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The 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 met.

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 generalities.

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 bottom lands.

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 sunshine.

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, fine-grained sand.

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 to revisit.

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 month.

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 Galveston.

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 candies.

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 effect.

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 common.

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 world."

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 flat-topped taxodiums.

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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