For the last eight years, I’ve lived on a farm in rural Alabama.
In the movies, when city people arrive in the country, all kinds of funny, wacky things happen.
The other Hollywood default, of course, is best typified by John Boorman’s film of James Dickey’s tremendous 1970 novel, Deliverance. (Dickey’s cameo as a redneck lawman is superb. Watch for it near the end of the movie.)
Before I became a resident of Coburn Mountain, it was college towns and big cities. Culture and nightlife were always around the corner, or a short drive away. As a writer and musician, I never had to look far for work or inspiration.
More importantly, wherever I went I made new friends. I enjoyed the estimable pleasures of belonging to a community of people who also appreciated the thrill of walking the thin line between soul-crushing poverty and bohemian splendor.
It took me a while to figure out how to be happy here on the farm. I might as well have parachuted into the Amazon basin.
When you’re used to living life at a certain tempo and volume, peace and quiet can be disorienting, daunting. Complete solitude requires a kind of mental toughness I’d never had to cultivate.
After a year on the mountain, I was ready to leave. I’d always wanted to live in New Orleans, and my NOLA friends made sure I knew the welcome mat was out.
So one sunny weekend in August of 2005, I loaded up about half of my worldly possessions and delivered them to the Uptown apartment of an ex-girlfriend, who had graciously offered me a place to stay during the transition.
I returned to the farm to finish packing. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt like I’d already pulled the trigger. I was doing something I’d done a dozen times before, picking up, moving on. C’est la vie. Despite New Orleans’ semi-deserved rep as a cruel banana republic, I knew I’d find a way to make it there.
The week before I planned to depart, I caught a weather report on TV about a hurricane forming over the Bahamas. It was tracking toward the Gulf of Mexico.
“How about that,” I thought.
In my family, I was the lucky one. The costliest natural disaster in American history flooded my parents’ home in Gulfport, Miss. Houses on the next block were completely swept away.
In nearby Long Beach, my youngest brother’s family lost their home and nearly everything they owned. Two months later, I drove down to the coast to help Randall reclaim a few undamaged items from my parents’ house.
Randall had returned immediately to the coast with his wife, Robin, a medical professional. While Randall spent his days clearing yards and streets with a chainsaw, Robin nursed survivors on the grounds of her ravaged hospital.
The devastation was surreal. I kept trying to verbalize what I was seeing, but these sentence fragments trailed off into silence.
Finally, Randall fixed me with a look of grim resignation I will never forget.
“God’s Weed Eater,” he said. The subject was closed.
Ninety miles north of the coast, in Petal, Miss., Katrina sent a tree through the roof of my brother Mark’s house.
My sister’s neighborhood in Jackson was hammered by the storm. Jane and her neighbors were without electricity for weeks in the sweltering September heat.
I watched it all unfold on television. My books and belongings in New Orleans didn’t even get wet.
The day after the hurricane passed, sickened by the images that were growing more horrendous by the hour, I went outside and cranked up the mower.
It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky.
As I worked, I thought about my family. Fortunately, my parents, both retired, had been spending the summer at the farm.
Mark’s Army National Guard unit had been activated. He was somewhere on the coast, dealing with the worst of the aftermath. Like Randall and Robin, he worked selflessly for months to help restore order and bring comfort to the victims.
His wife and daughter, along with Randall’s family, had ridden out the hurricane in Petal. I wouldn’t hear their terrifying story for several days. Cell-phone service was spotty. The few remaining towers were overloaded.
Randall, Robin and their two girls were soon making their way to the farm, but gas was scarce and the roads were a mess.
It was a scary time, but everyone was alive. My family was safe. My own future seemed inconsequential in light of what had just happened to the people I love the most in this world.
My eyes burned behind my sunglasses. My New Orleans dream was over before it began, but I sure as hell wasn’t crying for myself. Half-blinded by tears of relief and sorrow, I kept cutting.
A year later, I was still here. On a whim, I took a job as staff writer for a local newspaper. That adventure lasted for three years, and, in a strange, roundabout way, probably saved my life.
Many more seasons would pass before the farm began to feel like home, before I sensed the attachment I now feel in the core of my being.
It’s planting time. The varmints, canine and feline, are fat and happy. I could stand to lose a few pounds myself.
Sometimes I miss city life, sure. Every day I miss the friends I left behind. When I can, I hit the road for a few days, revisit my old stomping grounds. Seeing those beautiful faces is almost more joy than I can handle.
“You seem different,” they say. “You must be in love.”
Nope. Romance is dandy, but Cupid hasn’t been aiming at me lately.
What is it, then?
It’s spring sunlight shooting through bright-green leaves.
It’s the often-inscrutable procession of inviolable, miraculous moments, the thing we so unimaginatively refer to as life.
What they’re seeing is the aura of a man who was once in despair and didn’t even know it, who was redeemed by …
Well, I call it grace.
It doesn’t matter what you call it. It doesn’t need a name.
It’s so much bigger than that.
B2L2 contributor John Hicks tills the soil and plays in two kick-ass bands. Stop by chetscowboylounge on Facebook anytime. Bring your marbles.
Pure soul. I needed this.
Thin Line between Love and Hate
It’s nearly impossible to describe the macro-horror of Katrina. Destruction, despair, agony, racism, poverty. It was about a 7 on the Alighieri scale. The “new south” threw up on itself, and it got everywhere. As bad as things were for my family, they were much, much worse for others, especially if you had the misfortune to NOT be white and/or middle class or better. And there are many worse things that can happen to a family than losing your home or even your town: we do have our health, knock on wood. Still, for us Katrina was the time that the world unzipped, releasing torrents of destruction and making eternal liars of all us parents: we told our kids, “Everything will be OK.” We knew things wouldn’t be OK for a long, long time. My “generation,” whatever that is, had nothing to compare the Diaspora and heartache that followed. Things sucked for a very long time after Katrina, and it probably has taken a few years off the life of anyone who lived through it. Things are still not OK down here, but they are creeping closer with every year. It sucks much less now, and we have new restaurants.
Places we love can turn on us: whether it’s a natural disaster, a nest of yellow jackets, or the stupid cruelty of stifling small town. These places can also enchant us. Find a home, and love it. Make it better when you can, and know that things can and will go sideways. There’s always a “black crab feeding” somewhere, but don’t miss the lavender dove nesting in your back yard. Beautiful piece/peace John…Thank you.
Thank you for the excellent assist, Mr. Chalmers. A perfect postscript.