Marie Barlow Mellinger was a self-taught naturalist and environmental crusader who spent her life educating others about nature and the need to protect it for future generations. Born and raised on the edge of a forest in Wisconsin, Ms. Mellinger’s interest in nature was evident throughout her life. At various times during her young adulthood she helped her father run a plant nursery, worked in a fire tower during WWII, and did publicity work for the Wisconsin Department of Conservation. In 1957, Ms. Mellinger moved South with her husband, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, who had accepted a position with the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, Ms. Mellinger had a difficult time adjusting to the coastal summers and the couple looked to Rabun County for a solution. They initially bought a summer home here and, upon Mr. Mellinger’s retirement in 1967, moved permanently to the county. It was at this point that Ms. Mellinger’s environmental work took on the significance for which she is remembered.
Local residents probably recall Ms. Mellinger’s weekly columns in The Clayton Tribune called “Under the North Georgia Grapevine.” Over a period of many years, she treated readers to articles with titles like “Wonderful Ways with Weeds” and “Let us Smile at Smilax.” Perhaps less known is Ms. Mellinger’s contribution to other publications, including the Foxfire Magazine, Tipularia, the scientific journal of the Georgia Botanical Society, and The Chat, the official publication of the Carolina Bird Club. She also authored the well regarded Atlas of the Vascular Flora of Georgia, a county by county record of over 2,000 wild plant species, as well as various guide booklets devoted to plant and tree identification. In many of her writings, she interjected historical facts, folklore, humor and poetry.
The Forest Speaks
Could forests speak, would we but ever listen?
Trees speak in bark and leaves, when dew and rain drops glisten.
The forest speaks of changes, every season’s turn.
The forest speaks, but we are slow to learn.
(Marie Mellinger, no date)
As an environmental advocate, Ms. Mellinger described herself as a “purist.” One admirer broadened this self-description by noting “… she was a feisty activist, never one to back away from controversy.” Notably, her advocacy work took on a multifaceted and hands-on approach. She was well known for her bird and botany hikes, field surveys, inventory of rare plants, as well as her nature workshops at state parks, Foxfire and Elder Hostels. She often invented games as a way of introducing the public to nature. One such game was “Reading the Landscape,” in which participants looked over a particular site, like an abandoned house, pasture or grist mill, to “read” its history by referencing its present state. Another popular activity engaged workshop participants in identifying, gathering, preparing and eating wild edibles.
There was also a more formal side to Ms. Mellinger’s advocacy work. In 1969, she was invited to join the Georgia Botanical Society. This was a groundbreaking event, as the society previously had been limited to a small group of professional botanists. Ms. Mellinger again made history in 1970-71 when she served as president of the society, the first non-Atlanta president, and began promoting it as a statewide organization. She also opened membership to anyone with an interest in botany, regardless of their academic credentials. It was the subsequent growth of the society that no doubt contributed to its success in helping to protect Georgia’s environment, local examples of which included blocking an extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping construction of a road up the back side of Brasstown Bald and, in 1984, fostering the creation of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness. In 2001, the Georgia Botanical Society honored Ms. Mellinger’s work by establishing the Marie Mellinger Field Botany Research Grant. In keeping with the spirit of her leadership, anyone engaged in a field study of Georgia’s native flora is eligible for consideration.
While best known for her work with the Georgia Botanical Society, Ms. Mellinger also served as president of the Georgia Ornithological Society. In addition, she was a member of the Georgia Conservancy, a statewide organization devoted to protecting Georgia’s natural resources, and the Chattooga Conservancy, collecting and selling seeds of native plants as a fundraiser for the organization. In 1973, she was appointed to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Advisory Commission.
Numerous tributes stand as a testament to Ms. Mellinger’s stature as one of Georgia’s most important naturalists. Her collection of flowering and nonflowering illustrations, photographs, plant cuttings and slides are housed at the University of Georgia Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library. No doubt, a few lucky individuals still have the small packets of wild seeds Ms. Mellinger collected or the nature scrapbooks she gave away as gifts and door prizes.
Other fitting tributes include the Marie Mellinger Center at Black Rock Mountain State Park and the Marie Mellinger Cottage at the Hambidge Center. The former is designed to accommodate a range of entertainment and nature programs. The latter is used to house writers and artists while they are in residence at the Hambidge Center.
Without question is the tribute left by Marie Mellinger herself - the natural beauty of Northeast Georgia which she cherished and fought to protect.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Rabun County remained largely isolated from the outside world. This would change dramatically with the coming of a railroad which also brought tourism, logging and dam building.
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