The hikers round a bend in the trail and gasp. Just there, in the shade of a spruce tree, dances a cluster of tiny fairies. There are six of them,
The hikers round a bend in the trail and gasp. Just there, in the shade of a spruce tree, dances a cluster of tiny fairies. There are six of them, each one a bobbing white globe no bigger than a housefly. Kim Hainge, the hikers’ guide for the morning, delights in the discovery. “Balloon flies!” she announces. “Or dance flies.” She tells the hikers a story almost as enchanting as if the flies really were fairies: The male dance fly captures an insect, wraps it in silk, and bobs up and down with it to attract the attention of the females. When two males vie for the same female, you can see their silk globes dancing up and down, fast and furious. Sometimes, a male shows off with an empty sac, tricking his future mate, who is surely disappointed when she discovers that the lovely silk package is lacking.
Hainge continues up the trail, and the hikers linger and marvel at the fairy flies, trying in vain to capture the magic on their cell phones.
Here in the Great Smoky Mountains, your eyes are constantly drawn up — to towering tulip poplars, rushing waterfalls, unending layers of peaks. But Hainge knows a secret — one that has lured scientists and researchers from around the country to this sprawling area on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee: Against the backdrop of the forest floor, an equally compelling drama unfolds in miniature. So don’t forget to also look down and appreciate the world at your feet — the lichens, mosses, insects, mushrooms, and salamanders. Maybe even dance flies.
• • •
Born in Connecticut to nature-loving parents, “I was ‘indoctrinated’ when I was small,” Hainge says. By age 4, she was already bringing home plants that she thought had special properties to study. Around fourth grade, she found a book in her parents’ library: A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. The heroine, an impoverished young girl growing up on the edge of a swamp, discovers that she can pay for college by capturing moths and selling them to collectors. I want to do that! Hainge thought.
She got her BS in entomology from Arizona State University, then went to grad school at The Ohio State University to study medical entomology. She wanted to specialize in mosquito-borne diseases, but after a year, she withdrew from the program. “I realized research is not what I was interested in,” she says. “I wanted to work with people.”
These days, Hainge lives in western North Carolina on 36 acres that she and her botanist husband, Jim Kriner, have turned into a United Plant Savers sanctuary. She hosts talks, leads hikes, and shares her love and knowledge of nature, especially in her favorite place on earth: the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness, 17,000 acres adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Hainge’s hikes are not about sweeping views or summits. Her pace is sporadic — one minute, she’s charging up the trail at a fast clip. Then, abruptly, she stops and pokes her walking stick into a patch of jade green plants. “Jewelweed, a preventative for poison ivy,” she says. “You crush the leaves and rub the juice from the stem on the area you think was exposed to poison ivy.”
When one of the hikers has a question, Hainge stops and turns with an eager smile, as if she’d just been waiting for someone to ask. She addresses the whole group, not just the question-asker. It’s never a quick answer. A question, for Hainge, is an opportunity to share the wonder of nature.
“Do elderberries grow here?” someone asks.
“They do,” Hainge says. “The good kind and the bad kind.” Her eyes twinkle behind lavender wire-rimmed glasses. She knows that someone will ask the obvious follow-up question.
“Good elderberries are the ones with white blooms. Those are the ones most people know about for antiviral properties,” she explains. The bad ones are the red-flowered elderberries, which bloom earlier. “Those,” she says, “will make you quite sick.”
For Hainge, a question is an opportunity to share the wonder of nature.
Hainge knows far more than the average person about the nutritional and medicinal properties of native plants. In the spring, she makes tea from sassafras, following the tradition of early settlers whose bodies craved vitamin C after a long winter. She teaches people how to forage for oyster mushrooms and morels. She uses an array of plants and herbs to help combat her seasonal allergies. And yet, she admits without shame, “I’m the first one in line at Walgreens when my allergies get bad!”
Someone asks her opinion on herbal supplements like elderberry tinctures or turmeric tablets. “You really need to know what you’re buying and who you’re buying it from,” Hainge says. “And you need to be skeptical. It’s good to be skeptical — it keeps you alive.”
• • •
James Lendemer steps gingerly along an outcrop of rocks. A slip or fall out here could be disastrous. He is deep in the Smokies, many miles from help. His expert eyes scan the rocks. There! Three-dimensional greenish-yellow fingers dangle off a ledge. Hardly able to believe his luck, Lendemer snaps a photo, jots some notes, and carefully packs the specimen. Then he starts back the way he came — hand-carrying his discovery 14 miles down a rugged section of the Appalachian Trail.
Lendemer has seen more lichen than just about anyone — which is how he knows that the green fingers he found are something new, never described or documented before. He’s on the faculty of the City University of New York, and he oversees the curation of the lichen collection at the New York Botanical Garden, the largest such collection in the western hemisphere. Lendemer travels a lot and receives specimens from all over the world — but he returns at least twice a year to one of his favorite places: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Anyone who has been to the Smokies knows this is a really special place,” Lendemer says. “The Appalachian Mountains are a hot spot for lichens. They’ve never been glaciated [here], so they’ve been around a very long time. You have these really high mountains and low elevations, and a core area of relatively undisturbed old-growth forest. It’s an amazing place where you see species that don’t grow anywhere else, and things that are rare in other places but common here.”
Lendemer dreams of a day when lichens are known the way that birds and other species are. For those fortunate enough to have the chance to hike in the Great Smokies, he encourages a slow pace. “When you’re hiking, it’s easy to be focused on the goal of getting to the next peak,” he says. “But if you can, stop for a second and just take in the existence of this amazing, colorful, dynamic mosaic of things growing on rocks and trees — you have to stop and notice, or you’ll never see it.”
On an average day hike in the Smokies, you’ll spot hundreds of species of lichen — not that most of us would recognize the tremendous diversity that we’re seeing. Still, simply slowing down and paying attention can bring some of it into focus. “Focus on something you find intriguing for whatever reason,” Lendemer says. “Just take 10 or 20 seconds, and look closely. Appreciate what it’s doing. What’s it growing with? Why does it look interesting to you? Are there insects interacting with it? Are there other plants interacting? That’s the entry level into the rabbit hole.”
• • •
“What’s this?!” The boy’s yelp shatters the silence at a backcountry campsite on Fontana Lake. Erin Canter rushes over to the group of teenagers huddled around the yelper. “He had a massive spider on his foot,” she says. “So we took a picture and put it on iNaturalist, which filters into the ATBI.”
The ATBI — All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory — is an effort to identify every species living in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Each summer, Canter leads a group of teenagers on a backcountry canoe trip on Fontana Lake and into the Smokies. The camp partners with researchers seeking data from hard-to-reach areas, allowing them to do real field research in the backcountry with kids. This year, they’ll photograph and document interesting species to add to the ever-growing catalog — well over 20,000 species now. The trip is part fun and part research, which, according to Canter, is how all science should be. “I didn’t get into science because of science,” she says. “I fell in love with it because I played outside and got curious.”
Canter is manager of Science Literacy and Research at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Tennessee, and on her canoe trips, curiosity is king. “We bring field guides and goggles,” she says. “Where the kids show curiosity, we follow it.”
The teens arrive on a Monday evening to pack their bags and get acquainted before an early morning departure. “One girl came with experience in paddling and canoeing,” Canter says. “One girl didn’t even know it was a canoe trip until she was dropped off.” Canter welcomes them all, shows them how to use a water purifier, guides them through backcountry trails, indulges their absurd jokes, and yells at them through her tent wall to go to sleep when she still hears giggling at 11 p.m.
Above all, she wants them to fall in love with nature and science. Early in her career, Canter spent time working in a microbiology lab. That experience, she says, “was everything I don’t want kids to think science is.” Rather, she wants them to experience discovery like she did as a child collecting feathers to compare under a microscope. The kids learn that the spider on the boy’s foot, for example, is a Dolomedes tenebrosus — a dark fishing spider.
“I love focusing on small things,” Canter says. “You look outside and see a wall of green. But there’s so much going on! Look at butterflies — they’re these pretty little things; people have tattoos of them. But if you take this tiny creature and look closely, you see that they have the most interesting behaviors, brilliant color patterns, and incredible migrations that span multiple generations. It’s easy to get disconnected from nature, even though we are part of nature, and I don’t think we can be reconnected until we pay attention.”
She thinks of how the naturalist John Muir Laws defines love as “sustained, compassionate attention.” “When we see the butterfly as an individual,” she says, “we can care, act, and vote for it. We protect things we love.”print it