Blogging in a Time of Pestilence

I am restarting my blog, since I am going to be stuck at home for the foreseeable future, as are many of you.  I have been working with a group of Reinhardt student interns this year to create an exhibit on the history of Pine Log Mountain, so I will share the photos and information we have accumulated in my blog posts. The physical exhibit will not open now until the fall, but my colleague Pam Wilson is having her web design class create an exhibit website, which should be up in a few weeks.

We are calling the exhibit Spirits on Pine Log Mountain: An Appalachian Community, 1830-1940. We have traced the communities around Pine Log Mountain, which is only a couple of miles from Reinhardt, from the Cherokee who lived here prior to the Trail of Tears, to the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located on the mountain during the Great Depression, and everything in between.

It seems odd, and even escapist, to focus on history during a time when so much is wrong in the here and now. I am safe and well on a 15-acre farm, but I am mindful every day of the Coronavirus victims who are sick and dying, as well as the doctors and nurses who are caring for them. My sister Marie is a physician, in charge of the Coronavirus response for the Indian Health Service in Phoenix, Arizona. This scares me.

I feel helpless and useless, hiding in my quarantine, grading papers, reading, writing, researching, and taking my new Great Pyrenees puppy Winston on walks around the farm. Every day, the trees and grasses and wildflowers grow more green, more lush, healthy and bursting with life, and it seems so incongruous with the pestilence that is stalking the country and the world.

I make myself shower and brush my teeth and put on real clothes, so I don’t indulge in the temptation to sink into a lethargy. I’ve been in a deer-in-the-headlights, this-can’t-really-be-happening daze, and I have to remind myself to reach out to friends and family. My 15-year-old daughter Cassie is still living with her Dad, and I feel this primal anxiety at being far from her, as well as from my parents, who live in Virginia. My husband Doug is my only companion on the island. He makes runs to the tiny IGA grocery store in the little town to our north. We plant flowers and vegetables.

History is an escape from the present. It’s a place to retreat to, just like a book or a movie. When you are researching, there is also the addictive pleasure of discovery, unearthing what has been forgotten. It is a form of time travel, or even space travel. Years ago, I wrote an article about a novel about Holocaust survivors, Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. One of the main characters is an archaeologist, and he says of his obsession with the remote past: “to go back a year or two was impossible, absurd. To go back millennia—ah! That was…nothing.”

I also wrote in that article about what I called the “traumatic pastoral” in Michaels’ novels. She and her protagonist, the archaeologist Athos, focus on the beauty of nature with a lyricism that could be naively escapist. But what saves Michaels and her protagonist from that fallacy is the fact that they return again and again to the traumas that wreaked havoc on nature – earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters. The focus on the wounded body of the earth becomes a displacement of the personal traumas that cannot be borne, and the capacity of the earth to heal and regenerate becomes a consolation.

I can see this in my own research and writing on Pine Log Mountain. There is plenty of trauma in the mountain’s history:  the forced removal of the Cherokee in the Trail of Tears, the football stadium-sized mines on the side of the mountain and the convict laborers who worked in them, the hunger and privation of the Great Depression.  The mountain has seen it all, and the mountain has endured.

I learned recently that there was a Pest House in Bartow County, not far from the mountain. In the nineteenth century, when there was a smallpox epidemic or individuals who had tuberculosis or other communicable diseases, they were sent to the Pestilence House, a quarantine building far from town. There was usually a Pest Cemetery as well, where the contaminated bodies were buried. My friend Grant Spafford told me where the Pest House is in Bartow County – near the north bank of Lake Allatoona, off of Bartow Beach Road. Some of the graves are still visible.

There was also a Poor House or Pauper House, where the indigent were sent, well into the twentieth century. It appears that at times those with smallpox were also sent there.  Records from the Bartow Pauper House, transcribed by Jane B. Thompson and Laurel Baty and placed on the Bartow Genweb site, include references to a group of smallpox patients residing there in 1866.

The Bartow Pauper House was in the western valley of Pine Log Mountain, off of Route 411 between White and Rydal. The Hickory Log Vocational School for men with developmental disabilities now stands on the site, and the Toyo Tire Factory is right next to it. The photograph that accompanies this post shows some of the buildings of the Bartow Pauper House, which was also known as the Pauper Farm, because able-bodied residents were expected to work in the fields.

The Pauper House Cemetery is at the back of the site, completely overgrown. There was a movement to restore it in the 1990s, but it never happened. I’d like to see it restored, the inmates given a dignity in death that they may not have had in life.

There was a manganese mine right next to the Pauper House, known as the Pauper House Mine. The jagged cliffs behind the Toyo Tire Factory are a remnant of the massive quarry. The Pauper House and the Pest House had to be on the outskirts, in the industrial zone, a safe distance from everyone else. “Social distancing” was a thing long before the Coronavirus.

Pine Log Mountain is both traumatic and pastoral, a wilderness with wounds. It seems important, and not entirely escapist, to tell the stories of the people who lived there. In one way, it doesn’t matter, neither the people of the past nor us. We are just specks in time and space, blobs of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen, hosts for viruses.

But we called the exhibit “Spirits on Pine Log Mountain,” a reference to the possibility of ghosts that haunt the mountain, but even more so, an affirmation of the something-more-than-a-virus-host that we are, and they were. Stories tell us that other people have been there before, that we are not alone in whatever we are going through. Stories are a map to the journeys we are bound to take, and how to find our way back home.

Photo courtesy of Bartow History Museum.



2 thoughts

  1. Donna, not sure why, but this post struck me deeply, both as more lyrical than some of the others, but also rawer, rougher, full of pain. I feel a bit like crying, like mourning for them and for us – for those people who endured poverty and disease, who were separated from their families and friends, who were ultimately all alone, and not by their own choice, which is a totally different thing. Then there is us, we who are now experiencing separation, isolation, quarantine . We know about these things. We are very sad and sympathetic when they happen to people in third world countries. I think part of our slow tortured response to Covid , aside from foolish and arrogant leaders, was due to privilege, the typical privilege of the first world makes it difficult to grapple with a third world problem even though it lay at our doorsteps. The essay is sad and rich and a bit haunting.



    • Thank you! Yes, I have thought about how we have been lulled into a foolish complacency, thinking bad things can only happen to other people in other countries, not here. My stepdaughter Madison works at Chik Fil A and they have been plenty busy and she made the comment that people are used to having their Chik Fil A chicken and they are going to get it, no matter what. It struck me as summing up our American sense of entitlement and invulnerability. We have suddenly discovered that we are vulnerable, to our great shock and at times, denial.


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