Sunday, December 2, 2007

A Love Affair With Land

About a month ago I attended one of those academic discussions about what sets Southern literature apart from other writing. While the participants debated the reasons we’ve all heard before – the War, the dialect and such as that – my mind began drifting away.

Suddenly I was ten years old and sitting in the passenger’s seat of my grandmother’s gold Thunderbird. We were parked on a dirt road deep in the woods, its tracks rooted and torn lose by a bulldozer. My grandmother was showing me the land that had been passed down in her family and would one day be passed down to me. In all seriousness, she tapped her fingernail on the steering wheel and said, “Now you can’t ever sale this land…unless of course you are in dire financial straits. But try not to let that happen.” (And they say Southern Baptist aren’t as guilt ridden as the Catholics.) After hearing about the history of our land, I grew up believing the conversation I had with my grandmother was a special bond, something unique to our family. It is only when I married did I learn that my wife’s grandmother had the very same conversation with her, even going so far as vowing to haunt any family member who should dare to break the allegiance between land and lineage.

Last night after finishing up Brad Watson’s novel The Heaven of Mercury, a National Book Award finalist, my thoughts returned to the question posed by the academics. What does make Southern writing unique? I love Brad’s book as much for its lyrical prose as I do for the dead on dialect of the multifaceted characters who live in the Gulf Coast town of Mercury, Mississippi. But more than anything I love the town itself, the center that escorts the reader through decades of marriage, separation, lost love and even murder. It reminds me all too well of my own place and people in Perry, Florida, also a small town near the Gulf Coast. After reading Brad’s novel I found myself tasting the salt air and thinking of the marsh that still sits behind the beach house that my grandparents once owned. The house, like the area, is not like the commercial high-rises of Destin. The place is more or less a fishing village. And the house is really a cottage, a two bedroom structure on stilts with a wrap around porch. Like the marsh, the house has survived decades of change in my family: marriages, divorces, successes, bankruptcies and the passing of those who once congregated to eat fried mullet and to picnic in boats along sandbars.

Late at night when sleep won’t come soon enough, I often close my eyes and feel the heat of summer at my feet as I stand on the porch of my grandparent’s house. I stick my tongue out in the air and look across the way at the marsh, with its tall pines, sawgrass and lanky white birds searching for food. I stare off in the distance and in my mind peace settles over me the same way my grandmother’s arms used to blanket me when I was a child. I am here…I am strong…I am at rest.

This Christmas I will make the journey back to the land of my people. I’ll drive down to the coast and visit that marsh that has yet to be destroyed by concrete. I’ll think about the past and the good times shared with those who loved and cared for me. I’ll watch the afternoon sun slice the water into slivers the same way it has since the days of my childhood. As the site unfolds, I will remind myself to be grateful for talented storytellers like Brad Watson who give us settlings like Mercury, Mississippi. And yet again I’ll be convinced of just how powerful this thing called ‘place’ is to the Southern writer.

Michael Morris is a fifth generation native of North Florida. He is the author of the award winning novel, A Place Called Wiregrass, and Slow Way Home, which was named one of the best novels of 2003 by the Atlanta Journal Constitution and the St. Louis Dispatch. His novella, Live Like You Were Dying, was a finalist for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award.


Anonymous said...

This so very well captures what I've been trying to explain to my friends from outside the south for so long. It just hit the nail on the head! I was brought up to cry over the loss of land sold or 'stolen' like it was the death of the closest relative. It's what holds us to the past and gives a place for the future generations at the same time. One of my relatives read this this morning and sent it to me. Now I'm printing it out and passing it around!!!

DR - Down home in North Florida

Sue McGriff said...

A Place Called Wiregrass is one of my favorites. I loved it and so did my book club. Thank you.