Tag Archives: the south

Horwitz | Olmsted | Reconstructed

Frederick Law Olmsted reportedly preferred the designations of “park-maker” or “scenery-maker” to the title of “landscape architect” that most often describes him. Yet, he is perhaps the most identifiable landscape architect in the world, based primarily on his work with Calvert Vaux on New York’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Other notable Olmsted landscapes include the Biltmore Estate and the U.S. Capitol grounds, among many high-profile commissions.

Because of Central Park, Olmsted’s considerable work and influence on landscape and park creation has been exaggerated to super-natural proportions. It seems that everywhere one travels, one has Frederick Law Olmsted’s designs pointed out. Truth is, they’re usually not.

It’s an understandable mistake. So many communities and public spaces incorporate Olmsted’s technique of creating natural-seeming fluidity to create landscapes that look like they were always there. It is stunning to compare photographs of the rocky and swampy Manhattan terrain that ultimately became Central Park with the well-engineered “natural” environment by Olmsted and Vaux that millions enjoy annually.

Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood is an Olmsted-designed environment; Montgomery’s Cloverdale is not documented as an Olmsted design, although some claim it. Cloverdale is attributed to Joseph Forsyth Johnson. The shared influence is easy to see as both neighborhoods follow very similar principles. Also, Olmsted definitely advised on the landscape design of the Capitol grounds in Montgomery.

Olmsted did not design the campus of Alabama A&M University, north of Huntsville, but the firm founded by his sons, Olmsted Brothers, did documented consultation on that campus into the 1950s as well as designing and advising on numerous other familiar college campuses, public spaces, residential environments, and national parks throughout the country.


These musings on Olmsted are prompted by a recent reading of a new book inspired by Olmsted’s travels in the American South in the decade prior to the Civil War. Spying on the South: An Odyssey across the American Divide (Penguin Press, 2019) documents author journalist Tony Horwitz’s efforts to gauge the politics of the South in the months leading up to the 2016 election while retracing Olmsted’s 1850s Southern journey.

Frederick Law Olmsted spent over a year traveling in the South, writing dispatches for the fledgling New York Times under the pen name of “Yeoman.” Olmsted began his trek as a curious observer but came away as an avid abolitionist and carried those passions throughout and beyond the Civil War that would soon come. Olmsted, whose early career was checkered at best, did not find his calling of landscape design until after his Southern foray. It is suggested, by Horwitz and others, that much of his later landscape design was influenced by what Olmsted observed on his Southern travels and, after the War, he returned to the South throughout his career.

Olmsted was committed to creating democratic public spaces that were accessible to everyone and would encourage the mingling and interactions of all.


As fervently as I love the South, and, as much as I plan to live out the rest of my life here, I am not a fan of most Southern politicians; however, as a student of political science, much entertaining fodder has been supplied by that too despicable breed of the Southern politician. If I ever decide to abandon my homeland, it will be because of its wretched and draconian politics. However, I am determined to stay and continue to work for change and progress from within.

As much as I cherish the spread of Southern foodways and life styles, music, art, and culture to a broader national and world audience, I have never wanted the politics of the South to become “mainstream.” Yet, it seems that Nixon and Reagan’s Republican “Southern Strategy” from decades past has permeated the country beyond the South in the present day and that Southern politics and politicians now sound more and more like politicians throughout the land – from the Executive level to the county commissioner.

I oppose and regret this trend. The last thing I would want to export from my region is its politics.


Tony Horwitz’s always entertaining book purports to explore Southern ideologies and attitudes at a breaking point in American culture, but it is really more of a Southern frolic to explore the (often lunatic) fringe. Horwitz meets many of his subjects in dive bars, so the conversations are animated, loose, and, too often,  predictably cringe-worthy.

Horwitz boards a towboat pushing coal barges along the Ohio, takes a riverboat down the Mississippi, rents a Kia through Louisiana, and rides a mule under the direction of an alleged sadist named “Buck” through the Texas hill country. While on the border in Texas, he frequently crosses the Rio Grande with locals from Eagle Pass, Texas, into Piedras Negras, Mexico.

After a negligible foray into New Orleans, highlighted by Horwitz’s descriptions of a transformative experience in a predominantly black Baptist church and a disappointing visit to Audubon Park, Horwitz and his Australian pal, Andrew Denton, venture deeper into Louisiana bayous, Cajun country, and what Horwitz describes as the “unreconstructed South.” Andrew is of weak stomach and is quickly sidetracked by the local cuisine, which puts a damper on one of the most enticing elements of that part of the country.

Horwitz and Denton alight for a while in Colfax, Louisiana, the site of the bloodiest massacre of freed blacks in the decade after the Civil War. On a tip from a Colfax bartender, Horwitz and Denton attend the “Louisiana Mudfest,” the setting for one of the most vivid and, for me, distasteful episodes of Horwitz’s contemporary narrative. Horwitz, Andrew, and the Kia (“Killed in Action,” quips Andrew) travel into the heart of darkness of the plowed and mud-covered fields of a former plantation waiting to do battle with monster trucks helmed by drunks and rednecks. For me, and for most people I know, the “White Trash Only” sign at the entrance gate would be all that was needed to keep me away. It’s a colorful and entertaining chapter, but hardly representative of the region.

Horwitz spends a major part of his journey of discovery in Texas – which I consider only peripherally Southern – and he devotes about half of his book to adventures in Texas. He seems fascinated by all of the incarnations of Texans that he meets along the way, especially the descendants of Germans. He sees through the forced Chamber of Commerce “weirdness” of Austin and seems to be overwhelmed by Houston’s formidable girth and lack of zoning laws. When I lived in the Houston area, one of the things I actually liked was the lack of rational zoning and the way that one might, for example, find great Mexican food in a cozy restaurant in the middle of what was otherwise a residential neighborhood.

However, as someone who lived on an island off the coast of Texas (Galveston) for two years, my primary impression was that Texans are mighty proud of something, but I’m hard-pressed to tell you what.

Horwitz effectively picks and chooses his examples of the “American Divide” – an idea I find as distasteful as the simple-minded notion of “red” and “blue” states. He masterfully presents a raucous and highly readable trek through a part of the country that is probably more mainstream than he or I would care to admit. Occasionally, he finds flaws in the reasoning of his hero, Olmsted. It’s a book I recommend, but don’t expect it to draw any credible conclusions; it provides a lot to ponder.


I finished Spying on the South on May 26. The next day, I read that Tony Horwitz had died, unexpectedly, at age 60. He will be remembered for his witty and probing examinations in books such as Baghdad without a Map, One for the Road: An Outback Adventure, and Confederates in the Attic. And now, Spying on the South. He will be remembered as a writer who tried to make connections and connect the dots in an increasingly baffling world.

Postscript: Even though Horwitz’s recent book does not venture into Alabama, the dust cover features a photograph of the Webb-Bonds-Bamberg house, an ante-bellum home off Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama. It is familiar to me.

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A Thanksgiving Dressing

 

IMG_2069  No Southerner I know stuffs the bird. In my experience we always serve dressing on the side. My Grandmother Harbison made a cornbread dressing and Grandmother Journey served a fancier oyster dressing, still using cornbread as a base. I like both but Mother is partial to a plain cornbread dressing without oysters so her cornbread dressing is what we have for the holidays.

Near Thanksgiving last year I shared memories of my Grandmother Harbison’s kushmagudi, a cornbread and potlikker dish which has become a staple of our cold weather holiday table. During my father’s extended hospital stay, Mother has often mixed up a quick kushmagudi when she gets home from the hospital at night.

As my Grandmother Harbison’s health made it more challenging for her to cook the holiday feasts, Mother began to make her own cornbread dressing from a recipe she found somewhere. It’s a very easy recipe, moist and rich, and even though it wasn’t exactly the same as Grandmother Harbison’s dressing, it got Grandmother Harbison’s seal of approval.

The celery in the cornbread recipe reminds me of another Thanksgiving tradition at my family’s house. In addition to using celery in the dressing, Mother has always put out a dish of raw celery sticks with our turkey. I grew up with raw celery as part of the Thanksgiving meal and never thought it was unusual until people from outside the family informed me that they had never heard of such a thing. Even so, it is a nice complement to turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce. We put celery sticks on our turkey sandwiches on Friday and that is a crunchy and delicious addition to the Thanksgiving leftover tradition too.

Even though circumstances dictate a spartan Thanksgiving this year, I packed Mother’s cornbread dressing recipe just in case I find the time to make it. And remember that a proper cornbread recipe does not include sugar.

Simple Cornbread Dressing

4 cups crumbled cornbread
2-3 slices crumbled white bread
½ cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 large eggs
Sage, to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken (or cream of mushroom) soup, undiluted

Combine all ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour (or overnight) for flavors to blend. Pour into 2-quart baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

Happy Thanksgiving.

On (re)Reading Walker Percy

IMG_1782  One of my assignments during graduate school was to assist the surly and pompous professor who briefly headed up the playwriting and dramaturgy program. He was a Boston native, out of Yale and Carnegie-Mellon, and some kind of Orson Welles scholar. His current assignment was at a Southern university but he made no effort to disguise his contempt for Southerners and the South.

I found him rude and offensive but tolerably amusing and treated him with a level of respect he had not earned. One afternoon we sat in his office discussing scripts that had been submitted to the department’s playwriting program and that conversation veered off onto a number of topics.

“Welles Scholar” leaned back in his chair, eyed me seriously, and said, “I like you, Journey. You’re that rare breed – an intelligent Southerner.”

I seriously eyed him back and said, “Y’know, that may be one of the most insulting things that’s ever been said to me.” I told him I had to get to a seminar and politely excused myself, fuming.

From that moment on, I detested “Welles Scholar” and was delighted to see him leave at the end of that academic year. I’m sure he meant the statement as a compliment to me but the cluelessness, arrogance, and stupidity which informed the comment made me angry and still makes me angry whenever I think about it.

I had not thought of the Welles Scholar story for a number of years but it came back to me this week as I was renewing my acquaintance with the writing of Walker Percy.

The great writer Walker Percy (1916-1990) is legitimately claimed by three states – Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. He was born in Birmingham and lived there until he was 13. After the death of his father, his mother moved the family to Georgia. When she died, he and his brothers were taken in by a bachelor uncle in Greenville, Mississippi. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, earned a medical degree from Columbia, and contracted tuberculosis that lead to a lengthy recovery at a sanitorium in upstate New York. Percy spent the bulk of his adult years in the New Orleans area, eventually settling with his wife, Mary Bernice (“Bunt”), and children across Lake Pontchartrain in Covington, Louisiana.

Percy’s writing is deeply probing and intellectual, mixing Existentialist philosophy and scientific inquiry with Roman Catholic theology and the search for spiritual fulfillment. He deals brilliantly with the South and the complexity of the Southern “character.” He writes with amused suspicion and insight about both the South and other parts of the country but the observations are always filtered through a sense of what it means to be “Southern” in all of its forms.

Percy’s novels often focus on a flawed protagonist who doesn’t quite seem to belong anywhere but continues the quest for meaning and belonging nevertheless. Percy’s books are challenging and they tackle some weighty issues with an underlying wit, compassion, and turn of phrase that make them compelling and entertaining.

Percy’s first published novel, The Moviegoer (1961), is still his most acclaimed. I discovered that book, and Percy, early in my college years and it is still a favorite literary discovery; I find new areas for focus with each reading.

Until this week, I had not read Percy in a while. I ran across an item about him recently and decided it was time to revisit him. Since I had never read his second novel, The Last Gentleman (1966), I pulled it from my bookshelf and started to read. Here’s the odd thing: I began to run across passages that had been obviously underlined by me – they were the sorts of sentences and words that I would have underlined. The book was also full of evidence of previously dog-eared pages.

I still underline passages in books and frequently dog-ear pages. I was never one to write comments in the margins, although I occasionally do that too. This is one of the reasons I will always want to deal with the object of the book; I take pleasure in the tactile physical presence as I do in the words contained therein.

So I was quickly aware that I had already read The Last Gentleman at some point in time. At the beginning I thought Okay, it will start coming back to me as I read on. I read on. It all felt new to me and the last moment of the last page surprised me as if it were brand new. It was an eerie and enjoyable experience. The effect was heightened by the fact that the main character, Will Barrett (usually referred to, ironically, as “the engineer”), suffers from episodes of déjà vu and amnesia. My previously underlined passages were a form of déjà vu for me, the reader, and the fact that I had no memory of the story was my amnesia.

Another odd thing is that the city in which much of the book takes place is clearly based on Birmingham (Walker Percy confirmed as much) and a frequently mentioned landmark in the book is clearly a veiled reference to George Ward’s old “Vestavia” estate on the crest of Shades Mountain that gave Birmingham’s Vestavia Hills suburb its name. (That estate, by the way, is now the location of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church for those readers who know Birmingham geography.) I am surprised that I didn’t remember any of that from my previous reading.

Although I still don’t recall reading the book the first time, I’m sure that I thoroughly enjoyed it that first time just as I thoroughly enjoyed it this week. That certainty is based on the passages I underlined.

Buoyed by my rediscovery of The Last Gentleman, I grabbed The Moviegoer and had the opposite experience of total recall and recognition. It was like revisiting an old friend and I remembered and enjoyed each juicy detail. The Moviegoer is a New Orleans novel and Percy makes no effort to disguise the geography or the names of the actual places. The Moviegoer is the “Ur-text” for all of Percy’s concerns and themes in his novels, essays, and philosophical writings to come.

I wonder if any other writer uses the word “malaise” as often as Percy. The word peppers the text of The Moviegoer. Even so, I think Percy has an ongoing optimism tempered with realism that informs all of his writing. It is much-discussed in Percy scholarship that his early life was dogged by suicide – his grandfather and father committed suicide and he always believed that his mother’s fatal car wreck was a suicide.

The novels I read this week are at least half a century old but I still share the protagonists’ sense of displacement and mistrust in a modern world transitioning to post-modern (post-future? – where are we now?) modes. The changes seem large to the ’60s protagonists – how would the world appear to and discombobulate them half a century later?

The issues that occupy Percy and his characters never go away or find resolution; they just morph as the decades fall into place, one after another. How fortunate we are to have access to timeless writing that deals with these issues so searchingly, so entertainingly, and with such compassion and humor.

That Welles Scholar comment about the rarity of the “intelligent Southerner” came back to me while I was reading Percy, one of the most probingly intelligent of 20th Century American writers — as well as one of the most Southern. I fantasized a face-off between “Welles Scholar” and Percy.

Percy would have eaten him alive.

The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand

One of my earliest essays on “Professional Southerner” was about the peaches of Chilton County, Alabama, and the family-run peach stand of the Harrison family. I made my first “peach run” of the season last week and, in honor of the 2015 peach season, I am going to revisit that 2014 essay.

Professional Southerner

100_1927  I get a little reflective as the Alabama peach season draws to a close. The state of Georgia, of course, has appropriated all of the peach titles and has done an admirable job of marketing its peaches as if they are something special. But a growing number of Southerners have discovered the rich and considerable delights of peaches grown in Chilton County, Alabama. On a May morning in the French Market in New Orleans a few years ago, I was pleased to hear a local shopper ask a vendor if any Chilton County peaches had arrived yet. He replied that he didn’t have any but that the lady a couple of stalls down had just gotten her first delivery of the season that very morning – “and they sure are good this year.” The shopper grinned like a child on Christmas and rushed to buy a basket.

I have…

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The Cahaba Lily

IMG_1753 I always forget how spectacular a Cahaba lily is until I come upon a stand of the flowers on a gentle bend in Alabama’s Cahaba River. The Cahaba lily is a rare lily that only grows in a very few spots in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina under very specific conditions. There must be swiftly flowing water over rocks. There must be abundant sunlight.

IMG_1752The Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge near West Blocton, Alabama, is a prime viewing spot for the lilies during their brief growing season from May into June (roughly Mother’s Day to Father’s Day). Each of the fragrant flowers blooms in early evening and only stays for one day. The flowers go through their pollination cycle, dropping seeds into the stream where they become lodged in the rocks and shoals and await their vibrant display a year later.

There are a couple of significant stands of lilies visible from the narrow dirt and gravel road through the wildlife refuge. The water rushes over rocks and through tall grasses and hundreds of stunning white lilies show off their elegant beauty. It never fails to take my breath away.

IMG_1734The Cahaba River is one of the most significant of Alabama’s abundant natural treasures. At almost 200 miles long, it is the longest free-flowing river in the state and provides water for a quarter of Alabama’s population. Its path takes it from St. Clair County, through the suburbs of Birmingham, and into rural Alabama and the Black Belt where it empties into the Alabama River at the ghost town of Cahaba near Selma.

IMG_1742According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Cahaba River is home to 131 fish species – more per mile than any other river in North America. Eighteen of these fish species are found only in the Cahaba River and Mobile River Basin. The refuge is a habitat for at least a dozen threatened or endangered species including migratory birds and bats as well as assorted fish, mussels, snails, insects, and plants.

IMG_1754In addition to being a star in its own right, the Cahaba lily is significant to the area because its beauty and popularity help draw attention to the other aspects of the Cahaba River, its watershed, its significance and dependents. The ever-growing popularity and fan base for the lily help to draw attention to the support groups like the Cahaba River Society (www.cahabariversociety.org) which strive tirelessly to protect this rare and beautiful place.

Beyond all of that, the Cahaba lily in bloom simply belongs on every nature lover’s list of things to see. IMG_1746

Exploring Little River Canyon

IMG_1690 The trip to Little River Canyon from my house involves a drive through profoundly rural areas of northeast Alabama and a few small towns and communities. It feels at times like time travel but it takes less than a couple of hours.

The road passes the Paint Rock Valley before the backwaters of the Tennessee River and Guntersville Lake appear and then the town of Scottsboro. There, the Tennessee River is crossed and the road immediately climbs a steep grade to the top of Sand Mountain, a sprawling sandstone plateau near the southern end of the Appalachians. The myths, mysteries, and culture of Sand Mountain are legend in the rest of Alabama and I’ll admit that even though I have been to various parts of Sand Mountain several times and have been aware of it most of my life it remains a mystery to be unraveled for me.

After driving across Sand Mountain, the road drops again to a valley containing I-59 and the town of Fort Payne. A quick ramble through Fort Payne leads to another steep climb to the top of Lookout Mountain.

Little River in northeast Alabama mostly flows along the top of Lookout Mountain. This feature of the untamed river flowing along the mountain top is one of its most distinguishing characteristics. The canyon starts to form past DeSoto Falls at a wide plummeting Little River Falls and gets deeper, wider, and more steep as it moves down through the mountain.

On a recent mid-May trip, the water level was fairly low but the sound of the rushing rapids could be heard from the west rim even when the lush green canopy made the river invisible far below. The canopy also helped to block the view of houses encroaching on the east rim. IMG_1701

Since I was scoping out hiking trails for future trips, I mostly stayed on the Canyon Rim Drive which is part of the Little River Canyon National Preserve and meanders for eleven miles along the west rim. It passes a number of trailheads and provides a good opportunity to inspect the challenging terrain.

Regular overlooks provide scenic views into and across the canyon. Trails afford steep access to the river and the canyon floor. Grace’s High Falls is visible across the canyon from an outlook on the drive. A dramatic 133-foot plunge during the rainy season, Grace’s High Falls was just a trickle during my recent visit. As the weather gets less humid it will dry up altogether.

Canyon Rim Drive affords quick and easy access to the canyon’s majesty and mystique. A little farther upriver are an informative visitors’ center and DeSoto State Park with additional backcountry trails and accommodations. The National Park Service operates a boardwalk and trails on the east side of Little River Falls which provide access to the river and a close-up view of the falls.

Little River Canyon is wild and feels extremely remote but it is actually centrally located in the region and only a couple of hours or less from Birmingham, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. A quest for this year is to continue to find great outdoor opportunities close to home. The bounty of Little River Canyon and the surrounding area definitely fits with that mission. IMG_1723

The Authentic Vision: Brother Joseph’s Ave Maria Grotto

IMG_1617  Authenticity in folk art (“outsider” art, self-taught artists – whatever the current designation of choice may be) is a topic that has long intrigued me. There are any number of phonies – some of them the off-spring of the real thing – who try to cash in on the folk art market. The idea of the authentic artist who creates art from an impulse that comes from within is what I seek in the work of “outsiders.”

IMG_1614Brother Joseph Zoetl (1878-1961), a Bavarian-born monk who spent the bulk of his life at St. Bernard Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, is an example of that inspired authenticity, I think. Brother Joseph had no training as an artist but created historical and fantasy structures that are a lasting tribute to inspiration and faith. His Ave Maria Grotto (www.avemariagrotto.com) is nestled on the Abbey grounds along with the still active monastery and the St. Bernard Preparatory School which replaced St. Bernard College when it closed in 1979.

IMG_1631Brother Joseph’s impressive installation in the abandoned quarry of the Abbey includes at least 125 structures created out of stone, cement, and discarded items. The centerpiece of the four-acre park is the large Ave Maria Grotto but its focal points are structures – real and fantasy, sectarian and non-sectarian – taken from world culture. The structures span the globe but a large number of them are based on buildings and sites in Rome and Jerusalem. When I was growing up everybody referred to Ave Maria Grotto as “Little Jerusalem.”

IMG_1637I first saw the place as a young boy in the days of “roadside attractions” before the interstate system was ubiquitous. I remembered it fondly as a kitschy place with edifices constructed of concrete and broken glass, broken marble and colorful discarded gaming marbles, costume jewelry and cold cream jars.  IMG_1602 One fanciful monument is topped by green Irish fishing floats. I remembered a miniature Noah’s Ark installation with plastic animals and a fantasy piece called “Hansel and Gretel Visit the Temple of the Fairies” complete with a fierce dragon bound by a chain underneath. A life-size statue of Pope Pius X is just down the hill from a miniature Egyptian-style pyramid. A miniature section of the Great Wall of China hovers close to touching memorials to “St. Bernard Boys” who died in various 20th Century wars in which the United States was involved. There are a 48-star American flag made with marbles, glass, and cement and a replica of the World Peace Church, the Catholic Cathedral at Hiroshima. IMG_1647

All of these things are still there.

Brother Joseph’s first structures were crafted around 1912 and his last, an impressive replica of the Lourdes Basilica, was built in 1958. I remembered the place as a quirky roadside attraction but on a recent visit I was struck by the level of craft and artistry, spirituality, and personal mission represented in the little monk’s life’s work. He was not a world traveler and had only personally viewed a handful of the structures he created – those from his Bavarian home town of Landshut and those on the grounds of the Abbey in Cullman. The rest were composed from photographs, the Bible and other written texts, and his imagination. Brother Joseph started constructing the buildings in his spare time when his job was to shovel coal at the Abbey’s power station. IMG_1627

A few structures have been added to the installation since Brother Joseph died including a life-size bronze statue of Brother Joseph facing his monumental Grotto. After one has toured the installation, a shaded path with the Stations of the Cross leads to the Abbey Cemetery where the monks, including Brother Joseph, are laid to rest. A small stone chapel stands watch over the cemetery. It is a quiet and reflective place, conducive to meditation and contemplation. IMG_1685