Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) is making his way through southern New Jersey, and finding a little bit of the South there. I use the opportunity to reflect on what makes the South, the South. To see where Millville and Bridgeton sit as we begin our trip westward and back to the beginning, go to the map. The illustration at right is by Bob Hines, hosted at Wikimedia Commons, and is of the New Jersey state bird, the American goldfinch.
"As the pine belt disappeared, the state took on a Southern cast below Millville, an old glass-making town on the Maurice River flowing through the exposed silica deposits of lower Jersey. Near here, the first Mason jar was made. Outside of Bridgeton, the Southern aspect showed plain: big fields of soybeans, corn, cabbage, strawberries, and fallow fields of dusty brown, and slopes of peach and apple orchards. Black men worked patch farms, and with cane poles they fished muddy creeks of the lowlands where egrets stepped meticulously through the tidal marsh."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 9
Millville and Bridgeton, New Jersey
There is a difference in the South.
I'm not sure exactly what that difference is. Maybe it's the light. In the North, the light seems either really really hot and intense, at least in the summer months, or cold and harsh in the winter. That is, if you see the light at all in the winter - when I lived in Milwaukee we would often go a month or two with gray, overcast skies. In the South, especially as you get closer to the Gulf Coast, the light takes on a muted aspect, and it seems like the colors, especially toward sunset, become pastels.
Maybe it's the land, which takes on a rural aspect. Certainly there are large cities in the North, but the South has been and will be known primarily for its agriculture. I think that perhaps an offshoot of this idea is also based on ethnicity. When I lived in the North, the African-American population was mostly found in the cities. Once you drove into the country in the Midwest or Northeast, the farmers were mostly white or the farms were large cooperatives or corporately owned. But in the South, African-Americans are much more represented in the rural populations, and as owners and workers of farms. Perhaps this has to do with migration - in escaping slavery, and later the hardships of sharecropping as well as looking for well-paying jobs, many African-Americans moved north to the factory jobs in the cities. This created a population that moved into cities and stayed and that only reconnects with its farming roots perhaps when some people from the North come back to visit their extended Southern families, many of whom have roots and branches that still farm as a way of life.
Maybe the change is in the stereotypes that we have of the South. Who hasn't heard a version of the "sleepy South?" Who doesn't take note of the different accents one finds there. Who doesn't note the change to primarily country music and Christian stations on the radio when one crosses the imaginary line (the Mason-Dixon line if you will) that demarcates the South from the other parts of the nation?
Perhaps it is the food? The slow-cooked comfort food, with those qualities that we consider Southern. Barbecued, fried, often with vegetables, like okra, that those of us in the North have never tried. Grits, biscuits and gravy for breakfast, Collard greens and fried chicken steak for dinner. Good, wholesome and often artery-clogging food.
It might be that the change is also in pace. To me, the North seems busy. People constantly moving, meeting, getting places. They bark orders and arrange things on their various communication devices...smart phones, IPads and other tablets. In the Northern cities, people put on headphones and crowd the rest of the world out with music from their IPods and MP3 devices. In the downtowns of places like Chicago and New York, the clattering of the subways and elevated trains create, at least for me, moments of loud distractions as they rumble overhead and underneath, squealing to a stop with the scratchy announcement of loudspeakers, and then rumble off again, sparking away into the distance of tunnel or track. But in the South, the days seem to go longer, especially in the summer. My one experience of living in the South, in New Orleans (which admittedly is Southern and yet not Southern but in this experience I think it is very Southern), the night brought more quiet. I could hear the insects even as I sat on a porch outside my home. In fact, where did I ever sit on a porch in the evening regularly other than in the South? The smells of night-blooming jasmine filled the air. Music, actually played and not filtered through cords and earpieces but actually transmitted straight to the ear, seemingly such an important part of the Southern soul, filtered out of houses where someone practiced, or out of clubs where bands entertained. The days were often hot and lazy, leading to a sort of lethargy of body and reflection of mind.
I don't really want to paint the South in one broad brush, just as one can't paint the North accurately in similar strokes. The differences abound from Georgia to Louisiana, from Florida to Tennessee. A people and place cannot be captured in a few words as there are complexities and regionalities and all of those things that make us all individuals, each deserving of notice individually in our own right.
Yet it is our tendency as humans to avoid the complexities and generalize. We want to make things simpler in order to grasp only the essences of what we need to know. And for that reason, we can point to the pace, and the food, and the rural, and other aspects of the South that jump out at us, or are reinforced in other ways, so that minds so capable of grasping the most complex ideas don't have to work as hard. This is a danger, as if we oversimplify, we run the risk of dismissing a whole region based on isolated facts, or making too much of cosmetic differences instead of celebrating our whole country. As we know tragically from history, over and over again, generalization can lead to some very bad consequences.
Yes, there is a difference in the South. And I like a whole lot in that difference.
I first heard R.L Burnside in New Orleans, on a CD that had a re-mixed version of his song Miss Maybelle. I really liked it. We think of the South as a bastion of country music, but the south is also the birthplace of jazz and the blues. R.L. Burnside was one of the the last of the old-time blues players who took the Delta blues and made them even more raw by electrifying them. I wish I had seen him live in New Orleans before he died in 2005.
If you want to know more about Millville and Bridgeton
Bridgeton Area Chamber of Commerce
City of Bridgeton
Glasstown (Millville) Arts District
Millville Chamber of Commerce
The News of Cumberland County (newspaper)
Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center of Millville
Next up: Othello, New Jersey