A View of Flannery O’Connor’s Woods

(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.

Lake Sinclair
Lake Sinclair

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.

The Woods of Andalusia
The Woods 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.

Andalusia pond and main house
Andalusia pond and main house

Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix

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.”

Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Pond at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

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.

Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Waterfall at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

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.

Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Stream at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

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.

Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ
Koi at Japanese Friendship Garden in Phoenix, AZ

Restoring My Soul

My wife and I have fairly stressful jobs, hers much more than mine.  I have mentioned before how much we like to be outdoors when we can, and we look for such opportunities and plan for them when we take vacation trips.  We also enjoy kayaking, and we are fortunate enough to have two Hobie kayaks, which are equipped with peddles so we can use our legs to propel them instead of just paddling.  Our previous home was on a rather large lake, so kayaking was as simple as pulling the boat out of the garage and going across the yard to the water’s edge and taking off.  Now, we don’t get out as much and have to plan for the water outings, but we live in an area with plenty of small lakes close by to explore, and a few very large ones not too far away.  During the warm months of the year, we load the kayaks on our pickup truck and head out to one of the nearby lakes, often after we get off work, just for a couple of hours.

Lake Russell 2
Lake Russell, Habersham County, GA

Being out on the water gives us a chance to slow down, talk, laugh, recall the wonderful times we’ve had together, and make plans for the future.  Some of the places we go are fairly secluded, although there are usually a few people around either fishing or swimming.  She and I typically stay out for about an hour.  We enjoy being together, and while we like to be with family and friends, we also cherish the times we spend with just each other.  We work well together; as we often say, “We’re a good team.”  Beyond the recreation and exercise that this activity provides, I think for both of us it offers an opportunity to reflect on how precious time is, how beautiful the world is, how grateful we are for each other, and how lucky we are to be alive.

Wide Open Spaces

Recently, I took another one of those “trips of a lifetime” with my wife and one of my sons — this time to Yellowstone National Park.  Although my wife had briefly visited some years back, my son and I had never been.  We stayed for three full days in a cabin just a few miles from the south entrance of the park, which afforded us great access not only to Yellowstone but also to the Grand Tetons National Park as well as Jackson, Wyoming.  Like my other experiences traveling to the west, I was most taken by the enormity of space in this portion of the country.  The sky goes on forever.  The landscape melts into the distance in a blue haze.  The vistas are simply overwhelming.

Yellowstone National Park

Of course, like many visitors to this National Park, my son and I were hoping to see plenty of wildlife, which is practically unavoidable.  In fact, there have been several recent incidents of people/wildlife encounters that have ended up not too pleasant for the humans involved, especially with bison.  At a safe distance, and in the protection of an automobile, it is so rewarding to see animals in their own habitat, protected as they are from most human threats.  We were fortunate enough to see bison, elk, prong horns, and an otter.  We desperately wanted to see a grizzly bear but were not willing to hike in the back country where one would typically find them.  However, on the last day, we were lucky enough to see a mother brown bear and her playful cub resting in the shade of some trees, just a hundred or so yards from the roadway.

I will write more posts about this trip in the weeks ahead, so we will consider this short piece an introduction.  For those who haven’t been but have contemplated a trip to Yellowstone, I would strongly encourage placing it near the top of your bucket list, especially if you have an appreciation for the great outdoors.

I Love Waterfalls

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I enjoy hiking.  I am also attracted to water – mostly water that is moving fast enough to make sound.  I have hiked along the coast, through the mountains, in the desert, in deep forests, along rocky peaks, and in suburban areas.  More often than not, I select a place to hike that is either in sight of water or has running water as a destination.  My family takes advantage of state park trails which are frequently near the shoreline of a lake or wind along a creek or river.

The ultimate culmination of a hike to me is a waterfall — the bigger and louder the better.  One of the tallest I have seen recently is just outside Cherokee, North Carolina.  Mingo Falls is on the Cherokee Indian Reservation (Qualla Boundary), just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park.   At 120 feet tall, the waterfall is one of the tallest and most spectacular in the southern Appalachians.  The hike on Pigeon Creek Trail to the waterfall is only 0.4 miles in length, but is considered moderate in difficulty because it is largely composed of steps and a fairly steep climb up to the falls.

2014-12-27 14.40.15

I took this photograph in December, just after Christmas.  It was a great time to get a shot because the foliage was gone from most of the trees, which revealed a good portion of the width of the falls as well as the vertical expanse.  I was standing on the small bridge at the base of the falls where the creek continues cascading down the hillside.  The sound is mighty but not deafening.  I love waterfalls, and this is one of my favorites.  In fact, it is currently the home-screen photo on my iPhone.

God’s Cathedral

There are still plenty of outdoor places in America you can visit that are protected enough to offer a glimpse at how the landscape on this continent may have appeared to early native inhabitants and explorers.  A prime example are some of the national parks.  I think the National Park Service is one of the best government programs of all, and I wish our federal leaders would find some other areas to cut funding and leave this division alone.  We have some incredible treasures around the country, several of which I have visited.  I have never been disappointed.

One of the best parks to visit to experience what I am describing is Yosemite National Park in the High Sierra region of California.  First protected in 1864, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more.  There are so many places in this park where you can stand, and for as far as the eye can see, there is no sign of civilization.  The vistas are absolutely breathtaking, including perhaps the most photographed view of all from just beyond the tunnel on Wawona Road, where the valley opens up and welcomes you to what many people refer to as God’s Cathedral.  Indeed, the scene is like a place of worship on a monumental scale, and for those who have any appreciation at all for the beauty of the natural world, it invokes a sense of reverence and awe.

Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View on Wawona Road

My wife and I joined up with a good friend of ours there in July, 2013, staying several nights in a cabin and spending our days hiking along the valley floor and up to one of the high spots overlooking the valley.  Yosemite is another one of those places that reminds me just how small I am and how magnificent this planet is.  John Muir, the famous naturalist who helped draw up the proposed boundaries of the park in 1889, described Yosemite as being “full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons of life, mountain building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stone, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful with humanity.”

A Wooded Path

If you like hiking, or simply taking a walk on a nature trail, the state parks and national forests in north Georgia are some of the best places to enjoy this activity.  The state of Georgia does a fine job, with dwindling resources I am quick to add, with the access to natural resources it provides through the state park system.  The trails vary in length and difficulty levels to accommodate almost any age and degree of fitness.  Most parks have trails that are wheelchair accessible.  The diversity of flora and fauna in the southern Appalachia is unmatched anywhere in the U.S.  There are very few weeks out of the year where the weather makes outdoor exploration uncomfortable here.  I have spent many hours wandering mountain paths through densely wooded countryside and have always come away restored.

Visit Georgia State Parks website

View from Black Rock Mountain State Park visitor center
View from Black Rock Mountain State Park visitor center