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Mountains as socio-ecological landscapes

Alan Flurry

The highest point in the state of Georgia, Brasstown Bald, is known to native Cherokee as Etonah and to many Georgians as among the best locations to view the changing fall colors. The term “bald” is used to describe deforested mountaintops in the southern Appalachians that have 360-degree unobstructed views.

And the views can indeed be spectacular. But the high, grassland mountaintops, rather than naturally occurring, are part of a manufactured landscape about 10,000 years old. Brasstown Bald—along with many other mountaintops and upland grasslands often mistaken as natural wonders—is nothing less than the ecological legacy of bioengineers of the past.

“Those ancestors who lived around these mountains on the upper part of the Appalachians shared the space with the megafauna of the Pleistocene,” said Fausto Sarmiento, UGA professor of geography and the author of a new study seeking to explain mountains as socio-ecological systems. “These people actually changed the mountains in such a way that we are now viewing a ‘natural’ landscape that is indeed a ‘cultural’ landscape that has been maintained by the human practice of burning, in particular.”

In “Montology manifesto: Echoes toward a transdisciplinary science of mountains,” published in November 2020 in the Journal of Mountain Science, Sarmiento posits a rationale for montology, a science of mountains that transcends disciplinary boundaries. Just like the Appalachian balds, the Andean páramos he studies are culture-nature fusion landscapes, such as those around Mount Chimborazo, the birthplace of montology.

Scientific terminology is always responding to fads, Sarmiento said.


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