Win­ter land­scapes

The Covington News - - Opinion -

Win­ter is, un­equiv­o­cally, my fa­vorite time of the year. Of course, I re­al­ize that the win­ters I’m used to as a life­long Ge­or­gia res­i­dent are gen­er­ally just mild cold snaps com­pared to what the rest of the na­tion ex­pe­ri­ences. For ex­am­ple, a good friend up in cen­tral Michi­gan is not overly fond of win­ter, given that of­ten­times they’ve not re­ally dug out from the last snow up there be­fore the next round has be­gun.

None­the­less, for me, right here in Ge­or­gia, win­ter is ab­so­lutely the best time to be alive on the planet. More of­ten than not, days dawn crisp and clear, with cobalt blue skies. The leaves are gone from the hard­woods, and as Earth makes the hard turn at one end of our foot­ball- shaped or­bit around the Sun, the shad­ows fall­ing from far south­ward cast a dis­tinc­tively dif­fer­ent view upon the ge­og­ra­phy of this spe­cial place.

I’ve learned a lot about the lay of the land over half a cen­tury of Ge­or­gia win­ters. It seems to me that there’s a di­rect re­la­tion­ship be­tween the land and the peo­ple, even though some folks don’t seem to be aware of how much the land af­fects them.

I be­came fas­ci­nated with maps and ge­og­ra­phy as a youth. It was a to­tally dif­fer­ent day and age, when travel was pretty much re­served for those who could af­ford it. And as we were so poor we couldn’t pay at­ten­tion, I did my trav­el­ing vi­car­i­ously, im­mers­ing my­self in read­ing about ex­otic lo­ca­tions and study­ing maps. I tra­versed the Hi­malayas with Sir Ed­mund Hil­lary, flew to the poles with Wi­ley Post and ex­plored the ocean depths with Jac­ques Cousteau. I spent hours por­ing over maps in the school li­brary and still have a tough time dis­card­ing an old map.

Grow­ing up in a small town in the 1960s in rural Ge­or­gia went a long way to­ward cul­ti­vat­ing my love for the land. As a Boy Scout, I went on count­less hikes and learned how to find my way with a map and a com­pass. Our Scout Mas­ter taught us to find our way even with­out map or com­pass: you just fol­low the lay of the land. Fol­low run­ning wa­ter, or look at which side of the tree moss grows on to ap­prox­i­mate true north. The land will tell you what to do, if you’ll just let it.

Maybe that’s why I’d rather take a road map and find my own way with­out ask­ing di­rec­tions, much to my wife’s cha­grin. But, alas, I di­gress.

At any rate, as a youth I learned to ap­pre­ci­ate the fact that my na­tive Ge­or­gia had an abun­dance of un­spoiled land, clean air and fresh wa­ter. And thus, as I grew older, win­ter came to be a time when be­ing out­doors was a spe­cial time for just me and the land. I learned to leave it like I found it, to pack out my trash and to pre­serve na­ture for the next per­son to en­joy. Well, for more than 30 years now, New­ton County has been home to me. In the win­ter, I love to grab a warm jacket and gloves, take the doors off the Jeep, turn the heat up and ex­plore dirt roads and re­mote out­reaches of the county. I’ve traced New­ton’s borders on County Line Road, and have learned why a goo fam­ily friend named his house on Dear­ing Street “ Ridge­line.” Dear­ing Street sits atop the ridge which di­vides the Yel­low River and Al­covy River wa­ter­sheds, you see. The rain fall­ing on the west side of Dear­ing ends up in the Yel­low River, while rain across the street joins the Al­covy.

Over time, as an air­line em­ployee with vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited travel avail­able to me, I’ve been able to visit some of those ex­otic places I read about and vis­ited vi­car­i­ously with maps when I was a kid. Some places have risen to great­ness, and oth­ers have fallen prey to over­crowd­ing.

The cru­cial dif­fer­ence, in ev­ery case, came down to the peo­ple pro­tect­ing their land from de­vel­op­ment, or cav­ing in to al­low un­fet­tered growth. It’s ab­so­lutely trans­par­ent, for any­one with eyes to see. Folks who love the land, whose fam­i­lies have been in a place for gen­er­a­tions, and who have a sense of be­long­ing to the place where they’ve put their roots down, act a whole lot dif­fer­ent than those who pop in for a lit­tle while, chew up the re­sources while mak­ing a lot of noise about what’s wrong with the place, and then — like the chaff — are driven away by the winds of change.

Ge­or­gia was once an idyllic place, but as mil­lions of folks moved here, de­vel­op­ers — by and large — were all too will­ing to sac­ri­fice the land­scape for just one more sub­di­vi­sion. I’ve seen it too many times to be­la­bor the ob­vi­ous, and there are no words to con­vey the heart­break this na­tive Ge­or­gian feels when I fly into At­lanta on a crys­tal clear day and see cookie- cut­ter sub­di­vi­sions carv­ing up the land, like a can­cer spread­ing.

And that tells me all I need to know about the de­vel­op­ers, and the politi­cians who al­low the de­vel­op­ers to con­tinue un­abated.

I find my­self think­ing that those who don’t re­spect the land must not re­spect much of any­thing. Greed, the pur­suit of the almighty dol­lar, is the driv­ing fac­tor. And slowly, in­ex­orably, what was once a place with un­spoiled views, clean air and an abun­dance of fresh wa­ter turns into just an­other place strug­gling with en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues.

De­vel­op­ers don’t seem to mind, as some ap­pear reg­u­larly in the news as they pay fine af­ter fine for re­peated vi­o­la­tions. But you won’t find a de­vel­oper liv­ing down­stream of At­lanta, ei­ther.

The only folks who suf­fer are those who love the land, who are tied to it. They’re the ones who know the peace of a win­ter af­ter­noon in the coun­try­side, of walk­ing in the woods, of fol­low­ing a river, of hear­ing that spe­cial sound the wind makes only in the win­ter as it sings through bare tree limbs, and of the spec­tac­u­lar pic­tures formed by those bar­ren trees against the sky, or a sun­set, which defy de­scrip­tion.

Ev­ery once in a while, along about sun­set, I re­flect upon a spe­cial time when our fam­ily shared an en­tire af­ter­noon sit­ting on the side of a moun­tain at In­spi­ra­tion Point just to watch the sun set over the Yosemite Val­ley. We had the lux­ury of a few days there, and while tourists would hop out of their cars and snap pic­tures, get back in their cars and roar off, we were able to watch the changes in that ma­jes­tic val­ley over the course of the af­ter­noon. So sad, I told our chil­dren, that peo­ple would travel so far to see some­thing, and then not take the time ac­tu­ally to look at it. They had to get home and de­velop their pho­to­graphs to see what they’d gone to see.

So, when I’m in a re­flec­tive mood, I’ll jump in the Jeep and head out to a spot near the Char­lie El­liott Wildlife Cen­ter, and I’ll watch the sun set over New­ton Ridge. It ranks right up there with watch­ing that big orange ball settle into the Pa­cific Ocean from my fa­vorite van­tage point at the Muir Beach Over­look, a lit­tle- known spot in Marin County north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Right af­ter the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in De­cem­ber of 1941, some hastily- con­trived gun em­place­ments were carved into the cliff there. On a clear day you can see all the way south to Land’s End, and all the way north to Ore­gon.

So when I com­pare a GA. High­way 11, Char­lie El­liott, New­ton County sun­set to the ones I’ve seen from the Muir Beach Over­look, I’m telling you some­thing.

You can’t just watch the sun set in a hurry, you see. It’ll take a few hours, if you want to do it right. As you sit there, a lit­tle closer to na­ture, you’ll no­tice how the wa­ter drains from the place, from which di­rec­tion the weather mostly moves, how the length­en­ing shad­ows trans­form the land­scape and how the folks who have been there over time re­gard the land. And as you watch, you have time to think, and to lis­ten, and that’s when the magic hap­pens. Some­times it’s al­most im­me­di­ate; some­times it takes a lit­tle while. But at some point, as you’re tak­ing it all in, a peace set­tles upon you and some in­ef­fa­ble truth warms you from within.

Granted, watch­ing the sun set doesn’t, in and of it­self, solve the world’s prob­lems. But just as mu­sic says things which can­not be put into words, a win­ter land­scape in Ge­or­gia goes a long way to­ward telling me things I need to hear.

I’ll see you out on Ga. High­way 11.

Nat Har­well

Colum­nist

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