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Winter landscapes
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Winter is, unequivocally, my favorite time of the year. Of course, I realize that the winters I'm used to as a lifelong Georgia resident are generally just mild cold snaps compared to what the rest of the nation experiences. For example, a good friend up in central Michigan is not overly fond of winter, given that oftentimes they've not really dug out from the last snow up there before the next round has begun.

Nonetheless, for me, right here in Georgia, winter is absolutely the best time to be alive on the planet. More often than not, days dawn crisp and clear, with cobalt blue skies. The leaves are gone from the hardwoods, and as Earth makes the hard turn at one end of our football-shaped orbit around the Sun, the shadows falling from far southward cast a distinctively different view upon the geography of this special place.

I've learned a lot about the lay of the land over half a century of Georgia winters. It seems to me that there's a direct relationship between the land and the people, even though some folks don't seem to be aware of how much the land affects them.

I became fascinated with maps and geography as a youth. It was a totally different day and age, when travel was pretty much reserved for those who could afford it. And as we were so poor we couldn't pay attention, I did my traveling vicariously, immersing myself in reading about exotic locations and studying maps. I traversed the Himalayas with Sir Edmund Hillary, flew to the poles with Wiley Post and explored the ocean depths with Jacques Cousteau. I spent hours poring over maps in the school library and still have a tough time discarding an old map.

Growing up in a small town in the 1960s in rural Georgia went a long way toward cultivating my love for the land. As a Boy Scout, I went on countless hikes and learned how to find my way with a map and a compass. Our Scout Master taught us to find our way even without map or compass: you just follow the lay of the land. Follow running water, or look at which side of the tree moss grows on to approximate true north. The land will tell you what to do, if you'll just let it.

Maybe that's why I'd rather take a road map and find my own way without asking directions, much to my wife's chagrin. But, alas, I digress.

At any rate, as a youth I learned to appreciate the fact that my native Georgia had an abundance of unspoiled land, clean air and fresh water. And thus, as I grew older, winter came to be a time when being outdoors was a special time for just me and the land. I learned to leave it like I found it, to pack out my trash and to preserve nature for the next person to enjoy.

Well, for more than 30 years now, Newton County has been home to me. In the winter, I love to grab a warm jacket and gloves, take the doors off the Jeep, turn the heat up and explore dirt roads and remote outreaches of the county. I've traced Newton's borders on County Line Road, and have learned why a goo family friend named his house on Dearing Street "Ridgeline." Dearing Street sits atop the ridge which divides the Yellow River and Alcovy River watersheds, you see. The rain falling on the west side of Dearing ends up in the Yellow River, while rain across the street joins the Alcovy.

Over time, as an airline employee with virtually unlimited travel available to me, I've been able to visit some of those exotic places I read about and visited vicariously with maps when I was a kid. Some places have risen to greatness, and others have fallen prey to overcrowding. The crucial difference, in every case, came down to the people protecting their land from development, or caving in to allow unfettered growth.

It's absolutely transparent, for anyone with eyes to see. Folks who love the land, whose families have been in a place for generations, and who have a sense of belonging to the place where they've put their roots down, act a whole lot different than those who pop in for a little while, chew up the resources while making a lot of noise about what's wrong with the place, and then - like the chaff - are driven away by the winds of change.

Georgia was once an idyllic place, but as millions of folks moved here, developers - by and large - were all too willing to sacrifice the landscape for just one more subdivision. I've seen it too many times to belabor the obvious, and there are no words to convey the heartbreak this native Georgian feels when I fly into Atlanta on a crystal clear day and see cookie-cutter subdivisions carving up the land, like a cancer spreading.

And that tells me all I need to know about the developers, and the politicians who allow the developers to continue unabated.

I find myself thinking that those who don't respect the land must not respect much of anything. Greed, the pursuit of the almighty dollar, is the driving factor. And slowly, inexorably, what was once a place with unspoiled views, clean air and an abundance of fresh water turns into just another place struggling with environmental issues.

Developers don't seem to mind, as some appear regularly in the news as they pay fine after fine for repeated violations. But you won't find a developer living downstream of Atlanta, either.

The only folks who suffer are those who love the land, who are tied to it. They're the ones who know the peace of a winter afternoon in the countryside, of walking in the woods, of following a river, of hearing that special sound the wind makes only in the winter as it sings through bare tree limbs, and of the spectacular pictures formed by those barren trees against the sky, or a sunset, which defy description.

Every once in a while, along about sunset, I reflect upon a special time when our family shared an entire afternoon sitting on the side of a mountain at Inspiration Point just to watch the sun set over the Yosemite Valley. We had the luxury of a few days there, and while tourists would hop out of their cars and snap pictures, get back in their cars and roar off, we were able to watch the changes in that majestic valley over the course of the afternoon. So sad, I told our children, that people would travel so far to see something, and then not take the time actually to look at it. They had to get home and develop their photographs to see what they'd gone to see.

So, when I'm in a reflective mood, I'll jump in the Jeep and head out to a spot near the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, and I'll watch the sun set over Newton Ridge. It ranks right up there with watching that big orange ball settle into the Pacific Ocean from my favorite vantage point at the Muir Beach Overlook, a little-known spot in Marin County north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Right after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, some hastily-contrived gun emplacements were carved into the cliff there. On a clear day you can see all the way south to Land's End, and all the way north to Oregon.

So when I compare a GA. Highway 11, Charlie Elliott, Newton County sunset to the ones I've seen from the Muir Beach Overlook, I'm telling you something.

You can't just watch the sun set in a hurry, you see. It'll take a few hours, if you want to do it right. As you sit there, a little closer to nature, you'll notice how the water drains from the place, from which direction the weather mostly moves, how the lengthening shadows transform the landscape and how the folks who have been there over time regard the land.

And as you watch, you have time to think, and to listen, and that's when the magic happens. Sometimes it's almost immediate; sometimes it takes a little while. But at some point, as you're taking it all in, a peace settles upon you and some ineffable truth warms you from within.

Granted, watching the sun set doesn't, in and of itself, solve the world's problems. But just as music says things which cannot be put into words, a winter landscape in Georgia goes a long way toward telling me things I need to hear.

I'll see you out on Ga. Highway 11.

Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.