As Southerners, our relationship to the land is complex. We’re as fiercely protective of it as our people. We have a drive to claim a stake, to preserve, to pass down. In this spirit, Liberty businessman Tom O’Hanlan is restoring a tract in Pickens to pristine conditions—essentially molding it back to its wild glory—for communion, camaraderie, and conservation.   

LAND & SEE // Tom O’Hanlan, CEO of Sealevel Systems, aims to restore his Pickens County tract Mill Pine Farm to its former, wild glory.

There is still a Southern strand of DNA, and it is deeply rooted in the land. Those of us who possess this strand love having something we can dig our heels into, something we can call our own. Whether it’s the sliver of an acre where a house sits or the back stoop of a condo or a heritage tract of bottomland that spans a couple of zip codes, we Southerners want a place—crave a place—to cultivate our roots. It’s not our fault. It’s in our cellular make-up. We’re hard-wired for a sense of place, for a place of our own.

I saw this early on, as the son of a forester. Years ago, my father bounced me across four Lowcountry counties in a white Ford Falcon, and I watched him huddle with landowners who needed help managing their pines or thinning their hardwoods. Though I was only ten or so, I knew then that the men were talking about something important when they put their heads together, something worth preserving. They talked about the land.

That feeling, that sensation of how connected you can get to the dirt under your feet, had been buried in me until recently, when I drove through the simple metal gate of Mill Pine Farm. Mill Pine is a tract of property just shy of five hundred acres owned by Tom O’Hanlan, the CEO of Sealevel Systems, a company headquartered in Liberty, South Carolina, that builds industrial computers and customized computer parts. O’Hanlan is a unique and wonderful mixture of professor and silver-maned rock star. (And if you know anything about rock and roll, connect the dots between 1) O’Hanlan’s love of rock music; 2) the Rolling Stones’ long-time keyboard player and arranger Chuck Leavell; and 3) Leavell’s jazz/rock/ blues fusion band Sea Level, then you’ll know how O’Hanlan named his computer company.) O’Hanlan has a quick laugh and an easy manner with a story, and he’s more than happy to tell the tale of Mill Pine Farm.

George Campbell, a friend of O’Hanlan, carefully handles a downed bird. Campbell has a long history of quail hunting, which has been a family tradition for generations.

The acreage was, in a former life, a cotton farm, terraced and tilled fields subdivided by strips of spindly loblolly pines and white oaks and sycamores. When he talks about the first time he set foot on the land, O’Hanlan says he could “sense something in the property,” something he wanted to work with, something he wanted to bring out into the open. His vision was to restore the property to a bygone look and feel, back to a carefully cultivated habitat that would encourage wildlife and provide space for him and his family to eventually set up residence. He wanted the land to be the main character in the story of Mill Pine Farm, not simply a supporting player.

And the wildlife O’Hanlan was most interested in re-introducing to Mill Pine Farm was bobwhite quail. In the South (and particularly South Carolina), wild quail populations have been on a steady decline for decades, primarily because of habitat loss. Pine forests floored with thick underbrush, where coveys of quail used to breed relatively free from predators and development, have dwindled in number. Forty years ago in the South, you could hear the calls of a bobwhite covey almost every morning and evening. These days, it’s rare music. O’Hanlan wanted to change that on his five-hundred-acres slice of the world.

(Like I said, I’m a forester’s kid. We’re predisposed—cursed, maybe—to notice trees first.) And these pines are healthy and thick-barked with a high canopy and the dark, sooty stain of a controlled, prescribed burning decorating the trunks up about four feet or so. Beneath the pines, wild tangles of grasses and brush grow thick in a bed of red pine straw—a perfect setting for quail. Plenty of spots for coveys to hide and thrive. You can tell immediately that someone is taking care of things, and taking care of them in the right way.

Ron Fleming, formerly of the Department of Natural Resources, is an expert in land and wildlife conservation, working with O’Hanlan to restore the property of Mill Pine Farm to a sustainable state

And it isn’t just the trees that gave me this impression. The road has been thought out. It isn’t cut haphazardly on the most efficient line. Rather, it meanders with the flow of the topography. A small, spring-fed creek crosses the road at one point, but there is no bridge. Instead, a natural fording has been constructed with stone and gravel. The land doesn’t appear manipulated or developed or manicured. It looks re-born, instead, a throwback to the days when landowners tamed the natural inclinations of the property into the best possible habitat for people and animals. Mill Pine is a bit of a time warp, frankly. A step backward.

Though O’Hanlan has spent his fair share of hours operating a Bobcat—cutting roads and firebreaks or thinning saplings—he hasn’t worked alone. A project of this scope takes more than one person getting his hands dirty. O’Hanlan’s assistance comes mainly from two sources: wildlife consultant Ron Fleming and farm manager Jeremy Bryson.

Spend five minutes with Fleming, and you’ll discover a man helplessly in love with his work. He lives for the challenge of transforming a piece of land into pristine habitat for wildlife, for quail and duck, deer and dove. When Fleming isn’t spinning stories or firing off wildlife one- liners (Example: “Man, wild hogs multiply quick. You kill one, two more’ll come to the funeral.), he says things like, “I love a blank canvas to work on.” And through his company, Wings and Antlers Wildlife Services, Fleming has a number of canvases he’s painting, not only in the South, but across the country.

Jeremy Bryson is Mill Pine Farm’s full- time manager; quail thrive in areas with an abundant food supply.

When he talks about Mill Pine Farm, Fleming’s passion gets the best of him, and he skitters from one subject to another. He might be discussing the wildlife benefits of planting hedgerows of Egyptian wheat when he halts mid-sentence to point out where deer have browsed and nibbled the soft tops of the Chinese Privet bushes beneath the pines. Or he might stop to show you where a wild hog left a muddy smear on the lower trunk of a white oak in the middle of a conversation about the benefits of clover. Running beneath Fleming’s excitement is an undeniable streak of confidence in his ability to restore and cultivate wildlife habitat. In short, he knows what animals crave, and he provides it in the most natural way possible across Mill Pine Farm.

If Fleming is the visionary for O’Hanlan’s Mill Pine canvas, Jeremy Bryson is the strong backbone of the restoration process. Byson lives on the property full-time with his family. “Can’t take a snow day from work when your work is right outside the front door,” he says, grinning. But after a quarter hour with Bryson, you realize he, like Fleming, is a man who lives for his job. With Fleming’s guidance, Bryson thins timber, disks swatches of underbrush for replanting, carefully burns undergrowth in March so spring growth comes in healthy and full. He adds lime to acres depleted by generations of cotton farming. To say he tends the land sells him short. The connection goes much deeper. As Bryson says, “This place, it’s like a baby to me. My job is to care for it. Make sure it grows up right.”

Together, O’Hanlan, Fleming, and Bryson have concocted the strategy and provided the sweat equity to turn Mill Pine Farm into a case study for recreational land management, and this during an age when land and timber management is too often synonymous with clear-cutting and bulldozing. Not so at Mill Pine. Here, the pines are thinned and kept free from hardwood growth, allowing for a high, healthy canopy and lots of sunlight for the forest floor. There, at the base of the trees, Fleming has directed a campaign to plant native, warm-season grasses. Often, these grasses are a mixture of varieties Fleming special orders: Purple Coneflower, Black-Eyed Susan, Maximillian Sunflower, and Partridge Pea, for example. “These grasses provide quail with cover and food,” Fleming says, “not to mention cover for nesting turkeys and fawning deer.”

In some niches of the property, you’ll find cultivated strips between the pines, planted with sorghum, an extra food source for wild animals. In other spots, Bryson has planted thick patches of clover for deer. The clover is sometimes mixed with fescue in the former cotton fields, planted for the express purpose of, as Fleming says, “holding the world together.” In other words, on Mill Pine Farm, there is always a plan, and the plan is always about what will benefit the land.

WILD YONDER // (from left) Will Kittredge, Ben O’Hanlan (Tom’s son), George Campbell, Tom O’Hanlan, and Jeremy Bryson take a moment in the field to shoot the breeze.

Even while the process continues to unfold, O’Hanlan is able to enjoy the benefits of well-managed quail land with friends who enjoy watching a bird dog zig-zag a stand of pines with his nose to the ground. Recently, on a cold morning early in the new year, several men gather with O’Hanlan around a fire pit outside the front door of “the barn.” (The word “barn” is a misnomer here. At Mill Pine Farm, the barn is a gorgeously rustic lodge of sorts, featuring high, tongue-and-grooved ceilings and museum-worthy folk art.)

This morning, the hunters swap stories about dogs they’ve known and shotguns they’ve owned. But mostly they talk about land. Like O’Hanlan and his family, George Campbell, Tyson Smoak, and Will Kittredge are doing what they can to conserve and restore wildlife habitats in South Carolina and Georgia. Whether ducks or deer or quail, they each have a vested interest in the treatment of Southern forests and wetlands and the animals they hunt, which is difficult for non-hunters to understand, this deep connection to the land.

NaturalHistory0214_article2E.G. ferrets out several coveys of birds and scares up a few singles as well. (These are all pen-raised quail. O’Hanlan and Fleming want to preserve the wild quail and build up their numbers in the upcoming years.) I walk behind the hunters with Fleming, as he points out the things I would have missed, like the small holes where skunks have been night-digging for grubs or the frayed bark on a thin oak, rubbed raw by a deer. He pulls a thin pod from a Partridge Pea vine and breaks it open. The seeds fall into his palm, and he says, “Now, that’s a quail buffet right there.” Ahead of us, E.G. is on point again and three quail erupt from the undergrowth. The shooters drop two of them while the lone escapee glides into the pines.

Too often hunters are stereotyped as heartless, as only seeking the thrill of the kill. Eavesdrop on this group around the fire, and you’ll notice that the talk isn’t so much about what is being hunted, but rather where it’s being hunted. These are people who have an eye for habitat, and they know at first glance that O’Hanlan’s Mill Pine Farm is prime acreage.

E.G., a German Shorthaired Pointer, quivers in his box, whining to be released, and the moment the latch opens, he explodes across the clover and fescue and tacks back and forth through hedgerows until he finds a promising stand of thick Switchgrass and Egyptian Wheat at the edge of the pines. Watching a good bird dog work a field is hypnotic, a constant blaze of energy that fires in quick, straight lines, but must brake to a complete halt, going on point the minute he senses a bird. Even from a distance, you can see the battle of instincts— the bird’s instinct to hide or flee and the dog’s to sniff out the hiding place. It has a traditional, almost ancient feel to it. Out of sight of anything modern, like cars or telephone lines, you are almost transported to an era long-gone, where hunters walked under the pines behind an excited dog, waiting for the frozen moment of a point.

In that second, I catch my own glimpse of the canvas Fleming mentioned earlier, the one O’Hanlan is filling with a new palette. I see a dog, tongue out and his sides heaving happily, heading toward the next scent. I see friends bound together by the sheer joy of walking the land on a clear, cold morning. I see the pines, healthy and straight, skirted with native grasses. And, I swear, at that precise moment, something hits the air I hadn’t heard in probably twenty years—the call and reply of a bobwhite pair. “Not perfect yet, but we’re getting there,” Fleming says. I look around again, and I have to agree. 

Originally published February 2015.