Dec 312013

After viewing the stone piles along the Gorge Trail at Little Mulberry Park in Gwinnett County, my wife and I continued along the Gorge Trail.  We soon arrived at the banks of a small, swift-flowing stream.  It was that magical time of day photographers call “the golden hour”, and the lighting on the rushing water was stunning.  Enraptured, I took photograph after photograph.  Here, I would like to share a few of them with you.  While I may not have encountered the sacred amid the park’s stone piles, I did meet up with it there, along the stream, during a few golden moments.


Golden Hour Stream One











Dec 302013
Barbed wire emerges from tree stump, Little Mulberry Park.  26 Dec. 2013

Barbed wire emerges from tree stump, Little Mulberry Park. 26 Dec. 2013

Mid 20th Century stacked rock piles, Madison County, North Carolina.  From Early Georgia article by Thomas Gresham (1990).

Mid 20th Century stacked rock piles, Madison County, North Carolina. From Early Georgia article by Thomas Gresham (1990).

What do the stone piles of Little Mulberry Park in Gwinnett County have to tell us about the past history of the area?  If they are not prehistoric burial and ritual sites, what other possibilities remain?  In this final blog post in my series about this stone mounds, I will explore another explanation for their origin, one that relates them to the past agricultural history of the area.  Evidence that the land was once open pasture can be found in the large pasture trees that follow former fence lines (see my post from 12/28 for an example), and bits of barbed wire that emerge from old tree stumps in the park.

But why would settlers choose to pile up rocks on the property in the first place?  Patrick Garrow, the archaeologist who did the initial investigation of the site in 1988, argued that the stone piles locations and structure argued against the stones having been piled up by farmers clearing the ground for planting.  Indeed, since the land was never tilled but only used for pasture, that explanation seems unlikely.  Perhaps the farmers wanted to clear the ground so that there would be more graze for their animals, or so that the animals would be less likely to injure themselves?  Why, then, go to the trouble of stacking the rocks?

It is the fact that the rocks were stacked which convinces many people that the mounds are evidence of a prehistoric origin.  Clearly, someone (or someones, plural) went to considerable effort to place the rocks in layers that can still be seen today.  In fact, as archaeologist Thomas Gresham argued in an Early Georgia article in 1990, southern farmers have stacked rocks into cylindrical piles like these within recent history.  In his paper, entitled, “Historic Patterns of Rock Piling and Rock Pile Problems”, Gresham included photographs of such rock piles.  Before 1940, Gresham explained, flat rock and flagstone quarrying in Georgia was “small scale, localized, and done by hand.”  Stones found close to the surface of the ground would be pried up with crowbars, sorted, and stacked for temporary storage until being sold for use building chimneys, terraces, foundations, and steps.  Why, then, would so many such stone piles have survived in Little Mulberry Park?  Perhaps, Gresham proposed, the stone proved inferior for use, and did not sell, or there was some other event that prevented a sale from going forward, or alternative building materials (such as brick) become widely available and prevented the stone from being sold.

Beyond the documented historic occurrence of such piles on North Carolina farms, is there other evidence to support the idea that the structures are historic stone piles rather than prehistoric Indian mounds?   In fact, there is archaeological evidence to support this idea.  In 1995, Thomas Gresham excavated eight stone piles at the Little Mulberry Park site.  He found no prehistoric artifacts, but he did unearth early 19th century artifacts (ceramics, glass, and metal, including an 1838 penny) beneath two of the piles, conclusively showing that both were constructed in historic times.  During the excavation, Gresham’s team also found evidence of a former small-scale rock quarry in the vicinity of the piles, lending further credence to the idea that stone was being cleared from the land and stockpiled in the area.

Ultimately, we will probably never know for certain what cultural forces shaped the stone piles at Little Mulberry Park.  In my own explorations, both on-ground and via the Internet, I am satisfied that the piles are not prehistoric at all, but were built by settlers gathering field stone for future construction efforts.  I suspect that this explanation will be less than satisfactory to many who have visited the park or who read enthusiastically about Mysteries from the Past.  There is a certain allure in thinking that the stone mounds were constructed by Native Americans thousands of years ago as part of a mysterious ritual.  Many human beings are hungry for the sacred, and find solace in the mythical prospect of a distant time when people lived in harmony with nature, leading lives deeply connected to their communities and to the forces animating the cosmos.  To say that the stone piles are actually Indian mounds is, I will admit, a much more enticing story.  And maybe that is why the information sign at the park, rather than proposing several different theories behind the stone structures, instead declares to this day that they are “almost certainly associated with native american cultures.”

Dec 292013

I would like to announce a new weekly blog feature:  posts from my years writing for The Examiner, in my role as the Atlanta Nature Examiner.  Now that The Examiner has made viewing its posts a bit like walking through a minefield (with not only pop-ups, but pop-unders, pop-overs, and blaring videos that begin unexpectedly), I am transferring my writings here, one at a time, every Sunday during 2014 (and perhaps beyond).  I hope that you enjoy them.  For those that are courageous enough to try to view them in their original location (along with all the others not yet transferred), they can be found here.

This article was originally published on April 20, 2010.

Georgia red clay covers the roots of a loblolly pine in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.

Georgia red clay covers the roots of a loblolly pine in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.

Once upon a time, the Piedmont of Georgia was blanketed in a rich, black topsoil, covering the rolling landscape to a depth of between four inches and a foot, and in places, even more. Rich in organic matter, this “A horizon” (as the upper layer of a soil profile is called) nourished a forest of predominantly oak, hickory, and pine.

Beneath the topsoil was a nearly infertile “B Horizon” of what is now called Georgia red clay. Leached of nutrients including calcium, magnesium, and potassium, the layer was stained red from iron oxide (rust). Because of this leached, clay-rich layer, the soil would have been classified as an ultisol, a soil type common in long-stable, humid temperate forests. The result of thousands of years of intense weathering, ultisols can be found throughout the Southeast.

But then the settlers came and cleared the land. Plantation owners and sharecroppers planted row crops, especially cotton. The result was dramatic soil erosion. Enormous gullies formed in abandoned fields, carrying the topsoil away into rivers like the Chattahoochee and the Oconee, and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The A horizon was lost across nearly every acre of the Georgia Piedmont.

Now all that remains is the Georgia red clay. Referred to as a “cultural icon” by a failed General Assembly bill in 2006 that would have designated it as the official soil of Georgia, it is a soil without a top layer, stripped of most of its nutrients. Nowadays, farmers apply hefty amendments of fertilizer before the soil will yield much. A local organic farm here in Chattahoochee Hills, where this author resides, trucked in large piles of compost in order to make the soil fertile enough to plant. Left alone, somehow the red clay is sufficient to grow a forest composed principally of sweet gum and loblolly pine.

The topsoil, meanwhile, has been lost, perhaps forever. Maybe, given a couple thousand years of careful stewardship of the land, it can be restored to the parts of the Piedmont not covered over with asphalt or buildings. Meanwhile, it seems fitting to offer at least a few humble words in its memory.

Dec 292013
Partially stacked stone pile, Little Mulberry Park, 26 December 2013

Partially stacked stone pile, Little Mulberry Park, 26 Dec. 2013

Returning home from my visit to Little Mulberry Park in Gwinnett County, I set to work finding out what I could online about the origin and purpose of the mysterious stone piles I had seen.  Were they “almost certainly associated with native american cultures” as the information sign in the park indicated?  If so, how old were they, and what evidence has been found linking them to prehistory?  The more research I did, the more convinced I became that “almost certainly” is, almost certainly, not an accurate phrase to use.  Indeed, the Little Mulberry Park Master Plan drafted in 2001 did not offer a definitive explanation for the piles, instead noting that “the stacked stone mounds have been variously attributed to pre-Columbian habitation by Native Americans and to post-settlement agriculture….”  Based upon this uncertainty, the master plan added, “it is intended that appropriate interpretive signage will be placed to present the various theories about the mounds” [emphasis added].  Various theories?  What do we truly know about these stone piles, and what is conjecture?  Where is the evidence?

Clearly, I thought, there must be some fairly strong evidence leading archaeologists to conclude that the mounds are prehistoric.  In 1989, the site (officially termed the Parks-Strickland Archaeological Complex) was added to the National Register of Historic Places, where it is listed as a prehistoric site dating from between 499 BC and 499 AD.  According to the National Recreation Trails website (hosted by,  the site’s “pre-historic stone mounds” date to the Middle Woodland period of Native American prehistory, between 100 BC and 500 AD.  Furthermore, “Portions of the stone mounds appear to be patterned to represent a stylized serpent figure which demonstrates careful and consistent techniques of early construction.”  It should be noted that this was the only source I could find that claimed some pattern or structure to any of the mounds, beyond observations that many of the mounds show signs of rock stacking and some are roughly cylindrical in shape.

What evidence is there for ascribing a Late Woodland age to the stone structures, and what do archaeologists think they were intended to be?  It turns out that the mounds were first investigated by Atlanta archaeologist Patrick Garrow, and he is responsible both for raising awareness of the potential cultural significance of the stone piles, and for proposing and strongly advocating that they are pre-settlement in origin.  According to a May 1990 article in the Free-Lance Star, a Fredericksburg, Virginia newspaper, Garrow found over 200 rock mounds, and is quoted in the article as speculating that “I think it was a complex for burial of the dead and a ceremonial complex.”  “But,” he added, “I’m guessing here.  No one is absolutely sure.”  In fact, no Woodland period (or prehistoric in general, for that matter) artifacts were found in or near any of the stone piles, nor were any human remains encountered.

In a 1988 archaeological investigation report by Patrick Garrow and David Chase of Garrow Associates, Inc. (discussed here), the authors gave several arguments as to why the stone piles are likely prehistoric.   While some of the mounds are situated parallel to previous boundary lines, others are not.  If the piles were formed by farmers removing rocks from a field, wouldn’t they collect the stones along a property line, to keep “wasted” land to a minimum?  Also, why would area farmers bother to pile rocks in the first place, since the area was used as pasture and never actually plowed?  Why would farmers clearing a field bother to stack the rocks with so much care?  Finally, the rock piles are not random; many are located at equal distances from each other.  Wouldn’t rock piles formed by farmers clearing their fields be more randomly situated?  (Random, that is, if one overlooks the first idea, that the piles should be preferentially parallel to boundary lines.)  All of these arguments are based upon the rejection of one  alternative explanation for the stone piles: namely, that they could have been the work of post-settlement farmers clearing their land of rocks.  By arguing against this scenario, Garrow and Chase somehow managed to conclude that the piles have to be prehistoric because there is no other reasonable explanation for their origin. In short, there is not one single piece of evidence that the stone piles at Little Mulberry Park are actually prehistoric.  As we shall see in the final installment of this series, however, there is considerable evidence pointing to a different story behind the stone piles.

Dec 282013

A few days ago, my wife and I ventured out to a park we had never hiked in before: Little Mulberry Park in northeastern Gwinnett County, Georgia. After circling Atlanta (I hadn’t the courage to attempt the downtown route) and driving for a near-eternity through the northeast suburbs, we arrived at last at the 890-acre park. The property offers a wide variety of trails, including a number of paved multi-use routes, plus a few for horses, bicycles, and pedestrians, and a couple limited to hikers only. We had only a couple of hours before sundown, so I proposed taking the Gorge Trail loop, a 2.16-mile route through an upland hardwood and pine forest and along the edge of a gorge. I was particularly intrigued to read that the trail included over 200 stone mounds, possibly prehistoric in origin.

Setting out on the trail, we soon came to this stunning old oak tree. Its abundant lower branches attest to a time when it stood alone in a pasture, perhaps as recently as 50 to 75 years ago.

This oak tree, perhaps 150 years old, once grew in a pasture.  Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County, GA.

This oak tree, perhaps 150 years old, once grew in a pasture. It now stands in a mixed hardwood forest in Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County, GA.

After going up and down several steep hillslopes, we began seeing stone piles everywhere we looked.  Some of them were just scatterings of amphibolite gneiss (a metamorphic rock that outcrops throughout the park), while others seemed to be intentionally stacked.  Who constructed them, and why were they there?

Stacked stones on the forest floor, Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County, GA.

Stacked stones on the forest floor, Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County, GA.

A stone pile from an unknown era shows evidence of deliberate stacking.  But with what intent?  Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County, GA.

A stone pile in the forest appears deliberately stacked. But for what reason? Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County, GA.

We came to an information sign about the stone mounds, offering an explanation for them and urging visitors to treat them with respect.

Information sign regarding the mysterious stone piles, Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County. GA.

Information sign regarding the mysterious stone piles, Little Mulberry Park, Gwinnett County. GA.

The text above asserts that “they are almost certainly associated with native american cultures.”  But if archaeologists “have failed to uncover artifacts”, then on what basis was the connection made?  How do we know that the mounds are prehistoric in the first place?  I will explore this mystery further in my next post.  The answers, as far as I can determine them, teach us  as much about human nature as they do about the landscape history of the upper Piedmont of Georgia.

Dec 272013

On my measuring walk the other day, I stopped midway to take this photograph of ornamental grasses reflected in a drainage ditch along the roadside. The pattern of stripes, along with the image of the reflected grasses in the middle, reminded me of a tri-color flag with emblem (such as a coat of arms) in the center. So I shall declare it, for now, the official flag of Piney Woods Church Road.

Ornamental grasses reflected in a drainage ditch, 25 December 2013.

Ornamental grasses reflected in roadside ditch, Piney Woods Church Road, 25 Dec. 2013.

Dec 262013
Measuring the length of Piney Woods Church Road, 26 December 2013.

Measuring Piney Woods Church Road, 25 December 2013.

Measuring Piney Woods Church Road, 25 December 2013.

Measuring Piney Woods Church Road, 25 December 2013.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.”  — Lao Tzu

Where does the journey of 0.44195 miles begin?  Answer:  At Rico Road, or at Hutcheson Ferry Road, depending which way one is headed — southwest or northeast.

Yesterday, armed with a 165-foot measuring tape and aided by my wife as trusty field assistant. I ventured out to Piney Woods Church Road, to measure the extent of my daily journey in the year ahead.  I am not quite sure why I decided to measure the road’s distance.  It’s length has long been an object of mild curiosity to me, given that I have walked it with my wife and our various dogs over a thousand times in the past seven years.  But, as my GIS-trained wife wisely noted, I could obtain a fairly accurate measurement without leaving the computer, thanks to Google Earth.

Part of my inspiration came, as it so often does, from Henry David Thoreau.  In Walden, Thoreau explained his decision to sound the depths of Walden Pond.  “There have been many stories about the bottom, or rather no bottom, of this pond, which certainly had no foundation for themselves,” Thoreau observed. “It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.”‘  And in a similar way, I have journeyed Piney Woods Church Road so many times, and never set out to find out its actual distance.

There is also a term in the remote sensing field, “ground truthing,” which refers to double-checking measurements and observations made from satellite images or aerial photographs by going into the field.  I am intrigued by the phrase, because it acknowledges (in this age of technological wonders) the benefit of walking the ground and measuring the road itself.

After the first couple of 165-foot increments (measured very slowly, unwinding the tape its full length, then winding it up again and moving on), we fell into a rhythm.  I held one end of the tape, my wife the other.  In turns, we would walk the full distance, pulling the unrolled tape behind us.  When it was my turn to stand and hold the tape still, I would listen to the shrill whistle of the fiberglass tape sliding along the gravel, breaking the stillness of the late afternoon air.

Our last measurement was only a partial one.  After traveling fourteen times the length of tape from where we began along Rico Road, the last tape length was only 23 1/2 feet, to the edge of Hutcheson Ferry Road, where the stop sign reminded us to go no further.  The total distance, in feet, was 2333 1/2.  Taken twice (out to Hutcheson Ferry Road and back to Rico again), my daily journey in 2014 will be 4667 feet, or 0.8839 miles.  There is an additional distance, of course, from my back door to where the road begins.  Perhaps I will measure that, too.  Someday….

Dec 252013

This post marks the beginning of a blog that I intend will span at least a year, time spent investigating the wonders of the everyday, developing a more nuanced appreciation of my home territory in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.  The intended centerpiece of this site will be a daily series of visits to a nearby gravel byway, Piney Woods Church Road, to take daily photographs over the course of the year 2014.  Additional posts will explore natural history in and around the Georgia Piedmont, along with musings about prehistory, landscape, and the meaning of place.

Having lived over seven years now on the same parcel of land in Georgia (longer than I have lived anywhere, apart from my formative years in Pennsylvania), I have been seized with wanderlust and thoughts of hitting the road in search of another place — Utah, Florida, elsewhere.  In this blog, I will indeed spend a year “on the road” — on the same road, the one that runs parallel to and a few hundred feet beyond the wooded back edge of my property, linking Rico Road (where I live) to Hutcheson Ferry Road.  It has become as commonplace as imaginable — the site of innumerable dog walks over our years living here.  I have walked it often enough that I have probably taken the equivalent of several hundred miles of footsteps along it.  Yet all my journeys, so far, have been about exercising the dogs, about performing a necessary act.  This year, I will indulge myself in the luxury of exploring the road for the sake of the adventures I might find, the wonders I might uncover.  It is a journey inspired in large part by Mark Hirsch, who spent over a year chronicling the life of a burr oak in southwestern Wisconsin in That Tree (a book, Facebook page, and calendar now).  He found that the experience transformed his life.  Is it too much to consider the possibilities of how such an exploration as this might touch my own?  Ultimately, the experiment (currently called the Piney Woods Church Road Project)  is as much personal as scientific.  What does it mean to devote a year to visiting the same place, a year dedicated to seeing it anew every time?