Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Look away, Look away

Not only does travel broaden the mind but it also fires the imagination. After spending too long in one place, seeing the same old sights day after day, I've always found that nothing jolts me out of a mental rut like a change of scene.
Last week, Mike and I took a trip way down south in the land of cotton – to Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina to be precise. The two cities may be in different states, but they are barely a hundred miles apart and are both located within the area known evocatively as the Low Country. Each is situated at the mouth of a wide river estuary, thus making them ports of strategic importance throughout their history.  And they are both characterized by elegant buildings and beautiful gardens, scented with glorious expanses of confederate jasmine. Wandering the streets of both cities was an exercise in turning back the clock. In Savannah, there was a palpable sense of the pre-Revolutionary era, while in Charleston it was easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of a secessionist city whose entire economic life revolved around its busy slave auction mart on Chalmers Street.

I was also keen to get a feel for what life was like on the plantations of the Low Country. Entering the gates of Wormsloe Historic Site, we drove down a long sandy driveway lined with live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss into what felt like another world. We saw the remains of a fortified house built in 1737 of tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, sand, and lime) by the settler Noble Jones. Looking out over the marshland of the Savannah River, I could easily imagine him during the oddly named Warof Jenkin’s Ear patrolling the tidal creeks in case of an attack by invading Spanish troops from Florida. And when we visited Boone Hall Plantation outside Charleston, I could almost hear the Gullah slaves singing their melancholy subversive songs as they harvested the rice and indigo crops.
Since coming home, my mind has been full of images - oleanders and magnolias, dolphins cresting in the mouth of the Savannah River, trees full of white egrets, dead armadillos lying stiffly by the side of the road, pelicans diving headlong into the surf off Tybee Island, Georgia. Even though I’m back at my desk, I feel like I’ve been a long time gone, not just physically but mentally. That’s the sign of a really good trip in my book. And talking of books, I’ve been combing mine to find those that reflect the lingering images in my head, from Toni Morrison’s extraordinary novel Beloved to Mary Chesnut’s diary of her experiences as the wife of a member of the Confederate government during the Civil War. Thanks to the joys of reading, though my body’s back in the unseasonable chill of the northern states, my head can stay way down south in Dixie for a little while longer.

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