In The Hills On My Own

Reflections of a Twenty-Something Georgia Boy

Month: February, 2012

Cultural Kudzu

Atlanta Being Invaded

I went and got my hair cut on Monday, a semi-annual event that attracts stupid questions like “Did you get your hair cut?” or “Is there something different about you today?” Moving past the existential crises that a question like that can cause, I began to reflect on kudzu. Not only because the place where I get my hair cut in Atlanta (and have since I was young) is called “The Cut Zoo,” but also because my hair grows at an alarmingly fast rate. Kudzu, a plant species native to Japan introduced to the United States in the late 19th century, is a notorious vine beloved and bedeviled in the South. Our history and culture is inexorably interwoven with the creeping kudzu all around us. The unofficial “Kudzu League” is our answer to the Ivy League, educating some of the South’s (and the North’s) brightest students. Kudzu is featured in magazine titles, company names, academic journals, barber shops, and anything else you can think of. What is it about the nature of the kudzu plant that appeals to so many below the Mason-Dixon line, and what does it say about us as people?

There is a ravine near my house in which kudzu runs rampant. Every summer, we watch as city employees fight a battle of attrition in the sweltering heat, trying to keep the monster from pulling the sidewalk and road into its depths. As a child, I was cautioned not to go to close, as kudzu had a tendency to reach out and grab young Southerners as some sort of ecological Moon-Pie-and-RC-Cola snack. Despite the impending doom my parents tried to correlate with the kudzu, (I later realized that it was because the ravine was dangerous and they didn’t want me to fall in) I’ve always found it to be rather beautiful. There’s something majestic about seeing a vine slowly take over a tree, until it is completely covered and becomes a new species of plant, something you can’t find anywhere else. As a kid I would pretend that these giant trees covered in foliage were dinosaurs, or elephants, massive green beasts battling in the woods. The flowers of the kudzu vine are beautiful, purple spots on the expanse of green that clash and fight to stand out. Kudzu, like all ivy and vines, looks wonderful with brick, unless it’s YOUR brick home that it is covering, in which case good luck.

So what can we say about all this? Southern literature often portrays a certain type of woman as beautiful but with a creeping sense of doom, quietly reaching out to drag you into the depths. This correlation is a bit reductive and stereotypical, but so is much of Southern culture. I prefer to compare the nature of kudzu to the nature of the Southern spirit, tenacious and rebellious. Not the Confederacy mind you, because there is a difference between tenacity and ignorance, but rather a unique mindset that combines creativity and a spirit of doing things “the right way.” The South is beautiful, and if you’re not careful, it’ll pull you in.

Going Home

“You look at that river gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds; you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass. The mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet; it’s peaceful. And all of a sudden, it’s a gear shift inside you. And it’s like taking a deep breath and going, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about this.'” – Al Gore

When I am fortunate enough to have time to sit quietly by a creek and reflect, I am more often than not drawn to the nature of flowing water. Toni Morrison wrote “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” In a sense, I feel like the water, constantly searching for a way to get back to where I was.

There are many ways to go home. For some, home is simply the place where they live. But for most people, home is not so much a place as an evocation of a certain emotion, some pastoral and primal peacefulness that causes one to find themselves sighing contentedly or smiling quietly for no particular reason. Often, it is a sound or smell or texture that reminds you that this is the place from which you came, and to which you can always return. For me, these sensations are the deepest connection to nature, the idea that I can return to the same place year after year, or after many years, and while some things have changed, there are some which are rooted in the fabric in the earth. It is a grounding feeling, both humbling and joyous, reminding us that we are at the same time minuscule and vital.

 

What This Is and What It Could Be

All through my lifetime, I have been drawn to the woods. Despite my upbringing in urban Atlanta, I have felt at home among the trees, from playing games along Nancy Creek in Buckhead to the forests and ridges of Northeast Georgia to the acres and acres of land at Berry College, on to the miles of Broad River near Athens, shaded by Georgia oaks and pines. While there are beautiful places all over the country, there is something magical about a southern forest in the summertime, as the sun beams through the syrup-thick air and then slowly slides toward the horizon, as the crickets and cicadas get louder and louder, insisting their way into conversations as if the land itself was demanding attention. This space is my attempt to spread my love of my home, to spread joy, and thought, and sometimes awareness, but mainly to share my appreciation for the places which have given me so much. I write with the ghosts of Faulkner and Bartram peering over my shoulder. May my words honor the legacies of theirs.