Holding The World Together

I’ve grown accustomed to the immediate aversion of others toward my native place. Its been this way for a long time. The South Georgia coastal plain was once a region shunned by early settlers due to its sandy soils, perceived to be nearly sterile and unproductive. Still today, the region makes up 60% of Georgia’s land acreage, but contains only 16% of the population. This is a place largely passed over and forgotten, even by many Georgians living north of Macon, who only deign to pass through here because it’s the only way to get to Florida from Atlanta.

Travelers passing through who do look up from the screens of their i-phones sometimes marvel at their first glimpse of cotton growing in the fields. They may look up long enough to see the Titan missile rocket anchored down beside the Krystal next to I-75 in my hometown of Cordele. Before Hurricane Michael toppled it, the big peanut near Ashburn smiled a toothy Jimmy Carter grin to passers-by headed to Disney World. Folks may stop for a box of peaches in Ft. Valley, some pecans in Vienna (pronounced Vy-Anna), or an affordable hotel room and meal at a chain restaurant in Valdosta. Otherwise, aside from the billboards disgracing the highways advertising adult “spas”, the landscape is a relatively monotonous plain filled with interspersed pine trees and agricultural fields, scattered hardwoods, tea-stained creeks, and shallow ponds. Some would call it just a place that holds the world together.

And then, there is the climate.  Our winters are relatively nice and mild. We may hit freezing or even the high teens a few nights a year but 80 degree Christmases are not out of the ordinary. The spring and fall are pleasant with clear air and temperatures that make you envious of all creatures who live their lives outdoors. But, the only term that comes to mind in describing a South Georgia summer is oppressive. The heat is not just heat. It is suffocating heat in an air saturated with moisture even on the brightest, bluebird day. You will not last more than 10 minutes standing still in the shade on a mid-August afternoon before you’ve worked up a drenching sweat.

But, its not simply the heat and humidity that make the summers so unbearable. You can find that anywhere in the south. No, here we have a little something extra to add to the misery. There exists a loosely defined imaginary line running across Georgia called the gnat line, which passes from Augusta, through Macon and on to Columbus. Above that line, also known as the fall line, the heat remains oppressive but going southward, add to the wet heat, an incessant swarm of tiny, ear-buzzing, nose and mouth-seeking insects surrounding you any time you set foot outside the miraculous luxury of an air conditioned space. The more you sweat and the more still the air, the more fierce are their swarms.  The key to living here is to develop a method of constantly blowing air out of the corner of your mouth in an upward stream to run the gnats away from your eyes and nose, however briefly.

These insects cause no physical harm whatsoever—-at least not directly. But no more vexatious creature has been placed upon the face of the earth. Gnats thrive here in the freshly disturbed, loose sandy soil and organic matter, which comprises our firmament.  As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate gnats. I think, perhaps they are the only thing that has saved us from the cancerous plague of concrete that continues to swallow up our neighbors north of Macon.

Despite the heat, and the billboards, and the gnats, the land here has its own quiet beauty that reveals itself once you let go of any prejudices and comparisons to more grand vistas. If you grew up here, somehow, a love for this rough, green place seeps into your skin on those humid days of youth and sets up in your bones. Even when you try to fight it.

Throughout my childhood we fished away countless evenings at the farm of my grandfather and his siblings on the shores of Lake Blackshear. We cast out lines and dropped corks from the worn, wooden dock at the mouth of Limestone Creek.  Usually on Friday or Saturday nights, after supper, Nanny, Pop, and I would pile into Pop’s old yellow LTD and make our way to the farm.  We would make a stop at Mitchell’s Bait & Tackle for “minners” as Nanny called the small minnows that we used for bait. We dropped them on the ends of our lines in search of white crappie, Pomoxis annularis.  Some people call them paper-mouths or speckled perch.   We, like most around here, called them “white perch”. 

Pop and I also enjoyed hunting for arrowheads together. Most people spending any time in the fields of South Georgia at one time or another have run across an arrowhead made from flint rock or chert.  Many people put these in shoe boxes that get stuck in the attic or under the bed. Some people display them in cases made of wood, the clean, washed points lying on a bed of felt behind a pane of glass. 

The act of finding an arrowhead holds great joy.  Perhaps that’s because of the stupefying mystery of it. Those who have had the privilege of discovering an arrowhead perched on a pedestal of dirt know the feeling of which I speak.  Henry Thoreau believed that arrowheads had been shot by the men who made them, through time, directly to him.  James Kilgo tells the story of a man who hunted arrowheads in Texas.  The old man said that it wasn’t men who made the arrowheads.  Instead they were scattered upon the ground by the hand of God.  He said that men may have used them, but it was God who made them.  Sometimes, I can believe either of these stories are possible.

More often than not, Pop and I would just ride around the farm looking and talking. What I wouldn’t give for one more ride with that old man. When I was a child I often marveled at my grandfather’s ability to tell what type of crops grew in the field rows we walked or drove past. In my eyes, Pop had many super powers—-he knew where and how to catch fish, he knew what parts of the fields to find arrowheads in. Though I didn’t know it at the time, his ability to tell one crop from another was no special power.

Anyone over the age of 10 in our part of the world could tell the differences in the crops we grew with half a glance. As we looked about the farm I would constantly quiz him: “What is that plant?”, “What’s growing in that field”? He never tired of this game nor did he make me feel dumb for not being able to tell the differences in the plants. I think he just enjoyed the conversation and my interest.

Childhood curiosity gave way in later years to the only thing that held my interest enough for me to imagine spending a career doing. The study of biology—the study of life— opened up a new way of seeing for me. I had grown up firmly within the southern tradition. We drank sweet tea, ate fried chicken at my grandparents’ house after church on Sunday, fished, hunted, and played sports. We lived our quiet lives amid cotton, peanuts, and pine trees.

As I grew older, like many young people raised up in a rural place, my goal by the time I reached High School, became to one day live as far away from my home as possible. Familiarity is said to breed contempt. It certainly did so for me at the time. Now that I understand it better, that contempt was not necessarily contempt for this place. It was just the yearning that most young people have for new experiences and new places.  A curiosity to see the rest of what the world has to offer.

My world at the time seemed a very insular place, where people rarely traveled any further from home than Panama City Beach, Florida, less than 200 miles to the southwest. I pictured the places I saw on TV and read about in books—Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Hawaii, South America, even such exotic places as California—as inaccessible. They may as well have been the moons of Jupiter. I knew they existed but I figured my chances of seeing those places was about as likely.

In fact, I never set foot outside the Southeastern United States before going on a trip to Arizona and Southwestern Colorado in college. About this time I discovered the writing of Edward Abbey. I devoured “The Monkey Wrench Gang” and “Desert Solitaire”. The desert, the mountains, the clean smell of conifers, and the western skies sank their teeth into me. I knew these types of places existed but I never imagined just how breathtaking and interesting they actually were. I developed a love for the Western U.S. on that trip. But, it’s a superficial love. There’s no denying its beauty and the excitement of the atmosphere, especially for someone with their life before them. I still love to go out West but one thing I’ve learned is that its not my home.               

Thankfully, I failed to reach that early goal of moving away from here. But, along the way I have managed to see most of those far-away places I read about and saw on TV. For me, it was only then that I began to realize how much I value my native place.  This value was driven home most acutely when I missed a connecting flight in San Paulo, Brazil thanks to my inability to speak Portuguese. The airline had to bring someone out from the baggage area who spoke English to help me book a new flight.

I once looked into a literal cage of vipers at a restaurant in Hangzhou, China while trying to find something appetizing on the menu (which was still squirming in various bowls and cages on the floor). What I wouldn’t have given for a piece of Nanny’s country fried steak, some peas, corn, and biscuits on that trip. Overhearing urban youths discuss their lives on a commuter train in San Diego made me thankful for the rural place in which I was raised. Coming down with food poisoning in Cradock, South Africa gave me pangs of homesickness too. But, I’m grateful for those experiences. They helped me understand that life is different for everybody. Still, amid all our differences, our basic human needs are the same. We are all looking for freedom, health, and opportunity for ourselves and for our loved ones.

I’ve also learned there’s value in sticking around. Taking whatever skills or knowledge you may have and using them to try and make some corner of the world, wherever that may be, a better place is a beautiful thing. In my case, I came to realize that the only way to help others see the beauty I see in this place is to remain here and work to accentuate the things I love about it and try to improve upon the things I don’t. I couldn’t do that from anywhere else.

When I returned from that first trip West, I was telling my Grandfather about the beauty I saw there. Pop had seen that part of the world too. He was stationed in Alaska just after World War II. It was there that he too realized his love for home. As we drove along an old field road on his farm past fields of cotton, peanuts, and watermelons in the old 1978 yellow Ford LTD he called “Old Yeller”, with me gushing over the grand mountain views seen with young eyes, he just nodded. When I was done he looked over and said affectionately, “Yeah, but it ain’t nothing like this flat land here”.

It took me a long time to understand my Grandfather’s comment and his feeling about this place. What I have learned is that there’s more to “home” than just the house you live in, the town you’re from, a region, a farm, or even the landscape. Home includes all of these things but it is mainly about memories and people and the atmosphere generated by the intermingling of all of this with the surroundings.

My parents and grandparents have all passed away and life has changed.  Still, the one thing that has remained has been the farm.  It has changed somewhat too. The road leading out to the farm is now paved, there are lake houses along the bluff, and there are no longer any cows on the farm, but the farm is still there. These changes are reflective of more complex changes, not only to the landscape in which I grew up, but changes in the larger outside world as well. Changes that influenced the way I came to view the world.

 This place, this quiet, sleepy, sweltering, gnat-infested, unassuming, beautiful place seeped into me on those hot, suffocating days of my youth. Days when I was looking for something, anything to anchor myself to. And as I came of age, I began to understand the gift that it gave me. I understood the interests it opened up within me, and the desire to make myself a part of it. The desire to share whatever meager gifts I have. To give back to the people here and wherever else I may find myself, and ultimately to this place, this land. This is the gift of home.

To some, an old family farm could be limiting, but to me, it opened up another world through which I came to see so much more. Just as a baby chick or gosling imprints upon the 1st object it sees as its mother, I suppose much of my favor for this place has its origin in my imprinting upon pine trees and sandy loam. The path I started out on, the path I hoped would take me away, in the end has kept me at home and as a result I have come to a greater comprehension of myself, my native place, those around me, and the living world. A place that holds the world together? Yes, that’s what this place is. And, it is held together with so much precarious grace.      

   ©2019 Lenny Wells

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