Cades Cove

Ask anyone in East Tennessee where to go in the Smokies and you’ll likely hear all about Cades Cove. A beautiful valley formed by erosion of limestone from the surrounding sandstone mountains, Cades Cove was hunting grounds for the Cherokee and later home to nearly 800 European settlers before the formation of Smoky Mountain National Park in 1927. Several 19th century settlement buildings have been preserved and relocated along the Cades Cove Loop Road as representations of Appalachian settlements.
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Oft-photographed double-cantilevered barn

Oft-photographed double-cantilevered barn


Beyond its rich historical context, the Cove has extremely interesting geology and biology. As in much of the Smokies, the hills are made up of sandstone that has withstood the worst of erosion while the valley that eroded was softer limestone. This porous subterranean condition means that water drains quickly on the hillsides leading to a drier than expected surface environment. The plants and trees there have had to adapt to dry conditions and fire threats. Of course, as a managed park frequented by visitors, Cades Cove is protected from burning as much as possible and some of the trees in particular are suffering for it. Nonetheless, the trails were remarkable and full of intimate moments of beauty.
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One of the unexpected finds in the Cove was the freshwater wetland. Our guide explained the challenges faced by the wetland ecosystem and some of the many adaptations bog plants had developed to overcome them. We came away with a lot of practical ideas to incorporate into our next design: wetland overlook at Seven Islands.
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Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge

This week we began our site study of Seven Islands Wildlife Refuge in eastern Tennessee. The studio broke into pairs to study particular aspect of the site: topography, hydrology, wind and light. My partner and I studied hydrology. We began in the studio with topo maps, TVA data, KGIS data and the like. We formulated diagrams to explain the watershed boundaries, how water moved through the site, rainfall and runoff levels and historic flood patterns. Having done all this, I thought I understood the site, but there is no substitute for being on the ground.

We took a trip out to the site and had a chance to walk the land. The road in followed the main drainage way beside Bays Mountain, a major ridge in the area. When we reached the bottom, the floodplain meadows and the new woods, the path turned to track along the base of the Mountain and eventually ran parallel with another drainage way. Seeing this shift, this natural turn in the watercourse, made so much more sense than the path had on the topo map. When the drainage way ran into a broad freshwater wetland, I was not surprised. Just past the wetland was the French Broad river. The river was broader and faster than I had anticipated, but we have had a lot of rain recently and the water levels were obviously higher than usual. Of course, the upstream Douglas Dam may have been releasing more water than usual, making accommodations for the higher water levels in the reservoir.
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As part of the assignment, each pair had to locate a path somewhere within a short walk of the wetland. The site had to highlight our studied phenomenon. We chose to situate our path at a point near where the drainage way that had paralleled our walk into the park met the French Broad. More particularly, where the drainage way and a smaller fork of the river met the main body of the river. On the other side of the existing walking path were the steep, rocky slopes of Bays Mountain with deep gullies that obviously channeled rainwater into the drainage way.
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Our constructed path will draw attention to the land/ water/ land/ water topography by being perfectly straight, perpendicular to the existing path. Right before our selected location, the dirt path turns a corner, revealing our location rather suddenly. The perfectly straight lines of our path and its location across the dirt path will cause people to pause. Whether they choose to take our path or simply step over it to continue, they are likely to turn their heads to look over the bridge’s path, noticing how close the river is at that point and noticing the alternating land/water pattern.

If they choose to take our path, they will encounter a dip, a ladder bridge that takes the individual down into the drainage way for a closer look at the eroded sides and the delicate vegetation that grows in that moist, shaded environment. Once across the bridge, the path will continue linearly across the small peninsula that separates the main path and drainage way from the river channel. The path will continue out over the water for a distance of nearly fifteen feet, pointing directly to a break in the trees on the other side of the channel. This will visually connect the onlooker to greater river environment.

Walking along the path, with thick vegetation and rock beside you, it’s easy to miss the river until you are right on it. It’s also easy to miss the beautiful alternating water/ land patterns. Hopefully, our path will draw attention to both these experiences.

Cumberland Plateau

Getting to know East Tennessee

Getting to know East Tennessee

This week the studio took a road trip to the Cumberland Plateau near Cove Lake State Park. First, let me tell you that every image you ever had of a plateau as a high flat place is misleading. Sure, the larger region is generally flat when compared with the Smoky Mountains or even the undulating Valley and Ridge region, but hiking around up there is one heck of a climb! Unfortunately, I never made it to the top; an old hip injury sidelined me about halfway up, making me feel even older than the rocks, but I digress.
Creeks cut through steep terrain

Creeks cut through steep terrain

The trip was really informative for all that I missed the pinnacle. Especially when seen from above, the Valley and Ridge region is obvious, the land crumpled like a rug. The push of tectonic plates from the southeast is tangible.

The gaps through those ridges, formed by creeks and rivers over millennia, became the primary paths for long hunters and settlers and remain the preferred routes for railroads and highways. Of course, the construction of those highways entailed some widening and straightening of the route and the exposed rock faces reveal the sharply slanted layers of rock beneath the surface.

Sharply slanted rocks reveal the geological upheaval that formed this region.

Sharply slanted rocks reveal the geological upheaval that formed this region.

Such layering is familiar to me from travels all through the southern Appalachians and I had assumed all the hills and mountains were essentially geologically the same. I was wrong.

What I hadn’t realized is that the Valley and Ridge region, geologically similar to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, is essentially made of limestone. Limestone is a sedimentary rock formed from the ancient remains of marine organisms like coral or diatoms. It’s mostly made of a type of calcium carbonate and is soluble in water and acids. This solubility leads to fantastic cave systems carved out by underground streams, full of stalactites and stalagmites. It also leads to surface erosion and the formation of the Valleys.

This creek's path was altered to move it away from nearby I-75.

This creek’s path was altered to move it away from nearby I-75.


Erosion in action

Erosion in action

In contrast, the Plateau is made up of mostly metamorphic rock: shale, sandstone, quartzite, and coal. Creeks have cut through the softer sandstone, forming deep, narrow valleys, but harder quartzite formed capstones that protected the tops of cliffs and peaks. This topography is familiar to me from visits to my mother’s people in eastern Kentucky coal country. The difficulty they had in farming even the bottomland is no surprise after realizing that their farms were sitting atop such hard ground.

The creek widens and slows at the bottom of the hill

The creek widens and slows at the bottom of the hill

All of this new information is undoubtedly interesting and will make my trips to the mountains more meaningful, but how does it affect my professional practice? As environmental stewardship must form the backbone of any modern landscape architecture design, an understanding of the watershed is vital. When you realize that the limestone karst system lies under all the Valley and Ridge region, non-point source pollution issues become even more problematic. How can my designs eliminate the need for fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides? How can my designs mitigate storm water run-off? How can I help people make the best choices for their own actions? Practically, the soil of the Valley and Ridge is going to be high in calcium, quite alkaline and drain quite easily. I need to keep that in mind as I select plants. On the other hand, if I am designing for the steep and rugged portions of the Appalachian Plateau, I will need to accept that the soil will be thin and poor with the underlying rocks not too far away. The land is also likely to be steep so erosion control will be important.

Getting to know a particular region intimately is one of my anticipated joys. With the last two decades spent moving around the country, putting down my own roots, learning the language of a smaller region, and designing for its particular quirks will be heavenly. I’m thankful it is a focus of studio this semester and hopefully this attitude of regional respect will inform all of our work at university and professional practice.

What are those squiggles made of?  How did they get there?  Questions, questions...

What are those squiggles made of? How did they get there? Questions, questions…

Appropriate footwear

Appropriate footwear

Chen Yu gets a taste of the Tennessee  woods

Chen Yu gets a taste of the Tennessee woods

Zach the Intrepid

Zach the Intrepid