50th anniversary of Wilderness Act celebrated locally

Woodlands Garden Executive Director Claire Hayes, right, assists at a community garden near Decatur High School with Woodlands volunteers and master gardeners Dolly Moy, left, and Janice Whitener.

Some 48 years ago, physician Chester Morse promised his bride, Eugenia (Gene), that something would always be blooming for her on the Decatur property that was their new home.

A little more than 50 years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act, establishing the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Those bits of local and national history come together this month at Woodlands Garden—the property that was the Morse home. It is one of five Atlanta venues hosting the Wilderness Act Performance Series, marking the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

“It was really visionary legislation,” Claire Hayes, the current executive director of Woodlands Garden, said of the act that set aside an initial 9.1 million acres of wild lands for the use and benefit of the American people. “The preservation of special areas to be left unchanged by human interference recognizes a fundamental part of our society’s search for natural beauty, personal growth, national pride and spiritual truth. It is an honor for Woodlands Garden to help commemorate this act that forever safeguards America’s natural wonders.”

Of 757 areas designated as host venues within 40 states, 14 are in Georgia. The only other DeKalb County site is Davidson-Arabia Mountain in Lithonia. Others are located across the state from Brasstown Bald and Blood Mountain to the natural seashores of Cumberland and Blackbeard islands.

The area around Decatur’s Scott Boulevard and Clairemont Avenue was largely wooded and undeveloped in the late 1940s when the Morses purchased their property, but as the couple reached their retirement years Decatur had become the most densely developed city in Georgia, according to Woodlands Garden’s website, which notes that developers were offering large sums for the Morse home. The family said no.

Instead, in 2002 the Morse family gave the property, which with additional land purchases increased to more than seven acres, to the Decatur Preservation Alliance (DPA) to become a permanently protected green space. DPA shepherded Woodlands until 2011, when it became an independent nonprofit.

“While Gene Morse was living, she was allowed to remain in her home. Access to the property was limited because her children wanted to protect her safety and privacy,” explained Hayes. After her death in 2010 at age 90, (Chester Morse died in 2005 at age 89) the garden was made more accessible. “Those who want to come to Woodlands for quiet exploration may do so at no charge—that’s something the Morse family felt very strongly about.”

Hayes described Woodlands as a unique showcase of plants native to the upper Georgia Piedmont ecosystem. “We have volunteers come in regularly to remove invasive plants so that these can thrive. For example, we have more than 50 varieties of camellias, including, I understand, some not found anyplace else,” she said.

The Wilderness Act Performance Series seeks to build public appreciation of the Wilderness Act’s impact on natural and cultural preservation through the commissioning of new music and art. The second Georgia site to host a musical and artistic celebration of the federal legislation, Woodlands Garden will on hold its event Sunday, Sept. 21, 2 – 5 p.m. Two local composers, a poet and a visual artist are participating. Like participating artists nationwide, they were asked to draw inspiration from their venue in creating art that addresses these questions: “How has the perception of wilderness changed with the growing disconnection from nature?” and “How do we appreciate and connect to Earth in our current urban technological society?”

The event will feature musicians from the Chamber Cartel performing original compositions by Eric Fontaine and Stewart Engart; a reading by Stephen Wing, poet in residence; and the unveiling of visual artist Edie Morton’s Floating Gardens, which will remain at Woodlands for a month. All the artists will be present to discuss their work. Stephen Wood, the composer and naturalist who brought this project to life across the city.

On Sunday, Oct. 5, Davidson-Arabian Mountain will host composers Myles Brown and Connor Way, poet Abi Konnig, photographer Simon Salt and visual artist Janna Dudley.

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