The Most Southern Experience on Little River

“This is the most Southern experience I’ve ever had,” my friend Jennifer said. We had paddled in kayaks and paddleboards down Little River from Rope Mill Park in Woodstock and were hanging out on the boats at the foot of Allatoona Falls. Jennifer is Southern – she grew up in Smyrna and then Pickens County – but she has a Korean mother who is very Korean, so she views Southern culture as both outsider and insider.

Allatoona Falls is hidden in a cove near where Toonigh Creek and Little River converge at the eastern flank of Lake Allatoona. You can only get there by boat. Launching from Rope Mill Park, you paddle between the giant concrete pillars of the I-575 bridge, the roar of the cars above competing with the buzz of insects and splash of oars.

At the waterfall, about a dozen kids and grown-ups were clambering around the slippery rocks or lounging in the shallow lagoon at its base. The moss and algae on the rocks form a natural slide the kids were scooching down over and over again with gleeful shrieks.

We were sitting on our boats near the shore when a merry band of partying white college-age guys (and a gal), I was guessing UGA from the red baseball cap the woman wore, paddled up next to us.

We’d seen them on our paddle in, one guy doing flips off of a rope swing into questionably shallow water. One kayak pulled a hibachi on a makeshift raft which appeared to be a white vinyl lawn chair buoyed by foam swim noodles slit in half and jammed onto the arms.  The hibachi smoked as it rode down the river, the charcoal already lit and smoldering. Another raft housed a boom box blasting a mix of 80s rock and hip hop that everyone on the river could hear. Twenty-first century Huck Finns.

I was a little worried when they pulled up right next to us. We were different. Shannon and I were two middle-aged white ladies, Jennifer is an Asian-American from Pickens County, and Jennifer’s boyfriend Kai is a biracial tattoo artist with long spirally curls framing a GQ-handsome face.

One of the partyers wore a T-shirt that said “America: Defending Freedom Since 1776,” and another guy was wearing plus-size American flag swimming trunks.   The skinny guy who we later found out goes by the name J Beezy Bob (at least on Instagram) was chugging from a bottle of Fireball whiskey.

But sometimes people surprise you. As Toto’s “Africa” rocked the river, they broke out the hot dogs and bratwurst and began to cook on the water.  J Beezy Bob offered Kai his bottle of Fireball. Kai took a long pull and handed it back. J Beezy Bob grinned and took another pull himself. A pact had been sealed. J Beezy Bob wanted Kai to know that he was part of his tribe. “Defending Freedom” handed Kai a hot dog, which Kai ate with ritual solemnity. We were all friends on the river.

The guys bonded further over tattoos, after Jennifer noticed that J Beezy Bob had a tattoo of the Hylian Crest from the Legend of Zelda video game, the same tattoo that Jennifer’s brother Kevin had. “It’s nerd shit,” Jennifer confided. J Beezy Bob wanted to know where Kai’s tattoo parlor was so he could come get some ink from him.

Shannon and I climbed to the top of the waterfall and I realized with a shock that there were houses not twenty yards away. The pristine and only-accessible-by-water spot was in someone’s backyard. When I Google-mapped it later, I saw that we were at the back of a subdivision of McMansions called The Falls of Cherokee.

I peed in the woods out there anyway, peeling off my wet bathing suit and squatting stark naked in someone’s backyard. After all, what would Huck have done?

It was Saturday in the Park at Rope Mill. When we came off the river, mountain bikers zipped across the faux-rustic bridge leading to trails and the ruins of the old rope and cotton mill.

Cotton – a different kind of “most Southern experience.”  I cringe when I drive past the remaining cotton fields in North Georgia, some of them the exact same fields where hundreds of slaves picked cotton 150 years ago.

When you walk up the trail, you see the foundations of the mill, now tagged with graffiti, and the long stone wall that created a canal through which the water was forced to drive the wooden wheel that powered the rudimentary machines.

Where the water wheel would have been, I scared a grouse, who scolded me with a loud queet queet and landed on a low-hanging branch next to a blue Budweiser bottle lodged on the muddy shore. The grouse looked like a velociraptor with feathers – the size of a small hawk, with a strangely long neck it stretched out as it scolded. The bottle glowed blue in sun and might seem a treasure to someone of the past or the future, who would wonder about the god named Budweiser.

This meshing of time periods – the spandex-clad bikers, the dinosuaresque bird, the 19th century stone ruins, the highway’s massive concrete columns, the roar of cars across 575, the blue beer bottle, the scent of the kudzu’s purple blooms, the river browner than it used to be, but mostly the same.

New South, Old South, Very Old South.

Afterwards, I decided to go Very New South and contact J Beezy Bob on Instagram. This was a much more intimidating adventure for me than kayaking down a river. Social media is for me an unknown landscape, a scary wilderness.

I didn’t have an Instagram account, so I went online and created one, then messaged J Beezy Bob. I bragged about it to my 14-year-old daughter like I was a six-year-old whose training wheels had just come off. She just rolled her eyes.

I asked J Beezy Bob why he and his friends go to the river and what being Southern means to him.

It’s always fun meeting new people and sharing the good times, he wrote. I was born and raised in Georgia and plan on dying here too. He’s planning on getting a new tattoo from Kai as soon as he has the money.

The grouse is a sign that the river is healthy, with an abundance of fish.  Well, relatively healthy. Little River, the Etowah and Allatoona are brown because there is so much sediment from development. Lake Allatoona has tested high in recent years for mercury, PCBs, fecal coliform bacteria, and fertilizer nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.  It has at times been in danger of becoming eutrophic, meaning a dead lake, due to algae blooms triggered by the excessive nutrients.  The Georgia DNR recommends only eating one large bass a week from Allatoona.

But a fisherman we passed on our paddle was throwing out a net to catch threadfin shad to use as bait. He said he’s been catching good-sized bass near the falls. Clearly the catch has been good for the grouse as well.

The human ecosystem here is also showing vitality. The people out here paddling and biking and hiking and picnicking have remembered some things we have mostly forgotten—not only how to be present to water and trees and wildflowers – but also the camaraderie of the river or the trail. Sharing something, even Fireball and bratwurst.

As it did for Huck and Jim, the river erases the boundaries that usually separate us. The highway world still looms above, oblivious drivers doing 80 in a 65. The Old South still persists, memories of cotton and rope. But on a hot afternoon, we go to the waterfall. We pretend the houses and the highway aren’t there. We ignore the ruins. We eat hot dogs cooked by strangers on a homemade raft.

Thank you to Jennifer Stogner for the details and J Beezy Bob for the photo!

 

Time Folded Backwards at the Pine Log CCC Quarry

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I always have the Narnia feeling when I come across something new in the woods. In this case it was an old quarry filled with clear greenish water and swarming with blue- and yellow-finned fish. Every hike is a journey to the other side — the luminous and numinous world that surrounds us but that we don’t see.

In fact, I have driven past the trail to the quarry hundreds of times. It’s six miles from Reinhardt, where I have worked for twenty-one years. The roadside historical marker explains that the trail begins at the site of the Cherokee town of Pine Log, but it does not mention that it leads to an old quarry built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the early 1940s.

The woods swallow the history. The water covers the history. Nature takes it back, like the iconic image of the Statue of Liberty half-buried in the sand in Planet of the Apes. In a way, we are always living in the post-apocalypse of somebody else’s world.

I went with some Reinhardt MFA folks to see if the hike was a possibility for next year’s Residency. We quickly concluded that it is not, because the trail is hilly and long. It ascends the smaller mountain to the north of Pine Log Mountain.

I love that curvy stretch of 140 through Beasley Gap. Pine Log Creek bubbles up from the feet of Pine Log and Garland Mountains, and there is a spring by the side of the highway where people still go to fetch the fresh water, as I’m sure the Cherokee did two hundred years ago.

The trail to the quarry follows Pine Log Creek for a while, one of those rich fern-spread and mountain laurel guarded valleys, then heads higher into the woods.  The quarry is next to a smaller creek but does not come from it. It has filled with rainwater over the years.

Coming upon the quarry is like coming upon the Blue Lagoon in the middle of the woods, except it is more green than blue. Surrounded by massive boulders and long grass. Butterflies and dragonflies alight on rocks, skim the water.

The most astounding thing is the fish – hundreds of them, with almost iridescent blue and yellow fins and tails. My ichthyologist colleague Keith Ray tells me these are probably bluegill and green sunfish.

A friend had told me this is an old CCC quarry, and a small sign on the trail confirms this. This set me wondering: Why would they dig a quarry here, in such a remote place? What were they quarrying? What was the Civilian Conservation Corps doing here anyway?

My woods quest set me on a research quest – from physical space to cyberspace. It is so strange how short our historical memory is. I could find almost nothing online about the CCC quarry at Pine Log. I thought about these young men, just 80 years ago, hauling heavy equipment through the woods, slashing through thickets of mountain laurel, hacking stone out of the mountainside.  Now completely forgotten.

What I did find is something much older, millennia older. In Geological Surveys from the early 1900s, I found out there were slate mines north and west of Pine Log – green slate, good for roofing. The Etowah Valley is rich in minerals – gold, iron, slate, barite – because the Cartersville Fault runs perpendicular to the Etowah.  480 million years ago, two continents slammed together here, and we live on the fault line, which pushes up and exposes eons of sedimentary layers.

The CCC quarry burrows down into the fault line, down through the Mississipian, the Cambrian, all the way down to the Paleozoic. Some of the boulders surrounding the quarry are made of layers of rock that have folded back on themselves, time bent backwards, a warp, a wormhole. Friday Folds, geologists call them. Perhaps the Narnia reference is not so far off – this is a threshold of sorts.

We live on the thin skin of an old earth, like the water striders that skim across the quarry pond.  We think we are so powerful and significant, when we are as light and small as spiders. The only thing that matters about us is the souls we forget we have.

At the Bartow History Museum Archives, I find an old newspaper clipping: “First Auto Ever to Top Pine Log Mountain.” It tells me that CCC workers lived in a camp at the base of Pine Log Mountain. They built the first road up Pine Log in 1938. In the photo, the CCC superintendents stand next to a 1930s pick-up truck in front of that rickety old fire tower which I have risked my life climbing in years past and which I now know that the CCC built as well.

Local historian Sandford Chandler tells me that the Pine Log CCC camp became a barracks after Pearl Harbor, when the young CCC men joined the army.

Researching the CCC in Georgia, I find out that during the Depression 50% of young men aged 15-24 were unemployed, and that the CCC mainly recruited local boys and men from rural communities who earned $30 a month, $25 of which they were required to send to their families.  I also learn that many of them were illiterate and the CCC camps held classes and taught young men to read.

We’ve forgotten that kind of poverty.

The quarry is hopeful to me because it teems with life. The colorful fish and insects and butterflies testify that rock can bloom. That Dustbowls don’t last because the rain returns and fills them like a chalice.

But it is also a wormhole, the folded layers of rock demonstrating how time bends and how the past persists.

I still think about those young men and the Sisyphean moving of rocks from one hill to another, perhaps for a green slate roof on a now-fallen building. The hacking and heaving in the Georgia heat. How they did not mind the work, knowing it was feeding their families. How they laughed and joked and maybe even learned to read on the top of Pine Log Mountain.

What lasts about them, not the quarry, but who they became in the digging.

 

 

 

 

 

Always the River

I dropped my daughter off for her first day of high school today. Then I went to the river.

This wasn’t hard, because Cherokee High School sits right above the river, separated only by the thin strip of Boling Park.

I walked out on a long, broad fallen tree that juts out into the current, and the river was all around me. Again.

So many of my major life events have taken place near this river. It has wound through my life, mostly unseen.

I remember sitting here in Boling Park with my ex-husband before we were married. It was my birthday, January 26, but one of those freak warm days we get in January in the South. The sun was almost hot, but the leaves were all dead. False summer. I was sitting on a concrete bench crying inconsolably because he had done nothing for my birthday, and a part of me knew he never would. I remember tearing into shreds one of those big leathery seed pods from the catalpa trees that grow near the river. Pinching the fat seeds with my thumbnail, dropping them on winter soil.

But I married him anyway, and the result of that marriage was Cassie.

My tears that day seem like my own teeth knocked out and sown in the ground. Like when Athena told the Greek hero Cadmus to kill the dragon and plant the dragon’s teeth, to grow a crop of warriors. Cassie, grown from my teeth and tears.

The ground was salted that day, as conquerors in ancient times salted land to curse it, to make it never bear again.

In fact, I never did bear a child. Cassie was adopted because I could not bear.

But the land has never ceased to bear, even though it is a conquered land, salted with many tears.

In the 1830s the land where I am standing was called Red Bank and belonged mostly to a Cherokee man named George Still. In 1836 federal appraisers valued Still’s 100 acres and improvements on lot 159 in the second district of the Cherokee nation at $1295.00. Still had several houses, stables, barns, a blacksmith shop, a fish weir on the river, 250 peach trees and 100 apple trees. He also had slaves.

George Still was close to 70 when all of the Cherokee were removed from Georgia on the Trail of Tears in 1838. I don’t know if he completed the 1000 mile walk to Oklahoma, and I don’t know if he ever received his $1295.00. I don’t know what happened to his slaves.

I wonder what lies buried in the soil beneath my feet. Not just my own tears and teeth. Bones and tools, surely. There have been many digs along this river. But what is the archaeology of human experience?

The river still flows and the land still bears. Well, sort of. The river is much browner now, and the banks are eroded and raw from the stormwater runoff that development intensifies. Red Bank, indeed. A thicket of poison ivy, kudzu, and mimosa trees lines the river – invasive species — so that you can barely see it, even when you are right next to it.

One of the things that I learned as I started to study the river is that a river never flows in a straight line. The Etowah flows roughly east to west, from near Dahlonega westward to Rome. But any given stretch of the river might be going in any direction at all.

In Canton, you would think the river would flow east to west, but Canton sits in a giant meander. This land owned by George Still sits smack in the middle of the meander, so that the river seems to flow first south, then north. The river contradicts itself and points in the wrong direction. It fools you. You can only understand the direction of the river from far away.

I too have lived in the meander.

But the other thing I’ve learned is that the water goes where it must. It finds the low ground that takes it to the bigger river, on to the sea. It might meander, but it does not get lost. It knows the way home.

Before I began to study the river, I could not have told you in what direction any creek or river flows. Not the Etowah, not even creeks I knew well. Honestly, I did not even grasp the fact that all creeks are flowing toward a river, and all rivers toward an ocean.

It’s a gift, I think, that now I know.

My daughter, my Cassie, I see how she flows, where she goes, that I am not going with her. My fierce warrior born out of pain. She has dyed her hair magenta and plum and copper. She is a girl on fire.  Godspeed, my daughter, all the way to ocean. All the way home.

 

 Etowah Boling Park

Mindfulness and a Three-Legged Dog

My dog Finn is a 14-year-old black lab mix with a broken front leg. He was born that way under my ex-mother-in-law’s front porch. Either in the womb or during labor, his left front paw was broken all the way backwards, so that it forms a v-shaped fin – hence his name. I used to crawl under the porch and feed him baby food, because he couldn’t push his way in with the other 10 puppies a stray dog aptly named Mama Dog had produced.

Finn was born just three months before my daughter Cassie. I didn’t know at the time that I was about to adopt a newborn. They’ve grown up together. Now she’s a feisty teenager and he is a gentle old man. As a young dog, his back legs were so strong that he was the only one of my dogs who could jump over the fence. He could run as fast on three legs as any dog I’d ever seen on four.

But I never thought he’d live to see 14.  A few weeks before we moved to the farm, he seemed near death. In fact, he went out in the side yard and with his one front paw dug himself a hole and lay in it. The vet said sometimes dogs do dig their own grave.

But he lived through the move, and once he got to walk around the farm, he seems to have decided he is going to stay a while. Every morning we walk to the far pasture, maybe an eighth of a mile each way. We walk along the field where the cows are grazing. My miniature collie mix Ashley crawls under the fence and herds the cows, ecstatic to finally have the job she was born for.   My grouchy terrier Max rolls in cow poop. And Finn hops along beside me.

At first I thought I shouldn’t let him walk so far, since he has to flop down and rest six or seven times over the course of the walk. But I realized that he lives for this walk and that he might as well live to the fullest for the time he has left.

Past the pasture, we climb down to the creek. Lipscomb Branch is only about six inches deep in most places, flowing over and under big flat boulders, shaded by willows and sweet gum and white oak trees. In the morning the sun sparkles on the creek and the wind riffles the branches so the shade flickers on the water like the quick small fish beneath.

Finn plops down in the middle of the creek, lets the water flow around him. He’ll lie there for a couple of minutes, cooling down and resting.

Walks are better with a three-legged dog. While he is resting, I look around. I slow down in a way I normally would not. That’s how I saw the fish (I need to find out if they are endangered Cherokee or Etowah darters).  That’s how I saw the mating turtles, floating vertically belly to belly. That’s how I saw the blue heron rise from the small pond further up the creek.

Time itself slows down and everything becomes more vivid. When the flock of pigeons takes off from the roof of the barn, the flap of their wings is a loud whumph of feather on feather. The flock rises and swoops like a musical notation scrawled across the air, different every time.

I look at plants close up. In the morning they are wet and catch the sun. The barnyard grass is grainy and lush like miniature stalks of wheat. The long seedy bristles of the foxtail look like furry caterpillars.  Even the thistles and nettles glisten.  I remember as a child looking at plants this closely, but no time since then.  I remember as a child having the same impulse to gather and glean, the same sense of abundance.

 

I looked up some of the names of the plants I didn’t know. Those seedy pods of purple flowers are called ladysthumb. The tiny white flowers along the creek are called catchweed bedstraw. It seems important to know the names of the plants, just as it seems important to know the names of the people who once lived here. To name something is to say that it matters.

Everything isn’t pretty on the farm. There are piles of cow shit in various stages, from fresh to dessicated. It’s interesting, though, how air and rain and sun and time clean everything. There are fifty cows and it doesn’t stink. Except when my dog Max rolls in the fresh cow patties.

Finn and I are not in a hurry. We both know that our time will run out. Nothing seems more important, though, than this. If we had one day left, this is what we would do. Be here.Finn

The Slaves Who Built My House

IMG_1514The house I just bought was built by slaves. I didn’t know this when I bought it. I knew that that the original portion of the house was built by Andrew Jefferson Weems in 1851.  But it’s a modest little farmhouse, so I figured he might have owned one or two slaves, if any.

After settling into the house for a couple of weeks, I decided to go online and track down Andrew Jefferson Weems, who had moved to Pine Log, Georgia from Abbeville, South Carolina in 1851. It was easy to find the 1860 slave schedule through ancestry.com.  At my kitchen counter I looked down at my Iphone and saw a list of 20 slaves owned by Andrew Jefferson Weems in 1860.

The slave schedules list ages and genders, but no names. The slaves were not given that dignity. They were property. But I found the census of 1870, after they were freed, and looked for African-Americans born in Abbeville, South Carolina and living on the same or adjacent property to Andrew Weems in Pine Log.  Their names were Larkin and Lucy, Wiley and Tempy, Anthony and Rebecca, Wade and Caroline, John and Tamor.  There was a 100-year-old woman whose name I can’t find, and some children: Hanner, Cosea, Warren, Arthur, Ella, John, Alford, Benjamin.

I also found that in the 1850 slave schedule, a year before Weems moved to Georgia, he owned 18 slaves in Abbeville, so it appears that he brought most of them with him.

When Weems built the original part of this house in 1851, it was almost certainly built by his slaves. The massive pecan trees that surround the house were almost certainly planted by his slaves.

I feel complicit in stealing their labor. The land around the farm is so beautiful, rolling pastures as far as the eye can see, and I wonder how much of that was cleared by Larkin, Wiley, Anthony, Wade and John. I wonder if they had enough to eat, if they had shoes, if the children had clothing. I wonder how they kept warm in the winter.

I don’t know where the slave quarters were located, or where the slaves and later free African-Americans were buried. My neighbor Jim tells me there is an overgrown cemetery across the street, and I’m going to find it.

I wonder what it was like on this farm between 1861 and 1865. Andrew Jefferson Weems and his two grown sons, Samuel and Francis, all served in the Confederacy. All three survived the war and went on to live long lives.

The farm is not far from Cassville, which was burned by Sherman’s troops in 1864. There were competing guerilla militias skirmishing and foraging in this area in 1864 and 1865. Food was scarce. Andrew’s mother Agnes and his first wife Agnes Elizabeth both died toward the end of the war, the wife in 1864 and the mother in 1865.

I wonder if the slaves continued to work the farm throughout the war. I wonder about the relationship between the slaves and the slave-owners, whether there was any attachment or just hate.  I wonder if any of the slave children were Andrew’s or his sons’. I wonder if the slaves were allowed to attend Pine Log United Methodist, where Andrew and his family attended. I don’t think they were buried there, because I’ve been to the graveyard and seen the Weems tombstones.  But Jim tells me that there are African-Americans buried in the Pine Log cemetery, so I need to go back and look again.

I feel like it’s important to know these individuals’ names and imagine their experiences and their stories.  I sit in the shade of the trees they planted, leaf canopies stretching 15 yards each, encircling the house in green and shade. In the fall I will gather bushels of pecans.  What is this inheritance?

An Unsung River

The Etowah is an unsung river.

It’s a slow, modest river winding its way out of the southernmost Appalachian mountains and across the northern perimeter of metro Atlanta.  It provides a significant portion of metro Atlanta’s drinking water, hoarded in Lake Allatoona and other reservoirs. Its most recent claim to fame is as a player in the Southern Water Wars, with Alabama suing Georgia over water rights.

Like about half of Atlantans, I’m a stranger here, or I was when I came here in 1997.  I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. I could hear the Beltway from my bedroom. Now I live in a 175-year-old farmhouse in North Georgia, and I spend my time walking the hills and valleys near the Etowah River.

What am I looking for? Early white settlers came here searching for the gold in the river bed. I am searching for a different kind of gold: treasure, unseen and forgotten. I’m searching for the people who lived here: the Native Americans who lived here starting in about 10,000 B.C., culminating in the Cherokee sent on the Trail of Tears in 1838. The white settlers who came for gold and stayed to farm and manufacture. The slaves who never chose to come here at all, but whose descendants still live here.

I’m searching for the river itself, where it winds through the landscape unseen. The damage that has been done by mining and development, the species that are endangered or gone. I am searching for how two small rivers (the Etowah and the Chattahoochee) can (or can’t) sustain a metropolis.

My search touches upon some of the issues of commemoration now troubling the South. Who deserves to be remembered, and why? This is not a simple issue for me. I believe that Civil War monuments erected in the 1950s and 1960s as segregationist statements need to go. But I am most interested in the memorials that need to be put up, as the stories of the Cherokee and the slaves who lived here are brought into public space. I think that we should know and say their names.

More than anything, I am searching for how to have a relationship with the land, in a culture that has ceased to value that relationship. Physical place does not matter much anymore in the age of cyberspace. I see the irony in writing a blog, flinging out into cyberspace, a plea for a return to the experience of physical place.

I call what I am doing a pilgrimage because the connection I seek is spiritual. Both the Cherokee and Christians in this valley have understood the connection between place and spirit. Half the churches in North Georgia are named after a body of water, the rivers, creeks and springs where they baptized, or a site in Jewish sacred geography – Rowland Springs Baptist church, Mt. Zion Baptist church. As every mountain, desert, hill, grove and river in Israel held a spiritual significance for the Jews, each creek and mountain in North Georgia held a spiritual significance for the Cherokee and their predecessors.

Even more so now, the land holds spirits – layers of memory of people who gave birth, who married, who danced, who grieved, who suffered, who died. You can do the physical archaeology, and a lot of people have in this area. The arrowheads and pot shards tell us where the people lived.  But what about their names, their stories, their songs?   The song of the river itself, which they knew and sang, far better than we do.

The Etowah is not an unsung river, it’s just an unsung river now.  I am searching for its song, and the people who sang it.

Explore Every River bend