Friday, November 21, 2008

(4) Great Smokey

At least I had a moment in time studying the Cherokee, but I had
to return to my duties. Huge tracts of land, like National Parks, are
susceptible to fire. There's a constant watch, and there need be
a quick response in the case of fire. Park rangers are trained in
wildland firefighting, but when you actually are in the midst of
such an emergency it's scary. After all my time now spent in
Great Smokey, I finally had to help fight a fire!

We got control of the flames, not only with fire-trucks but also
air-drops. Being such a dense forested area, combined with
mountains, knowledgeable controllers had to be aboard the
helicopters who came in close to the fire. Tree-tops, high ridges,
all under a cloud of smoke, all hard to see, can make for a
disaster if one isn't careful. Fortunately the climate in Great
Smokey usually works to our advantage avoiding fires or
putting them out. There's always the high humidity, and usually
there's a guarantee of rain every few days. So it helps.

Our fire was finally put out, but a few of us stayed on watch to
make sure it didn't flare-up again. Tired, hot, dirty, gulping
down water, by myself, I leaned against a tree and slumped
onto the ground. Weary, I saw a figure on the nearby trail.
Walking toward me, I gasped when I realized who it was!
There was my old Indian, wearing tattered clothes, looking
worn and sad. He stood off and said "Attend to the ancients."
Suddenly he disappeared and I was left wondering, why now?
But I was just too exhausted to think much beyond the question.

Happier times arrived, fortunately. I decided to review the Botany
books in our Center's library. Need I say I forgot nearly all
that I once learned in this field, when I studied it in High School.
Since I was getting more and more visitor questions about the
flowers, about the trees, I decided that I need get beyond just
the identifiers and try to understand more of the basics about
both flowering plants and trees.

Delving into my self-study, I found--for example--that the typical
flowering plant has six kinds of parts: roots, stems, leaves (called
vegetative organs) and flowers, fruits, and seeds (that are the
reproductive organs). Roots grow down, away from the light,
whereas stems grow above ground, upward towards the light,
and bear leaves. The main function of green leaf foodmaking
is by *photosynthesis.* It's a process where simple sugars are
made from carbon dioxide and water, using energy, captured
from sunlight. As for the reproductive process, most flowering
plants reproduce vegetatively or asexually. Reproduction--oft
via pollination--gives rise to the seed, which if properly nurtured
by both climate and condition produces a new plant.

As for trees and shrubs, the trunk is the absolutely central fixture.
There are wood tubes that run up-and-down the trunk. Wood
cells induce branches, that in turn produce leaves that spread in
the sunlight. Interesting, too, the outer bark of a tree is mostly
dead, but it protects the trunk from injury and disease. Most trees,
at least in temperate zones like Great Smokey, are seasonal. But
fir trees keep growing the year around. As for the rings of a tree
determining its age, well that gets rather complicated. There's
thick rings (when a tree grows well), there's thin rings (when a
tree grows poorly). And when the thickness jumps into thinness,
well one can analyze that the tree at a given point in time went
through a crisis of some sort. So one needs historical data and
dates, one needs rainfall records that reach back hundred of
years to try to determine the possible age of a specific tree at
this particular crisis point.

Into my fifth year at Great Smokey, I was plump full of pride. I was
no longer a novice park ranger. Not a senior, but at least I had
turned into a fairly informed apprentice!

But time brings change. Park rangers don't make the biggest
salary in the world, yet you can go up the GS-rating scale if you
move into new positions. Though given our first assignment,
afterwards we were expected to look after ourselves, and keep
abreast of new job offerings that could broaden our experience
and enhance our career.

So having said this, I spotted a job opening at Bandelier National
Monument in New Mexico. The work would include some of
our usual wildland duties, but mainly the position called for a
park ranger "interpreter." And in this situation, it involved the
historical-cultural interpretation of the Ancient Anasazi Indians
who one lived in that location.

Instantly I *knew* that I was bound for Bandelier! My vision back
at the fire scene suddenly was made clear.

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