Tennessee, Tennessee, Ain't No Place I'd Rather Be

Mary Elizabeth and friend resting in the midst of a hike at Great Smokey Mountain National Forest.

 My friends and I were recently approached at a market here in Washington by two girls no older than the age of 10. They asked us to sign a petition that would protect their local park from being purchased and converted into a multi-use development. I was so impressed by their fearlessness in approaching total strangers at such a young age that I did not initially realize the significance of their question.

My attention was then drawn to the disheartening realization that their only access to open space, which was likely no larger than a few blocks, was about to be taken away. I signed their petition out of sympathy, knowing that my signature meant nothing since I’m not a resident of D.C. Growing up, I never had to worry about the disappearance of the small forested space that connected my backyard with that of each of my neighbors.
In June, U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker introduced the Tennessee Wilderness Act of 2010 which, if passed, will conserve 20,000 acres of land in eastern Tennessee. As someone who has spent a good deal of time in the outdoors of eastern Tennessee, I was recently asked what that land means to me personally. Had I not met two girls half my age who managed to convey an appreciation for the outdoors equal to the one I have harnessed for more than 20 years, I might have answered that question differently.
I might have simply replied that eastern Tennessee is special to me because it conjures up my most memorable hiking and camping trips with my family, because it’s the first place my brother and I saw a black bear with her cubs, or because it is where I was first exposed to the bluegrass music I still love. However, my short term exposure to city life has made me realize that such a simple answer would neither justify my true valuation of the region, nor would it have any resounding significance on someone born and bred in this city.
To answer the question now, I would have to say that the wilderness of eastern Tennessee is meaningful to me because it serves as an ecological and cultural haven whether you’re 10-years-old or 100. The hospitality grounded in the region’s natural environment is what draws people there from all walks of life. Today, it is more meaningful than ever because Tennesseans have two senators who share the same admiration and sense of stewardship towards this wilderness.