by Doctor Science
I'm back from our Thanksgivukkah trip to Georgia, to get together with my husband D's 3 siblings and their children (there are 2 each). We haven't been all gathered as a family since their mother passed away almost 10 years ago, so this was quite a big deal.
Though they grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, we didn't gather there -- we rented a couple of cottages on Tybee Island for the holiday. Our nuclear family flew into ATL on Tuesday, and back on Sunday; we rented a car and drove down to Tybee.
Neither D nor I had ever been to coastal Georgia before, and I'd only been as far south as Macon (D's late father's home town) once.
As I've said before, I love seeing how the landscape -- the forms of land, vegetation, and houses -- changes as you travel. The trip from Atlanta (in the Piedmont) through Macon (on the Fall Line) to Savannah and the Georgia coast is naturally parallel to the familiar trip from central New Jersey to the Jersey shore, but with many interesting differences.
In the first place, the segment from ATL to Macon was much less agricultural than I expected. There were also a number of patches of forest on either side of the road that seem to have burned within the last few years -- I hadn't realized Georgia had this much of a wildfire problem.
If you compare Georgia's terrain to a similar trip across NJ, from Bridgewater (Piedmont) to Trenton (Fall Line) to Brigantine (ocean), you can maybe see that the area just oceanward of the Fall Line in NJ is extremely fertile, with a dense checkerboard of farms -- a mix of maize, soybeans, and vegetables, for the most part. As you get closer to the shore, you hit the sandy-soiled Pine Barrens, where farms do poorly and wildfires are indeed a hazard.
In Georgia, in contrast, it was only after we'd been past Macon for a bit that we began to see lots of agriculture. At first I couldn't figure out what I was seeing, because it didn't look like any of the crops I'm familiar with:
Yes, those were cotton fields, which had probably just been harvested. The plants seem to be much shorter than historical photos had led me to expect. Also, mechanical pickers sure seem to leave a lot of cotton in the field.
What I didn't see was recognizable fields of corn, soybeans, or vegetables, nor did I see any peach orchards. There might have been peanut fields, I don't really know what they look like.
But I did recognize at least *one* plant I'd never seen before: Spanish Moss! Though at very first glance I thought it might be some kind of insect problem, I quickly realized what I was seeing. I hadn't known that Spanish Moss would be so very gray and dusty-looking in reality, nor had I realized that Live Oak trees are all so naturally dark and twisty. When we drove through Savannah, the family agreed that Southern Gothic fiction is a natural response to this environment. A+ creepy, would haunt again.
On Friday afternoon we all went to Savannah for sight-seeing and random shopping -- which the participants mostly spent at Goodwill. The four of us in my nuclear gang went to Colonial Park Cemetery, where we were dumped by the cemetery non-lovers, but we had a *great* time. D talked about Death's Head, Cherub, Urn and Willow designs, as we found examples of all the forms. We also had fun finding and deciphering the most interesting inscriptions, speculating about the lives of the people they memorialize. Jacob R. Taylor (died 1811) was one of our favorites:
Good stuff! They don't write 'em like that any more.who in the 19th year of his age
when unarmed and peaceably walking the streets of
was on the evening of the 11th of November, 1811,
attacked and inyhumanly decimated
by an army of banditi
belonging to the crews of the French Privateers
La Vengeance and La Franchise.
Rest infinite youth far from thy friends inurnd
by strangers honourd and by strangers mourned.
Though thy lone turf no kindred drops can lave
Yet virtue hallows with her tears thy grave.
Sprog the Younger was surprised at how young the buildings in the Savannah Historic District are. She hadn't really appreciated that she grew up in an area of NJ with many 19th-century buildings (we're currently renting a house that dates to around 1850) and a scattering of 18th-century ones, where many churchyards are sprinkled with the graves of Revolutionary War veterans. So "historic Savannah" to her seemed kind of ... cute, not ancient. But then, that's pretty much the case for everything in the US, if you've ever been to Europe.
Speaking of history, before we went I knew that the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina were the homeland of the Gullah/Geechee people, a Black American group that has a distinctively African culture and their own language. I was very surprised, then, to see no non-white people on Tybee, despite that history and its proximity to Savannah.
Tybee itself is *extremely* flat -- golf carts are a common mode of transport. It's not at all like Block Island, RI, where my natal family normally vacations, which is extremely New England: white houses, some steep-ish hills, some Victorian architecture, so low-key that *bars* have been known to go out of business. Yes, the year-round population of Block Island is pretty damn white, but the summer population and even the tourists are becoming less so every year, even though it's a little upscale because you can't drive there.
Tybee is more like Seaside Heights, NJ with its flatness and the main street that seems hyper-wide in the off-season. But it's much more colorful than NJ (much less staid New England), with houses in pastels.
Not to mention actual palm trees! We were quite definitely not in the Northeast anymore. At first I was confused, thinking that I was seeing two different palm species, one with a smooth trunk and one basketweave:
But back to the human landscape. Tybee and Seaside Heights feel different not just because of the house colors and the plants, but in what you might call an economic way. Compared to Seaside Heights and the rest of the Jersey Shore (before Sandy, anyway), Tybee feels a step poorer -- much poorer than we expected for the closest beach to Atlanta. It seemed as though the infrastructure, the signs and the side-streets, were not as welcoming and easy-to-use as I expected for a tourist trap. It's hard to pin it down, but it felt to me as though you were already expected to know where things are, where to go and what to see. It's easier and cheaper to park in Seaside Heights than in Tybee, with more options for all-day parking.
This is where I get really impressionistic, but I felt as though I'd passed into a zone with a different balance and expectations about privately-owned and public spaces. Wondering where the rich tourists go, I looked up Hilton Head Island, and was less surprised than I would have been before this visit to find that "Approximately 70% of the island, including most of the tourist areas, is located inside gated communities." "Less surprised" means I'm still boggled, though -- it goes against all my expectations for a major tourist destination near a large city to be gated like that.
How much of what I saw -- or didn't see -- in Georgia is the fruit of slavery, I can't say. It feels like it, though: or rather, it feels as though not-talking about slavery (and race, and their heirs down the years) means I'm hearing only half the music. There are all kinds of "Haunted Savannah" tours to take, but they don't talk about the truly haunted places of the slave trade that was at the city's heart. I don't know how much privatized Hilton Head Island is a remnant of Jim Crow, if not a way of achieving a similar result by different means, but I don't see why I should expect there to be no remnants of customs so long-enduring.
Do I want to go back to Savannah and Tybee, if the relatives decree? Sure-- the history is fascinating, and the bird-watching!!! -- outstanding.
But that would be another post.