I spent most of last weekend trundling through the backroads of three states in a white pickup truck. Usual every-hour stops to hop out and look at wildflowers. Baptisia nutalliana and Rudbeckia maxima in Texas. Phlox drummondii and Rhododendron austrinum in Louisiana. Chionanthus and Narcissus in Arkansas. One of of those stops, no less whistle-stop than the others, I was lucky enough to get to hear Thomas Rainer speak to the Horticulture club at Stephen F Austin University in Nacogdoches. Most of the lecture focused on the plant community design techniques that Thomas (along with Claudia West) wrote about in Planting in a Post-Wild World. But one idea, buried at the center of the lecture, has been running through my mind all week.
Thomas showed a slide of images of statues of confederate soldiers. Cast iron figures of men who didn’t want to admit they could have been wrong, erected eighty years after their deaths to intimidate new generations.
He showed images of several iconic southern landscapes. A misty panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A leafy forest understory near Birmingham. Then he flipped over to photos of cloverleaf highways and strip mall complexes. You see these in every southern city.
Hysterical editorials and radio talk show hosts followed the confederate statue removals. Even I, the most anti-combative person on the continent, almost got in a complete shouting row with a mothballed and mustachioed Uber driver who brought up the statues. But nobody’s even moderately worked up about the destruction of irreplaceable, irreparable ecosystems.
As I’ve often said before, I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. It’s a weird spot. At various points, the area now considered the Mississippi River Hills was inhabited by the Illini Confederation, who were then displaced by Spanish explorers, French settlers, and German Lutherans. Anybody who grew up in the real Midwest considers it part of the South. Those who grew up in the Deep South consider it part of the North. It’s a messy hybrid region, with no clear and consistent cultural narrative.
Over the time I lived there - and as I hear stories of the town since, I’ve heard the cultural narrative change. When I was little, the predominant stories were of World War II vets, people who grew up without electricity, speaking German at home, people who had benefited greatly from post WWII prosperity. Today, after twenty years of constant cable network vitriol (thanks, Fox News and NRA propaganda), the stories have changed.
Hillbilly Elegy was mostly nonsense. But one thing that it got right was that rural populations, especially low-income white populations, have bought into a narrative that offers them little hope for a better life. These communities need a new story. I need a new story.
But how would we go about bringing southern landscapes to the center of the of the conversation about heritage?
In every place, landscape is deeply entangled with the human dramas that have occured within its all-enveloping embrace. The dramas that have played out across the United States make this particularly tricky. Any narrative about southern history founded in landscape must start from a position of acknowledging the privilege of the people who live there now.
Most of the people who live in these areas now have no ancestral right, no natural heritage, tying them to the place they live now. Even in New Orleans and St. Augustine, those oldest of European settlements in North America, Europeans have only a 400-year history. First Nations people were weakened by disease, killed, and forcibly removed from their lands. Throughout much of the south, there’s the additional complication of enslavement and sharecropping. So any talk of heritage must acknowledge the messy, often uncomfortable, history of these places.
I don’t have a clear idea of what a narrative that adequately represents landscape as a component of southern heritage might look like. Reading, for me, is always the start. For now, I’d start with the the written historical record. Not just the big celebrated southern gardeners. Look to Eudora Welty, who learned to garden from her mother. Read Elizabeth Lawrence. Eudora signed her up for the Market Bulletins, where people traded slips of one heritage plant for another. Read Zora Neale Hurston’s writing about landscape and agriculture in the Caribbean and the south. Read Marjorie Kinnans Rawling on rural life in early 20th century Florida. Maybe a first is just that, to build a primer on the southern landscape.
Beyond reading, I don’t know. I’ll let you know as soon as I come up with a next step...