A Historian Gone Naturalist?

I have always had a passion for history, focusing on Civil War history more so than any other aspect. All of my life from elementary school to high school, I always had the passion for history and for that matter the 1860s. Heck, my teacher even nick named me “Johnny Reb.” But I also was interested in forestry, wildlife and agriculture when I was a student in school.

For the last fourteen years, I have been to some of the coolest historical sites where Civil War history was the main theme and most prominent. From the seacoast and harbor of Charleston, South Carolina to the dense forested area of Droop Mountain, West Virginia, to the openness of cotton fields and partially wooded areas of Bentonville, North Carolina, I have always been intrigued with the natural landscape of Civil War battlefields. I always say how beautiful a landscape can be, but I never paid to much attention to the little things that a battlefield has to offer other than the history itself. Little things like a butterfly landing on a flower or seeing a deer herd without saying “man ol’man” if only it was hunting season.

The hot weather conditions of the summer months, from the heat to the severe weather, were all topics that were written about by soldiers who experienced those extreme weather patterns that we often complain about today. I love the late part of summer and the early part of fall, the feeling of a cold front moving in by the coolness within a warm breeze in September or October, the same weather condition written about by so many soldiers upon South Mountain. It is something you can relate to when you read about it.

Civil War Battlefields are filled with many things from the history of those men who fought so bravely to the wildlife such as deer herds, turkeys crossing the road to different kinds of bugs and trees. Trees, I can’t tell you how many soldiers wrote about trees. At Monterey Pass, many soldiers wrote about eating the bark from Birch trees and picking raspberries. All of which are a very important natural resource.

Since working for the Maryland Park Service, I have learned a lot about myself that I had forgotten. For example, I work with an Assistant Deer Project Manager for the Maryland Wildlife Department and he reminds me of what it means to have a healthy harvest of the deer population during hunting season. I also work with the Forestry Department, who remind me that there is a time to plant trees and a time to cut trees. Then you have the staff for the battlefield, tasked with the history of our site and it’s up to us to research and bring together the whole story from the battle to the natural resources of our park.

I have noticed that this year with my blog entries, I have been concentrating more on nature related topics and recreational resources. So in reality did I forget Mother Nature or have I gotten so used to seeing it that I have taken it for granted. Some days, when I have a light work load, I am to check shelters along the Appalachian Trail. This is where, for unknown reasons that I began to reexamine nature and what it offers, but I always manage to link it to some Civil War history that occurred in the area. With that information I am able to connect to the hikers that come through hiking the Appalachian Trail.

During my training sessions for interpretation I learned that the more you link your surroundings to your presentation, the better the education experience is for park visitors. For example, I remember during my first year of employment with the State of Maryland, I always questioned the reasons behind bird watching until one day I took a few minutes to observe. I saw many species of raptors flying in the sky. I saw my first bald eagle at Washington Monument State Park. By interpreting history and incorporating natural resources, such as bird watching to my programs, it becomes a very powerful tool, connecting history to nature and watching my park guests enjoy what I had taken for granted.

Lately, I have really enjoyed the sounds and sites that Mother Nature has to offer while spending a great deal of my time outside away from my office. Could it be that the “Spirit of the Wild” as Ted Nugent says is making its way back to me? Or is it because of the fact that I now fully understand the balance of history and the key parts that nature plays. Key landscapes and wildlife that Civil War soldiers wrote about are in some cases the same as I see today.

Interpreting our Civil War battlefield is fun. During the Battle of Fox’s Gap General Ripley’s Confederate Brigade never pulled the trigger of their rifles because of the thick mountain laurel that was in abundance. This heavy growth of laurel made their advance difficult and essentially stopped their line of march. I often show that mountain laurel to people as a visual aide to help them understand what these soldiers went through while fighting on top of the mountain. Without me even knowing it, I have, for the most part been connecting history to nature and the recreational resources our Maryland State Battlefield has to offer.

The nature lover and the history buff are two very different people. It is sometimes a difficult task for me to connect those two individuals, to help them to identify, and to assist them in experiencing the full potential that my park has to offer, but to leave them with the understanding how important the both aspects are, is a clear indication that I have done my job. For the past few years, I have been wearing the shoes of the visitors to my park without even noticing it. Those individuals that I had come in contact with have left with a better understanding of how nature and history come together and how both are connected. For example, I created a program about the Appalachian Trail, linking the best recreational day use activity our park has to offer and the natural beauty that it covers to the Civil War history that lies forgotten on South Mountain.

To the history buff, when you see a butterfly do you think “oh, how pretty,” and do you stand there and watch it as it flies away? To the hiker or naturalist who witnesses a beautiful vista upon South Mountain do you realize that it could have been used as a Civil War observation post? When I tie in the historical aspect with the nature and wildlife of our park, people really do get to experience the full spectrum of what our park has to offer. The thing I love most about this is that I get a chance to experience this everyday and I know that when I place that Ranger hat upon my head, I feel a sense of pride that I can not explain and at the end of every shift, the rewards are the satisfaction knowing that I did my job and the faces of those who came, left with a new sense of how history and nature really do come together. So, take my advice and take a moment to look around, you’ll be surprised at what you might find.

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2 thoughts on “A Historian Gone Naturalist?

  1. Jim Rosebrock September 11, 2010 / 12:42 pm

    John,It was nice meeting you at the BBC Travel Channel film shoot the other day. I was the number one gunner from Antietam. I just came across your blog. It is terrific. Your post provides a great perspective. As a volunteer at Antietam, I realize there is an important environmental aspect to that park (and really all all the "historical" parks that is easy to be overlooked. I too try to incorporate the things you describe here into my own interpretations.I added your blog to my blog list at South From the North Woods, my blog on Antietam. RegardsJim Rosebrock

  2. By John A. Miller September 12, 2010 / 1:21 pm

    Hi Jim,Thank you for the kind words. With all of the history that is surrounded by nature at South Mountain State Battlefield, it is always a good idea to interpret different aspects of the surroundings. I found that this is a great way to reach out to those who might not be interested in the bloodshed of war, so nature can add a positive to your group. Plus, with so many different visitors who come out to South Mountain, this is a fun way to conect to everyone. I'll be at Antietam this coming weekend on the artillery detachment. It was good meeting you as well. I also added your blog to my list. Thank you Jim and see you maybe this weekend.

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