Rich and haunting tales from a Southern forest on the night of a New Moon.
by Nico Isaac
I remember two things about the night of December 31, 1999, a.k.a. Y2K, when mass hysteria over a mysterious computer glitch hurtling civilization into a new dark age raged across the planet.
First, the local radio station played “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” on a loop. And, second, it took listening to 8 takes of said song while sitting in the DQ drive-through until I finally held my first-ever Butterfinger Blizzard—BECAUSE, as a lifelong lactose-intolerant sufferer, I would be damned to leave this mortal plane never having tasted one. I was going out with a bang, even if it was the gastric kind.
“The End of the World” on repeat while our collective insides slowly detonate—yeah, that tracks for the general vibe of the last year.
It’s been dark.
Like 10 months into the pandemic trying to teach my 2 housecats to perform the Heimlich maneuver should I choke all alone in my apartment—DARK.
But if there’s one thing that has consistently pulled me up and out of that darkness, it’s been being outside, in nature. (Thank you to Georgia for your perennially temperate climate!)
The reasons for this seem obvious. Nature has been an escape from the relentless torpedo-fire of tragedy and suffering and injustice. Nature has been an uncorrupted Eden. Or so I thought. But after doing a deep dive into the history of the state park I recently visited, I realized something. These natural oases aren’t separate from the pain and turmoil; they are born from and awakened into it.
Pictured here is Bartram Forest Wildlife Management Area in Milledgeville, Georgia. This place is like the UN of ecological biomes. It is full of many things: swampy wetlands and effervescent evergreens, desert conifers and hundreds of Loblolly pines lined like soldiers as far as the eye can see. And in the middle of it all, a bucolic lake with warped and windy boardwalks.
The park’s website doesn’t give too much away, apart from its namesake, the famous 18th-century naturalist William Bartram. After doing my own research, I learned Bartram was the Mr. Rogers/Henry Thoreau of his time, an amiable environmentalist who traveled the country, documenting all matter of flora, fauna and person with an unwavering diplomacy unlike the Native American prejudices of his white male contemporaries.
Bartram was a regular and welcome companion to the region’s native tribes, studying their folklore, politics and rituals with great reverence. In return, a chief of the Seminole Indians in Florida bestowed Bartram with the honorary title of “Puc-Puggy” or “Flower Hunter.” And, two centuries before this land was named for him, Bartram spent years cultivating a closeness with the Indians who knew it as their home: tribes of the Hitchiti, Oconee, Miccosukee and Creek nations.
In his book Bartram’s Travels, he describes how walking through these fertile woods, his “progress was rendered delightful by the sylvan elegance of the groves and meadows … Where all nature awakes to life and activity.”
But, as we know, Bartram, a “friend to all,” Quaker and advocate for the native people, was an exception of the time. The “life and activity” they awakened would soon be snuffed out by the white settlers and colonists fleeing Britain during the Revolutionary War. By the early 19th century, rigged land deals, genocide and the Trail of Tears assured there would be scarce left of these tribes but relics buried beneath the loamy soil.
After years of desertion and neglect, the forest found new inhabitants in the 1840s: the mental patients of the nearby Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot and Epileptic Asylum. The original founders of the sanitarium had benevolent intentions: to create a place for mental health reform and rehabilitation. The land was used to teach the hands-on therapeutic benefits of farming and gardening. There’s a certain poetry in the idea of these patients, taming their inner chaos and turmoil by restoring the overgrown thicket to a halcyon state.
Sidebar: In November 1864, the asylum’s 2,000-acre property was used as a campground for the 30,000 soldiers of Gen. Sherman’s army during his infamous “March to the Sea.” As the then-state capital of Georgia, Milledgeville was a prime target for the blue coats, who over the course of four days left the city in scorched ruin. Anticipating the army’s ascent, many of the city’s wealthiest politicians and officers fled to the nearby woods and swamps to bury their valuables from the approaching marauders.
This makes me think that alongside the abandoned arrowheads of the displaced native people, there may also be troves of tarnishing silver candelabras and crystal goblets in the soil of Bartram Forest.
I can’t help digressing into the fate of Georgia’s Lunatic Asylum, which was once known as the largest mental institution in the world. Throughout the 20th century, the facility’s original vision of reform and rehabilitation was destroyed by overcapacity, corruption and misconduct. The early doctor-to-patient ratio of 1:5 became an unmanageable 1:100, and reports of patient abuse were so rampant that parents across the state of Georgia would scare their misbehaving children straight with the threat,
“Keep it up and I’ll send you to Milledgeville!”
The secondhand reports of the kind of evil and torture that continued to persist at the asylum until it was finally shut down in 2010 are something out of a “Saw” movie. And looking at pictures of the now-abandoned facilities, with their decaying hospital beds and corroded corridors, you couldn’t pay me a million dollars to walk through them after dark.
The asylum’s connection to Bartram Forest in undeniable, from the hands of its patients digging through soil, planting seeds to nurture mind and body, to the ghastly sounds emitting from its walls penetrating the evergreen canopy where only the flora and fauna would bear witness.
Today, this park named for the “Flower Hunter” has been restored and is a popular destination for mountain bikers and hikers, a beloved resource for 4H education and a thriving wildlife preservation site for the sustainable logging of Loblolly pine.
Its light is not separate from but born out of immense darkness; its rich beauty both tragic and triumphant. It’s a message I will take moving forward out of this past year and into tonight’s new moon sky, where the words of another great naturalist Walt Whitman echo gently and true:
After the dazzle of day is done, only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars.
Nico Isaac is a freelance writer, poet and photographer with contributions in Lake Oconee Living Magazine, Paste Magazine, GA Music Magazine, the 2017 Georgia’s Best Emerging Poets Anthology and more. Her passions include explorations in nature, wildlife, history and the interconnectedness of people with their land and culture.