In 1867, naturalist John Muir embarked on a 1,000-mile “botanical journey” across the South, walking from Kentucky to Florida. Five years ago, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Dan Chapman decided to retrace his route, albeit in a car: In the century and a half since Muir’s trek, his path has been chopped up by interstates and highways—“not a lot of fun hiking terrain,” Chapman says.
Chapman has covered environmental issues in the South for three decades—coal ash, invasive species, coastal erosion, and the water wars—and he’d been looking for a way to stitch those stories together when he found Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. “Pound for pound, acre for acre, it’s hard to top the beauty and biodiversity of the South,” Chapman told me, citing mountainous, forested peaks and Lowcountry salt marshes. “If we’re not careful, a lot of these places will disappear—through sprawl, climate change, or out-and-out neglect.”
Here, a few excerpts from A Road Running Southward (Chapman’s new book, published in May by Island Press) where their explorations and writings intersect throughout this state, from North Georgia—where Muir was riveted by the mighty Chattahoochee River and where Chapman was . . . less riveted by its source—to Savannah, where Muir spent six nights in Bonaventure Cemetery, and Chapman hopped a fence at dusk to spend one.
→ Muir: Muir quickly descended the Appalachian chain, the “hills becoming small, sparsely covered in soil.” At noon, he summited the last mountain and was greeted by “a vast uniform expanse of dark pine woods, extending to the sea.” Muir followed behind “three poor but merry mountaineers” bouncing along in a rickety mule-drawn wagon. They talked of love, marriage, and the days-long camp meetings, a fixture of North Georgia religious life. Through it all, an older lady clutched a bouquet of French marigolds. On the twenty-third of September, Muir reached “the comfortable, finely shaded little town of Gainesville” and the Chattahoochee—“the first truly southern stream I have met.” He was smitten: “The Chattahoochee River is richly embanked with massive, bossy, dark green water oaks and wreathed with a dense growth of muscadine grapevines, whose ornate foliage, so well adapted to bank embroidery, was enriched with other interweaving species of vines and brightly colored flowers. I was intoxicated with the beauty of these glorious riverbanks.”
→ Chapman: I’m a bit giddy about finally eye-balling the source of so much southeastern treasure and turmoil. For twenty years I traveled the length of the river from the Poultry Capital of the World (Gainesville) to the Oyster Capital of the World (Apalachicola) where the river lets out into the Gulf of Mexico. I interviewed hundreds of farmers, oystermen, beekeepers, bankers, builders, politicians, utility executives, impassioned biologists, Peachtree Street attorneys, and more hydrologists than you can shake a dowser at along the river’s 434-mile run. I wrote thousands of inches dissecting case law, riparian law, and the law of the modern jungle which dictates that He With The Most Money (i.e., Atlanta) usually wins. But I never saw the wellspring of all that fuss. So this is my pilgrimage to Lourdes, my hydrological hajj, my Chattahoochee Crusade. A blue sign with a white W points to the source. I bound down the trail. Two-hundred steps later I gaze wondrously at . . . a puddle. It barely ripples. No gurgling, frothy elixir geysering from the ground. No fountain of cascading rivulets presaging its society-shaking importance. Nothing but a piddly little pool in a dimpled patch of sand surrounded by mud and rock. Upon closer inspection I notice an almost imperceptible aspiration of water coming from the earth. The spring is as cool, fresh, and clean as could be. It’s also a complete letdown.
→ Muir: There’s a sense that Muir was changing, that the heretofore happy chronicler of God’s great outdoors was divining something wicked and dangerous about humanity. He was no dummy. He’d seen the abandoned homes, stoved-in barns, and overgrown fields of Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. He’d broken bread with the rail-thin mothers and corn-likkered fathers who looked twice their age. He’d experienced the desperation of the highwayman and the bitterness of the landowner brought low by the Civil War. And he survived it all with characteristic pep and unbridled optimism. Until he reached Georgia. Georgia was hot, humid, tropical, and full of mysterious species that Muir had never before seen. “Strange plants are crowding about me now,” he wrote. “Scarce a familiar face appears among all the flowers of the day’s walk.” His money was running out and he was often hungry, tired, and lonely. “The winds are full of strange sounds, making one feel far from the people and plants and fruitful fields of home,” Muir said. “Night is coming on and I am filled with indescribable loneliness.”
→ Chapman: Like virtually every major American river, the Savannah’s beauty can’t hide its industrialized decay. The postwar South offered Northern industrialists cheap land, labor, and river-generated electricity. In descending order, the Lake Hartwell, Richard B. Russell, and J. Strom Thurmond dams emasculated the Savannah, all in the name of economic development, flood control, and recreation. The huge dams and miles-long reservoirs altered the river’s natural flow, harming the fish, salamanders, and mollusks that depend upon seasonal bursts of water. The maximum peak flows near Augusta are less than one-third what they were before the dams were built, according to the University of Georgia. Lower flows move less sediment, scour less of the river bottom, and deliver less water to the floodplain. Even the US Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dams, acknowledges that its “operation of dams on the Savannah for the last fifty years has caused notable degradation of ecosystem integrity.” Below Augusta, the Savannah takes on all the municipal and industrial characteristics of the Ohio and other heavily polluted rivers—with some unique twists.
→ Muir: He survived on breakfast crackers and water from a “coffee-colored stream” outside the cemetery’s gate. Each day he grew fainter. Bonaventure [Cemetery], though, invigorated Muir’s mind and made the twenty-nine-year-old wanderer reconsider long-held notions of life, death, nature, and man’s twisted relationship with all three. Why, he wondered, are humans considered more important than birds, bees, or bluets? Weren’t animals a “sacred fabric of life and wellbeing,” worthy of preservation and not to be killed for fashion, sport, or whim? The death of plants, animals, and men are all part of life’s natural cycle and God’s plan. Yet Muir intuited that nature would ultimately get crushed by man if not preserved. Flora and fauna of all sizes need space—untrammeled forests, mountain ranges, ocean preserves, wildlife refuges—so their lives can proceed apace without undue human interference. Nature requires “the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge,” Muir wrote.
→ Chapman: An oak-lined blacktop runs alongside Bonaventure. It is dark beyond the city’s vapor-light glow and threatening rain. The wind-tousled moss dangling from tree limbs adds to the spookiness. I follow the road to the marsh, hop the fence, and enter the cemetery. It’s quiet except for the chorus of frogs, the susurrus of distant traffic, and the whine of mosquitoes. I don’t see a soul, living or dead. The prospect of a long night outdoors amidst the deceased bestirs some dread. I’d boned up the day before—foolishly, in hindsight—on Bonaventure ghost stories. The phantom “hell hounds” that roam the cemetery. The angelic statues that glare at passersby. The sounds of distant laughter and shattering glass. Little Gracie with her bloody tears. Intent on facing my demons, I detour to Gracie’s tomb en route to Muir’s campsite. As my eyes grow accustomed to the dark, the contours of the headstones and the mausoleums, the towering trees, and the pebbled walkways come into focus. Everything is bathed in dark gray light. Gracie, in her Sunday dress and buttoned boots, still sits straight and motionless. Nary a drop of blood sullies her chubby cheeks. I find Muir’s sleeping spot. The mosquitoes haven’t mellowed. I move on, wandering the cemetery and looking for signs of life.
Excerpted from A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey through an Endangered Land by Dan Chapman. Copyright © 2022 Dan Chapman. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC. www.islandpress.org.
This article appears in our May 2022 issue.