Writer and reporter Dan Chapman follows the coastal trail of seminal naturalist John Muir in his new book, Running Southward, excerpted and abridged for you, our readers.
Photography by ALISSA LEE NICHOLSON // @FORESTCITYOFTHESOUTH
Naturalist John Muir spent a half-dozen days in Bonaventure Cemetery, stranded, broke and full of despair. He had completed most of his 1,000-mile trek from Indiana with only Florida to go to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The then-29-year-old — arguably the nation’s most famous and influential naturalist, who went on to co-found the Sierra Club and is often called the Father of the National Parks — walked into town each day to the express office with hopes of receiving money from his brother to continue his journey. I spent a night in Bonaventure (illegally), channeling my inner Muir and communing with the ghosts of Savannah’s past. — Dan Chapman
BY THE TIME he reached Savannah in 1867, in the throes of Reconstruction, John Muir had walked more than 700 miles in 38 days, guided by little more than divine inspiration, boundless curiosity and a love of plants. Tired, hungry and broke, he wandered the cobblestoned streets and the swampy outskirts of town in search of a place to sleep.
He ended up at Bonaventure Cemetery. The stay changed his life, and America’s relationship with nature. Bonaventure invigorated Muir’s mind and made him 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 well-being,” 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. Humans, too, need room to roam.
Muir’s environmental, ethical and philosophical beliefs that undergird the American conservation movement took hold at Bonaventure. Ironically, the “father” of the national parks, conscience of the environmental movement, cofounder of the Sierra Club and passionate defender of all things wild owes much of his life’s work and reputation to the dead.
Muir’s environmental, ethical and philosophical beliefs that undergird
the American conservation movement took hold at Bonaventure.
I figure that a popular sports bar about a mile from the cemetery is a safe, unobtrusive spot to leave my car overnight. I shoulder my knapsack, pull my Braves cap tight, and, head lowered, walk briskly to Bonaventure. I’d spent the previous week in Florida chasing Hurricane Michael to write a series of stories on recovery efforts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, showering little and shaving less. I look the part of the hobo searching for a place to sleep; hard stares from Victory Heights residents confirm my shady appearance.
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 Muir’s “Eden of the dead,” as biographer James B. Hunt put it. 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.
Muir rode a schooner from Savannah to Fernandina, Florida, bypassing Georgia’s barrier islands. He, seemingly, was in a hurry to finish his hike to the Gulf. I love the islands and visit as often as possible. I’d also covered more hurricanes than I can remember and, before leaving The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2016, wanted one final, stormy hurrah. Paul Wolff — a Tybee legend and the Apostle of Climate Weirding, as I call him — offered me a place to ride out Hurricane Matthew. Later, we took the Tybee Climate Tour. — DC
I’d driven down from Atlanta two days before Matthew hit, talked my way past a cop enforcing (sort of) the mandatory evacuation of the island and quickly accepted Paul’s offer of his girlfriend’s sturdy house on the island’s north end. For company I had Mary’s mama cat and four babies, who mewled all night as the storm worsened, the water rose, and the winds topped 100 miles per hour. Roof tiles peeled from neighboring homes. The garage flooded, and seawater climbed halfway up the first-floor steps. The beach, on a good day, was 200 yards away. When the power went out, and I could no longer file updates for the newspaper, I hung out with the cats. We enjoyed each other’s company. I spent the brunt of the storm in a well-fortified bathroom.
It was the worst hurricane to hit Georgia in more than a century, though the winds weren’t terribly destructive. Eighteen inches of rain fell. The tidal gauge at nearby Fort Pulaski, hit 12 and a half feet — a record. Flooding typically starts at 10 feet. The ocean’s surge deposited a 10-foot sand dune on 19th Street. My rental car was flooded with ocean deck covering the engine and floorboards. Friends asked me to check on their houses.
Melissa Turner lives on Lewis Avenue, which runs between two branches of Horse Pen Creek. The Palm Terrace subdivision was built in the fifties and retains its Florida bungalow charm. As the storm approached, Melissa, a former Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter and editor, husband Thomas and two cats evacuated to Savannah. A state of emergency kept them from returning to Tybee. So I clambered over downed trees, around electric wires and through lake-sized puddles to reach her home. I peered inside windows and doors and found nothing amiss, the furniture seemingly in place in the darkened home. I texted Melissa the good news and left.
“We finally got to come back on the island three or four days later, and I walked up to the front door, opened it — and it was just devastating,” Melissa tells me. “Everything had been sitting and moldering in mud for four days. There was salt water on the tabletops. But Dan Chapman had said everything was fine.”
Paul didn’t want his Tybee Climate Tour 2020 to be a complete bummer, so on a bike trip together a few days later, he made a point of showcasing the good work of local officials, university researchers, nonprofit experts and dedicated volunteers in the fight against an aggrieved Mother Nature. Each Dyno-propelled stop highlighted a climate-mitigation project that promises to quell the rambunctiousness of high tides and killer storms. With two-thirds of Tybee possibly underwater by century’s end, the odds against success are long. But the commitment to try and save Tybee is undeniably strong.
As far back as 2011, city officials began discussions with Clark Alexander and others on the damages wrought by sea-level rise.
This was the Deep South and deeply red Georgia, remember, where most folks either dismissed climate change as a hoax or disputed its man-made origins. Governors routinely dodged my questions on climate. Then-U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who lives on another highly threatened barrier island 60 miles below Tybee, told me, “The scientific community is not in total agreement about whether mankind has been a contributing factor.”
In 2015, though, a remarkable report by Georgia’s natural resource agency declared climate change “a threat (that) presents unprecedented challenges.” A year later, the Tybee Island City Council, with Paul leading the charge, unanimously approved a Sea Level Rise Adaptation Plan with all sorts of short- and long-term fixes. Tybee was the first Georgia community to officially acknowledge climate change.
“We hope we’ll have time to adapt,” Paul told me at the time. “If we don’t want to be treading water or having our grandchildren growing gills, we definitely need to spend this money now instead of putting it off. The longer we procrastinate, the more expensive it will be.”
Muir chose not to hike from Savannah to Florida for reasons unknown. Instead, he boarded the Sylvan Shore and had a jolly jaunt through the barrier islands to Fernandina, Florida. Remarkably, the islands along the way look much the same today, a credit perhaps to far-sighted conservation work on behalf of Georgia. Yet problems remain, particularly the scourge of invasive species. — DC
Hunting doesn’t bother me. There’s enough game in the South’s woods and wetlands without jeopardizing any species’ survival, unlike a century ago when hunters blasted Bambi into near-extinction. And $1 billion a year in excise taxes on the sale of ammo, guns and gear goes for land and animal conservation. What Codey Elrod hunts, too, shouldn’t unduly bother the most ardent PETA supporter. He kills feral hogs, the alien, invasive and insatiable wild boars introduced to the Americas in the 1500s by Spanish explorers. Not only do the pigs Hoover up nuts, roots, flowers, snails, snakes, fruit and vegetable crops — costing billions of dollars in lost revenue annually — but they also eat eggs. On Ossabaw, that means the eggs of federally endangered loggerhead sea turtles that come ashore between May and September and dig nests on the state-protected island’s 13 miles of pristine beach. Codey, in fact, is the South’s only full-time, state-paid hog hunter. He is, officially, a “hog control technician” for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
“My job,” Codey says, “is to kill hogs.”
Something he does with deadly consistency. He has killed ten thousand hogs on Ossabaw, and yet they never disappear. Sows can have two litters a year, with maybe a dozen piglets at a time. Codey plays a real-life version of whack-a-mole every day. He’s Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, but with a gun.
“Taking a life is no small matter to me,” he says. “But they’re not native to this habitat. And they’re outcompeting other wildlife.”
In the pantheon of nasty Southern invasives, feral hogs rank near the top. But the dais is crowded. Every forest, waterway and farmer’s field has its alien nemesis. In 2016, President Obama signed an executive order defining an invasive species as “a nonnative organism whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human, animal or plant health.” They come from other countries or other regions of this country. Some estimates peg the number of invasive species at 50,000. Others say they’re the second biggest threat to endangered species after habitat loss. Climate change pushes the foreign plants, animals and pathogens farther north as once-unwelcoming climes become more hospitable. Daniel Simberloff, a conservation biologist at the University of Tennessee, says, “This is a huge problem that’s getting worse.”
Nowhere more so than in the South, a veritable hothouse of alien awfulness. Virtually every step along Muir’s route today is home to some unwelcome import. But Codey is making a difference: In the five years before Georgia hired a marksman, 31 percent of loggerhead turtle nests were attacked by hogs or other predators. In the last five years, only 10 percent were.
ON TO FLORIDA
What a difference a bellyful of gingerbread makes. John Muir, after five or six days hungry, alone and afraid in Bonaventure Cemetery, stumbled — “staggery and giddy” — into Savannah for yet another visit to the express office in hopes that his brother had wired the money. He had. Within minutes Muir had purchased “a jubilee of bread” and, a bit later, a full-fledged breakfast. His spirits soared; his mind, though, still seemed addled by his Bonaventure experience.
“Of the people of the states that I have now passed, I best like the Georgians,” Muir wrote.
The naturalist took stock of all the wonderful plants, flowers, and trees he had encountered along the way, including magnolias, tupelos, live oaks, Kentucky oaks, Spanish moss, long-leafed pines, palmettos, mimosas, bamboo and lilies. “Yet I still press eagerly on to Florida as the special home of the tropical plants I am looking for, and I feel sure I shall not be disappointed,” he wrote.
It’s a mystery why he sailed, instead of hiked, to Florida. The 100-mile stretch from Savannah to St. Marys, where a ferry would’ve readily carried him across the same-name river to Florida, is rich in flora with wide, plodding rivers feeding estuarine marshes. Perhaps he was scared of the jungle-like stretches of swamp and seclusion. Maybe he was tired of walking and wanted to get on with his life. Possibly he was feverish and shell-shocked from his Bonaventure stay. Muir never explains why he didn’t walk to Florida, and neither do his biographers. But what he missed — the maritime forests, the saltwater marshes, the barrier islands — has mesmerized nature lovers for centuries.
Dan Chapman is a writer, reporter and lover of the outdoors. He grew up in Washington, DC, and Tokyo, Japan, the son of a newspaperman and an English teacher. He worked for Congressional Quarterly, The Winston-Salem Journal, The Charlotte Observer and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He currently writes stories about conservation in the South for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is the author of A Road Running Southward: Following John Muir’s Journey through an Endangered Land.
Books can be purchased at booksellers throughout the U.S. or at islandpress.org/books/road-running-southward.