsite. Fortunately, we spotted another hiker approaching us from the direction we were headed. Hoping he might have some information of the trail ahead, I called out as soon as he was at a greetable distance.
“How’s it going, sir?”
Slowing his quick pace, he looked up at us and smiled, straightened his leather cowboy hat, and pulled a neck gaiter up over his mouth and nose. He carried a small backpack big enough for a few essentials and gripped a walking stick in his left hand.
“I’m well! Yourselves?”
“We’re fine. Just looking for a campsite ahead. We’re not really familiar with the area. Did you happen to pass camp seventeen further back on the trail?” Abigail asked.
“Yeah, I did. Are you two staying there tonight? It’s a great spot, and there’s only a few folks there,” he replied, maintaining a respectful distance. “There’s a good hill climb between here and there, but it bottoms out next to the river and you’ll be close to Abrams Falls.”
After gathering a few more details about directions and notable trail features, we thanked him for sharing what he knew. He was nearing the end of his hike, clocking a distance somewhere in the fifteen- or sixteen-mile range—he wasn’t quite sure.
“Have a great hike!” he said as he passed us and continued down the trail. “Oh, and one more thing. Something nice about this trail is that it has water. Come on, let me show you.” With an empty water bottle in hand, he took us a few steps back down the trail to a narrow, unmarked footpath. The path led to a small trickle of water, bubbling up from underneath the roots of a tall white pine.
“This spring has always been a reliable spot for freshwater. Hah! Well, at least it’s been clean for the last thirty years since my dad showed it to me,” he said and dipped his bottle into the shallow, clear pool, no larger than a kitchen sink. “You just have to make sure there aren’t any horse droppings nearby, and you’re good to go!”
After guzzling half the bottle, he waved goodbye and sprung down the trail, looking like he could easily go another fifteen miles if he wanted. Just before he rounded the bend, he called back to us.
“Nice to meet y’all. Hey, and stay positive, test negative!
“You too!” we hollered in response.
Our jaws dropped. Was this an encounter with some forest guardian, a mountain sprite who hikes miles through the misty mountains and sips water at hidden springs? He even had a…catchy pandemic slogan? We laughed at the encounter, relieved to know a bit more about where we were going and smug to be in on one of the mountain’s secrets, of which there had to be countless.
We hiked on, found camp, and relaxed for the evening. We cooked soup and told stories around the fire before suspending our food and smellables from a bear hang and calling it a night. Crickets chirped slowly in the cold night air, and the sound of rushing water from the nearby creek filled the area.
My thoughts hummed with memories of the day, like our encounter with the mountain man, the white pine and the ethereal bubbling spring below it. After spending the past few months stuck in a house for so long, I couldn’t remember if this was how nature always was—full of bubbling springs and trees so tall they make your neck ache to see the top—or if this was just the magic of the Smokies.
Throughout the Kentucky-born agrarian essayist Wendell Berry’s writings, he emphasizes that when our relationship to the world around us is abstracted by infrastructural disconnections, like when we begin to think food comes from the supermarket and not a farm, and water comes from the tap and not the earth, we begin to lose the understanding that we fully rely on the natural world for our most basic needs. Even though I’m astounded by a freshwater spring where one can simply fill a water bottle and sip pure, I also saw this as something of a wakeup call. All water that I drink, ultimately, is a part of the water cycle, flowing in a stream or swirling in a Great Lake, before it’s purified and flows through the tap in my house.
Just like the air I inhale and exhale that’s taken up by a tree and transformed into wood, the elements of the periodic table around us are not permanently bound in one location but flow from one entity to another. In these elemental cycles and flows, life is created and sustained. And yet, these flows can be fragile; pure spring water is only pure so long as the quality of the forests and mountains exist to filter it and so long as the rain that falls is free of toxic particulates.
Maybe it was the magic of the Smokies themselves that helped focus my attention on the exchange of elements around me and how I am a part of that exchange, but there’s no reason to think that the exchange only exists in rugged mountain wilderness areas. If there’s anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s that the actions that one person does or does not do are critically linked to our collective health as a community of living beings. The flow of elements occurs not just in nature, but in me and you, my breath and your breath and a forest’s breath, so much so that our health is equally collective as it is individual.