Bonus Feature

Earth Talk

Earth Talk

An interview with UT geology professor Mike McKinney

An interview with UT geology professor Mike McKinney

by Beth Carroll Hunley

"Tell me a story about Earth," I ask Mike McKinney. "Tell me what Earth would say if it could talk." I am in his office inside the Earth and Planetary Sciences building at the University of Tennessee. Lit only by the morning sunrays filtered through blinds from outside, it seems somehow fitting for a paleontologist, his original profession and the reason the university hired him as a professor 22 years ago. His switch to geology came naturally, and is more in keeping with his environmental activism.

"How can I talk about extinctions in the distant past when I am witnessing the greatest extinction of all time right now?"

He is referring to the devastating impacts of development, urban sprawl and mountaintop mining on the East Tennessee landscape.

We were talking about our growing up years--his in the Florida countryside, mine in and around the woods of East Tennessee--and how those early years provided the catalyst for a life-long love of nature.

I am looking for a way to write which could reconnect people to their own earlier experiences of nature and what has captivated them. I had come here looking for Eliot's objective correlative--a touchstone of reality, with an experience that would call forth such emotions as a way of approaching a conversation about the environment. I thought that Dr. Mike McKinney was the man to do it.

It would take some prodding, though. He is still angry about the loss of the Turkey Creek Wetlands to the commercial development of a two-mile-long upscale strip center. A leader in the struggle to save this wetlands habitat that was home to more than 20 species of migratory birds, he has taken the loss hard. His anger has turned bitter.

Still he has learned to put such anger to good use. Those early years as a naturalist in the Florida backwoods and watching with his young eyes the dismantling of the landscape by Disney and other developers had catapulted him off to Yale and his lifelong study of science. It was this combination of his love of the environment and his anger about the assaults on nature that propelled him.

  I knew that he could tell me what gives East Tennessee its unique character, geologically speaking. I had heard the awe and quiet reverence in his voice at the end of our first interview in response to my question about the rocks around New Found Gap at the headwaters of the Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He had told me that the Little River traveled over and around billion-year-old granite created when North America collided with Africa, and how as the Little River etched its way downward it came into contact with younger limestone rock (only about 400 million years old) left over from the Ordovician time.

I had come to my own conclusions instinctively that it is in us--this love of nature--waiting to be tapped. For myself I knew that my soul and spirit are bound up with these hills, and I was looking for a way to write that would connect people to what fascination nature held for them.

"What you are talking about," he says, "is what E.O. Wilson defines as the Biophilia Hypothesis. We have an instinctive love of nature. We evolved from it."

"It is part of us," I chime in.

"In his explanation, Wilson says it's an instinct just like the need for air and other things. Food.

"But before we go any further with this conversation," he cautions me, "a real prerequisite to this whole line of reasoning is exposure. And the problem is, we have built ourselves a society where people are no longer exposed to it. If you had been born 20 years ago, and were growing up now, I doubt you would have these feelings."

He mentions a concept called Nature Deficit Disorder, which he believes is relevant. "Also people are visiting parks less now. The hypothesis is that they are spending more time watching TV and so on. If kids aren't exposed to nature, they are not going to get it. By the time you are 20, your personality is shaped."

He is concerned about inner-city kids whom he believes have very distorted ideas about the environment. Exposure is the key, he reiterates.

I ask him if he is familiar with the concept of Earth conscious of itself, the idea of Earth being able to reflect on itself through its human component. And of course he is--he's been around a while, he reminds me.

"For one thing," I say, "all the minerals in my body came out of Earth."

"This is an intellectual tradition that goes back to Thoreau at Walden. He started this whole line of thinking. He basically saw nature as a temple," says McKinney. "I am one of those people too, but I am also a harsh realist, and when it comes to these problems like urban sprawl, there is no doubt in my mind that 95 percent of the people in our society do not have these thoughts and there is no way to make them have them."

I understand that people don't all have these thoughts because they haven't had the experiences, and with more and more of the natural landscape being cut away, there is not as much opportunity. Still, if the connection to nature is instinctual, then it is in us somewhere, even if it has to be evoked or tapped. And what I want is not to stir people to do something, but rather to stir them to see the beauty and to feel it.  

McKinney does not disagree. "I am just saying we have to find some way to communicate with them in their language which is too often just economical and just pragmatic."

"So please," I say, "tell me about Earth."

"You mean like sense of place?"


"Here are some basic things that make our area unique, and it is a tragedy that they are just paving it over.

"We have more species than any other inland state--mostly aquatic. It's because we have the oldest mountains on the planet. These mountains are 250 million years old. You go to Florida. You don't see that--the rocks there are 10,000 years old. By the same token, if you go to North Carolina, you find some of the oldest rocks on the planet. There are rocks in North Carolina that are a billion years old. So there is an immense inheritance here.

"Then there is the diversity," McKinney explains. "If you get in your car and you drive to Nashville or Memphis, suddenly you run into dinosaurs, and rocks that were here when dinosaurs were here."


"Fossils. The rocks get younger as you drive toward Memphis. About halfway between Nashville and Memphis you run into rocks of the Cretaceous Age. So you run into dinosaur bones. And then you drive a little more and you are into the Ice Age."

Roadside geology.

"But getting back into East Tennessee, you've got every single geological age represented in the rocks; you've got some of the most complex topography. Some of the cleanest rivers east of the Mississippi like the Obed River are on the Cumberland Plateau. Some of the most pristine white waters, some of the oldest forests and rock formations left are in Big South Fork. Unfortunately, they are drilling for oil there. Also, strip mining--mountaintop mining is occurring there.

"We have a wonderful heritage here for people. The thing the developers don't understand is that people don't come here for Pigeon Forge--they come here for the nature, and if they just continue to ignore nature, the tourists aren't going to come here."

McKinney was recently involved in a "conservancy deal" in which they lost 59 acres to development on a ridge overlooking Cades Cove. Before European settlers built homesteads there in the 1800s, the cove was a gathering place for Cherokee native peoples. Views from its meadows include highland slopes of Precambrian rock. "It was a land deal that was up for bid, because nobody knew about it." As a result, McKinney says some of the ridges that are visible from Cades Cove will be converted into housing developments.

"So it's a shame. But like you say, if you can alert people to what they are losing... I totally agree."

McKinney teaches geology because he is fascinated by Earth, and I am thinking about what Earth has to teach us, and how to get in touch with that. So I ask him about listening to and observing Earth and what we can learn.

"I can tell you, distilling 53 years of experience, so I feel like I am qualified. I think the single most important thing that Earth has to teach is humility . It's the idea that our time on this planet is so unbelievably short it boggles the mind, and unless we take care of it, our grandkids and future generations are going to be furious with what we have done."

The idea that we can do anything that we want, with no constraints, is totally at odds with the legacy we want to leave for future generations, McKinney says.

"By studying our planet's past, I know that all species are temporary. I know that everything we build is going to be flattened. Everything we build is eventually going to disappear. As much as we like to think of ourselves as being apart from nature, we are not apart from nature. It all goes under the umbrella of humility --how ephemeral the human is, how short-lived, how much we are part of the machinery of nature. Every aspect of nature teaches us about humility ."

I once heard a Catholic bishop whom I much admired tell the story of growing up in a family of seven children and how his father gave each of them a little piece of the family garden to work. He pointed out that the family's subsistence wasn't dependent on the toil of the children, because the father's labor was going to insure that the family had enough to eat. Unlike that scenario, the bishop noted, what happens in the world is dependent on our human contributions. So is there a part for the human to play? What each of us does here matters, doesn't it? I ask McKinney.

McKinney responds, "What we call the first law of ecology is that everything is connected. That really fits in with that. You never do just one thing. The guy that invented the internal combustion engine didn't think he was going to change the climate. The guys who promote urban sprawl don't consider the fact that they might be degrading the Gulf of Mexico, but they are, because a lot of our pollution goes to the Gulf of Mexico."

So I ask for more examples in terms of this interdependence that underpins everything--our mountains--a synecdoche, if you please.

"For some reason," he says, "I am thinking about mountaintop mining, and just that the definition of where we live is a mountain. If we destroy the mountain, do you know how much electricity we get out of that mountain for the coal? An entire mountain provides an hour's worth of electricity for the U.S. That is insane by anybody's laws. So instead of respecting this icon of our area we grind it up, burn it for an hour's worth of electricity. And in the meantime, we've lost the most unique ecosystem east of the Mississippi. We've lost the fish, we've lost the plants, we've lost the birds--the migratory birds who breed here have no place to go. We've lost our cultural heritage, our Indian burial grounds, and shown total disrespect for nature."

Among some of the most endangered species of our area McKinney lists the hellbender, the largest salamander that actually migrated geographically from China tens of thousands years ago; the Fraser fir and the hemlock; the brook trout. Also in terms of migratory birds: the raven, the larger relative of the crow, and a lot of the migratory warblers.

"So if you were to think like a mountain," I ask, "what would you say?"

"I am an incredibly wild and unique and old ecosystem and that is why we have so many species here; therefore I deserve respect."

Beth Carroll Hunley is a community organizer working (for 17 years) on poverty and hunger issues in East Tennessee communities. She is also a native of East Tennessee, and my soul and spirit are bound up with these mountains and forests.


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