This is the last tease I will be offering from my new eBook Great Smoky Mountains: Behind the Lens which will be available for purchase on December 1. This book contains personal stories from behind the lens of 20 favorite images from the Smoky Mountains National Park. Thoughts on composition and light, photographic strategies, information on the nature history of the location and park, personal antecdotes and adventures: they’re all in there. Thanks for reading and here’s wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving! - Richard
Near the Little River, Tennessee, April 2006: Nikon D2X, 20mm, ISO 200, f13, 0.8 second (yes I am an ex-Nikon shooter)
With over 1,600 species of flowering plants found blooming in its forest coves and along rocky hillsides, more than in any other park in the Untied States, the Smokies are world-renowned for both its wildflower abundance and diversity. What can be said about Yellowstone and what it for is for wildlife, the same can be said for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and its wildflowers. This fact is so accepted now that the Smokies are often referred to as “Wildflower National Park.”
April and May are the two months with the most frequent number and variety of flowers, although something is blooming almost anytime between the months of February and November. The first flowers to be spotted in late winter are the ephemerals such as spring beauties and the hepaticas. The last holdouts are the asters, lasting well into the first frost.
The most iconic of the wildflowers found in the Smokies are of the trillium variety. Their distinctive three-petal bloom and waxy green leaves are a common sight in hardwood coves and hillsides in early and mid-spring. There are ten different species of trillium in the park, representing different colors and sizes.
An interesting aside about the trillium is that ants are responsible for spreading their seeds through the forest. The ants are attracted to a sweet, fleshy part of the seed called an elaiosome. These are then carried back to the ant colony where they eventually germinate and grow in the fertile soil. Pretty neat, eh?
I stumbled onto this scene (almost literally) in the spring of 2006 while scouting for an upcoming photography workshop I was conducting. These sweet white trillium were just beginning to wilt and there were a few burnt, brown edges beginning to form on the tips of the petals. Still, the scene was perfect: the clump of three flowers almost perfectly arranged by a stroke of fate, the easy cascade of a cool mountain stream, the lush, mossy rocks and surrounding green vegetation. I didn’t have to fool around experimenting with different and varying compositions. I knew exactly how I wanted to set the whole thing up.
The only problem, however, was with the light. With sunny skies at 2:30 in the afternoon, the light was much too harsh when directly hitting the water, while the trees helped cast a mottled, confusing pattern of shadow and light across the scene. All I needed to do was wait until the sun set behind a high ridge to the west so that the light would even out. No one likes waiting – particularly this photographer – but it would all be worth it.
So for the next two hours, I sat on a rock. I stared at the sky. I floated little sticks down the stream and pretended they were boats going over the falls. I sang Rocky Raccoon. I did some chimping (Chimping is replaying your images on the camera’s LCD while exclaiming, “Oooh ooh ooh, Ahhh ahh ahh.”) I convinced myself, over and over how awesome it was going to be. It was torture.
As the shadow finally drifted across the forest floor at a seemingly glacial pace, I began fine-tuning my composition. I physically moved in close with a wide-angle lens to really emphasize the foreground flowers, with the cascade moving diagonally through the upper left part of the image frame and no sky. The classic Smokies scene – even if I did say so myself.
Sadly, I returned two days later with my group of workshop students and it appeared as if someone had deliberately destroyed the flowers by stomping on them. I am ashamed to speculate that this was probably another photographer, who after capturing the scene, selfishly destroyed it to keep others from doing so as well.
Ever since that year, the trio of sweet white trillium never came back the same way they did before the eco-vandalism occured. This pitiful act is a sad commentary on the level of competitiveness that drives too many nature photographers in this age of digital photo contests and the need for ego stroking and praise on Internet forums.