I was irritated as I drove west from Nashville. The sun was in my eyes, and I was holding the steering wheel too tight because the car kept getting buffeted by the winds of trucks passing at an astonishingly illegal speed. At least I’m not heading east, I kept reminding myself, stuck behind one big rig trying to pass another on a steep mountain incline. On the flat lands of West Tennessee, even eighteen-wheelers can pass going 90 miles an hour.
It was a relief when the car’s map directed me toward a four-lane that would take me south. But from the top of the ramp, I could see a tanker truck jackknifed across the road, no more than 50 yards away. Sirens were wailing from every direction.
The map rerouted me to an even smaller road where the speed limit bounced up and down, dropping at every intersection, even when the intersecting road was more of a path between fields, nothing that would be marked by a sign.
Now the winds weren’t coming from passing trucks but from the world itself, blowing across unfurling fields. Cotton was still growing right to the very road, and I was startled to realize that my windshield was getting pocked with bugs. I never have to clean a buggy windshield at home anymore. Against my best intentions, I have grown accustomed to living in an insect-impoverished place.
As the road rolled on, tiny church after tiny church, tiny churchyard after tiny churchyard, I drove cautiously, sometimes no more than 30 miles an hour. I was less worried that a lurking police cruiser armed with a radar gun might be obscured by vegetation than that a barefoot child or an unleashed dog might wander unthinkingly onto this normally quiet road.
A song from “Rustin’ In the Rain,” the new Tyler Childers album, was playing on the radio, and I turned the volume up. Mr. Childers sings in the authentic Appalachian register of Loretta Lynn or the Carter Family. He is good company on a curving road in a quiet place, where it’s easy to imagine that the aching loneliness in his lyrics — or the echoing faith, or the winking wit — are being enacted in real life only steps beyond the road.
Driving through rural Mississippi, I felt my shoulders drop. Suddenly I was smiling. On a dappled road between weedy hedgerows and piney woods and cotton fields and country graveyards and shabby crossroads towns without so much as a blinking yellow light, I was singing along with Tyler Childers and smiling like a fool.
I was home.
I don’t mean literally. I come from Lower Alabama peanut-farming stock, not Mississippi cotton farmers. The first time I ever set foot in Mississippi, I was 22 and on my way to New Mexico, eager to shake the red dirt of home from my sandals as fast as I could manage.
But those small clapboard churches where cars park right on the grass, and those rough farm roads yielding to blacktop, and those blooming, insect-bedazzled margins between fields, and that splintered light pouring down from the pines — they were all telling me I was home. And I was so happy to be home.
“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,” writes the poet Mary Oliver, “don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”
I believe she’s right — “Joy is not made to be a crumb”— but for a certain kind of Southerner, it’s impossible not to question this particular happiness. This place has caused so much suffering. How could loving it fail to provoke questions? And yet the sight of cotton growing in fields made me happy. For those few hours, even knowing the terrible, blood-soaked history of cotton, I couldn’t help it. Happiness rose in me like an anthem.
I remembered my college friend who visited Kansas from Alabama and came back saying she truly understood her prairie-born husband for the first time. He was a creature of big skies and rolling grasses, and he would always be, though they lived together in the Piedmont region of Alabama.
We can’t help ourselves. We are shaped by the landscapes we are born to as inescapably as any other earthly creature born to any other ecosystem.
I am home wherever cotton grows bounded by tree lines draped with kudzu. I am home wherever roadsides bloom with the small yellow flowers called beggar’s-ticks. I am home in country churchyards, and in towns too small for even a blinking yellow light, and in pine trees so far from commerce that wind through pine needles sounds exactly like a whisper, no matter that “whisper” is an unforgivable cliché in the context of wind.
Drive down a highway in your own homeland, the golden autumn light pouring around you and the golden leaves tumbling in the passing rush of air, and tell me your heart doesn’t fill up with love and longing. Tell me you could keep your heart from filling up with love to the throbbing point of longing. Even a heart entirely broken comes back for more breaking when the source of heartbreak is home.
Crisscrossing the American South these last weeks, from the Atlantic Coast to the Appalachian Mountains to the floodplains of the Mississippi, from the Buffalo River to the Tennessee and all the other splendid Southern rivers — the Tombigbee, the Chattahoochee, the Coosa, the Oconee and the glorious Caney Fork — it was the same wherever I went. “This is a sign you need more guns and ammo,” a billboard would read, and even so my heart filled up with love for my difficult, troubled, magnificent home.
The South is changing. Look at the polls on even divisive issues like guns, abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Look at the results of ballot measures in red states. Look at the Grammy-nominated video of “In Your Love” by Tyler Childers, which tells the story of two gay coal miners who find great joy together despite the simmering threat of violence all around them. My friend the Kentucky poet laureate Silas House, working from a story conceived by his husband, Jason Kyle Howard, wrote the script.
Even a decade ago, could you have imagined a country artist who grew up in a double-wide trailer in Eastern Kentucky making that video? Or, for that matter, an openly gay man becoming poet laureate of Kentucky?
Many Southerners rejoice in these changes, and many others are not sure what they think about them. And there’s no denying that some few will take up arms to try to stop such changes from taking root. I believe that nothing will stop them from taking root, but even the most faithful among us know it will be a long time yet before there’s a full human flourishing here.
In the meantime, I will keep on loving the place that made me, for I seem to have no choice about that. Because when the muted gold of the pine needles and the extravagant yellow leaves of the elms and the mottled orange leaves of the sugar maples and the shining red leaves of the black gum trees are all falling out of the sky in the passing wind, it always feels exactly like a benediction.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last,” “Late Migrations” and “The Comfort of Crows: A Backyard Year.”
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