Into the woods

Eat the slick interior of an oyster and you’re left with two shells, layered like mica or phyllo, blues shading into grays shading into lavenders and creams. I’ve never found a pearl in one, though I think of Steinbeck’s The Pearl (first read in fourth grade) nearly every time I eat an oyster.

But today it’s the debris that interests me, those massive piles of shells left after the sweet bivalve has been plucked. And particularly the strong-brittle substance known as tabby, which, like so much else, enslaved African Americans learned to fabricate and then turn into objects of utility: oyster-shell bricks with which to build houses, their own and those of the people who professed to own them. People like my ancestors.

I have such a brick in my family room here in Ann Arbor. It came to me from my late mother, who undoubtedly explained its origins to me, but I’ve forgotten them. I assume it’s from coastal Georgia, where my forebears grew cotton. The land is saltwater marsh, a fragile ecosystem then and now, riddled with snakes, gators, crabs and other crustaceans. In the summer, 19th-century planters used to escape the malarial swamplands by heading inland. They left their slaves to contend with the pests and keep working the land—dredging canals, clearing tick-ridden woods to make fields, hauling supplies from wharf to plantation to wharf, endless labor. And of course picking, sorting, baling cotton. Men and women both were expected to pick 80, 90, 100 or more pounds of cotton a day; a shortfall meant whipping.

A man I met last year at a conference, a former staff member at the Historic Preservation Trust, has proposed a “Who Built America” campaign to mark—and celebrate—the anonymous contributions of enslaved African Americans to the nation’s infrastructure. To date he’s got no takers.

Many of these things came to mind in May as I stood deep inside a grove of tick-ridden woods in coastal Georgia, on acreage my family owned in the years leading up to the Civil War. I’d gone in with an archaeologist who’s been working on a dig to retrieve artifacts from a  a half-dozen former slave cabins on the site. The foundations of those cabins are tabby brick—so much tabby, in fact, that the archaeologists are using some of the bricks to hold down the protective tarps they lay over the sites each evening. Together, the archaeologist and I inspected two of the cabins where she and her team have found the remains of adjoining tabby fireplaces. On either side of a shared chimney, a family of as many as ten would have lived. The space is maybe twelve square feet. It was humid and buggy the day we went in, and when we emerged, we each picked nearly a score of tiny red ticks from our pants and shoes.

Inside one cabin, the team had found a nineteenth-century penny with the word “Liberty” stamped on its surface. Perhaps the enslaved people who lived here studied it with hope? More likely, they doused their fears and sorrows with one of the multiple pipe bowls the archaeologists have also found at the site, along with shards of pottery and glass, all of which will eventually be taken to an archive for storage.

But not the fireplaces. Not the tabby foundations of the cabins. Those will be turned back into the earth and ultimately covered with an asphalt parking lot. My first—and enduring—impulse is to rail against this desecration. Americans are quick to fault others (the Taliban, ISIS) for destroying cultural heritage in the name of religious ideology. But we do it in the name of commerce.

Some small part of me resists, however. Maybe it’s fitting that this awful part of American life—what journalist Charles P. Pierce calls “the mother of all American crimes”—be pushed back into the soil and buried in our humic earth. Maybe it’s fitting that these countless bits of oyster shell—these tabby bricks, molded by nameless, countless hands—be restored to the Edenic place from which they came, a world not yet corrupted by human greed.

Slave Dwelling

The carpenter Sam managed to hide for more than a month before being captured, jailed, and shipped south. The year was 1807. I don’t know Sam’s age. I don’t know where he came from or who in Savannah claimed to own him, but I do know the name of the planter in Brunswick who purchased him that July for $550 and waited nearly two months to receive his unhappy property.

I know Sam was caught in early September 1807 and sailed south two days later, presumably in irons, and I imagine William Crawford, the planter who bought him, sent boat hands to fetch his recalcitrant new slave. What became of Sam afterward is a mystery. Maybe William Crawford was a forgiving man who welcomed the young carpenter gently onto his plantation. Maybe he had Sam flogged. I’d like to believe the captive from Savannah found some pleasure in his new surroundings—maybe a wife, children, friends—and that these were not sold away from him nor he from them.

Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

Joe McGill, of the Slave Dwelling Project, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation

But I can’t know. I have only this faint outline of Sam’s story, culled from a ledger I discovered in an archive in Savannah the day before I joined Joe McGill and Prinny Anderson on an overnight stay at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, near Brunswick, as part of Joe’s Slave Dwelling Project. Sam’s story is one of countless narratives, small and large, that hint at the scope of the suffering endured by African Americans in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. As Joe reminds us, there were over four million enslaved Americans at the end of the Civil War. That’s a lot of sorrow.

I thought of these things, and of the carpenter Sam, as I lay in the slave cabin at Hofwyl, courting sleep and trying to fathom what it must have meant to be confined to a place like this for the entirety of your life, knowing you’d never be free. Unlike Sam, I’d driven down from Savannah by choice, confident that after my night in the slave cabin I’d get into my car and head north to Michigan, to that destination we all cherish most—home. I didn’t have to wonder if I’d ever see my husband again, didn’t have to part from friends or children or a familiar and even beloved place. Didn’t have to rise at the clang of someone else’s bell. Didn’t have to forage for my breakfast. Didn’t have to fear being whipped or raped or chained should I exercise my will.

The night was strangely peaceful. My mind wasn’t. Not far from where I lay—from the city where Sam took up a new and unwanted existence in the fall of 1807—my ancestors practiced the dark arts of slaveholding. I thought of them, too, as I tossed in my sleeping bag, wondering why and how. I got no answer, only this image, toward dawn, in some sort of dream state: of a hawk descending on a sleeping cat, talons extended, beak at the ready. The bird caught the cat and soared into the sky, and as it did, drilled its beak into the captive’s head until blood poured down onto the earth where I slept.

Audiences

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“Sir, the public is here.”

“Show them in.”

Last week in Madrid I attended a new opera version of Lorca’s El público at the Teatro Real. I’d bought tickets online and was able to walk through the long-ish queue of people waiting to get entradas an hour before curtain (at the civilized Spanish hour of six p.m., so you’re out in time for supper). The crowd—Lorca’s público—were mostly Bohemian types, in jeans and tights, on spindly heels, one or two in something resembling Birkenstocks, many with long gray hair and chic eyeglasses. An intellectual set, or so I want to think, given that I was among them.

Audiences live in obscurity, especially at the Teatro Real, one of the glorious old Madrid theaters that rises in semi-circular tiers around a single orchestra floor. The true believers took the cheapest, most compromised seats high in the opera house heavens. Not quite as ardent (perhaps it comes with middle age), we parked ourselves a tier or two below, in a crowded semicircular box with limited sightlines. We couldn’t see the orchestra (more than 35 musicians, including a guitarist and several percussionists backed by rows of gongs) or much of what took place in front of the curtain. But the stage itself was mercifully deep once the curtain lifted, and we were able to catch most of the action and the critical surtitles, though I had to sit up very straight to see clearly, and by intermission my back ached.

 

a2Lorca left the manuscript for El público with a friend in the summer of 1936 when he took off for Granada days before the outbreak of the Civil War, convinced he’d be safer there than in Madrid. How he might have revised the play had he lived to see it produced is one of those vexing unanswerables. The new opera’s librettist, Andrés Ibañez, says given the unfinished, almost hallucinatory state of the script Lorca left behind at his death, the work “seems the perfect candidate for conversion into opera.”

Music freed the play from the constraints of logic, and for once I yielded with pleasure, not confusion, to its jumble of images and ideas. The text itself became a component of the whole, not the dominant thing, and so its inconsistencies and surprises distracted less. This difficult work about love and erotic force and sacrifice and death made new sense. (A nod to composer Mauricio Sotelo for his captivating use of flamenco in this least-flamenco of Lorca’s plays.)

“One must destroy the theater or live in the theater,” Lorca writes in El público. I’d always understood this to mean you have to obliterate the tedious bourgeous theater (still so dominant—a production of Lion King was playing a few blocks away on Madrid’s Gran Vía) or else abide in it, but the opera made it clear we can’t destroy the theater, because that’s all we’ve got: masquerade and scene-playing, the props with which we perform our lives. Without them, human existence deteriorates into base instinct.

It all has me thinking about the experience of being an audience, part of el público. Crammed into a little box, unable to see, acutely aware of the people around you—the woman who sat beside my husband, for example, who kept turning her head violently away from him, as if he might contaminate her (maybe she craved a solitude she couldn’t afford). The airline had lost our luggage, and I was wearing new pants and a new cotton shirt that wouldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t cool down. I’d had wine with lunch and was thirsty, and my shoes, also new, pinched. The discomforts we endure as audiences aren’t far from the discomforts of travel, it occurs to me. Tight and costly seats. Little to no leg room. Yanked from the known and plunged into darkness with only our carry-ons for comfort. Wondering how the journey will affect us, whether we’ll arrive intact and return safely, whether we’ll be changed. And willing to pay dearly for the experience, again and again.

Genesis

Through my public health work, I’ve learned something about epigenetics—the phenomenon by which factors in the environment (diet, stress, air quality, whether your grandmother smoked or not) attach themselves to our DNA and become a part of us, capable of being passed on to future generations.

I don’t pretend to understand the chemistry by which it happens, but I’m drawn to  the idea that we absorb our environment—or perhaps it’s the opposite, our environments absorb us. I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just back from a week in Haiti, a country that has been a part of my environment since well before I was born. From 1927 until sometime in the late 1940s, my grandparents ran a sisal plantation outside Cap Haitien. My mother and her siblings grew up there. Talk of Haiti permeated my childhood. We learned Haitian words for body parts (boonda for rear end) and foods (my mother’s egg custard was zeffelie, Creole from les oeufs au lait).

When I was four, my parents and grandmother took me to Haiti on a trip whose particulars I remember far more powerfully than its overall structure or duration. I remember, for example, the number of the hotel room where my grandmother and I slept (12); my encounter with a young girl who pointed to a plant in the hotel garden and uttered the word fleur (and my astonishment that I could understand her); the endless drive on a dusty mountain road; the night we dined al fresco atop a steep hill while Haitians danced the limbo, and my parents ordered  succulent steaks for themselves and a tough cut of cheap beef for me, confident I would never register the affront.

Haiti is not only the locus of my mother’s childhood and site of my own first foreign journey, it’s where my father spent World War II and where my parents met. It is thus, in ways both symbolic and real, primal—the place without which my brother and sister and I would not exist.

After that 1959 trip, I did not go back, nor did my parents. Too much political upheaval, the logistics too daunting. My mother spent the rest of her life savoring the sounds and smells and tastes of Haiti. She kept plantains in her fruit bowl and limes in her refrigerator (even if she rarely ate either), and in her later years, she sometimes danced to Haitian music when my brother played the right CD. She became obsessed with the notion of her life as a bon bagaille—Haitian for a “good time”—and insisted we describe it as such after her death, which we did.

She repeatedly asked us to scatter her ashes in Haiti.

We promised we would.

Specifically: “I want to be scattered in the Caribbean north of Haiti.” The north, where Columbus landed—a place of origin not just for us but for the North American imagination.

“OK, Mom.”

By the time my brother and I made our way to Cap Haitien last week, our father, too, had died, and we combined their ashes in a pair of pill bottles and on an outing to a fish restaurant in a cove near Labadie beach, scattered our parents in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Afterward, over lunch, a fellow traveler raised his bottle of Prestige beer. “A toast to your parents,” he said. “They’re finally home.”

The day felt as if my mother had orchestrated it.

As I sat on my hotel patio the next morning, absorbing the pre-dawn sounds of Cap Haitien—roosters, the tin clang of cathedral bells, sensations my mother must have carried in her bones—it occurred to me that Haiti had long been lodged in my chromosomal matter and was now, in my 60th year, expressing itself. A latent contagion, adult-onset.

Coming here had been a pilgrimage. We’d found the pink hotel where my mother and her family had lived for two years while waiting for their house to be built, and where I’d stayed as a four-year-old, in a majestic room (# 12) surrounded by gardens of fleurs. The plantation of my mother’s youth lay off in the distance from where I now sat with a mug of coffee (strong and black the way my mother and grandmother always drank it), beyond the bay over which a bright January sun was rising, hidden as primal scenes should be. I sat, sipping coffee, remembering my mother’s memories, knowing they would soon morph into mine, were already, in fact, mine. My inheritance.

My Mother’s Caribbean

????????????????????????????????“As she told me stories, I sometimes sat at her side, leaning against her, or I would crouch on my knees behind her back and lean over her shoulder. As I did this, I would occasionally sniff at her neck, or behind her ears, or at her hair. She smelled sometimes of lemons, sometimes of sage, sometimes of roses, sometimes of bay leaf. At times I would no longer hear what it was she was saying; I just liked to look at her mouth as it opened and closed over words, or as she laughed.”

That’s Jamaica Kincaid, writing about her mother in the exquisite Annie John, a novella I read for the third time yesterday while flying from Grenada to Miami on my way home to Ann Arbor. Inside my copy of the book (whose cover cracked in half midway over the Caribbean, so old is the volume), I found a note I’d written to myself in an unspecified year:

“I first read this book eight years ago and fell in love with it. I picked it up again a few weeks ago on a dreary January day and fell for it all over again.”

Such is the nature of literary devotion. This time I took the affair a step further by carrying the book to and from Kincaid’s kind of island; I even coupled it with her delicate screed of an essay, A Small Place (now reviewed in the newly released  Understanding the Essay, edited by Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter). A Small Place indicts those, like me, who swoop down on beautiful islands for a mid-winter respite from our colorless lives.

“When the natives see you, the tourist,” Kincaid charges, “they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

Flying over Caribbean yesterday, I spotted a larger place, the island where my own mother grew up: Haiti, whose stories she has not tired of telling, even now, in her 92nd year. She grows teary when I report by phone from Miami that I saw the dun-colored country of her childhood from the air.

At 30,000+ feet, Haiti is an unpeopled bit of geometry surrounded by an ethereal blue sea that edges into sky, into a kind of nothingness that suggests (to me at least) the state of my mother’s mind these days. I sit staring from my window at the place where my mother slept under mosquito nets and checked her shoes for scorpions in the morning and listened as the family maid, Ta Gras (from Alta Gracia), brought the morning’s coffee to my grandmother. It’s an idyll Kincaid might attack, given its context–my grandfather was managing a sisal plantation, and the U.S. Marines had recently occupied the country.

Still, these are the stories my mother fed me until I no longer knew what she was saying, and as we fly over the turquoise sea where her mind increasingly dwells, I tell myself she is laughing.

Going to the Mountaintops

Maria Gunnoe, in front of her barn in Bob White, West Virginia

Maria Gunnoe, in front of her barn in Bob White, West Virginia

I knew I was straying from the beaten track when I got an e-mail telling me to bring my own food and water because “you wouldn’t want to drink ours.” Later that night my husband and I tried to find my destination—the dubiously named Comfort, West Virginia—on a road map and couldn’t.

By the time I checked into the motel 24 hours later, I was looking over my shoulder for I don’t know what—somebody in a pickup with a gun pointed my way? I shut the curtains tight, double-locked the door, and poured a scotch—forgetting that the ice cubes were probably contaminated.

Welcome to coal country.

I’d come to interview Maria Gunnoe, an environmental activist (though she hates the term) who’s had death threats because of her 15-year battle with the coal industry over its practice of mountaintop-mining removal, in which whole mountains are blasted to rubble in the quest for coal. Hence the region’s poisoned water and air.

Except for a couple of crossings on the turnpike 30 years ago, I’d never been in West Virginia before.

On the drive down from Michigan, I plugged in a CD of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which touches on mountaintop removal and Big Coal. The book kept me gratefully awake as I tunneled south through Ohio toward Charleston and the dark hollows of Boone County.

While my eyes took in the ancient and beautiful hills Maria Gunnoe is fighting to save, my ears absorbed Franzen’s blistering account of Bush-era America, with its greed and military miscalculations and environmental assaults. I thought a lot about freedom—the many freedoms Franzen’s characters seek and find and discard, and how fickle those freedoms prove to be; my own freedom at being able to get in a car and fuel up at will and head off on the interstate to visit a woman who’s risking her life to show Americans what our independence costs; the freedom of speech for which the 44-year-old Gunnoe is willing to gamble her existence.

Two weeks later, snug in my suburban house that runs on electricity powered by the coal that’s being ripped from the mountains in Maria’s backyard, I’m still thinking.

Here & There

Thomas Mann understood how it works. “The first few days at home after a change of scene,” he wrote, “are likewise experienced in a new, broad, more youthful fashion.” On the drive home from the airport on Saturday night, for instance, I briefly saw the road signs on I-94 through foreign eyes, and ever so briefly perceived English as a foreign language, an impenetrable assortment of letters rather than the transparent idiom I grew up with.

The birds in the backyard the next morning struck me, briefly, as an exotic presence. I’d forgotten about them. Against the snow, a cardinal perched dramatically in a leafless lilac outside the kitchen window seemed a gift. (I’ve long thought we’d do a great kindness to Europe if we were to export this beauty with its cheerful song.)

After a month of coffee only, my Yunnan tea tasted foreign in ways it usually doesn’t. By Monday the effect—like jet lag—was thinning. For, as Mann understood, “we are quicker to grow accustomed to the old rules than to their abrogation.” I went to the post office, the grocery store, the bank. Stocked up on Clinique at the mall. Filled the suet feeder, watched a bit of football.“ And if our sense of time has grown weary with age,” Mann goes on, “or was never all that strongly developed—a sign of an inborn lack of vitality—it very soon falls asleep again, and within twenty-four hours it it as if we were never gone and our journey were merely last night’s dream.” I love being home. I love being abroad. (Sometimes I even love the transition between the two.) I love the awareness one brings to the other. Like Mann, I wish that awareness lasted longer. If it did, maybe I wouldn’t have such wanderlust. My next trip starts a week from tomorrow.