Peter Dykstra

When I was growing up, my dad tried -- without success -- to get me interested in golf. I had a set of his hand-me-down clubs, which my uncle borrowed for a weekend in 1978. I never saw the clubs again, and didn’t particularly miss them. Not even repeated viewings of Caddyshack could spark an interest in me for the allure and charm of golf. Despite that, I’ve spent a lot of time on a golf course recently. Here’s why.

A couple of years ago, I read The World Without Us,a remarkable book by Alan Weisman that speculates on how quickly nature would reclaim the planet if we were to suddenly disappear.  Neither Mr. Weisman nor myself are necessarily rooting for this to happen, but the premise of the book is that nature would hardly miss us if we were gone. Some metals, persistent toxic chemicals, and of course plastics would be long-term markers of humanity’s impact, but our cities, suburbs, and farms would pretty much be overtaken and vanish in a span of decades.

After reading the book, I’ve spent a lot of time walking the former fairways and cart paths of an abandoned golf course near my house. Southerness Golf Club went out of business in 2004. The owners sold the course to the state of Georgia, who folded the course’s 155 acres into the adjacent Panola Mountain State Conservation Park. Apart from building restrooms by the parking lot, the state has pretty much left the site alone. It’s amazing to see how quickly nature has reclaimed the course.

Southerness had a clubhouse, pro shop, restaurant, bar, cart barn, and yes, a caddyshack.  All are boarded up and in some advanced degree of decay and disarray, but I can imagine in its heyday, that the Southerness Golf Club wasn’t too much different  -- maybe one step down the tax schedule -- from Bushwood, the mythical venue for the Caddyshack movie.

It really gets interesting out on the course. After five fallow years, it’s still easy to make out the flat, sculptured areas of the tees and greens. It’s impossible to tell where the short grass of the fairways ends and the rough begins. Except for a few areas that are mowed, the grass is hip-high, and probably not a good place to wander during tick season.

The depressed ground of the sand traps is also easy to figure out. If you look closely, you can see the bright white of the sand beneath the weeds. Then you’ll notice that the weeds that grow out of the sand are different varieties than the ones that grow on the fairways.

The mature yellow pine trees give a rough outline of how the holes were laid out on the course. But they’re being joined by fast-growing seedlings that are covering the course in a high-speed re-foresting. Every hundred yards or so, you can see a decaying sign, out-of-bounds stake, or ball washer. A few wooden bridges are already sporting large holes in the surface, and are bordering on being dangerous for passage. This helps reinforce the aura of the place as a potentially great backdrop for a Stephen King movie.

The water holes are a bit overrun and turbid, but many of them have resident ducks. One thing I’ve never seen on this course is Canada Geese. This is a bit odd, since resident Canada Geese are everywhere in these suburbs, and manicured golf courses are favored habitats. Geese drive golfers and groundskeepers crazy, but they’re not to be seen on these abandoned fairways. Once the grass grew tall, apparently the geese lost interest in golf as quickly as I did.

The course is dotted with hundreds of enormous fire ant mounds. They’re the color, and some are twice as large, as basketballs. Yes, I admit I’ve done the “guy thing” and stepped on a mound to watch the ants go into battle stations. Then I did the smart thing and stepped back, and shook a few of them off my shoe.

The course also supports the usual suspects of suburban wildlife: Deer, red-tailed hawks, vultures, and wild turkeys. I wouldn’t be surprised if armadillos and coyotes, both of which have moved into the area in recent years, aren’t out there as well.

The moral of the story is simple: While some aspects of nature can be quite fragile, much of it is quite resilient. Our species doesn’t really matter much to nature, except when we do irreversible damage. Nature can get along just fine without us. Unfortunately, the reverse isn’t true.

NOTE: The History Channel also “borrowed” Weisman’s idea, and last year rolled out a series called Life After People. It’s re-airing this month.

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Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)  

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