What We Can Learn About Ourselves Through Environmental Interpretation

Subtitle:  The Smokies:  An Important Reminder and an Amazing Place

view from Newfound Gap, NC/TN line, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
view from Newfound Gap, NC/TN line, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Recently (April 5-6, 2013), I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This was in fact for a class in environmental interpretation.

You might be asking “what is environmental interpretation?  Our class’ working definition is:

“The art of revealing meanings and relationships of natural and historical objects and processes in a way that’s entertaining and interesting to its audiences.”  – M. Stern, Virginia Tech, 2013

a tree behind Sugarlands - Brad revealed its fifth essence
a unique tree behind Sugarlands – Brad revealed its fifth essence

Most importantly, interpretation should reveal “a soul of things — a Fifth Essence, pure, eternal, and inclusive.” – Freeman Tilden

The National Park Service, which is the gold standard for interpretation hopes that “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” – National Park Service Administration Manual

You can learn a lot about a place through interpretive programs.  More importantly, I think, we can learn about ourselves.  While on an interpretive walk with a ranger named Brad at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, I was reminded of how to be a good and successful interpreter.  However, through Brad’s walk, I realized that the keys to good interpretation are also the keys to a confident and proud self.

If you ever participate in an interpretive program, such as a guided walk, say, at a National Park, observe your interpreter, and see if you can recognize these three things.  Observing a great interpreter can reveal a message that we, as individuals, often forget.

They Keys to Being a Good Interpreter


Brad reminded us that a good interpreter has to be passionate about what he or she does, passionate about where he or she works, and passionate about his or her environment.  Passion is a key to good interpretation.  If you aren’t passionate about what you are speaking about, you will never get your audience to the point of appreciation, and then hopefully, protection.


Honesty and sincerity are also critical to successful interpretation.  How can one be passionate, if they aren’t honest?  A great interpreter is honest with his or herself, the stories they share, and with the people they interact with.  If an interpreter is honest, they will be much more successful in exuding passion and connecting in a sincere way with people, whether friends or strangers.


A great interpreter is, just, his or herself.  They don’t try to be someone else.  They must be authentic.  Pretending to be someone you’re not is never a key to success.  Pretending automatically means you are dishonest, and being dishonest will make it much more difficult to be truly passionate.  Own your personality, quirks, skills, and faults.  Be yourself.  Period.

Next time you’re at a park on a guided walk, observe your interpreter.  See if you can spot these characteristics.  Observing these characteristics in an interpreter is a refreshing reminder of an important message:

Be passionate, honest, and yourself.  Seriously think about it.  Be honest, find your passion, and find yourself.

It is a simple message, but one we sometimes forget.  These are not just the keys to success in interpretation, but life.  If you engage in all of your dealings with passion, honesty, and authenticity, you will learn A LOT about yourself, and be successful in anything you do:  work, hobbies, relationships, etc. and even…


The Hike

What would a trip to the Smoky Mountains be without a hike?  Despite the fact that much of our itinerary was focused around class material, we did get to take a short, but rewarding hike!

On Saturday morning, myself, professor, TA, and classmates all woke up early for a sunrise hike to Spruce Flat Falls!  I was really glad that most of us got up early enough to do the hike, as it was a great experience to do as a class.  It was unlike any other activity I have ever engaged in with my academic piers.  If school included more hiking, I’m pretty sure I’d have a 4.0 GPA.

We left for the trailhead of Spruce Flat Falls, on the campus of the Institute at Tremont (an environmental education center located inside the park), around 5:30 am.  The hike ascended up a ridge with a steep cliff to the right.  It was fun to hike this section in the dark, as the low light required us to focus on feeling and balance, rather than just our eyes, to ensure safe steps the entire way.  The drop-off seemed way more intense due to the darkness.

However, because of the darkness, there wasn’t much to see on the way to the waterfall, so the hike there went quickly.  It was probably just about a mile to the waterfall, so we were there by around 6 am.  Sunrise wasn’t until 7, so we sat, relaxed, and enjoyed the beautiful sounds of falling water until full light came upon the falls.

Spruce Flat Falls
Spruce Flat Falls

The main, easily visible, section of Spruce Flat Falls is a beautiful 25′ cascade.  There are additional falls above. This set of falls is in a hidden area of the Smokies.  Because its trailhead is located at Tremont, it receives fewer visitors than most of the other falls in the park.  However, it is not a lesser falls.  It is a gem, and I am grateful that my professor revealed this secret of the Smokies to me and the class.

a view along the falls trail
a view along the falls trail

The hike back was in the light, and occasional views were revealed that were hidden in the dark.  Overall, a pleasant, 2 mile out-and-back hike, that was even more exciting due to the change in lighting between the hike in and the hike out.


My trip the Smokies with my environmental interpretation class was amazing. It was only a one night stay, but I wish we had stayed for the whole weekend.  I learned a lot about environmental interpretation, met really cool NPS rangers and interns, took in amazing scenery, experienced a place I had never been, and made connections and memories with my classmates, professor, and TA.  It was a class trip unlike any other I’d ever been on.  The Smokies are an amazing place, and I really hope I can return again soon.

Other activities on the trip:  ride up to Newfound Gap on the TN/NC line and Appalachian Trail, interpretive walk with ranger Mike at Cade’s Cove, participation in Junior Ranger Animal Olympics (super fun, got to act like a kid) at Cade’s Cove, observation of Little Brown Myotis bats in Gregory Cave, and a class campfire.

Remember always:  Be passionate.  Be honest.  Be yourself….a lesson from the Smokies.

More Info:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – http://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm

Institute at Tremont – http://www.gsmit.org/

Additional Pictures

Eastern Hemlock Wooly Adelgid
the AT at Newfound Gap
at Spruce Flat Falls
Little Brown Myotis Bats
a view from within Cade’s Cove



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