CHAPEL HILL — Thomas Lehmans professional focus was always chemistry. His studies took him from Indiana to teach in Ohio, Kansas, central Africa and finally North Carolina.
When it came time to retire from his postdoctoral appointment at UNC in 2007, he turned his focus to the one place where he stopped thinking in terms of science and started looking at the big picture nature.
Lehman decided to visit all 34 state parks in North Carolina. His Canon 30D accompanied him on each trip and he completed his tour of the parks with 1,300 pictures. His experiences contributed to a course at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in 2010 and are now preserved in the book North Carolina State Parks, published May 21.
Its tremendously refreshing to look at nature through a larger lens, to see it on a larger scale and to appreciate the beauty of it without worrying about what the molecules are doing, Lehman said.
He sought the help of Michael Lee, a database developer and manager in plant ecology and botany, to give descriptions to his photos. The two met through the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
I realized that Michaels own career gives him far better insight into the material, and I soon learned he looks at the photos and sees things that I dont see, Lehman said.
A photo of the rust-colored stream at the Cliffs of Neuse State Park becomes more than another vivid image with the help of Lees scientific background. His explanation touches on the states red-clay soils and their small amount of nutrients, which was caused by the lack of glaciers in the area during the ice ages to turn up deeper nutrients.
Its a collaboration of one person who is free to travel and take pictures and one person who can interpret them, Lehman added.
The result is 143 pages with 260 color photos and descriptions of every developed park in the state. Each chapter includes a brief summary of the location, topography and recreational options at the park. Photo captions give insight into the parks vegetation or landscape.
Gray boxes include more scientific details about the ecology of plants or wildlife specific to the park much of which Lee wrote. He also helped edit Lehmans captions and add biological depth.
You wont find a lot of long specific names for species in here, and thats intentional, Lee said. Wed like anybody to be able to pick up the book and start reading and gain appreciation for the environment without having a large hurdle in terms of understanding terminology.
The photos in the book range from snow-covered pine trees at New River State Park and bright fall foliage at Stone Mountain as seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Lehman dedicated a chapter to the variety of tree and mushroom species in the state.
Theyd both like to see the book motivate residents to explore more of the North Carolina and to contribute to the preservation and appreciation of the states great natural treasure, Lehman said.
North Carolinas nature has been characterized as some of the most versatile space east of the Mississippi, and thats what this book celebrates, Lehman said.
Lehmans favorite park in the state is Hanging Rock in Danbury, a short drive from Winston-Salem. He said the accessibility makes it easy for beginning hikers to see four or five waterfalls with no more than a quarter-mile walk.
Lee estimates hes seen about half of the parks. His strongest memories, however, are of visiting the sand dunes of Jockeys Ridge as a young child with his siblings and taking his grandmother to South Mountain State Park before she moved to a nursing home.
The one thing I love about nature is that its something that you can enjoy with another person that is somewhat permanent, and theres a place and a story, he said.
As a young child I have all of these memories of being outdoors and very few indoors. I dont know if thats particular to me or not, but theres something about being outside that codes them more strongly.
The book is currently available at Bulls Head bookstore in the UNC Student Union and Flyleaf Books for $16. The authors are looking to expand to local outdoor outfitter stores and state park gift shops.
Weve sold about 165 copies so far, so it will never be a best seller, and were not headed for fame as authors, Lehman said. But the satisfaction of doing it will always be ours.