A Great River Park for Nature and Culture
Ocmulgee River, Central Georgia
April 1-2, 2011
Too often, modern culture and wild Nature clash, with the wild oft getting squashed or tamed in the conflict. Conservationists in middle Georgia, located around Macon, are working on a dream that would honor both natural history and cultural history thereby helping our overly-technological culture relearn how to live with the natural world. Students and professors at Mercer College and advocates with National Parks Conservation Association and Native American groups are beginning to put in place the pieces that will transform a hodgepodge of small public holdings into a grand park. Specifically, the Ocmulgee National Monument would be expanded into a National Park by adding to it lands from Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, buffers to Robins Air Force Base, Oaky Woods State Park, Ocmulgee Wildlife Management Area and various small government holdings. Ideally, a small number of private holdings will be added, too, if owners are interested in selling.
Leaders in this effort include: Sarah Gerwig-Moore and Jack Sammons, law professors at Mercer College; eight or so of their students, including Marshall; Caleb Walker, a volunteer with Georgia Forest Watch; National Parks Conservation Association; and representatives of the Muscogee peoples. Quietly supportive, and protecting key private lands, is a rock & roll star who might prefer to have his identity kept secret (must keep his name Under My Thumb). I had the honor of talking with Sarah and Jack and their students in class, then heading afield to see some of the proposed park.
With the recent heavy rains, which have made my bicycling an amphibious experience, the Ocmulgee River is in high (though not record) flood stage; and much of Bond Swamp is inundated. Indeed, on the drive down to Bond Refuge with Sarah, Marshall and Caleb, we could see that the bottomlands were flooded to within feet of I-16. This makes me wonder if highways may in some cases be a bit less of a barrier to wildlife movement when they are in such wet areas that lengths have to be raised on pillars. Likely so for swimming animals, at least. Later, in Ocmulgee National Monument, we would walk easily (though with ears covered, from sound of trucks above) beneath the interstate highway, where it is elevated on pillars spanning flood-prone Walnut Creek.
This experience of flood waters coming so close to major infrastructure alsorecommenced my wondering, begun days ago as I pedaled in pouring rain and my bike gears complained audibly, if global overheating or climate chaos (or ‘climate change’ as we complacently call it) will take an even greater toll on civilization than on Nature. A warmer world will be a wetter world, generally, as heat speeds hydrological cycles. Water grows life; water corrodes technology. Perhaps, paradoxically, as people pollute the world, we are destabilizing climate to the point that it will, in fits and starts but with growing severity, bring ruin upon our industrial edifice. I suspect the mound builders on the Ocmulgee River would have had wise advice for us on such subjects.
Enough of my rainy day speculations; the sun is finally emerging! By early afternoon, we are walking in patchy sunshine, enjoying reflections of trees and vines in the dark swamp waters of the Wildlife Refuge. Spring is well along here in middle Georgia, and we admired blooming azaleas, listened to singing warblers, and touched the tender leaves emerging on sweetgums and tulip poplars. Our walks in the Refuge were short, as large parts of the trails were today more suitable for paddling than walking.
The drive back north to Ocmulgee Monument was a reminder that wildlife here in middle Georgia will face ongoing challenges from roads, cars and development. Away from the river, the matrix is not wild. Ocmulgee is an oasis of naturalness in an urban and suburban and agricultural environment. Piecing it together into a large National Park will take many groups and many years.
Ocmulgee National Monument itself, though at present only a square mile or so in size, will be a seed from which the larger park can grow. Protecting archaeological sites of the Muscogee Peoples dating back millennia, and also rich bottomland hardwood forests and swamps, Ocmulgee Monument attracts and inspires thousands of people a year, including school kids from Macon, to see the huge earthen mounds set before the expansive swamplands. On our walk there, Sarah’s sons, Dean and Elliot, seemed equally enthralled by the ancient ceremonial mounds, the huge beetle they gingerly rescued from the footpath, the butterflies flitting about, the frog Caleb gently caught and released, and the river roiling away. A high point for our walk was when Sarah spotted a gorgeously patterned eastern king snake, basking just off the trail.
Fortunately for the Ocmulgee and its peoples, past and present, a bright young cadre of lawyers and teachers is preparing itself for lifetimes of work honoring the natural and cultural heritage of this great river valley. With their success, a bear should be able to wander safely out of the Oconee hills, south along the Ocmulgee River, thence to the Altamaha River and on out to the rich coast. Thither shall I head now, with gratitude to my new Macon friends for their leadership in the middle Georgia part of the puzzle that pieces back together the Eastern Wildway.
For the Wild,
Show Us Your Wild Winners
The winner: John (Will) Leonard
The Konza Prairie is located in the Flint Hills region of Kansas and is home to native tallgrass and switchgrasses on its 50,000 square kilometer area. It is home to more than 600 species of fish, reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is a lively, beautiful, and calming environment located just outside of Manhattan, KS.
The runner-up: Kristin Williams
Located at the headwaters of the Peace River in Polk County, Florida, this ecosystem is home to many native fauna and flora. Circle B Reserve is an excellent green space for a family picnic, bike ride, or leisurely stroll. Birds are plentiful, you might also encounter river otters, alligators, snakes, butterflies and so much more.
John Davis on KVNF, NPR CO
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