HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 17, 2007
From Liberty Street

Fallow Time

John Turner


For the first time in years I’m sealed off from the national and international political scene. I’m staying at a house in Floyd County, Georgia -- a house that has figured in my life, in one way or another, throughout my entire existence -- with no television,  no radio, no newspaper, and no internet hookup. I suppose I could go out and turn on the radio in the car if I had a mind to. But at the moment, I’m free of that inclination.

Later this afternoon, if this is going to reach you, I’ll have to drive into Rome and find a coffee shop or a hotel lobby with a wireless hookup. But right now I’m separated from the big world.

In the distance, I see the slope of Turkey Mountain, another feature that has been part of my whole life experience. Truth is, it’s scarcely a mountain at all, just a good-sized north Georgia hill, but it has always been called a mountain and, so, that’s what it is.

Turkey Mountain can serve as well as anything else to introduce the theme of this piece, which is personal mythology and the utter inability of anyone to explain the power of its meaning to anyone else. Floyd County, here in northwest Georgia, and particularly the area around Floyd Springs, Armuchee, and Rosedale, is the region of my ancestors, and what’s perhaps more important for me personally, the region of my boyhood summer vacations. That’s the language of ordinary memoir, and it is so paltry compared to what Floyd County actually is to me that it almost nauseates to see the words on the screen. Because, you see, Floyd Country actually is magic, the home of wood sprites, and demons, and nymphs, and heroes.

To most Americans driving through here, it would present itself as pedestrian rural countryside, inhabited by not particularly enlightened people, who speak in an accent they associate with flat, redneck culture.  But, that’s because they don’t know. What you can’t understand, and what I couldn’t make you understand, even if I locked you in a room and talked at you for a thousand years, is that Floyd County is not just one more piece of childhood nostalgia. It is monumental, beyond the experience of anyone else who has ever walked the earth. It is gigantic. It is mystical. It is charged with so much more than other people have ever known they are all members of a different species from myself. That’s how it is in the mythic realm. But even saying so doesn’t approach getting to what I mean.

When I was eighteen years old, I brought my girlfriend here for the first time. She was only sixteen, and so still on the edge of being able to discern a tincture of the surrounding reality. We walked down to the creek together and stood in the deepening shadows, holding hands, and I began to believe that maybe she could grasp a bit of what was going on around us. Yesterday, a half-century later, we walked down to the creek again. I’m not going to say it was as it was then, but there was some feeling of it, and memory too, sharp and gripping. Our grandson was with us and he waded in the creek and squished the thick Floyd County mud between his toes. Seeing him there caused me to think that maybe I’ve been more fortunate than I’ve generally supposed. Not everybody gets to take his girl to the creek and, then, more than fifty years later, take her again, with all the things that have happened in between sloshing around in his mind. I’ll try to remember that next time I get into one of my moaning and groaning moods.

This may not seem to have much to do with where I started. But, it’s related in this way: in my system of valuation, the big world, the political world, the world of empires and power, and getting and spending, is virtually nothing compared to the world of one’s personal myth. In fact, the prime function of the big world is to serve the myriad personal myths we are able to construct for ourselves. The latter constitute both worth and reality; the former is mere practicality. Anybody who doesn’t see that is in a pathetic condition, grasping desperately for something that is never going to be reached or even approached.

There’s far too much of such desperate grasping in the big world today -- perhaps, always has been. Consequently, the function of anybody who wishes to rescue the world from pathos is to discover ways -- methods that actually work -- to reduce frantic grabbing after false, glittering valuations, and therefore enhance the freedom of personal meaning, which does, in turn, require personal myth. There are those who will argue that eternal grasping is human nature, a condition which can’t be modified. But that’s just a rationalization for weakness, a fear of facing up to the great task.

I’m afraid in that way myself much of the time. But, here in my mythical land, I can sense that the fear can be conquered. I can even believe it.


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