Welcome to Marshall Forest and the Big Pine Braille Trail. This forest was given to The Nature Conservancy by Maclean Marshall, who wanted it preserved not as a park, but as a natural forest. This preserve is a benchmark forest, a sterling piece of natural woods against which altered land can be measured.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The wilderness is near, as well as dear, to every man. Even the oldest villages are indebted to the border of wild wood which surrounds them, more than to the gardens of men.” The guide rope to the left of the station will lead you away from the city and into an untouched pocket of such a wilderness. Along the way you will find stations discussing trees, forests and wildlife. A single knot in the rope signals a station, and a double knot warns of an obstruction such as a tree root in the path. Enjoy your walk!
While Marshall Forest has remained relatively untouched for over 100 years, it is a dynamic place where forest components are constantly shifting and dominance is never fixed. Marshall Forest occasionally undergoes significant disturbance, such as by fire, wind or ice storms. These can create gaps in the tree canopy, allowing sun-loving pines to regenerate. As a result, Marshall Forest is made up of a mix of trees such as oaks, hickories, sweetgum and pines, including shortleaf, longleaf and loblolly pines.
Two paces farther along the guide rope is a small, double-trunked sweetgum tree. Feel its bark to identify it. The bark is fragile and soft in spite of its deep ridges and rugged feel. The wide diversity of trees along this trail is typical of a lowland forest in north Georgia, especially one near a large river (you are only a few hundred yards from the Coosa River). Over 30 kinds of trees have been recorded around the Big Pine Braille Trail, as well as 53 herbs and 19 kinds of shrubs and vines.
Two paces farther along the guide rope is a bench. Take a few minutes to stop and listen to the sounds of life all around you. Birds call and sing, insects buzz, chipmunks bark, and wind rustles the branches of trees and shrubs. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All the trees are wind harps.” Can you hear the different sounds produced by wind in the trees? The differently shaped leaves of each tree make their own distinctive song.
One pace farther along the trail is a large shortleaf pine. This is the tree that gives the Big Pine Braille Trail its name. By hugging its trunk you have an idea of its size. Feel into the ridges of bark and examine the small knobs arising from its otherwise smooth bark plates. The existence of this tree is probably evidence that on this spot two centuries ago a clearing existed, allowing enough sun to reach the ground that young pines could flourish and eventually reach canopy height.
Two paces farther along the guide rope is a white oak, with soft flakey bark. Although the tree’s trunk approaches two feet in diameter, it has not yet reached the height of the tallest pines around it. Feel the soft mosses that grow at the base of the trunk and on its projecting roots. Tradition has it that mosses grow on the north side of trees, but more often in these forests mosses grow in the moister air near the ground around the bases of trees.
One arm’s length to your left the guide rope runs behind two yellow poplar trees. Feel the hard, smooth bark, different from the flaky or soft bark of earlier trees on the trail. Poplars grow straight and tall, and are often some of the largest trees in Georgia’s wet forests.
In the surrounding forest are several mounds of earth created when trees blew over in high winds and wet weather, pulling soil up with their roots. These mounds attest to the dynamic nature of Marshall Forest and the importance of natural disturbances such as weather and lightning fires in shaping the forest. The mounds are often covered with a lush growth of ferns, mosses and wildflowers.
Seven paces farther along the trail is a small bridge across a stream bed that, during wet weather, carries water through the forest, eventually reaching the Coosa River. In dry weather you may step into the stream bed by holding a short rope hanging from the near end of the bridge’s left handrail. The bottom of the stream bed is uneven, rocky in some places and sandy in others, and all is covered with fallen leaves. The stream banks are covered with Christmas fern, partridge berry and maple seedlings. Please move carefully and watch your step if you explore the stream bed.
Behind and beside the sign grow maple-leaf viburnums. This shrub’s leaves are arranged in pairs, on opposite sides of the stem. It produces black fruits eaten by birds and other wildlife in fall and winter. Shrub diversity can be a sign of a forest that has not been significantly altered in the past, such as plowed for agriculture, cut for timber, or disturbed by bulldozers. Marshall Forest has many types of native shrubs that vary as one climbs from Coosa River lowlands to the dry top of Horseleg Mountain, a change in elevation over 800 feet.
Lines of rotting wood on the forest floor are all that remains of large pines that fell during the ice storm of March 1993. Ice storms in this part of Georgia tend to occur in cycles every 30 years or so. They have a profound effect on trees, especially those growing on hillsides whose roots cannot penetrate far into the rocky soil. Pines are also susceptible because their evergreen needles tend to hold more ice than the leafless wintertime limbs of deciduous hardwood trees. The cumulative weight of all this ice can cause limbs to break off or entire trees to fall.
The rope ahead of you runs between the twin trunks of a shagbark hickory tree. Feel the hard bark with its irregular vertical crevices. The bark in the upper parts of the trunk hangs off the tree in long slabs, giving it a shaggy appearance and its name. Bats often roost on summer days beneath these slabs of bark.
Feel the tree’s trunk for small ferns called resurrection fern. In dry weather they seem dead, curling into a dry, withered clump. After rain, they enliven and uncurl into delicate fern fronds two to five inches in length. Before reaching down, predict how they will feel based on recent weather.
Retrace your steps 4 or 5 paces and reach beyond the rope to touch a mound left by a fallen pine. Feel for soil, mosses, rock, and plants growing on the mound.
Reach across to the opposite side of the trail to the trunk of a black cherry tree. Feel its rough flaky bark, and the soft mosses that grow on some parts of it. Black cherries ripen in summer, providing food for many forest-dwelling songbirds such as blue jays, robins and tanagers.
Black cherries are often the first tree to begin growing in a clearing, but they rarely reach the height of a forest canopy and usually grow beneath the canopy or along the edges of a forest. Birds spread their seeds far and wide, helping them colonize natural openings in the forest or newly cleared land.
Reach above the sign to either side for the ropy vines of wild grape hanging from nearby trees. The fruits of the wild grape, or “scuppernong,” are another important source of food for local wildlife.
One pace back along the rope, you will encounter the large trunk of a post oak tree. Feel the rough, crumbly bark covered with mosses and lichens. Post oak leaves are distinguished by their cross shape. Post oaks are named for their wood, which was often used by early settlers to make fence posts.
Their thick bark makes post oaks tolerant of fire. Before the arrival of Europeans, fires were regular in these forests, sometimes from lightning but most often set deliberately or accidentally by the Cherokee and their predecessors. Fires promoted the dominance of pines, oaks, hickories and chestnuts in the upland forest canopy, and kept sweetgum and red maple confined to the wet river bottomland forests.
There is a wide diversity of plants in Marshall Forest, but not all are native to North America. Japanese honeysuckle covers the ground and some of the native plants around you, often smothering or strangling them. English ivy is another plant that can out-compete and destroy native plants. Other plants that have escaped cultivation and that are creating problems at Marshall Forest include Chinese wisteria and Chinese privet. Both these plants have the ability to completely take over a native forest, eventually becoming the only plant present. The Nature Conservancy is actively controlling all these plants so they are not able to destroy the balance of nature in this special place.
Another plant alien to Marshall Forest is the southern magnolia, which naturally occurs only in south Georgia. Birds have spread seeds from ornamental plantings in nearby neighborhoods. Even if a plant is naturally found 100 miles away, if it is not part of the native flora of the area it could disrupt the function of native plant communities.
You have just completed a tour of the Big Pine Braille Trail. Forests are essential to the emotional peace and health of us all, and as Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Marshall Forest preserves a small piece of the forests that once covered the hills of Rome, and will remain a place of natural beauty and diversity for generations to come.
Please come back and experience the forest as it changes with the seasons. If you wish to learn more about Marshall Forest or about other wonderful natural areas in Georgia, please contact the Atlanta office of The Nature Conservancy.