2017-10-19 / Opinions

ACROSS THE SAVANNAH

‘Coyote journalism’ covers most anything
By TOM POLAND
a southern writer

“Tom, you live like a coyote.” So said a woman commenting on my bachelor lifestyle. She’s right and her pronouncement set me to thinking. I practice journalism like a coyote, too. I scavenge for stories. Most any story will do with two provisions: it can’t be a cliché “stirring the pot” subject like politics and it has to be interesting. Force a writer to take on a boring topic, and a small part of his soul dies.

My soul is in good shape. Like a coyote that’ll eat most anything, I’ll write about most anything. Like a transient coyote, I don’t run with a pack. I don’t cover a beat and I don’t restrict myself as subject matter or media go. Across the years I wrote speeches, film scripts, and a play. Today, I write books, magazine features, and columns for newspapers and journals. Most anything feeds my journalistic appetite. Over the last few weeks I’ve written about small towns, hunting for arrowheads, a man who has long caught and studied gators, traditional Southern barbecue, gas stations converted to restaurants, camellia teas, and wild islands. I’ve written, too, about the challenges of growing hay for horses and round versus “square” bales. Trivia question: How much do those big round bales weigh? (Big round bales can weigh 700-1,300 pounds.)

I’ve written about the fact that sawdust piles are rare these days ... the allure of country stores, decoy carvers, mysterious landforms known as Carolina bays, and fine, old Southern plantations. In addition to the columns I write, magazines give me interesting assignments. Over the past year I’ve written features on the fine art of moonshine, the use of drones in agriculture, raising quail, oystering, and right now, I’m working on a feature about specialty foods—hot sauces, coffee, and handcrafted foods. Most any subject holds the potential to intrigue me.

A great thing about coyote journalism is I can write about a topic as many times as I want. A favorite topic? Back roads. There on the lesser-traveled roads I see life in all its stark beauty. Real-life places and real-life people. Country stores and crumbling mansions. Cotton fields and barns. I can’t help but pick up a sense of place as the South goes and something else: an education.

Many years ago a woman asked me, “What are you going to do to keep from growing stagnant, Tom? What are you going to do to keep learning new things?” At the time I didn’t have an answer for her. Young and green, I knew nothing. I had a brand new college degree but I knew absolutely nothing. Back then the pop culture offered me a cheap and easy substitute for real knowledge. Actors, musicians, TV series, etc. As Tom the coyote journalist emerged, he abandoned TV shows, phony music, and “must see” movies to discover all types of stories. Real stories. Indian massacres. Stories about aspiring race car drivers, mules, and yes, coyotes. Stories about a Catawba potter. I examined life yesteryear in mill villages. I crafted histories about banks, colleges, and a dance. And all of it taught me a lot.

Were I to see that woman from many years ago I’d tell her that scavenging for stories kept me from growing stagnant. That my years of coyote journalism gave me a more meaningful education than any college degree. Far better than a string of boring lectures lumped together under some esoteric academic program. Writing about diverse subject matter, for certain, amounts to an education of sorts. Sure, some of it is trivial but over the long haul, a body of knowledge accumulates. And you get a chance to do good things too. Right now I’m working on a story about the need to save Abbeville, South Carolina’s Trinity Episcopal Church from demolition by neglect. The church needs well over $2 million worth of restoration. I hope, by working with others, to bring awareness to those with the power to make a difference. This magnificent old church that saved so many souls deserves salvation as well.

No two days are ever the same. Coyote journalists always come by some interesting information. Today I interviewed a world famous tea taster, William Barclay Hall who relayed a fact that falls into the realm of trivia, unless you’re a tea taster. In 1987, Bill Hall founded what would become the Charleston Tea Plantation. Bill, a third-generation tea taster received his formal training in a four-year tea apprenticeship in London. If you hanker to become a world expert tea taster, how many cups of tea must you taste a day as part of your apprenticeship?

Take a guess ... Ten to 20 cups a day? Fifty to 100 cups a day? Three hundred cups a day? Five hundred? Eight hundred to 1,000 cups a day?

If you intend to be a tea taster, you better have a deep love for tea. Bill’s apprenticeship mandated that he taste 800 to 1,000 cups of tea everyday for four years. That’s a lot of tea.

Another thing is certain. As a coyote journalist I have a deep love for words and their power and I’m willing to take on most any subject except politics. That’s just not my cup of tea. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’ll leave political discourses to predictable columnists who come across as one-trick ponies. Coyotes they aren’t.

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

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