Smoothing the Scars


Wall and vine

Although I live in the Coastal Plain of middle Georgia, my family has 200 acres of woods in the Piedmont region of northern Georgia. It is a beautiful property, with stately oaks, hickories, and beeches, but the sharp eye can see the wounds Nature has scabbed over.  Everywhere are gullies and thin rocky soil where farmers asked more of the land than it could provide. Here is a the hole where a moonshiner kept his still, and there is the echo of a sunken road now paved with oak leaves.  An old wall by the creek — probably the remains of a bridge, or possibly a mill dam — is a focal point for my visits when I journey back there every few months.   Humans have altered the landscape to suit their desires for nearly as long as they’ve walked these lands,  and they’ve been especially good at it in the last three hundred years.  Yet, as always, Nature makes do.  Plant succession will turn a fallowed field to a pine woodland in a score of years, so what hope does a Mississippian mound complex have against Nature with a thousand years to work with?

woods road


Thoughts on Walking in the Woods

Reproduced here with the kind permission of  Jerry Knox:

Some will say they fear the woods, for the snakes and such. I have found a different truth.  One who treads the woods with care, to do no harm to tender plants, will never be surprised by any harmful thing.  The very sense that guides your feet away from the violet, will alert you to the poison ivy there as well.  The soft, and measured, step allows both mouse and rattlesnake time to flee your path, or hide, alert and safely unafraid, as you pass by.

But one who crashes through the brushy ways carelessly and unaware will find his way perilous indeed!  Yellow jackets boil to defend their precious nest.  Thorny vines find painful lodging round ankle, neck and arm.  Ticks shower on his shoulders, chiggers cling to pants and legs.  The rattler coils and bows his neck to fight off this bold invasion.  Thrown out, repulsed by vine and fang, the intruder flees with tales of terror, and fearsome creatures lurking in the trees, and fails to see the danger in the woods was he!


The Country Mouse Replies

Around 15 years ago, I was conversing electronically with a friend who resides in southern California. Although we grew up  around the large town/small city of Athens, our paths took us is opposite directions – hers led westward into bright lights and urban sprawl, while mind headed south and east to more rural landscapes.  When I mentioned in passing the “perks of living in the boonies,” she admitted being stumped on what those could be.  Although she managed to come up with a few — such as being able to play the stereo as loud as one likes — they paled against ordering takeout at will or reliable and fast internet.

The following day, I had mused on the subject, waxing exceptionally poetic as I waited for birds to call in the chill pre-dawn air:

As I write (the majority of) this essay, the dawn’s light barely illuminates the page, which is further obscured by the wisps of my breath in the chill of mid November.  Overhead the larger drops of the Leonid meteor shower still burn despite the morning glow.  I was out before dawn to survey quail, but while I’m no morning person and have lacked a full night’s rest for a considerable number of days, this AM I don’t begrudge the sleep.

You bring up some fair points about life beyond the concrete Pale, and I’m favorably impressed that you spared considerably more than a passing thought in trying to understand why someone with a choice would live where the blacktop ends.  I’ve been mulling over the question, and my sleep-deprived brain has come up with this reply.

My house is about 11 miles from town (population 6000).  The city of Augusta is a good 45 minutes away (and that’s burning up the highway, not creeping through traffic).  The college town of Statesboro is an hour distant (The question of when distance became measured in units of time I’ll leave for another day).  This means that seeing a show at the multiplex is a fair trip in itself – and indie films are out of the question.  The closest bookstore is  No specialty coffees can be had in this county, at least nothing more exotic than what BiLo carries.  In town, sit-down meal options consist of a diner, Mexican, country buffet, a sandwich shop, two Chinese restaurants and several BBQ joints.  McDonalds is here but BK hasn’t made it yet.  The farm equipment dealers outnumber auto lots.  And you already know the trials of TV and internet access. So by the City Mouse standard – the measure of manufactured conveniences – this haystack just doesn’t cut it.

Luckily, there are other measures and other standards.  You have thought of a few, though it is clear they pale by comparison to life on one pole of the LA-NYC-DC axis.  Still, I’ll list just a few of the conveniences and opportunities:

–Having neighbors close enough to summon in an emergency, but otherwise out of sight and out of mind.
–Letting your dogs bark themselves hoarse without being threatened with legal action (I speak from personal experience).
–Practicing katas in the yard with a real katana without being reported and arrested.  For that matter, walking around in public places with a knife on my hip and not being reported or arrested.
–Clean air.
–Being able to step outside at night and seeing more than the two dozen stars which are bright enough to punch through the haze of pollution and city lights.
–Hearing a car pull up and knowing they’re here to see you, because there’s nobody else around.
–Maintaining the yard at whatever level you want, not whatever the anal neighbors want.
–Don’t underestimate the mental health value of being able to blare the stereo while you’re working outside.
–Exchanging waves with strangers on the road.
–Driving above speed limit most anywhere because traffic is so light.
–Being able to cook over a hickory fire in the front yard.
–Having staring contests with a coyote, surprising a fox, stopping so wild turkeys can cross the road, and shooing spotted fawns out from under your truck.
–Hearing quail whistling to the north, barred owls hollering to the south, coyotes howling to the west, and wood duck wings whisper overhead.
–Anticipating what kinds of critters you’ll see on the way to work, whether deer or bobcats or hunting raptors, or maybe even otters.
–Having people react with interest rather than revulsion when you collect your steaks the old fashioned way.
–Having a job where I can feel the wind on my face outside almost as much as I spend basking in the glow of computer screens.

I know that there are many other ways of viewing the world.  While it is important to me that city folks have some understanding of the value of a rural life, by no means do I advocate they take it up.  The last thing I want is for urbanites to get a hankering for elbow room!  As crammed together as they are, by spreading out they’d take up the whole country. Already my heart sinks every time I visit my old stomping grounds, seeing fields once mantled in wheat now sprouting crops of three bedroom houses.  The Atlanta sprawl has metastasized and now Athens is growing beyond its charm.

I’ll end this reflection with a quote from Leopold:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot. Like wind and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth the cost in things natural, wild, and free. For those of us in the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.

”These wild things, I admit, had little human value until mechanization assured us of a good breakfast, and until science disclosed the drama of where they come from and how they live. The whole conflict thus boils down to a question of degree. We of the minority see a law of diminishing returns in progress; our opponents do not.”

Here then is a partial answer to your honest inquiry.  I think it is safe to say that we both are more or less where we belong; were our locations reversed, you would go nuts with sensory and cultural deprivation, and my soul would wither.

Still, you’re welcome to visit anytime :-).


Siren Spring

In the way-down end of Alabama sits the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center, a  5300- acre property dedicated to research and education about the ecology of lower coastal plain landscapes.  The workshop I attended last spring was worth an educational blog report in itself, but it wasn’t the group classes or field trips that garnered the strongest memories of that place.

Each evening after supper, the participants were at leisure to walk around the property or make the twenty-minute drive into the nearest town.  One of the staff told me about a spring off one of the back trails, so, with hiking stick in hand. I strolled past the sinkhole lake and into the woods to find it.  The young planted pines gave way to lush hardwood canopies, and I heard the chuckling of running water.  Beside the trail, weathered stairs descended 20 or so feet to the stream.  In a land of blackwater rivers, I was surprised to find the clear, bluish water streaming out of the wall of a greenery.  The interpretive sign at the top of the stairs stated that this spring and its smaller neighbor produce 15,000 gallons per minute of 67 degree F water, running some 350 feet before disappearing back into the ground.   It was clear, tinted blue, and wonderful to visit.


I couldn’t resist; in short order the boots came off and I stepped into the cool stream a hundred feet or so downstream from where the water rose.   My feet glowed pale blue beneath the surface, and my first step disturbed the detritus of waterlogged bark and leaves at the base of the stairs.  I felt them roll over my feet, and then noticed a rhythmic poking  against my ankle on the leeward side.  Lifting back out and letting the surface smooth, I noticed four or five fish darting around.  By the interpretive sign, I guessed they were Dixie chub. I listened to the rushing of water beyond the downstream bend, felt the flow across my calves, and breathed  A few minutes later, I was back on land, donning my boots as another workshop attendee came down the stairs.  He looked appreciatively but briefly over the spring, then headed on.  I meandered up the path toward the spring, stopping to measure the water’s depth at a narrow point (the part I could reach was probably above 4 feet on my staff).    I was surprised to see a mountain laurel flowering, a mere fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico.    The sign uphill  warned against tearing up the banks looking for sharks teeth; there was plenty of evidence that the sign went unheeded.  For one who is content to bask in the atmosphere of the cove, it saddened me that others would damage it for trinkets – but we all are guilty of this, either directly or at a remove.

At the spring, I succumbed to temptation and waded in to the shallower pool.  I meant to only wade a little way, but the spring me to get just a little closer…just a little closer… until I was thigh-deep and  balanced on rocks within arm’s length from the fern-covered cliff wall.  At my feet, I could  make out deep blue gaps where the springwater rushed out.  The siren song of the narrow cavern  beckoned me to take the plunge and float in the upwelling.  Instead, I stood there and quietly tried to absorb the moment, watching the water roil, the sand swirl.

Spring mouth

Scattered lightning bugs flashed in the failing light as I headed up the bank and back to the dirt road. There was no sound of humanity until I was nearly to the paved road, when I heard the distant moan of a train.