Andalusia’s Outdoor Learning Center

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.

During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.

Bluegrass concert at Andalusia
Bluegrass concert at Andalusia

All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.

A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.

The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.

Restored pond and main house at Andalusia
Restored pond and main house at Andalusia

All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation.  Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.

Restored pond at Andalusia
Restored pond at Andalusia

The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.

Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia
Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia

Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels.  The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes.  The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron.  Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.

 

Little Rock Creek Falls

My wife loves adventures, and she has had quite a few.  My life is all the more richer because of the adventures we have shared in the eight years we have been married.  There have been times when I have “caused” adventures for which we didn’t necessarily make plans, but she has usually faced the challenges with enthusiasm and determination.  She is a gracious soul.  One such occasion happened about five years ago when I decided to search for a hiking trail that terminated at a waterfall — one of my favorite outdoor experiences.  I searched through a trail guide and selected one in north central Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest.  Little Rock Creek Falls looked beautiful in all the photographs I saw, which perhaps encouraged me to be a bit too dismissive about the descriptions of the trail leading to the falls that described it as being difficult and dangerous with thick underbrush.

Little Rock Creek
Little Rock Creek

For young folks or very athletic, experienced hikers, this trail would not be a problem.  My wife and I are casual hikers.  We are occasional hikers.  We are quite often paved-trail hikers.  Little Rock Creek trail has no pavement.  The length of the trail from the road to the falls is a little less than a mile, and the elevation is consistent; however, the terrain is quite steep and rocky as the trail makes its way along a sharp embankment following the creek.  The understory is beautiful and thick with mountain laurel and rhododendron.  At this stage of our hiking careers, we were not yet using sticks of any kind (we each have two now).  Under normal conditions, we would have considered this to be a moderately difficult hike, but alas, I had the audacity to take my dear wife on this excursion not too long after she had broken her shoulder, which she guarded carefully along the way.  I was nervous the whole time, fearing that she would slip and reinjure her shoulder or break something else trying to protect it as she fell.

Although we should have waited until she was in better shape to make this hike, I can state with certainty that neither of us was disappointed with the terminus of this trail.  It was one of the most secluded and enchanting waterfalls I have ever seen in Georgia.  We did the obligatory selfie shot with the falls behind us, which became profile pictures for both of us on social media for several months.  I apologized to her profusely for selecting such a treacherous trail, especially considering that she was still recovering from an injury.  As usual, she simply said, “I’m fine.”  She is indeed.

Little Rock Creek big falls
Little Rock Creek big falls

Phoenix Mountains Preserve

I have written several blog entries about hiking, an activity that my wife and I so enjoy and one that I am missing terribly since I broke my ankle last month.  I have also written about some of our favorite places to hike, which are often located in areas that offer distant vistas, most particularly mountains and valleys.  Truly one of the most spectacular places we have hiked is in Phoenix, Arizona, the city where my wife lived for nineteen years, before we met.  She has told me about how, when she lived in the area, she regularly drove to the Phoenix Mountains Preserve to hike the trails on over 6,000 acres of land owned by the city and managed by the Phoenix Mountains Preservation Council.  The network of trails in the Preserve winds up through small mountains and hills that reach about 2,000 feet above the desert floor and about 3,000 feet above sea level.  These elevations, combined with the mostly treeless landscape, provide hikers with incredible views of the enormous valley below and the vast sprawl of the metropolitan city and suburbs.

View from one of the trails
View from one of the trails

I traveled to Arizona for the first time in 2008 with my wife, and while we were there, she took me to the Preserve.  We hiked up one of the hills, not to the top but far enough to take some great photos that I have used on occasion as computer wallpaper, like the one above.  Somehow the mountains in the distance look so much higher than they are because they soar up from the flat, desert floor.  There is a very definite contrast between earth and sky in many portions of the west, and this is one of those places.  The diversity of plant life in the desert is far greater than most people who have not seen it can imagine.  The terrain is rocky and sandy but not too difficult to maneuver.  The Preserve is well used and a wonderful recreational asset for the people of Phoenix.

A Wooded Path

If you like hiking, or simply taking a walk on a nature trail, the state parks and national forests in north Georgia are some of the best places to enjoy this activity.  The state of Georgia does a fine job, with dwindling resources I am quick to add, with the access to natural resources it provides through the state park system.  The trails vary in length and difficulty levels to accommodate almost any age and degree of fitness.  Most parks have trails that are wheelchair accessible.  The diversity of flora and fauna in the southern Appalachia is unmatched anywhere in the U.S.  There are very few weeks out of the year where the weather makes outdoor exploration uncomfortable here.  I have spent many hours wandering mountain paths through densely wooded countryside and have always come away restored.

Visit Georgia State Parks website

View from Black Rock Mountain State Park visitor center
View from Black Rock Mountain State Park visitor center