There’s nothing quite like the natural beauty and majesty of Western North Carolina. The pristine, ecological environment has a unique appeal that beckons you to see and learn more. As stewards of the land, we recognize the extraordinary distinction it carries. It’s why we preserved as much of it as possible for French Broad Crossing residents to respect, admire, and enjoy. So, it’s not surprising that one of our most popular clubs is our Nature Club. While relatively new, it’s undeniably one of the best in the Blue Ridge area. How can that be? We recently spoke with Jim Palmer to find out. Not only is he the certified naturalist in charge of French Broad Crossing’s Nature Club, but he’s also an esteemed resident of our magnificent mountain community. We learned about Jim’s background, how the Nature Club came to be, the rewarding adventures its members are enjoying, as well as a secret, fun fact about Jim that no one knew about…until now.
Jim, tell us a little about your background and how you came to be a certified naturalist.
From a young age, I’ve always been fascinated with the behaviors of plants and animals. I made a career of it! In fact, my wife and I are biologists with over 40-year careers in academics. But no matter where I lived — Maryland, Pennsylvania, Texas, Costa Rica, North Carolina — I was always curious about the natural environment. It wasn’t until my wife and I had taken a trip to Asheville that I stumbled upon the fantastic adult education program at the North Carolina Arboretum. At the time, I was living in Pennsylvania. But since I was retired, I signed up for a class. That was back in 2016, and it was a phenomenal learning experience. Well, one thing led to another, and I ended up enrolling in the Arboretum’s Blue Ridge Naturalist Certificate program. It was a deep dive into the Southern Appalachian region’s natural sciences, ecology, and culture, which I found fascinating.
Since you lived in Pennsylvania back then, how did you end up moving to French Broad Crossing?
As a result of my studies at the Arboretum, I got more involved with all things nature in the Asheville area. I ended up joining a watershed organization to learn more about the area’s waterways. I did a lot of stream monitoring and surveying, and that’s when I met Jay Hawthorne, an avid member of Trout Unlimited. Jay and I hit it off immediately and became great friends. Jay already lived at French Broad Crossing at the time, and he knew that my wife and I were on the lookout for the perfect place to retire. When a house came up for sale in the community, he told me about it. Since my wife and I were still living in Pennsylvania at the time, we looked at the home listing online. It looked perfect, so we decided I should go on a quick reconnaissance mission to check it out. That was back in January of 2019, and it was my first time experiencing the French Broad Crossing community. When I got here, I was blown away. This place was unlike any other. I saw the house, and it was incredible too. So my “reconnaissance” mission quickly turned into a “purchase” mission. Four days later, we had a contract on the house, even though my wife hadn’t seen it yet. Nonetheless, I knew she would love it and the community as much as I did. In May of 2019, we officially moved into our home and have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of life here ever since.
Wow! What prompted your instant decision to live at French Broad Crossing?
I grew up on a hobby farm in Maryland, where I got to play and roam in the area’s beautiful fields and forests. The scenic woodlands at French Broad Crossing brought back those wonderful childhood memories. Here, you can easily tell that the community prides itself on keeping its environment natural and pristine. There are carefully preserved wooded areas, well-maintained hiking trails, access to the French Broad River, stunning mountain views, and superb weather. Plus, it’s a quick drive to Asheville, the Appalachian Trail, Pisgah Forest, and Hot Springs — all places my wife and I greatly enjoy. All this to say that when I came to French Broad Crossing, it just clicked. Living here is sort of like “glamping.” It’s quiet. It’s peaceful. Our home is like a retreat. We have access to several excellent, resort-like amenities, yet we wake up to the tranquility of nature every day. I even experience zen-like moments simply driving in and out of the community! Plus, living at a place with like-minded people who love and appreciate their natural environment is incredibly rewarding.
So you must have a lot of residents that are active in the Nature Club. Tell us more about the club and how it came to be.
French Broad Crossing’s Nature Club was essentially my final project for obtaining my Blue Ridge Naturalist certification. I wanted to create something that would be of interest to residents while also benefiting my community in both conservation and natural history. Voila — the Nature Club was born. Granted, it’s been a work in progress because just as it was coming together, COVID-19 hit. So, everything that we’ve done thus far has emerged out of the constraints of the pandemic. We started an online blog (aka “Crosswinds”) where neighbors regularly post updates and photos of interesting flora and fauna in the community. We use the blog to track this area’s natural phenomena on a seasonal basis. I then integrate much of that information into our nature walks. The first walk we did was along our Elbow Hollow Trail in May of 2020. It was so popular that we had to break it up into two groups. A few months later, we did an Aquatic Exploration Activity at the River Park. That was in September 2020 and also well-attended. Then, in November, we spearheaded an effort to save the hemlocks in the Elbow Hollow Conservation Area. We had a huge turnout of residents eager to participate. As a result, we spent two days protecting a whopping 279 trees from the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid. It was a great success, and we were all very proud of our efforts to help save this beloved species of tree.
(Note: As of this writing in May of 2021, Jim was honored by the Southeast Regional Land Conservancy with a 2021 Land Steward Award for his “Save the Hemlocks” initiative. Jim stated that his name is on the award, but it’s truly an accolade for all French Broad Crossing residents.)
What are some future plans for French Broad Crossing’s Nature Club?
One of the best things about our Nature Club is that physical activity is not required to participate. There are easy and creative ways for residents to contribute and pitch in. Plus, at French Broad Crossing, we all get along wonderfully. We’re respectful of one another and work well as a team. The Nature Club has been a nice way to enjoy social interaction, mindfulness, wellness, and learning in our community. Considering the club’s success thus far, we have some excellent future plans in the works. One is a potential project with the American Chestnut Foundation. They’ve offered to come to French Broad Crossing to test our soil for planting American Chestnut hybrid trees. The hybrids are 95% American and 5% Chinese chestnut and can avoid blight. It would be an honor to help restore these “mighty giants” to their native habitat. I actually have a chestnut sapling growing in my yard now, so stay tuned… Other initiatives include putting up bluebird houses throughout the community where neighbors “adopt” and care for each one. We also plan to put up some beneficial bat houses at the River Park. And I plan to do a workshop on our area’s invasive plant species. We’ll learn how to identify and handle some of the more harmful ones, like Japanese Knotweed, Oriental Bittersweet, and Multiflora Rose.
Impressive stuff! …and speaking of impressive, we’d love to know a surprising, fun fact about you. Got anything remarkable to share?
Looking at me now, you wouldn’t think that I used to be a division one athlete. However, I was just elected to the University of Texas Lacrosse Hall of Fame! I grew up playing lacrosse in Maryland and played collegiately in Pennsylvania. It was a popular sport in the north but not so much in the south. When I moved to Texas for grad school, I took my lacrosse stick with me only because I thought it would be an ideal tool for collecting snakes. However, I ended up playing lacrosse with a team that was just starting to learn the game. It was a lot of fun, and believe it or not, the school still has an active lacrosse team to this day.
While we may not have lacrosse at French Broad Crossing (yet?!), we do offer a wide range of clubs and activities that support a rich and active lifestyle. The Nature Club, of course, is one of them, but there’s so much more to experience. Whether you’re interested in social interaction, mindfulness, learning, or wellness, we’ve got something here for everyone. Why not come see for yourself? A distinctive world of wonder and enchantment awaits you here in the breathtaking Blue Ridge Mountains — schedule your exclusive tour today.