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Oak Savanna

Sprewell Bluff Natural Area, Georgia
March, 2009
Oil on canvas
24" x 36"

 

 

 

The uplands of the southeastern Piedmont have been thoroughly transformed since Europeans arrived here. After centuries of agriculture, settlement, and waves of abandonment, they have become a patchwork of pine plantations, sprawling development, agriculture, and a largely fire-intolerant, old-field successional forest. Long-gone and forgotten is the widespread presettlement scene of open, old-growth grassy woodlands. Not only was this landscape used and reused beyond recognition as a commodity, its ability to regenerate itself by was blocked by the suppression of wild-land fire. Occurring more frequently on uplands, fires would have passed through the understory of Piedmont woodlands every few years, setting back the fire-intolerant trees and shrubs and maintaining an open, grassy ground plane. Fire-tolerant trees such as post oak, black oak, and pines (species that are the most frequently used boundary markers in 18th century property surveys) would have dominated the canopy, while many species with prairie affinities would have dominated the ground plane. Often with trees larger than those pictured in this image, such woodlands would have been a common scene for William Bartram as he trekked across the Piedmont of South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

I assumed that such a landscape of oaks and grasses could not possibly still exist in the Piedmont. So it was a thrilling experience when Nathan Klaus, a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, took me to this remote slope above the Flint River in western Georgia in 2008. Here, an oak savanna persists, thanks to thin, well-drained soils; a not-too-distant history of fire; and the good fortune of the land not having been converted to pine plantation. The blackjack and post oaks in this scene are hardwood constituents of the fire-dependent, longleaf pine community that once dominated the slopes along this stretch of the river. Prairie grasses such as big and little bluestem, switch grass, and Indian grass are also present.

This area of the Flint River has long been threatened by reservoir construction and industrial silviculture. Fortunately in November 2009, the Georgia Power Company decided to donate 3,000 acres of scenic shoals and wooded slopes along the Flint, including the area depicted in this painting, to the state of Georgia, making them a permanent part of the Sprewell Bluff Natural Area. The Georgia DNR has recently reintroduced fire to this site. *

* This is an excerpt from Philip's essay appearing in: Bartram’s Living Legacy: Travels and the Nature of the South