2017-09-07 / Opinions


The South of old is still out there
a southern writer

I love stories about someone who finds a painting in an attic only to discover an old master’s work hides beneath the surface. Remove the top layer and there it is, a masterpiece. I write a lot of travel pieces. Pieces off the beaten path often times. And it’s there that I discover priceless masters myself: ancient treasures of the South. Interesting places, people, and things.

The way things are you’d never guess surprising wonders of the South can still be found. Sometimes it seems we live in a monoculture of boringly similar franchises. I bet I can blindfold you and drop you down in the middle of an area of restaurants, gas stations, strip malls, and home improvement centers, and you wouldn’t know if you were in Augusta, Athens, or Macon. If you see one area with a Chili’s, Olive Garden, Outback, Home Depot, and Lowe’s, you’ve seen them all.

The South of old is still out there though, a work of art hiding beneath a homogenous landscape. Using little more than my keyboard, some legal pads, a voice recorder, and a tank of gas, I’ve scraped away the paint to uncover the true South myself. I’ve been places, seen things, and met people who keep the classic South alive.

Some of the South’s old beauty is obvious. Take towns like Washington and Madison. Columned homes grace the streets. Live oaks shade lawns bordered by white picket fences, and you get the feeling a leisurely pace dictates the life here. Towns like these remind me of a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a timeless quality here, the feeling you get around stones, old trees, and buildings from another era. Other beautiful things southern are not so obvious. That’s where the interesting people come in. Furniture builders, for instance, and not just any old furniture builder. Here and there, craftsmen scour the South seeking old buildings where arresting longleaf pine hides beneath old paint and weathered wood. Scour they must. Longleaf pine is rare. It was the tree of choice for America’s early settlers, but today less than 10,000 grow wild. When these furniture builders find a cache of old heartpine, they carefully salvage the wood board by board, prep it, and build custom heartpine furniture.

A while back I sat at a beautiful heartpine desk that was to die for; fashioned from the weathered remnants of an old smokehouse, it glowed red and lustrous. Old cuts and scars gave it character, like the sun-worn face of an old fisherman. Harvested in the 1880s, the wood was already 200 to 800 years old. This wood existed before Christopher Columbus discovered America! To write at a desk like that would be a fine and special treat. Think of the stories this fine wood could tell. The old fellow who built it ran his hand over a gleaming panel pointing out the original nail holes. “We don’t stress the wood,” he said. Over 125 years stresses it enough.”

And then there are the interesting people. A while back, I interviewed a couple, Dr. Charles Jeremias and his wife, Lee. They are rosarians: devoted gardeners who cultivate roses, and some of their roses literally trace their roots to the 1600s. Of particular interest to the Jeremias are “old garden roses,” roses known prior to 1867. Lee calls them “roses out of circulation.” When they find an old garden rose in an abandoned cemetery, Charles takes cuttings so he can root them. If the plant grows, the next step is identifying it, and that isn’t exactly easy.

For ten years, he had a rose he couldn’t identify. The he found a rose book published in 1817. “The most expensive rose book I ever bought!” he said. One day he was reading it when he came across a rose that sounded a lot like his mystery rose. He compared the rose to the book’s description and nailed its identity: a tea rose known as “St. Josephs.”

Among Charles’ favorite old garden roses is Champneys Pink Cluster, a Charleston discovery and the first in a line of species developed in the United States. An indigo/rice planter near Charleston developed it and sent a bush to his brother in France. His brother liked it so much, he put it out as Noisette, which rosarians now know developed from Champneys Pink Cluster.

Surprising people too. Dr. Jeremias, a University of Georgia graduate and originally from Washington, Georgia, is one holder of the patent to super glue. That’s right. You owe him a big thanks for keeping your glasses and who knows what together.

Interesting people, interesting places, and fascinating treasures fashioned and protected by the hands of man: They’re out there beneath the commercial veneer that covers the Old South, a fa├žade that gets too much of our attention. Thanks goodness there are people out there quietly resurrecting beautiful things that are close to gone and forgotten.

(Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net or email him about most anything at tompol@earthlink.net.)

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