Continuing on the theme of scenic corridors, today was quite another treat as we ventured south from Norris Dam through Oak Ridge and down Highway 58 into Meigs County and the rural, northern part of Hamilton County on our way to our home base of Chattanooga. Meigs County is gorgeous and I hope it stays that way. Although we didn't visit it, we passed by River Ridge Farms and it is a success story of farm landowners cooperating with government in creating a permanent scenic easement. You can read about how the Land Trust for Tennessee worked with the landowners to create a win-win agreement here.
Our first stop driving down Highway 58 in Meigs County, was at River Road Farms near Decatur, an excellent example of low impact, sustainable agriculture. Here, we got an education in the art of espalier (pronounced ES-PA-LEE-A). I have to be honest and say I had never heard the word before in my life, but evidently, those in the landscape or horticultural profession probably have heard the term. It refers to a European tradition of growing a fruit tree via “training” methods to control its shape and its fruit production. The technique was first developed by the ancient Romans and perfected over the centuries by Europeans, specifically for their walled-in or castle gardens, as the trees are often trained to grow against walls. We learned that it takes many years to train a tree to a point that it is ready for sale and that one of the benefits of having such a tree besides its ornamental beauty is that it also bears larger fruit than normal. It is fascinating to see the many different shapes that they can train the trees to grow into: candelabras, fans, arches, fences and even hearts. Upon leaving River Road Farms, I vowed to return one day to purchase one of their creations for my yard.
Our litter pick-up for the day was just a little further down the road, just after crossing the Hiwassee River. On Blythe Ferry Road, we met up with a Meigs County inmate crew. The supervisor warned us that they had recently encountered many snakes in the area, so we were on high alert. Thankfully, no such encounter happened today.
Later in the day, in downtown Chattanooga, we visited the Tennessee Aquarium. Long before the Aquarium of the Smokies and the Georgia Aquarium, the Tennessee Aquarium re-defined what an Aquarium could be and where it could be located. When it was being built in the early 90's, detractors called it “Jack's Folly,” in reference to the millions Coca Cola heir Jack Lupton poured into the project and the profound skepticism from observers that it would be financially successful. Who would want to come to Chattanooga to see an aquarium? Who would want to go to an aquarium that focused on freshwater species? Well, over twenty years later, his vision has more than proven everyone wrong. The Aquarium has been a pioneer in so many ways. At the time it was built in 1992 it was the largest freshwater aquarium in the world. It was almost an instant success and is widely credited with being the spearhead in the complete revival and turnaround of downtown Chattanooga. Looking back today, everyone points to the Aquarium as the turning point for the entire city, a city that was struggling to pull itself out of the moniker of the “Most Polluted City in America.” Who knew an Aquarium could turnaround and unite an entire community? Jack did! It's an amazing legacy the man left for Chattanooga and a lesson for what smart investment and one man's vision can accomplish.
At the Aquarium, Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, aquatic conservation biologist, spent time with Jane and Harlan at the sturgeon touch tank, educating them about the ancient species and its vulnerability to trash in our waterways. Dr. Kuhajda is an Aquarium educator and also a scientist with the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute, an affiliate of the Aquarium whose mission is to further research and conservation of freshwater species. He shared with us the importance of understanding how what we do with our litter directly impacts our waterways and our water quality. In essence, what gets dumped into a watershed ultimately ends up in the the waterway.
The notion of a watershed, or drainage basin, is not necessarily common knowledge, but it is easier to understand in a mountainous region. If you're on top of a mountain and drop a cup of water down one side, it will ultimately drain into whatever river system is at the bottom of the valley on that side of the mountain. If you drop the cup of water on the other side of the mountain, it will drain into a different watershed. I never really knew what a watershed was until a few years ago when I began seeing signs on the interstate stating “Entering Tennessee River Watershed.” These “watershed-awareness” signs were constructed by the state to educate citizens about their local watershed and to take ownership in protecting it. 187 such signs were constructed along our interstates. Next time you're driving, pay attention to the signs and begin to take note of the surrounding geography. You'll sometimes be amazed at how far away you are from the watershed proclaimed on the sign. According to the Tennessee Stormwater Association, there are 55 watersheds within the state and Tennessee shares parts of 35 watersheds with neighboring states. Every watershed in the state except for the Conasauga, drains directly or indirectly into the Mississippi River and then into the Gulf of Mexico. A Guide To Traveling Tennessee Watersheds is an excellent on-line resource that you can download to learn more about Tennessee watersheds and to find out which one you live in.
After our time inside the Aquarium, we ended our day outside being entertained by the jazz quintet of the Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble. Linda and I were privileged to produce a film several years ago about the Chattanooga Sit-ins in 1960 during the early days of the Civil Rights struggle. We met and interviewed Booker for that film as he was one of the many heroes of that story. As a high school student, he took great personal risk in leading and participating in downtown Chattanooga lunch counter sit-ins. You can check out the film here. That film, like this current Pickin' Up Tennessee project, are examples of what drove Linda and me to seek out a profession as filmmakers. We wanted and still want to tell stories that need to be told and to educate and entertain people in the process.