Guest contributor: John Lane

Keep Hope Alive (In the South No Less)

categories: Cocktail Hour


John Lane is the author of many books, including two very recent ones, Abandoned Quarry, his new and collected poems, and My Paddle to the Sea, which the literary critic David Gessner has called “beautiful—full of contemplation, life-and-death, humor and derring-do.”  John is going to be taking over grease cook duties here at Bill and Dave’s Bar and Grill for the next couple of days, including the offering below and tomorrow’s bad advice:

I know Dave is planning on writing about the west and Wallace Stegner in his next project and I just finished listening to Crossing to Safety, Stegner’s story of two academic couples who have been friends for fifty years, one couple is from the west and one from the east. This plot got me I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between regions, particularly about my native south and every other region. I haven’t come to any profound conclusions, but I have formed some ideas.
Way back in early 1990s I was on a panel at a meeting of The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment in Missoula, Montana, and they wanted me to talk about the same thing, to hand out advice about understanding the South. Here’s what I came up with:

In the introduction to Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Wallace Stegner explains how the remaining Western wilderness is America’s “geography of hope.” He says that the West is “hope’s native home, the youngest and freshest of America’s regions, magnificently endowed and with the chance to become something unprecedented and unmatched in the world.”

In my geography, the southeast, hope is not among what most would consider the most common environmental compounds or elements. Our natural resources  are mostly cut-over, planted, paved or gullied. The southeastern landscape– including suburbs, cities, small towns, neighborhoods, interstate highways, industrial parks, farms, tree plantations, and remnant wilderness– is a geography of acted on desire. Here are a few words I associate with desire and the southern landscape:

~  Contrariness. What people desire is often hidden. What Southerners desire is hidden like a spring in cut-over piney woods. It is not to be found only in the truly wild (read “non-human”) places, but also in those places flowing boldly with the oddly human. To understand desire in the South, factor in contrary human nature, look closely at your neighbors, and look deep into the Southern woods between the small towns and larger cities. Read William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, Walter Inglis Anderson, Annie Dillard, and Harry Middleton to get a fix on this Southern contrariness.

~ Deep Mystery.  In an interview with James Atlas in 1980, Walker Percy said Will Barrett, the protagonist of his novel The Second Coming, is “a voracious and enraged pilgrim.” Barrett’s late middle age fictional search takes him away from his successful resort community retirement, into the arms of a mute young woman, and into the bowels of the earth, a deep southern cave (a particular but not peculiar Southern “wilderness”) where relics of the Civil War have been found. It is in this landscapes of “deep mystery” that you need to look to see what it is to live in the South.

~ Isolation. The isolation explored by Jody Foster in the film Nell is one peculiar form of southern desire. Desire is the right word for what comfort I find in the “ethics” of Nell’s story. Nell’s desire slakes my own for living far from the maddening crowd. When trying to define my relationship to “Southern landscape” I must factor in Nell’s realized desire to live in “some dark holler” far from Ted Turner’s New South.

~Deliverance. The four suburban men embarking on a three-day canoe trip in James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance are pulled out of Atlanta by the desire for  “a break.” In their case, deliverance desire leads through violence into direct contact with “a southern wilderness river” and “survival.” What is their deliverance? It is that the survivors are “delivered” back into “civilization” by their experience, or that they could find it in the first place?  This sort of double “deliverance” I find very southern.

~ Ownership. Almost the whole of the Southern landscape has, at some time, been private property, owned by somebody’s uncle or cousin, and Southerners have family Bibles and long narrative memories to prove it. When we speak of wilderness in the south, we usually speak literally and abstractly of only a few parcels of “government” land– Cumberland Island National Seashore, the Outer Banks, the Big Cypress, the Everglades National Park, Shining Rock Wilderness in Pisgah National Forest, Great Smokey Mountain National Park, the Chattooga National Wild & Scenic River, to name a few. Faulkner is the best on ownership. The long version of “The Bear” in Go Down Moses is the best example of how he feels about ownership.

Though Stegner would not call the South the landscape of hope, I have great hope for the South, and you should too.  Because we are human you and I are full of desire. We desire clean water, clean air, open land of mixed forests, farmland, town and city. And for most Southerners I would wager the “landscape of the desire” is not one of the big government parcels with dramatic scenery and a short history, but instead some relatively small (by Western standards of hope) family, private or corporate owned plot of marginal land: a farm with a scrap of woods down by the river, a hunting club, an industrial park like the Milliken corporation maintains in Spartanburg, SC. Usually this land is highly mediated by history and commerce. Usually a parcel of Southern land has been diseased (a moment of silence for the mighty chestnut) logged (sometimes four or five times in the long European human history of the South), farmed, divided and subdivided, deeded and willed. But we can always remember, the two of the primary Southern vices, violence and ignorance, are often mediated by a accurate survey and a standing court house.
One of the most commonly cited virtues of Southern civilization is “sense of place,” that narrative genius  offering landscape as setting, but at the center of the South’s landscape is desire, the fuse that drives Bartram’s travels, Dickey’s rapist and the Fraser magnolia.

If have any advice for you, say when reading Southern literature and watching Southern politics, it is to keep this list close by and consult it often. It is a road map to wildness.

  1. Peter Peteet writes:

    I seeing double and underlines,imaginary eddy lines are everywhere.I will confess to place-polygamy,( neither white or black water can I leave behind)yelling at commercials also;maps,accurate surveys and standing courthouses only give the wild a mesh net to hide in.Thanks for the fine grease-work,gives me a thirst for more.Look forward to the bad advice!

  2. Cider Rides writes:

    “Sense of Place” is running rampant. Many of these insights about the the “South-east”, I believe, are shared with those of the ‘North-east.” Hope is discovered in our most obvious secret places and people. We’re led their by our history. As some (i) will confess there are still those that practice polygamy of place.

    As a long-time and professional paddler I look forward to reading, next, “My Paddle to the Sea”

    As a side note: Is any one else, as we in Maine are, viewing on TV, the Gulf Coast Tourism ads paid for by, none other than, BP. As witness to THIS i want to holler; “Paddle Faster, I Here Banjos!”