Saturday, March 10, 2012

In the Act of Doing Everything but Blogging

Since last I posted, I've been writing, teaching, reading students' work, editing...and thinking about blogging. That's the problem. Blogging is not for thinking, and vice versa. It may be for sampling ideas, doing a mashup of this and that and hoping to come up with a snappy ending, but for depth--not so much. I've had blogger's block and I need to get over it.

So let me just tell you about our weekend trip to Eastern NC. We left Raleigh at about 5:30 on a Friday night with friends Nancy and Chip in the back seat. We stopped in Rocky Mount and ate barbecue at Gardner's. Chip opted for the buffet. The rest of us ordered off the menue. We got to our B&B in Williamston at 8:30 or so, sipped a little something, laughed a lot, slept like babies. Innkeeper Lucia, who is the best friend you didn't know you had but you're so glad you do, fixed us a big breakfast. We set out for Hope Plantation in Windsor. It isn't opened in winter, but we could stroll the grounds. Beautiful place--we'll go back and get the tour.

Next: time to eat again. We went to an old fish house on the banks of the Roanoke River, the Cypress Grill. Jane and Michael Stern and other luminaries have been there but mostly it's for the locals. We marvelled at what keeps the Grill from being in the river and marvelled at fried herring, rock fish, oysters, shrimp, potato cakes, hushpuppies. The pies were not fried. Chocolate, pecan, cocoanut, lemon. We ate them all. But don't worry, there was cole slaw to make it healthy.

Then we set off for Somerset, an old plantation on Lake Phelps, now part of Pettigrew State Park, near Creswell. I know someone from Creswell and I'd never heard of it until I met him. I asked him, where is Creswell and we soon determined that it was 45 minutes from anything I'd ever heard of. "Look," Mike said, "East is big."

With that in mind, I suggested we use my GPS to get us to Somerset. I told Steve that Garmina might take us on back roads and there is almost nothing Steve loves more than a back road. But he does not believe in GPS. Too new-fangled. I could see the two sides of his mind arm wrestling over it and the back roads side won. We set Garmina and took off.

You should know that this part of North Carolina is not just low, it is the lowest of low land. The soil is rich but has to be drained to be farmed. The roads are bordered by deep ditches and canals. You can see for miles across wide, flat fields and see that the canals and farm roads form a grid. 'Twould be fun to fly over. There is a tulip farm nearby, established by Dutch immigrants. It is easy to see why the Dutch felt at home there.

Suddenly, Garmina pipes up. Turn right and take immediate left. Steve did it and upon making that left turn, we seemed to be in somebody's front yard. A little white dog and a big black goat came running out to see what we were doing there. Steve says, this can't be right. Yet we can see that a hardpacked dirt road runs through the yard and out across the fields. I say, it probably is right, but he feels (rightly) we're intruding so turns around and returns to the paved road we'd been on before Garmina spoke.

We go another mile or so and Garmina says again: Turn right and take immediate left. Steve does, and we're back on the the hardpacked dirt road, this time with no house, dog, or goat in sight. Now Steve's in the spirit, as are Nancy and Chip are who are good folks for an adventure. We take that road, crossing canals on makeshift bridges, admiring the fields, empty in February, wondering what grows there, sometimes seeing a county road marker that tells us the distance to Creswell off to the north, until we get to Somerset.

So far, so bloggable. This trip was intended primarily for eating, with the piece de resistance being oysters at the Sunnyside Oyster Bar back in Williamston. The trips to Hope and Somerset were my idea: lets get a little history as we pass the time between meals. GPS-directed discoveries are welcome, too. I was composing blog posts in my mind all along the way.

Until we got to Somerset.

Somerset Place was a plantation with tens of thousands of acres. The Collins family owned more than 300 slaves living at once. They bought and brought men directly from Africa to hand-dig canals so that the acreage could be farmed. Three hundred people produced great wealth for a dozen. Three hundred were kept back from the dozen by nothing more than a picket fence. And fear. And a sort of kindness that was really the most delicate and subtle form of domination.

The Collins family's history at Somerset lasted for less than a century and they were greatly reduced in fortune by the end of the Civil War. Theirs is one American story.

The descendents of the enslaved population are much more numerous than the descendents of the Collinses, and their American story is accordingly vaster and more complicated. Somerset is now a State historical site within a state park. Mostly because of one person, Dorothy Spruill Redford, it honors those people whose labor, sweat, illness, death, love of each other, development of community, talents and intelligence built and maintained Somerset.

My blogger brain came to a screeching halt. I stood on the steps of a slave cabin and looked out over the fields, the canals, the long straight paths, and I felt the spirits. I wanted more than anything to convey this but it isn't suited to smashup or sampling.

We went back to Williamston in great spirits, had time for napping or reading before cocktails and a long fun night at the Sunnyside.

That night, I dreamed Somerset.

Dorothy Spruill Redford, who is a descendent of the enslaved Somerset community, has written a book called Somerset Homecoming. Read it. And study the photo on page 85. It shows a path, still flat and clear years after the enslaved people were gone because of thousands or millions of their footstep. The path runs straight toward the mansion house. To the left, there is a row of slave houses. To the right, the lake, bordered by cypress trees.

You'll dream you walk that path, that edge between wilderness and community. You'll wake and hope you can find it, and not follow but cross it.

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