Jun 082014
 

On my Sunday morning walk along Piney Woods Church Road, I kept noticing evidence of sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  Perhaps that was partly because it is so abundant.  Along with loblolly pines, sweetgums are the dominant trees in the the second, third, and fourth growth woodlands and woodlots of the Georgia Piedmont.  Not only do they grow everywhere from seed, but they also sprout from the roots of other trees, making lines of tiny saplings in my lawn.  Meanwhile, the deer that browse most undergrowth to brown nubs ignore the sweetgums altogether.

And they can be beautiful — particularly their five-pointed, star-shaped leaves.  Here are three photographs from my walk, fragments of an ongoing conversation between myself and the Piney Woods Church Road landscape.

 

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May 252014
 

Memorial

As Memorial Day approaches yet again, the naturalist’s thought turns to how we memorialize those our nation has lost in wars. We construct monuments of granite and marble, polished stone faces with lettering that has come to signify, in our culture, the tragic reality of death, of loss. Perhaps on Memorial Day we might visit a memorial, brush our fingertips against the cold stone letters, and touch, for a moment, our own inevitable mortality. Perhaps even while standing beneath an appropriately leaden sky, we weep for the enormity of our losses along the path to maintain the freedom we first fought for over two hundred years ago.  And while we weep, the chainsaws growl, and another tree falls in a stand of forest that stood untouched for the past fifty years or more. Bulldozers scrape their way across the land, and the forest is forgotten.

There is another way.

There is a way to honor our fallen and also to protect and cherish the living forests all around us. It is a model whose roots go back at least to ancient Greece, and probably further. The Greeks (and many other civilizations) maintained sacred groves, patches of forest where they could approach the great Mystery through ritual. The forest was a place for spiritual connection — an awareness not lost on Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, who had a vision of God and Jesus while praying in a ten-acre beech grove on his family farm in 1820. As a result of this vision, that patch of forest is now cared for and protected. As Donald Enders writes in an article at www.LDS.org, “The Sacred Grove is one of the last surviving tracts of primeval forest in western New York state….. The Church has for some years been directing a program to safeguard and extend the life of this beautiful woodland that is sacred to Latter-day Saints.”  Along the streets of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and many other towns and cities across the United States, trees have been planted to honor the deceased. Beside the trees, small stone plaques bear a name, a few words of remembrance, and birth and death dates. Within this tradition, the idea of honoring the dead through caring for the living still remains. The next step back to the grove would be to recognize healthy, mature forests as being fitting sacred sites.
Through dedication ceremonies and markers in the forest, they can become places to acknowledge our losses while celebrating life’s continuance, in leaves of an oak and flowers of a tulip poplar.  It is this very idea that Joan Maloof proposes in Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest.

On the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she lives, a tract of mature forest was obtained by her county for conversion into a public park. For many residents and county officials, such a park meant ball fields, parking areas, and open spaces — not necessarily a forest. And then September 11th happened. In her grief, inspired by a talk on Buddhist approaches to nature, she decided to turn the forest grove into a memorial for the victims. With red yarn, she hung name tags of the fallen on trees, creating the September 11 Memorial Forest. The act at once established a sacred space for grieving, and protected the trees from being cut.  Imagine another Memorial Day in Georgia, years from now. Families gather together, fill their picnic baskets, and wander off into the forest. They come at last to a sturdy beech, or sweet gum,
or sycamore, growing along the banks of a stream. At its base, a small stone bears the name of a brother, a husband, a son. Against a backdrop of birdsong and flowing water, they share memories of the love he had given, and tears, too, for the loss they have endured without him. All
around, they are consoled by the living presence of nature, in a forest forever protected as a memorial grove.

As Memorial Day approaches yet again, the naturalist’s thought turns to how we memorialize those our nation has lost in wars.  We construct monuments of granite and marble, polished stone faces with lettering that has come to signify, in our culture, the tragic reality of death, of loss. Perhaps on Memorial Day we might visit a memorial, brush our fingertips against the cold stone letters, and touch, for a moment, our own inevitable mortality.  Perhaps even while standing beneath an appropriately leaden sky, we weep for the enormity of our losses along the path to maintain the freedom we first fought for over two hundred years ago.

And while we weep, the chainsaws growl, and another tree falls in a stand of forest that stood untouched for the past fifty years or more. Bulldozers scrape their way across the land, and the forest is forgotten.

There is another way.

There is a way to honor our fallen and also to protect and cherish the living forests all around us.  It is a model whose roots go back at least to ancient Greece, and probably further.  The Greeks (and many other civilizations) maintained sacred groves, patches of forest where they could approach the great Mystery through ritual.  The forest was a place for spiritual connection — an awareness not lost on Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, who had a vision of God and Jesus while praying in a ten-acre beech grove on his family farm in 1820.  As a result of this vision, that patch of forest is now cared for and protected.  As Donald Enders writes in an article at www.LDS.org, “The Sacred Grove is one of the last surviving tracts of primeval forest in western New York state…..  The Church has for some years been directing a program to safeguard and extend the life of this beautiful woodland that is sacred to Latter-day Saints.”

Along the streets of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and many other towns and cities across the United States, trees have been planted to honor the deceased.  Beside the trees, small stone plaques bear a name, a few words of remembrance, and birth and death dates.  Within this tradition, the idea of honoring the dead through caring for the living still remains.  The next step back to the grove would be to recognize healthy, mature forests as being fitting sacred sites.  Through dedication ceremonies and markers in the forest, they can become places to acknowledge our losses while celebrating life’s continuance, in leaves of an oak and flowers of a tulip poplar.

It is this very idea that Joan Maloof proposes in Teaching the Trees: Lessons from the Forest.  On the Eastern Shore of Maryland where she lives, a tract of mature forest was obtained by her county for conversion into a public park.  For many residents and county officials, such a park meant ball fields, parking areas, and open spaces — not necessarily a forest.  And then September 11th happened.  In her grief, inspired by a talk on Buddhist approaches to nature, she decided to turn the forest grove into a memorial for the victims.  With red yarn, she hung name tags of the fallen on trees, creating the September 11 Memorial Forest.  The act at once established a sacred space for grieving, and protected the trees from being cut.

Imagine another Memorial Day in Georgia, years from now.  Families gather together, fill their picnic baskets, and wander off into the forest.  They come at last to a sturdy beech, or sweet gum, or sycamore, growing along the banks of a stream.  At its base, a small stone bears the name of a brother, a husband, a son.  Against a backdrop of birdsong and flowing water, they share memories of the love he had given, and tears, too, for the loss they have endured without him.  All around, they are consoled by the living presence of nature, in a forest forever protected as a memorial grove.

Apr 192014
 

At last, after numerous attempts and almost as an afterthought, I managed to capture a privet blossom today along Piney Woods Church Road.  The flowers are simple yet almost elegant.  Like wisteria, I think they are more attractive solitary than in the clusters where they are typically found (in the case of privet, perhaps four or five blooms all crammed together on a stem).  Perhaps that is because both plants are so highly invasive.  All the privet flowers (happily visited by buzzing bumblebees on sunny days) will become privet seeds, and  privet’s conquest of the Georgia Piedmont will continue.

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Apr 172014
 

On my Piney Woods Church Road saunter this morning, I encountered two new “common weed” wildflowers in bloom:  the low hop clover (Trifolium campestre) and field madder (Sherardia arvensis).  The low hop clover is a yellow flower native to Eurasia now common in most of North America; introduced by farmers to improve the soil and feed their livestock, low hop clover is also a wild edible plant.  Field madder, also from Eurasia, commonly grows in farm fields and along road edges throughout the Eastern United States.  It has minute flowers that are less than an eighth of an inch across.  I only noticed it because I was sitting on the ground in one spot for several minutes, during yet another attempt to photograph a lobelia growing alongside a barbed wire fence.

Low Hop Clover

Field Madder

Feb 062014
 

I returned this morning to the same spot along the side of Piney Woods Church Road where I saw the oak leaf floating yesterday, and discovered needles of ice had formed overnight.  Every moment, the world around us is changing.  In the spirit of Heraclitus, we can never step onto the same road twice.

Morning Ice

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 AmericanTrails.org),  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.