The Snake and the Alligator

I have been lucky enough to have the time and resources to take modest trips in recent years. Last year this time, I took a fantastic trip to Savannah to get a look at the location where I’d set my historical novel, Channing. This year, I went to Charleston just because it seemed like a lovely place to go. Both times, I drove down to Butler Island, Georgia, which is the specific spot that inspired Channing. Between those two trips, I had the distinct pleasure to visit Skyline Drive, along the Blue Ridge overlooking the Shenandoah. I even took a hike down to the ruins of a few cabins that belonged to inhabitants of the area before the National Park Service took over the land. I wrote a novella set there during the Civil War–it was inspired, in part, by my ramblings along Skyline Drive.

What did these two trips have in common? Reptiles.

I mean, that and history and writing, of course, but mostly reptiles. This isn’t particularly apropos of anything, but I thought I’d share the stories.

In both cases, I should make clear, I was venturing out of my own. That becomes important to my reactions to said reptiles.

Last summer, I parked my car near mile marker 38 on Skyline Drive and started down the 20150516_122056mountain, towards the ruins of the Nicholson family cabins. It’s something like a mile and a half down (and I mean down; it’s steep). I reached the cabins, looked around a bit, rested by the river, and then started back. At one point, the path crossed a big, flat rock that overhung the river. I was merrily traipsing across this boulder when something made me stop and look to my left. And there it was, three feet away: a big old snake, the same dusty gray as the rock, maybe four or five feet long, stretched out in the dappled sunlight, its mouth open to hiss at me.


My reaction? A very melodramatic gasp, accompanied by a sudden dash for safety.

A hundred or so yards away, panting for breath, I started laughing. That snake hadn’t been interested in attacking me, but it hadn’t been interested in having me around, either. It was a little bit of adventure to spice up my hike, nothing more.


Flowers in the Shenandoah

Now, fast-forward to this March, and I was on Butler Island, in Georgia. To set the scene, it’s a very small, coastal island that’s as much water as land. 1-95 soars across the island on a 50-foot-high bridge and at 75 miles an hour. Below, its mostly swamp and a waterfowl refuge. Route 17 also passes through at ground level, right by the ruins of Butler Plantation’s rice mills, but it’s just a two-lane road passing through; there’s nothing much on Butler Island. Once you get off 17 and head west, towards where 1-95 passes overhead, the land turns very quickly into sandy swamp. Now, I happened to know that the rice fields used to be there and that from the air you can still make out the line of the ditches and dikes (holla, Google Maps). So I took the windy dirt road as far as I could go (to where I-95 passes overhead) and got out to take a walk around the larger, uninhabited western end of the island.

It was sandy and deserted, and two miles away from the road. I started off confidently into the sunny day. I heard things plopping into the water, mostly to my left, where the broad dirt path (wide enough for vehicles, but clearly not used often) gave way to still blue water. I told myself it was frogs, though I knew well enough that there are alligators in that part of the world. The splashes are too small for a gator, I told myself. And honestly, I was probably right. But there I was, now a mile away from my car, which in turn was two miles down an unused dirt road, and all alone on a path through a swamp, feeling


Butler Island,Georgia

more and more uneasy. Then I turned a curve in the road and “plop!”, an alligator does a belly flop into the water about thirty feet ahead of me. I saw his pebbly skin and whip-like tail. He wasn’t a particularly big gator–maybe five feet snout-to-tail. But that was more than big enough for me. I turned on my heel and started walking rapidly back towards my car, making as much noise as possible.


When I got back to the car, my pulse was up, but I couldn’t help laughing. I murmured to myself, “Sorry, Ann!” You see, Ann is a character in Channing who I have running down to the water to look for gators. I didn’t exactly feel like I was betraying her, but I suddenly respected her much more as a character.

And that, my friends, is the story of the alligator and the snake.

Antebellum and Civil War Potpourri

I wanted to throw together a few fairly random Antebellum and Civil War thoughts and links.

First up, a link to a delightfully written blog post from The Slave Dwelling Project about a stay of Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation (I visited the plantation back in March). If you aren’t aware, the Slave Dwelling Project raises money for preservation of and awareness about slave dwellings and slave experiences. Volunteers spend a night (or longer) in dwellings that once housed enslaved people. Obviously, the circumstances are vastly different than when the slaves lived there, but that’s the point: the remembering and reflecting.

Here is the article about a stay at Hofwyl-Broadfield, which includes the story of a man named Sam:

You may notice that Butler Plantation is mentioned. It isn’t a positive mention in that the reference is to Pierce Butler and his financial problems (financial problems which forced him to sell off several hundred of his slaves, uprooting them and tearing them from their families). I visited Butler Island, where the ruins of Butler Plantation’s rice mill are still visible. What brought me to that part of Georgia, to see Butler Island and Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, was a memoir by Fanny Kemble: Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. Fanny was an English actress who apparently didn’t realize the man she was marrying was the owner of a large plantation in Georgia. Her extraordinary recounting of her time there in the 1830’s caught my imagination, and eventually a novel was born: Channing (which snagged me representation by a literary agent). So, that’s a (far-too-long) explanation of why I so enjoyed this post.

Another thing I ran into this week: a short video via C-SPAN about Confederate flags. There was earlier in the year quite an uproar about Confederate flags (I wrote some of my own thought about it here), but not everyone was/is aware that what most people call the Confederate flag actually was the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, not the national flag of the Confederacy. Here’s a full explanation (note: the link probably won’t be active forever): 

And last but not least, I was thinking recently about the following Lincoln quote, not very cogently or deeply. But it kept rattling around my mind like a pebble, as if modern politics–America in general–might all make sense if I could just tip my head a little further to the left–or right–and get that pebble to land in just the right spot. I might have to keep trying. There’s a lot of wisdom in these words, and they’re eerily prophetic. They were spoken in 1838, some twenty-three years before the nation nearly committed suicide:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? . . . All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined . . . could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. . . If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

Oh, one more thing, added after initial publication of this post: an interesting painting entitled The Lost Cause (with all the baggage THAT phrase carries!). It’s interesting in its romanticizing of the yeoman farmer turned Confederate soldier. In a more concrete way, it reminds me of a character I wrote about in a novella, an injured old Confederate soldier who meets a runaway slave and begins to change his tune about many things. The scene depicted in the painting is rather like the opening of the novella, when Hamilton Gray is returning to his burned out cabin and finds a few squatters . . .

The Sea Islands of Georgia, March 2015

At the end of March (yes, it’s taken me a month to get around to blogging about it), I visited Savannah, Georgia. When family or friends asked, I said I had always kind of wanted to go to Savannah (it’s supposed to be so pretty!) and I had a travel voucher (because American Airlines screwed up a connection for me last May). I said that because I don’t talk much about my writing (at least not in person, even with family and friends). The most fundamental reason I wanted to go? I wrote a novel set on the Sea Islands of Georgia. The timing couldn’t have been better (but that is a story for another time). The novel was completed years ago (it’s undergone several revisions since then), and I’d always wanted to visit the place that inspired my trip, but I kept putting it off. I finally got my ass into gear. I booked my plane ticket and hotel room, bought a guide book, and plotted out the high points of a relatively brief trip.

My copy of Residence on a Georgian Plantataion

My copy of Residence on a Georgian Plantataion

First, I should back up a bit and mention how I came to be interested in the Georgia Sea Islands. I’ve always been interested in the Civil War. (I can’t imagine that anyone with a love of American History is NOT interested in the Civil War.) When I was in elementary and middle school, I started Dear America-style stories about the Civil War. I never got far. I started writing about different periods and for a while was pretty sure I wouldn’t ever seriously consider writing about the Civil War. But a lot of influences from my youth converged to make it inevitable, and when I ran across Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (actually a series of “letters sent to a friend”; here is a nice write-up from PBS, here is a link to it on Amazon, and here it is on Project Gutenberg), the cogs in my head started turning.

Fanny Kemble was an English actress born in 1809. Her family was a well-known acting family. At that time, acting was not a very well-regarded profession. Many people saw theatergoing as sinful and actors and (especially) actresses as especially immoral. Women who acted were little more than whores—or were simply whores, in the eyes of many. By the time Fanny took the stage, however, as a young lady trying to help keep her family afloat, these attitudes towards the theater were loosening. Fanny and her family were respected and were for the most part Shakespearean. Acting and the running of theaters was a notoriously precarious business venture. Fanny’s family had run into financial trouble, but Fanny became a sensation almost as soon as she took the stage. She and her father came to America to tour, and it was there (in Philadelphia) that Fanny met Pierce Butler, part owner of several rice plantations on the Georgia Coast.

Although it seems odd to us today, it appears that Fanny wasn’t aware of where her husband’s wealth came from before she married him. In part, this may be because the family were absentee and spent most their time in Pennsylvania and were even active in Pennsylvania politics. Partly, this is because it was considered very impolite to speak about money.

In any case, after years of cajoling, Pierce Butler finally allowed Fanny to come to Georgia with their two children, and thence Journal of a Residence. It is a beautifully written, compelling look at slavery. Fanny’s views and opinions are sometimes startlingly modern (most people wouldn’t expect a Victorian to be so forthright in her support of gender and racial equality).The way she describes Georgia also captivated me. It was clear she wished she could separate the beauty of Georgia from the darkness of slavery. But since she couldn’t, she returned to Philadelphia after several months in Georgia. She divorced Pierce Butler in 1849; the slaves were almost all sold off at auction in 1859 due to Pierce’s fiscal mismanagement; and during the Civil War, the Sea Islands of Georgia fell early to Union occupation. (For the better, let me be clear; the slaves were all freed.)

I won’t burden the readers with a description of my own fictional characters. Suffice it to say that Fanny was the starting point for them, and it was their fictional story (as well as Fanny Kemble’s real-life story) that inspired me to make the journey from DC to Georgia.

I wasn’t just there to see Butler Island, the scene of most of Fanny’s diary. I was also there to experience the city of Savannah. My plan was to spend one day south at Butler Island and the nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, then spend the other two full days exploring Savannah.

It was the end of March, but even the end of March is usually very temperate in Savannah. However, it was an especially cold snap; back home, temperatures barely rose about freezing. In Savannah, it was sunny and about sixty degrees. Not balmy, but definitely doable.

My first full day was almost surreally bright and clear. The sky was a fantastical kind of blue, and everything seemed so green when I stepped off the plane. It had been a long, cold winter in DC, and we hadn’t emerged from it yet. There in Savannah, spring was bursting at the seams. I got up early the morning after I arrived, hopped in my rental car, and drove south . . . along I-95. Yeah, it’s hard to escape I-95 on the East Coast. And it’s not exactly a romantic way to get around, but it is efficient. And it was such a beautiful day, and the drive was so lovely, that I didn’t even mind I was on an uninspiring 20th century highway.

It took about an hour to get to Butler Island. To get to the island, you get off I-95 the exit north of it, head slightly east and then turn south at the town of Darien, which was the closest town to the Butler plantation and which is mentioned multiple times in Fanny Kemble’s memoirs. Today, it’s a quiet little clutch of houses. Later, I would get turned around and find myself driving down enchanting neighborhood roads, only two lanes, no lines, a median of grass and flowering trees down the middle, small houses with bursting plant life all around. It had that pleasant, honeyed Southern charm you hear about—and that you can’t appreciate unless you see it.

20150329_102010Beyond Darien, over two bridges, there is a red chimney sticking up out the exquisitely green grass right by the side of the road. This is what I came to see: this is what’s left of the plantation that Fanny Kemble knew. The chimney is what remains of the steam-powered rice mill at Butler Plantation. There is also the stump-like ruin of the tide-operated mill. Time was, this was a thriving plantation sending flatboats laden with rice down the river to Savannah and further afield. But like everything

Tide-powered mill.

Tide-powered mill.

associated with slavery, it evaporated after the war. Today, it’s just these remnants. The pretty white house standing behind the chimney is twentieth-century; the house that Fanny stayed in is gone.

It made a striking image: the green, green grass, the brilliant sky, the red bricks , the white house.

By the road and the chimney is a historical marker telling visitors about Fanny’s daughter Frances, who came back to Butler Plantation after the war and tried to resurrect it, and about Owen Wister, who was Fanny’s grandson by her other daughter, Sarah. Oddly enough, Fanny herself isn’t mentioned, perhaps a pointed omission (who says the Civil War ended 150 years ago?).

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After taking entirely too many pictures (and many selfies), I started walking around. The remains of Butler Plantation are part of a wildlife refuge, so it has very much gone back to nature. I quite merrily walked along the paths, among hedges of jasmine just like the jasmine Fanny described in her memoirs. Ducks floated on the pond. Bees buzzed. There was no one there but me. I felt very much a part of this place. I couldn’t help thinking of the alligators and snakes that Fanny mentioned, and I kept an eye out for where I was stepping . . .

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I ate some lunch at a little boat launch near the house, then got back in the car to drive down a dirt road (Champney Road) just to the south of the plantation ruins. The road turns and wanders. A family was fishing in a pond, but otherwise, there was no one near. The road kept going west until it reached I-95. Yeah. I-95 actually cuts right across Butler Island. Considering that, it’s fairly unobtrusive. It glides by overhead, cars and trucks zipping by at 70 miles an hour. The pylons sink into the sandy earth. Otherwise, it doesn’t affect the island—no Mickey D’s, no off-ramps, no guardrails.


You can drive beneath I-95, but on the other side, the sign quite expressly says, “No vehicular traffic.” So I parked and jumped out and stated walking. I didn’t get too far, honestly. It’s a big island, and there’s nothing there except for the remains of dikes and canals. I stood at the beginning of one of these 170-year-old ditches and stared down the length of its regular course, where it disappeared into the vegetation. That’s all there is here, now: straight lines of water, and untended vegetation. I stood there, looking, taking it all in. Just imagine. Before it was a rice plantation, it was a cotton plantation.

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I wanted to stay, to explore it for days on end. I wanted to know so much more. But my time was limited, and there was more to do and see.

My next stop was south of Butler Island, at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation. Unlike Butler Plantation, which succumbed to the ravages of time, Hofwyl-Broadfield was lovingly preserved by the family who lived there. It was a rice plantation, then a dairy, and then a family home until the last woman to own it died at an old age and left it intact to the state of Georgia. Everything in it came with it: furniture that dated back to the Antebellum period, IMG_1652farm equipment from every time period, various outbuildings. It is now an exceptional place to visit and learn. The visitors center has a great video about how rice plantations operated and has a wonderful selection of books (I would have bought four or five but had to think about how much space they would take up in my suitcase!). There is a loop for a nature walk, which takes you past the ruins of the tabby-built rice mill and to an overlook of the salt marsh. (It’s incredible how high those grasses are! They’re at least ten feet high, though you wouldn’t expect that from a distance.) I had way too much fun setting up my camera with a timer and taking pictures of myself in the clearing with the ruins of the rice mill. The house tour was informative and immersive—like I said, pretty much all the family possessions from every period remained there in the house. It was a quirky little place, not at all reminiscent of the romantic visions some people have of plantation houses. It was comfortable but not large or grand. Beyond the house, there was a bevy of outbuildings, from the barn to the garage to slave quarters.

But perhaps the very best part of the place—for me!—was the trees. That sounds a little weird. Let me explain. I’m not what you call a huge tree person. My dad can instantly name most any tree you can point to. I can’t. I can tell a beech from a maple from an oak, but that’s about it. I do, however, know what a live oak is. Or at least, I had some conception of it, but until I really saw one of these ancient, magnificent beauties there at Hofwyl-Broadfield, I didn’t really understand. The trees there are said to be as old as eight hundred years. They’re massive, dwarfing the house. And what’s more, they aren’t just large and old; they’re also twisted and moss-covered, with their broad boughs like little ecosystems of their own. They’re almost magical. I was so enamored of the way one them leaned to the side, twisted around itself, and then leaned back the way it came, that I took about thirty pictures. It was absolutely beautiful.

Once I’d done the nature walk, toured the house, seen the museum, and gotten a few goodies at the gift shop, it was back in the car to head back for Savannah . . .

And since it occurs to me that I’ve expended a lot of words on one day of travel, I’m going to save the remainder of my trip for another post.