Posts Tagged ‘Philip Juras’

Landscape Paintings by Philip Juras

July 9, 2015

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 beautifulWhat 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.

William Bartram’s “Magnificent” Forest

April 11, 2011

Portrait of William Bartram.  In his classic Natural History book, Travels, this author and botanist gave us valuable information about the original ecology and landscapes of southeastern North America, many of which either no longer exist or occur as extremely rare remnants.  He traveled through South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi,  Louisiana, and North Carolina in the 3 years prior to the American Revolution.

A passage from William Bartram’s Travels inspired my trip to the Congaree National Park last week.  I longed to see a forest of giant trees, the kind that used to commonly occur in the southeast until European settlers raped the land.  Though the Congaree has the largest trees in North America east of the California redwoods, the largest trees there are only half the size of the ones Bartram measured in a forest in east central Georgia.  This incredible stretch of woods was 7 miles long (the width is unreported) and existed in  what today is Taliaferro County.  Here’s Bartram’s description of this forest:

Leaving the pleasant town of Wrightsborough, we continued eight or nine miles through a fertile plain and high forest, to the north branch of the Little River, being the largest of the two, crossing which, we entered an extensive fertile plain, bordering on the river, and shaded by trees of vast growth, which at once spoke of its fertility.  Continuing some time through these shady groves, the scene opens, and discloses to view the most magnificent forest I had ever seen.  We rise gradually a sloping bank of twenty or thirty feet in elevation, and immediately entered this sublime forest; the ground is a  perfectly level green plain, thinly planted by nature with the most stately forest trees, such as the gigantic black oak (Q. tinctoria) Liriodendron, Juglans nigra, Platanus, Juglans exalta, Fagus sylvatica, Ulmus sylvatica, Liquid-amber styraciflua, whose mighty trunks, seemingly of an equal heighth, appeared like superb columns…

(I assume “thinly planted by nature” and “level green plain” meant grass grew between the trees.  For those not up to Latin names for trees, the forest consisted of black oak, tulip, black walnut, sycamore, shell bark hickory, beech, elm, and sweetgum.”)

…To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would, I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I think I can assert, that many of the black oaks measured, eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet in diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were above thirty feet girt, and from whence they ascend perfectly strait, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs; but, below five or six feet, these trunks would measure a third more in circumference, on account of the projecting jambs, or supports, which are more or less, according to the number of horizontal roots, that they arise from: the Tulip tree, Liquidamber, and Beech, were equally stately…

 

Painting by Philip Juras.  Bartram inspired this artist to create 68 landcape paintings based on descriptions from his book, Travels.   This painting is of a piedmont woodland opening, much like what Bartram describes in his passage on the “magnificent” forest, though I think the trees aren’t as big. Philip Juras’s portfolio will be on display at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta from May 28-August 14.  I can’t wait to see them in person!

The composition of William Bartram’s magnificent forest puzzles me.  The forest was dominated by “thinly planted” black oaks which implies a forest dependent upon frequent fires for oaks and grasses to grow. Oaks and grasses are fire tolerant but shade intolerant.  However, the other species of trees in this fores are fire intolerant, yet shade tolerant.  I asked Marc Abrams, a forest ecologist from Penn State, about this curious composition of trees.  He explained that Bartram’s description was of a lower slope mixed mesophytic forest with the exception of the black oaks which don’t fit into this kind of forest because it is not pyrogenic.  He had no definitive answer as to how this forest developed.  Reading the next paragraph in Travels, however, gave me an idea.

Not far distant from the terrace, or eminence, overlooking the low grounds of the river, many very magnificent monuments of the power and industry of the ancient inhabitants of these lands are visible.  I observed a stupendous conical pyramid, or artificial mount of earth, vast tetragon terraces, and a large sunken area, of a cubical form, encompassed with banks of earth; and certain traces of a large Indian town, the work of a powerful nation, whose period of grandeur perhaps long preceded the discovery of this continent.

This impressive forest apparently was adjacent to an ancient Indian town, probably a large one.  If I recall my archaeology correctly, the mound-building Indians abandoned their towns between 1300AD-1500AD.  Bartram’s magnificent forest may have been this town’s hunting grounds which they managed by periodically burning it to maintain a grassy oak savannah favorable for game such as deer, buffalo, and turkey.  After the Indians abandoned the area, the fire intolerant/shade tolerant species, first establishing themselves alongside the abundant creeks, colonized this woodland, but the black oaks remained, living to a great age, and thus explaining their size.  Black oaks can live to be 250 years old.  The passage was written in 1773; the moundbuilders abandoned the town some time in the previous 150 years, so this stretch of woods was still an oak forest, but eventually was on the way to becoming a forest dominated by shade tolerant beech, sycamore, and elm.

European settlers probably clear cut this forest between 1830-1860 after they kicked the Indians out of the state but before the Civil War stifled the economy.  They also probably ploughed, flattened, and destroyed  the Indian mounds. I’ll have to take a day trip and explore this area some time this summer and see if I can find any remnants of what Bartram saw.

***********************

An addendum to last week’s blog entry–The natural history of the Congaree

Last week, I wrote that as far as I knew there had been no palynological studies determining the age of the Congaree Swamp.  To prove myself wrong, I google searched and did find one–“Palynology and Paleoecology of Late Pleistocene to Holocene, organic rich, paleomeander/rim swamp deposits in South Carolina, and Georgia” by Art Cohen, et. al. from the Geological Society of America 38 (7) Oct. 2006.  Scientists took cores in a place known as Muck swamp within the Congaree.  The oldest zone dated to 21,000 BP, and they found pollen and macrofossils of water lillies, diatoms, algae, spruce, and an evening primrose flower related to a species found in Alaska.  They interpeted this to mean that Muck Swamp was an oxbow lake during this time period.  It must have been an important refuge for waterfowl because during this cool arid climatic stage, wetlands were scarce.  A younger, undated zone contained pollen of oak, hickory, chestnut, and walnut.  They interpet this zone to be a marsh, but it seems more like an upland hardwood forest to me.  Zone 3, dating to about 3500 BP contained pollen of pine, sweetgum, alder, cypress, tupelo, and magnolia. Cypress was the last of the modern day representatives to colonize (or perhaps recolonize) the swamp.