The Gnat Line

Long before the longleaf pine, long before the wiregrass, before the bobwhite quail, or the sea of cotton, the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean reached up into middle Georgia. The ancient shoreline ran southwest along a 20-mile wide band stretching from present day Augusta, through Milledgeville, Macon, and on to Columbus at the edge of Alabama. Along the length of this band, six different rivers drop rapidly over small waterfalls as the water seeks its level along the swift change in elevation. This gives the 20-mile wide band its common name, the Fall Line. After the falls, the rivers begin to spread out into a series of wide, winding floodplains created by the constant washing away of the flat, sandy land along those streams.

               The Fall Line separates the state’s two largest physiographic regions—The Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. I spent my youth traveling back and forth across the Fall Line after my parents’ marriage ended. A child in such a situation may be pitied by some, being shuffled back and forth from one parent to another. But, to their credit, my parents both assured me of their affections and made me feel that I belonged no matter where I was. And where I belonged was Georgia. For a kid who liked to observe, these perpetual migrations had their advantages. The constant driving back and forth allowed me to develop a finely tuned sense of these two distinct regions of the state at an early age. I can remember riding in the back seat of a long LTD or Thunderbird, without a seatbelt in those days and looking out the window as the green land passed by.

               The further north we went, towards Coweta County, the higher the hills rose, the dirt changed color, there were more oaks and hickories, and fewer pines. I didn’t know specifically what I was looking at but I could recognize the change. I could smell the metallic odor of the red clay, once we got to Manchester. Returning south towards Crisp County, the cotton and peanut fields began to rise up out of the pines around Butler. There were more creeks to cross, fewer houses, and somewhere along the way, if we stopped with the windows down on a warm day, the car filled with gnats.

               For some of us, the fall line goes by a more fitting and informal moniker, the Gnat Line. After you reach that ancient shoreline and the land levels out and the clay turns to sand, the conditions are just right to suit one of the earth’s most vexing creatures, known to the scientific community as Liohippelates (there are two common species—L. pusio, occurring year round and L. bishoppi, occurring from February through September), commonly known as eye gnats. These creatures cause no physical harm whatsoever—-at least not directly. But they seek out any orifice available, with particular focus on one’s eyes, nose, ears, mouth, and notably, the rear ends of unsuspecting dogs and other animals, gnats being non-discriminating creatures. They seem attracted to sweat so that any exertion is made doubly woeful in their company.  Their swarms are a constant presence in warm weather and humid air, and they are impossible to escape. The annoyance they bring about cannot be adequately described to the uninitiated and has been known to send people running for lack of a cliff or high rise to jump from, the nearest body of water. Gnats prefer the Georgia Coastal Plain for its frequently turned, sandy earth and the rapid decay of its organic matter in the humid heat, all of which the region has in spades. Given all this nuisance, I for one, am thankful for the humble gnat. It is one of our most effective weapons of defense.

               Not enough thought is given here to the people that came before Europeans pushed their way into the wilderness of the Coastal Plain. The exception to that rule may be found in those of us who, from time to time, find remnants of that old civilization in the turned fields, where pottery shards and multiple variations of triangular projectile points lie buried in the loam. They are still found following heavy rains in the late spring when the fields are tilled and left clean in preparation for planting. The rains wash the dirt away, uncovering these beacons from a forgotten time, provoking wonder at all the land has seen. This is the land of the Muscogee people, also known as the lower Creeks, and before that the Hitchiti, Oconee, Miccosukee, Apalachee, Timucua, Guale, and the Yamasee, many of which were integrated into the Creek Confederacy or fled south to Florida to escape the European encroachment. Their ancestral land was “officially” ceded away over the course of 52 years in a series of ever-corrupted treaties that culminated in their long and sorrowful Trail of Tears in the 1830’s.

               After Oglethorpe settled Savannah in 1733, the European population spread outward to the West only a short distance from the Coast and North into the Piedmont. The vast interior Coastal Plain remained largely uninhabited by Europeans for nearly another hundred years and was considered, by most accounts, to be suited only for livestock grazing and hunting, at best. They thought it unfit for human habitation, a wasteland of pine barrens, sterile sand, swamps, and insect plagues.

               By the time the Muscogee people were forcibly removed, the plunder had begun. Land lotteries were held from 1805-1833 to finish the carving up of the Coastal Plain. The game was driven away by the earliest pioneers. As it always does, industry followed settlement. The first region of the interior Coastal Plain to bear the weight of European settlement were the more rolling, loamy plains around the Flint River in the far Western section where the soils were considered suitable for farming. The economy in this part of the world has always been centered upon the land. The first wealth produced in the Coastal Plain was in the form of timber and turpentine.

               The vast virgin longleaf pine forests were turned into lumber, railroad ties, rosin for easing the harshness of lye soap, and turpentine for lamp oil, medicine, paints, and later, rubber. Smelting of the pine logs created tar and pitch for the water-proofing of ships and their ropes, for axle grease, and tar paper. It was dirty work and a harsh life. Workers tapped the trees for their sap by cutting cat faces into the trees in winter and collected the sap in spring, distilling it in the woods where they worked over log fires and copper kettles. This was always a short-term extractive industry and operations had to move every 2-3 years to find trees with more plentiful sap. After the trees were tapped out, they were usually cut for timber and then the land was turned under the plow for cotton, corn, and tobacco, Feral cattle and hogs roamed the remaining woodlands feeding on what browse they could find for much of the year. When guano and later, synthetic fertilizers were applied to the sandy land, it responded well in its bounty.

               Little is found in the history books about life in the Coastal Plain during the early time of European settlement.  Perhaps this lack of a full history has something to do with why so few seem to care much about what goes on here now. Even in our current time, the Coastal Plain of Georgia is little discussed with the exception of the 115 mile strip along the Atlantic Coast from Savannah to Cumberland Island. Long a playground for the wealthy and more recently a tourism destination, the Georgia coast is a beautiful stretch of country to be sure. A storied land with lots of beauty. Full of gnarled live oaks, sand dunes, salt marsh, cobblestone streets, revolutionary battles, wild horses, famous ghosts, architecture, and Forrest Gump.

But, the interior Coastal Plain has largely kept its stories to itself aside from the works of people like Harry Crews, Janisse Ray, and Mac Hyman. Perhaps no literary work grasps the reality of life in the backwoods of South Georgia during the early years as well as Caroline Miller’s 1934 Pulitzer-winning Novel, “Lamb in His Bosom”, a story of the struggles of an impoverished couple carving a life from the wilderness of south Georgia two decades before the Civil War. It is a world of ox carts, rafting logs downriver, panthers (painters), and water moccasins. The type of story that has become largely irrelevant to most in the 21st Century.

Prior to the railroads, the Fall line became the terminus of navigation on the rivers, which is why the cities of Augusta, Milledgeville, Macon, Columbus, and others sprang up along its route. The resources harvested from the Coastal Plain were unloaded here and hauled North overland. Settlement of the interior Georgia Coastal Plain into the place we know today began with the railroads. The Central of Georgia was the first railroad to access the Coastal Plain, completed from Savannah to Macon in 1843. Through the 1840’s it expanded its lines reaching West to Columbus, deep into South Georgia, and North to Atlanta. This allowed the timber, Naval supplies, and cotton to reach their markets more efficiently and small towns began to pop up all along the routes of the various railroads and short lines.

Today, the population of the Georgia Coastal Plain remains relatively sparse compared to that above the Fall Line and most of us here prefer it that way. It is still a green, rural land, where even under the influence of 21st Century consumer culture, people continue to live a life tied to the earth. The economy here is still based on agriculture. The agriculture here is still largely dictated by the land itself as opposed to the apocalyptic industrial domination of the land found in a place like California’s Central Valley. I have seen the great Central Valley, which is impressive to be sure, but it is a wasteland of industries growing food at the expense of everything around it and even at the expense of more remarkable places thousands of miles away from it.

Here in the Coastal Plain, the agriculture has more ambience. It is more elegant and picturesque. It marries its woods and forests and fields with little communities and small towns. Agriculture here more closely fits the land, but the quality of life be damned, high-speed, industrial way of thinking has not been kept entirely at bay here. It has crept into our world. In my youth, the fields were still relatively small. They were surrounded by fence-lines and hedgerows of thicket. There were hardwood draws lining the folds of the land where it naturally drained to the creeks, where the soil remained generally water-logged and unsuitable for farming. There was a place left for that part of the world not used by man. It was generally recognized that this was the way life fit together here.

But, the fields have grown, the fences and hedgerows are gone, and with them such things of immeasurable value as the bobwhite quail, once so abundant that a man could take a walk with his bird dog after work and find 2-3 coveys before supper. In their place, irrigation pivots now crawl over land that should never have seen a plow. Land that given a rainy period will flood of its own accord. The farmer will be out his crop and the land will be out its hedgerows quail, trees and the unfathomably complex life under their canopies that keeps everything else running along. The urban-industrial mentality that drives people to work against their own interest simply to keep their heads above water has found us.

I’m old enough to understand that change is inevitable. Change is what perpetuates life. We must be accepting of its influence. But, there is good change and there is bad change. There are those, even here, who will scoff at my remarks and say, that’s just “progress”. And in the short term they may be right, but where would we be today if the original settlers of this land had been given the knowledge and technology to do the things we are capable of doing now? You only have to drive North to discover the answer to this question. And no one I know who chooses to live in South Georgia prefers the city of Atlanta and its insanity to life here.

The cancerous mass of concrete, steel, unrestrained, and ill-advised development that is the conglomeration known as metropolitan Atlanta now stretches the length of the I-75 corridor, nearly uninterrupted from at least Acworth (but more likely Chattanooga) to Macon, and East to West from Braselton to Newnan along a considerable breadth of I-85. Nearly everything in between has been swallowed and regurgitated back up in a coating of concrete and asphalt by the megalopolis. By the rough estimate of the nifty little app on my techno-industrial iPhone, that’s an area of over 4000 square miles more or less, or 2.7 million acres. And I consider that to be on the conservative side.

Evidence of this can be easily observed in the pattern of traffic along I-75 from Atlanta southward. Escaping the bowels of Atlanta is quite literally Hell on asphalt. Aggressive, weaving, bumper to bumper traffic at insane speeds punctuated by abrupt stops and mind-numbing back-ups at various exits is the norm. Until the last ten years or so, this was usually only the case during rush hour as people traveled in and out of the city to and from their suburban homes morning and evening for work. Today, it matters not the day or the hour, heavy traffic is a way of life there.

As one drives south, further away from Atlanta, the traffic, though still noticeable, begins to dissipate a bit somewhere around Forsyth. Once past Macon, it lessens further, and around Warner Robins, the flow of traffic becomes largely unimpeded, as the only cars remaining are those driven by people who are trying to get to even worse places like Orlando, Tampa, or heaven forbid, Miami, along with those few, like me, simply seeking the solace of a return to home in the blessedly rural Georgia Coastal Plain.

I have been to large cities. Places like London, Madrid, New York, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Brisbane, San Francisco, Seattle, Lima, Hong Kong, Shanghai. I enjoyed my time in these places for the most part, and while they each have their own historical and cultural merits, any more than 72 hours in any city has me longing for home. The Coastal Plain is a land of hidden treasures. It is a place where one can drive 10 miles in 10 minutes. You can walk outside and smell grass, pine needles, the dirt of freshly turned fields, honeysuckle. People still plant vegetable gardens each spring. We have brown-headed nuthatches in the pines, watermelons in the fields, and peanuts under the dirt. It is a place where you can walk into a barber shop and still hear old men talk about farming while the barber complains about the fox that has been after his chickens.

Brick faced hardware stores still exist in little downtowns where a person can buy bearings and hydraulic hoses for a peanut combine as easily as a flap for a toilet bowl, a padlock, or a Case pocket knife. This is a place where men still carry pocket knives, not as weapons, by the way, but as a tool for accomplishing the tasks of daily life. We have sweetbay and southern magnolias, sawtooth palmettos, fox squirrels, red buckeye, sandhill cranes, TiTi bushes, boiled peanuts, diamondback rattlesnakes, timber rattlesnakes, wax myrtles, artesian wells, tupelo trees, gopher tortoises, mole skinks, resurrection fern, sweet tea, wiregrass, alligators, trilliums, wild azaleas, wood storks, and Spanish moss.

The Georgia Coastal Plain accounts for 60% of the state’s land mass and only 28% of its population. Those sound like admirable numbers to me, for the time being. But with demographics like that, the plunderers will come again.

One of our greatest treasures is an abundant water source found in a series of aquifers bound by permeable sediments and limestone dating back 150 million years to the Cretaceous period. In addition, many of our streams have eroded into these aquifers, and groundwater discharges into the streams in places. The shallowest of these aquifers are frequently recharged by the abundant rains that fall on our soils throughout the year. To date, the greatest pressure on these aquifers has been agriculture and while significant, there has been no little effort expended to increase the efficiency with which farms use water. Farmers here, as well as anybody, know its value.

As that pressure on water resources increases through more intensive agriculture, more industry, and population growth, this abundant resource may become less abundant. It is easy to see from the way people have poured into and over-populated much of the Piedmont during the course of my lifetime, what fate awaits the Coastal Plain of Georgia.

When the plunderers come again, as they surely will, what will be left to protect this place? I expect it could be analogous to the raping of the coal mining country of Appalachia. Wealthy investment groups will invest their money here and while their boards, those who make the decisions, may briefly set foot in our gnat-infested land, they will surely not deign to live here. Instead they will mine our resources-our water, our open spaces, our soils, because that is all there is. They will do it in the name of progress as the communities and towns, already in decline, die as the young people leave and the land is sold as the only thing of value. It is an old story. It is already happening.

But, maybe there’s another way. As long as agriculture can remain economically viable here and it can be conducted in the right manner, perhaps the plunder can be held back. But, agriculture has always teetered upon a thin line. Our natural resources are the primary wealth here. Recently, the National Park Service has shown interest in turning a large tract of land along the Fall line into a National Park, expanding the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park into Georgia’s first National Park.

The 2000 acre National Historic Park near Macon contains a series of mounds built thousands of years ago by the people who then inhabited the area. It tells the largely forgotten story of the Muscogee nation. The proposed expansion would take in nearly 70,000 acres of undeveloped conservation land along a 60 mile stretch of the Ocmulgee River. It will have “Preserve” added to its name to allow for recreational hunting and fishing, generating the local support needed. The planning of the proposed park is also including guidance from the Muscogee people themselves. This is the type of development the Coastal Plain needs. Development which highlights, values, and benefits the natural resources of the region rather than plunder them.

In his essay entitled “The Land Ethic”, Aldo Leopold wrote “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” I don’t have all the answers for how best to protect the Georgia Coastal Plain from becoming another paved-over, generic, commercial landscape. But I think Aldo Leopold’s method of discernement, a good one. Perhaps such a large tract of undeveloped land as that proposed for the Ocmulgee Mounds National Park can help alter the fate of the Coastal Plain for the better.  Short of that, we still have the gnat. The day they discover how to eradicate that humble creature, we are done for. Long live the gnat!

2 thoughts on “The Gnat Line

  1. When I lived on Skidaway, another resident said we should be thankful for the gnats and humidity, otherwise we couldn’t afford to live there. You should check out Amy Blackmar’s writings. She has a book titled, “Fall Line.” Also, one of the scary things about this area is there are valuable rare metals and groups have been trying to mine the sand just north of the Okefenokee Swamp (another treasure of the area).


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