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A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Author : Donald W. Linzey
Published : 2008-04-01

Usually when I visualize Great Smoky Mountains National Park, what comes to mind are heavily forested mountains cut by leaping creeks, roamed by black bears, and packed with salamanders. But if you talk to Donald Linzey, he'll open your eyes to a lot more of the park's natural history.

He'd tell you where you can find the Green Anole, a lime-colored lizard, how those tiny holes you often see in acorns came to be there, and get you to know Art Stupka, who in 1935 became the park's very first naturalist. He could school you on lungless salamanders that live in the park, tell you how the venomous Smoky Madtom and Yellowfin Madtom can sting anyone who gets too close, and outline the threats to the park's landscape.

Dr. Linzey, you see, served as a seasonal park ranger-naturalist in the park back in the 1960s when he was pursuing his doctorate as a wildlife biologist and ecologist. These days he teaches biology at Wytheville Community College in Wytheville, Virginia, but he's also found time to share his half-century of knowledge about the park's wild side in A Natural History Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In this richly illustrated book from the University of Tennessee Press, Dr. Linzey sets out by taking your hand to explain how the park's landscape came to be, and then leads you through that landscape to show you all that lives there.

Sections of the book, understandably in light of Dr. Linzey's time in the classroom, come across as, well, a classroom text.

The months of June, July, and August are the hottest and wettest months of the year. Summers in the Smokies means heat, haze, and humidity. Brief afternoon or evening thundershowers often occur. At lower elevations, temperatures range from warm to hot during the day, but generally cool during the evening and overnight. Even during these summer months, high-elevation areas are generally cool and require the use of blankets or sleeping bags by hikers or campers.

But as you move further into the text the author's long personal history with the park comes to fore and his voice comes across not professorial but rather like that of a father explaining Great Smoky's wonders to his children in a comfortable and informative fashion.

Appropriately enough, in light of the Appalachian Mountain setting, Dr. Linzey tosses a story or two in at times to help illustrate the setting at hand. For instance, in the section on "balds," those thick tangles of vegetation -- usually thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron -- that can be found near the roof of the Smokies, the author turns to the following story:

Years ago a mountaineer named Irving Huggins was trapped in a heath bald. It took him several days to find his way out. Since then, that area, an extremely rugged gorge that extends from Alum Cave Creek up to Myrtle Point on Mount LeConte, has been known as Huggins Hell.

A visitor once asked a mountaineer, "What would you do if you met a bear in one of those places?"

"Well," replied the mountaineer with a twinkle in his eye, "if I couldn't turn around and the bear couldn't turn around, there would be only one thing to do!"

"Yes?" questioned the visitor.

"When the bear opened his mouth, I'd stick my arm down his throat, grab him by the tail, and jerk him inside out! Then he'd be heading the other way!"

If you ever wanted to achieve a thorough understanding of the park's natural history, but didn't have time for years of geology, biology, ecology and botany courses, this book would get the job done. From plate tectonics and the eating habits of rattlesnakes to the park's All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory and the prospect and fallout of global warming, Dr. Linzey covers all the bases in a book that's an easy, enjoyable read, either in one setting or a chapter at a time in the field.

It's not a book to be left at home, either. In the appendix are checklists for trees, wildflowers, and throughout the book you'll find checklists for birds, mammals, and amphibians.


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