Then and Now: South Muir

Map: John Muir’s Walk through the South, 1867. Credit: Filippo Vanzo

150 years later, an Atlanta writer follows John Muir’s 1,000-mile trek from Kentucky to Florida

MOST PEOPLE KNOW JOHN MUIR as a famed California Sierra eco-evangelist who led efforts to create Yosemite National Park and to protect mountains and wild rivers throughout the West. Muir is the source for classic bumper sticker quotes including:

“A touch of nature makes the whole world akin.”

“Climb the mountains and receive their glad tidings. The peace of nature will flow through you like the sun through the trees.

“The clearest path to the universe is through a wild forest.”

“The mountains are calling me and I have to go.”

However, Muir’s first mountain pilgrimages were not in the West but here in the East. Before setting foot in California, Muir embarked on a life-changing 1,000-mile trek from Louisville, Kentucky to Cedar Key, Florida. The trip inspired Muir’s transformation into a leader and conscience of the environmental movement.

One hundred and fifty years later, Atlanta writer and adventurer Dan Chapman has decided to follow in Muir’s footsteps. Chapman charted Muir’s journey in his new book, A Road Running Southward. Muir’s 19th century path is now a series of highways and back roads, so Chapman traveled in a Subaru rather than on foot. Along the way, Chapman spends the night at a cemetery in Savannah where Muir once camped and visits some of the South’s most significant and endangered landscapes. Chapman discovers that the lush forests and vibrant ecosystems Muir encountered have been decimated by coal mining, urban sprawl and climate change. By tracing Muir’s journey, Chapman seeks to answer a simple question: what is left?

He also speaks with locals who have deep connections to the land and finds hope in their treasured connections to the natural world. He visits Merrilee Malwitz Jipson, fighting to protect Florida’s natural springs from a Nestlé water bottling plant. He hikes with Chris Ulrey, a botanist and climber who protects endangered plants from climate change. And he meets Tommy Johnson, who spent eight years cleaning up the Kingston coal ash spill while TVA contractors withheld protective gear and information about the toxic ash. Over the past decade, four dozen of his colleagues have died and more than 4,000 have fallen ill.

“But Kingston today seems like nothing ever happened with a big green park replacing the mountains of dumped coal ash,” Chapman says. “The expression ‘lipstick on a pig’ comes to mind. And too often, that’s what we do in the South: cover up our environmental damage as if nothing had happened.
Chapman shared more thoughts with BRO on his 1,000-mile journey in Muir’s southern footsteps.

BROTHER: Why did you decide to retrace Muir’s journey through the South?
CC : I had covered many environmental issues in the South as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, but was looking for a way to piece them together into an overarching narrative. I had my aha moment when I read that Muir had traversed the South in 1867. I pulled out my map, plotted his route, and discovered that his trek passed through many areas where environmental problems were prevalent. So I hiked the road, camped along the way and marveled at the natural beauty, worried about environmental degradation and talked to everyone and anyone. Amidst the damage, I hoped to find beauty and the promise of a better future. And I did.

BROTHER: What do you want people to learn from your journey?
CC : Americans in general know the grandeur of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. But few know the richness of the landscapes and biodiversity of the South. Nowhere else can you go from temperate rainforest to swampy estuary in half a day’s drive. Biodiversity is out of this world. Two-thirds of all fish species swim in southern waters. A third of all plants grow here too. Mussels, crayfish, salamanders are native to the South and in numbers that surpass anywhere else in this country. We are on a slippery slope towards the extinction of too many of these species. Muir, as usual, said it best: “When we try to pick something out on its own, we find it clinging to everything else in the universe.”

BROTHER: What are the biggest threats to the landscape of the South?
DVS : Sprawl and climate change are the big issues. The South is the fastest growing region in the country. Florida alone welcomes 1,000 people a day. They all have to live, eat, poop and play. Thousands of hectares disappear every day under ribbons of concrete and forests of plywood.
But there is hope. Incredible conservation is done by agencies, nonprofits, and locals. They are, of course, financially and politically overwhelmed. But public awareness and action are at their peak: just about everyone understands and experiences the dangers of a warming world.

BROTHER: What lessons can the rest of the country learn from the environmental challenges of the South?
CC : If the South can do it – with our conservative, anti-green legislatures and business-oriented mentality – then you can too. In the South, nothing seems to get done without commerce, industry and, sometimes, the army around the table. They own most of the land in the South. In Georgia, for example, only three percent of the land is in state hands, and most of it is owned by the military. There are some encouraging examples of environment-industry collaboration: a loblolly pine plantation switching to longleaf pine; non-constructible buffer zones around military installations; widespread acceptance of prescribed burning. The South has a long way to go to catch up with more environmentally enlightened regions, but we are getting there.