Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. Before I began freelancing, I drove about 90 miles round-trip to my university teaching job. While the commute itself sometimes bored me, the scenery on U.S. Highway 27 between LaGrange and Carrollton never, ever did.
It’s almost spring now. In the Deep South, spring gives us an ice storm one day and tornadoes the next. This year’s early warm weather has brought out the daffodils a little early. I love watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.
When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and replanted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to move them at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.
Most of the daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone, year after year, with unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.
But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch—without a house nearby?
Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. Old houses get demolished, and their sites fade into and gradually out of memory. Yet the bulbs embedded around them come back every spring thereafter—house or no house.
Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.
The daffodils pictured above are very simple, single-cup daffodils, an old variety we often see around old houses. They’re about 12” tall, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.
Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house—or what used to be a house, anyway. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.
I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.
I wonder if, on leaving, they took one long, last look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”
Photo: “Daff Nipped by Frost” (Carroll County, Georgia – 2012)
He was an itinerant millwright, the story goes, a handsome fellow who never stayed long in one place. Women loved him. He loved them back. His mistake was in messing with one whose husband hid in a roadside thicket and shot him off his horse on a fine summer evening.
The doctor tried to save him—removed all the lead he could find, tied and pressed and tourniqueted against further bleeding. Too late. They buried the good-looking millwright at the back edge of the cemetery, sheltered by oak, hickory, poplar, scuppernong.
The chest wound told what the dead man could not. A muzzle-loader, yes. Homemade shot. Wadded tight with paper. The doctor unfurled the biggest blood-soaked piece: a long front page strip from the Franklin newspaper, dated a few days before.
Only one local man still used a muzzle-loader. Years later, the sheriff shook his head when he recalled how the fellow still had that newspaper with the piece torn out. It lay right there on the table when he and the doctor arrived.
They hanged the murderer at the jail in Franklin. Where they buried him—or what became of his wife—nobody knows. But Charles M. Bailey remains here, a mile and a half from where he fell.
Gravestone of Charles M. Bailey Glenn, Georgia (Heard County) – 3 June 2014
When I was a baby, my parents rented a tiny house trailer in Randolph County, Alabama. Their elderly landlord was a retired country doctor. Dr. James Parker* and his wife, Opal*, passed their days tending to their legendary vegetable and flower gardens. Born in the late 1890s, they told my mother many stories from their childhoods.
One thick summer evening, sitting on the Parkers’ front porch, Mom complimented Miss Opal on the waxy, heaven-scented white flowers blooming at the very edge of her yard. “Your gardenias are amazing. Would it be all right if I cut a few to put in a vase?”
“Help yourself,” Miss Opal said. “I can’t stand gardenias. James loves them. I told him if he just had to have them, he needed to plant them as far away from the house as he could.”
This was a new one for Mom. “How come you don’t like gardenias?”
“They remind me of my Uncle Bert*.” Miss Opal looked across the lawn at the hundred-foot row of waist-high, glossy-green-leaved shrubs that separated her yard from the overgrown pasture next door. She sighed, and turned back to Mom.
“Uncle Bert was Mama’s youngest brother. He left for Oklahoma when I was a child—thought he’d try farming out there, where it’s flat and you can see for miles and miles. One day, he was fixing a barbwire fence when a bad storm came up. He didn’t worry, though. The storm was still a good way off. He’d figured he’d patch that fence, get on his mule, and beat the rain back to the house.” She paused. “He didn’t count on the lightning.”
Miss Opal nodded sadly. “Lightning struck about a mile away. The charge traveled all the way up the fence to where Uncle Bert had his hands on it. Killed both him and the mule.”
“Even worse,” Miss Opal continued, “was that he had told his wife he wanted to be buried back home, in Alabama. And he died in late June.”
She closed her eyes. “The funeral was open-casket, even though we could barely recognize him. There was this big old burned streak down his face, down into his shirt collar and, I reckon, the whole length of his body.” Miss Opal shuddered. “Took the train eight days to get here from Oklahoma City. His wife didn’t have the money to have him embalmed. With all that time passing and the summer heat, by the day of the funeral—Lord, have mercy. They had that church full of gardenias to cover up the smell. It didn’t work.”
“To this day, every time I catch even a little whiff of the blasted things, all I can smell is sickly sweetness—just overpowering summer and perfume and death. I see Uncle Bert again, all burned and purplish-black there in the casket. And I just about faint.” Miss Opal pointed toward the edge of the yard. “And that’s why I made James plant his gardenias way out there.”
In the mid-1930s, my great-grandfather planted this dwarf peach tree in the side yard of his house in southwestern Heard County, Georgia. By the mid-1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember the family’s yearly trips down from Michigan, the tree bore heavy yields every summer.
Pap would slice up quart after quart of fresh peaches, from which he and Grandma Edith would make ice cream in an old crank-handle freezer. It was the finest she had ever tasted, Mom would say years later. When she first moved south in 1968, Mom lived with Pap and Grandma while she saved up for her own apartment in LaGrange. Entering its fourth decade, the little peach tree was still producing as many peaches as the three of them could eat (read: a lot).
In 1988, Mom moved back to Heard County and began fixing up the old home place. By that time, the tree was just about dead. Sap ran sticky amber-brown from the peach borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off about half its branches. The other half, fiercely proud and unwilling to admit defeat, struggled to stay even halfway upright.
The kind thing to do, Mom supposed, would be to cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. It had served its purpose for many years. Now it was time to plant something new.
But the saw stayed in the shed. Mom couldn’t stand to cut down the beleaguered little peach tree while it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. “When it’s finally dead, I’ll cut it,” she kept saying. “In the meantime, we’ll just mow around it.”
Which she did—very carefully, with a rickety push-mower and a pair of yard shears. Mom mulched it. She sprayed it for insects and fungus. She watered it during droughts, and pruned away the branches split by the weight of snow and ice. For a dying tree, this one sure was getting a lot of care.
Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the familiar pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would lie rotting on the ground, felled by some fungus or insect predator. At least the fire ants and yellow jackets were eating well.
For almost 20 years, we had hoped for peaches. For almost 20 years, we had none. I began to accept that peaches, as much as I wanted them, were just not going to happen.
Fast forward to 2003: a warm spring day at the old home place. My mother and stepfather had almost finished rebuilding the long-collapsed front porch. Useless with a hammer but still wanting to be part of the action, I stood nearby.
“Uh, Mom?” I said. “It’s about your little tree.”
“I know, I know.” She mopped the sweat from her brow and grabbed another fistful of 16-penny nails. “I’m giving it one more chance. If it doesn’t make fruit this year, it’s coming down.”
So the spring turned into summer, and the blossoms turned into fuzzy green baby peaches. But this time, the baby peaches stayed on the tree. And grew. And grew. And ripened.
For the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches.
I felt awful for having hoped we could cut down the elderly peach tree. I had doubted it, and it had come back—perhaps to prove us wrong, but more likely because that’s just what trees do. This lonely, gnarled little tree suddenly bore two bushels of peaches just because it could.
That summer, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and the best homemade peach cobbler I have ever tasted. Since then, the tree has managed to produce at least a few desserts’ worth of fruit every season. It has survived nearly a century of drought, disease, ice storms, and straight-line winds—and, one time, a sweet, hungry, clumsy 2,800-pound Black Angus bull. This beloved little tree refuses to quit.
What will this year bring? We don’t yet know. The peach tree probably doesn’t yet know, either. No matter what happens, though, I will always be grateful to it for showing me what endurance really means.
Photo: “Green Peach, Black Cat” (Heard County, Georgia – 27 May 2014)
Oak, hickory, dogwood, mountain laurel, sassafras, tulip poplar, elm, sweet gum, locust—I wished I’d brought along my tree book. Frothy green ferns carpeted the ground, but not so thickly that I couldn’t see the dark, glossy poison ivy leaning into the trail. Leaves of three, stay away from me.
Hundreds of young saplings reach skyward for light. Sheltered by the mature trees, they will stay relatively small and grow slowly until those larger trees die and fall. As the saplings become larger trees, new saplings will sprout from the nuts, seeds, and cones nestled in the leaf litter. The new trees will mature, die, and fall back. More new saplings will take their places—and on, and on.
How long has this scene existed? It was here long before the trail; it will be here long after the trail. What did this hollow look like when the only people here were Native Americans? How about before the Native Americans? What plants were here then that aren’t here now—and vice versa?
Thousands of years before we were born, this hillside was home to plants, insects, animals, and people. Hunter and hunted lived and died close to one another. Over thousands of years, something or someone has breathed a final breath and lay down forever on every patch of ground we see here. Every spot is important, hallowed, sacred.
What if we were to bring this presence of mind, to everything we do, everything we say, everywhere we travel? How different would the world be? How different would we be?
Every place is sacred—even if we choose not to think about it.
Photo: “North Georgia Woods” (Blue Ridge, Georgia –19 May 2010)
As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look along the winter-brown roadside for the familiar fuzzy evergreen clouds. They’re far easier to spot this time of year.
They float along old fence lines, these tubby juniper ghosts, at the very edge of the right-of-way. They bide their time where state DOT and Army Corps of Engineers property ends, where the natural world waits to wreck the built and overrun the mechanized. Often, their shredded gray trunks smirk and pucker around twisted steel—We can’t grow here, huh? HA! Stupid barbed wire. That’ll teach you.
When I was a child in rural east Alabama and west Georgia, these dark green blobs of badass were our Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, grows all the way from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. A pioneer invader, it prefers pitiful, ragged-out, freshly-cleared land. However, unlike other potentially invasive species, it can live for centuries if left alone. My grandfather’s farm included several cedars with trunks nearly three feet thick. For the most part, though, the ones I notice are between four and seven feet tall, just the right size for the average living room.
I remember only one tree-cutting walk, far behind our house outside Rock Mills, Alabama. We were likely on someone else’s land. My father had to have known this. But, seeing how eastern red cedars alkalize pasture soil and steal nitrogen from forage crops, maybe the landowners would not have cared. Daddy cut it down with a hatchet and a hacksaw, then dragged the tree behind him for the half-hour walk back to the house, my sister and me following as quickly as our little legs could manage.
In this old photo, the short, squat little cedar looks as lush now as it did then to my three-year-old eyes. It sits atop the blanket chest—also red cedar—that my great-grandfather made around the end of the First World War. That same blanket chest now guards my guest room.
Christmas tree farms make me uneasy. Their offerings, while pretty, are not of this land. Their trees’ native soils lie hundreds of miles north and west of here. While I am glad they bring joy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they are just not for me.
Those plush needles stay too neatly combed. Too-tidy firs and spruces demand unreasonable cheerfulness and forced smiles. They heap manufactured happiness on top of organic, deeply rooted sorrow. And they act surprised when the needle-fine roots of that sorrow break back up through the soil.
Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays. Instead, give me an eastern red cedar, thriving at pasture’s edge. Give me slowly shredding grayish-tan bark. Give me perfumed red heartwood that swallows barbed wire and NO HUNTING signs along Georgia Highway 219. Give me needles growing in all directions like an overcaffeinated moth-repellent pompom. Wherever I go, for the rest of my days, the trees I have known and loved stay with me.
Photo: “Detail, Red Cedar Christmas: Rock Mills, Alabama, 1976”
Sunday, summer. Hot. Humid.
Nearly a hundred at a quarter til noon.
How the world stays plump and green in this steam, I do not know.
In the opposite lane, warming itself: a box turtle. No—a pinecone.
In my lane, warming itself: a shredded fan belt. No—a king snake.
Wheels dodge, spin past.
By the old Whatley place, two does materialize. From the furry green ditch, their eyes ask permission. I slow. They traverse the double yellow line, as always graceful yet unsure, as always one at a time.
A squirrel, bushy tail an eternal question mark, never asks permission. Zig-zag-zig-zigzig-zag-ZIG! across pavement and almost-not-safely into tall grass.
In the hollow by the Primitive Baptist cemetery, a great blue heron glides across the tops of the pines. Wide blue-gray wings, yellow legs, crooked flight-neck: hello, hello, goodbye.
Most Halloweens I spend at my mother’s house. It’s the same house where her father was born in 1922. Like many old houses, it has plenty of stories to tell. And it won’t tell them to just anyone. Oh, no. The house plays favorites when it has something to say.
In non-drought years, Halloween means we build a bonfire in Mom’s yard, then make s’mores and tell family ghost stories. We listen to the deep, hollow hoo-hoo-hoooooot of the great horned owls in the pasture next door. Sometimes, well after dark, the local coyotes begin choir practice. Their not-quite-dog-like barking, their yip-yip-yip-yip-ooooooOOOOOO! far off in the woods, stirs up in the human heart something ancient and primal. That’s when Mom and I feel the hair stand up on the backs of our necks. It’s our All Hallows’ signal to grab the dogs and scurry back indoors.
Since 1834, there has been a house on this spot in Heard County, Georgia. The original cabin burned in the 1880s; people built another using the foundation and field-stone pillars from the first house. When that one burned 30 years later, they built yet another house. That’s the one my mother and stepfather live in today.
Mom and Steve have spent the last couple decades renovating the house, taking what was essentially a falling-down sharecropper’s shack and turning it into a cozy home in the woods. It now has insulation, gas heaters, a full kitchen, and two bathrooms with hot running water. They even refinished the 14-inch-wide heart pine floors, original to the early 1900s version of the house and likely similar to the floors in the first two houses on this site.
The ghost story about the house that I always heard goes something like this:
Late July 1864 saw one of west central Georgia’s few Civil War battles: McCook’s Raid, in what is now Coweta County (about 45 miles east of Mom’s house). In the days after the battle, one Union soldier appeared, on horseback, on the dirt road that once passed in front of the house. The soldier, who didn’t look much older than a teenager, was all by himself.
He wasn’t in good shape, either. He was slumped over onto the horse’s neck, over the horn of his saddle, unconscious. The skin-and-bones horse seemed to follow the road of its own accord, carrying its rider per its beastly duty. The people inside the house no doubt heard the hooves clop-clop-clop on packed dirt, and walked onto the porch to stare.
Just then, the Union soldier fell off his horse into the middle of the road, a dead-weight heap in blue homespun. His eyelids did not even flutter as the people ran out into the road, hoisted him by his armpits and ankles, and brought him inside.
They lay the soldier on a straw mattress, and fetched fresh water from the well out back for some cold compresses. The Union soldier was still knocked out, and now sweating profusely. He was very badly cut and bruised. Other than his ragged dark blue uniform, the young man offered no other clues as to his identity. The people wondered if he had been wounded in a nearby battle. Or perhaps he had been robbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants, many miles from where he was now.
There were no letters from home stashed inside the young man’s coat—no mementos, no lock of hair, no faded daguerreotypes of loved ones waiting for his return. He simply lay there in the bed, barely breathing, just a kid sent far from home by a country who probably didn’t even know where he was.
He never woke up, and died the next morning.
They buried him in the cemetery 300 feet down the road. His coffin was made from weathered old boards pried off of the barn. They marked his grave with a large rock. It was all they had.
In the spring of 1928, C.B. Adamson decided it was time that the unknown Union soldier had a fitting tribute. C.B. was a child when the solider died at the house on the ridge. So he composed a long poem for the soldier, and went down to the graveyard, where he mixed up some homemade concrete, poured the fellow a gravestone, and stamped the poem in the wet concrete. Community historians sent a request to Washington, DC for an official Union Army headstone. When it arrived, they placed it next to the concrete slabs. Despite nearly 100 years of harsh weather and occasional neglect, the unknown soldier’s grave is still intact. Caretakers patched the slabs back together a few years ago after an ice storm sent a four-foot-thick white oak crashing into their center.
When Mom moved down here from Michigan in 1969, her grandparents were still living in the old house where she lives today. She moved in with them until she could find a job and apartment. In 1989, she returned to Heard County, and has lived in the family home ever since. Of course, Mom grew up hearing stories of the Union soldier’s ghost. While she’s never seen him, she’s heard him walking around and felt his presence in the house.
“When I hear him,” she says, “it’s usually the sound of heavy boots along the floor—like the boots don’t fit very well, or maybe the person’s feet really hurt. It happens when I’m the only one at home. Other times, it’s just a funny feeling I get, like someone’s in the room with me or is watching me. But when I look up, nobody’s there.”
On Halloween 2006, Mom and I made our usual bonfire a good, safe 50 feet from the house. About 9:30 that night, I turned my back to the fire and was finishing the last of the s’mores as I watched how the blaze illuminated much of the yard. For safety’s sake, we’d left the lights on in the kitchen, dining room, and living room—the rooms on the west side of the house, and the ones I into which I could see from where I stood in the yard.
That’s when I saw him in the house.
Dressed in dark blue.
He walked from left to right: starting in the kitchen, he made his way slowly through the dining room, and into the living room. I watched the man, of average height and build, walk along and reach with his right hand as if to open a door. His dark blue sleeve reached to his knuckles, as if his shirt or coat were several sizes too large. He walked steadily through the house, opening one door and the next, passing by all the windows. When he reached the living room’s old chimney. . .he vanished.
“Mom, is someone in the house?”
“Nobody but the cats. Why?”
I blinked hard, and began shaking. “I just saw someone walk through the house. From the kitchen, to the dining room, on through to the living room.”
Mom sat straight up in her lawn chair by the fire. “What?”
“I swear to God, Mom. I just saw somebody walk through the house. A man, wearing a long-sleeved blue coat or shirt.”
Mom was quiet for a long moment, then turned to me. “You know what this means, right?”
“No. . .”
“It means you’re the first person I know who’s actually seen the unknown Union soldier.”
B: Who’s that talking up there now? A: You don’t recognize her? B: Uh-uh. A: That’s Barbara. B: Barbara? A: Larry’s first wife. B: No way! C: Yep, that’s her. B: Damn. She sure has aged. C: More like “put on 50 pounds.”
PASTOR: So she asked that everyone gather at the graveside, family and friends, and everyone who wanted to could stand up and say one thing about her, good OR bad… C: Aww, that’s sweet. B: No, it ain’t. C: Why not? B:[points] Well, first up is J_____, with A______ in the on-deck circle… A: Shit. We’re gonna be here all day.
A: Your grandma just looooved to talk. B: Yep. So it’s fittin’ how she died: eyes closed, mouth open.
A: When your mama and daddy pass on, what’s your brother gonna do? B: Without.
Today is my sister’s 42nd birthday. For almost all of those 42 years, she has been my absolute best friend—my true “other half.” So, to celebrate her special day and our lifelong bond, I tell you the following story.
For one of her electives at Georgia Tech, Val took an upper-division English course called “The Grotesque in Literature.” It was a fascinating class, and covered a wide range of works, such as The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. The roster was full of intelligent, well-read students. The professor’s lectures and discussions always got everyone thinking and talking in depth about the function of Carnival/the carnivalesque and “the grotesque body” in literature. (That’s all from Mikhail Bahktin. Go look it up on your own; I don’t have time to explain.)
What a dream course. It wounded me not to be able to audit that class, or even sit in on a session. Imagine my joy, then, when Val told me her professor would be giving a Friday afternoon guest lecture at the University of Georgia, where I was completing my senior year.
When the day arrived, Dr. H_____’s lecture was excellent. After it was over, I shook Dr. H_____’s hand and thanked him for his talk. I explained that my sister was in his 4000-level “Grotesque in Lit” course, and that I’d been enjoying the class vicariously through her. He seemed surprised yet happy that at least one student at another college had been following the course through someone enrolled in it.
The next week, Val’s class met again. As the period began, Dr. H_____ told everyone about his Athens trip. “Over the weekend, I gave a guest lecture at UGA. Afterwards, I met Val’s sister, who’s an English major there. And as we talked, all I could think was, ‘My God, Val has possessed this woman’s body, and is speaking to me through her.’ It was like there was one soul in two bodies.”
“One soul in two bodies.” That’s a good way to explain it.
Happy birthday, Bla.
I love you so much—and I always will.
Photo: “Valerie and Rachael with Bo the Dog” (Rock Mills, Alabama – August 1978)
Driving down Georgia Highway 219 to Columbus, I saw the broken, furry heap slumped at the edge of the asphalt, just beyond the white line. It was a long-haired miniature Dachshund. Someone had loved it enough to dress it in a little Christmas sweater.
You could’ve heard my heart shatter from ten miles away.
As the car and I zoomed past, I made plans for the trip home. On my way back to LaGrange, I’d pull over and see if the dog had a collar and tag. That way, I could call its people with the sad news. If not, I’d move the poor little thing off the road, so it wouldn’t get mashed and scattered about by the tires of passing cars and log trucks. That was the least I could do: give a helpless creature the bit of dignity in death that had escaped it in life.
It was almost dark when I returned. I stopped the car on the side of the road, about 75 feet from the pitiful carcass. That was the safest place to park on the curvy, hilly two-lane road. I walked back to where I’d seen the little dog early that morning. The knot in my stomach grew. It always does, when I stop to move dead animals out of the highway.
And there it—wait. What?
Nope, no dead weenie dog in a fancy sweater. Instead, there lay two beautiful ceramic dolls. Both were a little scraped up from the fall onto the pavement, but still in good shape.
I peered down the bank into the ditch. Strewn for maybe 50 yards were all kinds of items: a few household gadgets, some discarded clothing, pieces of children’s toys, a little garbage. All of it, dolls included, must’ve flown unsecured out of the bed of someone’s pickup truck.
Funny what we think we see when we’re moving by at 70 miles per hour.
All I could think of was some little girl—or maybe a not-so-little girl—sick with panic over her missing dolls. I gently picked them up and carried them back to the car. They looked so sad lying there in the passenger seat. But I thought it a shame to leave them lonely and abandoned by the side of the highway.
That was seven years ago.
I never found the dolls’ little girl.
I walked outdoors in the cool air to watch the near-full moon, and wondered how many other people were watching it, too. “No matter what divides us,” I thought as I climbed into the back of the little truck, “this silver light falls on us all, falls on everybody the same way.” Even that which decays by day transmogrifies come night into grotesque, strange beauty.
As I reclined against the corrugated bed, I gazed into the night sky and thought of all the people I know. I thought of the people I know who are traveling, who are coming home, who are working, who are hurting, who are lonely, who are frightened, who don’t know what to do next.
Some live nearby, while many others live far away. Many know I care about them. Others don’t. A few would rather not even think about it. Many I haven’t seen in years; some I’ve never met. Some I won’t see again until I’m on the other side.
How I love them all.
Under the silver light of the moon, I held every one of them close to my heart, and sobbed. I climbed out of the truck bed, and stumbled back indoors.
The contents of this blog are not approved by my employer, nor do they represent my employer's opinions on any subject. The opinions expressed on this blog are mine and mine alone. All names have been changed.