Three Big Wild Trees

At the beginning of SAND COUNTY ALMANAC Aldo Leopold divides humanity into two groups: those who can’t live without wild things and those who can.

I’m in the second group. I need to visit wild places, and when I’m not in them (most of the time), I need to know wild things are out there, simply being wild.

There is no certain human utility to real wildness as far as I understand it, though some people believe that they can’t live without wildness because it provides habitat for the animals they like to hunt, territory for trails they like to hike, reservoirs for wild plants containing some undiscovered medicine that might cure cancer, or distant vistas for the scenes they like to photograph.

Once in the presence of wildness, its possible to perceive how its real value is something beyond these simple utilities. True wildness, as Wallace Stegner said in his famous 1963 “Wilderness Letter” is “part of the geography of hope,” and we who love it and need it should take pleasure in knowing that “such a timeless and uncontrolled part of the earth is still there.”

On Wofford’s recent swing through Georgia with the “Cornbread & Sushi” interim we visited two places where true Southern wildness has been preserved, the 4,600-acre Moody Forest and the 1,000-acre Wormsloe Plantation.

Moody Forest is a patchwork haven of mature and old-growth long-leaf pine, loblolly pine, and cypress in South Georgia protected and managed by the Nature Conservancy. Wormsloe is an ancestral King’s Grant near Savannah, protected and preserved by the Barrow family and the state of Georgia.

Janisse Ray, author of THE ECOLOGY OF A CRACKER CHILDHOOD, took us on a hike through Moody Forest. After several miles Janisse veered off the trail down a cypress slough and showed us a single cypress that core sampling has shown to be a thousand years old. It was a Southern giant, 500 years old when DeSoto wandered north though Georgia. Janisse read from her book in its shadow: “I drink in old growth forest like water. This is the homeland that built us.”

Next, Janisse walked us up on higher ground where we wandered off the trail again to visit the biggest long-leaf in Moody Forest, a 300-year-old pine. We stood at its base and stared up into its wild glory.

Wormsloe doesn’t feel quite as wild as Moody Forest. It’s been a working farm and plantation much of its history, and many of the trees are young, filling in old fields. Most people come to the plantation to see the mile-long avenue of live oaks planted a hundred years ago, but Craig Barrow walked us into the woods to show us a single wild giant tupelo tree. We all gathered around the tupelo’s base, and the students climbed onto a huge burl that had formed there over centuries. Craig took a picture of us in close contact to this wild tree.

I like to think that after our trip to Georgia my students are now among those who can’t live without wild things, and that the photo’s not the only souvenir they took away that day from the woods at Wormsloe. The wildness the picture documents is the real value I hope they found in the Georgia woods.

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