Park Ranger Larisa Nachman at the East Palisades unit of the CRNSA
Park Ranger Larisa Nachman at the East Palisades unit of the CRNSA

Larisa Nachman spotted a couple of red-orange flowers that had blown onto a path through a patch of forest along the Chattahoochee River. She stopped to pick them up.

“These are trumpet creeper,” she said. “Hummingbirds love these things. They can get weedy, so some people don’t like them.”

She likes them, though. She paused for a moment, perhaps considering how best to present the plant’s defense. “They are native to this area …” Her voice trailed off. “Then again,” she added, with a quick laugh, “so is poison ivy.”

But the bright creeper flowers provide “a pretty pop of color,” she said. “I think they’re beautiful. And I love hummingbirds. You’ve got to have the flower to keep the hummingbirds coming.”

Spontaneous nature lesson concluded, she headed on down the path. After a few steps, the sound of water rushing past in the nearby Chattahoochee River seemed to grow louder as the thick forest blocked other sounds. “The further you get out, the more of the river you can hear,” she said. “You can still kind of hear the buzz of the highway, but less and less.”

Nachman, who’s 26, makes her living showing people who live in suburban Atlanta the wilderness hidden away just down the street. She’s a ranger with the National Park Service. She’s assigned to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. She dons a rangers’ uniform with its trademark Smokey Bear hat to lead free walking tours of the various park units.

One recent morning, she hiked through the East Palisades unit located in Sandy Springs. Whitewater Creek meets the Chattahoochee here. Morning sunlight spotted the forest floor. A great blue heron stood watch from a perch across the river. As Nachman walked the park’s trails, still muddy from recent rains, she identified flowers and trees. She greeted joggers and dog walkers who passed as they got their morning exercise.

She was born on this river. Her family lived on Azalea Drive in Roswell, but they moved away before she was 2. “My parents did take me to the river park right down there,” she said, although she admits she doesn’t really remember it.

She grew up in Canton. When she was in high school, her family took vacation trips to national parks. In college, where she majored in English, not flora and fauna, she grew interested in the works of nature writers such as Muir and Thoreau and Annie Dillard. “Thoreau’s essay ‘Walking,’ that was what really kind of gripped me,” she said. “It just kind of summed up the way I felt about going out into the woods.”

Reading about nature led to more hiking and more time in the woods. “It always gave me a good feeling to be in nature,” she said.

Then, when filmmaker Ken Burns did his documentary on the national parks, she saw Burns and a park ranger speak in Atlanta. She was hooked.

She’s learning on the job, she said. Older rangers help her learn the local plants and lore. On her recent morning hike, she pointed out Virginia dayflowers and jewelweed. Her walk led to a large, cave-like rock outcropping she said was used for shelter by Cherokee and Creek hunting parties and perhaps provided a home to prehistoric residents of Sandy Springs.

“It is… I don’t want to say ‘an escape.’ It feels more like the real world,” she said, “because it takes all that hustle and bustle out of everything.”

She’s found a walk in the woods can lead to a place apart.

“You get out here and forget you’re in a city,” Nachman said. “You realize it when you’re coming out here to lead a hike, when you’re in rush-hour traffic on I-285. It hits you: You really need to get here to decompress.”

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Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.