Dana Wildsmith is the author of an environmental memoir, Back to Abnormal: Surviving with an Old Farm in the New South (MotesBooks), four collections of poetry: One Good Hand (Iris Press, 2005), Our Bodies Remember (The Sow’s Ear Press, 2000), Annie (Palanquin Press, 1999), Alchemy (The Sow’s Ear Press, 1995), and an audio collection, Choices ( Iris Press). One Good Hand was a SIBA Poetry Book of the Year nominee and Garrison Keiller chose the poem “Making a Living” from this collection to read on NPR’S Writer’s Almanac. She has served as Artist-in-Residence for the Grand Canyon National Park and as Writer-in-Residence for The Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska, and has been a Poetry Fellow with the South Carolina Academy Of Authors. Her work is widely published in journals and anthologies. Wildsmith lives in Bethlehem, Georgia, and works as an English Literacy Instructor through Lanier Technical College.
So Hot Your Boot Soles Melt
You're only given a little spark of madness. You mustn't lose it.
Mama asks me this morning if I’ve heard a wood thrush yet. “Usually we hear the first wood thrush by Jessica’s birthday.” I love it that she carries around in her head the timing of summer’s heralds. And she’s right; the wood thrush is very much a summer bird here in Georgia. Thrush song matches the season: it is birdsong as lush and liquid as any early evening in summer. Those words, “early evening”, have a nice cool sound to them, but they lie. Early evening in July in Georgia is a cesspool of heat and humidity. It’s too hot to work outside, but too blue-skied gorgeous to bear being indoors looking out. A July afternoon is a blood-boiling siren beckoning you out to heat exhaustion. You know better than to answer her call, but you do, anyway, remembering there are tomatoes to be picked. Before you’ve plopped the second Cherokee Purple into your basket, sweat’s pouring like money to debts. You’re sure this is what hell must be like. And then, out of that cauldron of smelted air comes a clean metallic plinking, like bells tumbling down stairs. It’s such a silver sound you feel cooler, calmer just in the hearing. The wood thrushes are back. Maybe you can make it through the summer after all.
Sweat is one thing southerners of a certain age know with great intimacy. I’ve added that caveat, “of a certain age”, because it occurs to me there now exists a generation or two of born and bred southerners who have never lived with heat you can’t get away from. The heat’s still there, but you can always escape into air conditioning. In fact, I suppose most Georgians must now think of air-conditioned air as their natural environment, and whatever’s outside as the anomaly. This theory is borne out in my mind every time I see a new subdivision being built with no thought to designing or aligning houses so they’ll catch the best breezes in summer, the full warming face of sun in winter. Houses have for quite a while now been built as arrogant deniers of the elements rather than partners with them. And that works fine so long as we as a nation continue to be allowed conspicuous consumption of fossil fuels.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m as grateful as the next Georgian for the blessed relief of a full night’s sleep in August. I can remember when such nights were not a sure thing. I may have been among the last generation to live my earliest years in un-air-conditioned houses. In the same way those boxy old wooden farmhouses like Mama’s used to sink into interior deepfreeze each December, it was as if the house would suddenly remember, come August, how its family had been heard begging for heat and so the house would at last comply: You want heat? Here you go—every corner and closet is now stifled with heat so heavy it’ll make your teeth sweat. It’s why old houses in the south have wrap-around porches- so families could sit out there and doze and get at least an hour or two of rest before retiring to their miserable beds to stick and sweat and toss and fuss. Ours was the last generation to know and be grateful for the tiny pleasure of flipping your pillow to “the cool side”.
At least when I was a small girl the misery was a shared misery. No one had air conditioning except churches and movie theaters. We became the reverent generation, willing to sit still and worship —either God or Hollywood —so long as the air therein was sufficiently chilled. But then came the transition years, when possession of air conditioning or its lack became a demographic marker. I was an extremely young wife and mother living in Jacksonville, North Carolina, the first time this change was borne home to me. We had been assigned Junior Enlisted Housing on Camp LeJeune: WWII-era asbestos-shingled cubicles referred to in military parlance as “sub-standard housing”. We had no air conditioning. We had good coastal breezes, though, and I don’t remember feeling this amenity lack terribly much until one morning at Jacksonville Public Library’s Pre-school Story Hour. I happened to overhear two of the young townie mothers discussing the August heat, saying they couldn’t imagine living without air conditioning. “How could you stand to see sweat on your baby’s little neck?” one of them asked the other rhetorically. It was one of the few times in my life I can remember feeling shame. My baby had been sweating her teeny glands out all summer. Did this make me a sub-standard mother? Did I somehow love my baby less than they loved theirs? Now that I am older, of course, I would immediately dismiss those women as shallow, spoiled bitches. Many and powerful are the compensations which come with age.
Also, I now have the option of living in air conditioning every moment of every Georgia summer. Yet, I don’t. I’ve hung ceiling fans in each room—I am a devout believer in ceiling fans—and there are mature sweet gums and sycamores over-hanging and shading my roof. I grudgingly allow two window unit air conditioners to be turned on when heat and humidity build to a certain level on late summer evenings. I sometimes check the thermometer to determine if that level has been reached, but more often I use the Dog Gauge: when my dogs Max and Fred stop tearing around the house barking like dogs on steroids at every child or grasshopper passing by, when their sleek-muscled dog bodies go flaccid as de-boned chicken, when they can muster only enough strength to drag themselves to the cool pool of slate flooring in the dining room—it’s time. The air conditioning comes on and I lose the world.
Because this is the price you pay for never having to sweat—you live your life in what I think of as Airport Terminal Mode. Anyone who has flown into more than two or three major airports understands what I mean. Your plane lands, you disembark, look around and realize that you could be in any airport anywhere. Your only distinguishing clues are the logos on newsstand t-shirts. This is comforting in that you know where the restrooms will be, where the rental cars can be rented, how far away the McDonalds will be from your gate, but the generic-ness also requires nothing of you in the way of adaptation. When I flew into Tokyo the biggest adjustment I had to make—and it was a pleasant one—was in realizing I was expected to sit after ordering and wait for my food to be brought to my table with a bow from the employee. Well, that and the idea that in Japan McDonald’s serves flan, of all things.
I much prefer to be slapped in the face with a startlingly different way of approaching life’s routines, which is why the Sitka, Alaska, airport delighted me so much. It’s a low, square, basically two-room building perched on the water across a causeway from Sitka. Its main room is dominated by a stuffed grizzly- startle factor number one. The grizzly is about the only intimidating element in a space where check-in, security and customs all proceed within handshake distance of one another, sometimes conducted by the same pleasant young woman. When you’re checked and ready for your flight, the young lady advises you, “Better go get pie.” That’s when you notice the sign: a large arrow emblazoned with the single word, “PIE”, pointing toward a back room you’d not realized was there. At Sitka, you are not just encouraged but expected to eat pie before flying. They’re famous for their pies and you need to know this, to experience this, before leaving them. And so I complied; I’m not even much of a pie person, but I was one then, for that moment. When else in my life might I end up in an airport defined by pie?
That same leaning toward taking advantage of a unique setting was what caused me to be in Alaska in January. I’d been chosen as a Writer-in-Residence for The Island Institute and was offered my preference of one of three time slots to come and work for a month: November, January, or April. I chose January. Why go to Alaska, I reasoned, and not experience an Alaska winter? It was a good decision. This south Georgia girl learned about snow and ice—real snow and ice, not the temporary guest variety we sometimes get in Georgia. And what did I find myself writing about there in that frozen world? Sweat.
Throughout the last two weeks of my residency snow fell mostly without let-up, day and night. I watched as a ledge of snow and ice formed above my kitchen window, grew in size until it almost obliterated the window, then snapped off from its own weight. Soon, a new ledge would start to form. What am I doing in a place where things like this can happen? I thought to myself. I don’t know jack about snow. Now sweat—I can name eight or nine kinds of sweat… And I did. Right there in my small cave of warmth in a foreign world, I started writing a poem about back sweat and neck sweat and eyelid sweat. My immersion into Alaska’s radically different weather world forced me to pay attention to its ways and requirements. A woman I met there told me, “You can never take anything for granted in Alaska.” I grew up in south Georgia, where you can take it for granted eleven months of the year that flip flops, shorts, a t-shirt and a hat is a sensible way to dress. Confronting a body of world knowledge significantly at odds with my own made me examine what was at the core of my Georgia-based world knowledge. If I had not moved beyond what I know best, would I have realized with such assurance just what it is I know?
When I was sixteen I sat in on Sunday evening meetings of a college-age discussion group. They met in the living room of the Methodist Parsonage where I lived, so, young as I was, they had to let me stay. One of the questions I remember being debated was whether it is necessary to know evil in order to know goodness. Can you love if you have never felt hate? Does every emotion, every philosophical condition exist as half of a duality? My tendency then as now is to answer with a qualified yes. If I had never experienced an Alaska winter I would nonetheless possess a circumstantial knowledge of sweat, but I might never have examined my sweat knowledge to discern the specifics which it comprises. Examination leads to deeper understanding, deeper understanding opens up our codified knowledge into a spreadsheet of its components, and getting to know a whole as the sum of its parts frees us to use those parts as tools. When I lived for a short while in a deepfreeze, my sweat-less state led me to think about sweat more specifically than I ever had, and from that thinking a poem began to grow as steadily as that snow ledge outside my Sitka window.
It is this idea of thinking through to the specifics of what a person believes to be true which seems hardest for new writers to grasp. I tell my writing students, “Don’t write about Death; write about a death.” I tell them “death” is a concept and concepts are huge flabby rucksacks carrying one set of meanings for them and another set entirely for me. I tell them to write down a description of the picture which pops into their heads when they hear the word “death”. “I see my granny in her coffin”, my student Kory might say. “Good”, I respond. “Tell me your Granny’s name. How did she die? What were you thinking when you stood over her casket? “ And as soon as Kory begins to write down these specifics, she is painting a word picture for her reader which will show exactly what she means by “death”. Consider this from Donald Hall's "The Old Life":
Back at the motel, after
all day by her bed, I walked up
and down, talking
to myself without making a sound, staying
clear, and made a slip
of the tongue: 'My life has leukemia.'
Hall doesn’t need to say another word to help us see what death means to him. We understand that his wife is dying and so is life as he knows it. It is here a second door opens in us, the reader: as soon as we understand, we care. Making the reader care is- has to be- the core goal of all writers.
Making people care is certainly my goal, as a writer and as a defender of our natural resources. It’s interesting how I can cause people to care about the health of my land by the same method I use to draw them to my writing. I give people something small they can see and connect to, to stand for a larger condition they can’t see. I give them jelly. All spring and summer, starting with the first ripening of strawberries in March, I make batches and batches of jelly. My jelly repertoire usually includes: strawberry, blackberry, apple, muscadine, quince, apple butter, and blueberry preserves. My friend Jenni Overbey lusts after my blueberry preserves to the degree that when I discovered one remaining jar last winter and slipped it to her at choir practice, she clutched it to her chest, crooning, “Oh, and it’s a good vintage, too—’06!”. Once when I announced to a group of friends I would not be giving away any more jelly until people returned empty jelly jars, I was presented with dozens of bags of jars, some of which had not even come from me originally. I make very, very good jelly. Because Jenni and Jon and Vikki want my jelly to keep appearing each year, they care about the health of my blueberry patch, my wild blackberries, muscadine vines roping my pines like Tarzan’s jungle gym.
And you may stand assured my summer afternoons of jelly-making add to my personal knowledge of sweat. Jelly ingredients must be brought twice to a full rolling boil, requiring twenty minutes or more of constant stirring to prevent scorching. There’s no getting around it. You have to stand by a burner flame set to high, with no fans cooling the air nearby. You have to stand and stir while sweat pours from your face like regret from a condemned man. Listen to how my friend, the brilliant poet Robert Morgan, describes “Canning Time”: "The heat and pressure were enough to grow / diamonds . . . " Those words could have been written only by a man who was once a small boy sweating alongside his mother and aunts.
I, too, have known heat. I have patched a roof in August and felt my boot soles melt to the asphalt shingles. I have slept in an old inn in Mexico in July in a room so hot I would break a sweat brushing my teeth at six a.m. I have walked outside to get the mail in Orlando and watched the whole sky shimmer in waves of visible heat. I have walked home from high school in Savannah and had to stop twice under the shade of neighbors’ trees to keep from passing out on the sidewalk. Yet I would not trade my life of sweat for all of Alaska’s crystalline ice. There is a generosity to heat which I can’t find in extreme cold. Heat gives you a chance to survive its fury without artificial means. You don’t need special clothing; you don’t need fires or furnaces with their attendant fossil fuels; you don’t need to build any sort shelter against heat. All you need is a spot of shade and a little common sense.
The catch here is that shade and common sense are more and more going lacking in the world of twenty-first century America. The first sacrifice of most development projects is trees. Trees and roots get in the way of pavements and curbs and slab construction. They’re time-consuming and costly to work around, so they go. Developers love the acreage around Grace Farm because it was long ago logged and planted to cotton and tobacco. No trees to cut down on an old cotton field. The builder can start from level ground to grade his acres for houses and roads and sidewalks. I have lived in subdivisions myself and not felt slighted by my circumstance, but I did not then have the basis for comparison I now own. I can step from any spot in my woods onto the paved surfaces of a subdivision and instantly feel a five degree rise in temperature. There’s even a name for this now: “heat islands”. Somehow, a heat island doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to visit.
I want to live in the world of north Georgia as it is, not as it can be homogenized. I want to respect Georgia’s summer heat for its ferocity and I want to be grateful for the avenues of escape Georgia’s undeveloped landscape provides me. I want to work in my garden until sweat builds on my eyelashes so thickly I can no longer see the cilantro, and then I want to walk to the creek with Max and listen to wood thrushes chiming in another summer evening. It will cool off soon, They’re saying. You’ve almost made it through another day. Sit down; relax; have a glass of sweet tea. You’ve earned it.