Writings of John Muir
Volume 1 - Chapter III. Through
the River Country of Georgia
September 23. Am now fairly
out of the mountains. Thus far the climate has not changed in any marked
degree, the decrease in latitude being balanced by the increase in altitude.
These mountains are highways on which northern plants may extend their
colonies southward. The plants of the North and of the South have many minor
places of meeting along the way I have traveled: but it is here on the
southern slope of the Alleghanies that the greatest number of hardy,
enterprising representatives of the two climates are assembled.
Passed the comfortable,
finely shaded little town of Gainesville. 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. This is the first truly southern stream I have
At night I reached the home
of a young man with whom I had worked in Indiana, Mr. Prater. He was down
here on a visit to his father and mother. This was a plain backwoods family,
living out of sight among knobby timbered hillocks not far from the river.
The evening was passed in mixed conversation on southern and northern
September 4. Spent this day
with Mr. Prater, sailing on the Chattahoochee, feasting on grapes that had
dropped from the overhanging vines. This remarkable species of wild grape
has a stout stem, sometimes five or six inches in diameter, smooth bark and
hard wood, quite unlike any other wild or cultivated grapevine that I have
seen. The grapes are very large, some of them nearly an inch in diameter,
globular and fine-flavored. Usually there are but three or four berries in a
cluster, and when mature they drop off instead of decaying on the vine.
Those which fall into the river are often found in large quantities in the
eddies along the bank, where they are collected by men in boats and
sometimes made into wine. I think another name for this grape is the
Scuppernong, [The old Indian name for the southern species of fox-grape,
Vitis rotund ifolia, which Muir describes here. Wood's Botany listed it as
Vitis vulpina L. and remarks, "The variety called "Scuppernong" is quite
common in southern gardens."] though called "musca.dine" here.
Besides sailing on the river,
we had a long walk among the plant bowers and tangles of the Chattahoochee
September 25. Bade good-bye
to this friendly family. Mr. Prater accompanied me a short distance from the
house and warned me over and over again to be on the outlook for
rattlesnakes. They are now leaving the damp lowlands, he told me, so that
the danger is much greater because they are on their travels. Thus warned, I
set out for Savannah, but got lost in the vine-fenced hills and hollows of
the river bottom. Was unable to find the ford to which I had been directed
by Mr. Prater.
I then determined to push on
southward regardless of roads and fords. After repeated failures I succeeded
in finding a place on the river bank where I could force my way into the
stream through the vine-tangles. I succeeded in crossing the river by wading
and swimming, careless of wetting, knowing that I would soon dry in the hot
Out near the middle of the
river I found great difficulty in resisting the rapid current. Though I
braced myself with a stout stick, I was at length carried away in spite of
all my efforts. But I succeeded in swimming to the shallows on the farther
side, luckily caught hold of a rock, and after a rest swam and waded ashore.
Dragging myself up the steep bank by the overhanging vines, I spread out
myself, my paper money, and my plants to dry.
Debated with myself whether
to proceed down the river valley until I could buy a boat, or lumber to make
one, for a sail instead of a march through Georgia. I was intoxicated with
the beauty of these glorious river banks, which I fancied might increase in
grandeur as I approached the sea. But I finally concluded that such a
pleasure sail would be less profitable than a walk, and so sauntered on
southward as soon as I was dry. Rattlesnakes abundant. Lodged at a
farmhouse. Found a few tropical plants in the garden.
Cotton is the principal crop
hereabouts, and picking is now going on merrily. Only the lower bolls are
now ripe. Those higher on the plants are green and unopened. Higher still,
there are buds and flowers, some of which, if the plants be thrifty and the
season favorable, will continue to produce ripe bolls until January.
The negroes are easy-going
and merry, making a great deal of noise and doing little work. One energetic
white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a
dozen Sambos and Sallies. The forest here is almost entirely made up of
dim-green, knotty, sparsely planted pines. The soil is mostly white,
September 26. Reached Athens
in the afternoon, a remarkably beautiful and aristocratic town, containing
many classic and magnificent mansions of wealthy planters, who formerly
owned large negro-stocked plantations in the best cotton and sugar regions
farther south. Unmistakable marks of culture and refinement, as well as
wealth, were everywhere apparent. This is the most beautiful town I have
seen on the journey, so far, and the only one in the South that I would like
The negroes here have been
well trained and are extremely polite. When they come in sight of a white
man on the road, off go their hats, even at a distance of forty or fifty
yards, and they walk bare-headed until he is out of sight.
September 27. Long zigzag
walk amid the old plantations, a few of which are still cultivated in the
old way by the same negroes that worked them before the war, and who still
occupy their former "quarters." They are now paid seven to ten dollars a
The weather is very hot on
these sandy, lightly shaded, lowland levels. When very thirsty I discovered
a beautiful spring in a sandstone basin overhung with shady bushes and
vines, where I enjoyed to the utmost the blessing of pure cold water.
Discovered here a fine southern fern, some new grasses, etc. Fancied that I
might have been directed here by Providence, while fainting with thirst. It
is not often hereabouts that the joys of cool water, cool shade, and rare
plants are so delightfully combined.
Witnessed the most gorgeous
sunset I ever enjoyed in this bright world of light. The sunny South is
indeed sunny. Was directed by a very civil negro to lodgings for the night.
Daily bread hereabouts means sweet potatoes and rusty bacon.
September 28. The water oak
is abundant on stream banks and in damp hollows. Grasses are becoming tall
and cane-like and do not cover the ground with their leaves as at the North.
Strange plants are crowding about me now. Scarce a familiar face appears
among all the flowers of the day's walk.
September 29. To-day I met a
magnificent grass, ten or twelve feet in stature, with a superb panicle of
glossy purple flowers. Its leaves, too, are of princely mould and
dimensions. Its home is in sunny meadows and along the wet borders of slow
streams and swamps. It seems to be fully aware of its high rank, and waves
with the grace and solemn majesty of a mountain pine. I wish I could place
one of these regal plants among the grass settlements of our Western
prairies. Surely every panicle would wave and bow in joyous allegiance and
acknowledge their king.
September 30. Between Tomson
and Augusta I found many new and beautiful grasses, tall gerardias, liatris,
club mosses, etc. Here, too, is the northern limit of the remarkable
long-leafed pine, a tree from sixty to seventy feet in height, from twenty
to thirty inches in diameter, with leaves ten to fifteen inches long, in
dense radiant masses at the ends of the naked branches. The wood is strong,
hard, and very resinous. It makes excellent ship spars, bridge timbers, and
flooring. Much of it is shipped to the West India Islands, New York, and
The seedlings, five or six
years old, are very striking objects to one from the North, consisting, as
they do, of the straight leafless stem, surmounted by a crown of deep green
leaves, arching and spreading like a palm. Children fancy that they resemble
brooms, and use them as such in their picnic play-houses. Pinus palustris is
most abundant in Georgia and Florida.
The sandy soil here is
sparingly seamed with rolled quartz pebbles and clay. Denudation, going on
slowly, allows the thorough removal of these clay seams, leaving only the
sand. Notwithstanding the sandiness of the soil, much of the surface of the
country is covered with standing water, which is easily accounted for by the
presence of the above-mentioned impermeable seams.
Traveled to-day more than
forty miles without dinner or supper. No family would receive me, so I had
to push on to Augusta. Went hungry to bed and awoke with a sore stomach —
sore, I suppose, from its walls rubbing on each other without anything to
grind. A negro kindly directed me to the best hotel, called, I think, the
Planter's. Got a good bed for a dollar.
October 1. Found a cheap
breakfast in a market-place; then set off along the Savannah River to
Savannah. Splendid grasses and rich, dense, vine-clad forests. Muscadine
grapes in cart-loads. Asters and solidagoes becoming scarce. Carices
[sedges] quite rare. Leguminous plants abundant. A species of passion flower
is common, reaching back into Tennessee. It is here called "apricot vine,"
has a superb flower, and the most delicious fruit I have ever eaten.
The pomegranate is cultivated
here. The fruit is about the size of an orange, has a thick, tough skin, and
when opened resembles a many-chambered box full of translucent purple
Toward evening I came to the
country of one of the most striking of southern plants, the so-called "Long
Moss" or Spanish Moss [Tillandsia], though it is a flowering plant and
belongs to the same family as the pineapple [Bromelworts]. The trees
hereabouts have all their branches draped with it, producing a remarkable
Here, too, I found an
impenetrable cypress swamp. This remarkable tree, called cypress, is a
taxodium, grows large and high, and is remarkable for its flat crown. The
whole forest seems almost level on the top, as if each tree had grown up
against a ceiling, or had been rolled while growing. This taxodium is the
only level-topped tree that I have seen. The branches, though spreading, are
careful not to pass each other, and stop suddenly on reaching the general
level, as if they had grown up against a ceiling.
The groves and thickets of
smaller trees are full of blooming evergreen vines. These vines are not
arranged in separate groups, or in delicate wreaths, but in bossy walls and
heavy, mound-like heaps and banks. Am made to feel that I am now in a
strange land. I know hardly any of the plants, but few of the birds, and I
am unable to see the country for the solemn, dark, mysterious cypress woods
which cover everything.
The winds are full of strange
sounds, making one feel far from the people and plants and fruitful fields
of home. Night is coming on and I am filled with indescribable loneliness.
Felt feverish; bathed in a black, silent stream; nervously watchful for
alligators. Obtained lodging in a planter's house among cotton fields.
Although the family seemed to be pretty well-off, the only light in the
house was bits of pitch-pine wood burned in the fireplace.
October 2. In the low bottom
forest of the Savannah River. Very busy with new specimens. Most
'exquisitely planned wrecks of Agrostis scabra [Rough Hair Grass]. Pines in
glorious array with open, welcoming, approachable plants.
Met a young African with whom
I had a long talk. Was amused with his eloquent narrative of coon hunting,
alligators, and many superstitions. He showed me a place where a railroad
train had run off the track, and assured me that the ghosts of the killed
may be seen every dark night.
Had a long walk after
sundown. At last was received at the house of Dr. Perkins. Saw Cape Jasmine
[Gardenia florida] in the garden. Heard long recitals of war happenings,
discussions of the slave question, and Northern politics; a thoroughly
characteristic Southern family, refined in manners and kind, but immovably
prejudiced on everything connected with slavery.
The family table was unlike
any I ever saw before. It was circular, and the central part of it revolved.
When any one wished to be helped, he placed his plate on the revolving part,
which was whirled around to the host, and then whirled back with its new
load. Thus every plate was revolved into place, without the assistance of
any of the family.
October 3. In "pine barrens"
most of the day. Low, level, sandy tracts; the pines wide apart; the sunny
spaces between, full of beautiful abounding grasses, liatris, long,
wand-like solidago, saw-palmettoes, etc., covering the ground in garden
style. Here I sauntered in delightful freedom, meeting none of the
cat-clawed vines, or shrubs, of the alluvial bottoms. Dwarf live-oaks
Toward evening I arrived at
the home of Mr. Cameron, a wealthy planter, who had large bands of slaves at
work in his cotton fields. They still call him "Massa." He tells me that
labor costs him less now than it did before the emancipation of the negroes.
When I arrived I found him busily engaged in scouring the rust off some
cotton-gin saws which had been lying for months at the bottom of his
mill-pond to prevent Sherman's "bummers" from destroying them. The most
valuable parts of the gristmill and cotton-press were hidden in the same
way. "If Bill Sherman," he said, "should come down now without his army, he
would never go back."
When I asked him if he could
give me food and lodging for the night he said, "No, no, we have no
accommodations for travelers." I said, "But I am traveling as a botanist and
either have to find lodgings when night overtakes me or lie outdoors, which
I often have had to do in my long walk from Indiana. But you see that the
country here is very swampy; if you will at least sell me a piece of bread,
and give me a drink at your well, I shall have to look around for a dry spot
to lie down on."
Then, asking me a few
questions, and narrowly examining me, he said, "Well, it is barely possible
that we may find a place for you, and if you will come to the house I will
ask my wife." Evidently he was cautious to get his wife's opinion of the
kind of creature I was before committing himself to hospitality. He halted
me at the door and called out his wife, a fine-looking woman, who also
questioned me narrowly as to my object in coming so far down through the
South, so soon after the war. She said to her husband that she thought they
could, perhaps, give me a place to sleep.
After supper, as we sat by
the fire talking on my favorite subject of botany, I described the country I
had passed through, its botanical character, etc. Then, evidently, all doubt
as to my being a decent man vanished, and they both said that they wouldn't
for anything have turned me away; but I must excuse their caution, for
perhaps fewer than one in a hundred, who passed through this unfrequented
part of the country, were to be relied upon. "Only a short time ago we
entertained a man who was well-spoken and well-dressed, and he vanished some
time during the night with some valuable silverware."
Mr. Cameron told me that when
I arrived he tried me for a Mason, and finding that I was not a Mason he
wondered still more that I would venture into the country without being able
to gain the assistance of brother Masons in these troublous times.
"Young man," he said, after
hearing my talks on botany, "I see that your hobby is botany. My hobby is
electricity. I believe that the time is coming, though we may not live to
see it, when that mysterious power or force, used now only for telegraphy,
will eventually supply the power for running railroad trains and steamships,
for lighting, and, in a word, electricity will do all the work of the
Many times since then I have
thought of the wonderfully correct vision of this Georgia planter, so far in
advance of almost everybody else in the world. Already nearly all that he
foresaw has been accomplished, and the use of electricity is being extended
more and more every year.
October 4. New plants
constantly appearing. All day in dense, wet, dark, mysterious forest of
October 5. Saw the stately
banana for the first time, growing luxuriantly in the wayside gardens. At
night with a very pleasant, intelligent Savannah family, but as usual was
admitted only after I had undergone a severe course of questioning.
October 6. Immense swamps,
still more completely fenced and darkened, that are never ruffled with winds
or scorched with drought. Many of them seem to be thoroughly aquatic.
October 7. Impenetrable
taxodium swamp, seemingly boundless. The silvery skeins of tillandsia
becoming longer and more abundant. Passed the night with a very pleasant
family of Georgians, after the usual questions and cross questions.
October 8. Found the first
woody compositae, a most notable discovery. Took them to be such at a
considerable distance. Almost all trees and shrubs are evergreens here with
thick polished leaves. Magnolia grandifiora becoming common. A magnificent
tree in fruit and foliage as well as in flower. Near Savannah I found waste
places covered with a dense growth of woody leguminous plants, eight or ten
feet high, with pinnate leaves and suspended rattling pods.
Reached Savannah, but find no
word from home, and the money that I had ordered to be sent by express from
Portage [Wisconsin] by my brother had not yet arrived. Feel dreadfully
lonesome and poor. Went to the meanest looking lodging-house that I could
find, on account of its cheapness.
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