Cover Story: The Lost World of Arabia Mountain
Monks, an animal ER, and 400 million years of history
Becky Kelley needed help. In 1998, the then-director of the DeKalb County Parks Department was watching South DeKalb's development boom slowly encroach on a potential jewel rising from a blanket of trees: a moonscape rock called Arabia Mountain.
The mound — by definition it's a monadnock, an isolated stone hill that rises from a plain — was donated to the county in the 1970s by the Davidsons, the quarry family that sold the area's lucrative gneiss throughout the country as blocks, curbs, and even feed for chickens. But for years the rock, which once a year is home to bursts of red budded plants called diamorpha, sat unused, run over with graffiti and trash.
Kelley called Kelly Jordan, an environmentalist who had played a key role in revitalizing Little Five Points and preserving a historic dairy farm in DeKalb.
With the help of a grassroots group of residents fighting for preservation, the kindness of property owners, nonprofits such as the Conservation Fund and the PATH Foundation, and assistance from county leaders and Georgia's congressional delegation, Jordan and Kelley were able to protect land surrounding Arabia Mountain and start connecting the rich cultural resources surrounding the monadnock. Just a few miles away was Panola Mountain, another monadnock that was saved by the Georgia Conservancy and is home to dwarf trees that are hundreds of years old. A beautiful slice of Mother Nature began to come together, as did a tale of a place.
"We started saying, 'Let's save this,'" Jordan says. "'Well, what about this piece? And another piece. Well, there's a monastery down the road.'"
In 2006, Congress designated Arabia Mountain and the surrounding areas and the monastery a National Heritage Area, one of only 49 in the country. It drew an imaginary line around approximately 40,000 acres straddling DeKalb and Rockdale counties and declared that everything inside it — parkland, private property, the 200-year-old home, the old corner store made of famous Lithonia Tidal Grey granite — was worth celebrating. The area is a diverse and concentrated collection of historic and significant places and resources that tell a story that stretches hundreds of millions of years to the present day.
Arabia Mountain is more than a mountain. It encompasses approximately 12 miles of nature trails and 30 miles of paved bike paths that snake through woods, pass over wetlands, and run through historic barns, ultimately linking the different sites. In addition to the diamorpha bloom and endangered plants, the area is home to DeKalb's — and potentially metro Atlanta's — oldest black community, Flat Rock. Just a few miles from Arabia Mountain, Trappist monks living under vows of chastity, silence, and poverty pray five times a day, tend to Bonsai trees, and sing reverent chants in an abbey they built, one wheelbarrow of concrete at a time. A leaning gray barn is DeKalb's last remaining dairy farm landscape, a testament to a time when the county was the hub of milk and cheese cows in Georgia and the Southeast. Farms and homes built by settlers in the 1820s, including one with slave quarters, still stand. Surrounding them are the subdivisions that first spurred residents to push for preservation.
"In this particular area I feel there's a tenacity and a survival. It comes from the land and the people," says Mera Cardenas, executive director of the Arabia Alliance, the nonprofit tasked with overseeing the heritage area. "Living on a rock is hard. When you have people who relied on the land for a food source and you have all this rock underneath, how did they adapt? Everyone had a backyard quarry. They built a house out of it. They made the land work for them."
There are benefits to being a heritage area — the feds match some funding each year to help pay for staff and operations — but it does not restrict what private property owners inside the heritage area can do with their land or buildings. While the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve and Panola Mountain are protected, much of heritage area is not. The slow creep of development weighs on Cardenas' mind, she says. The alliance is always thinking about ways to promote sustainable development, she says. It's in talks with a developer to include gneiss to give a nod to the area's history as a granite capital.
The required parkland has largely been purchased. The trail network and facilities are in place. Cardenas hopes more people can start to form a connection with the land, which she calls "metro Atlanta's backyard." Throughout the year the alliance is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the federal designation. Throughout March, it's holding one-day hikes of DeKalb's three monadnocks — Stone Mountain, Arabia Mountain, and a special, ranger-led walk up Panola Mountain — and other events to connect people with the area. Day in, day out, it ensures the vision created 10 years ago is carried out and preserves the rich history of the place, but also evolves with the community as it changes.
"I was asked once, 'When is this going to be finished?'" Jordan says of the heritage area. "The project is really lots of people working together to make one little part of the world a better place. Why would you ever want that to be finished?"
Though Arabia Mountain looks more like the moon than a mountain, it is rich with plant life, including five endangered plants. The red bulbs of diamorpha bloom brilliantly once a year. Shallow water pools are ideal for pool sprite. In the preserve, salamander eggs can be seen during a hike.
The 170-foot-high monadnock was mined until the 1970s. Lithonia gneiss was considered durable and was used to help build the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, the Brooklyn Bridge, and street curbs. In 1949, the Lithonia granite district output was valued at $3 million.
Lines in the granite created to help cleanly split the rock into blocks are still visible. The 2,550-acre Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve is home to ruins, deep woods, and cascades such as Stevenson Creek. Each year an estimated 100,000 people pedal on the PATH Foundation’s extensive bike trail network, explore the hiking trails, and climb Arabia Mountain, the centerpiece.
Opened in 2006, the Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort Center is located next to Arabia Mountain and helps rehabilitate all wildlife species. On any given day, the team will clean out a great horned owl’s wounds, repair the shell of a turtle that was struck by a car, or mend a big brown bat’s broken wing. The center treats an estimated 1,800 animals each year.
In 1944, a group of 21 Trappist monks left Kentucky and traveled to Georgia, where they settled on farmland in nearby Rockdale County and started the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. The monks lived in a barn and later constructed their abbey entirely from concrete. The construction took 15 years. Inside, sunlight pours through stained glass, illuminating the building in blues, purples, and at the altar, soft yellow.
The monks, who helped rebuild nearby churches burned during segregation, spend their time in quiet prayer and making items they sell to the outside world at the on-site gift shop. It is a public-facing monastery that welcomes visitors — gustes and lay Cistercians can spend the weekend there and study — and the former barn is now a museum. The monks pray four times a day.
“We don’t look to what we are losing,” says Brother Callistus, who has been a monk for 25 years. “We look to what we gain. What we are going to is so powerful, it is by the grace of God. God is the one who enables you to walk that journey.”
Johnny Waits, the executive director of the Flat Rock Archives, stands in front of a barn he says was burned during a series of arson fires one night in 1934. The barn was rebuilt in 1935. According to Waits, no one has been held accountable.
Flat Rock is the oldest black community in DeKalb, and perhaps even metro Atlanta. After the Civil War, many newly freed people planned to move to the North. Waits says the great-grandfather of Chris Tucker, the famous actor, offered to sell them the land at low prices so they would remain in the community and farm.
Many of their descendants have remained to this day, including descendants of the Bryant family: Bertha Clark, 82, Eleanor Nolden, 64, Tabatha Nolden, 46, and Krista McFadden, 11. “I’ve been in a lot of places but I never been any place I wanted to live but here,” Clark says. The archives, which are open to the public, seek to preserve the community’s history and memories.
A Georgia State University professor has spent five years mapping the Flat Rock Slave Cemetery. While conducting research they discovered that mounds near the headstones were actually Creek Indian graves. Waits says a path leading to the cemetery is the longest untouched slave trail in Georgia but it's now threatened by development.
Mixed among new development in South DeKalb are historic homes that date to the 1820s, such as Lyon Farm. Some homes have reminders of just how common slavery was during the 1800s. Mera Cardenas of the Arabia Alliance says it is believed several slave cabins once stood on the property. It is thought enslaved people also lived in the home’s basement.
In 2012, Scott Pluckhahn and his partner Keith Crosby purchased the Housworth-Moseley House from the Georgia Trust. According to Pluckhahn, a landscape architect, the home was built in 1843 by Abraham Housworth, and remained in the family for the next 160 years. Pluckhahn and Crosby went about restoring the historic house. The home retains most of its original materials, including heart pine floors and walls that have never been painted. According to Pluckhahn, the family would gather water from a nearby spring until plumbing was installed in the house in 1989.
Common throughout Lithonia, which means “city of stone,” are buildings made with the granite mined from quarries and even in backyards. Structures ranging from government buildings to houses in Lithonia and on nearby streets feature the building material.
S.B. Vaughter's Farm along Klondike Road was the last working dairy farm in DeKalb, once considered a hub for milk cows in Georgia and arguably the Southeast. The gray barn stands in the middle of a protected field. A PATH Foundation paved trail runs along the edge of the property. Vaughters' former farmhouse is located across the street. The alliance rehabilitated the house, which was also made with Lithonia granite, and now uses the building as its offices.