Interview Picture

Bewildered: An Invitation to the Reading of James Kilgo - 2007-09-05

Interviewer: John Lane and Dorinda Dallmeyer
Interviewee: Matteo Meschiari on James Kilgo

Matteo Meschiari was born in Modena, Italy in 1968. Poet and essayist, he conducts research in geography, philosophy, and anthropology. A graduate of the University of Bologna, with advanced degrees from the Université de Bourgogne and the Université Charles De Gaulle Lille 3, he gives public lectures and leads workshops in universities on prehistoric art, landscape in science and literature, and contemporary poetry.

Matteo also is the son-in-law of the late James Kilgo, one of the founding authors of the Southern Nature Project. On a recent visit with Jane Kilgo in Athens, Georgia, Matteo, along with wife Ann and daughter Lucia, had the opportunity to talk with John Lane and Dorinda Dallmeyer about seeing the South both through Kilgo's writing and through his own exploration of the landscapes that figure so strongly in Jim's works.

As a native of the South, I think of these landscapes as places I know very well having been brought up among them. What is it like for someone who comes from Italy to see them with fresh eyes, to take the words that others have written and convey them to Italian readers, or to put your own impressions into the writing?

I think that when I arrived here and began to read Jim’s books, I felt as a primal thing that writing about landscape here comes from a tradition. If you make the comparison with the Italian way of writing about landscape, you feel that it is something very, very recent. For example in my Ph.D. dissertation, I studied the birth of landscape representation in Italian literature. Even if you start at the Renaissance period, you have to wait really until the end of the 20th century to have enough good texts able to represent landscape not just as a postcard or a scenario but to reproduce the space with words. That is, to reproduce the experience of space and not just a two-dimensional painting of it.

Even before reading about James Kilgo or reading his books, I used to read American literature -- the big classics: Melville, Hemingway – and the nature writers were not very available in Europe. Now with Amazon it very easy to have a library but when I started at 14 or 15 and I was interested in landscape and nature writing, it was impossible to find something really new or classic from the American tradition.

So the first thing is here there is a very long tradition and, even if you don’t know the literary landscape, you do know that the writer is the offspring of some other writer. I think that every landscape is unique and writing has to try to represent that uniqueness. This is the difference. For example, the situation here is a mosaic and, if you are a good writer, you don’t want to superimpose yourself on the landscape but you have to learn what the landscape wants from you. I am sure that every landscape produces a different literature and that you are obligated to write about each landscape differently.

John: Jim has a number of landscapes; there’s the mountain spirits, the river bottom, the childhood river swamp of South Carolina. For which landscape did Jim create that space most fully in his writing?

The swamp. When I think about his writing, the hunting, and his kind of life it is in the swamp.

Matteo shares here his 2004 meditation on Jim Kilgo's work.

An Invitation to the Reading of James Kilgo

by Matteo Meschiari

"Hemingway wrote death into the narrative, not just as subject matter but as dark obsession. I want my work to ring with the struck steel of life." James Kilgo

Among the intellectual endeavours to develop a true awareness of wilderness, an essential role belongs to those who devote their life to art. We are not always prepared to admit it, because the urgency to intervene here and now in defence of the natural world renders each type of artistic creation idle and superfluous compared to direct action. But to accept this logic would mean denying a category of thought that is at the basis of every spiritually coherent act.

In Palaeolithic peoples, or at the heart of tribal groups not yet humiliated by modernity, the exact knowledge of territory was sustained by an ideological structure that spread across the landscape as a network of beliefs, stories, and artistic manifestations that were essential for the survival of the hunter-gatherers. The art of storytelling, whether in spoken or creative form (such as the bark paintings by the Australian Aboriginals) was not, as it is for us, a product of luxury and surplus, but a real tool used for orientation in the environment, harmoniously integrating nature and culture.

Creating a consciousness about wilderness without taking into account the contribution of art means reducing the effort to something that is overly practical or abstract. We must make known the work of artists who have committed themselves to something that goes beyond a gesture or an idea. I am speaking of artists whose integrity encourages all of us to give the best of ourselves in order to cultivate a true responsibility towards the environment.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the passing of the Wilderness Act, and since 1964 a group of Americans attentive to the natural sacredness of their country have continued to commit themselves with energy, and in keeping with a unique tradition, to the conservation of the last wild areas. From Henry David Thoreau’s walks around Concord to John Muir’s Sierra Club expeditions, not to mention a myriad of naturalists, wanderers, artists, hunters, and Native Americans whose names no one will remember, the great American landscape is covered with a dense network of individual and collective stories, legends, travels, and trails that are the spiritual heritage from which contemporary Americans have been able to develop the very idea of wilderness.

Among so many lost names, there are also many names that remain, names that bear witness to a concurrence of intelligence that is at work to preserve nature. Among known and unknown writers, I believe that the lived and written experience of James Kilgo serves as a valuable example.

James Patrick Kilgo was born in 1941 in Darlington, South Carolina, where he spent his childhood in the surrounding woods, learning to hunt with his father John, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather, Robert Lawton, a passionate hunter and fisherman. After studying literature at Wofford College in Spartanburg, Kilgo received an MA and then a PhD in English literature from Tulane University in New Orleans. In 1967 he became professor at the University of Georgia, where he taught for more than thirty years, and where he directed the creative writing program. Retired from teaching in 1999, he died in December 2002 after a long illness. By that time he had spent most of his life in the woods and wild areas of the South.

Having started to write relatively late in life, it was not until the mid-1970’s that Kilgo began to publish long creative essays dedicated to his experience in the outdoors. Most of these essays recounted adventures of hunting and fishing, but only in order to concentrate on the direct relationship with nature and on the male companionship experienced during his outings. In 1988 he gathered 13 of his early essays in one volume, Deep Enough for Ivorybills, whose essence can be summed up in this passage that makes reference to the naturalist John James Audubon (1785-1851):

"Wherever my profession might take me in the years to come, I knew I would follow that elusive woodsman into the riverswamp of my childhood dream, a green place, deep enough for ivorybills, with no far side to come out on." (Deep Enough, 9)

The ivorybill woodpecker that Audubon painted in the 19th century was probably already extinct in 1988, but Kilgo believed in the existence of wild places still solitary and profound enough to maintain the attributes of the past, places that blend reality and desire, dream and memory, and whose value lies precisely in the spiritual richness that derives from knowing that something original has remained intact.

The coastal landscape of South Carolina, with its enormous oaks, large swampy areas, and sandy earth, all run through by deep streams like Black Creek, is at the origin of Kilgo’s imagery, an imagery modelled on the characters of the family and the town, the boys with whom he roamed the woods, the frequent discovery of arrowheads, and obviously the character of the land that, within a few years, would disappear. His solid integrity was composed of all these elements that influenced his intellectual and personal development.

Perhaps it is precisely this notion of the conservation of place and memory that constitutes the deeper essence that leads Kilgo towards nature and the written word, as if the human mind had to learn a law of survival and resistance from the environment:

"As we approached the edge, adult herons and egrets with a clapping and beating of wings began to reclaim the area we had deserted, young birds commenced to clamor again for food, and the rookery resumed its normal business. Give them a wooded lime-sink pond, I thought, and they would do the rest—these ethereal white creatures—by dropping sticks and laying eggs and regurgitating a mash of protein and defecating thousands of times a day. And the result? New egrets, hundreds of them, emerging from the rank miasma to glide like angels upon fields of summer hay or to float upon their individual images in quiet ponds." (Deep Enough, 21)

The ivorybills of the title are a powerful metaphor for describing the persistence of natural energies, the renewal of their strength from weakness, their message of conservation and rebirth that still speaks to the collective consciousness from the wildest recesses of the earth.

In 1994 James Kilgo published a new collection of essays entitled Inheritance of Horses, and two years later the naturalist essay The Blue Wall: Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia, in collaboration with the photographer Thomas Wyche. In 1998 he published a novel, Daughter of My People, the portrait of a Southern family during the first years of the 20th century, and in 1999 The Hand-Carved Creche and Other Christmas Stories, in which he returns to themes and anecdotes from his childhood in Darlington. From the ensemble of these texts emerges Kilgo’s fundamental conviction, that we are the result of a twofold force: the family and the natural world, a double ancestry that connects mind and biology, blood and story.

But it was the year 2000 that marked James Kilgo, then almost 60, and brought a new depth and energy to his research. Realising a childhood dream nurtured by reading the works of Isaak Dinesen and Ernest Hemingway, Kilgo participated as spectator and photographer in an African safari. Having been sick for several years, and already doubtful of having much longer to live, he arrived on a continent that seemed to exalt his reflections on nature, hunting, art and faith. The travel journals that he scrupulously compiled lead him to write the beautiful Colors of Africa, published posthumously in 2003, a book that may be considered a classic of the most intelligent and poetically inspired nature writing.

Some excerpts:

"With the setting of the sun, the descent of vultures ended, and darkness banished them to their foul roosts. The meadow was silent. The bowl of sky turned to indigo, and stars appeared, twinkling diamonds suspended deep in space. Nighttime hunters began to stir. I heard a distant yipping of hyenas, the bark of a zebra, a shrill bird call which may have been than of an owl. And then, from far away toward the eastern hills, came the faint roar of a lion. Steve clutched my arm. In a moment it came again. I was listening hard. And suddenly a huge sound shook the blind, shook the night itself – a deep yawning resonance that swelled into a louder, vibrant roar and ended in a descending series of throat-clearing coughs. And it came from right behind us.
I don’t know why writers try to describe in language the roar of a lion. My attempt is no better than many I have read and not as good as some. It should be enough to say that when the lion is close you experience the roar more fully in your groin than your ear. That you find yourself in a circle with your primeval forebears, huddled shoulder to shoulder around a feeble fire. That you find yourself in the cave.
Fear was not what I felt. It was more like the vulnerability bred into the bones of our kind through millennia of such nights as this. That part of me was feeling through the grass walls of the blind, sensing with my whole body the real presence of the lion." (Colors, 133)

"There was nothing to see but sky, an overhead square framed by the walls of the blind – at first a flat patch of blue, but the longer I looked the deeper it became until I found myself at the funnel end of a vortex of azure shot through with shimmering light. The column of air was alive, made dimensional by insects that zoomed back and forth across the opening or buzzed at higher levels and by a speck or two that might have been floaters in my eyes except for the perfect circles they described far, far above." (Colors, 130)

"The zebra lay on the blackened ground, its legs and the underside of its belly smudged by ash. It was about the size of a pony. The pattern of its stripes had never occurred on any zebra before. The man who had killed it wondered at the colors of the muzzle, soot black around the mouth and nostrils, velvety brown ochre on the sides of the nose. He asked the professional hunter if the brown was typical—he had thought zebras were simply black and white.
No, said the PH. Most muzzles were all black, but some had brown like this one.
The smell of the zebra was strong, like the smell of horses.
The PH squatted in the ash and stroked the muscled neck. 'These are the colors of Africa,' he said.
The blood that flowed from the zebra’s mouth was dark red and clotted." (Colors, 9)

Kilgo’s work, recognized as being among the most original of American nature writers, and anthologized in some of the best collections on the subject, runs the risk of being perceived as simply another literary contribution to the cause of the environment. But those who knew Kilgo personally and were fortunate enough to spend time with him in the outdoors will remember him especially as an exceptional storyteller. Capable of reproducing southern accents in all their depth and variety, as well as making ironic observations on the fragility of humans in contact with the natural world, he had an almost biological taste for language, as demonstrated by his observation on the word wilderness in Deep Enough for Ivorybills:

"Anyone who spends much time in the woods is likely sooner or later to lose his bearings. Thoreau considered that a valuable experience, for not until then, he contends, “do we experience the vastness and the strangeness of Nature,” which may enable us to find ourselves and realize where we are. Such an epiphany as he describes might send us all in search of big woods. Yet Daniel Boone, who wandered confused for three days in the wilderness of Kentucky, claimed no such discovery, allowing only that he was “bewildered.” With scantier woods these days, the Savannah River swamp was the best I could do, but that was deep enough for me to see that Boone’s word should be pronounced with a long i." (Deep Enough, 68)

This means that for Kilgo even the word wilderness must never stop searching for its own wild origin. Advice for all those who may have forgotten when writing about nature that we must rather write from nature.

[translated from the Italian by Ann Kilgo]

Books by James Kilgo:

- Deep Enough for Ivorybills, Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 1988.
- Inheritance of Horses, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994.
- The Blue Wall: Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia, (With Thomas Wyche), Englewood, Westcliffe Publishers, 1996.
- Daughter of My People, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1998.
- The Hand-Carved Creche and Other Christmas Stories, Athens, Hill Street Press, 1999.
- Colors of Africa, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2003.
- Ossabaw. Evocations of an Island, (With Jack Leigh and Alan Campbell), Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2004.