I spent today walking. Just north of Macon, GA, the Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, which is part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is home to one of the few colonies of Red-cockaded woodpeckers left in the nation. While I had been out to the refuge with my oldest son and a friend of his for a birding competition, I had never walked any of the trails there. A series of interconnecting trails make up a good 5.5 mile hike that allows the person to park in one location and circle back to the vehicle without covering a trail more than once. The effects of over-farming, particularly cotton, are visible in the numerous run-offs that carve the landscape. But there is a solitude in the walk and the wind reminded me that I was not the first or last to walk this track of land.

I reached the Visitors Center around 9:00 a.m. After a quick walk around the display areas in the center, I exited the backdoor and down the deck steps to find the first of the trails for the day. The area behind the Visitors Center is a combination of backyard attraction (for people who will not want to hike) and the first noticeable effects of land mismanagement by farmers who played against cotton markets around the world. I chose the descent into the Creek trail that runs along a creek bottom that feeds a dammed lake (Allision Lake). There is a rock outcrop at the bottom of the trail as it turns to run along the creek. It was along this trail that I heard and saw my first Red-cockaded woodpecker. The video doesn’t work for WordPress but it is the only way someone would know I saw a woodpecker . . . tap . . . tap . . . tap, tap, tap . . .

The trail then climbs up a ridge line that in the winter allows the hiker to see the lake that the stream runs toward. The combination of the stream and the lake makes the run-off spaces make sense. In the photo below left, the gully is a product of heavy rains that run down hill toward what is now the lake. The rehabilitation work done in the refuge is a constant dance between growth and thinning of the tree population.

The problem would be less significant if that gully on the left was the only one in the area, but the deep carvings of similar run-off gullies mark the landscape in an intricate series of fingers all reaching beyond or through the farmland. With the wooded canopy all around, it is difficult to see the former space that was the working farms of men and women from the turn-of-the-twentieth century until well into the 1930s. As part of the New Deal programs, land conservation was one approach to stemming the tide of soil destruction. While the area around Piedmont is not as bad as Providence Canyon, it is easy to see how without certain measures it could have been.

After a pleasant stroll down to the lake area, I visited the photo blind that sits slightly out from shoreline of the lake and provides a unique vantage point to take photos of the water fowl that populate the area. The Allison Lake trail moves long the shoreline anywhere from twenty to sixty-feet toward a parking area that opens from March to September with access to a fishing dock. While the trail ascends up and away from the lake, the water is always in view. At the end of the Allison Lake loop there is an access to the Red-cockaded woodpecker trail.

The trail uses a gravel road across the dam that forms the lake to access a nearly 3.5 mile trail loop. This part of  the refuge moves along various terrains and exposes the hiker to a good variety of flora and fauna. The highlight is a series of nesting cavities for Red-cockaded woodpeckers in the pine trees. Trees are marked with painted white strips and the nest holes start anywhere from ten feet above the ground and go higher. The interesting part is that while driving on the roads to access the refuge one can see similarly painted stripes. The birds’ near extinction holds out a sign of hope in this colony. The birds are part of the conservation efforts started in the 1930s as well. The trail descends through some creek beds and those soil erosion gullies are part of the landscape as well. As the trail turns back on itself and ascends out of the creek area, there is noticeable walled structure off the trail about fifty feet. It is one of the cemeteries within the refuge. There is no name or family attachment listed on the sign, but it is a reminder to the folks who owned and worked the land.

Finishing the loop, I headed back toward the Visitors Center by retracing my steps back across the dam and picking up the Allison Lake trail but this time taking the higher ridge line trail. At the intersection with the Creek trail, I piked up that loop and followed the Pine trail back to the Visitors Center.

The short .5 mile trail passes through the area most likely farmed in the twentieth century, and in part the cause of the soil erosion. I have been working on meditation techniques for most of the past year so I realized my mind kept drifting away from the walk and the presence of nature all around me. In this section of the trail, I purposefully kept my focus on my breathing and paid attention to the landscape in a different way. I realized that families struggled to make a place and name for themselves on this land. Their marks are everywhere, including cemeteries that reveal a final claim on the land, and the judgment of condemnation would be easy. But their work, like our work, occurred because of forces far away from their daily lives. The farming was hard and the life not enviable. I passed the Gunn family cemetery as the Visitor Center comes fully back into view. They rest quietly in this space, with only the stones to mark their presence now.

I love to hike, but today was a different kind of walk. Learning and growing along the way.