In the morning, I open the screen door to the outside deck and stand there. I love to do this. It’s the smell. There is an almost imperceptible perfume. So one stands and gently inhales it, so it is fully absorbed. These mornings, unlike summer or fall, the air is fresh. A higher octane? Really! The heart sings, though the voice remains quiet. Any noise is too much. It is so fresh that you are simply seduced by the breathing: breathing in; and in again. I so look forward to the morning and this treat of the southern spring. So gentle. The smell is pervading, but light. You catch it gently, like you would a butterfly. Where does the perfume rise? What plant? Is it the new leaves; the new buds; or the ever present pine needles? Maybe it`s the fast growing grass. No one has been able to tell me. I sit on the deck for some time, slowly drinking my coffee, drinking it all in. The woods directly in front of the deck are within throwing distance, so it could be the indigenous pear blossom. Actually this perfume is always present. This perfume is Alabama. I swear I can smell it as soon as I step out of the airport! But at other times of the year there is an enveloping heat and for a Canadian, that envelopment takes some preparation. It comes in a whump. Other seasons it is just not the same. On a gentle spring morning, my feet make a beeline to the door... even before starting the coffee. The door is opened; and I wait, letting the air meet me, testing the air. Some days are a bit cool, there is a rain storm on the way; some days the heat is gathering so that sense of envelopment is impending; but most days it is simply delicious. Spring is fresh, gentle, lightly perfumed, breath quenching air.
There is more that creates this sense of gentleness. We have had several drives around the countryside of western Alabama: Greensboro; Demopolis; Tuscaloosa; Selma; Montgomery. You will recognise some of these names from the fight for school integration in the 1960’s. Alabama’s history is not gentle; it is the land that is gentle. This is so evident in the spring when the deciduous trees are still primarily bare and grey (oaks)... or white (sweetgums)... or black (cypresses?).Through the branches is a rolling land. It is field after field as far as the eye can see, given the roll; and far as the car can travel in a half day. It is part of the ‘Black Belt’, a name given due to the top layer of black soil. This was the land of cotton. The land has been cleared for about 2 centuries; some of it is natural meadow. It all has a gentle roll. Woods crop up in dells and on crests. This sprinkling of woods also makes it gentle. The woods are a pleasant respite to the ever rolling land. It is the perfect painting of an inviting land. There are forests of pine, plantation pines of various years, and so occasionally the road is hemmed in by the tall straight dry pine: But the distinctive characteristic is the rolling land. Do you remember “Gone with the Wind” when Scarlet would wait for her father to come racing across the land on horseback, jumping fences on his way home. It is like that: large rolling fields; fences; and crops of deciduous woods. It invites you to ride. It is a civilized land, easy to live upon.
One more special feature of this marvelous, sense delighting spring is the colour. I have been here since the end of February; and it is only now in mid March that I have noticed it. There is colour. As we drove into Tuscaloosa Monday, it could almost have been fall. Truly amazing luminous colour washes the woods: lime green; yellow; coral; hot pink; a red purple; rust; orange. Are they buds, newly opened leaves, blossoms, or catkins... likely all four, depending on the tree, or vine. Still the branching dominates, so we are talking colour ‘tinges’. Times the road side was like a 17th C French landscape; I am thinking of the Frick Museum in New York. I always thought these paintings seemed affected, given their romantic style. But now that I know this luminous Alabama spring, I know it was not at all affected. Spring luminosity is real. It doesn’t blaze like a north eastern fall scene; rather it is more like a glossy chalk pastel. It is luminous without intensity. How can this be? I keep looking to make sure I can catch it. Highly coloured woods are sporadic. You catch a patch out of the corner of your eye, then it is gone.
There is heat in the sun. The cats are lounging in deck chairs; the tops of the paddock grass are bright green; and the horses stay grazing until the last minute... no run to the gate as we drive up to the barn. Sing: the wood dove; the mockingbird; the cardinal. These are new sounds for me, so once more I can sit drinking it all in: listening to the bird song; breathing the perfumed air; skin touched by a light breeze; sun warm! as it filters through the branches. We’ve had our thunder and lightning storms, roaring winds and splashing rains, the Sucurnachee overflowing its banks. But then there is the sun again... within hours; a clear bright blue sky or one with floating cumulus cloud; with a quick drying breeze. The rain forgotten; only the gentle spring falling upon the land... a living quiet.
More gentleness. Andrea is a gentle coach, as she directs Zoey to catch balls. It is Zoey’s first season playing for the Sumter Academy softball team. She is the newest player and the smallest (just 4 ft.?); and used to the constant swinging, springing motion of gymnastics. This sport is very different: square to the ground, Andrea says; no lifting the leg like a chicken; use the whole body not just the arm... you turn the left shoulder and use it to point at the ‘spot’... swing the whole right side of the body so the arm is strong and long with the right shoulder leading, then the arm at full extension, ending up where the left shoulder has been; finally it follows its trajectory and drops away. (She demonstrates, talking slowly.) Just at the end of the swing, the heel comes off the ground, but not the toe... feet always on the ground. Ready. Each instruction comes one at a time.... no urgency. There is always lots of time to get it right. “oooo... good! What did you do different that time?”Hands above the head for those high balls... no reaching to the side...cock your head and watch through the glove... then you are in the right position for a quick throw after the catch. None of that reaching out to the side... that won’t work for an outfielder... and, you know... it scares the coach. Yes, natural to want your head out of the way. Just let it drop into the glove... like catching a water balloon... gently... let the arms give as the ball lands in the glove. When it is done well, the good catches; the good throws; the good hits... all seem slow, no matter the speed of the ball. Softball: springtime’s slow, gentle game.
As I finish writing this evening, I am listening to a train whistle. How gentle is that! Out of the silence the echo reverberates. It’s a long train, on its way to (or from) Texas, so after the whistle the long low vibrations build; a rising steady wheel clacking getting louder; then gradually... a good 5 minutes? a falling away... into silence. They come hourly. Another gentle rhythm.
PS.... I would like to be able to write something of the Southern culture, but I cannot. It is not a simple culture. What is on the surface is not telling of its’ nature. There is the small town i.e., Livingston, where everyone says “Hay!” in recognition of one another... always a bright greeting; there are the ante-bellum homes scattered throughout the countryside... so a longstanding history; there are re-enactments of civil war battles... so a deeply felt history. On Baldwin Hill, a 3 acre knoll scattered with live oaks and magnolia that is Seale’s ancestral home, there is the white pillared home, first built as a school house in the 18th C.
At the back of the property, tucked against Baldwin Hill’s surrounding woods is an old decrepit unpainted cabin; a long ago home to former staff who were the children of former slave people. One corner of the cabin is propped up with old law books... the practise of law is a family tradition. Upon being introduced to someone, the first gambit in conversation is naming ones’ ‘family’... ones’ connections. Tonight, in a church hall, there is a fund raising dinner of grilled ‘local game’... the hunting fatigue is a familiar sight. But this is all simply juxtaposed. I am not catching the current(s).So far, the story ‘the guts’ of the culture eludes me. I have been enjoying southern literature, much of it set in Savannah. I am charmed by its disguised heart. The writers have their kinky, quirky, even ‘tacky’ characters set amongst the mossy live oak cemeteries where markers list Southern history’s heroes; the Foundation restored Greek revival mansions; the dozens of flaking white paint clapboard antiques stores; the artfully, ‘marvelous’ sultry garden parties. ghost... or cagey darkness? is never far away. Capote spent his childhood summers in Monroeville, a town only a couple of hours south of here. His close friend, Harper Lee, wrote the Pulitzer prizewinning book “To Kill a Mockingbird” ... remember Boo Radley! Was the small-for-his-age, gawky, storytelling ‘Dill’, Truman Capote? (Her only book... and, she still lives in that small town... where she was born.)She did research for Capote’s, “In Cold Blood”... did she help write it? contrast to the land, gentleness is not the key word for the culture. No, not gentile either. I will just let it go for now.
Home in a week! (Now that’s a lie. I have no home.)