Ijams Nature Center Celebrates its 100 Years of “Little Surprises”

Knoxville's natural wonder prepares to add the 103-acre Ross Quarry to its preserve

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Okay, say you experience a blackout of some sort and when you come to you find yourself on a high wall built of white boulders, a sort of bridge across a narrow canyon surrounded on all sides by deep green forest. The peculiar stone bridge is broad enough for an intrepid mule maybe, but not a car. Trees grow up from the forest floor, perhaps 50 feet down, and you can almost touch the tops of them. Clouds of frantic moths dance around your head like songs. You hear only birds, and not necessarily the sort of birds you’ve heard before.

In an English accent, a young man remarks on the rarity of the scene. “It’s kind of neat to be up in the treetops, isn’t it?”

Unnecessarily you respond, well, yes it is, at that.

It’s hot up here, sweltering, but then you descend by a roundabout and barely discernible path to the shadowy floor, and suddenly it’s cool, as if chilled by subterranean wind. You peer out a square passage of forgotten purpose at a scene from a movie, a green gorge.

“Who knew, eh?” says the Englishman.

Not you. But where the hell are you?

This is the mini-universe called Ross Quarry, where things exist that are unlikely elsewhere, and as the crow flies it’s only about two miles east by southeast of the Gay Street Bridge. The newest addition to Ijams Nature Center is a wonderland of natural and semi-natural features. It seems like one of those unlikely scenarios in a grade-school geography text, an illustration for the purpose of teaching geographical terms: bluff, forest, pond, gorge, cave, lake, meadow, valley, even a pocket desert. The fact that most of these bluffs aren’t natural is obvious only when you look closely, and see the machine grooves and more right angles than you’d expect in nature; they’re obscured with undergrowth and vines and patched with thick moss. They may one day be mistaken for dramatic natural formations.

“It’s quite amazing, the power of nature to reclaim itself,” says the Englishman, whose name is Paul James. He has been director of Ijams Nature Center for the past several years, and has just released a photo-driven book about Ijams to celebrate the centennial of the property as a wildlife sanctuary.

You could film about a dozen Steven Spielberg movies here, and there are some corners that might convince you what you’re seeing is computer-generated. And in fact James tends to bring up movie imagery as he introduces each unlikely scenario. “This is our Planet of the Apes scene,” he says in a weirdly sparse section where a few cedar trees poke up through a few acres of white sand on a steep slope. As we enter a moist jungle of vines and mossy bluffs and lofty precipices, he says, “Some people mention Skull Island.” The reference is to the lush hyper-Darwinian ecosystem in King Kong. “The 1933 version,” he specifies.

The fact that it exists in Knoxville city limits would surprise people. The fact that all these years, 103-acre Ross Quarry has been adjacent to a well-known natural preserve that has been able to obtain it to preserve it forever seems to imply divine intervention. Known by several other names over the years, the quarry hasn’t produced plinths of industry-grade limestone since the 1970s. Imerys, a French-owned marble-quarrying corporation, had owned the idle property for years, but eventually chose to donate it to Ijams about two and a half years ago. It’s not yet officially ready for school groups and Elderhostel tours—they’re shoring up that mysterious rock bridge, and installing some safety features, like an unobtrusive railing along that high stone bridge, that will allow them to open it to the public in about six months.

“This property challenges our presumptions of what a nature center would be about,” James says, and in this context it seems an understatement. Many larger cities boast nature centers of some sort, and it’s hard to compare them in any handily quantifiable way, but it’s safe to say that it’s very rare, if not unique, for a nature center as wildly various as Ijams to be so close to an urban center.

***

The Ijams story is a century old, and well-known. Paul James has become its chronicler, by way of that book released just this month, one of the better entries in Arcadia Publishing’s uneven Images of America series.

Ijams Nature Center is probably the most famous thing in the world that goes by that unusual name. The J is silent, by the way. The family pronounced the Cornish name as if it rhymes with rhymes, and some who work at Ijams pronounce it as exactly one syllable. But many locals pronounce it in two syllables, eye-yums. Harry Pearle Ijams was born in Knoxville in 1876, the son of the Ohio-born educator recruited to be principal of the Tennessee Deaf and Dumb Asylum, later known as the Tennessee School for the Deaf, in the years just after the Civil War. (That school was then located downtown, as was the Ijams family residence; the fact that Ijams and TSD are adjacent today is an agreeable coincidence.) The father died young, leaving three sons and two daughters to be raised by their mother.

Young Harry, known to many as H.P., showed an early interest in nature—he collected interesting bird eggs—and a perhaps related talent for drawing. He became a professional engraver and illustrator, and in the days when newspapers were using more and more illustrations, he found plenty of work. But he maintained an interest in ornithology and nature in general. He belonged to the generation of progressive young people who witnessed the opening of the Great Smoky Mountains and the birth of the conservationist movement. Ijams, who was related by marriage to the family of major Smokies landowner and benefactor W.B. Townsend, eventually got involved in the park movement, himself, and was particularly instrumental in building the first shelter on Mt. LeConte, a favorite birding post.

In 1910, the 34-year-old illustrator bought 17 acres on an island-sheltered part of the riverfront to serve as a garden, farm, wildlife preserve, and expansive home for his outdoor-oriented family of four particularly lively daughters. The Ijams built a modest house on the property, and slept in it, but spent most of their waking hours outside. The property became a de facto bird sanctuary when they moved in. His wife, Alice, was more interested in gardening, and the spread offered ample opportunities. “H.P. and Alice were visionaries,” says James. He was born across the ocean after they both were dead, but has come to know them on a first-name basis.

In later life, Ijams became the main staff illustrator for the News Sentinel, well known for his playful wit. By then he also had a reputation as Knoxville’s first “ornithologist,” and one of East Tennessee’s leading authorities on native birds. He established a shelter for the local Audubon Society on his property, which attracted regular visitors, as did Alice’s gardens, which became a favorite local destination for local garden clubs.

After a beloved daughter, Mary died, in a car wreck at age 16, the Ijams donated a two-and-a-half-acre bit of their land to establish a Girl Scout camp, Camp Mary Ijams—which, as it happens, the Girl Scouts sold, in the 1970s, for private residential development. The first part of the Ijams property that became familiar to Knoxville’s general public is no longer public at all.

Harry and Alice were famously welcoming of visitors. As local florist and birdwatcher Brockway Crouch eulogized upon Ijams’ death in 1954, “The Ijams’ sanctuary welcomed friends and visitors, Scout and students, as well as birds. Entering it, one felt removed spiritually, as well as physically, from the busy routine of life.”

It’s not clear that H.P. Ijams pictured his property becoming a public park, but when the idea came up in the early 1960s, while Alice Ijams was still alive, his daughters were enthusiastically supportive of the idea. Soon after Alice Ijams’ death in 1964, the Knoxville Garden Club and the Knox County Council of Garden Clubs, working closely with the surviving Ijams daughters, fashioned the old Ijams homestead into a public park, a nature center. The city dedicated “Ijams Park” in 1968, with two Ijams daughters on hand to witness it. Ijams Nature Center was born in 1976, and originally used the old Ijams home for a base of operations. The Knoxville Audubon Society became a supporter, but Ijams remained a relatively small and out-of-the-way oddity, 17 acres of an interesting family’s old backyard, little known to most non-birding Knoxvillians in a suburbanizing city spilling west along the interstate.

In 1990, Ijams’ supporters funded a 63-acre expansion, which turned out to be the first of a series of ambitious acquisitions. Ijams funded improvements to the park, including a boardwalk by the river bluff with views of a biologically lively cave.

Meanwhile, long-defunct Mead’s Quarry, a dumping site and a magnet for crime, became the subject of a community effort to clean it up as a park. By way of help from Knox County government and a private donation of land, Ijams obtained it, too, another 80 acres. When it opened to the public in 2005, it roughly doubled the size of an already expanded Ijams.

Meanwhile, the city condemned some structures on still another abandoned quarry once operated by the Georgia Marble Co. but sometimes known by the local name of Ross Quarry. Representatives from its current owner, Imerys, were in town surveying the situation, and on a random visit to neighboring Ijams ran into a couple of well-placed supporters, including board member and City Councilman Joe Hultquist. The serendipitous connections began the ball rolling for an unexpected gift from the French corporation, 103 acres in all, plus $50,000 to fund reclamation of the old quarry, accomplished through the offices of the fledgling Legacy Parks Foundation, which continues to work closely with Ijams on longer-range projects. Ijams Nature Center is now about 275 acres—about 16 times the size it was 20 years ago.

It’s also more than three times the size it was when the soft-spoken, unassuming newcomer Paul James began working there 10 years ago. “It’s amazing, really,” he admits.

***

The modest but once-beloved Ijams home was torn down in the 1990s, one of the few developments of the last 20 years that some supporters grumble about. But there are larger modern buildings in its place, especially a visitor center finished in 1997, with offices and laboratories and large meeting rooms and exhibit space, but still evolving. A new exhibit devoted to the history of the Ijams family was open this past weekend. There’s already an interesting display about the ivory-bill woodpecker, the elusive denizen of the wetlands of the Deep South. Believed by most ornithologists to be extinct—despite some intriguing reports in recent years that maybe it’s not—the large woodpecker once flourished in the swamplands of Louisiana. Ijams is known for its interest in the indigenous, and it may be surprising that the center makes this one exception to celebrate a creature that was never common in East Tennessee.

If Knoxville was never a habitat for ivory bills, it has been the habitat of several ivory-bill experts, including Jim and Nancy Tanner, the last two humans proven to have seen one, and Ijams resident bird expert Lyn Bales, whose new book about Jim Tanner’s work tracking the rare ivory bill from 1935-41, Ghost Birds, due to be published by UT Press this fall. Tanner got an unusual grant through the Audubon Society to study the ivory bill for three years in the swamps of Louisiana, camping out for weeks and moving around the wetlands of the Deep South by rowboat or canoe. After his Ph.D. thesis for Cornell became the definitive book on the endangered, perhaps extinct woodpecker, Tanner moved to Knoxville where he became prominent in UT’s graduate school in zoology.

Bales’ feature about the same subject will appear in the September issue of Smithsonian. Ijams emphasizes only local species in their exhibits, but highlights the ivory bill because of the Tanners’ connections to Ijams over the years. The late Jim Tanner was instrumental in the development of Ijams as a nature center in the 1970s. Nancy Tanner, whom Bales calls “the only living person with a universally accepted sighting of the ivory bill woodpecker” in 1941 lives in South Knoxville and is still an active member of Ijams. The interactive ivory-bill exhibit in Ijams’ lobby features the last-known film of the ivory bill, and a playful mock-up of the unusually large woodpecker.

Another case shows a passenger pigeon, a thoroughly extinct bird which was indeed indigenous here, the namesake for the Pigeon River and even Pigeon Forge. In fact, by the late 1920s, H.P. Ijams became an expert on the bird soon after the last known one died. He published a booklet about the passenger pigeon, and obtained a rare stuffed specimen. (The one on display today is actually not Harry Ijams’ original, which was donated to another organization before the nature center offered such exhibits.)

Several animals on exhibit at the nature center aren’t yet extinct. Some are actually alive.

“He’s a bit of a beast,” warns James, of a 12-pound prehistoric-looking reptile in a tank, a native snapping turtle.

James, who has been Ijams’ director since 2003, might seem an unlikely fellow to be in charge. Originally from Derbyshire, England, he’s still distinctly British after more than a decade in Knoxville.

“You can spend a whole day at Ijams, easily,” he says, offhand, “but still be home for tea.” He grew up a member of the boy scouts and the local ornithology club, and did a lot of hiking, especially around England’s first national park, the Peak District, a protected region of rolling hills and occasional escarpments, which is near his home. “Funny,” he says, “the Peak District landscape is punctuated by limestone rocks.”

He stops at a large outdoor cage that holds a turkey vulture. “She’s not always program-friendly,” he says. “I think they’re misunderstood. People think of vultures as harbingers of doom. But they’re nature’s Sanitary Corps.” The vulture seems friendly enough, and raises a wing, seeming to comb it with her beak.

“Look, she’s preening herself,” he says. “You don’t think of a vulture preening herself. Some don’t like to look at them, but I think they’re beautiful birds.”

James had lived in New York for a while, working for CARE, when he arrived in town with his American wife, who had a job with Scripps. “When we first came here, Knoxville seemed like a sleepy town, not a lot going on.” They lived in suburban Farragut, downtown was spotty, and at the end of Knoxville’s long, shy period, the city’s activities were not obvious to newcomers. “But there’s actually quite a lot going on,” he says.

Ijams is adding to the municipal hubbub this year especially with its first “IjamsFest,” a mini-music festival on Saturday, June 5. They’ve had some musical events in the past, rock and especially symphonic performances. They’re not yet promising this will be an annual thing. “We’ll see if it makes money,” James says. The nature center offers multiple programs during the year, including an annual outdoor dinner accompanied by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

Ijams, which runs on an annual budget of $800,000, employs a full-time staff of 15, not counting several volunteers, most of them involved in one way or another in the center’s several educational programs, both for the adult-education programs and for the several thousand students who tour Ijams every year on school field trips.

Many larger cities have nature centers of some sort, part zoo, part park, part biology class. Ijams seems different from most others, but in ways that are hard to nail down.

“What’s unique is the history,” James says. “How it’s grown and evolved to incorporate these beautiful quarry sites that were once industrial.” The aforementioned Ross Quarry is still under development as a site to visit, but some are still getting used to the fact that Mead’s Quarry is now an integral part of the Ijams experience. It includes a picturesque bluff, a small historic family graveyard, and a very deep lake.

“And what’s really unique is we’re just three miles from downtown.” (That’s as the car drives, not as the crow flies.) James says visitation is up; they’re getting close to 50,000 visitors a year. “When I came to Knoxville in 2000, everything was moving west. We heard people say, ‘Ijams is so far away.’ What’s happened in the last three or four years is that people are finding reasons to come downtown. And we’re just a hop, a skip, and a jump from downtown.”

For the unfamiliar, getting to this place on east of Island Home, and it’s still in a sleepy residential neighborhood of narrow, curving roads with few familiar landmarks, can make Ijams seem more remote than it is. But in recent years, the Will Skelton Greenway has linked it to both Island Home Park and the wildlife-management area farther to the east. The adjacency of other large protected areas, including a University of Tennessee farm facility, is a major advantage for encouraging wildlife sightings at Ijams proper.

***

Lyn Bales says Ijams is a superior place to see local and migratory birds; the checklist of bird species you might see or hear at Ijams is 154 species long. “It has a rich variety of habitats: grasslands, woods, riverfront, lake—like the quarry lake,” he says. “It’s an unusual variety of habitats you can walk to in 10 or 15 minutes.” Bales offers classes on bird watching; his Summer Birds class meets on June 12. (Call Ijams for details.)

Ijams’ other resident “birder” is Emily Boves (pronounced as two syllables), an energetic young woman of diminutive stature and startling wisdom about her forest; she’s probably getting tired of people comparing her to a woodland sprite. Seemingly too young to know as much as she does, she spends much of her time showing children around the place—but we caught her arranging an exhibit of Harry Ijams’ prized bird eggs, all of them over 60 years old. Originally from Idaho, where she worked for years in bird-banding projects, she came to Knoxville with her husband, who’s studying ornithology at UT, and they were astonished by what they found at Ijams. “We did not expect it to be as extensive as it is,” so close to town, she says. She’s worked for Ijams for three years, but walks through the old trails as if for the first time, seeming genuinely excited by each bird call and plant. “This is a spicebush,” she says, picking a leaf to break it. It has a strong minty smell. “There are some plants you can identify just by the smell of the leaves.” She notes the grapevines, some rather huge, with a peely bark they find in the construction of many birds’ nests. She notes that even here within city limits, the habitat sustains wildflowers and other plants that are most typical in healthy forests, like trillium, and some orchids and lilies.

Part of what makes Ijams special to her is the region. “There’s a diversity here that we don’t have in the West,” she says.

She notes the sound of a yellow-billed cuckoo. It’s invisible, somewhere high above. “They’re rarely seen, but heard,” Boves says. “A lot of people rarely get to see a cuckoo, they’re so secretive.

“Hear that high-pitched noise? That’s a baby cardinal getting fed.” Somehow she can even tell it’s a baby northern cardinal, to be specific, being fed by its father. Near the river shore she points out the nest of a downy woodpecker, just as the woodpecker enters the tiny hole with surprising ease as it chirps sharply. “They’re notorious for being loud,” she says. The path by the river takes us by a cave; inside, barely visible clinging to the cave wall, is the nest of a phoebe. Across the way is a blue heron, the largest of three varieties of heron seen regularly at Ijams.

One of the prize sightings at Ijams is the cerulean warbler, a threatened species only occasionally spotted. We don’t see one today, but a shadow high above is that of a large raptor.

“There’s a Cooper’s hawk,” Boves says. “They eat songbirds. I actually like birds of prey.” At Ijams she has seen a pair of barred owls, and an osprey. “It would be sad to see one eat a cerulean, but that happens.”

She looked up in the red maple that grows just outside Ijams’ busy main entrance and said, “I think there’s a nest there.” It turned out to be the nest of a couple of blue-gray gnatcatchers; the pretty little birds are not rare, but they’re not a typical sight in the suburbs either. They seem to be doing a good service; no gnats are in evidence at Ijams today.

One of Boves’ favorite places is in the old part of Ijams, the Lotus Pond, a backyard-sized watering hole so thick with bright green growth one might be tempted to walk across it. Though it looks at first glance as a natural wetland, this half-acre pool, built from a tiny natural stream by Harry Ijams himself in 1922, may be the most intimate remnant of the Ijams’ time here. He built it as a safe place for his young daughters to swim in, but it was so effective at attracting birds they sometimes called it Lake Avis. Other sorts of animals like it too.

“The cool thing about this is that you never know what you’re gonna see,” says Boves. Today a good-sized turtle is resting halfway up a tree limb, sunning himself, keeping a foot in the water as if to remind itself it’s a turtle. “That’s a map turtle,” she says. “And there are some snapping turtles.” They’re not obvious at first, low semi-spherical islands, with heads emerging like subtle periscopes.

A bird calls high in the lofty forest canopy. “That’s a red-eyed vireo,” she says. “Some birders get annoyed at them because they sing the same song all day long.”

***

“Ijams offers a wonderful assortment of little surprises,” says James.

One greets us as we leave the building. Across the pavement appears what would seem a token pond, with reedy growth. On first glance, the pond isn’t all that different in construction and placement from the artificial ponds in front of retirement condo developments. From it emanates a sound which startled a reporter emerging from a meeting, a deep moan like the lowing of a small cow. “I think that’s a bullfrog,” says James.

Though Ijams doesn’t stock the pond, it’s home to at least a couple of species of random amphibians. A comical call that sounds plucked like a mouth harp is that of another species, a green frog. They’re just spending the day hanging out at Ijams. Today, it seems like a good idea.

Much of what makes Ijams astonishing is unplanned and unexpected. You’d almost think variant species gather around Ijams to show off to an unusually appreciative audience.

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Comments » 1

sstoddar writes:

I have always been amazed by my daughter Emily since the day she was born in a pick up truck in the mountains of Idaho. We didn't make it to the hospital but it really didn't matter because her love of life and her surroundings as well as her determination were evident from the moment she came into this world. It is wonderful to me that Knoxville has this special place and that the citizens have worked so hard to preserve it. I am proud and happy that Emily can be a part of it and help to share it with the children of Knoxville.

Sam Stoddard
Santiago de Chile

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