I’ve just harvested 250 bushels of corn, Bob tells me. I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a gigantic red combine with Bob Neel, CEO of Aubrey Corporation, which owns half of Georgia’s Pine Log Mountain and leases 14,134 acres to the Department of Natural Resources as a Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Aubrey Corporation grows hundreds of acres of corn and cotton at Pine Log and near the Etowah River in Kingston. Bob is the CEO, but he still harvests his own crops.
The combine is two stories tall and two normal vehicles long. You have to climb a ladder on the side to get in. In the front there are eight large prongs that look like upside down canoes. As we approach each corn field, Bob aims the upside down canoes into the spaces between the rows, forcing the corn into the giant blades that pluck and shred the stalks, sending the corn into a storage compartment in the back. Each time it fills, we drive over to a shipping container and a giant hose spits out a cascade of corn.
This is the first time I’ve met Bob, who is a reedy and handsome man, as athletic 68, with a sardonic wit and a distrust of college professors. There is something Clint Eastwood-ish about him, as if he is waiting for me to say or do something stupid and make his day. It’s clear that he prides himself on being a no-bullshit kind of guy.
He won’t let me write anything down and at one point asks me pointblank if I am recording him.
“No,” I protest. He shifts his sunglasses and peers at me with penetrating blue eyes, always the skeptic.
“I’ve got a good memory, though,” I say. I can spar, I can hold my own. My curiosity outweighs my shyness.
“You’re not going to portray us as a bunch of ignorant hillbillies, are you?” he asks. “People look down on farmers.”
“I don’t,” I say. “Why do you think we just bought a 15-acre farm?”
That seems to satisfy him. He knows my neighbors Jim and Cathy, who sold me and my husband the farm we bought this summer. He and Jim are both part of the Euharlee Farmers Club, the oldest and most prestigious institution in Bartow County. Jim vouching for me is probably the only reason Bob has agreed to let me interview him about the history of Pine Log Mountain.
When I first called him, he said I could only interview him if I was willing to ride around on the combine with him while he harvested corn. This worked for me. I’ve never been on a combine, and I’m trying to learn more about farming.
He gave me directions that involved a one-way bridge, a gate, and a long dirt road. I found what I thought was the right dirt road, but I wasn’t completely sure. I’d seen this gate into the WMA before and always wanted to go up this side of the mountain, but the gate was always closed, and it was too deserted to walk in there alone. This time it was open.
I found myself driving down a rutted road through the woods in my Honda CRV with the tires that should have been replaced 20,000 miles ago. He hadn’t said exactly how far. After a mile or so, I passed a corn field but didn’t see anyone and kept driving. I realized I was starting to drive up the mountain, the road getting rougher and rougher. When I got to a narrow strait between two walls of hacked-out rock, I decided I had gone too far. I called Bob, who laughed and said he had heard me driving past 10 minutes ago. He was down by the cornfields.
I knew that this was his world. He was the gatekeeper and I was the gatecrasher. The world of female college professors and the world of men who drive combines don’t often intersect. I understood his protectiveness. He has hunters in there all the time during hunting season, although usually not in this part of the WMA. But they are only here to kill a few deer or wild boars or turkeys. I was here to pry about his family history and in his eyes probably had an agenda.
Before we climb into the combine, we walk out into the stubbly fields already plucked clean by the combine. “What do you see here?” he asks me, waving his hand to encompass the vista, a challenge in his voice.
“Fields of corn, Pine Log and Little Pine Log Mountain in the background,” I say, a little nervous. I’ve been trying to learn to read a landscape, to observe the lay of the land firsthand and with curiosity.
“These fields used to be tailing ponds,” he tells me. “When I was a kid, my Dad made me come out here and clear the rock, get the fields ready to plant.”
Tailing ponds, he explains, are where the impurities end up after iron ore is washed. The mining company that dug up this side of the mountain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century diverted the creek that runs off the mountain here to hose off the rock and separate the heavier iron from the lighter dross. Much later, Bob was the one who had to clear out the unwanted rock.
The iron mines are one of the things I am here to ask him about. Near the Stamp Creek entrance to the Wildlife Management Area, there are massive stone furnaces where iron was smelted for tools before the Civil War, and then for armaments during the Civil War.
I knew there were also mines here on the north end of Little Pine Log, worked well into the twentieth century, but I don’t know much about them.
Before we climb into the combine, Bob stoops down and picks up a handful of soil, sifts it through his fingers. “It’s Georgia red clay,” he says. “It was a lot of work to clear out the tailings, but look at it now. It’s good soil.”
I start to understand his hard edges. He’d been on his hands and knees in this dirt. Even now, as a CEO, he is bringing in his own harvest. He probably thinks I’ve never done a day of manual labor in my life, and he’s not wrong.
After we climb up the ladder into the combine, him sarcastically asking me if I can climb a ladder, he warms up a bit. As we weave in and out of the rows of corn, he starts to tell me about what I am here to learn.
This side of Little Pine Log was known as Sugar Hill, he explains. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an entire town of Sugar Hill, with miners’ cottages, a store, a blacksmith shop, a hotel, and for some years a barracks for the convicts who worked the mine.
I ask him if he has any stories about the convict labor camp. The mining companies leased convicts from the state of Georgia to work the mines, part of Georgia’s notoriously brutal and corrupt convict least system, long before Bob’s family acquired the property. But when he was growing up he heard stories from older folks who remembered those times.
He tells me that legend has it that Hanging Mountain, the mountain between Pine Log and Little Pine Log, was called Hanging Mountain because they hung misbehaving convicts at the summit. The side of Hanging Mountain has a steep, almost vertical, grade, he tells me, and they made all of the convicts climb it as a punishment, and sometimes hung one as an example to the others. He says he has no idea if this legend is actually true.
I’ve been researching the convict labor camp and it is difficult to find information, but the Atlanta Constitution archives have turned out to be a treasure trove on this topic. From the articles I have found, they worked both white and black convicts here between 1874-1909. The conditions were so brutal that a number of convicts died here under suspicious circumstances, and the state investigated the mines several times and ordered them shut down.
I found a newspaper article from 1899 about five convicts who escaped from the Sugar Hill Mines. They fell upon the guards with a poker, knocked them senseless, and fled into the woods. Only one of them was caught.
In 1909, Georgia changed the convict lease system to the chain gang system, which meant that convicts only worked for the counties on municipal projects like road building, rather than being rented out to private businesses as cheap labor. An article from the Atlanta Constitution on April 1, 1909 notes that 74 convicts were transferred from the Sugar Hill mines in Bartow to county work gangs throughout the state.
This side of Little Pine Log is also known as Poorhouse Ridge because the county poorhouse was also in this area. Later, it was turned into Hickory Log School, a home and training center for mentally challenged men, which it still is. Again, no one remembers that the poorhouse was ever there, and most people probably don’t know that the group home is there. Bob tells me there is still an overgrown poorhouse cemetery behind the building, all the graves unmarked. Right next door, the enormous Toyo tire factory spews a toxic rubber smell.
It strikes me that Pine Log was where Bartow County sent its misfits. A dumping ground for the unwanted, where people could disappear, swallowed up by the mountain.
Even when he was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Bob tells me, this place was “an industrial wasteland.” There were no trees on this side of the mountain. There were giant craters where the mines had been, 50 feet deep and the length of football fields. Some were filled with water, others dried out, like the tailings ponds he cleared for fields.
There were also the remains of a railroad. The Iron Belt Railroad, a single gauge railroad, started at the top of Little Pine Log and wound its way through the complex of mines and the processing center, and on to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad that parallels 411. The railroad bed is still there now, but the rails and ties are all gone.
When he was growing up, it was a Rustbelt, Bob tells me. “What I most want people to know,” he explains, “is how much better it is now. How much the mountain has recovered.”
I am here because I crave the mountain’s secrets, the mountain’s stories.
You could say that I’m a different kind of miner, digging into the past. Or maybe I’m a taproot, burrowing deeper and deeper until I find the sustenance I need.
Dirt, rocks and history – ugly but real. This mountain doesn’t belong to me, but maybe I belong to it. If I can know it and tell its stories, I am rooted in a place in a way I’ve never been before.
Most of my life I’ve lived in subdivisions. But when my house burned down in 2012, I discovered how flimsy and ungrounded my life was.
All of our subdivisions are like a carnival put down in an open field. The McMansions seem so heavy, but they are anchored by so little. Brought in as truckloads of faux stucco and hardiplank and sheetrock and granite countertops and sinks and toilets. Like the fairy godmother waved her wand and Cinderella’s pumpkin became a stagecoach. But the whole thing feels fake, like a set for a play. Not even three-dimensional. Such a thin layer in the palimpsest of history. In tree circles or core samples, negligible.
A drought can turn the pampered green lawns brown. A tornado can pulverize a McMansion in an instant. So can an addiction, or a divorce, or a fire.
When my own personal bubble burst, I didn’t want a new bubble. I wanted to know where I live. Like most people, I have my rut, my comfort zone: the highways I speed down at 80 mph, the same route very day. The inside of my office, my car, my house, my grocery store. My own historical moment, in which my day-to-day drama, and the culture’s day-to-day drama, loom huge.
When my walls came tumbling down, I wanted a different relationship to place. I wanted to know where I lived in a way that did not just skim the surface. I wanted to be anchored and rooted in the physical world and in the truth, however terrible and however beautiful.
I wanted to know who lived here, what happened here. Where my water comes from, where my electricity comes from, where my food comes from.
When I first moved to Atlanta from the D.C. area in 1997, I was stunned to find that Atlanta was a homogenized megalopolis of stripmalls, chain restaurants, clearcut subdivisions, megachurches, eight lane freeways, and Atlanta traffic. Almost everything had been built in the past 20 years.
I was a product of the accentless non-region of the D.C. suburbs. I’d grown up hearing the roar of the Beltway from my pink bedroom in my parents’ upscale white brick colonial in McLean. Almost no one who I grew up with was from there, including my own parents, who were from Boston. I had no roots, no attachment to that place. My father and most of my friends’ parents worked for the government. Everyone I knew came from privilege and went to elite colleges. There is no bubble quite as arrogant and impermeable as the D.C. bubble. It’s portable, it goes with you everywhere you go.
I studied at three iconic Southern institutions — William and Mary, UNC Chapel Hill and the University of Virginia — but I was no more Southern than my Irish immigrant great-grandparents who came over on the boat in the early 1900s.
When I moved to Atlanta, I had a fuzzy collage of Southern stereotypes in my head, some positive and some negative. Gone with the Wind and Strom Thurmond, plantation kitsch and fire houses knocking down Civil Rights protestors. I was surprised to find out that just like in the suburbs of D.C. where I grew up, most people who live in metro Atlanta now are not from here. Only about half of the inhabitants of metro Atlanta are originally from Georgia. Another 20% are from other southern states, and 30% are not from the South at all.
I am one of the outsiders.
Atlanta began to explode as a Sunbelt city in the 1990s, and I was a part of that influx, taking a job at Reinhardt University in 1997. Between 2000 and 2013, over a million people moved to the Atlanta metropolitan area, bringing the population to 5.5 million. In 1980 it was 2.5 million. I-75 grew from a two-lane dirt road to a twelve-lane parking lot. Now they’ve built a double-decker highway adjacent to the first highway, because they ran out of room to add more lanes. Small mountains were leveled to build Town Center Mall. Most metro Atlantans live in vast flat tracts of McMansions and drive down I-75 every day, honking their horns in road rage. With each year, the suburbs spread: Marietta, Kennesaw, Woodstock, Sixes Road, Canton. Treeless acres of identical houses spawned by the roaring Atlanta economy.
Where we are now on Pine Log Mountain is at the northern outskirts of the sprawl, in danger of being overtaken by it. Bob’s land abuts Route 20 between Canton and Cartersville, and there’s long been a movement to expand 20 into a Northern Perimeter.
Until recently, I’ve lived like most people in metro Atlanta, the parameters of my life the interstates, subdivisions, Publix and Home Depot and Target and Starbucks.
There is little memory of actual history in metro Atlanta, but everything is named for a fake, idealized and sanitized version of history. I used to live in Lake Arrowhead, named for the Native Americans who lived here before the Trail of Tears exiled them to Oklahoma. We don’t remember what road they took, but we live on Thunder Hawk Loop, Broken Arrow Court, Running Deer Lane. We name streets for the things we’ve killed or driven away. Nearby, Fort Buffington was a “relocation center” for displaced Cherokee. Now it’s an elementary school.
I lived for a while in a neighborhood called Windsong, nestled amidst dozens of other subdivisions with neo-pastoral names like Brookstone and Heatherbrooke. The names of some neighborhoods hint wistfully at a Gone with the Wind era nostalgia, like Pickett’s Plantation. Some have names that refer to Civil War battles, like Pickett’s Mill, but no one remembers either the mill or the battle.
The streets in Windsong all had Scottish names, like Aberdeen Place and Highlander Way. This seems incongruous for the American South, but it fits with the lost world theme. It evokes images of men in kilts, Mel Gibson with long unkempt hair, battling it out across the moors, Jessica Lange in a long dress, tending the fire and pining for her wandering warrior. A Walter Scott novel, Rob Roy or Ivanhoe or Waverley. Subdivision names use words that haven’t been used since nineteenth century literature, like dell and glen and dale and glade and trace. Words that connote aristocracy, like manor, chase and heights.
Since ancient Greece, aristocrats have been indulging in pastoral fantasies, imagining and envying innocent shepherds living in harmony with nature. Always leaving out the mud and sheep shit and slaughtering time, the lice and hovels and hunger. We have no connection to place, but we want to, so we create an amusement park version of nature and history.
The dells and glades and glens of subdivision names are a pastoral fantasy – pre-industrial bliss. In recent decades, Native Americans have become the new shepherd, the Noble Savage redux. In the South, there is also a plantation fantasy based on a way of life that existed only for a handful of people and only at the expense of the slavery of millions of others.
Whether the fantasy is European or Native American or plantation, it is problematic. There was no pure time or pure place. The South has a particular set of traumas and injustices to reckon with. In North Georgia, it’s not only slavery and the Civil War, it’s the displacement of the Cherokee in the Trail of Tears. But it doesn’t matter what culture you choose, European or Native American or African or Asian, if you go back far enough (and often not very far at all) you find them doing reprehensible things: stoning adulteresses or lynching innocent men or cutting off the hands of thieves or enslaving their enemies or leaving twins in the forest to die or burning witches at the stake. You can’t go home again, and if you could you wouldn’t like what you would find.
I have to fight my own tendency to idealize the past, especially the Cherokee who lived here. Nothing that happened on this mountain was pastoral. The Cherokee and their predecessors, the pioneers who displaced them, the miners, the convicts and the poorhouse occupants, none of them had it easy. All of them had to survive by hunting, by making the rocky ground yield, or by hacking at iron ore to earn a subsistence diet of fatback and sorghum.
If you want to walk off the grid, as I have wanted to since my house burned down – my own personal grid having collapsed around me – how do you encounter nature and history without imposing on them a pre-determined narrative? Either a pastoral fantasy that everything was beautiful and perfect, or a Marxist narrative in which everyone fits easily into a category of oppressor or oppressed? Is it possible to encounter nature and history, specifically for me the nature and history of the South, by perceiving it firsthand, touching it, talking to people, telling their stories? Seeking rootedness by knowing a place as it is, whether it is the scars of mining cuts or the first bloodroot that blooms by the creek in spring?
Bob and I have dumped our first load of corn and come back to clear out another section of rows.
“Do you think things are better or worse today than a hundred years ago?”
“In what way?” he asks.
“However you choose to interpret the question.”
“Better in some ways,” he says. He waves his hand at the fields all around us. “Look how much corn we can harvest in just a few hours. But worse in others. I’m not sure anyone is happy.”
“Maybe easier doesn’t mean happier.”
“Only a few people even know how to grow food or preserve it. If anything ever happens, I don’t know how people would survive.”
“They wouldn’t,” I say. “I wouldn’t. Do you know anything about the Native Americans who lived on Pine Log?”
“I’m a Native American,” he says.
“You are?” I say, delighted at this unexpected development. “Cherokee?”
“No,” he says, and I catch his eye roll past the edges of his sunglasses. “I was born here, so I’m a Native American.”
“Ha ha,” I say, “I get it. But seriously, do you know anything about the Indian ruins at the top of Little Pine Log?”
“You mean that snake-infested rock wall?” he asks. “I had a guy try to convince me it was a portal for interstellar space travel. I asked him, if they had the technology to travel through space, why would they spend their time piling up a bunch of stones to make a wall?”
“Good point,” I say.
“Sometimes I think about bulldozing that whole thing just so people will stop asking me about it. These idiots drive me crazy.”
“Please don’t do that,” I say. “You need to get an archaeologist out there.”
“Hmmph. Maybe. But nobody knows anything about the Indians before the Cherokee. All the oral legends are lost. History is told by the victors.”
“That’s why I’m talking to you,” I say. “If I don’t write all this stuff down, it will all be forgotten.”
“Some things are better off forgotten.” He looks off into the distance, and I think there is more to that statement than he is telling me. I also think he doesn’t really agree with himself, or he wouldn’t be talking to me at all.
“I have a friend who thinks the Sixes Cherokee came across this mountain on the Trail of Tears,” I say.
“No way,” he says. “Why would they climb a mountain when they could go around?”
“You’re probably right,” I say. “But I want to know which way they went. It seems important to remember.”
“You know, they weren’t perfect either. They had wars and slaves. People are always trying to judge the past by today’s standards.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m trying to write about the past without either idealizing or demonizing it. I don’t have an agenda.”
He snorts. “Everyone has an agenda. There’s no such thing as being unbiased.”
“I guess my agenda is just preservation, of both nature and history. I don’t want to see the mountain developed. Did you know that Lake Arrowhead at one time cut roads up the mountain for houses? They never built them and the roads used to be overgrown. But I was up there last month and they’ve cleaned it all up. I’m afraid they’re getting ready to put houses up there.”
He snorts again. “You can bet they will.”
I lived in Lake Arrowhead for 12 years, until my house on Thunder Hawk Loop burned in 2012. Lake Arrowhead’s property meets Bob’s property at the summit. He owns the west side of Pine Log and the surrounding mountains, and Arrowhead owns the east side. Lake Arrowhead was built in the 1970s as a kind of nature-loving hippie neighborhood. The developers formed a lake by damming the creeks that come off the mountain. It never quite took off even after they built a golf course and clubhouse and tried to market it to retirees. But in recent years new owners have been successful in selling expensive active-adult type houses.
When they built the lake, they flooded a small community called Lost Town. Yet another ghost town in the mountain’s shadow, this one submerged. The road into Lake Arrowhead is called Little Refuge Road, and I’ve always wondered where the names came from, whether it was the Cherokee who lived here before the Trail of Tears or later settlers.
Long before the fire, I started to hike off-trail up the mountain. I knew there were forgotten roadbeds and a rickety fire tower at the summit. I knew where there were ruins of stills by the creeks. I knew there was a section the developers had paved and then given up on. Their failure gave me great satisfaction.
Long before the fire, I’d looked at the census records of 1835 and learned the names of the Cherokee in Lost Town: Old Sitting Down, Dreadful Water, Arch, Chicken, Rising Fawn.
The mountain was already haunted for me, but not in a frightening way. I felt safer there than at the mall. Whoever had lived there, Native American or settler, had loved the trees and the creeks as much as I did.
After the fire, I had a new affinity for ruins. I understood scorched earth and exile. The beauty was still a comfort to me, but I felt more of a need to know the stories of the people who lived there, the traumas they had experienced.
Ironically, one of the things I discovered when I started to research Pine Log Mountain was that it had long been plagued by fires. Reading newspapers from the 1930s, I learned that the Civilian Conservation Corps built the fire tower at the top of the mountain in 1938, and they even ran a phone line up the mountain, so that a ranger could sit up there and watch out for fires.
The fires were caused by careless hunters and by farmers trying to burn out the boll weevils that were devastating their cotton fields. When I mentioned the fires to Bob, he told me that farmers often set fires to clear land for grazing. The new growth after a fire was good forage for cattle.
The fires, in addition to the mines, were part of the reason that sections of Pine Log were largely deforested from the 1840s until well into Bob’s lifetime.
There are more trees now than since the Cherokee were forced out in 1838.
I ask Bob to show me where the town of Sugar Hill was, and we traipse into the woods past the corn fields. We come upon a series of brick foundations and chimneys, a few buckets and barrel hoop. ”This is it,” he says. “All that’s left.”
I stop to take pictures of the piles of bricks and the one intact chimney that stands guard over the ruins, the one remaining testament that this ghost town was here.
“I think the chimneys might have been where the hotel was. I’m guessing that’s where the ‘entertainment’ for the miners was.” Bob looks at me askance from behind the sunglasses to see if I get the innuendo.
“Never thought of that,” I say.
When he was a kid, he says, his Dad used to send him out here to gather up the bricks.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because my Dad told me to,” he says. I understand this from both my husband and my father’s tales about their own fathers. Those World War II era fathers were hard men, and they wanted to make their sons into hard men, and did.
“They didn’t waste anything back then,” he says. “Everything was reused.” He points to a demolished pile of bricks. “I think that’s one of the ones I took apart.”
“Did you roam this mountain as a kid?” I ask him.
“I know every inch, every holler, of these mountains,” he says. His voice is flat, no joy. It’s as if he has permanently disowned the kid he was, the kid who got to do that.
“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” he says, and I get the first hint of a sparkle in his voice. “How do you know where to find a still? I’m testing you, again,” he says, but there is warmth this time in his teasing.
“By a creek,” I say, glad that I know at least that much from my wanderings around the mountain.
“Look at a map,” he says, “and wherever there is a holler and creek where the corners of four lots come together, that’s where you’ll find a still.”
I understand what he means about the lots and the corners. He is referring to the Georgia land lottery grid, the perfectly square, numbered lots used to designate property lines in North Georgia to this day. When the state of Georgia removed the Cherokee, they surveyed and numbered the lots, put slips of paper, some with the numbers and some blank, in a big barrel, and let settlers draw. The “fortunate drawers” were given title to a numbered lot. On the deed to my own house, the property is still designated as Section Three, District Five, Lot 256.
“Why at the corner?” I ask.
“Ah ha,” he says triumphantly. “You don’t know, do you? It’s because it’s impossible to say whose property it is on. They have a three out of four chance of getting it wrong. It’s almost impossible to prosecute.”
“Can I write that down?” I ask him. And I don’t do it right then, but it’s the first thing I write down later when I get to my car. People in North Georgia are still very tightlipped when it comes to moonshine. I’ve just been told a trick of the trade.
“So why is Aubrey Corporation called that?” I ask him as we walk past the ruins and up the hill to where the mining cuts start.
“You sure are nosy,” he says, again peering at me above the sunglasses he has pushed down on his nose.
“Yes, when I told my neighbor Jim I’m writing about all of this old stuff, he told me I wasn’t a writer, I was just a good old-fashioned snoop.”
“Good for Jim,” he says. “He’s exactly right.” He laughs, nods his head.
“I know,” I say. “But here I am. Why Aubrey?”
“Don’t you know who William Aubrey was? This is the book you should write.”
Aubrey, he tells me, was born in Wales, immigrated to American and ended up in Alabama and then Texas, where he helped found the town of Corpus Christi and sided with the Mexicans in the Mexican American War, a protégé of General Santa Anna. On the wrong side of that war, Aubrey ended up in Baltimore, where he made a fortune in the shipping industry, much of which he invested and lost in the Confederacy. After the Civil War, Aubrey settled right here in Bartow County, made a new fortune as a crony of Governor Joe Brown, married Governor John Forsyth’s daughter, and took over the iron mines that had been destroyed by Sherman’s march.
An entire town called Aubrey was also formed on this side of Pine Log, just a few miles from where we stood at Sugar Hill. This town also had houses, a hotel, and a company store. Workers were paid in scrip. It turned out that the mines at the south end of Little Pine Log also contained manganese, which became increasingly valuable in the twentieth century as an alloy of steel, especially for defense manufacturing.
In the 1930s, Bob’s father acquired the land that had formerly been Aubrey’s, and he mined manganese here for the war effort during World War II. Only when more plentiful manganese deposits were found in Minnesota did Bob’s father turn from mining to agriculture.
“I didn’t even know there was a town of Aubrey,” I tell him. “I guess there are two ghost towns out here in the woods.”
“I was born in Aubrey,” he tells me, “in the old mining overseer’s house. There are still some houses there. You can see the chimney of the old Aubrey hotel from 411.”
Bob’s story is the opposite of mine. He was born at the foot of this mountain, and although he left for a number of years and worked as a geologist, he is back here now managing his family’s property, bringing in the crops.
I am more typical of most Americans today. My great-grandparents emigrated from Ireland to Boston, my parents moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., and I moved from D.C. to Georgia. There is no family land. I lived in my house in Lake Arrowhead, the one that burned, for twelve years, and that is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.
There is freedom in not being bound to a particular place. I am not determined by my family’s identity. I can go anywhere and see the world, and I have.
Ironically, though, with infinite possibilities, infinite mobility, we still create bubbles for ourselves as limiting as those of any place-bound person of the past, maybe more so, because we don’t even know the land beneath our feet. If clean water, electricity and food ceased to be delivered to us, we would die. We don’t even know how our cars work or our furnaces or our plumbing.
After the fire, I understood that I’d lived on the flimsy top layer of the world. How fragile that layer was, and how unreal. For me especially, because not only had I grown up in the D.C. bubble, but as an academic I’ve lived in the ivory tower. Safe spaces. I’ve lived in neighborhoods insulated from crime or ugliness or hunger or suffering, or any awareness of how those things had happened in the past, to people who lived right where I live. Lake Arrowhead is a gated community. They keep the riff raff out.
After the fire I realized that there was no safe space, and I wanted to know how other people had suffered. There is no safe space in history, and there are not a lot of safe spaces in nature. Safety is a very recent illusion.
It’s not just keeping the riff raff out of gated subdivisions. We don’t even want to know the riff raff of history. Try to find out about the poorhouse or the asylum or the convict laborers or the slaves who lived where you live. History is also a gated community. I understand why. Not only is history written by the victors, people do not want to be blamed for the sins of their ancestors, nor should they be. If we all had to answer for everything that our ancestors had done, from our parents on back, we’d all be convicted in that tribunal.
At the same time, denial and erasure bother me deeply. We pave over nature and history without a second thought, are content to forget, to live in Heatherbrooke and Brookstone and Pickett’s Mill and Lake Arrowhead.
Since the Romantic era, people like me have bemoaned culture’s disconnect from nature and advocated a return to the land. Writers since the early 1800s have criticized urbanization, industrialization, and the dehumanizing effects of technology. These antimodernist tendencies have fueled pastoral fantasies all the way up to the hippies of the 1960s and contemporary environmentalists like me. They’ve also sometimes fueled regressive political agendas. There is a danger in nostalgia for the good old days, which were only good for certain groups of people.
I see the pitfalls of an antimodernist stance. But in our historical moment there is also a pitfall in the technology we have created. In the 21st century, digital technology allows for a greater and greater disconnect from the physical world, especially in America, where the physical labor of growing food and making objects is almost completely outsourced, whether to an internal despised working class or to a global unseen working class.
We are coming untethered from the physical world. Our walls are screens, our screens are walls. We see what we project and take it for real. Taking shadows on the walls for the thing itself. Taking Heatherbrooke and Brookstone for nature.
What would it mean to be like Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show, when he realizes that his whole life has taken place on a TV set and decides to walk off the set and see what is out there? To physically leave the comfort zone, go off-subdivision, off-highway, off-road? Into the woods, into the fields, into a different neighborhood?
It strikes me that D.C.’s Beltway and Atlanta’s Perimeter (or the Northern Perimeter they want to put near Pine Log) are metaphors for the circular and closed systems in which we live. I want to go down a road that I don’t already know the end of.
Down to earth. My husband Doug and I are living out a bit of a pastoral fantasy in buying the old farmhouse and 15 acres from our neighbors Jim and Cathy, so that we can try our hand at growing things. Doug grew up growing vegetables and raising chickens, so he’s not as ignorant as I am. I’ve only ever grown flowers and a few failed tomatoes. But it’s never too late to learn something new, to intentionally seek a different kind of life.
“What do you see?” Bob demands, as we crest a hill about a quarter mile up the mountain. Another test. I want to tell him he should have been a college professor, but I don’t think that will go over well.
“A road. A giant hole in the ground,” I say. The leaves are just beginning to turn and it’s beautiful here on this forgotten road. I wish I could come here all the time, but I know I can’t, both because the gate is always locked and because it’s not safe to be a woman traipsing through the woods alone. There are hunters in the WMA, although usually not in this part. There are rattlesnakes, bears, bobcats, wild boars. I toy with the idea of sneaking in anyway, but I realize my worst fear would be getting caught by Bob, how he would look at me and shake his head in disappointment at my treacherous trespass.
“No, this,” he says, and points to an overgrown trail off to the side. “This is the rail bed. You could walk this all the way over to Oak Street in White,” he says. He almost seems to be suggesting that I do it, which surprises me. Maybe he has decided that I am worthy of his trust, worthy of seeing what is out here.
“Where did it all go?” I ask.
“When the mining stopped, they pulled out everything. Nothing wasted.”
The most striking thing about this trip to Sugar Hill and my interview with Bob is realizing that the Wildlife Management Area is really an overgrown post-industrial landscape. As if one apocalypse already happened and we are living on the other side of it without even realizing it.
In researching the CCC camp on the mountain, I’ve also realized that the mountain is in much better shape environmentally now than it was in the 1930s. Indeed, much of the Southern landscape was a mess at that time, from deforestation, erosion and poor soil management. The environmental degradation was part of the impetus for the CCC, which planted trees, mitigated the damage done by erosion and fires, and turned degraded landscapes into parks. Right before World War II, there was a movement to turn this mountain into a state park, like nearby Fort Mountain and Lookout Mountain. It never happened for Pine Log, but the mountain’s rocky terrain has largely held off development, at least for the time being.
Earlier, when we were in the combine, I asked Bob if he had ever considered selling the Aubrey Corporation land to developers.
“I’ve gotten offers every day for twenty years,” he said. “Haven’t done it yet.”
“I wish the state would buy it and make it a park,” I said. “If you had to choose between selling it to the state for less money but knowing it would be preserved, or selling it to developers for more money, which would you do?”
“Sell it to the state for more money,” he said, laughing. “But anyway it’s not up to me. I’m not the sole owner.”
He bends down, picks up a chunk of rock the size of a bowling ball, hands it to me. “What is this?” he asks. My teacher.
“Iron ore,” I tell him. I heft it up and down a few times. It’s surprisingly heavy, a dark, rusty red. It leaves red smears on my hands as I heave it into the tall grass by the side of the road.
Standing by the railroad bed and the mine cuts, he tells me that he needs to walk back down to the combine and get back to work. It’s supposed to rain and he needs to get the corn in before it does.
“I’ve got to get back to work,” he tells me. “If you keep walking up this road you’ll come to the Pine Hill Mine and the Bluff Mine. Both filled with water. If you walk up the creek, you’ll come to the ruins of the processing plant. If you walk up to the top of the mountain, the tower is the boundary between my property and Lake Arrowhead. Or you can walk all the way to the WMA entrance on Stamp Creek Road.”
I get the feeling again that he wants me to walk, that he might be sending me as his proxy, while he goes back to harvest the corn. “Some things are better off forgotten,” he told me earlier when I was talking about how the Sugar Hill ruins ought to be curated and preserved. But I get the feeling, too, that a part of him, at least, agrees with me. That the past and the woods tug at him as much as they do at me.
“But I’m locking that gate at five o-clock,” he warns me. “If you’re not out by then, too bad, you’ll be stuck. And I might not be back tomorrow.”
I smile. I get it. There is work to be done, and gates to be locked. Rules to be followed. Money to be made. We can’t all roam around the woods and dream. There is no time for that.
“I don’t ever stay out here at night,” he told me earlier.
“Why?” I asked, surprised that his Clint Eastwood persona included fear of anything. “The ghosts of dead Indians?”
“Dead Indians, dead miners, dead convicts, dead dreams,” he said. “I can’t explain it, but there is a presence here that disturbs me. Yet at the same time warmly welcomes me.”
As he turns to head back down the road, leaving me to my wanderings, I call out, “If I’m not out of here by dark, call in the emergency responders.”
I pick my way carefully down into the crater where Cripple Creek mine used to be, studying the jagged red rock walls for messages from the dead.