TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE
Previous Chapter | Contents | Next Chapter
Natural Setting and Conservation
A Noted Tennessee orator used to declare: "Our great State is the multum in parvo of all the lands lying between the ramparts of the Alleghenies and the majestic currents of the mighty Mississippi. Within its borders flourishes every shape of beast and bug, every variety of tree and flower found from the blue waters of the Gulf to the somber snowladen forests of Canada." Couched in less sweeping language, this would not be the exaggeration it seems. A relief map shows Tennessee as a succession of mountain slopes, the worn-down remnant of the towering Appalachian chain of remote geologic time. From the crests of the Great Smokies the land drops westward in a series of ever lower ridge and plateau systems to the Mississippi bottoms.
Roughly a parallelogram in shape, with an east-west length of 432 miles and a width of 106 miles, Tennessee is bounded on the north by Kentucky and Virginia, on the east by North Carolina, on the south by Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and on the west by the Mississippi River, which separates it from Arkansas and Missouri. Of the total area of 42,022 square miles, 335 are water surface.
The State divides naturally into three general regions: upland East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee with its foothills and basins, and low flat West Tennessee. Often called "three separate States within common boundaries," these "Grand Divisions," coincide with three rather distinct cultural and political units, and differ sharply in climate and natural life. In upper East Tennessee the climate, vegetation, and animal life approximate those of New England; in the plateau and basin regions of Middle Tennessee they parallel those of Ohio; West Tennessee, except for scattered hilly sections, is of the Deep South.
A more exact break-down on the basis of physiographic features divides the State into six regions. The first includes the Unaka and Smoky Mountains extending along the North Carolina border. The Smokies, reaching at some points an elevation of 6,600 feet above sea level and covering an area here of approximately 2,000 square miles, are broken by many coves and valleys along their length and breadth. The second region, flanking the Smokies, is the Great Valley of East Tennessee, thirty to sixty miles wide. The valley floor is composed of a succession of minor ridges and valleys, beginning on the northeast as a continuation of the Shenandoah Valley and slanting southwest into Georgia and Alabama. Viewed from the Smokies on the east or the Cumberland Mountains on the west, this bottom melts into a common plain, although its ridges rise 300 to 800 feet above the valley floor. A region of fat soils and prosperous farms, the valley covers more than 9,000 square miles, drained by the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Rising a thousand feet above the Great Valley, and forming an abrupt escarpment on its eastern edge, is the third region--the Cumberland Plateau. Many early settlers were turned back by this seemingly impassable barrier. The western edge is notched and scalloped by coves and valleys which are separated by finger-like spurs pointing toward the northwest. The southern half of this area of more than 5,000 square miles is deeply cut by the Sequatchie Valley. These three regions lie in East Tennessee.
Middle Tennessee includes the fourth and fifth regions. The fourth is the Highland Rim, which merges into the western edge of the Cumberland Plateau and includes the elevations bordering the western part of the Tennessee River. With an area of 9,300 square miles, this section is largely a plain, furrowed by ravines and traversed by streams. Within the Highland Rim is the Central Basin, the fifth region. It is elliptical in shape and covers 6,450 square miles. With an average altitude 400 feet lower than the highlands, it is one of the best agricultural regions in the State.
The plateau of West Tennessee, the sixth division, extends from the Tennessee River to the line of bluffs overlooking the bottomlands of the Mississippi. The valley of the Tennessee River has a broken and irregular surface of about 1,200 square miles, averaging twelve miles in width. The sloping terrain drops gradually toward the Mississippi River. The Bottoms comprise 950 square miles of low, flat terrain studded with lakes. The largest of these, Reelfoot Lake, in the northwest corner of the State, occupies a depression, sixty-five square miles in area, formed by the earthquake of 1811-12 In sections of the plain lying below the high water of the Mississippi, back-waters and underground seepage have formed many swamps and marshes. At Fulton, Randolph, and Memphis the river undercuts the foot of the upland to form protruding bluffs.
There are four principal iron areas in the State: the eastern belt extending along the slopes of the Great Smokies; the "dyestone," or red iron district which forms a belt skirting the eastern bases of the Cumberland Plateau and Walden's Ridge; the Cumberland Plateau; and the western belt, a wide strip of west Middle Tennessee from Kentucky to Alabama.
At present the leading minerals are: coal, phosphate, clay, zinc, copper, sand and gravel, marble, and sandstone. Of these, coal is the most important, with a normal yearly output of 4,000,000 tons. One of the largest coal areas in the United States is the Cumberland Plateau belt, comprising 4,400 square miles. The Copper Basin in East Tennessee produces more copper and sulphuric acid than any other region east of the Mississippi River. Marble and Crab Orchard stone (quartzite) are quarried in large quantities. In the production of phosphate rock Tennessee is second only to Florida. Clay suitable for brick making is found throughout the State. Gold and silver, although found in Tennessee, do not rank high in the State's mineral resources
Three great drainage basins are formed by the Tennessee, Cumberland, and Mississippi Rivers. The Tennessee is formed near Knoxville by the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers and is joined by the Clinch River and countless smaller streams. Flowing southwest into Alabama, it loops north across the State again, absorbing the waters of Middle Tennessee's Elk and Duck Rivers. With its tributary web of streams, the Tennessee drains more than half of the State's total area. Northern Middle Tennessee is drained by the Cumberland River, which rises in Kentucky and empties into the Ohio above the mouth of the Tennessee. West Tennessee drains through a maze of sluggish streams, swamps, and lakes directly into the Mississippi.
There is an annual rainfall of 40 to 50 inches throughout Tennessee, and an average of 155 clear days, 100 partly clouded, and 110 wholly clouded. Few severe droughts occur, or rainy spells protracted enough to damage crops. In the east, the mountains turn the eastward flow of the upper air currents and redistribute their moisture. The long valleys between the highlands serve as flues for the main air currents, which in summer blow north or northeasterly and in winter reverse their directions. Although this topography tends to check the velocity of windstorms, Tennessee was subjected to a series of tornadoes between 1914 and 1933, two of which were violently destructive.
Lying on the border of the great continental air currents, the State-- except in Upper East Tennessee--never gets the full force of blizzard weather, or the extremely low temperature produced by the downrush of cold air fields from Canada. However, from the middle of December to the end of March, there are spasmodic periods, rarely more than a week in duration, when the temperature drops to 15 or 20 degrees above zero. During the winter months rain, sleet, snow, freeze, and thaw may occur in succession within 24 hours, and may be preceded or followed by springmild spells. The autumn rainy season rarely, if ever, causes flood, but the heavy rains of March and April swell the water courses and inundate the lowlands, causing considerable flood damage.
Some sections of Middle and West Tennessee are visited by periods of moist heat during the summer. But for the most part the surge of warm air from the Gulf and the southwestern plains is modified by the time it reaches the State. In East Tennessee, and to a lesser extent in hilly regions to the west, summer is a succession of pleasantly warm days and invigorating cool nights.
Rock strata in the State represent all geologic eras and almost every period within these eras. The high mountains along the northeastern border of Tennessee are composed of the oldest rock in the State. These formations, with their largest area in southeastern Carter County, date back to the pre-Cambrian period. The only volcanic heritage from ancient time is in the Norris Basin, where there are two small areas of eruptive rock, and a three-foot bed of volcanic ash in Middle Tennessee. Along the eastern and southeastern border is a belt of conglomerates, quartzites, and slates ten to twenty miles wide, extending from the point where the French Broad River enters the State to the Georgia line. These rocks are of unknown age, probably belonging to an early period in the Paleozoic era; their formation probably antedates the period of known vertebrate existence. Resistant to erosion, they constitute Tennessee's highest and broadest mountain mass. East of Maryville this formation, giving the Great Smokies their height and rugged outlines, begins to push upward over masses of dolomite (probably Upper Cambrian), which is exposed in several Townsend region coves. Cocke County has a peculiar granite, named unakite for the Unaka Mountains. It lacks mica content and contains an unusual mineral, epidote, that gives it a greenish tinge.
The Record in the Rocks
The rocks in the Great Valley of East Tennessee consist of sandstones, shales, limestones, and dolomites, all of which developed as marine sediment. These rocks represent the first three periods of the Paleozoic era--Cambrian, Ordovician, and Silurian. Together these periods form what has been called the "Age of Invertebrates," when the only life was shellforming sea animals and buglike crustaceans There are also rocks in the northeastern edge, near the Virginia border, that seem to constitute a slight development of the fourth period, the Devonian, known as the "Age of Fishes," and the Mississippian period. Along the west side of the valley runs a layer of fossil iron ore which belongs to the Silurian period, the third stage in the Paleozoic era and the period of the first air-breathing animals. In the center of the valley are long outcroppings of marble from the immediately preceding period, the Ordovician; and at various geological levels there are great quantities of chert, formed of sediment under sea water. Throughout the valley are rocks, mainly limestones and shales similarly placed but of different periods, as shown by the fossils in the various layers. The strata originally were laid down almost horizontally, but during subsequent mountain-building revolutions have faulted into folds, sometimes 300 miles long, running from southwest to northeast. Ridges in the valley with long even tops usually are of sandstone or chert; those that consist of a series of rounded knobs are shale. The ridges are frequently capped by shale. Between the ridges are limestone or dolomite formations.
Along the western edge of the Great Valley is a narrow belt of Devonian black shale, called Chattanooga shale, which is invaluable as a key rock. Resting against this Chattanooga shale, and exposed frequently along the eastern and everywhere along the western margin of the Cumberland Plateau, are rocks that date from the Mississippian epoch, a time when tree ferns, huge mosses, and primitive flowering plants were dominant. The lower formation, known as Fort Payne, consists generally of silica and chert; the middle and upper parts are largely sandstone, shales, and coal. Five-sixths of the Cumberland Plateau is composed of conglomerates, sandstones, and shales of the Pennsylvanian epoch, the next above the Mississippian. It was during this epoch that amphibious reptiles and primitive backboned land animals came into existence. The rocks of almost the entire area lie in relatively level strata and contain bituminous coal.
The Highland Rim is mostly limestone, similar in age and formation to the rocks of the Cumberland Plateau's western margin. All the formations lie flat, except those of Well's Creek Basin in Stewart County, where rocks dating back to the Cambrian and Ordovician periods are exposed.
The floor of the Central Basin, also, is formed mostly of flat-lying limestones and shales of the Ordovician periods, to which the Great Valley marble belongs. In the upper levels these rocks contain commercial phosphates. On the northern and western sides of the basin, as also in the western valley of the Tennessee River, there are also limestones of the later Silurian and Devonian periods.
Overlapping the western edge of the Highland Rim, basal rocks of the Cretaceous period outcrop in a belt, twelve to thirty-five miles wide, along the edge of the Western Tennessee plain from Mississippi to Kentucky. This belt dips west at a low angle beneath the succeeding Tertiary rocks, which were formed in the Cenozoic (Recent Life) era prior to the glacial epoch. The Tertiary rocks are initiated by a belt of leaden gray clay, a few miles wide and one hundred to two hundred feet in thickness, running north from Middleton to Huntingdon and Paris and on into Kentucky. The formation is cut across by sandstone dikes that give evidence of earthquakes in one of the epochs of the Tertiary period.
Over the leaden clays, to a depth of a thousand feet or more, lie soft light-colored sands, with layers of white pottery clays and occasional beds of lignite, in which the texture of fossilized wood can often be discerned. These sands are covered by a widespread layer of yellow gravel, twenty feet or less in thickness, topped by a layer of sandy or loamy soil that thickens westward. Along the bluffs that border the Mississippi flood plain, this soil grades into typical loess--a wind-laid deposit from glacial times--becoming as much as forty to eighty feet thick. Still more recent alluvial deposits form flood plains and terraces along the streamways of the State.
Because of the lack in formational representation from several periods of the Mesozoic era, there is written in Tennessee rocks no record of the thousands of years during which early marine life disappeared, and the dinosaurs and flying and swimming reptiles reigned supreme. Nor is there evidence in the State of the first appearance of birds. The second period of the Paleozoic era, the Ordovician (said to go back 62,000,000 years), is well represented in the Great Valley of East Tennessee and the Central Basin. In fossil remains and in mineral composition the Ordovician rocks of these two areas are dissimilar, although a few formations and species are common to both. The lower rocks of this period in the Great Valley are rich in molluscoid snails and slugs, of which many species have been collected. In the Central Basin these rocks have long constituted a classic collecting ground. Nearly the entire invertebrate kingdom is represented in the area in the vicinity of Nashville. The corals and bivalve shellfish are especially notable. Here the middle rocks are almost ideally exposed and are actually crowded with fossils. Numerous highway and railroad cuts, quarries, and hillside slopes afford excellent exposures.
The Silurian, or third, period in the Paleozoic era is represented especially in parts of the western valley of the Tennessee River. This age was dominated by shell-forming sea animals, but saw also the rise of fishes and of reef-building corals. Scientific investigation of the area uncovered the fossil territory in Hardin, Decatur, and Perry Counties, and the sponges found here are well known to paleontologists. Waldron shale in Middle Tennessee has yielded fossilized aquatic marine animals, corals, seashells, and mollusks. A small part of the Devonian period is recorded near Camden, in Benton County, in one of the best exposed sections in North America. Almost perfect specimens have been collected in the chert of this region. Bivalve shellfish were the most numerous, and the Birdsong shale is prolific in mollusk forms. The Carboniferous period, the last in the Paleozoic era, has left some interesting marine animal forms--starfish and sea urchin types--in the region about Nashville. Fossilized Carboniferous plants include ferns, club-moss, and reed-like growths
Of the Mesozoic era, Upper Cretaceous fossils are unusually numerous in the western part of the State, particularly in Hardin, McNairy, Chester, and Henderson Counties. The sands of Hardin County have yielded a few excellent plant impressions and partly or completely silicified wood. Chalk knobs in eastern McNairy and Chester Counties are frequently covered with specimens of large mollusk-like snails. Particularly in the McNairy County sand formations, perfectly preserved animal fossils of this period are found to an extent so far unequaled in any other single North American region. At one site on Coon Creek more than 350 species were collected from a single horizon. The fauna of the McNairy sand formations is essentially molluscan, but there are vertebrate remains. Notable among them are the mosasaurs, large marine lizards with long snake-like bodies lizard-like heads, and paddle-shaped limbs.
The Cenozoic (Recent Life) era is represented in Tennessee principally by the Eocene, the first epoch of the Tertiary period, and by the Pleistocene, or glacial, epoch of the Quaternary period. The remains of the Eocene--the epoch during which the higher orders of plants began to develop, and birds and mammals to displace the giant reptiles--are mainly centered in West Tennessee. They are found in the Porters Creek clay near Middleton, the Holly Springs sand at Puryear, and the Granada sand in the Somerville vicinity. Collectors report excellently preserved fossils of plants and some mammals in this area, as well as in the Reelfoot Lake region and in Shelby County.
The Pleistocene also is represented in the western part of the State. This epoch, popularly known as the Ice Age, brought about great changes in animal life. Many mammals became extinct; man began to dominate the earth. The ice sheet stopped many miles north of Tennessee, but huge hairy mammoths, long-tusked mastodons, and giant sloths, driven southward by the advancing glaciers, ranged the State, and may have remained until the coming of prehistoric man. At least bones and teeth of these animals, found in caves and alluvial deposits, may be taken as evidence of their existence in this area during the glacial epoch--the opening scene in the Age of Man.
When Boone and Scaggs hunted in Tennessee, great herds of bison grazed in the river bottoms; elk and Virginia deer ranged through the forests and canebrakes; black bears were plentiful everywhere; and wolves, panthers, and lynxes followed the trails of the hoofed animals. Beaver colonies built their dams and mud houses in some of the smaller streams and there were vast flocks of birds and game fowl. So rich in game was, the region that parties of Iroquois from the Great Lakes and Choctaw from the Gulf Coast, as well as Cherokee from the Great Smokies and Chickasaw from the Mississippi bottoms, came here for months of summer hunting. Tennessee was the Land of Peaceful Hunting, a neutral ground where ancient tribal hatreds were temporarily forgotten. The Indians were not wasteful hunters; they killed only for food and clothing--and even then they ceremoniously asked pardon of Uncle Bear or Brother Bison. The white settlers had little of the Indians, fellow feeling for wild things. They slaughtered them as prodigally as they slashed and burned the forests and squandered the wealth of the soil.
Today, of all the hoofed animals, only the Virginia or white-tailed deer remains. Ranging wild in the East Tennessee mountains and protected by law, they are now on the increase. Black bears also live in the high Smokies and the southern or bay lynx is fairly numerous in heavily wooded sections of the State, where it manages to hold its own in spite of intensive hunting.
The red fox and the gray are still common in all parts of the State. Next to the fox, the skunk and opossum are probably the best known of the fur bearers and are found even in the woodlots close to towns. Other fur bearers are raccoons, minks, and muskrats; cottontail rabbits, in almost any brier patch or brush pile; and gray and red squirrels, in the oak and hickory woods. All the smaller mammal--such as field and wood mice, gopher rats, weasels, woodchucks, and chipmunks--are numerous. The otter, once a valuable fur animal in the State, is now rare.
A newcomer to the forests of East Tennessee is the Russian wild boar, locally called the "Rooshian" wild hog. These large and savage hogs are believed to have escaped from a North Carolina estate during a forest fire in 1910. Since that time they have spread through the mountains to the headwaters of the Tellico and Citico Rivers.
Some of the birds once plentiful in the State have completely disappeared. The passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet (sometimes called the Cumberland parrot), the ivory-billed woodpecker, and the prairie chicken, which the pioneers shot by the wagonload, are now extinct. Notwithstanding this wholesale slaughter, bird life is still plentiful, and perhaps more varied in Tennessee than in any other inland State. This is due in part to the diversified character of the land and the many different kinds of climate, but the chief reason is that thousands of birds cross Tennessee on their migratory flights between the North and the South. Ornithologists have recorded 316 species in the State; of these, 163 are summer residents, about 100 are found only in winter, and the rest live here the year round.
The American national bird, the bald eagle, lives in the wild regions of the Cumberland Plateau and the marshes of the Reelfoot Lake area. The golden eagle, which the Cherokee called the "king of birds," is rare, but a few still find sanctuary in the Great Smokies. The northern raven, vanished from most of the eastern States, also inhabits the ridgecrest of the Smokies.
The great blue heron, slate-gray rather than blue in color and more than four feet in height, is fairly common along the water courses, where it builds untidy-looking nests of sticks in the treetops. Living in large colonies, herons return year after year to the same nests. In a huge heronry at Reelfoot Lake thousands of nests are visible in the tops of the high cypress trees. Reelfoot Lake is also visited during the year by nearly all species of North American wading or swimming wild fowl. Numerous along all the State's water courses is the green heron, known variously as "shikepoke," and "fly-up-the-creek."
The largest game bird of Tennessee is the wild turkey, still to be found in the eastern mountains. Protected by game laws and reared in State hatcheries, this bird is now assured a permanent place among the game birds of the State. Grouse and quail are also raised and distributed in many areas. The ruffed grouse, often called "pheasant," is fairly plentiful in the scrub oak forests of the Cumberland Plateau, and in most East Tennessee counties. Recently the ring-necked pheasant has been introduced in several areas. The bobwhite, swiftest of the quail family and the most numerous game bird, is widely distributed throughout the State, as is the dove.
The official State bird is the mocking bird, found in all parts of the State, and often called "the singin'est bird in the world." The robin, another famous songster, is even more numerous. The northern variety winters in the South, returning to its nesting places in early spring; a subspecies lives in Tennessee throughout the year. Other birds which remain in Tennessee the year round are the bluebird, killdeer, meadow-lark, cardinal, towhee, screech owl, red-tailed and sparrow hawk, Carolina chickadee, whip-poor-will, flicker, various kinds of woodpeckers (locally known as peckerwoods), and the Carolina wren, whose ringing voice is most often heard at dawn and twilight.
In season, most American migratory birds east of the Rockies visit the State. Of the geese, the Canada type is the most numerous, but snow and blue geese also come through. Ducks of twenty-three varieties are abundant in autumn. Among the winter visitors from the North are the horned lark, and the junco, or "snowbird," one of the most numerous of this group, which nests in the high mountains along the eastern border. Spring migration brings from farther south more than half the total number of birds that nest and raise their young in Tennessee. A number of local breeding birds travel to South America to spend the winter. One of the most punctual migrating birds is the purple martin, which leaves for the South about August 25, and returns between the first and tenth of March.
The Tennessee Ornithological Society, founded in 1915, publishes in Nashville a quarterly journal called The Migrant. Its members take a bird census each Christmas at Nashville, Memphis, Reelfoot Lake, Knoxville Johnson City, and other points in the State. In 1933, the society sponsored the publication of Albert F. Gainer's A Distributional List of the Birds of Tennessee, the only comprehensive study of birds in the State
Because of the many different types of water areas in Tennessee, there are many places suitable for the propagation of all common American inland fishes. In the Cumberland and Duck Rivers are found catfish, buffalo fish, drum, and bass. While most of the species of game fish are native to Tennessee waters, the rainbow trout was brought from the mountain streams of the western United States and the brown trout from Germany and England. The rainbow and brook trout thrive in the deep clear pools of the mountain streams. Polychrome garters and dice are found in these waters during the spring and summer months, their bright colors disappearing after the spawning season, which lasts from late March to early June.
Waters throughout the State are well stocked with the large-mouth black bass which, with the small-mouth bass and pike, frequent the Tennessee River and its tributaries, the Holston, and the French Broad. The blue, or channel, catfish, weighing as much as thirty pounds and found in all waters, is most prolific in the streams and lakes of West Tennessee. The "yellow cats" grow to enormous size. Some weighing as much as one hundred pounds have been caught in the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers and their tributaries. Other fish are the jack salmon, red-horse, spoonbill cat, crappie, rock-bass or goggle-eyed perch, bream, German carp, and several species of sunfish and catfish. There are several hatcheries where bass, trout, and other desirable fishes are propagated for restocking purposes. This work is carried on by the State, in cooperation with the Federal government and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The common reptiles of the State are lizards, turtles, frogs, and thirty kinds of snakes. Only the rattlesnake, the copperhead, and the cottonmouth moccasin are venomous. The common rattler, called diamondback, is found throughout the State, especially in the wooded areas on rocky outcrops near timber or on the "balds" of the lower altitudes. The copperhead generally inhabits bush regions. The pilot black snake, one of the swiftest of serpents, often attains a length of from six to seven feet. King snakes, including the red and scarlet king and the brown king, are prevalent in all sections, and perform valuable service by destroying venomous snakes, rats, mice, and moles.
Great forests once covered most of Tennessee, but today less than one tenth of the primeval stand remains. Scattered over the State, however, are patches of virgin timber, mostly hardwoods; these huge oaks, tall elms, and stately beeches testify to the great size of the original stand. Second growth forests are coming up on the cut-over lands. Sycamore, basswood, cherry, walnut, hickory, locust, and maple grow in practically all sections of the State except the high Appalachians. Widely distributed are the hackberry, a small-leaved hardwood, and the persimmon. The conifers appear only in certain areas. The consumption of walnut for gunstocks during the World War and the present demand by cabinet makers have almost exhausted the supply of this tree in Tennessee.
Forests and Plant Life
The largest stands of virgin timber are in East Tennessee. Here are hemlock, pine, spruce, southern balsam (Frazier fir), and many hardwoods such as oak, maple, silverbell, and cherry. The tulip tree, or yellow poplar, Tennessee's State tree, reaches its largest growth in this region, often attaining a height of 200 feet.
Middle Tennessee has two principal forest growths-the cedar glades of the Highland Rim, where the soil is shallow, and the scrub oak barrens of the Cumberland Plateau. Growing in low places and along the banks of streams are sweet gum, poplar, willow, and sycamore.
In the swampy bottomlands of West Tennessee the plant life is similar to that of the Deep South. Here remain some stands of the magnificent first-growth timber that originally made Memphis a leading hardwood market of the Mississippi Valley. The largest species of tree in this area is the cypress, which lives to a great age and reaches a height of one hundred and fifty feet. It grows in water-covered places, "breathing" by means of hard, hollow, tumor-like growths called "knees" which are sent up from the roots. The river birch, the pecan tree, the water elm, the water maple, the swamp locust, and the tupelo, or cotton gum, are found in the western lowlands. The chinquapin, a rare tree, with fruit closely resembling the chestnut, also grows here. This region is the natural habitat of the catalpa or "catawba," a fast-growing tree with purple, yellow, and white flowers and large heart-shaped leaves.
Towards the end Of the nineteenth century timber which had hitherto been considered commercially worthless-gum, cypress, chestnut, elm, and persimmon-came into demand. Tennessee, with more than one hundred and fifty varieties of trees, has supplied the lumber market with these types of wood for many years.
Fire and wasteful lumbering have taken their toll of the timber regions. Protective grasses have been uprooted from the slopes by overgrazing and by the plow. Erosion has resulted from these careless methods, and today (1939) fourteen million acres in the State need reclamation. Much of this land is now unproductive, but most is suitable for reforestation. Planting of hickory, persimmon, walnut, honey locust, and mulberry is encouraged, since these trees produce commercially valuable timber and also provide food for hogs and chickens during most of the year. State nurseries are producing millions of seedlings, principally black locusts, for use in erosion control. These will develop into a new kind of forest, widely distributed.
Forests are being established by the State forestry division, working in cooperation with the U. S. Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and other Federal agencies. These forests provide demonstration areas for fire control, wildlife replenishment, water and soil conservation and reforestation. Unwisely cleared and depleted agricultural lands are also being reforested by farmers, with technical and financial aid from State and Federal agencies.
The redbud and the dogwood, small flowering trees, add splashes of pink and white to the green hillsides in the spring, the blooms lasting for several weeks. Throughout the woodlands are wild grape vines, climbing to great heights among the tree trunks. The summer grape grows on dry or rocky ground, the winter variety on rich moist lands, especially along river banks. Other vines are the pink wildbean, the passionflower, and the trailing arbutus. Woodbine and poison ivy are widely distributed.
Tennessee,s wild flowers range from the violet, growing on a tiny stem, to the large blossoms of the magnolia, a popular lawn tree in many parts of the State. From summer to late fall the fields bloom with dandelions, daisies, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, wild asters, gentians, and Jerusalem artichokes. Flowering early in the moist woods, where they are protected by leaf mold, are the saxifrage, hepatica, anemone, dutchman's breeches wild bleeding-heart, bloodroot, firepink, and blue phlox (sweet William). Later appear the jack-in-the-pulpit (Indian turnip), bluebell, shooting star, wood sorrel, and wild geranium.
More than three hundred of Tennessee's 1,500 plants are used for medicinal purposes; about one hundred have commercial value. Goldenseal, hepatica, digitalis, and ginseng are among the best known; they are found in many parts of the State, particularly in the mountain regions. Johnson grass, a quick-spreading, hardy grass much detested by farmers, sod the common varieties of weeds grow in all sections.
Perhaps the best known of the mountain flora is the rhododendron, ranging in color from white to deep purple. At Roan High Bluff (6,287 altitude), is a rhododendron garden, an outstanding display of the shrub in its natural setting. There are fifteen known species of trillium (wake robin) in the Smokies. The earliest to bloom, and the most vivid, is the ; variety with a dark crimson V at the base of a white petal. The yellow trillium, indigenous to the Appalachians, is common in the shaded foothill forests. Flame azalea, varying from red to orange and from gold to light yellow, the white and pink azalea, and the wild honeysuckle touch the mountain slopes with spots of color. Here, also, grows the sand myrtle, native of the sandy pine barrens of New Jersey, and found nowhere else in Tennessee. Mountain laurel covers many miles of mountainside and borders the streams. Peculiar to the highlands is the "burning bush"' called by the mountain folk "hearts-a-bustin'-with-love," because of its brilliant berries in autumn. The evergreen holly with its scarlet berries grows in profusion.
Lush grass and weeds cover the mountain glades and even flourish on the high slopes, giving to the rounded tops of some of the mountains the name "grassy balds." Ferns are numerous and grow very large.
The soil of Middle Tennessee is ideal for the cultivation of the State flower, the iris, and the Nashville Iris Association was formed in 1931 to foster its planting and cultivation. Along the boulevards and streets, and in parks and gardens, the blue, white, and purple blossoms appear by the millions annually, justifying Nashville's designation as the "Iris City."
The yellow jasmine, celebrated in the literature of the South, thrives in the southern parts of Middle Tennessee and as far east as the Great Appalachian Valley. Over much of the Central Basin grows bluegrass, which inakes the Middle Tennessee region one of the finest grazing lands in the country. Muscadines, as well as the other varieties of wild grapes, grow in the central and western portions of the State.
Interspersed with the oaks of the Plateau region are numerous shrubs. Itea, a member of the willow family, large-flowering hydrangea, Carolina allspice, narrow-leaf crabapple, hazelnut, buttonbush, chokeberry, arrowwood, and southern buckhorn grow where the gravelly soil supports a poor growth of larger trees. On the rock outcrops of the cedar woods are crustose lichens, simplest form of plant life.
Native here, also, are the pink stonecrop and pitcher's sandwort, and the taller plants, such as the daisy fleabane, wild senna, and coralberry. Among the vines are the trumpet honeysuckle and the Virginia creeper. Wild flowers common to much of Middle Tennessee are the spring-beauty, dragonroot, firepink, Indian-tobacco, lamb's lettuce, ground cherry, Venus' looking-glass, hop clover, wooly-leaf dutchman's pipe, shepherd's purse, horse-nettle, mouse-eared chichveed, dwarf evening primrose, violet wood sorrel, Illinois mimosa, common yarrow, and the flameflower, which blossoms only on clear days.
In the moist woodlands of West Tennessee are lilies and orchids, of which one species, the pink ladyslipper or moccasin flower, is said to be fast disappearing because of ruthless picking. There are water lilies in the lagoons; and Indian rye, formerly harvested by the aborigines, furnishes food for the migrating flocks of ducks and geese. The common grasses of the region are rushes, cattails, and swale grasses.
The story of Tennessee cannot be understood without reference to the types of soil that have determined the development of the State's three natural divisions. East Tennessee's early political dominance was due solely to first settlement. Although there were many fairly rich farmland pockets in the uplands, much of the soil was so thin that the people were able to force from it only the barest subsistence. The stream of immigration turned toward Middle and West Tennessee, where soils were deep and rich. Here a prosperous agricultural economy came into being. Inevitably Tennessee's cultural and political center also shifted westward.
In the Great Smoky Mountains there are still numbers of good small farms where the mellow sandy soil is similar to that of the Gulf Coast while in the East Tennessee Valley the soil, formed of disintegrated limestone-marble and shale with an admixture of flint-like chert, yields well to careful farming methods. Thousands of tiny "patch-farms" are scattered through the uplands and, in spite of wasteful lumbering operations, the poorest ridge soils still support fine stands of timber. Two thirds of the Cumberland Plateau is covered with forest, mostly secondgrowth scrub. The soil is thin, porous, and unproductive. Possibly the poorest land in the State is found on the inner part of the Highland Rim. Here a skim of earth overlies porous siliceous limestone through which the vitality of the soil "leaches out." The tenacious cedar grows well in these barrens and there is fair pasturage for cattle, but the land can never be made valuable for farming.
About 40 per cent of the Central Basin, which has been called "The Garden of Tennessee", is used as bluegrass pasturage. The soil has been formed of rich, soluble limestone, and is remarkably productive. The valley of the Tennessee River is given over to medium-sized farms on moderately fertile soil.
The West Tennessee slope differs from the other divisions in that it lacks stone outcrops or free rock. Although the hill section is subject to gully and ravine erosion, there are many large and productive farms. The soil is light, siliceous, and fertile. The flat alluvial bottom lands of the Mississippi, composed of sand, silt, and clay, possess great fertility. The soil is light, porous, and many feet deep. In most of the area large plantations produce enormous yearly crops of cotton and corn with no apparent sign of exhaustion. Much swampy forest land has not yet been cleared
As early as 1854, the State agricultural bureau warned that excessive "mining,' or one-crop cultivation of the soil would finally lead to economic disaster. Farmers following this practice grew one crop year after year without letting the land lie fallow or rotating crops to build up the soil. In 1857 Charles Dod, Jr., predicted that erosion would doom Tennessee agriculture. Two years later Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury urged erosion control. However, the period was one of prodigal short sighted waste and little was done to check the menace. Today 85 per cent of all land in the State has been damaged to some extent by erosion. In 1935 the State planning commission made a survey which revealed that three million acres had been practically ruined for cultivation by deep gullies, and that 75 to 100 per cent of the surface soil had been taken from eleven million acres by sheet erosion. In sheet erosion a thin cover of topsoil washes away during heavy rains. The severity of sheet erosion, which occurs on all lands not protected by a crop of heavy-rooted vegetation, depends on the degree of slope to the terrain and the type of soil. Shoe-string erosion is also responsible for much damage. Gullies, started by little rain rills, are gouged out to such a depth that it becomes almost impossible to fill them. Slip or landslide erosion, Tennessee,s third principal type, is frequent where shale soils predominate. Water accumulates between soil and bedrock until the undermined soil slides downhill, or collapses into sink-holes.
Contour cultivation, hillside terracing, and planned crop rotation (with careful selection of crops that hold the soil) constitute the best method of fighting sheet erosion. Winter cover crops like clover and grasses have been found beneficial. Gullies, which rarely occur in forest lands or in fields growing alfalfa or Japanese clover (lespedeza), are best fought by building wooden, metal, wire, brush, or stone check dams at proper intervals. Black locust trees are frequently planted to hold the soil. Japanese clover, serving as a legume to enrich the soil, is an effective cover crop. Nothing can be done to remedy landslide erosion, once it has occurred but landslides can be prevented by proper ditch drainage of susceptible areas.
Soil conservation and erosion control in Tennessee now embrace nearly 100,000 farms with a land area of nine and one-half million acres, or about half of the farm acreage in the State. The university,s extension service and the three Federal agencies--the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Soil Conservation Service--are collaborating in what is considered the most comprehensive conservation program ever attempted in the United States.
A principal land program of the TVA is that of erosion control, carried on in cooperation with farmers. Civilian Conservation Corps boys, supervised by the watershed protective section (the forest division of the TVA) do much of the control work on private property; owners must furnish teams and materials, and sign an agreement to maintain the project for five years. So actively have Tennessee Valley farmers cooperated that by 1936 more than one hundred thousand check dams had been built and eighteen million seedlings planted. Reforestation is employed only in the most badly eroded sections. Elsewhere the first two steps of control suffice--the building of check dams and diversion ditches, and the planting of cover crops.
Where cotton and other crops requiring cultivation between the rows are grown, terracing is advocated in addition to readjustment of the crop cover. Terracing associations, usually underwritten by responsible local agencies, purchase large motor-driven grading machines which are operated on a communal basis.
Much of the soil in the eroded areas is too far gone to support even grass crops without plant food. The manure of horses, mules, cattle, and sheep is scrupulously conserved, but this source of home fertilizer has been greatly reduced in recent years with the increased use of motorized farm machinery. Cotton seed hulls, a valuable home product, are rarely used because the farmers prefer to sell them and buy commercial fertilizer. The best home method of fertilizing the soil consists of growing legumes and other plants to be turned under as green manure in a carefully planned rotation of crops. Perhaps one-tenth of the farmers in the State allow a field to rest every third or fourth year, as part of their rotation system. But very few, during this rest period, plant a cover crop which is to be turned under. The common practice is to let the selected field lie fallow producing the common weeds and grasses indigenous to the region.
To meet the need for cheap phosphate in the valley, Nitrate Plant No. 2, at the Muscle Shoals project of the TVA, produces a new triple superphosphate and a still newer metaphosphate from the raw phosphate rock found in Middle Tennessee. Farmers throughout the valley have organized soil conservation clubs and are demonstrating the value of this fertilizer in growing the most effective control crops--grasses for pasturage or hay, legumes in mat planting, and small grain. In demonstration areas farmers receive fertilizer free through the State agricultural extension service and farm organizations.
Erosion control not only saves reservoirs and checks flood damage, but helps the farmer escape the one-crop system which has impoverished him and exhausted his land. Reforestation provides nut and fruit crops and a continually renewed supply of timber. A cover crop of grass or legume in eroded fields provides pasture for livestock. The change from a one-crop method of farming means less silt in the river, more money in the farmer's pocket, and better food for folk who have too often existed on corn pone, sorghum, and sowbelly the year around.
Previous Chapter | Contents | Next Chapter
TENNESSEE: A GUIDE TO THE STATE