I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what goes into the cultivation of a rich inner life. Over the past several years there has been a reexamination of my faith and everything I believe, a stripping away, an unlearning, a rejuvenation of the very foundation of why I live the way I do. I’ve been thinking about my job and the work I do, and have centered my focus on what makes life outside of the 9-5 meaningful. My home is a work in progress and there are still projects that need to be done that are weighing on me because I want the house to feel complete, without gaping holes of work that still need to be finished. My relationship with my husband is in constant shift as we navigate the mountains and valleys of life together.
All of this has had me seeking out ways to satisfy dreams that are bubbling beneath the surface, itching to break free. The hiking and traveling quench a thirst for freedom, and being in the outdoors has rekindled my love for the environment in a tangible way. Science has always been part of my life, and I am slowly discovering ways to bring it into clearer focus here in Tennessee. Like peeling through layers of an onion, one thing leads to another until an opportunity presents itself.
Last year when I was looking up some information about Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I started messing around on the Institute at Tremont’s website. I’ve passed the sign for that place dozens of times and still didn’t know what they do there. Since that night, I’ve learned what a truly special place Tremont is. Little did I know, another dream was about to fall into place. Click. The Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program. A certification program with seven science courses about life in the Smokies, on weekends, at your own pace, in a camp setting, with other environmental nerds. SIGN. ME. UP.
The second I decided to do this, I found out when the registration date was for the following year’s courses and set a calendar reminder. Then I waited very impatiently and signed up for 3 classes the second they went on sale. Then I took one class and immediately signed up for 2 more. So this year, I’ll hopefully complete 5 of the classes required to finish. I excitedly started to tell people I was doing this, and as I stood there with a gleam in my eye, barely containing the joy spilling out of my brain at the thought of becoming a certified naturalist, they’d ask me what that was, and then say, “Well, what are you going to do with that?” It threw me off every time because I guess when you’re getting a university certification for a program, you should have some kind of end goal with it. But for me, the end goal here is that it accomplishes a dream. I am doing this for the simple fact that I love nature and it fills me with happiness. For years now, I’ve been hiking in the Smoky Mountains and have wondered about all the plants and flowers I see, the birds, the way the mist settles over the peaks, the varied environments and habitats that exist there. I have so many questions. What are they called? Why do they grow here? What causes environmental shifts throughout the seasons? How are humans impacting this place? This program is a way to satisfy that curiosity in some ways, and perhaps encouragement to continue learning more.
The first class that I took was called Interpretation and Naturalist Skills. I am not going to be explicit about what happens in this class because I think that going into it with no expectations creates a more authentic experience. What I will say though is that when the weekend was over, I felt like my mind had been opened in ways I didn’t realize it could be. There is an art to observing life around us and then conveying what we observe to others in such a way that makes them want to care about it too.
One thing I do want to share though, is an exercise we did one morning. The weather was fickle throughout the weekend, but the rain cleared up enough for us to wake up and head to the Foothills Parkway to watch the sunrise. Even now I can remember the feeling I had sitting there on the damp ground, freezing from the morning breeze, thinking there was no place else in the world I’d rather be in that moment.
SUNRISE OVER THE FOOTHILLS PARKWAY
The mist has nestled between the hills. Firs and deciduous skeletons peak out from its gray blanket. The Smoky Mountains are true to their name this gorgeous day. A gregarious bird starts to sing as the breeze stirs the trees into gentle motion. Other birds join in the song. I wonder how this scene looks each day. What makes the mist rise in the motion that it does? How old are these hills? What gave them their shape?
I’m taken back to the way the sunlight dances on the water at home. This is so different, yet it feels the same. This beauty feels like home. Awe. Wonder. Captivation. Enchantment. Love. Peace. Hope. I feel profoundly grateful to be here in this moment. This sunrise will never happen again. It is singular and I am here to see it.
As the sky lightens, the mist grows restless, rising with the day, awakening the mountains from their slumber. The peaks that were shadows before come into focus, defined by the light. Ridge lines meet the sky in sharper contrast. The earth is rotating toward the light and so are we. My discomfort is eclipsed by the scene unfolding before me. There is a white noise of insect chorus. Birds twitter and flit to and from as the day’s work begins.
The mist is heavier than the air. It is cold. These mountains tell a new story everyday, paint a new picture and sing a new song everyday. Long after I am gone, they will remain to captivate those who come after. In the center of the light, clouds are turning pink and purple around the edges. The light is touching more and more of them. The peaks in the distance reveal themselves as the curtain of cloud cover is whisked away by the morning air. The clouds take on a shininess as the sun makes its journey to the top of the hills. I think of all the mornings I stay in bed and miss moments like this one. But not today…
The mist is growing closer to where I sit. What makes it move so, restless as though it knows its moment will soon end? It gathers, thickening in the valleys, congregating, clinging fast to its hold on the land, not willing to relinquish just yet.
The clouds take on a transparency. When the sun finally breaks through, the warmth is palpable. The mist glows, illuminated from within.
The sky becomes a brilliant light blue. Colors emerge, sage, sienna, burnished gold. The brown death of winter turns rosy, yellow, blue, pink clouds change to white and gray. I know nothing in the face of this. The mist begins to reflect the sky, mirroring its blue.
The bones of last season’s goldenrod quiver in the breeze, looking toward the light, knowing their seeds will soon sprout and the cycle of their ancestry will continue. The mist turns into a sea of light, an ocean of radiant, cotton candy warmth. Rays and beams become visible through branches as the light bends toward those of us on earth. Embrace me in the magic of your light.