As a youngster, Charles Seabrook wore out some serious shoe leather roaming among the salt marshes and stately live oaks of his native Johns Island, South Carolina. Those explorations set a pattern for later life- and occasionally got him into trouble.
“One day I was coming around a tree and I ran smack into a bobcat,” the veteran journalist recalls. “He wasn’t more than about two feet from me. I was frozen, rigid. And he was looking directly into my eyes.”
After a brief and tense stare-down, the big cat turned tail and loped off into the brush-and Seabrook started breathing again.
The metro Atlanta naturalist is still ambling decades later as he pens the long-running “Wild Georgia” column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
His love of the written word, natural curiosity and a keen eye for his surroundings have made him a fixture in environmental and nature journalism in Georgia. The 75-year-old has written books, won awards for his work, gives talks to civic groups and posts nature photos on Facebook.
Long before all that, Seabrook had decided that exploring a coastal island was not nearly enough to slake his wanderlust.
“My dad had a subscription to National Geographic and I’d read about all these exotic, faraway places and I wished I could travel to them,” he said. “I didn’t realize just what I had right at home.”
He needn’t have fretted about travel. Journeys taking him around the globe would come his way soon enough.
A four-year Air Force stint led Seabrook to a base in Texas, where he began taking college courses. He expanded on that after returning to his home state by landing a journalism degree.
Soon, he had wangled a job at the Charleston News and Courier. Seabrook thought he’d died and gone to Heaven. A job in his hometown and an outlet for his writing suited him just fine.
He was soon disabused of that notion, realizing that knowing a lot of folks on his nearby and close-knit native island could be a liability as well as an advantage.
As Seabrook relates it, “I was heading to an assignment one day and I ran my car into a ditch. A close friend of my older brother’s came along and pulled me out. Later on he was being investigated for possible bribery. Here this guy had done me a big favor and I had to write about him.”
He quit and headed back to school, taking science courses at the University of South Carolina. Seabrook picked up a biology degree and aimed at eventual admission to medical school.
On a 1972 trip to Atlanta to visit a former journalism colleague who’d landed at the Atlanta Journal, he had a serendipitous conversation with Durwood McAlister, one of the paper’s top editors. McAlister offered Seabrook a science writer’s job a few days later. Seabrook took the job and never left, eventually retiring from the successor AJC.
Seabrook staked out a solid presence on both the science beat early on and after his switch to environmental writing in the late 1980s. He broke new ground and scratched his travel itch through attending science conferences all over the world. As for exotic: the newspaper sent him up the Amazon River twice as he covered the destruction of the rain forest and the smuggling of wild creatures; and a trip to Alaska to cover 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spilled led to camping out on a church pew because all the available hotel rooms had been snatched up by reporters and bureaucrats.
Also, “I was the one of the first in the country to report about this mysterious disease that was cropping up among the gay community, which we now know as AIDS,” Seabrook said.
He turned out crisp copy about its impact in Atlanta and elsewhere, the suffering of victims, the early stigma and the science involved, winning awards from the Associated Press, United Press International and others for his work.
On another occasion, attending a routine Georgia Department of Natural Resources conference yielded a series of exposes.
“They handed out a report on water quality in Georgia and at the end of a number of case descriptions, there were these initialed notations. I started asking questions about them and the DNR commissioner basically said, ‘You don’t need to worry about those.’ “
But Seabrook connected with a source who painstakingly took him on a tour through the obscure lettering – which, as it turned out, detailed some serious water pollution violations. Seabrook’s articles led to legislative changes governing water quality in Georgia and contributed to a massive lawsuit forcing the city of Atlanta to upgrade its sewage system.
“I didn’t know a lot about the environmental beat when I started out, “he said, “but I learned a helluva lot.”
His work led to a more active role with the Georgia Botanical Society as he intensified his nature studies. “My heart gladdens when I come across the stunning white blossoms of bloodroot, or hear the jaunty song of a Carolina Wren, or watch a bumblebee sip nectar from a Virginia bluebell, “he wrote.
And he keeps his nature columns timely; a recent entry extolled the virtues of tromping the woods as a relief valve from COVID-19 concerns.
“I am more about connectivity. The birds wouldn’t be there without plants. A lot of plants wouldn’t be there without the birds. And a lot of plants wouldn’t be here without pollinators like the bees.”
One of his books is a treatise on corruption and questionable practices in the Georgia kaolin mining Industry. A second turns an eye on Cumberland Island and its denizens and a third focuses on southeast coastal salt marshes.
And on occasion, scary encounters still come his way.
“A few years ago I was on this trail on a slope and with trees on one side and a fairly steep drop on the other. I took a misstep and I started tumbling. I could feel my head hitting on each rock going down. When I got to the bottom, I checked it out and I had nothing but bumps and bruises, but I had an expensive camera lens that I ruined.”
Undaunted, he carried on exploring from the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge to the wild tangle of Cumberland but COVID-19 has, understandably, put that on the back burner. He celebrates Georgia’s diversity of ecosystems but worries that factors such as climate change and invasive species are diminishing the panoply of plants and creatures.
As to why his love for the Georgia outdoors, well, bloomed, Seabrook is a bit mystified.
“I gave a talk at a church in early February and the woman who introduced me asked why I did this. I said ‘I don’t know. It’s just my basic curiosity.’ To me a healthy curiosity is God-given.”