I never much considered southern North America as a place I would enjoy. Born and raised in the north, I always assumed that anywhere below Pennsylvania would be too hot and sticky for me. A brief trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park changed all of that. I fell head over heals for the forests of this region. Species I had only read about or perhaps stumbled across once or twice up home were now surrounding me, bursting forth with a profusion unlike anything I had ever seen before. There is something special about this region. The trip ended seemingly as soon as it began but I was hooked.
Fast forward a few more years. When I found out that I would be pursuing a PhD in Illinois, I was both excited and apprehensive. A career goal I set for myself back in the early days of high school was finally set in motion. This was reason to celebrate. Yet, leaving behind any form of topography for the ironed out landscape of the American midwest seemed a bit nerve racking. However, my nerves were quickly assuaged after finding out that my research was going to be based in the southern Appalachian Mountains. It was back to the forested peaks for me!
On June 2nd, 2015, I said goodbye to Buffalo and headed south. The purpose of this trip was to get a feel for where I would be working and hopefully inspire me into generating some hypotheses. Needless to say I was ecstatic about spending a month in the mountains. At the point of writing this, I am now 5 days into this journey and it is safe to say that I am completely transfixed with these mountains.
On the surface, this is not hard to imagine. A combination of topography, climate, and lots of history support some of the most diverse plant communities on the entire continent. This place is bursting at the seams with life. Every morning I awake to a cacophony of birdsong. I listen intently to songs whose identity escapes me. As I sit out on the deck, sucking down the coffee that will fuel me during the morning plant surveys, I look out into a rich Appalachian cove forest. Up on the deck I stand about midway in the canopy staring down ancient oaks, magnolias, maples, and even the occasional holly. The birds are busy harvesting this year's crop of caterpillars to feed their rapidly growing chicks. This world is alive.
To earn my keep, I am assisting in some plant surveys. My mentor and friend Dr. Robert Warren has set up experimental plots along north and south facing slopes and my friend Lauren and I are tasked with identifying everything growing within them. I couldn't ask for a better gig. It is going to be a great month. In my down time I plant to explore as much of this place as possible. Not a minute will go to waste. The icing on the cake is that I am surrounded by like minded ecologists in training. Everyone down here has their own speciality, their own questions, and their own passions that drive them to do what they do. Nowhere have I felt more at home.