Smoke Plume over Tallulah

Tallulah Gorge State Park, Georgia
Oil on canvas
30 x 42 in. (76.2 x 106.7 cm)

Private collection

Partly imagined but based mainly on photography and field paintings (see below), this view of Tallulah Gorge encapsulates my experience of the otherworldly aesthetics I observed there on three different prescribed fires. In this north rim scene, located directly across the gorge from the overlook on Old Highway 441, heavy smoke rises from fires recently ignited by incendiaries dropped from a helicopter. Sunlight, obscured by the rising smoke plume, gives an ominous cast to the newly blackened foreground of boulders, ash, and smoldering deadfall. Left over from previous fires, the felled trunks hint at the history and objectives of these controlled burns. Conducted every few years by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the National Forest Service, and partner organizations, the fires not only reduce hazardous fuel loads, they also diversify the mosaic of forest cover—creating ideal conditions for native plants and animals in this Table Mountain pine/pitch pine ecosystem.

Detail of Tallulah Falls, a painting by George Cooke, 1841.
Detail of Tallulah Falls, a painting by George Cooke, 1841. Collection of the Georgia Museum of Art.

Although Tallulah Gorge’s fire-adapted landscape was eons in the making, this scene may be jarring to modern eyes, informed as we are by a twentieth century legacy of fire suppression. It would not, however, have seemed out of place to earlier inhabitants of the region—not to the Cherokee and their predecessors, nor to European settlers and travelers. For example, it didn’t seem particularly remarkable that “for several days … the woods had been on fire” to artist and author Charles Lanman. His concern was to witness that fire at night, in the gorge—a spectacle he conveyed wonderfully in his 1849 Letters from the Allegheny Mountains. As a parallel to that, and at around the same time, artist George Cooke depicted a section of the gorge (see detail) very similar in location to the scene I have portrayed, showing what appear to be fire killed snags and an open canopy in his 1841 painting Tallulah Falls. Nearly two centuries later, and after almost two decades of prescribed fire management, a similar landscape can again be seen from the overlook on Old Route 441.

Exhibition History