Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
I have always meant to be straight with you. Honesty is the basis of any friendship, even one based in these simple missives I send hoping they will find a welcome place to land. In pursuit of that honesty, I must admit to you I’ve sustained a loss, one for which there appears no salve but time.
The remaining acres of the six hundred my Grandmother, Betty Ann Campbell Russell, bought in 1949. It is the place where I’ve walked since I was born, where I’ve run to when necessary, and now it belongs to another. Despite its inevitability, the experience leaves me feeling as if my anchor lines were cut as I slept and I've awakened to find myself adrift, with no landmark but an expanse of horizon. A cousin said of the sale of his own homeplace, “The moment the land passes to another, when owners become trespassers, and your past is placed in some else’s uncaring hands is sad, scary, and unsettling at best.” Perhaps he should be writing this.
I believe it of no coincidence that my friend John Cleaveland, a brilliant painter of southern landscapes, asked me to provide an essay as part of the artist catalogue for his current show, “The View From Here,” currently displayed at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia. John’s work speaks to any of us who love the vanishing south, as does that of his fellow Master Painters, Julyan Davis and Phillip Juras. Thanks to John, my own words appear alongside essays from Professors J. Drew Lanham and John Lane, in a volume published the same week as the sale of land that now welcomes me no more than anyone else. Such was the subject of that essay. I felt compelled to share it with you, people I suspect will understand it implicitly. I thank you for allowing me to take a moment to unburden myself.
“There is a place I go inside my mind, a clear ribbon of creek cutting deep through the bottoms of family land. It does exist outside my thoughts, but like me the creek is diminished by time and necessity and I prefer it arrested, the way I saw it while still counting my years in single digits. Honestly, if I must be confronted daily with the inexorability of my own demise, I feel I do no one an injustice by maintaining a fiction about the current condition of a creek.
Occupying that boy’s form, I walk the terraced pasture, descending a giant’s stairsteps, to a pine forest partially choked by privet and bramble. Farther down that gentle slope, I tread ever more delicately upon the lush carpet of long leaf pine needles softening my footsteps, hoping I might surprise a deer not yet alerted by the squirrels hurling imprecations at me from the safety of their white oaks.
Moving farther still, the ground softens, my footprints now visible until I reach broad shelves of current-swept granite, extrusions of a bare monolith called Stone Mountain forty miles to the west. Fed by a family pond now lost to time and a trucking company surreptitiously pumping their used oil on to our land, the creek spills over rock in a cacophony before slipping quietly into a series of languid pools separated by shallow stretches of quartz and pyrite farther down the creek.
Turning back up slope, following a ravine that feeds the creek on days our elders would have said had, ‘come up a cloud,’ the shattered remains of an oak stand, once the largest tree in the state of Georgia; now a leviathan laid low by lightning. In my child’s mind the authority of its presence, even lessened by chance and storm, was a sign I was anointed by the land, imbued with some unearned and ill-defined authority simply by relationship to a specific patch of earth. For me, it has ever been thus. But soon, no more. So I find myself returning to the questions, who am I when the land is gone? Who am I without it to run to? Who are any of us without the land upon which we make our lives?
Wars have been fought for less.
Even as I’ve come to realize my presence upon it is transitory; the simple result of a zygotic lottery, I find refuge, even validation, in my relationship with the land. It makes me ask who owns the land and who the land owns, deeds and property maps be damned.
I do know who will be here longer.
For the time we have left together, I still visit the place in which I was rooted; in which I grew; from which I’ve never fully left; from which I will soon be sequestered by death and necessity. I damn the coming changes as surely as I recognize both their inevitability and the luxury I had in spending years on land I could roam with impunity, enough acreage that a boy with more affinity for a BB gun than a baseball bat could feel like Lawrence crossing the vastness of the Rub Al Khali.
I suppose I could go somewhere in which I am not confronted with this reality, somewhere that raw earth and rebar are not a way of life. But I am fixed in the Southeastern landscape as surely as there is a Dollar General replacing a stand of pine right now. Every year, I am made giddy by the annual azalea riot; somehow both rueful and proud when the world turns yellow with pine pollen. I curse the summer humidity but gladly weather it for the swelling accompaniment of crickets and frogs in the trees. The scent of fall leaves crushed in my hands, last year’s fallen already become humus, is death come alive as much as any tent revival singing of ‘That Old Rugged Cross’. Even the cold drip of rain from bare tree limbs is a stark and welcome reminder that the cycle will continue unbidden by me.
I can no more leave than I can stop the onslaught. I can only find another small patch to love until it too is consumed, hoping I can somehow guide the consumption. And so, I have at another creek, this one tidal. My run to the coast may be seen as the limit of my ability to retreat or as a conscious decision to put the ocean at my back; to turn and say, “Here and no further.”
If I am truthful, it depends on the day.
So I shake my head as we scrape another forest clean for a strip mall; churn up another pasture for town homes. I ask myself how one balances the need for living space with the need for spaces to live. The truth is I don’t know. We’re the apex predator. We consume better than any species on earth. We invent new ways to do so and when those become passe, we tear them up and expand.
As I reckon with our existence, I fear for what will come, what will be left to my child or her children. Who will be the one that finally looks up and realizes how much is gone?
How far gone is too far gone?
I’m a little older and a little sadder now; too old for magic. Nonetheless, I still surrender myself to the shimmering swell of high tide and the nakedness of low, when the creek near our house is little more than mud flats and oyster beds at full ebb. Some people might rue the absence of water, the smell of millions of years of life exposed to air and heat. But it was like this the first time I saw it and I loved it the way you see past blood and vernix and full-throated howls to love your new born child, instantly and wholly.
I come to the creek to sit and think, or when I need not think at all, to simply gather the smell of air and water and salt; the sound of herons and osprey calling out in triumph and failure alike. Barefoot on boards made rough by wind and spray, I can pause time if only for a moment. Outside of my bubble, the clock ticks ever forward, but I can push it back in the purple gray before the sun arcs over a stand of pines to my east.
When it comes, the sun reaches out like my child stretching before rising from her bed. Fingers of light extend from outstretched arms, moving slowly but constantly till they play upon my face and I have to close my eyes against their radiance. Then the sun bursts forth in its fullness to wrap me in gold and heat, declaring that the day is here regardless of my readiness. It never fails to amaze me; to leave me wishing I had a pause button, so I could hold those fleeting moments that give me all of their everything. In that moment, that single-digit boy still happily trapped in some thin sliced portion of time stands up from trying to capture a crawdad in a creek in North Georgia and looks off into the distance. He’s trying to hold on to hopes he doesn’t yet know he has.
Capture your moments. In words, in photograph, in oil, or mind’s eye. Seek to capture reality. More importantly, seek to capture truth. For I fear there will come a time when someone finally looks up and realizes how much is gone.
When there is nothing left but the paintings.”
Guard your hearts, my friends, and hold close the things that matter.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe