Posts Tagged ‘Virgin maritime forest’

William Bartram’s Visit to St. Simons Island in 1774

July 10, 2014

I didn’t go to St. Simons Island this summer as I’d initially planned, but I wasn’t disappointed.  I’m sure the island is not as interesting as it was when William Bartram visited it in the spring of 1774.  Bartram stayed for a few days with James Spalding, then the president of the settlement of Frederica and a merchant involved in the Indian trade.  Although a remnant of an old growth maritime forest has been preserved for the modern day naturalist to enjoy, Bartam had the opportunity to see the island when it was mostly undeveloped.  One day, he left Frederica on horseback to survey the island.  Thick groves of live oaks surrounded the town.

500 year old live oak on John’s Island South Carolina.  There may have been quite a few trees of this age on St. Simons Island when Bartram visited in 1774.

Bartram rode through the virgin live oak woods and found a “beautiful green savannah” about 2 square miles in extent.  Long-horned cattle, horses, sheep, and deer fed in this natural pasture.  On the other side of this savannah, he followed an old road that had fallen into disrepair.  The road went through an open woodland of live oaks and longleaf pines spread far enough apart that grass and shrubs could grow in the understory.  The road ended after 5-6 miles when he reached an impenetrable thicket growing on a sandhill.  The thicket was composed of live oak, myrtle, holly, beautyberry, silverbell, alder buckthorn, hoptrees, bully trees, hornbeam, and bignonia.  Several of these species are evergreen and subtropical.  Greenbriar vines covered the thicket, and there was a salt marsh on the other side of the sandhill.  Bartram referred to it as a “salt plains.”

Bartram did find a freshwater creek between the forest and the salt marsh.  Here, he rested and enjoyed the fragrant beauty of diamond frost, morning glory, lycium (a thorny plant in the nightshade family), scarlet sage, and white lily; all of which were blooming in April.

Diamond Frost Euphorbia Diamond frost in the Euphorbia genus.  It is related to the more famous Christmas poinsetta.  This is one of the flowers Bartram saw growing on St. Simons Island.  Actually, it is the leaves that look like flowers. 

Bartram turned south and found the beach where he saw living and dead starfish, corals, jellyfish, snails, whelks, clams, and squid; all washed upon the sand.  He left the uninhabited beach and headed west, coming across 50-60 beehives lined up in a grove of oaks and palms.  He met a farmer and beekeeper who was resting upon a bearskin rug after a morning spent hunting and fishing.  The man gave Bartram venison and honey-sweetened water spiked with brandy.  They had a picnic amidst the mockingbirds, painted buntings, and hummingbrids.  Jasmine, honeysuckle, and azaleas scented the air. 

William Bartram met a farmer and beekeeper on St. Simons Island who was lounging outside on a beer skin rug while drinking brandy mixed with honey and water.  He must have caught the bear raiding his bee hives.

 ©Zachary_Huang 

An apiary.  Beekeepers and bears do not get along.

On his way back to Frederica, Bartram saw many abandoned plantations.  Even Fort Frederica itself, still manned at the time by a small garrison, was falling apart.  Peach, fig, and pomegranate trees grew through the broken walls.  General Oglethorpe had ordered the construction of the fort 60 years earlier, but funds in 1774 were not available to maintain it.

Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia.  General Oglethorpe ordered it built circa 1712 to repel any possible invading colonial force such as the Spanish.  By 1774 it was already in ruins.

I envy the bucolic life of the farmer that Bartram met.  The man had half of St. Simons Island to himself.  For an 18th century existence, this was living in paradise.  Poor city folks in London then were lucky if they had bread.  But this man lived on a beautiful plantation with quite a variety of food available from both land and sea.  On the other hand, he didn’t have air conditioning and television.  And the bikini had yet to be invented.  Today, his plantation has been transmogrified into a landscape of condos built as closely together as possible.  If this farmer could visit the present day for a week, I wonder if he would envy our modern life as I envy his or would he wish to return to his old life.  I wonder…would he trade places with me?

Wassaw Island has Virgin Maritime Forests

February 19, 2014

The pristine condition of Wassaw Island, located southeast of Savannah, Georgia, surprises me.  It’s hard for me to believe that such a prime piece of real estate has never been logged, cleared for agriculture, or developed for tourism.  Before European colonization Native Americans fished and hunted on the island, and they left small shell mounds.  They also gave the island its name, Wassaw, which means sassafras; but Anthony Odingsell is the earliest known European to own it.  He willed the island to his mulatto son who enjoyed a bucolic existence here with his 11 slaves.  Though I’m sure they maintained vegetable gardens and fruit trees, the land was never lumbered nor cleared to grow cotton.  In 1866 the Odingsell family sold the island to George Parson, and his descendents used the island as a fishing and hunting destination.  One-hundred years later, The Nature Conservancy bought the island and sold it to the federal government for a dollar, and now it is a National Wildlife Refuge.  The ruin of a fort erected during the Spanish-American War is about the only sign of man on the island besided a boat dock that provides the only access here, unless one wants to traverse miles of salt marsh, then swim the tidal creek that separates Wassaw from the mainland.

Map of Wassaw Island.

Wassaw Island consists of over 10,000 acres of salt marsh, beach dune, interdunal wetlands (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/when-pleistocene-megafauna-roamed-interdunal-wetlands/), and maritime forest.  Old growth oak, pine, cedar, palm, and holly dominate the forest composition.  There must be centuries old live oaks here.  The island provides an unique opportunity to study what barrier island flora was like before European settlement because it’s the only island where feral livestock were never introduced, yet as far as I can determine no botanist has ever studied the flora on Wassaw.  Some university professor needs to hire a boat man and survey this rare gem.

Photo of the north end of Wassaw Island.  The beach is eroding into the forest here but it is building up on the south side of the island.

Freshwater wetland on Wassaw Island.

Over 200 species of birds have been recorded on the island.  During the summer neotropical songbirds swell the avian population, and during winter Wassaw provides refuge for migrating ducks.  Painted buntings, rare elsewhere, are reportedly common here.  White-tail deer and alligator are the only large animals on the island.  Deer were hunted to extirpation on the island, but deer from Wisconsin were introduced, and they brought a northern species of parasite with them.  I found a youtube video of a man who sails to Wassaw Island. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYOsXVSHEC8) He caught a bonnet head shark offshore adjacent to the island.

I couldn’t find many scientific studies of the island–it’s notably understudied.  I did find a paleotempestology study that determined 9 hurricanes have hit Wassaw Island over the last 1900 years, so it endures direct hits about once every 200 years, perhaps altering the floral composition.  (Scientists can look at sand overwash layers in the salt marsh to determine when hurricanes events occurred.)  The response of floral and faunal composition to past hurricanes would be another worthy subject of scientific inquiry.

Wassaw Island is of recent origin being in the neighborhood of 7000 years old.  It began forming with the rise of sea level that occurred following the dissolution of the massive glacial Lake Agassiz in Canada.  Longshore currents are eroding the north end of the island but building the south end.  Skidaway Island, located directly behind Wassaw Island, is a Pleistocene-aged barrier island.  Skidaway Island is part of what is known as the Silver Bluff shoreline, and it was at sea level between ~41,000 BP-~36,000 BP…before the Last Glacial Maximum.  This climate phase was a warm interstadial, the temperatures similar, but probably a little cooler than those of today.  The Silver Bluff shoreline formed as sort of a pause in the lowering of sea level during the Wisconsinian Ice Age.

I’ve visited Skidaway Island State Park.  There is a nice museum with an impressive fossil replica of the giant ground sloth, Eremotherium.  I walked on a nature trail behind the museum and saw live megafauna–a deer in its reddish summer coat.  Wassaw Island may be difficult to access for people without a boat, but Skidaway Island was worth the visit.