As soon as I parked my car and turned off the engine, I could hear it. The whispering pines. You almost dream the sound, a breeze unlike any other.
Of course, there’s much to admire about the coast’s newest large tract of public land, Altama Plantation Wildlife Management Area, about an hour south of Savannah.
But the natural silence, the hum of the primeval, gets me every time. Once for elite ears only, it’s now yours to enjoy.
The state of Georgia opened this 4,000 acre former rice plantation as a wildlife refuge earlier this year to little fanfare. The Governor came. But few people noticed.
Who cares about a gubernatorial photo-op dealing with endangered species and “habitat corridors” when the ill-tempered orange-haired man laid another word turd?
I just believe that when a property this large, this historic and this beautiful comes into public ownership, we should shout it from the rooftops, with strains of Woody Guthrie.
So Jason Lee, a manager for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, takes me on a short tour. He drives a sturdy four-wheel drive on top of a long, slave-built embankment.
“You can still see the wild rice persisting,” he says, as we bump over storm-strewn tree limbs. “It’s amazing how long these dikes and canals have persisted in the landscape.”
The open rice fields are gone, of course. They were replaced by the tidal hardwood forest, a rare habitat globally but one that Georgia has preserved well on the Altamaha River.
The sycamores, cypress, cedars and palms surround us until we reach a tidal loop of the mighty waterway (Altama was its older, Native American name). The tide is coming in.
And so is Christi Lambert of the Nature Conservancy. Altama Plantation has been on her radar for decades. That’s because the large tract sits on the map like the middle of an X.
“We’ve worked to protect about 45 contiguous miles of river property,” she says of a long-term multi-agency effort. “There are multiple corridors that this property is key to.”
The Nature Conservancy worked with DNR and the US Marines to get Altama Plantation in public ownership after the land’s former owner, Sea Island Co., went bankrupt in 2010.
“It has such a range of natural aspects and habitat types that are exceptional,” she says.
So this flood-prone former rice field is just our first stop. We hop in Jason’s truck and venture upland along sandy, sunny dirt roads. We’re looking for gopher tortoises.
“That indicates a well-managed property,” Lee says as he points to a young tortoise’s burrow. The juvenile himself is out roaming around. But his home is rare in these parts.
Lee says our threatened population of gopher tortoises is like an AARP convention. It’s aging. So to see a little burrow with little tracks is pretty exciting.
“We only see that on certain properties,” he says. Grow and multiply, young reptile!
Of course, people lived here, too. We see barns, former homes and the chilling ruins of an 1829 sugar mill. Made of brick and tabby, it rises out of the thick woods like a skeleton.
I shudder to imagine slaves boiling sugar in this hot, bug-infested sink as tourists gawked at what once was a genuine marvel of engineering, complete with an early steam ship.
Inventor and slaver James Hamilton Cooper and chemical magnate William DuPont are among the rich that clinked wine glasses and trotted horses in this once-private silence.
Those sounds are ghosts now. The best things to hear today are your feet walking (and it’s a big place, mostly cars-prohibited) and those longleaf pines, whispering.
If You Go
The Nature Conservancy has organized a tour of Altama Plantation Wildlife Management Area for Saturday, October 15, 2016. For registration information, contact email@example.com.
The entrance to Altama Plantation Wildlife Management Area is the first road west of I-95 off Exit 42. If you’re coming from Savannah, cross the Altamaha River, take the first exit, turn right and it’s right there.
Most of the wildlife refuge is only accessibly on foot. Prepare for serious bugs and mud. You’ll want to have a map. Those can be found at this website. The area is open and closed to seasonal hunting.