We live in human-built environments. We design our homes, workplaces and recreational areas to give us comfort, efficiency and peace of mind.
However, these relaxing, productive and fulfilling spaces have a price. Neighborhoods have bulldozed forests. Office complexes have drained wetlands. Ironically, the progress these surroundings have allowed us has created a desire to visit the environment’s original state.
As an example, let’s consider the Blue Heron Nature Preserve. Blue Heron is 30 acres (0.12 sq. km) of restored woodlands, wetlands and meadows in Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead area.
Buckhead is home to Georgia’s wealthiest zip code, the Governor’s mansion and one of the Southeastern United States’ major financial centers.
As a result, Buckhead became renowned as Atlanta’s hippest party district. However, Buckhead’s success belies its origins as a farmer’s rest stop and its renown eventually became infamy.
In 1838, a farmer named Henry Irby bought 202 acres of land seven miles outside of downtown Atlanta. He opened a tavern and, according to legend, shot a male deer and hung the head on a post outside the tavern. Soon, the “buck’s head” became the de facto name for Irby’s tavern and the land surrounding it.
With the extension of the Atlanta trolley in 1907 and the advent of the automobile, Buckhead expanded north. Transportation encouraged people to establish lavish, permanent homes in the area. Estate homes became neighborhoods and neighborhoods attracted business.
As businesses thrived and attracted more commerce, larger buildings appeared. In 1959, the South’s first shopping mall, Lenox Square, opened. In 1974, 400 foot (121 meters) Tower Place office building radically changed the Buckhead skyline.
With business came bars and restaurants and the celebrities that want to be seen at bars and restaurants. In the 1980s and 1990s, Buckhead became “Atlanta’s Beverly Hills,” attracting musicians, actors and professional athletes.
In 2000, Buckhead gained national attention with the murder trial of American football player Ray Lewis. A Hall of Fame player, Lewis was accused of stabbing two men the night before the Super Bowl. Lewis was found not guilty but the scandal forced the Buckhead city council to change their laws regarding club and bar operating hours.
Nonetheless, Buckhead’s expansion continued unchecked.
By the year 2000, Buckhead had expanded from its original 202 acres to twenty-eight square miles (72.5 sq. km). The tavern of 1838 had become an indistinguishable suburb of chain restaurants, big-box retailers and cookie-cutter homes.
However, the same year as Lewis’s acquittal, an art teacher named Nancy Jones decided to ebb Buckhead’s sprawl and its pernicious environmental effects. She convinced the city of Atlanta and local contractors to preserve a track of wetland on Buckhead’s north side.
The city allocated seven acres (.028 sq. km) of land for restoration, which became the foundation of Blue Heron. Since 2000, has Jones gradually expanded the preserve to its current thirty acres.
Even though Blue Heron is small (thirty acres equals roughly fifty-two soccer fields), the nature preserve has several distinct habitats.
To enter the preserve, you cross a wooden bridge into a gravel parking lot. The bridge (with a “Turtle Crossing” warning sign) divides two of the preserve’s ecosystems. Moreover, the bridge is a fantastic stopping point for families to pause and admire the surrounding environment.
Blue Heron’s north side loops around Nany Creek. The north part of the trail is a bizarrely tranquil landscape, a surrealist-minimalist cocktail with the oak trees growing out of the sand serving as swizzle sticks.
Due to the environment’s flat expanse, the preserve’s staff utilizes the space to display murals that utilize existing structures. It’s art that draws the viewer in, arouses curiosity and invites exploration.
In addition, the staff takes advantage of the level terrain to showcase art that both stands out and blends into the environment.
After bending around the creek, the trail passes through the community garden. At this point, the human presence becomes apparent. The trail passes through a reading pavilion built by the Girl Scouts and past a sophisticated rain harvesting system.
Next, the trail moves past an apiary, which is crucial to the environment. The beehive sets in motion the natural cause and effect that allows an ecosystem to thrive.
The trail then passes over the bridge and leads south into a meadow, another vital ecosystem. Unlike the otherworldly north landscape, the south meadow seems more expressionistic. The milkweed grows in apparent quick, sketchy brushstrokes and the cattails grow raw and spontaneously.
Despite the meadow’s aesthetic qualities, it serves an imperative purpose. Meadows reduce landscaping, aid reforestation and house adorable box turtles.
In an unexpected but necessary twist, the trail crosses a residential street to enter the wetland. Here Blue Heron offers a completely new perspective. The riverbank of Surrealist/minimalist oaks piqued our interest. The Expressionist meadow aroused emotional responses.
Now, the wetlands overwhelm with impressionistic green swatches, the light defining the moment. And, each thin dab of green plays off the light, completing the composition.
In restoring the wetlands, Jones led volunteers in installing a hardscape design and planting native vegetation. As a result, the restored wetlands diminish the potential for floods, filter water contaminants and recover the flora balance.
Albert Camus asked, “What is happiness except the harmony between man and the life he leads?” Humankind’s desire for a serene existence has led to high rises, strip malls and casual dining. Yet, our craving for eating take-out fajitas while watching Netflix after a Zoom call makes us want to experience something natural, pure.
The Blue Heron Nature Preserve allows us that experience. The restoration efforts have abated the sustained encroachment on the environment and provided nature the opportunity to flourish. And that small, thirty acre enclave contributes to our peace of mind.