Story used by permission from the Knoxville Mercury.

In Cover Stories by Élan Young3 Comments

Before I became a parent, I traced in green highlighter roughly two-thirds of the official trails on my now out-of-date trail map of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, worn thin in the creases from more than a decade of use. From all those hikes, it’s the memory of particular natural sounds that holds the most power over me, able to catapult me right back into a high-elevation forest with wind rustling the treetops or next to a rushing stream lined with boulders softly furred with moss.

The first time I heard the eerie flute-like call of the wood thrush on Cucumber Gap trail near Elkmont, the world stopped. The spring ephemerals were on the verge of blooming, and the sound conveyed the essence of life awakening from winter. Spring was suddenly not a season, but now a process—one that was happening around me and also included me as a participant rather than simply the observer I had only ever been before. It was the wood thrush’s call that released me from my other self—the one with the chatterbox mind. I was momentarily transported, yet simultaneously more present: aware of slanted light, the rhododendron-lined path, and the sense that the impersonal woods had been transformed into an intimate space. I never saw the bird, but it had managed to stir in me something I’d not experienced often, nor could sustain: a greater sense of belonging, not just to a place, but to a specific moment in time.

Lightscapes, or night skies unpolluted by light, are equally important resources in allowing transcendent experiences in nature. I’m hardly the only one who has watched meteors trace arcs like flaming arrows shot from invisible bows from atop Mt. LeConte, which at 6,593 feet is the third-highest peak in GSMNP and is often blanketed in fog. However, because I also know the flat, muted skies of cities, each truly dark sky I witness is nothing short of a special occasion. But many urban dwellers have missed out on the kind of natural nighttime darkness that allows them to see more than a few bright stars. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, the U.S. population has grown at an average rate of 1.5 percent annually, while the amount of outdoor lighting in use has grown by about 6 percent per year. Now, eight out of 10 kids born in the U.S. live where they can never see the Milky Way. But it only takes one clear, brilliant night sky to change someone’s life. The park has on occasion provided inner-city kids visiting Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont their first chance to gaze into starry depths.

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