The kind of natural environments I’d like to see are either extinct or currently exist as tiny remnants. It’s too hot this time of year to get in a car and drive for hours to visit any of these remnant landscapes. Instead, I like to relax and open up a book entitled The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by Bartram’s Travels by Philip Juras. This artist paints landscapes that were once common across the southeast but now exist as rare relics. In some cases the environments he portrays no longer exist at all, and he has to base his work on descriptions William Bartram made about his travels through the region in 1775/1776.
My favorite landscape is the open oak savannah of the piedmont region. I’ve written a series for my blog about my imaginary life in a wilderness located in the Georgia piedmont 36,000 years ago. I envision my wilderness homestead surrounded by open oak savannah as depicted in the below illustrations.
Old growth oak savannah painted by Philip Juras. Imagine centuries old trees with a grassy understory.
Painting of an old growth oak savannah at Sprewell Bluff. Imagine bison, horses, and mammoths here as they were during the Pleistocene.
Anthony Shoals on the Broad River. This is what Piedmont rivers originally looked like. If I lived near these shoals during the Pleistocene, I’d set fish traps up here.
Depiction of the Kiowee Valley, South Carolina as it was in 1775. Today, this valley is inundated by a reservoir. This is so beautiful. What do I like best about it? No sign of people.
Evidence from pollen records shows that the abundance of oaks and other hardwoods increased while the abundance of pine decreased during warm interstadials and interglacials. Broad-leafed trees outcompete pines in climates with greater precipitation, milder temperatures, and higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Conversely, pines predominate over broad-leafed trees in colder windier conditions with lower atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, such as occurred during Ice Age stadials. Natural fires and the grazing, trampling, and foraging of megafauna kept oak woodlands more open during the Pleistocene than modern day woods. Later, Indians frequently set fire to the woods, maintaining these primeval oak savannahs. Light grass fires killed saplings, but mature oaks are fire resistant, and burned grass re-sprouts from underground roots.
I like oak savannahs because this type of environment supports a large population of wildlife, and the open nature allows for easy wildlife viewing. During the Pleistocene a piedmont oak savannah was home for mammoth, bison, horse, peccaries, tapir, deer, elk (probably not until 15,000 BP), llamas, and bear. Predators attracted to these prey species included saber-tooth, giant lion, jaguar, cougar, bobcat, dire wolf, and coyote. Squirrels were even more abundant than they are today, and cottontails thrived in thickets left per chance unburned. Big flocks of turkeys, passenger pigeons, and hundreds of species of songbirds frequented oak savannah. Just imagine all the wildlife that could be seen from just a glance out the window of a homestead built in the middle of a Pleistocene piedmont oak savannah.
Philip Juras did find a rare remnant of an oak savannah in western Georgia located in Sprewell Bluff State Park. When I drive through the countryside, I occasionally see an acre or so with old growth oaks and a grassy understory. I remember seeing an example of this environment on the other side of the road near the base of Ladds Mountain in Bartow County. This environment is rare now because men have clear cut and cultivated so much of the original landscape. When the land is eventually left fallow, it doesn’t come back like it used to be. Men suppress fires and build roads that act as firebreaks. The native grasses no longer occur in the seed bank, and the soil has been used and eroded. The trees grow thick on poor soil without light grass fire tinder. It’s nothing like it used to be. Pines predominate in the piedmont today, but circa 1704 John Lawson traveled a day through the North Carolina piedmont without seeing a single pine tree. Instead, the land was covered by oaks and other hardwoods.
Since Philip Juras published his book, he’s continued painting landscapes. He’s traveled to Little St. Simon’s Island, Martha’s Vineyard, and Colombia. He’s posted these new paintings on his website http://www.philipjuras.com/ Here’s 1 of my favorite new paintings of his.
This is a freshwater wetland known as Goose Pond on Little St. Simon’s Island.