By J.D. Moor
National Park Service Ranger Jerry Hightower provides walking, talking infotainment. You can find him leading hikes throughout the network of trails within the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area and mixing hard-edged, startling statistics, homespun anecdotes and stories told in character.
Hightower’s hikes can show visitors dainty fiddlehead ferns amid serviceberry trees or a hard-to-find rock shelter or Civil War breastworks. Like an owl on the prowl, he uncovers snakes, salamanders and giant beetle larvae. He’s been with the National Park Service since 1979 and can show the easy way to tell mountain laurel from rhododendron.
What makes a good communicator?
I think education should be fun and grab your attention. I lack any inhibitions and I like to take risks, which makes some people nervous. They may think I’m foolish, but that’s OK.
Can you tell that story about how the serviceberry got its name?
Serviceberry is a white flowering tree that blooms in the early spring. It grows here in the park and in the mountains of the northeast.
[He slips into the accent of the north Georgia mountains.] In the mountains of north Georgia, where my family’s from, they call it “sarviceberry.” And I’ll tell you somethin’ right now – “serviceberry” is a Yankee name. That’s because up north it gets colder than blue blazes and when good ole Uncle Jerry up and dies in the middle of winter, that Yankee ground is too frozen to dig a hole, so they store his poor ole body in the shed until spring. Finally, when the dirt thaws enough, they’ll bury that body, they’ll have themselves a funeral service and those serviceberries will be flowering. So that’s why those Yankees call it serviceberry, but it’s really sarviceberry.
All kidding aside, you are an advocate of “ethnobotany,” the relationship between people and the plants they use. Why?
Scientists are discovering that only in the complexity and diversity of nature can we find the compounds to further medical discoveries. Researchers are interviewing Native Americans and many older Americans to find what worked for them. Right here in the park, we have several examples with the mayapple and bloodroot plants and the paw paw tree. These are being blueprinted for drugs that would treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.
Nature Up Close
Through the summer, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area offers a variety of hikes led by park rangers.
The park offers Saturday “Discovery Walks” on trails along the river, every-other-week “Paddle With A Ranger” trips on the water and, through Aug. 16, “Sunset Strolls” or “Marsh Meanders” on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Cost is the $3 daily park pass or a $25 annual pass. Registration is required. To register, call 678-538-1200. For more information: www.nps.gov/chat.
How do you explain that the river is cleaner but the park environment is suffering?
Because of regulatory efforts, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the building and repair of sewer lines and factories no longer dumping their waste, the Chattahoochee is far cleaner than it was. But the air’s a lot worse. Acid rain and ground level ozone are the key culprits.
What effects do you see in the park?
Because of what I generally call climate change, all of our lady’s slipper yellow orchids are gone. We had massive numbers of them, and they’re all gone. The huge displays of showy wildflowers are diminished too. On the flip side, we have an explosion of English ivy and poison ivy.
And here’s some sobering food for thought: Researchers at Duke University say that the southern Appalachian forests (that’s us) will be transformed into tropical rain forests, a mass of aggressive vines coming in all directions, by the year 2050.
Do you like being called one of our area’s most valuable resources, also known as “Mr. Chattahoochee”?
That’s nice, but all I hope to do is influence, encourage and mentor young people to be the future stewards of this very special spot. In the days of my youth when I walked along this river, there was no I-285, no I-75 crossing, no sound or sign of civilization, except the occasional flyover from Dobbins Air Force Base. Some say the Chattahoochee fills my veins, not blood.