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Archive for June, 2012

Today I am a redneck, and I will be again tomorrow.

By Wednesday, it should start to peel.

While I was away, Duke Energy decided to cut down a tree in my front yard.  Fair enough; the tree was clearly dying, and they did so at no charge.  The crew they sent to do the job, though, left a mess of logs and limbs, matted grass and crushed flowers.

I decided to see not inconvenience, though, but opportunity.  For the last several years, I’ve read and written about the early Southern frontier, from Jamestown to the American Revolution and beyond.  Chopping, splitting, and hauling wood was a central fact of life through almost all of the South for three centuries, and it’s half-past high time that I try my hand at it.  Saturday morning, I went and got my ax and my maul out of the storage shed, spat on my palms, and got to work.

To make a long story short – actually, the story itself is short; it’s just the day that was long – I went to bed Saturday night blistered, calloused, sore and sunburnt.  I also, at some point during the day, had entertained the following thoughts (in no particular order):

  • Drop me – 2012 me, not some alternate 18th-century version of me – in the Southern backcountry before the invention of the chain saw and/or pre-fab housing, with my shelter dependent on my industry and skill with an ax, and I’m going to spend a lot of nights sleeping under the stars before I’ve chopped enough for a hovel, much less a cabin.
  • Alternate 18th-century me, though, would almost certainly have been raised to that kind of work, and would have had a rudimentary cabin built in a day or two.
  • My most glaring lack for this job wasn’t the strength or the stamina, but the skill – to find the cut lines where the wood will split easily, to strike those lines true with every swing, to spot and avoid the punky wood that won’t split no matter how hard or often you hit it.  I learned and improved as the day went on, but I would have saved lots of time and gallons of sweat if I’d known all that when I started.
  • Not that some more strength and stamina wouldn’t have come in handy.  In 1750, the average adult American male was half-a-foot shorter and about 50 pounds lighter than me, but I wouldn’t want to arm wrestle that guy if he worked like that on a regular basis.
  • Which makes me wonder about the early settlers who weren’t raised to that kind of work – the transported convicts and indentured city dwellers and skilled tradesmen who’d never had to use an ax or maul.  How often did – if not survival, then the course of the rest of their lives, depend on how quickly they learned; or how hard they were willing to work to overcome their handicaps; or whether or not they had kindly, knowledgeable neighbors?  If a settler needed two or three times as long to build a cabin before he could start to clear fields and plant crops, was he stuck behind the curve of prosperity, never able to catch up?
  • I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s astonishing how much wood comes from a single, medium-sized tree.  My tree (a red oak, by the way) was a toothpick compared to the oaks and maples of the great old-growth American forests the early settlers found.  Even so, one two-foot-long section produced enough split shingles for two wheelbarrow loads.  A friend of a friend who heats his home with a wood-burning stove has filled a cargo van three times, and there’s still at least two more van-loads in my yard.
  • Yet we almost deforested America, as the English did Ireland.
  • I have seen several log or half-timbered houses and barns that have managed to survive to the present day.  I have never been as impressed by their construction as I should have been.
  • David Hackett Fischer, citing the OED, says that ‘redneck’ was long used as “a slang word for religious dissenters in the north of England,” and quotes North Carolina’s Anne Royall, who in 1830 “noted that ‘red-neck’ was ‘a name bestowed upon the Presbyterians.’”
  • Others trace this use of the term back to the Presbyterian Covenanters of 17th century Scotland, who wore red scarves or collars.
  • Meanwhile, in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, F. N. Boney of the University of Georgia says the term ‘redneck’ “did not come into common usage until the 1930s,” and “is usually a negative expression describing a benighted white southerner.”  He locates the term’s origins in the blazing sun under which their ancestors worked.
  • I suspect that both meanings and histories of the word are correct, and interchangeable, since the populations described so often overlapped on the Southern frontier.  It’s also entirely possible, if not downright probable, that the first meaning was forgotten entirely over time, and the term re-invented with only the second meaning in mind.
  • Either way, it’s absolutely certain that any and all etymologies of the word were utterly irrelevant that Saturday evening, when the hot shower water hit my red neck.  Land o’ Goshen and my stars-and-garters, that hurt.
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I’m Dixie Babbling in New York City this week, which isn’t as disorienting as you might think.*  Our first night in the city (again), my wife and I met some friends in the East Village for a dinner of “Ukrainian soul food.”  As we left I noticed a big BBQ sign down the street, and told how I once came to NYC for meetings and was taken for lunch to a place in Midtown offering “authentic Southern barbecue.”

It was a gracious, if misguided, gesture, and I wondered then – and again to our friends – why in New York you’d try to offer “authentic” barbecue.  To which our friend Matt replied, with great wisdom, “All I can say is there’s a Chinatown here.”

He could have reminded me that we just walked out of a Ukrainian restaurant, because the concept applies.  New York is not a city of immigrants; it’s THE city of immigrants, and that includes great waves of immigrants from within, from “flyover country,” from all those places that are most definitely not New York City.

So my Dixie Babbles aren’t that foreign in Manhattan.  No one has looked at me funny when I speak.  Mine is far from the only drawl in the borough.  I’ve known so many who have left the South for New York and, while retaining much of their Southernness, never looked back.*  An old and grand and thriving strand of American fiction rests on the notion.

And though there is no “Dixietown” or “Little Hicksville” neighborhood, New York City does have its own old enclave of transplanted Southerners: Harlem.  The African-Americans who left Dixie and found a home north of 110th Street rarely self-identified as Southerners – for damn good reasons – but the South’s culture was integrated long before its water fountains.  Try to imagine the South without front porches, okra, and the banjo – all of which have African roots.  If you find yourself in Manhattan and want a meal that will remind you of home, skip the Midtown barbecue and head to Harlem.

* I’ve been to New York more times than I can count, but still, every time I arrive, I have a momentary disruption that runs something like this: “Dear God, the people; all these people.  How can there be this many people, and how can they all be in one place for anything other than a football game?  And, oh Lord, this is only a tiny fraction of them.  Oh gracious God, please set me down in the middle of a nice quiet swamp before I go out of my mind.”

* Harold Hayes, the editor who turned Esquire into a cultural force in the 1960s, was the son of the Baptist preacher who was pastor of my great-grandparents’ church in my hometown.

Postscript: I’d written this post in my notebook during a break from sightseeing, then walked through Chinatown to the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side.  In the midst of a fascinating if somewhat overpriced one-hour tour, the guide made reference to the South’s current struggles with Hispanic immigration – the South’s first experience with mass influx of non-English speakers since the 1700s, and one we haven’t handled especially well; we should own up to that.  She mentioned she’d lived in the South, but then hastened to add, “Don’t tell anyone that.”  Ha ha.  So glad to know we can still condescend toward the South and Southerners, even in a discussion of the evils of discrimination.

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