Saturday, March 23, 2019

Rock Eagle

They don't build 'em like this anymore, either.

Near Eatonton, Georgia is Rock Eagle, the best-known "Indian Mound" in this part of Georgia. There is also a Rock Hawk in the same county (Putnam), and these are considered the only two bird effigy mounds east of the Mississippi River. (There are possibly other effigy mounds in the area, including a Rock Snake, but there is apparently some disagreement on the exact number and configuration of mounds.) Their precise ceremonial purpose is unknown—there is some indication, though little in the way of definitive evidence, that they may have been burial sites—but their very existence and size vouches for an important spiritual significance. The Rock Eagle mound, approximately one to three thousand years old, measures 120 feet from wingtip to wingtip, and 102 feet from head to tail, with its component rocks of quartzite piled eight to ten feet high at the belly.

The observation tower, built by the Civilian Conservations Corps in the 1930s, is interesting in its own right, and with its native-stone and timber construction, made for a good picnic shelter on the quiet weekday of our visit. (Even if some of the tower's denizens did make Jessa a bit nervous.)

Jessa was happy to leave the wasps behind, and we enjoyed photographing wildflowers, herps and actual soaring birds (mostly turkey vultures) outside by the stone effigy.

Apparently the CCC were very serious about using whatever materials were close to hand when working on this project; we saw no fewer than four old millstones used as pavers on the stone path surrounding the eagle mound. "Waste not, want not," I suppose was the mentality...

Friday, March 22, 2019

Elder's Mill Covered Bridge

Elder's Mill Covered Bridge near Watkinsville, Georgia. The bridge was originally built in 1897 to span Call's Creek for a road connecting Athens and Watkinsville, at which point it presumably had a different name, and relocated here to Rose Creek, just upstream from Elder's Mill, in 1924. (Call's Creek is a tributary of the Middle Oconee River; Rose Creek flows into the combined Oconee River below the confluence of the Middle and Upper Oconee.)

Elder's Mill itself, a three-storey wooden frame building, was built circa 1900 and ceased operating in 1941.

Except for some steel guardrails strategically protecting the vertical supports and for the metal roof, the bridge appears to be built entirely of wood, with wooden pegs holding the interior latticework together. The result is strikingly beautiful.

The land through which this stretch of Rose Creek flows is about as pretty as any I've seen, and the creek itself was running clear and cold.

They don't build 'em like this anymore...

Thursday, March 21, 2019

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Behold another Athens landmark, the double-barrelled cannon. Cast in 1862 at the Athens Steam Company, this was an experimental weapon that ultimately failed, but it's certainly not without interest.

The cannon was the brainchild of John Gilleland, a builder serving in the Mitchell Thunderbolts, a home guard unit of professional men too aged, infirm, or locally indispensable to serve in the regular Confederate armed forces. Closely resembling a 17th-century design by a Florentine gunmaker named Petrini—it's not entirely clear whether Gilleland was aware of the precedent—the cannon was a "chain-shot" gun, designed to fire two cannonballs connected by a length of chain. The gun's barrels diverge by approximately three degrees so that the balls would likewise diverge and stretch the chain taut. (By contrast, the barrels of a double shotgun converge ever so slightly; although the two barrels are not fired simultaneously, the shot patterns of a well-regulated gun cross at approximately forty yards.) The balls with their connecting chain would then "mow down the enemy somewhat as a scythe cuts wheat". So went the theory, at any rate.

The problem for Gilleland's cannon, as it had been for Petrini's, was that of synchrony. The cannon had a touch-hole for each barrel, plus a third, central touch-hole intended to fire both barrels simultaneously. Unfortunately for Gilleland, the mechanism was insufficiently precise. The first time the gun was test-fired, a witness reported, the balls-and-chain rig emerged in "a kind of circular motion, plowed up about an acre of ground, tore up a cornfield, mowed down saplings, and the chain broke, the two balls going in different directions." Subsequent tests produced erratic results, most resulting from uncoordinated firing of the two barrels. "When both barrels did happen to explode exactly together," another witness observed, "no chain was found strong enough to hold the balls together in flight." Needless to say, a cannonball with chain attached is going to have an unpredictable trajectory. One shot knocked down a house's chimney with one ball and killed a cow with the other; both chimney and cow were well away from the intended target.

Undeterred by these results, Gilleland sent the cannon off to the arsenal at Augusta for further testing. The Confederate authorities wisely concluded the gun was impractical at best, dangerous to their own troops at worst, and sent it back to Athens, where it was placed in front of City Hall, to be used as a signal gun should the enemy approach.

When the Federals did in fact approach Athens, in August of 1864, Gilleland's gun was sent into action with the Lumpkin Artillery. The barrels were loaded with canister, like an oversized shotgun, and fired independently. The skirmish—the gun's sole combat engagement—ended quickly, with only a few volleys fired, and the cannon was again returned to City Hall.

After the war, the gun was sold, then lost for a number of years, and finally rediscovered and restored to condition. It was then presented to the city of Athens, " has been preserved as an object of curiosity, and where it performed sturdy service for many years in celebrating political victories."

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Oconee Forest Park

More trees of historic significance—purely personal significance, in this case. After our visit to TTTOI, we made an early-evening stop at Oconee Forest Park, on the banks of Lake Herrick.

The intramural fields on the opposite side of Lake Herrick are where I first saw and later played toli, but Oconee Forest Park is where I became a falconer. This was my hawking grounds for the two years of my apprenticeship and the one year that followed, before moving out to Nebraska. And I will forever be grateful to the forest manager, who, in recognition of falconry's minimal impact, made this outstanding wood available to me.

The Georgia piedmont doesn't hold many rabbits, and they tend to be found in thick, often impenetrable briars ("cheek cutters" is the local vernacular for the taller stands), so grey squirrels were our quarry. The tiercel redtail I flew during my apprenticeship, Watauga, was a truly brilliant squirrel hawk; his successor (after a couple of false starts with female redtails), Pocomoke, was less gifted but still effective, and transitioned to fox squirrels upon our move west. The grey squirrels Jessa photographed foraging in the treetops in the waning light of evening are the 20x-great-grandchildren of the squirrels we chased back in the day.

It was good to see the population is still thriving. At one point during our walk, I demonstrated a hawking technique Jessa hadn't seen before, "ringing the doorbell": I grasped a stout grapevine that climbed high up a tree to a squirrel drey, gave it a few abrupt pulls, and three squirrels obligingly popped out of the drey. Talley ho, had we a hawk with us. As it was, we saw only a Cooper's hawk nest. (The day before, I actually witnessed a pair of Cooper's mating from the backyard of our rental, but no birds were in evidence here.)

Of course the nest was in a pine—there are lone pines here and there, and even a few stands of pine, but the glory of Oconee Forest Park is in its hardwoods. I remember red oaks, tulip poplars, and sweetgum as the dominant species, but there is a fair bit of diversity here, and since this particular forest hasn't been logged for over a hundred years, some good-sized specimens as well. (Plus a few oddities and a nicely developed understory.)

I feel doubly fortunate to have begun my hawking career in this forest: not only was it beautiful and well-supplied with exciting quarry, but I know that I will always be able to come back and visit. Too many falconers' first fields have been paved over. Long live OFP.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Tree That Owns Itself

One of Athens' best-known and -loved landmarks is The Tree That Owns Itself, located at the corner of Finley and Dearing Streets. A white oak (Quercus alba), TTTOI is a fine specimen of shade tree; it receives more visitors when in leaf, but I like this stark late-winter portrait.


The tree's fame, of course, stems from its legal status, summed up on this stone tablet:

In truth, the tree loved by Col. Jackson is long gone; what stands at Finley and Dearing now is its son and heir.

The tree's Wikipedia entry includes a debunking of the Jackson legend and a skeptical discussion of the tree's actual legal status, but in the English common-law tradition, the line between law and custom is blurry. The people of Athens accept that the tree has special status, the city/county government holds the same position, and so the tree does own itself. Vox populi, vox dei.

Finley Street itself has another small claim to fame: the single steep block that descends from Dearing Street to Broad Street is, to the best of my knowledge, the last cobblestone street in town. And lovely cobbles they are...