a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
From a distance the heads of elderberries look like egrets floating on the prison pond where cattle come to drink, or did before the Riverkeeper visited once, twice, in this dammed blackwater, into which 10,000 acres of prison-farm drain: acres that feed prisoners across the state, charged with glyphosate aka Roundup, which the World Health Organization now calls a “probable carcinogen” which we know can last 40 years in the soil and which we have also come to understand is associated with Parkinson’s with Alzheimers with autism all of the autoimmune diseases in whose traces we take to our beds. And these acres no different than our fathers’ farms than our neighbors’ farms than the 10,000-acre Roundup-Ready corn & cotton & soybean & canola farms growing more toxic by the day. But on a farmstead down the road where a sign says PLEASE NO SPRAYING where the kids are calling themselves farmers without the combines without the subsidies – the terrible erosion – the chemicals— where bees are buzzing where buckeyes bloom in March when the hummingbirds have always returned to south Georgia although no one can count on that now. Everything changing, Before our eyes changing. where cows rotate through the green pastures, where goats browse upward in the brush, the sheep graze. I in my garden and Joe in his garden and Charlotte in her garden, Julia, Jamila, Rashid, Relinda in their gardens, Joel in his fields and Wendell in his pastures, Vandana in her seed bank. All reaping a different harvest. Planting cowpeas – Red Hull Javie, Collossus, Hercules, Blue Goose, Running Conch, Lady, Zipper Cream, Pinkeye Purplehull… Planting Candyroaster squash, Greenpeace kale, Mortgage Lifter tomato, Gold-striped cushaw, Green Glaze collards, Malabar spinach. They are not planting their grandfather’s corn, his wholly place-adapted, vintage, heirloom, Mom & Pop corn. That’s gone. But Stanley corn, Keener corn, Bloody Butcher corn. Grounded again. Picking the elder flowers that taste so good in pancakes and later the berries themselves, for syrup, for wine. Picking the ramps, the wild onion, sassafras, chickweed, lamb’s-quarters, walnut. With the books open, eyes wide open, hearts open, yes? Speaking a new language: mizuna…Flemish Giant…fermentation…vermiculture…open- pollinated…raw…organic…organic…local organic. They ask the old guy who visits if he’s ever had cracklins. No, he says, but I know they’re cooked in lard. Has he ever tasted collard kraut? Clabber? Moon & Stars? No, he says. Food has been going extinct. Food has been destroying us. It has become nutritionally impotent. It has been harming the earth. It has been annihilating pollinators. : We have allowed industry to feed us. But green is the new black, the backyard the hottest vacation spot. The holes in the atmosphere & those in our brains can heal. Also the holes in our hearts. People who shop at farmers markets are happier, happiest. The farmer—your neighbor, your friend. Everything changing. Before our eyes changing. We’re building soil now, finally building soil: local soil. Local energy, local power, local culture, local means. Building community—look at us, all of us— taking the power back— the political power the power of place the power of the sun the nutritional power the power of people to feed themselves the power of deliciousness the power of beauty… Reclaiming hope vanishing genetics old wisdom and the new the artistry of farming and the nourishment of art You ask will organics feed the world? Will organics heal the world? And I say, again, as always, Nothing. Else. Will. I say, Rev up your awesome. You. Find a place to push. Pick up a tool, a hoe or a shovel. Start turning the compost bin, to make the soil in which the seed will grow. Make art. Live art. Farm art. Go home. Come home. Savor. We are winging into the Ecozoic Everything changing Before our eyes changing. Welcome to the new world.
I was following directions to a place I’d never been. On the phone the man said the road would go through Ocilla, which had not changed in fifty years, and it would cross four bridges, and after the fourth bridge I should turn left. I took the way the man said.
The day was hot and getting hotter. At the edge of Ocilla I saw a heavy woman in a navy blue suit and a large hat coming out of a church, such dark heaviness. Outside town, the road stretched out straight and dull gray, heat shimmering above it. I counted bridges. Two had no signs, and the other two were rivers, Willacoochee and Satilla. After that I turned and drove miles through fields so big they had to be worked by large machinery.
I reached a little ghost town, a line of fallen-down buildings next to a railroad track. That would be Osierfield. I was close. I followed the man’s directions through a field, slowly now, through a pine forest, past a little pond, and into a compound. A large water oak gave off a pool of shade and I crept under it.
The house was painted barn red and surrounded by shrubbery and trees, like a botanical garden. Ropes of bones were tied between some of the trees and a few large peacocks strutted around. A yellow dog came out from somewhere and started barking.
The red door opened and a man – older than my father, but not so old as my grandfather, had my grandfather been alive – came out. He was wearing glasses like Gandhi’s and a big smile.
He floated toward me down the sidewalk through two hedges of boxwood. I rolled down my window.
Just Milton. Get down and see where you’ve got.
I’m the girl who called on the phone.
I suspected that. Get down. Back off, Champ, he said to the dog.
This is a beautiful place, I said. The yellow dog sniffed my tires while I followed the old man up the walk. One of the peacocks had its tail fanned out, long blue and green feathers topped by shimmering, iridescent eyes, shaking among the bones.
He opened the door. That first time, when I passed inside, something strange happened. I took the biggest tumble of my life, because right there beyond that door was the man’s heart. He opened the door and I fell head-first into the biggest heart in the world, big enough to contain a friendship even death could not end.
The nice man with the Ghandi glasses and the big smile helped me pick myself up. I looked around.
This looks like the chambers of a heart, I said. Blood was pumping all over me.
The man smiled. That would be interesting, he said.
Well, it looks like a museum, I said.
People tell me that.
The man’s heart looked like a natural history museum. Everywhere I turned there were feathers and nests and rocks and shells and wood and fossils and points and nuts and seeds and skins and bones and teeth. Almost every inch of the walls were covered with paintings and photographs of plants and animals and wild places, scenes of forests and beaches and mountains. Some of the wild places had people standing in them, smiling.
You want to see the farm? he asked.
I’d love to.
In my dreams, now, the man has cranked the funeral car and backed it out from under the pole barn. Though the car is dusty, cobwebby inside, we are driving it around the farm. We are stopping and getting out to gather things. We collect abandoned bird eggs and the feathers of golden eagles. We take leaves and flowers from plants. We take pictures that the man will frame and hang in the few empty places on the walls. We pick the small ripe fruits of Chickasaw plums.
Once I saw a red-belled woodpecker with a Chickasaw plum in its mouth, the man said.
I hope I live long enough to see things like that, I said.
I smiled at the man. He was watching me more than he watched the old two-path road across the dam, looking for egrets and herons at the edge of the pond.
We were traveling above water.
We were traveling above everything, the old funeral car driving itself along like a ghost at the wheel.
I guess you could say the first time I met Milton, he and I got lost. We started rambling across a field and entered a wood. I remember along the way a marsh. Just when we’d think it was time to turn back, into the people we had been, we’d see a new curiosity ahead. It would be a wild olive, or an extravagant wood duck, which would delight us for a while, until something new lured us on. There would be many visits to come, and plenty of doors to open. Every door opened to amazements and wonders, coral and lava and bird eggs and ancient tools and trilobites, jars of jelly and dried flowers. We tripped through many sunrises and many sunsets, across rivers, until there was no return and all we could do was emerge from the woods at some new place, a place we had never known, and start getting lost all over again.
In many ways being lost is really being found, the same as outside is really inside. We found ourselves inside the world, inside its house of branches, and inside something else.
Among all the things we found, there was one truly amazing thing — a multi-colored, rare amazement made of moss, feathers, and stories. We both saw it at the same time, waiting on a little hump of ground, and we cried out, Look! and ran to it.
Gosh, Milton said.
Wow, I said.
I wasn’t expecting this.
It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
The rare thing was friendship. I had other friends. Milton had friends. But this was something neither of us had known.
From the start a third party was involved in my friendship with Milton, although I didn’t know it at the time.
When he and I explored together, mostly it was just the two of us. Sometimes his friend Frankie would come along, and sometimes my little boy Silas, and sometimes another friend of one or the other. All in all, however, Milton and I were two atoms in a nucleus, and the electrons, further away, zinged into orbit every now and then.
Except there was one electron that was never far away.
I should have looked out now and then. I should have spotted it. I should have seen it when Milton went to buy a coffin from the Mennonites. But they had gone back to Kentucky and he came home without a coffin and maybe it was just as well. My dad says that if you have an empty thing hanging around, it wants to be filled.
Milton lived a long time, but not long enough. Forever would not be long enough for me and Milton.
The day he died I didn’t find out. I was about 1500 miles away. I found out the next morning on the computer. The person wrote, “I know you are an acquaintance of Mr. Hopkins. I wanted to make sure you knew that he died yesterday.”
I ran screaming through the house. I finally caught up with myself down in the basement, huddled on the floor, weeping. From that moment I became hesitant to open computer messages.
After Milton was gone, I understood something I wished I had understood sooner. Because had I understood it, and had I known that perhaps another friend of this caliber would never emerge from the wilds of my life, I would have proceeded differently.
Sure glad you came by to visit. Sure had a good time with you. I’ve been trying to eat up the last of the soup, but without you here it’s just not as good. I guess it’ll wind up going to Champ. Sure hope you come back this way soon.
I’m still trying to figure out where we entered the woods and where we came out. I’m so glad we met. I’ve never been there before.
There is a forever.
One day Milton wanted to show me some woods along Seventeen Mile Creek. How he came to own them, far as they were from the farm, I do not know, nor could I return. I remember a dead-end clay road, a locked gate, an eroded path across somebody else’s land.
Different woods have different greens and browns. The older they are, the purer the green and the deeper the brown. These woods were deeply green and brown, canopies of magnolia and red maple far overhead.
Not everybody knows that there are things to look at in a forest. There are leaves that twist oddly, and strange contortions of branches and trunks, solitary wildflowers, banks of blooms, nests, birds, mushrooms, fungi. The list could go for a long time of possible things to see in the woods along Seventeen Mile Creek, as Milton and I walked along.
We had walked far enough I didn’t know where we were. I couldn’t have gotten out had I wanted to.
Milton was the one who suggested we mark a tree. Neither of us were tree-markers. Milton took out his penknife and began to carve. I took out my knife and helped, first our initials, MH and JR.
It’s indisputable now, I said.
This thing we have.
As long as this tree’s alive, and that could be for 500 years.
So we put a heart around our initials. Then a pair of birds. Then some leaves and flowers, until as far as we could reach the tree was carved with fine lines.
We’d better stop before we kill it, he said.
Now this is forever.
Five hundred years, anyway.
Of course, later, after Milton was dead, I wanted to go back and find the tree. But I can’t. I can’t get to the right creek, or the right road, or the right property. I could search for years in vain. I hope the magnolia is living, deep in the woods along Seventeen Mile Creek.
May it live forever.
What Milton taught me was the story of my place. Not the histories of settlement nor the records of genealogy, but the story of what the land had been, inside the wild world. He taught me the names of plants and birds and mollusks. He taught me how things fit together, how evolution fit them together, and how, because these relationships were so ancient and so perfect, they were divine and miraculous. Hummingbirds use spider webs to glue their lichen nests together.
Everywhere we went, tablets dropped from the sky and on them were written marvels.
Another way of looking at it is to say that for Milton and me, the forest was huge, we two lifelike action figures, one a woman with big feet and long dark hair, and the other a gray-haired man with horn glasses, both with permanent smiles. The trees were impossible tall, the pitcher plants gigantic. One aster we could barely lift. To cut a bouquet of them we would need a chainsaw. We were tiny and insignificant among it all. It was bigger than we could ever be.
Yet there was less and less of it. As it became scarce, as the years passed, we got more single-minded about seeing it, finding it, documenting it, naming it. All around us in our place, the south of Georgia, was constant cutting, log trucks on the highways, piles of branches burning. The old forests were being taken down and replanted in rows. The new trees were not more than five and ten years old, twenty, twenty-five. They did not have long to live, and they knew it, with cruisers roaming the roads, with the country devouring paper.
Milton and I had to go deeper and deeper to find what we were looking for.
But all that would be the months and years to come.
That first time I got in my little truck to go home, in the opposite direction from the place I found Milton’s heart, I could barely squeeze in all the gifts, and almost all of them said “home.” He gave me shapely bottles of cane syrup and bags of peanuts in the hull and jars of mayhaw jelly and bags of corn meal and bags of grits. I always left with my arms full.
He gave me kumquats and pomegranates, blueberries and strawberries. He gave books and postcards, old coins and stamps. He gave bird houses and wind vanes. He made walking sticks and gave them away. He gave away long, draping, brilliant peacock feathers and yellow-shafted flicker feathers. He gave hams and fruitcakes and chocolate-covered cherries.
When a body gives so much away, the natural tendency of the world is to refill their vessel. So his heart kept pumping blood until it didn’t.
You come back anytime, he said, and touched his chest.
You bet, I said.
It wasn’t long. But really, I never left. Who would, once you find a heart like that?
Janisse Ray is a writer, naturalist, and activist, and is author of five books of literary nonfiction, including the acclaimed Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and a collection of eco-poetry. Her most recent book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, looks at the decline and resurrection of heirloom seeds. The book won many awards and has been translated into French and Turkish. In 2014 Ray was awarded an honorary doctorate from LaGrange College, following one from Unity College in 2007. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana, where she was the William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer 2014. She is a 2015 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. At home in southern Georgia, Ray lives on an organic farm with her husband and daughter and is very active in her local community.