Now in Hilton Head, SC: Amiri Geuka Farris’ “Heart of the Lowcountry”

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Last week, Francisco and I were on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina on an assignment that I am dying to tell you about… but I can’t.

Not until December, at least.

We needed time–much more time–than we had to see all the places we wanted to see and talk to all the people we wanted to talk to… not to mention make it out to the beach (which did not happen). Fortunately, though, we were lucky enough to catch Amiri Geuka Farris’ exhibit “Heart of the Lowcountry,” which opened on the day of our visit to the island’s Coastal Discovery Museum.

A few of the works in Amiri Geuka Farris' exhibit, "Heart of the Lowcountry," currently on show at Hilton Head's Coastal
A few of the works in Amiri Geuka Farris’ exhibit, “Heart of the Lowcountry,” currently on show at Hilton Head’s Coastal Discovery Museum.

Farris is a native of Florida, but since moving to nearby Bluffton, South Carolina, his work has been exploring and conveying aspects of Gullah-Geechee culture in colorful, large-format paintings, exemplified by the pieces in this show. Far from being depressing images of slaves toiling in cotton fields, these paintings celebrate the character and confidence of the Gullah-Geechee people, the coastal south’s residents who trace their lineage back to West Africa.

The exhibit, which runs through August, is well-worth a visit if you’re in the area.

And stay tuned… perhaps you’ll see Farris in a certain high profile magazine this winter!

To Wear the Crown: Writers Speaking Out Loud

Text & Photo:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**

Two among many LGBT writers whose work has inspired me.
Two among many LGBT writers whose work has inspired me.

June Jordan.

James Baldwin.

Audre Lorde.

Adrienne Rich.

Cristina Peri Rossi.

Elizabeth Bishop

Truman Capote.

Willa Cather.

**
Before I knew that any of these writers identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, I knew their work– their words. Each one exerted his or her own influence over my own development as a writer, helping, above all, to show me what words could do if you knew how to use them.

I learned about these writers in South Carolina and Georgia classrooms.

Earlier this week, I was invited to join the group “Writers Speaking Out Loud,” which was organized to advocate academic freedom and to denounce the efforts of South Carolina politicians to strip funding from schools where texts by LGBT authors are taught. It’s embarrassing and distressing to me that the need for this group even exists, that politicians find the work of LGBT writers to be inherently threatening.

What’s both outrageous and disappointing about their punitive approach is that they’re attempting to silence some of the voices we need to hear the most. Each of the writers I named above wrote about something universal: the struggle to be recognized and accepted, not only by society– and certainly not only (or even primarily) about being LGBT– but by one’s own self. And given the bullying epidemic and self-esteem crises that seem to plague schools and our very culture, these messages–these testimonies of power and self-possession, are more important now than ever.

When Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison reflected on the death of writer James Baldwin, she said:

“You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then [his death] is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. Our crown, you said, has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do, you said, is wear it.'”

To honor the writers who have shown fierce courage and tamed wildernesses, let’s wear those crowns.

Interview with Writer John Lane: My Paddle to the Sea

Text:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo, with exception of John Lane photo, courtesy of John Lane
**

An Upstate, South Carolina river
An Upstate, South Carolina river

I rarely let go of a story.

I’ll research an article or essay, write it, and have it published, but it’s not often that I just file the story away and stop thinking about the subject. I like to keep following the story.

I’ve been writing about and following John Lane since 2008, when I interviewed him^ about his book, Circling Home. John lives in my hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, so many of the places he writes about are familiar to me. That’s one reason I keep reading his work; the other is, quite simply, that he’s a good writer who wants to make sense of his experience through the writing process.

John’s newest book, My Paddle to the Sea, was just published by University of Georgia Press and the launch party, hosted by Spartanburg’s indy bookstore, Hub City Bookshop, was probably the best attended in Spartanburg’s history, if Facebook chatter is any indication. My Paddle to the Sea opens with Lane’s recounting of a tragic white water trip in Costa Rica and his subsequent 300-mile paddle of South Carolina’s waterways, a trip initiated partly for catharsis. But as with all of Lane’s projects, writing and otherwise, his 300-mile paddle trip was also undertaken as one more effort to understand himself, his local ecosystem and history, and his place within them.

Though I’d have rather interviewed John while walking around a riverbed in Glendale as I did three years ago, I was happy to have talked with him about My Paddle to the Sea via email.

*
Julie:
One of the qualities of this book that struck me–and has stayed with me since–is the way in which you honor other people by reflecting upon and celebrating what they’ve shared with you, whether an experience, as with Venable Jr. [Lane’s partner on the paddling trip], or a lesson or idea, as with other writers. You did so in an artful, elegant, authentic way that I found quite moving. Were you conscious you were making these acknowledgements of influence as you were writing?

John:
The major decision I had to make with this project was: go it alone, or go with a friend, or a number of friends. Originally, when I conceived of paddling almost 300 miles to the sea I’d thought, yes, I’ll do the trip alone and make it into one of those “man against the wild” type adventure stories. You know, rugged individual sets out against the elements in a kayak with only a can of pork & beans, a sleeping bag, and a Swiss Army knife. But our tragic trip to Costa Rica changed that. After the deaths on that river in Costa Rica I realized I’d have to have the help of my other adventurous friends if I wanted to pull this trip off and get back in the adventure saddle. I’d lost the desire to be alone on the trip.

After Costa Rica the idea of the trip became a celebration of friendship– planning and doing, sharing stories, overcoming adversity, and telling the tale. And I knew from the beginning that telling my tale would include telling the tales of my good friends Venable Vermont and Steve Patton. They are both adventurous men who have pulled off long river trips and had near misses like the one I had in Costa Rica, and they both had plenty to say about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we paddled along.

As far as the other influences–the writers and others who have come before– I’m always conscious that landscapes have deep histories, and I always want to acknowledge that other minds have passed before me. I knew going in that the Santee River basin wasn’t “unwritten,” wasn’t a blank slate. There was the mind and work of Henry Savage and his great Rivers of America volume on the Santee, and then there were literary writers such as WJ Cash, John P. Kennedy, Julia Peterkin, and poet Archibald Rutledge. Their voices had to be included along with mine. They had already sung of this river.

Julie:
I also felt like you struggled with trying not to be judgmental of people who don’t share your world view, and I wanted you to write about them in a way didn’t set up or reinforce binaries of “us” and “them.” I think the place where I felt most frustrated about this was the characterization of the “hook and bullet crowd” in the Low-country. (I fully acknowledge that I wanted you to do this because I struggle with it in my own life/work.). Any thoughts about this?

John Lane
John Lane
John:
Well, there is often an “us” and a “them” in many things, and I think it’s a lie if we try to act like it doesn’t exist. It’s like me traveling to Zimbabwe (which I did last October) and thinking when I land that there is no difference between me and those who I encounter in my travels. I’m not saying that there is always a hard “us and them” line– after all, we’re all humans– but my values are often different than what one of my friends calls the “hook and bullet crowd.” If you reduced me to my own stereotype then I’m close to what “they” would call a “tree hugger.” I don’t deny that and actually I find intellectual strength in it.

I probably understand the motives of the person who sits in a tree to stop it from being cut down more fully than I understand one who sits in a tree stand all day to shoot a deer. But I do share many values with the hunting and fishing tribe–my love of wildness, my observation skills, my knowledge of landscapes– but there are still often some fundamental difference between many of those who hunt and fish seriously and those who do not. Mostly these are simply management issues. Most wild land is managed now and I’m generally more of a preservationist as opposed to a conservationist. I’d like to see land set aside and managed for all creatures great and small, not just deer and turkey. I’d like to see large tracts of territory where ecological processes can go on without us. I prefer free-flowing rivers to recreational lakes. If you forced me to choose between the ideas of John Muir or Gifford Pinchot, I’d choose Muir. Pinchot’s “Wise Use” doesn’t cut it for me entirely.

And in South Carolina there is a huge spectrum in the hunting/fishing world. Many who hunt and fish I admire deeply and they too would vote for preservation. Others I wouldn’t agree with, and those are usually the ones who think of hunting as a “sport.” Through the years I’ve come closer and closer to understanding and even admiring those particularly who eat what they kill. (I’ve even developed relationships with several hunters where we eat what they kill.) But I still can’t kill game myself, and I know that “they” generally see the wild world through the scope of a rifle or as just off the tip of a rod. I see it at the end of a paddle or under my feet or bike tire. The worlds of the hunter and the non-hunter are often very different and they are managed in different ways.

Julie:
In the book you say, “There are no simple answers to contemporary recreation in the [American] South.” But besides kayaking your local waterways, what are some of *your* answers? How do you engage with the land apart from the time in your kayak?

John:
Well, in some ways this is a continuation of the question above. There has been a shift in our culture in the last 30 or 40 years from wilderness to recreation, from preservation to conservation, from nature worship to use. During the 60s and 70s the lobby for the values of wilderness and preservation were strong. Read Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter.” Read the 1964 Wilderness Act itself. The idea of limited and controlled human access to wilderness in particular was supported politically and intellectually.

Lots has happened to bring some of those values into question since then. The work of historian William Cronon in the 1980s brought into question the idea of wilderness itself. Cronon suggested that wilderness was an idea invented by urban people, that the places we call wilderness– take Yellowstone for example– were actually inhabited and used by people regularly for thousands of years.

There has also been an explosion in technology and income that can take people into wild places– from airline routes to kayaks to four wheelers to light weight hiking gear. Every improvement in gear makes it easier for humans to “use” wildness easily. Every uptick in the adventure travel industry has made it harder to support the values and ideals that were outlined in the Wilderness Act. That document saw value in difficulty of access and use.

In the [American] South it’s even more complex because there is such a large population within easy driving distance of our limited wilderness areas. The Chattooga Wild & Scenic River and its Ellicott Wilderness is within a 2 hour drive of 7 or 8 million people and many of them like to recreate “in the wild.” It’s complex for me because I value wilderness, but I also like to go into it, to recreate. Here’s another place where the easy “us” and “them” breaks down!

Lane's home river
Lane's home river
I’m spending alot more time enjoying “nearby nature,” my own backyard, than I did in the past. Much of my walking/paddling now takes place close to home. I’m finding out that there’s a lot to be learned and enjoyed in my “limited wild” (to use David Gessner’s term). I began to walk a small circle every morning with my dog on our 4 suburban acres that I wrote about in CIRCLING HOME. I’m always engaged on that walk.

Julie:
What are the other places you want to explore in the South that you don’t know so well yet?

John:
I really want to spend more time up in the Blue Wall area, the mountain front west of here. I’d like to hike the whole Foothills Trail. I also want to paddle as many of the South Carolina rivers as I can.

Julie:
Regarding some of the practical aspects of promoting and selling this book, what’s your strategy?

John:
I’m hoping that readers who know my work from the past will pick up on it, and I’m hoping that there will be a few good reviews. I’m also hoping that the 30 minute video RIVER TIME (www.rivertimefilm.com) that film makers Chris Cogan and Tom Byars put together about me and the trip will take off and get shown on local ETV stations around the south. They have a few screenings set up in SC and Georgia and we’ll sell some books there. I’m not sure how it will be received in other regions. We’ll just have to wait and see.


^One of the unfortunate aspects of writing online is that technology evolves and some published works get lost in the evolution. My article that accompanied the oral interview linked to above has been eaten by the interwebs.

Virgin of Guadalupe Procession from Mexico City to New York City

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**

Flag with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe
Flag with images of the Virgin of Guadalupe

One thing I never expected to see in my hometown was a Virgin of Guadalupe procession, especially one that originated in Mexico City and intends to end up in New York City.

But that’s exactly what we spotted in the slow lane of Highway 29 North in Spartanburg, South Carolina this weekend.

Last year, I was in Mexico City on December 12, the Feast Day of Guadalupe, and was impressed by the devotion of the thousands of Mexicans who made a pilgrimage to the capital’s Basilica of Guadalupe. (To see photos from last year’s arrival of pilgrims to the Basilica, click here).

One of the runners with the torch.
One of the runners with the torch.

The walk from Mexico City to New York is its own kind of devotion, no less impressive and moving. An extremely well-coordinated group of Mexicans have organized a relay in which participants line the side of roads along the route and hand off a torch among runners who do brief sprints. Support vehicles, led by a truck with a painting of the Virgin in the back, make sure the sprinter devotees are safe.

Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the lead vehicle
Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the lead vehicle

What kinds of devotion–religious or otherwise–have you witnessed in your travels?

Visiting Rose Hill Plantation

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**

“I was in the fifth grade the first time I visited a prison,” I told a friend recently.

“Are you kidding? Why?”
*
In addition to a prison (including an “opportunity” to sit in the state’s electric chair), I’d visited any number of plantations by the time I was 10. For the outside observer, the list of elementary school field trips commonly experienced by kids in the American South is nothing short of puzzling and bizarre, if not downright disturbing.

In retrospect, and having more world experience, I’d be inclined to agree. But like most aspects of childood, our frame of reference is set by the catalog of our own experiences, and at the time I didn’t find anything about this macabre.
*
While visiting family in South Carolina this past December, Francisco mentioned that he’d like to visit a plantation. He wanted to get a better sense of Southern history, and felt that a plantation would be a good place to start, and so it was that we drove down to Union County, so far off-grid, in fact, that our cell phones didn’t work.

The Rose Hill Mansion, the architectural centerpiece of the plantation by the same name, sits off the two-lane road that gave Francisco some serious heebie-jeebies. I’ve lived off these kinds of roads for more than half of my life, but he’s a city guy. Too much “empty” space makes him anxious. We approach the back door, as that’s where the path from the small parking lot seems to lead.

Charles Barreras, the house’s interpreter, pokes his head out the door. “Now you’re not from here,” he says, shaking his head. I’m a bit indignant; I like to claim my Southernness when it seems to give me cred or when my turned-on accent might get me off the hook. “Oh yes I am,” I reply with an immaturity not becoming of a woman of my age. “You’re not,” he says flatly, making it clear that this part of our conversation is final, “because if you were, you would know not to come to the back door. You’re not a friend yet.” Never one to back down, I push some more. “But back door friends are best.”

Barreras shuts the door curtly, leaving us to meet him on the front porch, where we will be “received.”

*
Rose Hill.

I’d never heard of it; just found it Googling because the other plantation I knew, the one where I planned to take Francisco, was closed for the holidays.

Apparently, there aren’t a whole lot of other folks who know about it either. “I’m so excited,” Barreras says when he opens the front door.” “You are the first people I have seen in 11 straight days. And there have been eight of you today!” He’s truly in disbelief. And delighted. The man is in his element, ready to dust off his interpreter’s hat (yes, there really is one) and talk plantation shop.

It’s not exactly the kind of shop Francisco wants to talk, though. He’s interested in knowing about the human back story of Rose Hill, specifically, the stories of the slaves who worked and lived here.

Barreras, though, is an architectural historian who uses technical words like “bleb” to talk about the condition of the house. (A bleb, by the way, refers to blistering, peeling paint). And he’s passionate about what he knows. He produces a pocket-sized magnifying glass, urging all four of us on the tour to take a closer look at the layers of paint that have been exposed by researchers working in the house. “Isn’t it exciting? Isn’t it just amazing?” he asks, eager for someone to be as turned on by these details as he is. It is pretty fascinating, particularly because he knows every corner of the house and can (and does) explain the story of every detail. These rich colors, for instance, tell their own story- a story of wealth in the family of the so-called Secession Governor, the original owner of this house. Not just anyone could afford these colors.

Nor could the common man afford having a traveling artist paint a slightly out of proportion portrait of an eligible daughter, posing her against a gaudy, Italianate background. Had we walked through the house on our own, we never would have known that the portrait hanging near the piano held the significance it did. Nor would we have understood what, exactly, was so “off” about it.

Though our visit to Rose Hill Plantation didn’t satisfy Francisco’s curiosity regarding the South’s slave days, the tour did expose us to history that neither of us learned in school. Sensing he was slightly dissatisfied, the other adult on the tour pulled us aside as we were headed back to the parking lot, Francisco eager to return to “civilization”.

“You know, sometime you should go up to Walnut Grove,” he said, referring to another plantation. “Make sure you go to one of them reenactment weekends when they get dressed up in costumes and grill squirrels and stuff. It’s quite an experience.”

To see more photos from Rose Hill, view Francisco’s photostream on Flickr.