By Jamil Zainaldin
Georgia’s history is closely tied to our natural environment, which has been the source of economic opportunity and a destination for leisure activity, a magnet for explorers and tourists, an inspiration for writers and other artists.
Our natural world — Georgia’s wilderness — is of ineffable quality, breathtaking beauty, mysterious beckoning. Our expansive landscape is gifted with a range of natural diversity. The records of the earliest visitors from Europe and the North document their astonishment at the variety of flora and fauna they encountered in this place.
Our state stretches from the coastal barrier islands and marshes westward through the “pine barrens” and wiregrass region, traversing wetlands, streams, sandhills, and rivers. It climbs north from the swampy Okefenokee (“land of the trembling earth”) on the border of Florida through three climate zones to an elevation of more than 4,000 feet.
This remarkable variety is the product of lengthy evolution. During the Mesozoic Era (the “age of reptiles”), the lower half of our state lay beneath the water. As the seas retreated, a geologic “fall line” formed along the river shoals and waterfalls that separated the clay and crystalline rock of the Piedmont region from sedimentary deposits of the Coastal Plain. (You can follow that line today through Columbus, Macon, Milledgeville, and Augusta, situated on the upstream navigation limits of the Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee, Oconee, and Savannah rivers, respectively.)
Human beings in Georgia from the earliest Native American settlers some 10,000 years ago until very recently lived close to the land, fully alive to its seasonal rhythms and their dependence upon it for food and spiritual nourishment.
Georgians today are still only one or two generations removed from living life in its natural setting, and many of us (native Georgians or not) are intentionally returning to it, as we see in the popularity of our state parks, wilderness areas, shores, hiking trails, rivers, camping, and so many other outdoor experiences.
Too often, though, the story of our relationship to the natural world of Georgia has been a violent one — marked by our determination to wrest resources from the land and water with no thought to their replenishment. The land and water have been nurturing; but they have also been victims in our story as we have abused, squandered, and neglected them. Regrettably, this exploitation for economic gain and material comfort has often blinded us to the spiritually restorative dimensions of place.
The great western writer Wallace Stegner reminds us that “something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.” In his well-known “Wilderness Letter” of 1960, he goes on:
“We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. . . . We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
The research literature shows that even simply “viewing nature” has positive effects on stress recovery and healing. If who we are draws its life from where we are, then we have a dual responsibility to the place we occupy. Our good stewardship of the wilderness resources of Georgia not only preserves the beauty and fertility of the natural order, but also our spirit of union with the land and with each other.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.