Thanksgiving Week 2013
“You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” –variation on an old cliché
The only time I reconnect with my “country-boy” roots is when I visit the “country place” in Alabama where I spent my childhood. My whole life I’ve declared that I’m “from Georgia.” That is based on the fact that I attended elementary and high school in Columbus, Georgia, all my friends were from Georgia, and I identified socially with Georgia, as opposed to the less-affluent, less-well-educated, and more “red-neck” population of the small city across the river and state line from Columbus, Georgia, which was/is Phenix City, Alabama. (Phenix City is the correct spelling.) But my primal ties to nature and the land are based on the forty-odd-acres of land outside Phenix City where I spent most of my first twenty years on the planet.
I inherited the land from my parents (actually ownership was transferred before their deaths). My parents had lived there continuously for fifty years before their aging required them to move into an eldercare facility. Following their deaths in 2001 & 2002, the country place remained a museum to my parents for several years. Everywhere I looked, I could see their presence…in the towels folded by my mother…in my father’s library and extensive tool collection. There were also my father’s many projects, such as his “round house” (built with a unique construction process that he invented), and unfinished projects, such as his “airplane” (which could never have flown).
Because I live in Reno, Nevada, and only visit my Georgia friends and surviving family members once or twice a year, the country place would have gradually degraded if it had remained empty. However, I couple of years after my parents’ deaths, I was approached by friends of my parents who asked if they could live temporarily (one year) at the farm, until they could sell their house and build their dream house. But then Hurricane Katrina struck (as well as a Florida hurricane whose name escapes me at the moment). And so the hurricanes’ destruction made the building of their dream house unaffordable (due to high demand for building materials and scarce builders). They then requested to stay for five years, until the husband could retire, at which point they would move to their Florida condominium. However, the factory where he worked (as a purchasing agent) closed and relocated to Mexico. And the wife experienced several severe health crises. And all the while they have occupied my former home, they’ve maintained and improved it such that it looks better than when I lived there with my parents. And so, under present circumstances, I’m happy for them to continue to live there as long as they want (or are able). I collect a modest rent, which covers taxes, insurance, and repairs. And I’m invited for lunch whenever I’m in town. Thus, I can revisit the site of my childhood, well maintained, including enjoying the vegetables and fruit preserves that my tenants create from the bounteous garden they tend every summer.
This “country place” was relatively remote when my father purchased it in the late 1940’s (partially as cheaply as $50/acre). In the intervening decades, Phenix City has expanded, such that the country place abuts “redneck suburbia” on two sides (characterized by mobile homes and no building codes). The other two sides are bounded by large land owners. These three adjoining land tracts represent some of the largest undeveloped/undivided land in the county. It will remain so as long as I’m alive. (After my death, it’ll probably be sub-divided and developed, since none of my heirs will care to live near Phenix City, Alabama.)
The term “country boy” can have many meanings, depending on an individual’s background. Let me explain what it means to me. I used the phrase “primal ties to nature and the land” at the beginning of this blog. That means, when I arrive at my country place, there’s a special smell, a special feeling from the pine trees and the lake, a special sound of the wind and the insects (as least during half the year). I use the word primal because that’s the only way to describe the feeling of attachment to a particular place, particularly one so rich in nature, where I spent my formative years. I know that farmers everywhere share this feeling. Sailors have a similar love the sea. Arabs (as well as non-Arab Iranians and Afghans) have the same feelings about the desert. An Afghan man once told me that he felt constrained and imprisoned in a forest. He needed to be in the open desert landscape to feel healthy and free.
My wife Susan and I have opposite backgrounds in this regard. She grew up in Detroit, living in several different houses in Detroit neighborhoods. (We drove by one of them, and she was surprised how “small” the house was.) She never developed an attachment to any particular place beyond the city of Detroit in general. For me, nature was the earth-mother. For her, nature was the “enemy.” Nature represented unpleasant humidity and insects in summer and snowy gray skies in winter. Thus, she does not derive the same pleasure as I do from being in nature, whatever its form. This probably partially accounts for the fact that she is more easily social and verbal than I am. (Though this could be one of those stereotypical male-female things…) Another truth is that I can “go home again” when I visit my old country place. She can’t. I’m very lucky in this regard. Some of the houses that Susan lived in don’t exist anymore. They might have been replaced by shopping malls. In any case, any neighborhoods where she lived have greatly transformed over the decades, both physically and demographically.
Our differences present the stereotypical contrast between the “city-slicker” and “country-bumpkin.” Growing up in a real world-city, such as Detroit (or New York, or Stockholm, or Mumbai) exposes one to a mix of races, nationalities, cultural expressions, and experiences, that are practically inaccessible to anyone growing up rurally or in a small town. I believe this is the sine qua non, the indispensable requirement of a broader worldview. (This was why Susan and I moved away from Lake Tahoe after ten years there. As beautiful as it was, it was too limited socially and culturally.) Reno is just barely big enough. I supplement its “biggest little city” character by reading the New York Times and traveling as often as possible.
Just as in my younger years, I don’t identify myself socially with the average Alabaman. I love the land, but not the society. I grew up is a society as racially segregated as South Africa. I was surrounded by the deeply imbedded racism that still expresses itself in many people’s attitudes toward President Obama. It’s no longer “cool” to be an outspoken racist. But call Obama a “Kenyan socialist” and many Alabamans and Georgians will nod in knowing agreement. It’s code for “nigger”, a word I heard freely spoken for decades by my fellow white Southerners. After I had lived out of the country for almost four years in my early twenties (in Germany, Sweden, Afghanistan, and India), I lost any lingering attachment to “belonging” in the South. Thus, I consider myself, after twenty years living in California and twenty years in Nevada, more of a west-coast person. But philosophically, I’d prefer to be regarded as a “citizen of the world” rather than limited to any geographic location.
This was the first time Susan and I have spent the Thanksgiving holiday celebration with my Georgia relatives in over a decade, since the deaths of my parents. The gala luncheon was attended by over fifty relatives (all from my father’s side of the family), some of whom (new spouses and children) I had never met before. I certainly appreciate my Southern family, and the fact that they “show up” for each other in times of crisis, no matter their other differences. During our week in Georgia, we drove to a farming town of four thousand people to visit my ninety-one year old aunt, my mother’s older sister. It’s the closest I could come to recalling my mother, since my aunt looks and talks like her. She’s one of my many relatives who have never lived anywhere but rural Georgia. So her wisdom must come from her age rather than her social surroundings.
Driving through rural South Georgia, the cotton plants looked like snow-covered fields. The roadside vegetable stands sold boiled peanuts, a Georgia delicacy. My cousin, a professional peanut grader, gave me practically a year’s supply of peanuts and pecans, besides peaches, Georgia’s most noted agricultural products. I’ve been driving that same hundred mile stretch of road between Columbus and Sylvester Georgia all my life, and it’s barely changed at all. The cotton fields were probably cultivated by slaves a century and a half ago. We heard on the radio that a Georgia road construction project had uncovered a graves and artifacts thought to have belonged to slaves. The whole country and the Southern states in particular still suffer from the legacy of slavery. How many generations will it take to erase that legacy? Or is it just “human nature” for the majority race/tribe/class to oppress the minority?
Listening to the radio (NPR, of course), we heard an interesting interview with a successful (multi-millionaire) African-American sports star, originally from Atlanta. He made the interesting statement, that “if it weren’t for sports, the South would still be totally segregated. Skill is the important thing in sports. These Southern sports teams realized that they needed black players in order to successfully compete.” Football is big in this part of the country. Columbus, Georgia, is only thirty miles from Auburn, Alabama, the site of surprise upset of number-one-ranked Alabama in their game a few days ago. (With one second(!) left on the game clock, the Auburn runner caught a bad field-goal attempt and ran it back one hundred and nine yards for the winning touchdown.) It was good to hear the assessment that sports plays such an important role in combatting racism.
I would have mentioned music as another field that has counteracted racism by being open to talented performers of every race. Having grown up attending segregated schools in Georgia, it was only in the music department of Florida State University that I had my first opportunity to play/work with anyone who wasn’t Caucasian. These days, it seems like China is producing the most outstanding musicians of any country, at least in the classical field. I just wish that classical music and jazz could inspire the public (and larger audiences) like sports events do.