This Land, This South

The last few weeks I’ve been reading way too much Southern history. No, I’m not talking about Stonewall Jackson, Rhett Butler, Miss Pittypat, or the moon on the magnolias. My interest has been in what the historians can tell me about this South, our present day South, and what they can teach about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might be going in the future.

I’ve worked through two recent books, Jack Temple Kirby’s MOCKINGBIRD SONG: ECOLOGICAL LANDSCAPES OF THE SOUTH and James Cobb’s AWAY DOWN SOUTH: A HISTORY OF SOUTHERN IDENTITY, and an old one I’d never read, Michael O’Brien’s 1979 classic, THE IDEA OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH: 1920-1941.

I read THE IDEA OF THE AMERICAN SOUTH because of an argument with a historian friend. “There is no real South,” he’d suggested in conversation. “It’s just an idea that came to us mostly out of Chapel Hill and Nashville in the 1930s. Read Michael O’Brien and you’ll see what I mean.”

How could I resist? O’Brien’s book traces “the South” through the early Southern sociologist Howard Odum’s University of North Carolina ideas about “regionalism” and the “I’ll Take my Stand” Vanderbilt Agrarians’ reaction against the industrializing New South. What O’Brien’s book left me with is a sense that we always need to examine any reality where we fell compelled to take our stand, whether created by sociologists in Chapel Hill or poets and novelists in Nashville.

In AWAY DOWN SOUTH, James Cobb describes a South for centuries imagining that it had a distinct identity, but now confronting global homogenization. Cobb shows the region’s various and constant transitions from Old South to New South to what he now calls, “the No South.” His message is clear: If you don’t like the South, stick around because it’s always changing.

Historian of the rural South Jack Temple Kirby’s MOCKINGBIRD SONG was my favorite of the three. Kirby’s now retired from a long distinguished career in the academy, and retirement has freed him up to be intimate and enthusiastic, two qualities usually absent from scholarly writing. MOCKINGBIRD SONG is Kirby’s personal account of human-nature relationships in the South, a place that has always been defined, as the flap copy reports, by “violent cycles of growth, abandonment, dereliction, resettlement, and reconfiguration.”

As illustration of the ways in which the South can be reconfigured, Kirby uses stories and life histories of explorer DeSoto, Southern authors Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Zora Neale Hurston, World War II hero and Southern small game hunter Audie Murphy, and the UGA professor and father of ecology, Eugene Odum, Howard’s son.

Kirby’s book is the best consideration of the environmental history of the South since Albert Cowdrey’s THIS LAND, THIS SOUTH came out in 1983. Will we Southerners ever, Kirby writes near his book’s end, “have had enough of tampering with nature, especially for our comfort, convenience, and monetary enrichment, as opposed to elemental necessities of life?”

Maybe it’s reading about all this violence, abandonment and dereliction that’s made me feel cut loose of late, uncertain what exactly the South is, or where it’s going. Maybe it’s that one day I find myself floating on a quiet piedmont river contemplating flow from the seat of my canoe, and hours later I’m fighting Christmas traffic on the West Side.

I struggle, as I’m sure many of my readers do, to accept Michael O’Brien, James Cobb, and Jack Temple Kirby’s lesson of history: To be a Southerner is to live in many worlds, not all moonlight on the magnolias.

To be Southern is find comfort in the traditional rural vistas and partake in the popular convenience of the modern shopping mall. Few of us can live without life-giving contact with the former (the countryside) or participation in the latter (the modern market economy).

Of late, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford has taken to talking about saving our rural landscape. “Preserve the way South Carolina looks and feels,” he said in a recent speech geared toward raising support for conservation funding. “It’s the key to our quality of life.”

I hope the governor’s right. I hope future historians of the South will tell the story of how our rural South Carolina landscape was saved. When I drive along the I-85 today I don’t feel so confident. We’re sprawling in every direction and it doesn’t seem there’s any plan, any end in sight.

I think my next round of reading might be novels or poetry where I might find some new visions. It’s time to come up with some imaginative alternatives to what we’re doing to “this land, this South.”

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