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Columnist — Kathy Bradley

A drive sparks wonder at world

Just the other day I was headed cross country toward Valdosta — one of those places in our wide and wonderful state to which it is difficult to find a straight shot from here. Having gotten widely varying estimates of time and distance from three different Internet mapping services, I decided to play rabbit and head out in what I knew was the general direction, the back roads known as the Woodpecker Trail. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a drive more.
    It was early Saturday morning. There were few other cars on the road so I could watch the landscape skim by. The yellow autumn light came through the trees at such an angle that the changing leaves all looked as though they’d been plated with precious metals. Acres and acres of cotton spread out on either side of the road and were so thick with fat, fluffy blossoms that I couldn’t help but hear the voices of my childhood preachers singing out from the pulpit about the fields being white with harvest.
    Rounding a curve I saw a neatly-painted sign dangling from a limb on a tall oak tree: Fresh Eggs - 1 mile. I was half-tempted to take the detour down the narrow dirt road just to meet the kind of folks who still sold eggs from their back porch.
    At a county road crossroads, three shiny new pick-up trucks, each one with a grill as big as a cattle gate, were parked on the gravel outside a cinder block store. Men dressed in various degrees of camouflage leaned against the fenders, hands in pockets or crossed over their chests, soaking up sunshine and swearing to the number of points on the buck that had been just out of range.
    I passed a sign that told me I’d entered the Big Hammock Wildlife Management Area, 7,000 acres of flood-plain habitat owned and managed by the state of Georgia. A few miles further down the road I drove into Appling County and the road widened, took me over a new concrete bridge. Underneath ran the Altamaha River. It is the largest river of the Georgia coast and the second largest river basin in the eastern United States. It flows for 140 miles through southeast Georgia toward the Atlantic Ocean.
    On this day the water was low, barely moving, and the sand looked like cake icing, creamy white and spread in gentle waves along the edges of the water. All was silence and stillness and I was suddenly struck with an instinctual protectiveness toward the river and all it represents. It was as though by being there at that particular moment I’d been vested with an ownership interest in that particular piece of creation.
    I’ve experienced it before — at the foot of a waterfall in North Carolina, on the banks of a creek that runs along one edge of our farm, under an oak tree too big to circle with my arms, on top of the Temple Mound in Macon — and each time I’ve found myself breathless.
    What is it, I wonder, about untouched nature that speaks so deeply to our souls? Do we hear our own breath in the wind? Feel our own pulse in the current?
    There’s been a lot of talk over the past 30 years or so about preserving our natural heritage and cleaning up the environment. We’ve spent a lot of money as a nation to do just that. And, yet, I’d bet that the majority of Americans don’t see themselves as the owners, much less the caretakers, of a single square foot of dirt on which they are not paying a mortgage.
    We have become so distanced from that which we didn’t create that rain is just something that delays a baseball game and wind only something that interferes with the satellite signal. And 7,000 acres of nothing but wetlands seems like a lot of wasted space.
    Until you see it. Until you feel it. Until you own it for yourself.

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