Tennessee Wildflowers Through the Eyes of a Geographer

Thalictrum thalictroides, Wash Morgan Hollow, Jackson County, Tennessee 2 Every spring my photographic activity emerges from its winter slumber and I begin re-learning everything I once knew about wildflowers again. I love this time of year when I can start wearing shorts again, and see the familiar wildflowers return to our roadsides and hollers.

Jim Fox, Flowers, Putnam Co, TN While I thoroughly enjoy capturing the beauty of wildflowers, I also like to think about how they ended up in their current location. As a practitioner of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), I find this question particularly intriguing. I provide this not as an empirical study, but rather a casual conversation to introduce readers to GIS concepts as related to wildflowers.

The locations where I find my favorite wildflowers share a few common traits: steep slopes facing different directions (known as "aspect" in GIS) and intermittent water sources resulting from nested water tables. By seeking out these characteristics, I am more likely to find ideal habitats for wildflowers.

Using GIS, I can easily develop "layers" of data that illustrate these and other landscape qualities. Between taking photographs, I often contemplate how the landscape would appear in ArcGIS Pro, the software I use to analyze these attributes. Here, I've shared some of the products I've created that highlight attributes that influence wildflower habitats. While this is not an exhaustive list, it covers many of the significant variables.

Aspect, or the direction that a slope faces, plays a significant role in the habitat of the plants living there. It impacts the amount of sunlight the area receives, with south-facing slopes receiving the most sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. Additionally, seasonal storms can disproportionately impact vegetation on southwest-facing slopes, leading to more damage to larger plants.
Elevation, while a minor player in most of Tennessee does have an impact on both temperature and rainfall. Higher elevations mean cooler temperatures and less rainfall broadly for most of Tennessee.
Slope is another crucial factor in habitat development, as it affects soil creation. Depending on the bedrock geology, high slopes may mean a rocky environment with minimal soil, or a thin layer of soil perched atop easily broken bedrock. Slope and aspect also impact the amount of solar radiation that reaches a given area.
Soil characteristics are essential to habitat development. Factors such as soil acidity, drainage, organic content, and depth all influence which plants can thrive in a given area. Soil scientists have developed detailed maps that illustrate soil types and attributes for most of the United States.
Solar radiation refers to the amount of sunlight that falls on a specific unit of area (such as a square foot) over a given period of time. The map I've provided shows the impact of solar radiation in the spring, with significantly more sunlight in the summer. Canopy cover also affects the amount of sunlight reaching the ground, with well-developed forests providing less light to the understory below.
While most geologic maps are at a scale too large to provide any meaningful data to a wildflower enthusiast, geology is a huge driver in habitat development. Intermittant aquitards (rocks that do not let water penetrate lower into the Earth) create nested water tables changing locally how moist the soil is and where flora and fauna can access water. Karst environments also move water in less predictable ways than simply having water flow in a surface stream. In karst, sinkholes and springs are huge drivers of habitat diversity with both providing cooler and less windy environments than surrounding areas.

Lobelia cardinalis, Crusher Hole, Fall Creek Falls State Park, Van Buren County, Tennessee


Snakes in Tennessee

Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis, Cumberland County, Tennessee
Nerodia sipedon, Burgess Falls State Park, Putnam County, Tennessee
Opheodrys aestivus, Burgess Falls State Park, White County, Tennessee 1
Lampropeltis nigra, Big South Fork NRRA, Scott County, Tennessee 3
Every year indoors people make dangerous plans to go outside the walls of their own home. With no context for ever having been outside, their number one concern is rightly snakes. Forums are full of "how do I avoid snakes" questions. I wrote this simple guide to help deal with snakes.

Being outside in Tennessee is literally no different than swimming in a sea of snakes. You want to learn to keep your head above the snakes, because you cannot breathe snakes and you will suffocate. Treading snakes is little like treading water, but only if the water were snakes. Avoid snake rains entirely. You'll want to be inside when it is raining snakes, which is about 50% of the time.

If you learn to tread snakes, congratulations, you're halfway to enjoying the eternal bliss that is Tennessee! Oh no! That snake is poisonous! What do you do?
1) Eat the snake
2) Swim away slowly
3) Eat the snake
4) Swim violently in the snake sea to frighten the poisonous snake.

If you answered either 2 or 4, you're good and the snake won't poison you.

Let's not forget about those venomous snakes though. All they want to do is bite a human, especially you. How can you avoid that? You cannot. They are coming for you now. All of them are on their way to bite you this very moment.

Climb onto your roof and prepare for the sea of snakes to surge violently at you. It will be like a zombie movie but with snakes and where all the zombies only want to attack you. You cannot escape the snakes. They are everywhere. Your house: snakes. Your parents: snakes. The letters you are reading: snakes. Join the snakes.


You could just pay attention to where you walk. Either or.

Pantherophis spiloides, Frozen Head SNA, Morgan County, Tennessee 1


Photographer Resume

Caving gear 2

In the beginning of my photography career I identified as an artist and wanted a digital camera to so that I may pursue those creative needs. However, I realized that I lacked a specific subject matter, and without direction, this hobby would be short-lived. Fortunately, I discovered some inspiring photographers and began to replicate their work.

Over the years, it has been an enjoyable journey documenting nature primarily in the Upper Cumberland region of Tennessee. Recently, I decided to extract some statistics and graphs from my published work on Flickr to identify potential trends. I am sharing this information not to boast, but to illustrate the creation of a dynamic dashboard using Google Sheets. The data is actively obtained from Flickr, analyzed, and transformed into multiple graphs and raw data.

For this analysis, Albums relate to specific dated events, for example, 2021/08/08 - Cohutta Wilderness, where I hiked in the Cohutta Wilderness of Georgia.

Below are some selected entries from my CV related to photography.


Lessons from a Photographer of 15 years

I have been taking my interested in photography seriously for the past 15 years, during which I have shared approximately 13,000 photos online, and captured at least ten times more (excluding time-lapse videos). I have invested significant effort into organizing and describing my extensive collection, with a focus on photographing a region of the country that has largely been overlooked by previous generations of photographers.

I specialize in capturing landscapes that feature various natural elements, including caves, waterfalls, natural arches, rivers, and other natural features, as well as historical and prehistoric cultural sites.. My objective is not to become an influencer, but rather to earn respect in the field of photography, use it to make the world a better place, and if I am very fortunate, earn enough revenue to support my hobby.

From this journey, I have learned a few lessons that may be beneficial for individuals embarking on their own photography career. Some of my tips may be specific to the tools I use, and if you use different tools, consider drawing parallels from my discussion or explore new tools. The functions of the tools I demonstrate are practical and useful for any photographer.


“Any system is only as good as the metadata that it ingests.” ― Chris Bulock

Metadata is data about data. The EXIF data in your images is a type of metadata. When I describe an image on Flickr there is a title box, a description box, there are comments which other users can add, and there are metatags. I try to describe each image with words I would remember if I needed to search for that particular image.

Here are a few example images, and their associated metatags for your consideration.

Dukes River Cave Nr1 twilight, Jackson County, Tennessee JK24, Dukes River Cave Nr1, cave, twilight, Jackson County, Tennessee, TN, kayak, water, stream, creek, Cumberland River, Cordell Hull Reservoir
Honey Creek Falls, Big South Fork NRRA, Scott County, Tennessee 4 Honey Creek Falls, Honey Creek, river, stream, creek, water, waterfall, falls, Honey Creek trail, BSF, BISO, Big South Fork, National River and Recreation Area, NRRA, Scott County, Tennessee, TN
Complex Narceus americanus, Chlorociboria aeruginascens, Cohutta Wilderness, Murray County, Georgia 2 Cohutta Wilderness, Wildlife Management Area, Murray County, Georgia, GA, Animalia, Arthropoda, Diplopoda, Spirobolida, Spirobolidae, Narceus, N. americanus, American giant millipede, worm millipede, iron worm, Fungi, Ascomycota, Pezizomycotina, Leotiomycetes, Helotiales, Chlorociboriaceae, Chlorociboria, C. aeruginascens, green elfcup, green wood cup
Hashtags, used on Instagram aren't paricularly useful for conveying data. They are a marketing tool. On Instagram, if I use the same metatags as hashtags, it generally will not help others find my things, and it will generally not help me find my own content because their search tool just brings up the most recent or hip things on the platform with that tag. Popularity rises to the top, not usefulness.

On Flickr I can search my own content, I can search my friends content exclusively, I can search all my friends content, I can search the entire platform, or I can search the entire platform for Creative Common images. Sure, there are some downsides to Flickr, like it not being the cool and popular place anymore, how it's hard to identify active communities, and its user interface is unweidly and doesn't work sometimes (refreshing the browner page often fixes this issue). But there is even more to love about Flickr which I touch on in the next section.


“For every minute spent organizing, an hour is earned.” – Anonymous.

This section is important enought to break down into two parts: Local Organization and Cloud Organization. Local organization is how you have your data organized on your computer. Ideally this is where you keep your camera raw files. Cloud organization can be a private drive where you have your stuff off-site and backed up, or it can be a public image host like Flickr, Smugmug, Instagram, or Facebook. I should also note that metadata is an important part of organization, but not the only kind of organization that needs to be done when tracking a large data archive.

Local Organization

Folders y'all: use 'em. File Explorer in Windows is my best friend, and I organize my data in folders and subfolders. What follows a snippet of my organization technique on my own local computer.

Folder template
YYYY/MM-DD - [Description of Folder's Photos]

/ - Raw files from cameras.
/docs - Documentation about the trip. Could include scientific papers associated with the subject, magazine, website, books, articles, or other documentation. Could include landowner contact information.
/gps - GPS points and tracks of the trip in .CSV or .GPX format, processed GPS tracks, geotagged camera photos, geotagged drone photos, other relevant GIS data. An an Android user, the software I use is Locus Pro, and GPS Average.
/keep - Finished JPGs and videos.
/photos by others - Subfolders for individuals who have shared photos with my from the same trip.
/recorder - Google Recorder app output of .WAV or .MP3 and a transcribed .TXT file. This is an excellent tool to quickly make notes.
/video- Videos, Premiere Pro files.

Cloud Organization

Like folders and subfolders, Flickr has collections and albums. I use these to organize my data in the exact same way as I do my local data. Instead of YYYY/MM-DD - [Description of Folder's Photos] I use [collection]/[album] where the collection is YYYY and the album is YYYY/MM-DD - [Description of Folder's Photos].

For example, the album 2021/08/08 - Cohutta Wilderness is nested inside a collection called 2021.


“It's hard for young players to see the big picture. They just see three or four years down the road.” – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Having a clear vision for why you take photos and what you want to photograph is important. Do you aspire to shoot weddings, events, landscapes, macros, or aerial imagery using a drone? Who is your target audience? Are you trying to impress friends, supplement a newsletter, record history or science, or receive some perks from a brand's marketing team? I suggest writing a "mission statement" and keeping it readily available. If you ever need to adjust or revisit it, you'll have it as a guiding principle.

My own mission statement, which you may remember from the first paragraph of this post reads,

    "I specialize in capturing landscapes that feature various natural elements, including caves, waterfalls, natural arches, rivers, and other natural features, as well as historical and prehistoric cultural sites."

I hope that the above advice is useful to you. Feel free to share with me your own advice in the comments.