Yes, the title sounds like a contradiction in terms, a true oxymoron. Deserts typically conjure up images of sand, rocks, and tumbleweeds with no water in sight. Many consider them lifeless, especially people who have never actually set foot in one. Of course, David Attenborough and others have done their best to illustrate how deserts are teeming with life, but there are still plenty of folks who cling to the misconceptions. The unconverted are often convinced there is only one season in the desert – summer. They also tend to think that all parts of a desert region are the same regarding topography, temperature, weather patterns, vegetation, and wildlife. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The only desert I have visited is in the American Southwest, primarily the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. However, I have read about other deserts around the world and have been mesmerized by documentary productions from PBS, BBC, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian. Depending on the time of year, there is incredible beauty to behold all across the desert landscape. Water may not be abundant, but it does exist. It also rains in the desert, although it tends to come all at once. In some areas it even snows, especially in the higher altitudes. Desert flora and fauna have evolved to survive in these conditions through a variety of innovative adaptations.
Green is my favorite color, I suppose because in the botanical world it signifies life. I love the lushness of forests, glades, mossy creek banks, fern blankets, and understory shrubs, but the desert has its own rich palette of green in so many different shades. The Sonoran Desert explodes from mid-March to late April with hundreds of species of wildflowers. Portions of the region stay green throughout the year with signature plants that are the most familiar in the Southwest. What adds even more interest is the plethora of shapes and sizes, from the golden brittlebush to the giant saguaro cactus. Some of the plants look as if they are extraterrestrial. The shapes and configurations get a bit funky sometimes, but these oddities are great for home or business landscapes because they are so unusual and even whimsical.
For American travelers who seek magnificent scenery and some of the best outdoor recreation the country has to offer, overlooking the desert Southwest is a huge mistake. There are hiking trails everywhere. Depending on the location, the temperature is pleasant all year. The region is great for fishing, camping, cycling, mountain biking, birdwatching, and so much more. The same opportunities are available within deserts all over the world. If “getting away from it all” sounds appealing beyond the necessities of social distancing in the age of COVID, the desert is the place to be. So, dismiss the stereotypes and dig a little deeper to discover just how alive the desert is, and then make plans to witness it in the flesh.
A ten-year study conducted by Paul Williams and Paul Thompson published in 2013 concluded that brisk walking several times a week can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia. No weightlifting, jumping jacks, or push-ups required – just a fast-paced walk. Furthermore, individuals who do exercise regularly in other ways can still benefit just the same from walking. That magic 10,000-step-a-day threshold that our Fitbits remind us about daily was reinforced by another ten-year study completed in 2015 that demonstrated how meeting that daily goal can lower risk of death by 46%.
Honestly, we all know we need to move to stay healthy. A treadmill will do the job, but strolling five miles on a churning rubber belt is about as exciting as working in a meaningless profession from 9-5 every single day, which is why the treadmill analogy works so well for those circumstances. The good news is, no matter where we live, there are usually at least a few good options outdoors to pack in several miles of vigorous walking when the weather permits. Local nature trails, state and national parks, city and county recreation areas, national forests, greenways, river walks, and so many other options are available to us if we are serious about staying healthy.
What if we live in a big city? Well, there are typically public parks and gardens with paved trails for walking. We can even map out a “trail” in our boroughs, neighborhoods, or suburbs. However, there is another great space for walking that we should always remember – cemeteries. True enough, most of us don’t exactly consider walking among gravestones to be a source of happiness, but take into consideration the design, maintenance, and accessibility of cemeteries. They can be quite beautiful. Most major cities have several of them, and they may be even larger than parks and recreation areas.
Obviously, people tend to have an emotional connection to cemeteries where friends and family are buried, which means that they usually support them through political influence, volunteer hours, and donations. In this sense, cemeteries are beneficiaries of charity in much the same way churches and hospitals are. Through their function as spaces of “eternal rest” for the departed and places for contemplation and memories for those left behind, cemeteries have evolved into sanctuaries characterized by creative architecture, landscaping, and gardening.
Acre for acre, we are hard-pressed to find more diversity of trees, shrubs, and other plantings in urban areas than what cemeteries contain. Many of them have water features, bridges, statues, prayer gardens, chapels, gazebos, and special monuments and memorials. The older they are, the more character they have developed. They are rich repositories of history and genealogy. Cemeteries speak volumes about a community’s past and the promise of its future.
This autumn I decided to take a walk in one of the cemeteries where we currently live in Springfield, Missouri. Maple Park Cemetery dates to 1876 when a group of local businessmen established it on a 31-acre tract where an old fairground was once located. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens are interred there. One of the most famous people buried in Maple Park is known not by his own merit but by how he met his end. David Tutt was killed on the square in downtown Springfield by Wild Bill Hickok.
Maple Park gets its name because of an abundance of the species, which according to early newspaper accounts were growing on the property when the cemetery was first established. Because Maple Park is almost 150 years old, there is an interesting variety of grave markers and mausoleums. There is also a wonderful mixture of mature and young trees of many different species, which put on a spectacular show in autumn months.
Many of us drive for hours to visit mountains and valleys to see fall leaves on a grand scale, but Maple Park Cemetery offers a chance to see those brilliant yellow, orange, and red trees in a setting that is peaceful and even reverent. My walk among the memorial markers under the canopies of color helped me appreciate how wonderful it is to still be moving, how the turning of the seasons is a perfect metaphor for our lives, and how precious beauty is because it is so brief.
When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.
During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.
All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.
A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.
The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.
All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation. Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.
The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.
Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels. The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes. The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron. Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.
In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.
The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.
For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with birds. This is not to say that I am a birdwatcher as that term is normally used. I don’t go out into the forests and glades armed with binoculars and a field guide. I might be able to identify a handful of bird calls, but only the most obvious ones that most people recognize. I know the names of a dozen or so species, perhaps more if I give it some serious thought. The point is, I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert on feathered creatures. I simply enjoy watching them. More specifically, I like seeing them up close but from the comfort of my house, mostly from indoors. For over forty-five years I have been creating environments around the various places I have lived that would be safe and attractive for wildlife, a topic of one of my previous posts. More than any other creature, birds have remained the primary focus of my energy in this endeavor.
My father was an electrician by trade, but he was also quite a talented carpenter. I don’t recall if I asked him to build me a bird feeder or if he just decided I might like one, but he constructed a masterpiece just outside my bedroom window using two-inch metal pipe that formed a cross-like structure with braces at the top, to which he attached a corrugated metal roof about 2×3 feet in size. At the cross bar, about a foot or so below the roof, he attached two square wooden trays with small rims to hold bird seed. He completed the structure with a sheet-metal baffle cone attached to the pipe just below the wooden trays. It would be more accurate to say that my father had built a bird restaurant, which was typical of his approach to all backyard projects. He once erected a woodshed just behind our house that was better constructed than many of the houses in our town and could store enough firewood for a dozen Minnesota winters. We lived in middle Georgia.
Unfortunately, when Dad secured the feeder in the ground with concrete, the baffle wasn’t high enough to stop squirrels from taking a running leap up the pole, bouncing off the metal, and grabbing the edge of the wooden trays to then gorge themselves on seed. To thwart the rodents’ gluttonous invasions, my father once coated the pole with axle grease. Not to be deterred, the furry critters repeatedly and with astounding diligence would jump on the slick pole, slide to the ground, and repeat the routine until their white bellies were quite black and saturated with grease, thus cleaning the pole to the extent that they could once again raid the seed trays. We eventually gave up and just resigned ourselves to buy enough seed to satisfy the squirrels and feed the birds. Later, I started putting seed on the brick ledge below my window that only the birds could reach, allowing me to be only inches away from them as they pecked away at millet and sunflower seeds.
When I permanently moved away from home, I dug up the homemade feeder and carried it with me to at least two of my homes. Finally, the wooden trays began to rot due to my neglect, and I disposed of the feeder. It also took up too much space in my small yards. Moving forward, I elected to buy more traditional feeders at the big box stores and at boutique bird shops. I have mounted them on deck railings, attached them to tree trunks, and hung them from poles. I have watched them be ravaged by squirrels and raccoons. I have seen one completely destroyed by what must have been a black bear, sightings of which were frequent at our home in north Georgia. I was thrilled when stores began to stock their shelves with safflower seeds, which squirrels tend to dislike and leave alone. Our current backyard in southwest Missouri has only small trees, providing little protection for squirrels but plenty of shelter for the birds. The twin feeders we have are equipped with a well-designed baffle high enough off the ground to prevent the pesky varmints from reaching the bird’s dinner. Victory at last. Let them eat acorns like God intended.
In addition to feeders, I have added water features to our gardens. Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing. They are also attracted to running or moving water, probably because it facilitates bathing and usually indicates freshness. Currently, we only have a store-bought metal bird bath; however, at previous homes I built two garden ponds, each equipped with a cascading waterfall. Songbirds would often splash around in and drink from the small pools formed by the cascade. Even when we lived on a lake, we had one of these ponds in the yard, and ducks became regular visitors. They liked paddling around in the water.
There are certain elements of nature that, for lack of a better expression, are good for my soul. Most of these are grand in scale, such as beaches, high mountains, waterfalls, noisy rivers, public gardens, or sprawling vistas of the desert southwest. I have witnessed all of these many times, and they never disappoint me. But, I also get hours of pleasure by simply sitting in a chair on the deck or peering through the window and watching Cardinals, Chickadees, Bluebirds, Yellow Finches, Grosbeaks, Woodpeckers, and many other birds (yes, even sparrows) as they chirp, flit around, perch, and fill their bellies with seed and suet. They are like flowers that fly. It gives me great joy to help care for them.
One of the more interesting responsibilities of my current job is participating in an oral history project exploring the history and culture of the Ozarks, a physiographic region of the country located in portions of southern Missouri, northern Arkansas, and small portions of eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. I have solicited interviews from several people so far including a retired NASA astronaut; a farmer who moonlights as a musician; a folklorist and musician; and most recently, a woman who is a visual artist, a writer, and a horticulturist growing ginseng in the hills of northwest Arkansas. Since this is a personal blog, I won’t reveal her identity but will call her Ms. Ozart for the sake of convenience.
Ms. Ozart had a career in environmental science, but she also pursued artistic endeavors from an early age. Now that she is no longer working away from home, she can focus most of her time and energy on what she loves most: growing native plants, gardening, painting, and writing. She was not raised in Arkansas but lives here now with her husband, a couple of horses, and a dog who at one time kept her chickens safe from predators. The dog is old, deaf, and retired. Ms. Ozart no longer has chickens.
It was her fascination with one specific plant that attracted Ms. Ozart to this part of the country. Ginseng is a perennial herb native to deciduous forests, especially in places like Appalachia and some parts of the Ozarks. It thrived in these locations and throughout many other areas of the country until it was grossly overharvested in the 1970s, mainly because of the purported medicinal benefits of the root. It is now considered an endangered species. The demand for the plant’s root has been high in China for centuries, and plants from the U.S. are still routinely shipped there. Ms. Ozart isn’t interested in harvesting the roots or selling them. It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 years for the root to develop to a marketable size. She is much more interested in propagating the plant and selling the seeds so other people can do the same.
At her invitation, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ms. Ozart at her beautiful property. Because ginseng is rather valuable, and poaching is a constant threat, she prefers to keep her exact location as private as possible. Respectfully, I have included no photographs of the area with this post. In our preliminary correspondence, Ms. Ozart asked me if I would prefer to meet her in the nearby town and have her drive me to her home. She told me if I had a nice car, I probably wouldn’t want to go far beyond the town. Images of being blindfolded in the trunk of a large sedan came to mind. She warned me that my phone’s GPS app may have trouble finding the address, especially if I happened to exit the program in route from the nearby town. Cell service doesn’t exist this deep in the Ozarks – no bars . . . nada. I am fortunate to have a Ford F-150 pickup, so I decided to take my chances and trust my phone to get me there.
I have spent most of my life in rural areas. The last town where we lived in the northeast Georgia mountains was in a county with several small towns and a total population of just over 40,000. It was a booming metropolis compared to where Ms. Ozart resides. The “little town” several miles north of her location where she offered to meet me consisted of a tiny square that was like an appendage off the side of the two-lane state road. There were about six buildings housing such enterprises as a bank, a café, a feed store, and an art gallery where some of Ms. Ozart’s work is on exhibit and for sale. I continued farther out into the countryside until my riding companion, Siri, instructed me to turn left onto a dirt and stone road – not gravel, large stones. Sometimes, the rocks were semi-submerged boulders. The shocks on my truck will no doubt need to be replaced soon.
Ms. Ozart had warned me that it would take about 15 minutes or more to travel from the paved road to the base of her driveway where she would meet me. When I looked at the map and discovered the distance was only a few miles, I thought she was exaggerating. She wasn’t. Had I attempted to ramp up my speed to over 20 mph, my truck and I would have been launched airborne into either a tree or flowing water, both of which were in abundance on either side of the wide path that was given the designation of the county name followed by a four-digit number. The transportation department didn’t even bother with naming it for a prominent family that had carved out a living here generations ago, which is a common practice for farm roads in Georgia. I crossed over the same river twice and a few tributaries on surprisingly sturdy concrete bridges that were more like large culverts. I was expecting rickety wooden structures, which of course would never be able to support farm equipment and heavy trucks that undoubtedly traverse this byway every day.
I was traveling through a rather mountainous terrain compared to much of the Ozarks, with high ridges rising from rolling valleys fully furnished with fence lines, crumbling rock walls from long-abandoned structures, small creeks and branches, clusters of trees and shrubs, rock outcroppings, and grazing cows — lots of cows. I am convinced the livestock in northwest Arkansas have social security numbers. Even in December with the predominant hardwood trees undressed for the approaching winter, it was like an opening scene from the Daniel Boone television program from the late 1960s. Aside from the occasional power lines, the countryside probably looks much as it did in frontier days.
Notwithstanding the absence of cell service, most of the folks living along this county road are not really off the grid. They have electricity, running water, propane gas, satellite television, perhaps even slow and spotty satellite Internet service, and other amenities that people enjoy in the most remote parts of the country. Although Ms. Ozart has dreams of someday being a true homesteader, she freely admits that most of her provisions these days come from Walmart and the occasional delivery truck whose drivers risk life and limb to reach her door.
When I arrived at the base of her driveway — the cross section of a creek, a road intersection, and a pasture gate — Ms. Ozart was waiting for me in her small, well-seasoned red pickup truck. “You might want to ride the rest of the way with me,” she said. “Your truck probably doesn’t have four-wheel drive, does it?” And here I was, thinking the wagon trail that had gotten me this far was hazardous. I transferred my recording equipment to her truck, and we headed up the ridge on a rutted, winding trail just wide enough for one vehicle.
We stopped after about 100 yards to look at one of the locations where ginseng is growing on a raised plateau just across the creek from the “driveway.” The plants are dormant this time of year, and the leaves are gone, but she wanted to show me the spot just the same. She gingerly scampered across several rocks to reach the other side, warning me to secure my footing on the slippery surfaces as I followed. I could just imagine conducting the interview in blue jeans soaked in icy creek water. Luck was on my side. I remained high and dry.
We safely made it back to her truck and continued our trek toward her house located about a half mile up the hill. We were no longer crossing creeks and branches. We were going through them. She was describing the habitat for ginseng and its companion plants while showing me the more interesting features of her property, including lovely cascading waterfalls and massive rock outcroppings in tall ravines. At one point she stopped the truck to point out another hillside where she had discovered ginseng growing wild. I admit it was difficult for me to concentrate as I was keenly aware that she had parked the truck directly in the middle of a flowing creek. I kept waiting for the sensation of sinking and drifting as we sat there, but after she finished her story, she simply engaged the four-wheel drive and slowly maneuvered forward out of the water. I was thankful for her truck. I was more thankful I wasn’t driving.
We arrived at Ms. Ozart’s house and set up at her kitchen table for the interview. The room was comfortably warm with the help of a gas space heater. She had chili bubbling in a slow cooker that filled the house with a mouthwatering aroma. She put on a pot of coffee, graciously served me a cup, and sat across the table from me and my video camera for a 45-minute conversation that was fascinating and entertaining. She pulled out of her refrigerator seedlings of ginseng and other native herbs she overwinters packed in moss in plastic storage bags. She demonstrated how she makes pigments for paint by grinding rocks from the local creeks into powders of various hues and textures and mixing them with oil, honey, and other suspending agents. She talked about how the Ozarks region is an inspiration for her writing and her visual art. She and her husband have built a rich life in this isolated slice of wilderness, which I find quite remarkable and admirable.
After we finished and I packed my equipment in her pickup, she drove me back to my truck. “Do you really get supplies delivered to you out here?” I asked as we bumped our way down the hill. “Oh sure,” she said. “Lowes delivered my washer and dryer too.” Admittedly, I was a bit surprised by this news, given how narrow and rugged her driveway is. When we reached a sharp curve where the creek widens next to the road, she pointed toward the stream and said, “I came down early one morning and found a FedEx truck tilted sideways and halfway in the creek right there. The driver had made a delivery to my house the night before, and lost control going back down on this turn. He showed up later that morning with a wrecker. It took the better part of the day for them to get his truck out of the creek, but they did it.”
When we reached my truck, I thanked her for her hospitality and told her how grateful I was that she drove the last leg up to her house. She chuckled a bit and said, “I thought that would work best.” I watched her from my rearview mirror retrieve the mail from her mailbox at the driveway entrance and then climb back in her truck to head home again. Somehow the rocky road leading back to the state highway didn’t seem quite as treacherous this time. The cows appeared just as disinterested as they had earlier. I recognized a few landmarks that I had remembered to look for on the way back to make sure that I wasn’t lost. I allowed myself to look around and soak up the pastoral vistas along the way, but I slowed down considerably and took great care crossing the bridges.
I am a big fan of public gardens and visit them as often as possible, especially when traveling to new places. With the move to Missouri in 2018, my wife and I have taken opportunities as often as possible to explore some of the wonderful resources the state has to offer. One of the most remarkable places I have seen so far is the Missouri Botanical Garden just outside St. Louis. Founded in 1859, the 79-acre facility is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and is now a National Historic Landmark.
According to the Garden’s website, “more than 4,800 trees live on the grounds, including some unusual varieties and a few stately specimens dating back to the 19th century, when founder Henry Shaw planted them.” The Garden also features the nation’s most comprehensive resource center for gardening information, including 23 residential-scale demonstration gardens. There are various themed gardens throughout the site: Chinese, English, Woodland, Ottoman, and Victorian. There is a 14-acre Japanese strolling garden, one of the largest in the country.
A notable feature of the Garden is the conservatory with a lush, vibrant tropical rainforest complete with waterfalls, tanks of fish, and a walkway winding through incredible exotic plants. I will most likely never visit South America or any other part of the world where I would see a tropical rainforest, so I am always grateful for the privilege of even seeing one in miniature. The one at the Missouri Botanical Garden is the best I have seen so far.
There are so many elements of the Garden that make it a destination. The trails are carefully constructed to take advantage of the landscape and lead visitors to one breathtaking vista after another. The plants are grouped and positioned throughout the property to appear as if they evolved there naturally. There are tree-covered byways with every shade of green imaginable; sunny sections with an explosion of color during the blooming season, including a rose garden; and terraces with mixes of perennials and annuals. There are natural lakes, running streams, and constructed water features. I was also fascinated with how well the flora is enhanced by statuary, glasswork, and structures.
St. Louis has so many attractions: Gateway Arch, Busch Stadium, a first-class art museum, and a zoo for starters. The Missouri Botanical Garden is every bit as impressive as any of these places. It is undoubtedly a point of pride for the city and for the whole state. I look forward to returning every season of the year to see what surprises the Garden has in store.
(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)
American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.
Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.
Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.
Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.
Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.
In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.
O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.
The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.
Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter. The old man’s damnation is sealed.
To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.
Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.
Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.
While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.
Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.
Homeowners go to great lengths and expense to harness nature and control their environments in order to create their own versions of paradise in the form of landscape gardening. These efforts may include grading, building retaining walls, terracing, hardscaping, designing planting beds, installing shrubs and trees, trimming tree limbs, or removing trees altogether. It can take months or even years to alter the property and establish the desired effect . . . or, nature can make the decision to completely change it all in a matter of minutes. Such was the case in our front yard in September, 2017, courtesy of Hurricane Irma.
Georgia is a state that experiences extreme weather conditions, from sub-zero temperatures in the mountainous regions to weeks of mid-day temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the southern and coastal areas. A soaking wet spring and summer may easily be followed by six years of very little rainfall at all. Dry conditions can lead to horrible wildfires, especially in south Georgia, while heavy rainfall frequently brings flash floods to the streams and rivers that carve through the hills of the Piedmont region. The influx of warm, wet air from the Gulf creates an unstable atmosphere over the state that results in severe electrical storms, strong winds, and heavy downpours, even if this activity is isolated. In the late spring and early summer, tornados are an ever-present threat. The greatest risk of widespread destruction comes in late summer and early fall — hurricane season. Catastrophic hurricane damage in the state is rare and limited to the coast for Atlantic storms and southwest Georgia for storms that come into the panhandle of Florida from the Gulf.
As is always the case with hurricanes, wind is typically a secondary problem to the primary issue of either storm surge or torrential rains and flooding. On rare occasions, high winds and rain from hurricanes come together in a deadly combination that inland forested areas are not able to withstand. Such was the case with Hurricane Irma. With the strongest winds ever recorded of any storm in the open Atlantic, Irma caused incredible damage in the Caribbean then crossed the Straits of Florida to eventually make landfall on September 10 in the Keys with sustained winds at 130 mph before swirling up the west coast of Florida towards Alabama. This was a huge hurricane with outer bands that spread out over several states at once: Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. The outer bands on the east side of the storm ended up causing the most damage to inland areas, such as the mountains of northeast Georgia where we live. In fact, we heard reports in the weeks that followed the storm that our county suffered more damage from Irma than any other in the state outside the coastal counties.
The worst weather from the outer bands hit our county between 5:00 p.m. and midnight on September 11. The wind began to pick up that afternoon around 3:00 p.m. Within an hour we were hearing the characteristic howling of the gusts as they came through in waves. The electricity went off at about 4:30 p.m. Over the next three hours the wind continued to build in intensity and the gusts were almost becoming sustained. We were most concerned about the large oaks closest to our house, located in the front yard in a landscaped “island” of mulch planted with an understory of shrubs and perennials. Every few minutes we would walk to the front windows and shine our flashlights out toward the trees to check on them. At about 8:00 p.m., we noticed that one of the oaks was starting to lean with the force of the wind, and the ground around the trunk was beginning to bulge as the roots were being pulled toward the surface. It was a frightening spectacle. By 8:15 p.m., two of the trees were uprooted and fell across the front yard, completely missing the house. We were sad to lose the trees but thankful the house was spared. The wind got stronger, and then it got dark. Not being able to see out the windows to tell how far the wind was bending the trees in the forest surrounding us was quite disconcerting.
Less than 30 minutes later, we heard a loud crash and felt the whole house shudder. We knew we had lost another tree, but this time, it fell on the house. I sprinted upstairs to look for holes in the ceiling or broken windows in the front dormers. I was greatly relieved to find that the roof had apparently not been breached, but all I could see out of the front second-story windows were the leaves and branches of the tree’s canopy resting against the roof over the front porch. Then I heard my wife shouting from downstairs, “The tree is in the house!” I rushed back down to find her at our open front door in a desperate struggle against tree branches that looked like a horticultural monster invading our foyer. A portion of the tree canopy had spilled onto the front porch, and when my wife opened the front door, the bent limbs sprang inside and almost knocked her down. It was like a scene out of Jumanji.
We managed to push the limbs back outside and close the door, realizing in the process that two trees had actually fallen on the house, for a total of four lost trees. Each of these oaks was over thirty feet tall with combined canopies covering an area over 1,000 square feet. The fallen trees caused damage to the porch, roof, and brick walkway, and completely demolished a light post. The destruction could have been much worse in that regard, as it was for so many people in our part of the state. The downed trees were removed two days later by a local tree company with some of the fastest and most efficient workers I have ever seen. Within a few weeks all the damage to the house was repaired as well. What Hurricane Irma left behind for us, however, was a completely altered landscape for our front yard and gardens. What had been a sheltered area for shrubs and shade-loving annuals and perennials was now exposed to full sun.
After our contractor removed the stumps and most of the roots of the extracted trees and smoothed over the scars in the ground, we brought in a fresh load of mulch to dress the area and replanted the under-story plants that had been temporarily removed to a safe location at the edge of the yard. The existing dogwood and redbud trees under the big oaks came out remarkably unharmed. Surprisingly enough, when the trees fell they completely missed our two large (and expensive) planters, and they only slightly injured the smaller plants in the island. We did purchase some ornamental grasses to fill in some of the new space, and we transplanted a red-blooming crepe myrtle from the backyard where it had been under-performing due to lack of sunlight.
For the 2018 season, we had to totally rethink our flower beds at the front porch. In the past, these beds were filled with impatiens, caladiums, coleus, and other shade-loving annuals. We switched to impatiens, Mexican heather, begonias, zinnias, and other annuals and perennials that enjoy morning and early afternoon sun. These beds were beautiful before, and as we learn more about what will thrive there with the new conditions, they will be just as handsome. Where we once depended more on foliage than blooms for color, now we have just the opposite situation. I wouldn’t say they look better, just different. I must admit, in the days following the storm I was a bit worried about how our front yard gardens were going to suffer with the loss of the trees. I think we are comfortably acclimated to the new look now. It’s going to be just fine. One thing I know for certain. I will not miss for a second spending hours of time in the late fall picking up large acorns before they have the chance to burrow and sprout. For that little gift from Irma, I am quite grateful.
Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.
My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!
For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.
Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.
On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.
On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.
During our vacation in 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, my wife requested I find some interesting sites in the area that intrigued me for us to explore one afternoon, along with our close friend who graciously hosted us in her home for the week. My love for waterfalls led me to pick out a few attractions that advertised that particular element, and we were pleasantly surprised at what we found in this sprawling desert city. My favorite was the Ro Ho En Japanese Friendship Garden located directly behind the Irish Cultural Center just north of Portland Avenue. The garden covers 3.5 acres and includes a tea garden and tea house. According to the garden’s website, “This tranquil and beautiful setting features more than 1,500 tons of hand-picked rock, stone footbridges, lanterns and more than 50 varieties of plants.”
I have written about the value of public gardens before, and this one is definitely on my list of favorites. The idea for the garden began in 1987 by a delegation from Himeji, Japan. Phoenix and Himeji have been sister cities since 1976 and participate in business, governmental, cultural, and educational exchanges that promote international goodwill and understanding. The garden is the shared cultural vision of both cities. The construction of the garden was completed in 2000, and it was opened to the public in 2002. Neither my wife nor our friend, both long-time residents of Phoenix, knew anything about this little treasure. The visit was a treat for all three of us.
In addition to maintaining a beautiful, serene Japanese garden in the heart of the city, the nonprofit organization that operates the facility provides educational and artistic programs and events that continue to deepen East-West relationships and celebrate the rich history and culture of Japan. Authentic tea ceremonies for the public are held on the third Saturday of each month from October through June. The ceremonies are presented by Tanko Kai tea group, wearing beautiful kimonos in the Musoan tea house. Guests are met at the entry gate and conducted to the tea house by a docent who explains features in the tea garden and other interesting facts about the tea house itself.
As we strolled around the pond, by the waterfall, and along the garden paths, I was reminded once again how the desert southwest is so often misrepresented as a barren region with little life and no real beauty. True, the Japanese Friendship Garden is an artificial oasis, but there are plenty of natural places just this lush and soothing located throughout Arizona and its neighboring states. The fortunate people who live in the apartment building next to the garden have one of the best views in the city: a luxuriant landscape below combined with desert mountain vistas in the distance. For all visitors to Phoenix, and even for those who call the city their home, I highly recommend a therapeutic retreat to the Japanese Friendship Garden.