My memory of South Georgia is specific. I don’t know if it’s real.
As a child, our family drove from Iowa to visit Tallahassee, Florida, the place Father lived after re-uniting with his father after Grandfather’s release from prison. For the record, Grandfather’s conviction for draft evasion was a misunderstanding. He hadn’t meant to be a draft dodger during World War II, according to his late, youngest son Eugene. Dad graduated from Leon High School, then enlisted with his brother Don in the U.S. Army.
That trip was to visit relatives in Wise County, Virginia, according to a recent conversation with Mother. The Tallahassee stop was a side trip. I don’t recall whether the memory occurred southbound or northbound, maybe both.
The memory is of riding in the back seat of the family automobile as Father drove on two-lane Highway 319 where Spanish Moss hung from oak trees with branches extending over the road. Mother was in the passenger seat, I was in back with my brother and sister. Except for Dad, we had never seen Spanish moss before. We did not have that in Iowa. We visited the plantation where Father stayed, Leon High School, and maybe stayed over in a motel, I can’t remember. These events and the long trip at slow speed through the Spanish moss-hung oak trees rolled into one over time, It was almost 60 years ago.
In 1997 I had a three-month work assignment near Ochlocknee, Georgia. My project was located at the largest employer in the county, which was and is involved in mining and processing minerals for a variety of consumer applications. No local ever complained to me about the mines. The rest of the economy was agricultural: peanuts, cotton and pecans.
Because Tallahassee was the closest airport, I flew home from there every other week, driving the same road I had as a child, replete with oak trees hung with Spanish moss. I lived there long enough to recognize other flora and fauna. In particular, pine forests and pecan plantations. The road seemed the same as my childhood memory. I made this regular trip between Ochlocknee and Tallahassee for most of my stay.
The memory sparked an interest in Janisse Ray’s memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. I wrote the following brief review in the Spring edition of the Prairie Progressive:
Other than authors of country music, few write about the pine forests of South Georgia. Janisse Ray’s memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, is important for the sense of place it creates. She grew up in a junkyard with ever-present extreme poverty, mental illness, and fundamentalist Christianity. Her story is one of growing self-awareness and hope in a land where both were in short supply.
While Ray is ten years younger, we share cultural references. Perhaps the most significant is the sense of loss she describes for Long Leaf Pine forests and their ecology. I feel much the same living in a state where what was here — tallgrass prairie — has been replaced by fenced parcels where farmers grow crops and raise livestock. Her experience in Georgia informs my life in Big Grove.
Ray mentions Thomasville, Georgia a couple of times in the book. I stayed in Thomasville while working at the mine. There was little daylight between work and rest so my life then was very specific.
The biggest excitement during my stay was when an inspector found a boll weevil in a trap during the season. Boll weevil traps were part of an early warning system to prevent damage to the important cotton crop. One of the plant workers at the mine had a government contract to inspect boll weevil traps. When he found one it made news all round the county.
The first boll weevil appeared in Thomasville in 1915. The insect did its part to bring down the antebellum economy where cotton was a global mainstay. Boll weevils had supposedly been eradicated by chemicals by 1990, but weren’t.
Ochlocknee, Georgia was a poor place where cattle casually roamed Main Street and a Model T Ford sat up on blocks in someone’s yard. I went to the auction house one night, but had no way to transport anything home. I listened to the bidding and tried to keep my hands down. Lunch at the Depot Restaurant was a meat and two sides with iced tea. A diner could pay extra and get a third side. The restaurant has since closed. When I encountered locals outside the job site, the conversation was a mix of complaining, gossiping and harshness. The place and its people defined hard-scrabble.
I had few friends in south Georgia. After working a 13-hour day at the plant, I made dinner at a hotel and watched cable television including a fledgling channel called Food TV. The name later changed to Food Network. I attribute my interest in food and cooking to those nights alone in Thomasville. My involvement in the local food movement has its origins in the contrast between that uninviting place in South Georgia and my nightly food escape. We didn’t have Food TV in Iowa at the time. Like Spanish moss, it seemed exotic.
The main memory, of driving through Spanish moss hanging from branches over the highway, is essential. It is an unchanging remembrance of something seen as a child in a way that shaped me. It has no time or place and some days I don’t know if it’s real. It is the human condition to believe it is real, and eternal. So I do.