The Sanctuary – A Work in Continuous Evolution

Walter W. Williams, MD

Love of “nature” and living things (especially trees) is in my DNA. Even as a very young child and budding adolescent, I had an affinity for nature and learning about all things living – insects, plants, animals (land or sea dwellers), microorganisms, and of course, homo sapiens. There were undisturbed wooded areas near my childhood home, a lake, and a large tributary to the Mississippi River, and these were my favorite places to play and discover.

It seemed a no-brainer to major in human biology in college, after a thoroughly exciting and fun experience in high school exploring natural science courses. Going on to study medicine felt the proper course for things, as well as pursuing a career that involves continuous learning about things that affect our lives.

I made my first home in southeast Dekalb County after relocating to Atlanta in 1978, and I wanted to stay in the area when “new home fever” overtook me. I had bicycled passed this wooded lot that has become “The Sanctuary” many times with my riding club, the Metro Atlanta Cycling Club (MACC), noticing the majestic white oaks that dominated the lot, towering over all the other trees and the thick undergrowth. When cycling pass the lot, which is in a valley after a fast (13%) downhill, I often glimpsed this large wooden sign, well off the road, and mostly hidden by the trees and undergrowth. I later determined the sign announced, “acreage available.” During one ride, a series of colorful for sale signs had been placed by a realty company just off the roadway out of the woods in easy view of all passers-by – “Lot for Sale – 11.3 acres.”

Beset by this growing new home fever and other personal drivers that demanded more space, I decided to call the number on the for sale signs and eventually was referred to the property owner. The owner was in total “don’t waste my time” mode, having set a non-negotiable price for the lot and apparently was eager to find a buyer. I was quite ready to plunge in, so aggressively sought out a reputable builder and set up a meeting to walk the lot with the owner and the builder, who tuned out to be a very personable, easy-going gentleman, who was on the top of his craft.

When I first walked the lot, it was mid-afternoon on a sunny summer day, sunlight was filtering through the tree canopy, and within minutes, as the property owner, the builder, and I cut a path with machetes through the thick undergrowth that began right at the roadside, I knew this was the place for my sanctuary – a feeling of serenity engulfed me, and the vision for this place was spawned.

In a word, “sold” – I made the lot purchase happen as quickly as property sales allow and began the quest to get things in place to start the major part of the journey – building The Sanctuary. Hours of intensive self-study were spent on property development, home design, residential construction, construction management, carpentry, concrete, masonry, and brickwork, plumbing and electrical installation, interior design (including architectural design features), kitchen and bath design, visiting home shows, and more. After about six months, I prepared reasonable drawings of the basic site plan, floor plans for the main structure, found an architect to prepare construction plans, got the construction loan and building permit, and broke ground!

The first time I waded across the creek (Pole Bridge Creek) to explore the greater wooded areas of the lot, the commitment to establish a nature trail was solidified. I had drawn up a trail design as a major component of the initial site plan for the overall construction project, exercising due diligence in researching environmentally appropriate trail development. Starting the preparation of the trail became a key component of the initial property development, tagging the route to avoid damaging any trees, and frequently discovering and having to remove hidden barbed wire left by whomever/whatever had gone on here before me. Along with living quarters, constructing a weight-bearing bridge for access to the forest was another essential element. I delved into fengshui, and books on Georgia and eastern region trees, wildflowers, and birds, and common birds of greater Atlanta. The books on fengshui were great aides for helping me better understand the topography of the terrain and how nature interacts with it, assess, choose, and design the sites for structures, as well as the layout and appointments for interiors.

The Sanctuary Nature Walk was cut initially early in 2001 during the development of other parts of the property, but rapidly was overgrown with local invasive plants due to the lack of easy access across the creek for foot traffic before the memorial bridge that now spans the creek was constructed (2007-2008). The bridge was later christened with installation of a headstone in March 2011, dedicating the bridge and nature walk to my parents, Elizabeth and Jim Williams. The construction of this load-bearing bridge (up to 25,000 pounds) was a major undertaking that warrants its own recount! With the “Elizabeth & Jim Williams Memorial Bridge” in place, the trail could be restored more easily and the exciting world and exploration of the Nature Walk, also in my parents’ names, could be undertaken in earnest.

Natural stone benches were installed in key locations along the walking path. The benches allow expansive views of the forest, resting places for weary hikers, and feeding pedestals for squirrels and other animals to enjoy. The views from these locations are all so different at various times of day and as the seasons morph from spring to summer, fall, and winter. The Nature Walk is well-established now after my use for some years and use by animals (who love it), along with yearly seasonal droppings from the trees, which has created abundant bedding on the walking path.

One of the goals for the entire development has been to create a peaceful/restful/serene place on the edge of the forest with a minimal footprint that nurtures and energizes the spirit and generate equipoise. Xeriscaping with limited traditional gardening limits the footprint of the main living quarters, with just a tiny “lawn” that extends only a few yards from the rear of the living quarters and ends at the edge of the forest. Vistas of the forest are available from almost every location of the living quarters.

Visitors from the woods come daily (and nightly) to the open spaces surrounding the living quarters and the lower patio and upper veranda as well. How joyful it is to watch the birds and animals who make this area their home: the cardinal couple that nests nearby and fly in to feed on the veranda at about the same time every day, watching them grow older over the years and then to be introduced to some of their offspring who now come to feed on the veranda as well; other small birds who come daily in small flocks to feed on different schedules – early, mid and late morning shifts; the wild turkey that come up year-round and especially during mating season, when the toms do their vanity feather-spreads, puff up their chests, and strut around the hens to impress and stake their claims, often pecking at other toms and their reflections on my front windows; the parades of hens and their poults foraging for edibles; the deer who love the white oak acorn, and often come up in droves of 12 and more to feast on the fallen acorn in the driveway – easy pickings; the raccoon, the coyote, fox, possum, turtles, occasional armadillo, big birds (owl, hawks, vultures/other scavenger birds, crane and other occasional migrating birds), snakes, salamander, frogs, big bugs, chipmunk, and of course the ubiquitous, pesky squirrels.

It is so wonderful to have a modest swath of natural forest right in the heart of Dekalb County. The opportunity to preserve this small, natural gem, create a trail to explore it, seemed to have just flowed as part of what I was destined to do, making The Sanctuary an embracing space that evokes what “Sanctuary” is intended to mean.

I am thrilled to have been introduced to EcoAddendum and the wonderful work of this organization and am excited about the future ahead discovering and learning more about what surrounds me.




Photos, from top: Dr. Walter Williams in bonsai garden, by K.Kolb; Backyard and forest, by Walter Williams; Pole Bridge Creek, high water, by Walter Williams; View into Sanctuary forest. Photo K.Kolb, Moss on rocks by Walter Williams, Deer tracks, by Walter Williams.








3 responses to “Journey to Sanctuary”

  1. Brinda Cockburn says:

    I d like to sign up for the walk on March 29 to the Sanctuary

  2. Barbara Whitlow says:

    We would like to sign up for the sanctuary walk

  3. Jessie Legros says:

    I would like to sign up for the sanctuary walk in June.

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