I almost visited Burke’s Mountain not long ago but the road leading to it looked like a long gravel driveway and in fact a sign even said, “Private Driveway,” so I didn’t want to trespass and instead turned around and went home. Reed Noss, author of the below referenced book, and Philip Juras, a gifted landscape painter, have had the opportunity to see the site first hand, and it’s from their writing and art, respectively, that I get most of the information for this blog entry.
Columbia County, Georgia where Burke’s Mountain is located.
Burke’s Mountain is located in northeast Columbia County, Georgia near the Lincoln County line. It is the highest elevation in Columbia County at 455 feet which makes it more of a really big hill when compared to the real mountains farther north. Serpentinite rock outcroppings cover this mountain. Rainwater dissolves minerals from serpentinite rock, creating ultramafic soils, and this feature is what makes this site unique. Ultramafic soils are characterized by low calcium to magnesium ratios, low fertility, and high concentrations of iron, nickel, and chromium. This soil chemistry is toxic to many trees, and grassland thrives here as a result. Open savannah conditions prevail without the aid of fire as the following photos and painting portray.
A Philip Juras photo of part of Burke’s Mountain. It is a serpentine barren. Elk and bison probably grazed here as recently as the 18th century.
Philip Juras’s painting of Burke’s Mountain. Note the rocky outcroppings. Erosion of minerals from the rock create a soil chemistry that is more favorable to grass than trees.
Alan Cressler took half a dozen photos of Burke’s Mountain and posted them in the above link.
Dr. Noss found 3 species of southern pines growing here–loblolly (Pinus taeda), shortleaf (Pinus echinata), and longleaf (Pinus palustris). This is a northern disjunct population of longleaf pine, a species more commonly found on the coastal plain and some dry ridges in the western part of the state. He also found pyrophitic species of oaks including blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), post oak (Quercus stellata), sand post oak (Quercus margarettae), sand laurel oak (Quercus hemisphaerica), and Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana).
William Bartram passed by Burke’s Mountain circa 1776 but didn’t specifically describe the site, but in the following passage he probably generically described it along with similar dry ridges located in present day Lincoln County.
“This day’s progress was agreeably entertaining, from the novelty and variety of objects and views; the wild country now almost depopulated, vast forests, expansive plains, and detached groves; then chains of hills whose gravelly dry barren summits present detached piles of rocks, which delude and flatter the hopes and expectations of the solitary traveller, full sure of hospitable habitation; heaps of white, gnawed bones of ancient buffaloe, elk and deer, indeterminably mixed with those of men, half-grown over with moss, altogether, exhibit scenes of uncultured nature, on reflection, perhaps, rather disagreeable to a mind of delicate feelings and sensibility, since some of these objects recognize past transations and events, perhaps, not altogether reconcilable with justice and humanity.”
According to Frances Harper, the editor of the naturalists edition of Bartram’s Travels, William Bartram was likely in Lincoln County when he saw the elk bones but there’s no way of knowing for sure. He may have seen them on Burke’s Mountain. Though Bartram took careful notes, he didn’t actually write Travels until years after he actually traveled, and his descriptions consist of composite memories. Sometimes his notes and his book are in contradiction. Frances Harper followed Bartram’s path and tried to estimate where he was when he made his descriptions, but he was proved wrong on at least one occasion. For example he incorrectly deduced the true location of The Great Buffalo Lick, as I discussed in the following linkhttps://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/05/21/my-expedition-to-kettle-creek-battlefield-the-little-kettle-creek-fossil-site-and-the-great-buffalo-lick/ . The ridge Bartram wrote about must have been visible from miles away, indicating it was surrounded by open grassland rather than thick forest. When I rode over there, I couldn’t really see the mountain from far away. Poor Bartram initially mistook the rocky outcroppings seen from a distance for houses. Instead of a hot meal, a bed, and companionship, he had to camp on the ground by himself again.
The elk bones Bartram wrote about seeing on a dry ridge that may have been Burke’s Mountain is rare evidence this species lived in Georgia.
The floral environment on Burke’s Mountain is interesting because it has probably remained relatively unchanged for tens of thousands, if not millions of years. During cold glacial stages, the shallow soils under sparse shade warmed quickly and hosted a similar plant species composition compared to the present. These same poor quality soils prevent most local hardwood trees from colonizing and dominating this locale during warm interstadials and interglacials.
Ultramafic soils are a rarity in Georgia, but mafic soils are common here. Mafic soils also consist of a chemistry that favors grass over trees, but they aren’t as extreme. Forests eventually replace grasslands on mafic soils, unless fire is frequent, whereas ultramafic soils can maintain an open appearance without fire. Before humans were present, natural processes created a mosaic of forest, savannah, and even prairie in the southeast. Horses, bison, elk, and mammoth grazed the grass; mastodon, tapir, deer, and peccary browsed the forest. The existence of mafic soils and fire explains why the regional fossil record includes both forest and grassland dwelling megafauna. Later, Indians expanded existing grassland openings with fire. Perhaps Bartram could see “gravelly ridges” from a distance because Indians had started fires on the grassy mountain, and the fires spread to the surrounding area for miles all around, creating a relatively treeless plain. Today, most of this area consists of dense young forests and suburbs that block the view that Bartram enjoyed.
“Forgotten Grasslands of the South”
Island Press 2012