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Spring in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photo School Field Report

It's a sound I've heard hundreds of times, yet it never gets old. We stand on the edge of a holler and let the breeze wash over us. It's quiet in this part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and it's like we have the entire park to ourselves. There are no cars, no people, and only the wind in the woods - and a lone turkey in the distance.

The trees sway rhythmically as their leaves, newly unfurled for spring, shimmer in a celebratory dance as they embrace the wind blowing by.  Spring is a magical time to be in nature, but nowhere more so than in the Smoky Mountains.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Lone Tree at Sunrise

Then I hear the sound again.  Echoing from the holler is the gobble of a mature eastern wild turkey.  The sound reverberates off the trees and rocks.  Then he gobbles again - as if he's answering his own echo.  No matter how well I articulate it, there is no way I can accurately describe what it's like to be in the woods and hear the sounds of nature as the day comes alive.  It's something you have to experience in person.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
An Eastern wild turkey gobbling in the morning.

For most of the week, we've been immersed in Appalachian culture.   For me, this place feels like home, as I've got a blood memory of life here.  When my people came to the United States in the eighteenth century, they migrated through North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas.  It's a migration that took nearly 100 years for us to end up in Texas, so undoubtedly, my kin settled in these hills.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
A country lane at sunrise.

Standing atop a mountain ridge and looking across the layers and layers of mountains that unfold in the distance is a bit romantic in the classical sense.  It's easy to understand why countless country and old-time music songs were written about the region.  It's the cradle of two distinct types of American music (Country and Bluegrass). It continues to inspire artists, musicians, and photographers (like us).

As the week progresses, we find ourselves at various parts of the park photographing a few of the thousands of species of wildflowers.  Called spring ephemerals, these flowers range from violet to yellow, whites, and reds.  They don't blanket large areas like the wildflowers you might see in the fields of Texas.  Instead, they stake their place in wet bogs, rocky ledges, and beneath the understory of vast stands of hickory, beech, maple, and poplar trees.  In places, there's a kaleidoscope of colors.  In other locations, solitary flowers stake their spot in the landscape and engage in their eternal struggle to grow and reproduce.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Dwarf crested iris growing along the forest floor.

It's no wonder that the Cherokee were attracted to this land.  The Smokies have abundant food, water, and trees for shelter.  The influence of the Cherokee abides on the North Carolina side - and elsewhere throughout the park.  Street signs are written in the native Cherokee language, and place names like Oconaluftee, Nantahala, and even the state name of Tennessee are evidence of the tribe's influence on Southern Appalachia.  After the Cherokee were extirpated by the United States government, Scotch-Irish settlers began to settle the mountains.  These settlements were occupied by a primarily poor and agrarian society. They were isolated by topography from bigger towns that were springing up in the area.  As such, a distinct culture emerged from the mountains.   You can still see the vestiges of the Southern mountain culture in the many barns and cabins smattered in old settlements like Cades Cove or Cataloochee.  Each cabin is unique - as unique as the story of the people who built it- and as such, it is an interesting photo study.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Primitive Baptist Church, Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Spring is a time for wildlife in the Smokies.  While we are well beyond the fall rut that finds the elk and whitetail frantically trying to find mates before the onset of winter, the wildlife here has entered a different phase.  At high elevations, winter's grip is still vaguely present.  The trees stand dormant, but they begin to green as you descend to lower elevations.  There, the canopy is as verdant as you've ever seen.  Where it's warm and green, the wildlife flourishes.  At one place, we see squirrels and chipmunks clamoring for food, while at another, cow elk springing with this year's calf crop, feeding on green grass along the lush Oconoluftee River bottom.  Whitetail deer are abundant as well, and this time of year, the wild turkeys are especially animated as the colorful males strut, spit, and gobble in an attempt to catch the eye of an ambivalent female feeding in the grass nearby.  We stop and look at nearly every wildlife sighting near us, but the showstoppers here each spring are the bears.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Black bear sow.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Black bear sow and cub.

Black bears are in abundance here.  It's estimated that overall, there's a density of a bear for every two square miles in the park.  Of course, some areas have a higher density, and therefore, that's where we concentrate our efforts in our search.  It only takes a short time until we see a lone male forage at the forest's edge.  By his stature, he's young, and this is likely his first year on his own.  He's a little skinny, but he's finding his bearings in a great big world as soon as he plops under the canopy of a walnut tree and begins crunching on last fall's leftovers.  A bit later, we see another bear with four cubs in tow.  She's done an excellent job raising them; the entire bunch looks healthy.

While their mom feeds, the youngsters roam off and engage in some play.   Mostly, though, they are hungry and pick around the forest floor in search of anything edible.   We watch them for over thirty minutes until they finally melt slowly into the woods.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Tintype photo of a pioneer cabin.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Grist mill

It's no wonder the bears like the woods. The forests here have an undeniable appeal. Every place you look holds the promise of a good photograph, and every foot of elevation is different from the last. The Smokies are as complete a photo destination as you could hope for.

The water, the rocks, the trees, the plants, the culture, and the wildlife all coalesce into a visually dynamic location whose story can never be entirely told.  That's why we go back to a place over and over again:  landscapes like this are ever-changing, and there is always something new to see.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Mountain stream and waterfall.

One morning, as we sit atop the highest point in the Smokies, a hint of orange appears in the Eastern sky.  The clouds are building from the west and are spreading across the entire sky and threaten to squelch the sunrise, but there are thin enough clouds to let some color shine through.  As the day lightens, the layers of the mountains become evident.  This is the view that so many people come here to see:  the Great Smoky Mountains (named Shaconage by the Cherokees, which translates to "place of the blue smoke) shrouded in clouds and mist for as far as the eye can see.

I hear the intermittent click of a camera, but mostly, I hear silence. This view makes for an inspiring way to start the day. It's also a perfect starting point for finding even more photographs.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
The Smoky Mountains at sunrise.

A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Cades Cove at sunrise.


If you've ever wanted to experience the Smokies and all it has to offer in its various seasons, check out our upcoming photography workshop, Summer in the Smokies.

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