We drove from Augusta, Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee and back to visit relatives for the Christmas holidays. The hotel in Chattanooga was next to some monstrous mall. Before the drive home I wanted to exercise outdoors, but there was nowhere for a nature-loving man to go. Chattanooga is a suburban sprawl nightmare. So I planned to stop somewhere on the way home and take a 30 minute nature stroll.
Hamilton Place Mall in Chattanooga. Our hotel was right around the corner from this abomination. This is hell on earth for nature lovers like me.
The Etowah Indian Mounds were closed on Sunday, and the area around the nearby Red Top Mountain State Park looked like an ugly reclamation project, plus I couldn’t even find the darn place. Then we hit Atlanta and my spirits sank. I became bitter and contemplated canceling my Nature Conservancy membership because they’ve preserved no places close to where I regularly travel that I can use. All I wanted was a pleasant brief walk where I could enjoy some birds and trees. We stopped for lunch in Covington, a suburb on the east side of Atlanta, and there were almost no trees or birds in sight–the whole enclave is one giant parking lot. There is still some rural land between Atlanta and Augusta, but by then my mood had soured further, and my daughter was driving and I didn’t feel like making her stop. It depresses me when I think of how far I have to travel to see nature. That’s why I’m now going to slip into my fantasy of living on the Broad River in eastern Georgia during the Pleistocene. Here’s a typical day in the life I imagine.
December 23, 36,000 BP
I awake next to 1 of my 3 concubines at 7:00 am (my wife doesn’t like wilderness and refuses to join my Pleistocene fantasy.) It’s nice and warm under my buffalo blanket. I get up eager to go on an excursion. My concubine stays in the bed–I kept her up late because I had venison liver for supper and that always increases my libido. I go outside and milk the cow, shovel out the stall, and let her in the pasture. I feed the chickens and geese and break the ice on the latter’s water tank. There’s frost everywhere except near the poultry houses where the heat from the manure keeps the ground warm. It’s sunny and breezy. The wind has died down compared to yesterday when a cold front pushed through. I bring in a couple of baskets of wood for the woodstoves. Concubine #2 has my breakfast ready–grilled cheese on whole wheat sourdough. Every single ingredient was grown and made from scratch as is all of my food.
After breakfast I go to my garage and start up my 4-wheel drive, a vehicle that runs on wood alcohol which I also manufacture. I open the automatic door and make sure it’s closed behind me when I leave, so no dangerous animals can get inside. The walls around my garden and orchard are adjacent to thickets of prickly pear cactus which I planted to discourage animals from climbing the wall. More of the purple fruit than I can consume remains–available for peccaries and Jefferson’s ground sloths, the only animals that eat the fruit this time of year. Black bears, though they don’t hibernate in the south, are mostly inactive now.
I leave the security of my fort behind and drive on the dirt road that leads to the Broad River. I use a steam roller, every so often, to grade the road and keep it in good condition. The first 50 yards around the fort are a mowed hayfield that I keep clear of trees so it serves as a firebreak. Uncontrolled forest fires are a hazard of living in pure wilderness. The small herd of wild horses grazing on it now ignores me. There’s a black stallion, 2 brown mares, a spotted mare, and 2 black yearling colts. I slowly drive past them and into an open woods of uneven aged trees. Tawny grass and patches of saplings and brush grows between giants. I pass by a small grove of black walnuts, some ancient, some of moderate age. Several specimens are 12 feet in circumference. The road slopes toward the river, still more than a mile away, and it leads me through a forest dominated by beech, hickory, and Critchfield’s spruce. I stop the vehicle and examine a few of the trees. Many are over 70 feet tall and more than 6 feet in diameter. I hear several gray squirrels barking in alarm, and I search the bare winter tree tops for a hawk. Instead I see a big black weasel climbing a hickory. It’s a fisher, an animal that’s been absent in modern day Georgia since at least colonial times.
The article that went along with this photo claims fishers can take down big dogs like German Shepherds. No way.
The barking stops and the chase begins round and round the tree. I get my binoculars and follow the deadly race for life. The fisher follows closely behind the squirrel, seemingly certain to catch his next meal, but the frantic rodent ventures on a slim branch and leaps to a nearby beech, escaping the fisher which doesn’t dare test his weight on that flimsy branch.
The forest sounds alive. I hear crows and blue jays and a pileated woodpecker. I check an old standing snag, its top rotted away. A hairy woodpecker taps on the white oak next to it. The oak is growing in a slight gulley and leans precariously. Bits of bark flutter to the ground. I get back in my vehicle, drive about 1/4 mile, and see something dead on the road. Of course, it’s not roadkill–there’s no traffic here. I stop and emerge from my vehicle and recognize what it is–the partially eaten remains of a porcupine. I see fisher tracks all around. I carefully shove the carcass off the side of the road with my foot because a quill could puncture my tire. I’m thorough about this. A sudden whir of wings startles me. I catch a glimpse of several blue passenger pigeons. These are stragglers from the main colony that passed overhead 4 months ago. I’m not sure where the main colony is located, but I know it’s vast and surely takes over miles of forest.
The road slopes sharply and it isn’t long before I spot my 14 foot motor boat tied to an enormous 200 year old red maple. I untie the boat, start the engine, and take the boat down the river. Anchored poles with flags mark the locations of fish traps and passes through shoals and sunken snags. During the dry season these are easy to find without the flags but we recently suffered a rain/sleet event that lasted 3 straight days and the river’s a little high. I easily navigate through two red-flagged poles that mark a submerged snag and a shallow boulder. The water is clear and I can see submerged rocks in some places and sandy bottoms in others. Fish and mussels of many kinds are visible.
A bluff on the Broad River. During the Pleistocene the water was likely clear, not brown with sediment from erosion. Agricultural run off beginning early in the 19th century turned all of Georgia’s rivers muddy looking. In the 18th century William Bartram referred to this clear water as “pellucid.”
On the right is a forest of water oak and sycamore. On the left is an impenetrable thicket of river cane. A tapir stares at me from inside the stand of cane. I’ve noticed that many present day nocturnal animals are active during all hours of the day in the Pleistocene. Another creek flows into the river from here. This creek is a long chain of beaver dams and ponds. In fact I call it Beaver Dam Creek. I’ve explored this area before. It’s a mix of open marsh, ponds, canebrakes, and wet meadows grazed by long-horned bison and giant beavers (Castor ohioensis). Beavers (Castor canadensis) inhabiting this area have felled so many trees that they’ve been forced to dig canals to safely access the more distant trees. In the process they’ve created favorable habitat for their much larger cousins which grow to the size of a bear. One of the beaver lodges is even located at the mouth of the creek. An otter sits on top of the lodge and gnaws on a sucker fish.
Up above a bald eagle chases an osprey, forcing it to drop a fish. The eagle turns and drives off a turkey vulture. A great blue heron, oblivious to this action, takes flight. A group of wood ducks fly overhead. An old bull mastodon, standing on the shore, stares at me, making me feel as if I’m an intruder in his world. The animals here have no fear of man, and I have to be careful. I steer the boat away from him. The mouth of the Broad River widens as I approach its confluence with the Savannah. I near a bluff forest on the right. I face the bluff–a 130 foot high rocky cliff. Butternut and paw paw trees are common in the forest above. The offspring of some of these trees now grow in my orchard back at the fort.
I spot the blue flag on top of the pole next to my fish trap at the confluence of the 2 rivers. I cut the boat engine and tie the boat to the pole. The current causes the boat to drift downstream but the rope holds taut. I eat lunch–a smoked turkey sandwich, an apple, and some hazlenuts. A belted kingfisher calls and flies along the shore, searching for minnows. When I’m done eating I check the contents of the hoop net I placed at the funnel point of the trap I constructed of rocks. I dump a chain pickerel, 3 channel catfish, 3 white catfish, 4 small bullheads, 2 redeye bass, 1 largemouth bass, 1 crappie, 6 spotted sucker fish, 7 bluegills, 11 redear sunfish, and 3 spotted sunfish into the livewell. During summer I often catch shad and mullet and the occasion eel. I have to go farther down river to catch stripers and sturgeon. I’ve yet to find a species of fish that is extinct in the present. I untie the rope, restart the engine, and head back to the fort.
I re-enter the Broad River, boating upstream. A flock of noisy, green and yellow parrakeets fly by the shore. Swans and black ducks float on the surface of the water. The mastodon that had been standing near shore earlier is gone, but I see a v-shaped wake heading toward the front of my boat. The head surfaces. I quickly steer the boat away, not wanting to collide with the giant beaver. Nevertheless, the impact seems inevitable. The beaver sees the bow of the boat at the last moment and ducks deeper. The water is so clear I can see the beast swimming just over a sandy bottom. Happily, it avoided the propeller. I didnt want to have to mercy kill the animal. Beaver meat is delicious but I get all I need by trapping beavers and muskrats out of my rice pond back at the fort.
I disembark from my boat back near the road and cover it with a tarp. On the way back to the fort 3 long-nosed peccaries run across the road in front of me. Back in the garage, I dump the contents of the live well into my aquarium where I can retrieve the fish when I’m ready to process them. I check in with my concubines and make sure they don’t need anything before I go survey the upland part of my road. The road to a chestnut ridge is gently rolling and goes through an oak and pine savannah. The tree composition consists of black oak, post oak, shortleaf pines, and white pines–fire resistant species. Tawny waste high grass and bushy thickets grow between the trees. The road also bisects windthrows and areas blackened by recent fires.
A flock of 70 hen turkeys forages alongside the road. They’re headed northwest in the same direction I’m traveling.
White tail deer in a small grove of Osage Orange. (I don’t really know what kind of trees those are, but in my fantasy, that’s what they are. This is actually hunting club land somewhere in Texas.)
In the distance I see a herd of elk cows. Closer, in a grove of Osage orange, are some whitetail deer. I see whitetail deer, elk, and fugitive deer (an extinct species) almost everyday. Even herds of caribou travel through on occasion, and less often I’ll se a stag-moose by the river. Llamas and flat-headed peccaries are also common but I see none today.
An oak savannah. This one is somewhere in Wisconsin, I think.
Behind a fallen oak, a bobcat is waiting to ambush the flock of turkeys which are headed right toward him. The bobcat stares at my vehicle, wide-eyed, and retreats. I’ve accidentally foiled his hunt. Animals have no inordinate fear of people, but strange noises, such as my auto engine, may unsettle them.
Up ahead, a flock of vultures and magpies surround the remains of a horse. These vultures are related to old world vultures and don’t live in present day North America. This part of the road goes through an expansive meadow and I see 2 bull elk together–possibly part of a bachelor herd.
Past the meadow is a grove of large, virgin, white pines. Detached from the grove are 2 amazingly enormous white pines. Both are 180 feet tall. In between these 2 and the rest of the grove is a colony of blueberry bushes growing between some fallen and well-decayed tree trunks. This time of year only a few red leaves cling on the upright branches. A storm and fire divided these 2 trees from the rest of the grove and blueberries grow in that space instead.
I finally reach the ridge. A creek bottom adjacent to the ridge supports another extensive patch of river cane, but the ridge is quite different. Here, on the high rocky hill is a beautiful stand of chestnut and chestnut oak with an undergrowth of chinquapin. The wildlife has already decimated this year’s chestnut crop but acorns still litter the ground. Here, and on the open woodlands fox squirrels abound. A black male with a gray mask chases a reddish-colored female: first along the ground, then up and around a tree trunk. I love these large multi-colored squirrels.
On the return back a dire wolf lopes along the road, a big limp rabbit in its mouth. He stays ahead of my slowly moving vehicles for 200 yards before jogging into the tall grass of the big meadow.
Back at the fort, I spend a couple hours cleaning the fish. The pickerel and sucker fish make good pickled fish–the vinegar dissolves the numerous bones. I stick the bass and larger catfish in the freezer. The bass are better after they’ve been frozen anyway because the musky flavor breaks down. I fry the smaller catfish and some of the bream for supper.
After supper I fill the generator with wood alcohol and rekindle the fires in the woodstoves. We listen to wolves howl close outside while we watch a movie. Concubine #2 reminds me it’s her turn tonight so we turn in.