Written by Jeremy Lloyd, Manager of Field Programs and Collegiate Studies. Photos by David Bryant.

Learning about nature’s nuts and bolts in the Smokies—its natural history—is a big part of what we do at Tremont.

Each year, I have the privilege of getting to teach several courses in our Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program. I always enjoy these special weekends when I get to unplug and explore the natural world alongside program attendees.

Minding, Sensing, Placing

In one of the courses I teach, we study the big picture by comparing and contrasting different forest habitats. In another, we dig down to the species level by learning to distinguish coyote tracks from those of wild hogs, and how to tell the difference between marginal and intermediate wood ferns.

The knowledge a person gains through this type of hands-on experience isn’t easy to quantify, much less describe. There’s a lot more going on than the acquisition of identification skills, as important as those are. What happens takes place at the basement level of a person’s being, down where words can’t fully grasp what goes on.

The antidote is to expand our idea of what defines the classroom, including by going outdoors.

One thing that occurs is the fostering of one’s sense of place. It’s what happens when a person gains a cerebral, sensual, and perhaps even spiritual understanding of a place—a single location on earth characterized by soils, species, colors, sounds, smells, and more, which are particular to it.

“Mindfulness” is the term for an increasingly popular method of meditation and self-care. What if a new word were coined to describe a person’s careful attention to place? Placefulness? Sensefulness? (Awkward! Please send ideas!)

Naturalists in the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program track mammals in the Smokies

Out With the New, In With the Old?

Learning in this feet-on-the-ground way is vastly different than the traditional classroom model many of us are well-acquainted with. (A model which isn’t traditional at all in the longer view of human history, but is a fairly recent invention from the 19th century.) I suspect many people who attend Tremont programs struggled like I did during their school years with detached and abstract deskbound learning, which is the norm today.

The antidote is to expand our idea of what defines the classroom, including by going outdoors. Rewards are virtually guaranteed when we do.

This May Take Awhile

In his book The Long-Legged House Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry recalls his desire to learn the natural history of his home after moving back following an absence of several years.

“As soon as I felt a necessity to learn about the non-human world, I wished to learn about it in a hurry. And then I began to learn perhaps the most important lesson that nature had to teach me: that I could not learn about her in a hurry.”

I can relate. When I first started working in the Smokies, I got pretty good at identifying common wildflower species, perhaps fifty or more. Then I picked up a copy of the park’s list of flowering plants which was filled with over 1,500 species (it has now climbed to over 1,600). The learning curve suddenly got as steep as the Cliffs of Insanity (see the film Princess Bride for reference).

Learning about nature, or any kind of learning really, takes a lifetime.

Knowledge is power. I’ve known several “experts” over the years who seemed to want me to know how smart they were by naming every plant or bird as quickly as possible. Fortunately, I’ve met far more naturalists who like me are aware of how little they really know.

Berry clearly falls into this latter category when he says, “I expect to learn many things before my life is over, and yet to die ignorant.”

Learning about nature, or any kind of learning really, takes a lifetime.

Berry again: “The thing is to be attentively present. To sit and wait is as important as to move. Patience is as valuable as industry. What is to be known is always there. When it reveals itself to you, or when you come upon it, it is by chance. The only condition is your being there and being watchful.”

Learning Where We Live (and Vice Versa)

One challenge many of us face is how easy it is to forget that we live in actual places. We race out the door, hop in our automobile, hurry to work, and scamper back home again. Most of our waking hours are spent between four walls or on four wheels. Hours go by each day as we stare at screens and as a world filled with wonder goes largely unnoticed right outside our door. The ”environment” is somewhere out there.” Beautiful landscapes have street addresses that are usually different than ours.

One challenge many of us face is how easy it is to forget that we live in actual places.

But maybe when the weekend comes around, we step away from our routines and reacquaint ourselves with the world around us. Which of course doesn’t have to happen in a national park, thank heavens.

Something magical happens when we give our attention to a place, learning its textures and moods. We grow attached to it. We begin to care.

Listening to Places

Places are of special concern to conservationists, which ought to include anyone who’s conscious of their dependency on the more-than-human world for survival. This is one more reason why paying attention is so vital.

Berry one last time (paraphrasing): “Our places are asking questions of us and we don’t have the answers.”

He’s referring to the disappearance of many places as a result of industrialization, rampant development, neglect, and other threats.

Part of the answer is to listen and stay attached. To be connected and keep listening to the questions our places are asking us. Because by taking the time to listen, we’ve already begun to care.

What questions is your place asking you?