When We Return to the Earth

Cover art for When We Return to the Earth.

Over spring break, I drove to Clayton, GA, to visit the Tallulah Gorge State Park. For five dollars in parking fees, you can descend into the valley, passing hemlocks, pines, and skeletal deciduous trees sheathed in ivy to stand in the shadow of the Tallulah Falls Dam. The state of Georgia built a network of trails, a suspension bridge, and 10 observation platforms around the 1,000-foot-deep gorge.

I spent the first night in a wilderness management area near Warwoman Dell in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

The Chattahoochee is wet. So wet that dead trees turn to driftwood before they even hit the ground, hollow and bare. Moss and hairy, poisonous vines pull branches away from the sun, returning them to the earth. A layer of detritus on the forest floor breeds wildflowers, which push their sleepy buds up from under fallen leaves. White bloodroot flowers rub their eyes and look over a stream, where dog hobble holds back the rock and rubble from the waters below. Dog hobble, a woody shrub with dark-green, waxy leaves, grows thickly — thick enough to, well, hobble a dog.

Anything we build, the forest will devour. Everything returns to the earth eventually; nothing escapes, not even the metal signpost for the William Bartram Trail. Lichen supernovas mask Bartram’s history, the story of a botanist who traveled Georgia collecting fauna and flora for London in the 18th century. The Seminoles nicknamed him “Flower Hunter.”

Bartram’s travels brought him in contact with the Creeks and Cherokees. He chronicled a meeting in Augusta, where white colonists swindled the two native nations out of land — kicking off a campaign of displacement that began with the advent of debt and culminated in Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears.

Trail sign from the William Bartram Trail.

Spring is arriving in the dell. In the footprints of giants, purple wildflowers bloom. Three stone pools form a long staircase up toward Warwoman Road. The trout rearing station transformed into a garden, and the highest pool has burrowed underground — already, the forest has returned it to the earth.

At night, I sit by the campfire and wait for my food to warm. I don’t want to admit that the road or the trail can be sad. But when I’m alone in the woods, people and places haunt me. They are ghosts, and no matter how far I walk or drive, I can never find them. There is nowhere I can go, no excursion I can buy, that will take me to them. But these memories find me sitting by the fire, playing the guitar, or taking a swig from a bottle of hooch.

These memories are heavy. In one, I catch fireflies from a square deck. I roam as far as the tiki torches allow, illuminating the wooded perimeter of my childhood home in New Hill, NC. Old classmates, uncles, and grandparents visit me, stepping into the firelight. Every year, my pack grows heavier with new memories.

I’m afraid that if I admit that nature can be sad and lonely, I’ll lose another safety net. My respite from the isolation of the modern world becomes just another prison where my memories can weigh me down. But in the morning, I still don my pack and hit the road.

I visit the gorge early Saturday. I stand on the rim as the sun crests over my left shoulder and casts light across the white quilt that covers the Tallulah. In the mornings, the transient falls wink in and out of existence. They emerge, oneiric and fractured through the mist, appearing at the whim of the wind and sunlight.

The mist of Tallulah Gorge.

You can glimpse luminous pools where giants inlaid aquamarines in the rocky shoreline. Hawthorne Pool feeds Tempesta Falls, a triangular cascade that broadens over spiderweb cracks of granite. Water vapor rises off the falls. When you look over the bluff, a million tiny droplets buffet you, like you just pulled the lid off a pot of rice. Beside you, a gnarled Virginia pine clings to the rocks. Itty bitty cones have started to form among the short leaves, destined to one day raft down the many rapids and waterfalls of the Tallulah.

A tree overlooks the gorge.

Highway 441 follows you into the gorge, down a thousand metal steps. You will hear it moan over the trickle of streams or the crunch of your footfall. It is the background track that accompanies the phoebes, swallows, and swifts. You will not escape its groan — even the roar of Tallulah’s Hurricane Falls cannot drown the cars out. Hold your hands over your ears and place your head between your knees to escape Highway 441. When you open your eyes, you will see a discarded white floss pick through the stairway’s grating. A water bottle. Jack Link’s beef jerky.

A family of cairns stares back at the visitor center chateau from the southern rim of the gorge. The history of humanity extends outward from these small obelisks; we have been creating increasingly violent cairns ever since we first stacked rocks, culminating in skyscrapers and rocket ships. Each new tower is an act of war.

A family of cairns stares back at the visitor center.

One day, you might discover your own gorge on a walk in the woods. You’ll know by the way the forest pushes back against your steps — the trail will not come easily. The land you walk upon is either untouched or long forgotten, but in our absence, it will have grown beautiful and wild.

When you find this unfound place, cherish it and tell no one. If you tell a soul, humans will find it and ruin it. They will ruin it through a million tiny improvements. They will build parking lots so tourists can flock from far and wide. They will build access ramps so they can bring Jack Link’s beef jerky into the furthest reaches of the wild. They will carve their names in hearts on trees to watch them bleed. They will make it better — make it more profitable — until everything you loved about this wild place is gone.

A heart carved into a tree.

All the while, the forest looks on. When we’re done playing on this earth — when we’ve finished all our home improvement projects — the Chattahoochee will pick up all our toys and return them to the earth.

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Zachary Turner

I write about the environment and climate change from Raleigh, NC. 🍁 🌳 ☀️