Ray is rubbing flour on the tombstone of a Reverend J.J. Keeter, who lived from 1838-1928. Words obscured by time emerge in stark white letters against the grey slab: Unbelief is the damning sin of this world.
“Alrighty then,” Ray says, laughing uneasily. “I guess the Reverend gave his last sermon from beyond the grave.”
Ray carries a tupperware container full of flour in his car, so he has it handy whenever he visits a cemetery. Which he and his Dad Sanford do a lot. He looks down in dismay at the small mound left in the plastic container and then scans the overgrown cemetery. “Should have brought more.”
Ray and Sanford have been documenting forgotten cemeteries throughout Cherokee County. The cemetery project is part of their larger quest to record and preserve forgotten history.
Earlier in the day, we had visited the site of the forgotten Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at the foot of Pine Log Mountain. I’d been on the hunt for it since I hiked to the CCC quarry on the Pine Log Creek Trail and started to wonder what the CCC was doing there. A crusty old local historian named John Brooke, who is 90 if he is a day, told me the camp was in Beasley Gap, and a request to the Georgia Archives landed me a map that showed that John was right.
We parked at the entrance to the forgotten roadbed, just a little ways up from the Beasley Gap spring, and followed the trail into the woods. I brought up the map I’d received from the Archives on my Iphone, and it was like a digital treasure map, complete with Xs and red ink and mysterious numbers and symbols.
Ray and Sanford are in competition to see who can find the most ruins. They actually keep score. Ray was making fun of his Dad because Sanford found piles of stones which he said must have been chimneys for the workers’ cabins. But then we found the motherlode: seven or eight concrete foundations, several stone cisterns, and long rock walls along an overgrown roadbed.
It was as if we had dusted the overgrown complex with flour, in order to read what it could tell us about the people who had lived there from 1937-1942. In a way, that is Ray and Sanford’s whole project, and mine as well: to read what the landscape can tell us about the past, before it is completely erased.
Is it morbid to wander around cemeteries and ruins, trying to read messages from the past?
I also found the Canton, Georgia newspapers from those same years and read them, looking for references to the forgotten CCC camp. Indeed, there were many articles that mentioned it. I learned that before the CCC built the road and the fire tower, Pine Log Mountain burned every year. The CCC ran a phone line up the mountain to the ranger’s cabin they built, and the fires stopped. I learned that the CCC men were taught everything from how to read and write to how to hunt quail. They fielded baseball and basketball teams, and Reinhardt, the college where I teach, played them in basketball and had an annual Pine Log Mountain Day on which all of the students climbed the mountain.
After the CCC built the road, there was a movement to make Pine Log Mountain a state park, as had happened with other CCC sites like Pine Mountain in South Georgia, which became F.D. Roosevelt State Park, and Vogel State Park in North Georgia. World War II intervened and disrupted the plan. Most of the CCC men at the Pine Log Camp enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. The newspaper listed their names.
Reading those newspapers, I learned about those years in an unexpectedly vivid and moving way that left me with conflicting feelings: admiration for all of the articles about faith, ethics and character; for how literary societies, debate clubs and book discussions abounded in the small Southern town. For how they recoiled unequivocably when Hitler came to power and knew damn well, even in Canton, Georgia, that the Jews were in trouble and advocated helping them. But horror at the way African-Americans were still referred to as “Uncle This” and “Aunt That,” and at the pictures of a beauty queen front and center in every issue: Miss Temperance, Miss Christianity, Miss Cotton. It was like they were better people and worse people than us at the same time, in ways that are impossible to separate.
As a nation, we have been grappling with the dilemma of how to remember and commemorate (or not) the past, especially in the South. People committed the atrocities of slavery, the Trail of Tears, and segregation right here, beneath my very feet. It’s built into the foundations of my house. I also know that human history all over the planet has been characterized by oppression, exploitation, war, slavery and genocide. I wrote in my poem “Thunder Hawk Loop”: The earth is a crime scene. Spray it with Luminol: the whole planet would light up with the blue glow of old blood.
So what do we do with that? How do we remember the past without glorifying it? How do we sort out the good of those CCC men who hacked at rocks and sent $25 of the $30 they received each month to their family from the evil of a system where white men and black men served in separate CCC camps?
At the Shoal Creek Cemetery, Ray didn’t have enough flour to completely illuminate the words on the tombstone of William T. Rampley, who was born in 1909 and died in 1911. He rubbed what he had left in patchy streaks across the words: Little flower of love that blossomed but to die. Ray swiped a floury hand across his sweaty face and looked down at his empty tupperware container. “Should have brought more,” he said.