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Day Trip to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of Robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

— Joyce Kilmer (Dec. 6, 1886-July 30, 1918).

By Glynn Wilson

Amazingly in the land of 10 million tourists a year in East Tennessee and West North Carolina, we traveled for miles without seeing another vehicle or a single human being. When we reached the mountaintop, the clouds hung in the lower peaks below us, and just a hint of the late afternoon sun made the higher clouds shine violet. Heat lightning flickered amber on the horizon back toward Knoxville. The energy shimmered off the lush forest-green canopy. The legendary blue mist hung heavily in the rolling peaks. A slight breeze made the treetops whisper, and the ancient fear sent a shiver up my spine.

    Earlier in the day, while hiking the main trail in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, we marveled at the 500-year-old trees standing in the oldest plot of virgin forest east of the Mississippi River. You can find it on a map of the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina on the Web. But I strongly recommend an occasional disconnect. Head out on an overcast weekday as we did, and you may find yourself alone there, free to experience the grandeur as the explorers must have five centuries ago.

    In this impressive 3,800-acre patch of land formerly roamed only by the Cherokee people — now protected from all logging — there are yellow or tulip poplars, red oaks and hemlock pines, some standing 100 feet tall, 20 feet in diameter at the base. No two people could hug these trees, although a little meditation in the right spot on the roots might relieve your urban tension and help you carry on your life with a renewed spirit. You might even spot a stump from one of the ancient chestnuts, killed by the blight.

    While the giant sequoias, redwoods and Douglas firs in the Great Northwest can grow much larger, these are as big as trees grow today in the Southeastern United States, and there aren't many left.

    William Bartram described them in his travels here during the 1500s, as did John Muir in the 1800s. But most were cut down by sawyers and dragged to the train tracks by mules, or floated down streams in the slash-and-burn logging days of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, lasting up until about World War II. Many of them ended up as lumber for the suburban houses that sprang up in the war's aftermath. You may now live in a house built in part from one of these beauties.

    A fluke of economics, or perhaps the right energy, is the only thing that saved this patch of virgin timber here in the Little Santeelah Creek basin. According to historians, time was running out for the virgin woods of Little Santeelah in the 1920s, as the giant cross-saws sang in the neighboring valley of Slickrock Creek for years. The Babcock Land and Timber Co. harvested most of the sugar maple, tulip poplar, oak, and hemlock, floating them down to a rail line along the Little Tennessee River.

    "By the early 'thirties, the Little Santeelah forest was an isolated island in a sea of cleared lands," wrote Bill Greer. "Inevitably it fell under the gaze of the lumbermen, but each time they moved into the valley, its huge yellow poplars and chestnuts filled them with awe. Some mysterious protection prevented them from swinging the axes."

    Word is that the land changed hands several times, each owner eager to gain the riches from felling the giant hardwoods towering over the stream.

    "But whether because of a lumberman's respect for nature's mightiest, the financial hardship enveloping the country, or an unknown force," he said, "the blades never cut."

    "But this is a sad forest too," wrote Dewey Wilmot on recent visit from California. "One gets a sense of its isolation and lastness. Only the hard luck of a local logging company spared the forest from the teeth of the saw. Just downstream of the preserve on the Lil' Santeet (as locals call it) are fallen sisters of the ancients, cut one day (before the) company went bankrupt . . . . No place on the entire Eastern seaboard can claim such a swath of the original paint stroke of America. . . . Only here, though, can you see a community this large . . . born before Europeans landed in America."

    On the way up the mountain, we stopped at the last gas station and store for miles at the Motorcycle Only Motel and stocked up on smoked trout subs, potato salad and water. The proprietor said the recipe was secret, so I didn't probe.

    We saved the picnic for the Joyce Kilmer Memorial rock and tree, where veterans in the 1930s honored the poet, a war hero who died in France during World War I.

    His famous poem now rests solidly in the collective memory of millions, many of whom are beginning to appreciate the strength and power of ancient forests. If you've never seen it and felt it, you're missing out on one of the greatest wonders of the natural world.

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