In Defense of the South
On my travels, I often find myself defending the South. Here's why, and here's why I'm going to stop
I was standing in line at a pizza parlor in Portland, Oregon. In front of me was a woman with a negative, stressful energy that she emitted like repellent. When she found out I was visiting from Charlotte, her eyes opened wide and she scowled. “Oh, my son spent a few months in Charlotte on business. He said it was an awful place filled with the most unfriendly people he’d ever met. He said he was never once invited into anybody’s house. No culture, nothing to do. He hated it.” I was shocked at how she could get it so wrong.
On my travels, I often find myself defending the South. Here's why, and here's why I'm going to stop
I was standing in line at a pizza parlor in Portland, Oregon. In front of me was a woman with a negative, stressful energy that she emitted like repellent. When she found out I was visiting from Charlotte, her eyes opened wide and she scowled. "Oh, my son spent a few months in Charlotte on business. He said it was an awful place filled with the most unfriendly people he'd ever met. He said he was never once invited into anybody's house. No culture, nothing to do. He hated it." I was shocked at how she could get it so wrong.
"Really?" I replied. "That's strange, because I find the people in Charlotte to be some of the friendliest in the country. In fact, maybe too friendly. It's really quite lovely." But what I was really thinking as I looked into her sourpuss eyes was, Jeez, an apple doesn't fall far from the tree—I guess your son is somebody even a Southerner couldn't love.
I keep finding myself defending the South as I travel the country. In airports, restaurants, even remote wilderness, my conversations with strangers inevitably get around to where I live. When I say Charlotte, North Carolina, just about every time the other person's demeanor changes from open and engaged to closed, even condescending. They tilt their heads back and look down at me past their noses. The South? Then come the jokes about trailers, NASCAR, incestuous relationships, and lynchings. It gets old real fast.
I tell them the same thing a friend of mine told me twenty years ago after I pulled a similar smug attitude when he told me he was going to Alabama to visit his in-laws. He said to me, "It's really quite lovely. People down there know how to enjoy life." I'll never forget his sense of enlightenment—the far-off look in his eyes—when he told me this. So now that's how I deal with all the people who live north of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Mississippi and have a mistaken perception of the South. I say, "It's really quite lovely."
I learned long ago about the lure of the South. In the late 1970s a couple of friends and I drove a pickup truck across the country. We camped out in state and national parks, living on crackers, cantaloupes, and Campbell's soup. We feared, even dreaded driving through the South. Growing up in Northern California, all we knew was what we saw in the media: a sneering George Wallace, women and children being sprayed by fire hoses and attacked by German shepherds, crooked sheriffs chewing Red Man tobacco, and cruel scenes from Cool Hand Luke (which was actually filmed fifty miles from where I grew up in the Sacramento Delta). When my friends and I crossed over west Texas, leaving the West and descending into the lush greenery near Beaumont the air got hot and humid and closed in on us. We were stoked up on fear—ready for the worst possible experience.
It turned out that we were completely wrong. We were relieved to find the locals friendly and generous with advice. Prices were cheaper than in the rest of the country, and the produce was fresh. The campsites were the best so far, clean, with plenty of room to spread out, and showers too. We fell in love with this exotic place. It was a revelation, and a lesson learned. Until you experience something for yourself with an open mind, then you don't really know the truth.
The fact is, Southerners are very friendly people. They have a way of making you feel welcome by asking a lot of questions about yourself. They are good listeners, as good as any psychologist worth his or her salt. It's this connection that comes from being heard and listening that makes the South so special.
I've also learned, though, to be careful about what I share with Southerners. They are also notorious gossips. This could be why there are so many great Southern writers. They're just dying to share, to embellish, what they've heard about somebody else's business. Depending upon the terrain and the local history, people's friendliness can vary. I find the people in the Carolina Low Country and the Piedmont to be very curious and in search of conversation. Mountain people are not as open. They tend to be less trusting, even suspicious of outsiders. But once they warm up, their Southern side glows.
I have a cabin up in a Tennessee hollow in the heart of Appalachia. One day I noticed this old beat-up pickup truck parked in my driveway. Somebody was sitting inside. I went down and asked the old man behind the steering wheel if he needed help. Nope, he was just sitting there in the shade listening to the stream branch rush down the mountain.
It was old man Snyder. He owned the 200-acre farm down at the bottom of the mountain. His face was brown and wrinkled softly, not from stress or anxiety but from doing what he loved outdoors. He wore a tractor hat and big, thick glasses that magnified his brown eyes. Every minute or so he would kind of grimace, showing his yellow teeth with brown gunk stuck in between. Each time he did this, a thin, highly pressurized brown stream—like from a water pick—whizzed by my ear. It was tobacco juice. I don't think he even realized he was doing it, but his control was masterful. He could have hit me if he wanted to. I told him I was from California. He said "California," then thought for a little while, shot some juice my way, and said, "Don't know nothing about that."
He grew up in the hollow in a house just down the road. He told me all about local history. About the narrow-gauge steam train that was used to pull the giant trees out from behind my house, before it was a national forest. About how he and his family used to ride a tractor to the top of the mountain on an oxen trail and take green beans over into North Carolina to sell. How his daddy had a water wheel and grist stone in the branch and milled corn. About how he built the water system that supplies ten families, including my own, with fresh spring water. He came by every time I was around. He'd just pull into my driveway and sit in his truck until I came down to visit. I learned a lot from him.
He was a smart farmer. He understood the limits of the land, taking just enough. His farm was a model for sustainable use. He had a small herd of beef cattle, and he paid close attention to where they grazed. He grew corn, sorghum, and peanuts, and had a few cherry trees. His fields were surrounded by forests that he owned. He harvested the trees very carefully, pulling out one trunk at a time. The result was a beautiful open forest with giant hardwoods and conifers.
One day as he was admiring the progress on a rock wall I was building, I told him I was running out of big rocks on my land and asked would it be OK to take some from his land. He looked at me, spit some tobacco juice an inch past my ear, and said, "Go on, git yourself some rocks!"
I've kept my friendship with my two friends from that '70s voyage. Dennis is a fisheries biologist and Tim works with the EPA. They both married and still live in Northern California. Last year they came out for a visit. It was the first time we'd been together, all three of us, since our trip. We headed up to my cabin. Just as we were settling in, an ATV pulled up the driveway. Driving it was an enormous, broad-shouldered guy—he was at least six-foot-seven. He wore full camouflage and a tractor hat. My friend's faces froze with fear when they saw the shotgun mounted between the handlebars of the ATV. I knew they were probably thinking about that scene in Deliverance. Squeal like a pig. So before they could pass judgment on this guy, I introduced him to my friends.
He was old man Snyder's grandson Brian. He lived on the farm with his two brothers in the house that his granddaddy died in. I'd gotten to know him over the years, although it was hard to know much because he and his brothers were the strong silent types. My conversations with them were one sided. I talked, they listened, giving up maybe two or three words. I asked them once if I could photograph them slaughtering hogs, and sure enough one winter day they came up and got me. "We're gonna take the hogs come noontime." I was amazed at how fast and humanely they killed these hogs, which they'd raised from piglets. They had them cleaned and butchered in an hour.
Brian was just coming up to check on us. He kept an eye on my place. I could tell Tim and Dennis felt uncomfortable about his presence and were just waiting for him to leave so they could crack redneck jokes. But when I told Brian that Dennis was a fisheries biologist he opened up and said more than I've ever heard him say. In fact, he engaged Dennis in a long, knowledgeable conversation about fish.
The next morning we heard a blast nearby. Minutes later a pickup truck with a bad muffler backed up the driveway. In the bed of the truck was a dead wild turkey. Brian climbed down out of the cab, grabbed the turkey by the legs, and held it up. "I got this here turkey up yonder—the meadow." It was huge—had an eleven-inch comb. "I don't like turkey. Y'all want it?"
Wild turkey! "Hell yes, but I wouldn't know how to clean it."
"Be right back."
A couple of hours later he handed me a Ziploc full of fresh wild turkey breast, some drumsticks, thighs, and a bag full of feathers. I put the breasts in an orange juice white wine marinade, then invited Brian to come for dinner.
"I don't care for turkey."
"Yeah, but you should come over anyway."
When Brian enters the house he has to turn sideways to get through the door. He doesn't have big gym muscles, but a strong leanness that takes a lot of space. It comes from vigorous, everyday farm work with plenty of sunshine and fresh air. He was all dressed up in a button-down cotton shirt with purple vertical strips. It was the first time I'd seen him without a tractor cap. He had combed his hair back. From his lower forehead up, his skin was sickly white, below that a reddish brown. He reeked of a strong inexpensive cologne like Stetson or Canoe.
We cooked the marinated turkey breast over an oak wood fire. We also had grits cooked in a roux of olive oil, shallots, and garlic, and boiled in white wine and chicken broth, then blended with Parmesan. Along with fresh asparagus and lots of fresh lettuce.
I insisted Brian try the turkey. He spooned some grits onto his plate and them added a slice of turkey. He ate it all and went for seconds. "Never had turkey that tasted like this before." He's a gentle guy, and we sat around talking about music, movies, the forest behind the house. I tried to get him to tell us where he finds morels—Appalachian truffles—in the springtime. He wouldn't. It's a secret. He discussed the crystal meth epidemic that plagues this isolated rural community. I had a special bottle of wine—a 1985 Chateau Haut-Brion—for this occasion. We all insisted that Brian try some.
"Never had wine before."
Tim said, "Brian, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to taste one of the best wines made in the world."
"Maybe I could try just a swallow."
I poured him a few ounces in a long-stemmed wine glass.
He looked at the ruby-colored liquid, then in one swift movement brought the glass up to his lips and knocked it back like a shot of whiskey.
"Ummm, tastes like fruit juice."
Welcome to the New South.
What makes the South such a special place? Is it alligators, snapping turtles, fifty-pound catfish, copperheads, brown recluse spiders, and all the other strange critters that lurk in the night? Is it grits, fried okra, fried chicken, fried pickles, fried-egg sandwiches, barbecue pork, banana pudding, liver mush, pickled eggs, and sweet iced tea? Is it NASCAR, basketball, football, golf, bass fishing, and catfish noodling? Is it watermelon, cantaloupe, homegrown tomatoes, and squash?
Is it the great dead authors like Faulkner, McCullers, Wolfe, Capote, Styron, Hurston, Ellison, O'Connor, Welty, and Larry Brown? Just to name a few. Or the living writers like Lee Smith, Barbara Kingsolver, Ron Rash, Tom Wolfe, Richard Ford, William Gay, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy, Clyde Edgerton, and Tim Gautreaux? Or the musicians like Lucinda Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Doc Watson, Elvis Presley, and James Brown?
Is it the infusion of African American culture that has helped make America what it is today? Without it we'd be a nation of Lawrence Welk devotees, wearing lederhosen and yodeling to electronica. From the descendants of the people we so shamelessly oppressed, we have received the gift of jazz, the roots of rock-and-roll. Not to mention great leaders in business, politics, and medicine. Black culture is Southern, and now college-educated, affluent African Americans are moving back to the New South from the Northern and Western cities that their elders fled to in fear not long ago. Things have changed here in the South, where the Confederate flag has been replaced by the post 9-11 Old Glory.
It's all of this and thousands of other subtleties that make the South a place worth inhabiting. It is not a physical place like a landmark or horizon, because the South is made up of many different landscapes. What makes the South so special is whatever surrounds you, because the South is something that gets into your head. It is a spirit, a rhythm, a way of life, and once it gets you—you're a goner.
I've been told I should stop defending the South. That I should just listen politely to all the abusive dialogue. Keep this great place a secret. A place we will always know is beautiful and safe. So from now on I'm going to keep quiet and just listen as people from other regions offer their misinformed rants on the South. Then I'll do what any good Southerner would do. I'll tell that person a story, like this one from a friend of mine. She was on a shuttle bus going from satellite parking to the airport terminal here in Charlotte. The bus was packed. A group of Northerners were loudly bitching in a nasally twang about all the things they hated about Charlotte. The food, it's all fried. The weather, it's hot and sticky. The insects…don't get me started on the insects! The bus was filled with patient Southerners quietly enduring the rude insults as well as the intense summer heat. Then from the back of the bus came a calm Southern gentleman's voice, who politely asked, "So…what part of Georgia are y'all from?"
Van Miller's column appears in this magazine every other month, alternating with his column on wine. Respond to firstname.lastname@example.org.