Wilderness and the Southern Mind - 2009-08-11
Interviewer: Dorinda Dallmeyer
Interviewee: Jack Temple Kirby
Jack Temple Kirby presented the keynote speech for the Southern Nature Project conference “Chattooga: Wild River, Real and Imagined” on April 21, 2005. We offer it here in memoriam.
WILDERNESS AND THE SOUTHERN MIND
To follow Bartram’s trail upstream, past Tugaloo,
to cross the Chattooga River at Earl’s Ford,
to go up the Warwoman Valley,
up past the cascades & bridalveils of Finney Creek,
up along the Continental Divide
between Rabun Bald & Hickory Knob,
is to crawl, is to hopscotch
between the doghobble and the yellowroot,
the rhododendron and the laurel, hand over hand,
inch by dirty, glistening inch….
Thorpe Moeckel, “Bartram’s Trail” (2002)
In August 1846, Henry David Thoreau – twenty-nine and already the anti-bourgeois suburbanite – set out from Concord, Massachusetts toward the countryside above Bangor, Maine in order to find wild nature. Thoreau was no naïf: He knew too well that Bangor was a center of rural Maine’s industrialized landscape, where one of his own relations was a lumberman. Henry had read, too, that as early as a decade before his journey, there were already “250 saw-mills on the Penobscot and its tributaries above Bangor” alone, and many more along Maine’s great parallel rivers. Farther north, however, past the lakes of the Penobscot, was Mount Ktaadn, New England’s second highest peak; and there Henry hoped for revelation.
The trip north from Bangor was long, pleasant-enough, sometimes interesting. All along the way there were remote timber-getters, trappers, hunters – both Euro- and native – to be encountered. Henry particularly engaged Indian guides and every other native he met: What were the tribe’s names for certain birds, he would inquire, and for the body parts of moose, etc? Henry wrote down all, but regretted natives’ loss of competence, much less interest in, conversation with trees. Meanwhile, the great fact that “wilderness” included a human population did not surprise. “It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man,” he wrote. “We habitually presume his presence and influence everywhere.” On the other hand, Henry conjectured that “we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast and drear and inhuman….” This was briefly the case in his assault on the summit of Ktaadn. Scrambling ahead of his companions through dark brambles and thickets, he encountered a “Nature…savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked,” he famously wrote, “with awe at the ground I trod on, to see that the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work. This was that Earth of which we have heard, made out of Chaos and Old Night. Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandseled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste land.” The Bible and other texts might suggest that even Ktaadn would be subdued by humans, but Henry disagreed. Ktaadn was simply too wild, “a place for heathenism and superstitious rites….” (1)
Poor Henry died, in his mid-forties, in 1862. This was the very year that began a three-decade series of “Indian Wars” that slaughtered western natives and consigned survivors to reservations where they were to become sodbusters (another name for civilizers). Amid the wars, Congress established the first national park at Yellowstone, a magnificent and recently de-populated western place. Yellowstone Park, like its successors east and west, was by national policy to remain without human inhabitants, save licensed franchisees and the mounted troops charged with protecting wild nature. (Later, a Park Service of rangers replaced the cavalry.) Thoreau, beginning with the “Ktaadn” chapter in his posthumously published The Maine Woods, is properly credited for his precocious notion of such wilderness preservation. Yet I think that wilderness preservation is better construed as passive in Thoreau’s text – that is, uncivilized and wild places of awesome beauty essentially protect themselves through the agency of their remoteness and difficult geological morphology. On the other hand (still trying fairly to read Thoreau), just in case human will and hard-charging technology might eventually endanger wilderness, then government ought to protect wildness from humans. Consider the case of Mount Ktaadn after Henry. Today Ktaadn is the center-piece of Maine’s Baxter State Park, and Baxter has been effectively appropriated by the enormously successful Maine merchandiser, L. L. Bean.
Meanwhile: Henry David Thoreau had a New Englander contemporary – somewhat older – also associated with wild nature and a particular mountain, and who became early in his life a southerner. This was Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857), discoverer and namesake of Mount Mitchell among western North Carolina’s Black Mountains. Mitchell’s mountain has long been confirmed as the highest peak in the eastern United States.
Mitchell was a native of Connecticut, a graduate of Yale, and an ordained Congregational minister. At Yale he studied science with Benjamin Silliman, a pedagogical giant properly credited with beginning the modern professionalization of science, scientific education, and research in this country. Following Mitchell’s graduation and his brief formal religious studies, a North Carolina congressman recruited Elisha and a classmate to the science faculty at the University of North Carolina. Beginning in 1818, Mitchell taught mathematics and what would now be called physics; but curiosity about the unfamiliar (and largely undeveloped) Carolina countryside led him also to botany and geology. By the late-1820s, under contract from the state legislature, Mitchell was engaged every summer in a geological and mineralogical survey of the state. Beginning with the coastal plain, Mitchell’s westward progress was spurred by his reading of Andre’ Michaux’s late-eighteenth century volume on North American forests, which included Michaux’s famous journey to western North Carolina and his “discovery” of Grandfather Mountain, which Michaux had declared the highest on the continent. (He knew not the Rockies and Sierras.)
Elisha Mitchell finally reached the Black range, beyond Grandfather Mountain, during the summer of 1835. Curious to test his impression that some of the Blacks seemed taller than Grandfather Mountain, Mitchell struggled upward along a “bear trail” of thick laurel and rhododendron until he stood upon a peak, then recorded a barometric reading that established one of the Blacks as the highest summit east of the Rockies. Back in Chapel Hill, the excited professor wrote up his adventure and discovery for Silliman’s Journal, the premier scientific periodical of the day; and shortly, a popular atlas publisher hastened to name the new “highest peak” after Mitchell. Mitchell returned to the Blacks several more times for good reason: The weather had been bad on his first summit visit; he had not done his trigonometry; and worse, an ambitious western Carolina politician (who had once been Mitchell’s adoring student) had disputed the professor’s claim. Mitchell’s final trip, in 1857, was his last visit anywhere. Lost past sundown, the sixty-three year old fell to his death in the rocky bed of an upper Cain River ravine.
By 1910 Mitchell’s mountain – not to mention the rest of the Blacks, the Blue Ridge range, and the Great Smokies – was threatened with utter ruination: Southern and Midwestern lumber companies had been busy deforesting the upland South; ugly erosion and landslides were devastating mountains’ ancient morphology, and slash fires flared daily. North Carolina’s governor, a westerner and promoter of nature tourism, persuaded his legislature to appropriate enough money to save the upper parts of Mount Mitchell, and ultimately the site became a state park. Elisha Mitchell’s remains were reinterred at the summit, beside a monument; and today, automobiling ramblers might take an access road from the Blue Ridge Parkway and drive directly to the peak and the tomb.(2) More so-called “wilderness-through-the-windshield,” and more extreme, likely, than at Baxter and Ktaadn, because Mount Mitchell is less remote from population centers and inter-state highways.
Such development would be ironic had Elisha Mitchell been a brother to Henry Thoreau – and to latter-day walkers, climbers, and campers such as Bob Marshall (a founder of the Wilderness Society), Benton MacKaye (another co-founder of the Wilderness Society and principal creator of the Appalachian Trail), and Tim Silver (historian/outdoorsman and the biographer of Mitchell and the Black range). Silver observes that Mitchell was hardly immune to awe in the presence of monumental nature, and that, once or twice, Mitchell even assumed the kneeling posture of nature worship. More typical of Mitchell, however, was his aversion to rusticity, his avoidance whenever possible of sleeping outdoors, and especially his devotion to economic development. The professor was the more-than-willing partner of the North Carolina legislators who subsidized his discovery. He was never, in other words, the anti-bourgeois bourgeois, but ever the devotee of disciplined work, enterprise, and the mastery of nature.
Irresistibly, Silver attributes many of Mitchell’s values to his New England heritage – memory of his native region’s hard-won wealth in sheep and woolen mills, for instance, and also his stern Calvinism. One cannot disagree. Mitchell’s “mind,” then, was already formed when, in his mid-twenties, he moved to Chapel Hill. Yet such a mind was hardly lonely among white natives of Carolina at the time. Recall those legislators and governors – all desperately responding to their state’s relative decline in population, its human surpluses decamping for the West and Southwest, its economy moribund. Many southerners were Calvinists, too, after all, and strangers neither to work nor capitalism. So Mitchell not only fit into his adopted southern society, he served it rather well. Too, like so many other immigrant Yankees to the antebellum South, Mitchell became a slaveholder without apparent qualm; and if I might be permitted a brief venture into the counter-factual, I must think that had Mitchell lived a few more years, he might well have been pro-Confederate. But to return to reality in Mitchell’s own time: Silver confidently summarizes Mitchell’s well-documented dream for his mountain and the entire Black range. Mitchell’s earnest vision encouraged (as Silver writes) “a day when even the highest peak of the Blacks might be covered with lush meadows and vast herds of cattle and sheep.” (3) Ultimately it makes no difference, I think, whether Elisha Mitchell is identified as “New Englander” or “southerner.” His assumption of humanity’s natural enmity toward wild nature was not only, well, natural, but nearly universal. (Henry and other Romantics, on both sides of the Atlantic, were the weirdo exceptions.)
“Wilderness” -- the word and the notion -- is deeply rooted in northern European experience among daunting forested landscapes. Christians in medieval northern Europe allowed that deserts were also wilderness, but their slight acquaintance with aridity meant that climax forests persistently and pervasively connoted wildness. And little wonder. As Robert Pogue Harrison has brilliantly set forth: climax forests are literally, metaphorically, and profoundly dark. Dark is the absence of light, depriving grasses and much else of a chance for life. Absence of light is also ignorance, error, and sin. Humans of the forests, then – and Europeans and early Americans always assumed peopled wildernesses – were without learning, guidance, or restraint. They were, in a word, wild, although feral is another descriptor, adding physical filth to undisciplined behavior. (More on this subject, later.)
The way to truth and light, naturally, is to cut forests, admit the sun (same as the Son, for Christians), plow and plant, graze domestic beasts, produce surpluses from the warm earth, then build cities with temples and universities, the ultimate expressions of civilization. That government officials, priests, rabbis, and mullahs might be unjust, however, imposing discipline that crushes freedom, reminds that dark forests are also free, the refuge of Pan, goatish sexuality, and revolt. Robin Hoods (using that name and many others, in England and continental Europe) were free men and revolutionaries against injustice. The tyranny against which they rebelled always included royal and metropolitan appropriation of forests for exclusive use and enjoyment of royals and their privileged lackeys. (4)
When Europeans rediscovered wilderness raw in the New World, they and their African forced laborers were everywhere and for a very long time dedicated butchers of darkness -- and of savage humans and beasts of darkness. After all, before colonizers might achieve even elemental security – that is, shelter, food, and water -- they had to subdue wild nature, the elemental enemy. So throughout the Americas, deforestation was elemental goal and necessity. This was accomplished by axe and saw, but mostly by fire. Colonizers also undertook the re-routing and other manipulations of streams, and systematic slaughter of animals competing with human intruders’ domestic creatures and crops. In James Fenimore Cooper’s very first “Leatherstocking” novel, The Pioneers (1823), Natty Bumppo decries in vain frontier New Yorkers’ indiscriminate shooting of birds. A farmer called Kirby answers that he is fed up with replanting wheat devoured by voracious flocks of avions, then resumes his blasting. Contemporary southerners were no different and participated with other colonizers in the systematic war against wilderness. By about 1800, wolves were virtually unknown east of the Appalachians, north or south, victims of relentless trapping, gunning, and lancing. Bears, the next-most-fearsome enemy to civilization, were never quite extinguished, but universally regarded by farmers as vermin. So, untold numbers of bruins fell victim to poisoning (by arsenic), and execution by remote guns in crop fields, their triggers wired to bait. Bears were also commodities, of course – not only their skins but meat, fat, and oils, -- and famously the prey of Daniel Boone, who shortly after his first rustic migration, to the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina, supposedly killed 900 in one season.
Southerners could be distinguished from others only when wild enemies’ ranges lay within what we call the South. By about 1900, for instance, the Carolina parakeet – a lovely foot-long, tri-colored creature – had been rendered extinct via shooting, netting and clubbing, and arsenic-poisoning. The parakeets’ offense was its consumption of fruit, especially apples, intended for farmers’ cider presses and distilleries. Southerners (black and white) also participated in mass killings of other birds for extra rations and for small profits. Carolina slave boys windrowed rice-field chaff to attract nesting birds, then harvested them to enrich stewpots. Other Carolina juveniles, mostly white, trapped and clubbed colorful songbirds and traded the little carcasses for candy and tops with country merchants, who sent them on to New York for the millinery trade.
Then there was what is called binge killing – large-scale shootings of many species without justification or profit, leaving the slaughtered to rot where they dropped. This was the mode of men, almost invariably drunk, everywhere. J. J. Audubon (in whose honor a certain conservationist organization is named), participated in sickening slaughters of cormorants, brown pelicans, and other birds along the southeastern coast of Florida early in the nineteenth century. Toward the end of that century and well into the twentieth, up in the Cumberlands of Tennessee, Alvin York, later the most-decorated American soldier in World War I, was famous as youthful marksman, but notorious as drunken gunman who blew away creatures wild and domestic for the joy of it – this before he got religion and quit drinking, in 1915. York and other bingers were legion in virtually every southern landscape, high and low. Binge “hunting” usually began Saturday nights and concluded early Sundays, when the bingers, leaving deer, turkeys, raccoons, opposums, squirrels – any and every creature they happened upon – in blood-splattered piles, turned at last toward home. On the way they often paused for the fun of disrupting church services – halloo-ing, shooting into the air, sometimes at church structures, sometimes also riding horses into crowded sanctuaries. No wonder that southern ministers closed ranked with church-going women to mount successful campaigns not only to outlaw liquor, but to impose the foundations of hunting regulations that prevail to this day. (5)
In such manner, during approximately the first third of the twentieth century, southerners – as usual a bit behind, or later, than other Americans – declared a truce of sorts in a multigenerational war upon nature. Shortly after mid-century, southerners (the last among Americans) finally became an urban population, too, then quickly moved out to suburbs, following other Americans, and they seem also to have become part of the national conservationist, then environmentalist, consensus. Relatively speaking, most southerners had finally become prosperous, as well. Prosperous folks take vacations in “nature,” and by the 1970s – the decade of jogging and tennis – some were even willing to rough it, hiking segments of the Appalachian Trail and/or canoeing or kayaking down Appalachian white waters. Southern history, in other words, especially during the last century and a half, seems much the painful business of becoming less the mirror of America, more the true reflection. So one must wonder (again) if there were, or is, a southern “mind” vis-à-vis nature, wild or not.
I will suggest that southerners’ experience with their landscapes is different in several respects, each suggesting in itself a distinct relationship with nature, each also confirming a legitimacy to southern environmental history and perhaps also a “mind.” (Please keep faith that what follows leads again to “wilderness” and its inhabitants.) First, most of the South is hot and humid most of every year, and well watered. As such it has more flowers, weeds, insect life, exuberant avian activity, more and more varied vipers as well as non-poisonous snakes, alligators, even a few native crocodiles. All southern animals, including ourselves, have been more subject to infectious diseases. There is more nature, i.e., and a livelier one (since nature rests less or none at all under freezing cover). Southern humans have simply had more to confront, manipulate, and struggle against and for. Second, while southerners resemble other Americans in their restless migrations, their landscapes changing drastically from generation to generation, because a great war was waged by millions of soldiers over much of the South, its landscapes arguably suffered more extreme change and different patterns of redevelopment than less cursed regions. (A significant bit more on the Civil War and its complex aftermath follows, below.)
Third, during the twentieth century, southern intellectuals helped invent and embraced a particular reformist version of scientific ecology whose thesis and goals centered upon nature’s own system of self-correction, equilibrium, and human emulation of nature’s harmony. One family, in three generations, was exemplary: I refer to the Odums – first Howard Washington, son of northern Georgia, patriarch, founder of sociology and a research empire at the University of North Carolina early in the 1920s, and champion of a “social ecology” of progressive harmony. Then came his first son, Eugene P., founder of the Institute of Ecology at the University of Georgia, author of the first collegiate textbook in ecological science, and for half a century an activist on behalf of preservation and restoration, especially of wetlands. Gene Odum was blessed with a younger brother, Howard Thomas, another ecologist skilled especially in the mathematics of energy transfer, who was a frequent collaborator with his brother and founder of the University of Florida’s graduate ecology center. Finally there was Gene’s son, William, who before his premature death headed the ecology program at the University of Virginia. Even though the ecosystem theory of ecology championed by the second and third generations of Odums was an international phenomenon between the 1940s and ‘70s – American Midwesterners and Britons made early and critical contributions – Eugene and Howard T. not only brilliantly elaborated its science but irrevocably bonded ecosystem ecology with political reformism and a sunny thematic of equilibrium. Their optimistic progressivism, I believe, was born at home and bears a distinctive southern stamp.
The first, sociologist, Odum’s missionary quest for harmony within the benighted interwar South was clearly a response to the scandalous disharmony of Howard Washington’s world. The cotton-centric system of production (based upon class and color oppression) was collapsing, southerners suffered from all the diseases of poverty, and southern rural landscapes were dramatically degrading before the eyes and lenses of scores of government photographers. “Poor land makes poor people,” intoned the narrator of the New Deal documentary film, The River, in 1938, almost simultaneous with President Roosevelt ominous declaration that the South was “the nation’s economic problem number one.” (6) Howard Odum and his loyal corps of colleagues relentlessly mapped dysfunctional “systems” – social, political, educational, penal, agricultural – everywhere charting means of correction, means of achieving harmony. Gene, the young son, famously absorbed his father’s preoccupation with systems, beginning (as he loved to relate in later years), with the plumbing systems in the crawl spaces of his parents’ and their friends’ houses. Younger brother Tom became his father’s son, too, and was better than both with figures.
Altogether the Odums were phenomenal. Howard the elder is read and revered yet; and his sons (everyone agrees) would have been Nobel laureates if there were a Nobel prize in ecology. They did indeed receive what are deemed equivalent honors. With due respect to phenomena, then, I must still figure that the Odums and their related missions existed first of all because of peculiarly southern historical circumstances. “Peculiar” in the first Odum’s time meant poor, mean, degraded. Such peculiarity, in tern, was in large part caused by the painful demise of another – a fourth – difference about southerners and their landscapes. This was the remarkably long, un-American persistence of a vast, wooded commons.
The South was not only the last American region to become urban; it was also the last region where farmers were still required by law to fence crops (rather than farm animals), and where every owner of stock – cattle but especially swine – had the right to range his four-legged property over the landed property of others. This commons – aka “open range” – dates from colonial law in Virginia, copied almost everywhere as the English North American empire grew. Northeastern and most Old Northwestern states closed their ranges well before the Civil War, however. In the South, large planters generally despised the commons early on – William Byrd II went on record in opposition, in effect, early in the eighteenth century; and as early as the 1830s, Edmund Ruffin actually mounted a campaign to legislate the fencing of animals instead of crops. He failed because even in supposedly “aristocratic” tidewater Virginia, the great majority of white male voters were ordinary farmers with little or no land, few if any enslaved laborers, but were owners of vast numbers of hogs and cattle – so many, indeed, that they might never had fed them, enclosed, from home-raised feed. Instead, such people all across the South ranged their stock on their own and others’ unused land, particularly wooded land, nirvana to shade- and mast-loving swine. Every year southern herdsmen conducted market drives, often to faraway ports, and collectively they produced enormous surpluses and wealth upon landscapes that seemed – to the unknowing, such as traveling critic Frederick Law Olmsted – unkempt and rather wild.
As we know, by the 1880s, planters and their allies resumed their campaigns against the open range and, gradually, usually beginning at the county level, began the elimination of the commons. More state and local historical studies are needed, but it seems clear that the commons were not finally closed throughout the region until about 1920 or so, an astoundingly late date for a region “settled” so long. Even then there were exceptions. During the 1930s, for example, in rural Alachua County, Florida – this the county of Gainesville and the University of Florida – the writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings fenced her yard and orchard in observance of old law, yet endured a protracted dispute with a neighbor whose hog broke her yard fence and trashed her barnyard. Marjorie dropped the marauder with her handy rifle, as per the old remedy.
I cannot but wonder if the commons might have endured throughout the South, as in Alachua, had it not been for the Civil War. Not only did white southerners die and lose. During the war hordes of soldiers on both sides accomplished much of the work of terminally crippling the commons and its economy: They carried off for firewood countless miles of crop-field fencing. And over those uncounted thousands of fires, soldiers boiled and roasted millions of penned, but mostly range, hogs and cattle (hardly to mention sheep, goats, and chickens). My own study of seventeen counties in southeastern Virginia and adjacent northeastern North Carolina revealed that well into the twentieth century, hog populations still had not compensated for the porcine holocaust of 1861-65. (7)
Surviving whites of modest means might have retained their old legal rights to the commons, then, but acquisition of mating pairs of hogs or cattle to restart the pre-war business of herding was difficult if not impossible. And black southerners, newly free men and women, were worse off, yet. So here, I suspect, are important origins of worsening long-term southern poverty, susceptibility to disease -- and of weakening resistance to fencing “reformers.”
Anti-commons rural land-owners and anti-hog-running urban middle classes were soon joined, too, by the anti-liquor crusaders, many of them also interested in restricting and regulating hunting and fishing. If all these anti-commons forces were not sufficient, then came, too, the rapacious corporate timber getters, and after them, in order to repair the loggers’ vast damage to hill- and mountain-sides and to watersheds, came state and federal governments. They created well-regulated parks and preserves, where hunting, fishing, setting fires, and ranging animals were either forbidden or severely restricted.
By about 1940, earlier in many southern places, ordinary southerners, notably the poor, had little access to wooded expanses taken for granted by their parents and many generations before them. Over the next half century, their access actually narrowed. It would seem little wonder, then, that throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the South led the nation – and spectacularly so, one must say – in forest arson. By the end of the 1980s, almost all arson tabulated by American Forests occurred in the South. Woods-burners are seldom arrested, much less interrogated, but the best-educated guesses about arsonists’ motivation attribute many of the arson blazes to revenge-making by those deprived of venues for hunting, fishing, and – even at this late date -- the ranging of animals. (8)
The bitterness of working-class hunters at posted (i.e., restricted) forest preserves – whether rich men’s clubs, corporate paper’s pine plantations, or state and national forests and parks – is already legendary, persisting today, and probably the principal worry of preserves’ rangers and firefighters. In the highlands surrounding the Appalachian Trail and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however, one does not exaggerate in terming some locals’ attitude as smoldering fury. There should be no wonder, especially in the case of the Smokies. Hardly seventy years ago, the U.S. Department of the Interior and National Park Service, having promised landowners within the prospective boundaries of the park-to-be that no residents would be displaced, reversed itself. So descendants of mountain North Carolina and Tennessee pioneers of the late-eighteenth century were served with writs of eminent domain and expelled. The Park Service, in other words, made no eastern exception to its original policy of preserving pseudo-wilderness for visitors only. (9) Many natives, it turned out, faced the options of migration or lurking about park perimeters, begging for jobs in touristic service industries.
This contemporary class warfare is probably nowhere better represented than by what I had thought another “urban legend” – that is, that privileged hikers along southern reaches of the Appalalchian Trail were likely to encounter not only a few crawling vipers and eccentric fellow/sister hikers at rest camps, but Viet-Cong-like traps, notably fish-hooks suspended from overhanging tree limbs, carefully positioned at the typical hiker’s eye-level. During the dozen-odd years I taught environmental history to suburban midwestern students at Miami University (in Ohio), I heard the story at least a dozen times. One of my last students, a maybe-brilliant one whose American Studies senior thesis was an ethnography of the Trail from West Virginia into Georgia, persuaded me that while the legend was certainly exaggerated, he had himself once spotted a fish-hook in time to duck, then cut the suspending line. This young man, understanding something of the vast southern experience with the commons – and the irony of creating faux commons in the forms of trails and parks -- expressed sadness but no enmity whatsoever toward anonymous, presumably hillbilly, hook-hangers. This is why I believed him.
Actually, few of the descendants of those expelled from the grounds of the Great Smokies National Park, or of the greater Appalachian populations that left crowded farms for coal mines, railroad-building gangs, and so on, live still in southern Appalachia. The Midwest is full of them. (10) Butler County, Ohio (immediately north of Hamilton County and Cincinnati), until recently lush with steel and paper mills and a huge General Motors Fisher Body plant, is exemplary. Beginning during the mid-1910s Great War buildup, industrialists sent recruiters and special railroad cars down into eastern Kentucky. Soon upland Kentuckians (plus some Tennesseeans and West Virginians) surged into Butler’s burgeoning workers’ housing compounds. After the war migration slowed, yet persisted, then surged again during the 1940s and ‘50s. By the time I, myself (a flat-land southerner) arrived at Miami University in Oxford as boy professor, in 1965, fully two-thirds of Butler’s population consisted of Appalachian southerners and their children. By that time some middle-aged migrants from earlier times had ascended to middle-class positions as police officers, school teachers, and salesmen and -women. Most, however, lived in poor, sometimes company-owned apartments, and if low-wage jobs and low-rent housing were working-class markers insufficient to stigmatize, they spoke highland southern accents that segregated migrants for at least a generation. Native locals condescended to them, dismissing Kentuckians as “Briars,” or “Briar-hoppers.” They were rough folk, the midwesterners told me, uneducated, coarse, and prone to drunken knife-fights on Saturday nights. They were, i.e., hardly different from Afro-southern migrants – more people of darkness.
Then, about 1974, a hillbilly joined the Oxford Country Club. This was a fellow I shall call “Vern,” owner-operator with his wife of a small sporting goods shop just off High Street. Vern was born and partly raised in Sandy Hook, Kentucky, then migrated with his family to Portsmouth, Ohio, where older relatives opened a bar and prospered, according to Vern, by not paying taxes. Later, other members of his extended family moved into the nursing-home business and grew wealthy. Vern preferred small businesses. He and his wife once ran a laundry in Portsmouth, then the sporting goods shop in Oxford, later a little motel in Nashville, Indiana which was headquarters for Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys during their annual mountain music festivals in nearby Bean Blossom. In the meantime, back in Portsmouth, Vern had attended a branch campus of Ohio University part-time, earning a B.A. in political science. In Oxford he was a part-time graduate student in political science, and during the ‘70s earned a doctorate. He never entertained professorial or other professional ambitions, however. I think formal education and degrees were pleasurable exercise to Vern, and a private matter of self-fulfillment that would have pleased his late mother. He would never permit anyone to address him as “doctor,” joking that every dumb person he knew had a Ph.D. – how true! – and that he’d never met a college professor who could change a flat tire. (I was the rare exception proving his rule.)
Vern made his Appalachian background his persona. In light moods, his usual mode in fact, Vern put on countrified accents, happily voiced double-negatives, and trash-talked, mountain style. He was also a brilliant, natural, self-taught tennis player with a perfect disposition for social (or “sociable,” as he preferred) doubles. His “Dixie Dew Drop” spin serve was diabolical and embarrassing not to return, especially since Vern usually delivered it with a cigarette in one side of his mouth and a weird laugh emanating from the other side. In warm months, he occasionally wore wing-tipped shoes with shorts. Vern also loved aging Cadillacs and, whenever his latest used model came with all four wheel covers, he would remove at least one, in case anyone at the Club doubted he was really Appalachian. Everybody loved him, save the primmest and most ill-humored. I might tell many more Vern stories, but just one more will end this seeming topical drift and return us to the subject of the peopling of “wild” nature -- and to the subject of James Dickey’s Deliverance.
In 1972 I was at work on an odd little book about the South and popular culture. So I had read Dickey’s best-selling novel two years before and awaited eagerly the appearance of director John Boorman’s movie version. Deliverance the film came to Oxford, Ohio’s old-fashioned, one-large-auditorium theater, the Miami-Western, which was packed on opening night. Accustomed to comparing films based upon novels with the novels, I was pleased that Boorman’s work more closely resembled Dickey’s print than any movie-remade fiction I had ever seen. I confess I was not very comfortable, then, as the film narrative approached the notorious male rape scene, in which diabolical hillbillies welcome intruding suburbanite canoeists.
When at last the principal assailant declares to Ned Beatty’s character, “I bet you can squeal like a pig,” an eerie hush fell over the Miami-Western audience. Except that after the equivalent of a two-beat, there arose a strange, piercing sound, about eight rows southwest of where I sat. It was Vern, laughing his laugh. How to describe it? The mocking “Ah ha!” of Bart Simpson’s fat-bully schoolmate provides a beginning, of sorts, to recreation. But Vern’s was not a “gotcha” laugh. It expressed, I was sure, uncomplicated, spontaneous merriment: “Ahhhhh, ha…ha…ha…ha!”
The theater audience’s pre-laugh stunned hush morphed into gasps of shocked disbelief, suggesting (I thought at the time) a collective plea for a police squad, a net and straight-jacket. What sort of madman could laugh at such a scene? Later, a few other friends of Vern and I, recapitulating the moment, realized we had all shared a determination to arise from our scattered seats, if necessary, and save him from captivity in some hospital for the criminally insane. Vern, we understood, was not nuts. He was a businessman, after all (albeit a Democrat), and member of the Chamber of Commerce – i.e., bourgeois and not even (I am pretty sure) a tax cheater. Of course Vern was also anti-bourgeois, a true son of the upcountry and its old commons. The combination amused, suggesting in context that Vern was an honest businessman who might have sold Lewis, Ed, Drew, and Bobby fishing rods and bows and arrows, then find glorious fun in their undoing among the rapids and bank-side hazards of the Cahulawassee.
Which is merely another way of saying that Vern had a sense of irony hilariously displayed that night at the Miami-Western theater. He (and a few of the rest of us) knew, for instance, that so-called “wilderness,” whether seen from RVs or kayaks, had long been hopelessly compromised. Wherever Vern is today, he may have noticed, maybe with a moan, maybe a laugh, a newly published memoir by a western national park ranger, entitled Nature Noir. The author reports that today, a ranger “is fifteen times more likely to be killed or injured on the job than an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration.” Foolish and/or unlucky climbers, hikers, campers, and skiers endanger rescuing rangers, as is well known; but the more typical danger seems to lie in breaking up drunken brawls at visitors’ camp-sites. (11) Perhaps some visitors’ perturbation began with shopping for beer, booze, and chips just outside parks’ perimeters. Nature tourism’s “service industries,” as they are bureaucratically termed, are more frequently called tourist traps. One of the problems accompanying remote beauty’s charm is remoteness, itself, leading to no shopping amenities or amenities with insufficient price competition.
Herein lies one of the great lies of economic development in depressed rural places: Where there are natural “attractions” but no industry and few businesses to provide employment for local working folks, development of service and hospitality infrastructure will save indigenous populations and their communities with jobs and, as tourism and vacation-home construction grows, improved local roads, schools, and sanitation. Instead, and typically -- whether in Wyoming, Kentucky, or South Carolina – local small-scale farmers and ranchers (men and women) and part-time timber-cutters and truck drivers go off to work full-time as convenience store clerks, maids in hotels, and short-order cooks, cashiers, and wait-persons at restaurants. If such people live and work near a really successful natural attraction, one that has in turn attracted affluent summer people and retirees who demand better infrastructure, then their land and home tax assessments will rise at least proportionate to real estate values. The Vail, Colorado phenomenon – the resort grown so exclusive no ordinary workers can live there – is not restricted to the Rockies.
The fate of Billy Redden, the hillbilly “banjo boy” who eerily provoked, then accompanied the Deliverance character, Drew, in “Dueling Banjos” before things got really nasty by the Cahulawassee, illustrates a southeastern version. Recently, as many readers of John Lane’s ethnographic meditation upon the Chattooga have learned, Redden has found steady employment near his old home by the river -- actually two jobs. First, he washes dishes and mops floors at the Huddle House. Then he works at a barbecue joint called – believe it or not – “Oinkers”! (12)
Do affluent visitors get the creeps entering such a restaurant in Cahulawassee country? I know not, but suspect that they do not. Suburbanized Americans, arguably now more than ever, seem innocent of irony. Billy Redden, on the other hand, is more likely the aware one, the sophisticate-in-the-wilderness, not entirely unlike my old tennis buddy, Vern.
1. Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods, Introduction by Edward Hoagland (1864; New York: Penguin, 1988), quotations 1, 4, 94.
2. See Timothy Silver, Mount Mitchell & the Black Mountains: An Environmental History of the Highest Peaks in Eastern America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), esp. 77-120, 163-208.
3. Ibid., esp. 77-120; quotation 89. Silver’s own avocation in high rustic landscapes is presented in italics before each chapter, sometimes elsewhere. On twentieth-century hikers, campers, and the Wilderness Society (est. 1935), see (among other sources) Larry Anderson, Benton MacKaye: Conservationist, Planner, and Creator of the Appalachian Trail (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 272-78, 283-84, 309-27 and passim.
4. Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). The origins and nature of “wilderness” in northwestern Europe are discussed in Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967; New Haven: Yale University Press, 3rd ed. 1982), esp. 8-22.
5. Among several sources on such behavior, the best is Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, & Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
6. This interpretation is developed in Jack Temple Kirby, Mockingbird Song: Southerners and Their Landscapes – an eco-history (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming), Preface and Chap. 5.
7. See Steven Hahn, The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), esp. 137-69; Jack Temple Kirby, Poquosin: A Study of Rural Landscape and Society (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); and Michael D. Thompson, “High on the Hog: Swine and Culture and Commodity in Eastern North Carolina” (Ph.D. dissertation, Miami University, 2000).
8. See Jack Temple Kirby, The Countercultural South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995), chap. 2.
9. Margaret Lynn Brown, The Wild East: A Biography of the Great Smokey Mountains (Gainesville and other cities: University Press of Florida, 2000), esp. chap. 3.
10. See Jack Temple Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: The American South, 1920-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), chap. 8. And more recently, Chad Berry, Southern Migrants, Northern Exiles (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
11. Jordan Fisher Smith, Nature Noir: A Park Ranger’s Patrol in the Sierra (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 2005), 9.
12. John Lane, Chattooga: Descending Into the Myth of Deliverance River (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), 61-62.