Nature Experience #6 – The Old South – Feb. 2011

I’ve always been lured to the mystery and romance of the Old South. Half of my brain accepts that the Old South is no longer there, but half of it is consumed with the idea of ghostly plantations with stately buildings and beautiful gardens. In February 2011, I had the opportunity to visit the Old South and actually spent the night on two former plantations. The experience was bittersweet for someone with the mind of a naturalist and the heart of a romantic. 

You’ve probably learned that my husband and I are ‘drivers.’ We much prefer the open road when we are going someplace, and would rather see the countryside through the windshield than clouds through a tiny airplane window. Last year, one such trip included a couple of days crossing the panhandle of Florida, and coastal Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. It was February, but the weather was mild. 60 degree days, 40 degree nights, blue skies with puffy cloud ships floating casually across.

We toured Bellingrath gardens in Mobile, AL. The camillias were beautiful, but they were among the only flowers blooming. The lawns of green grass were immaculate, and we strolled through the showplace of gardens, down winding paths, across bridges and eventually into the natural area of swamp, sharing the place with only about two dozen other winter visitors. At the natural area, my naturalist mind took over, thinking about all the plants and animals that had formerly lived in this highly manicured famous garden.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not regretting the transformation at this site. Humans, like EVERY living creature, alter their habitats. It is expected. It is only when those alterations are excessive and continuous that the intricate natural systems that keep our air clean, our water fresh, and our soil full of nutrients become compromised. History tells us that altering those habitats and compromising those systems in the past has resulted in the downfall of civilizations. Life – all life – depends upon finding a balance.

Even there, in those beautiful gardens, Nature could take it all back if the gardens and lawns were left untended for a decade or two. The natural process of succession would quickly begin and work amazingly fast. To keep them as lovely gardens, thousands upon thousands of dollars and hours of time are required.

We left the gardens and traveled on, soon seeing evidence of Hurricane Katrina in the forests of the south, where all that remained of once magnificent trees were lone trunks reaching skyward. As we reached the suburbs of New Orleans, the devastation to the human inhabitants was heartbreaking. Neighborhoods devoid of houses, or full of abandoned structures with boarded over doors and windows. Blame Nature’s wrath, if you will, but human alteration of ecosystems had a role to play here, where natural flood control deltas and estuaries at the mouth of the Mississippi River had been rampantly filled in and developed over past decades.

We scurried on past the city, into a land that should have eased my aching heart. Instead, I found mile after mile of refineries and chemical plants. And here and there, tucked among them, a beautiful plantation house. Each one offered tours to the public as a means of preventing the historic home from being swallowed by the petrochemical industry. We stopped at several, and became steeped in the pre-Civil War past, and in an accurate telling of life on a sugar plantations for both the owners and the slaves who made the place profitable.

We followed the river plantation tour, and wound our way along a road that bordered the river. We couldn’t see the river for the levee that had been built beside it to protect developments.

To shorten my story, eventually we made it to Oak Alley, where we had reservations to spend the night in an authentic cabin, refurbished for overnight visitors. When the workday was over, the grounds of the plantation were ours. We were given free access to the incredible lawns and that amazing, highly photographed alley of live oak trees that led from the river road to the entry of the mansion.

We walked the alley in the falling night, amazed at the trees, whose limbs stretched fifty, a hundred – no, two hundred! yards out over the lawn, intertwining with the limbs of other trees. The roots of the giant trees broke the surface of the ground, and twisted and turned on top of the earth just as the limbs did in the sky above them. Estimated at over two hundred and fifty years in age, the planter of these magnificent trees is unknown. And this was not the only alley of oaks we saw during our explorations. Apparently, in the late 1700s, planting rows of trees was a popular pastime for landowners, and if they made a grand entrance for a future house, so much the better.

In the gloaming, we stared up at the windows of the house, watching for ghostly figures. We walked the lawns, our minds full of Gone With the Wind and similar tales. We imagined the life and death struggles of the slaves who worked there, and the dreams and nightmares of the plantation owners in a world where life was so tenuous, where disease and crop failures could decimate families in an instant. 

From Oak Alley we drove north to Stevensville, and the Cottage Plantation. Much, much smaller in scale, we stayed in a room in a wing of the same house where Andrew Jackson once spent the night. We wandered the grounds of the old home, now a Bed and Breakfast. We picked our way through the old structures, formerly a school house, or a stable, or a carriage house. We poked around the ancient cemetery, we nosed into gardens fallen into decay, where statuary was covered with vines. Nature was taking hold again here, and without funds to maintain the historic property, it is slated to become a hasbeen in a rapidly developing world. 

When places like Oak Alley and Cottage Plantaion are gone, what will remind us of that lost culture – the one we romanticize and still fail to understand? I’m glad to have visited before those sites are gone, and yet, as I said at the beginning, my visit was bittersweet. The mind of a naturlist saw evidence at Cottage Plantation that the vines and grasses of the Old South were taking hold once again. The heart of a romantic felt heavy nostalgia that what once was would never be again, and that most likely, it had NEVER been as wonderful as I had wanted to believe. 

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