The NCBTS would like to thank Dr. Tim Menzel, Assistant Professor of Biology at Piedmont College, for submitting the following article about Piedmont College’s “May-mester” program on the Bartram Trail.
The Bartram Trial Experience was a “May-mester” offering from Piedmont College. Piedmont’s May-mester programs consist of two courses offered by two departments, associated with travel to some other part of the world. This year, students headed to New York City, Arizona, Japan, and, for the Bartram Trail Experience, the mountains of northern Georgia. For the Georgia trip, the resources that have typically gone towards plane tickets and hotel rooms instead purchased backpacking equipment and trail food (plus 4 nights in cabins at Vogel State Park). The two courses associated with this trip were “The Influence of William Bartram’s Travels on American Literature” and “Plant Diversity.” The goal of the “Experience” was to impact these student’s views of nature through exposure to literature, scientific study and an extended time backpacking in the mountains of northeast Georgia. William Bartram was chosen as a focus because he is a figure of both literary and scientific importance.
The literature course was given by Dr. Lisa Hodgens. The students were required to read and discuss William Bartram’s Travels, as well as the works of later nature writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Dillard and others. They also kept journals of their experiences and wrote a final thesis on how their view of nature had been changed by their readings and experiences. The science course was given by myself and was meant to familiarize students with the evolution and ecology of plants and plant communities in northeast Georgia. This course was different from the standard botany class in that it was focused on the mechanisms that have sculpted, and are still sculpting, the rich patterns of plant communities across our area. The challenge for the students was to integrate, through critical and creative thinking, the two approaches to Nature.
Our backpacking trip began after 5 days at Vogel State Park and followed the Bartram Trail from Beegum Gap to Earl’s Ford Road (27.4 miles total). We traveled from a high elevation forest (Rabun Bald, 4696′) down to the banks of the Chattooga River (~1500′). As we arrived at the summit of Rabun Bald on the first day, the sun was shining directly above us while storm clouds hung over the valleys in every direction. As we descended from the bald we entered those clouds and they clung close to us for the next three days, finally clearing for our last two nights on the trail. Along the way we stayed at Salt Rock Gap (3,700′), Wilson Gap (3,220′), Martin Creek Falls (~2,000′), on the east side of Raney Mountain (~2,600′) and just upstream from Dick’s Creek Falls along the Chattooga River (~1500′). At each of these locations, groups of students chose 100 square meter areas and attempted to identify all tree and shrub species within them. The purpose of these exercises was to familiarize them with the plants of the area, to teach them to use plant keys, and to collect plant diversity data which could then be used to quantitatively compare the plant communities encountered as we traveled along the trail. The students then generated index values (Jaccard’s Similarity Index) for each possible pair of locations (five locations produces 10 possible pairs) to determine which pair of sites was the most similar, which the most different, and which site had the most unique plant species assemblage. This quantitative method separates the researcher from personal impressions of plant diversity by forcing them to generate objective measures of diversity patterns. We wanted to provide a scientific experience in addition to the perspective on nature gained through literature and personal experience.
Although the lab exercises were limited to trees and shrubs, we were interested in all plants along the trail and identified as many as our schedule would permit. I was personally exposed to many plant species I had never seen because I am a newcomer to the area (I’ve recently moved here from Mississippi). Plants of special interest that we found were the Yellow lady slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum), Virginia heartleaf (Hexastylis virginica), and Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens). These were all found between Rabun Bald and Warwoman Dell, by far the richest area for plants we encountered.The most similar plots (based on index scores) were Wilson Gap and the Chattooga River. Both of these sites were heavily disturbed by previous campers, which could explain their similarity. Salt Rock Gap and the Chattooga River location were the least similar, which could be explained by their elevation difference and the fact that Salt Rock Gap is a dry ridge and the Chattooga is riverside. Salt Rock Gap had the lowest average similarity to other locations and was therefore the most unique site surveyed. Red maple and southern red oak were found at all sites and were the most common tree/shrub species surveyed.
I’ve provided below some sample passages from our student’s papers, where they have remarked on the impact of the experience on their own views of nature. Even though these words were written for a grade, I can’t help but find them encouraging.
“I have never been afforded the chance to become familiar with the mountains. It was a challenge, and I had to dig deep; I had to reach beyond myself; I learned that I am not who I thought I was.”
“Being in the outdoors for multiple nights was a very difficult and physically demanding experience. I would have never thought that nature could be cruel. Before Bartram, I thought that nature was nice and green and harmless.”
“Since the beginning of the trip, my view of nature has drastically changed. From now on, being outside will induce deeper thoughts and be more appreciated.”
“What I truly learned about nature from the trip is that the natural world is a delicate place with a complex balance of elements that work together to form a chaotic world.”
“I realized how much I knew of, but had never seen in the enchanted forest.”
“I learned that there is more to nature than just parking your car in a secluded hole in the woods and having a few beers with the guys. There is something about the thought of that now, that seems sacrilegious.”
“I learned to slow down and enjoy, embrace simplicity, use my time outdoors for healing, to take that much-needed time away from it all, and to look more closely.”
Above: The group at trail’s end (Earl’s for Road) from left to right: Ryan Smith, Brian Simmons, Krista Tritt, Scott Pratt, Yve Chawla, Tim Menzel, Cindy Peterson, Bradley Green.
Special thanks to John Ray and the Bartram Trail Society for maintaining these trails and making this trip possible. This trip would also not have been possible without the efforts of Dr. Lisa Hodgens – Professor of English at Piedmont College; Cindy Peterson – Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Piedmont College who was responsible for all of the planning related our time on the trail and who led us into and out of the forest safely; and all of the administration and faculty of Piedmont College who have courageously supported this trip and other May-mester programs.Tim Menzel, Ph.D.Assistant Professor of BiologyDepartment of Natural SciencesPiedmont College