By Vaughn Samuels
“How much longer till we get to Grandmother’s house?”
That was the mantra bellowed from the backseat in the earliest years of my childhood, whenever we made the drive to Clay County, Alabama, on our annual pilgrimage to my parents’ home place. Years earlier, they had moved out of state and settled in the city, but they never forgot their roots, and were faithful to return to them for visits with friends and family at least once a year. For me, these trips were an adventure, no less fantastic than the fairy tales read in kindergarten, or boyhood aspirations of flying X-Wing Fighters into outer space. Gazing through the double-paned window of that backseat, I watched the outside scenery gradually morph from high-rise, neon, compacted industry, over to gentler, quieter, more serene surroundings. And though the drive itself was filled with games and songs designed to quell the thirst of children’s appetite for action, it was also dotted with milestone moments that have withstood the scourge of time, and lined my memory with priceless treasures of Americana.
Through the lens of my childhood, Clay County was a magical place, really, that existed outside of what I knew to be “the world”. Not only was it the environment that changed from massive highways and bustling sounds of the city, but the buildings themselves that would occasionally jut out from the hillsides. Images as foreign to me as a silo, a mill, or a plow would suddenly appear and beckon explanation, as my parents were then prompted to provide. Simply driving down a two-lane country road was a treat, surrounded by oak trees on either side that towered above any I had ever seen. The way the dogwoods would press around the shoulders, creating arborous “tunnels” with their canopies……the way the sunlight would dance through their shadows onto the blacktop and scurry Autumn leaves, like shards of stained-glass hovering weightlessly in the air like snowflakes. It was a vision of enchantment that convinced me I was indeed somewhere out of a storybook; somewhere special, that existed outside of time.
When we would finally arrive at Grandmother’s house, the scene was like something out of Austin Cunningham’s single, “Flies On The Butter”. The house had been built during the depression era of the thirties, and was overflowing with images from another age. The screen door entrance held in place by a fishhook…..the slow, undulating, blue flame of the space heaters that warmed winter gatherings…..the elaborate, home-cooked meals with farm-fresh egg whites floating in goosenecks of gravy…..the first-hand stories of earlier times that were guaranteed to end in table-wide belly-laughs. It was all part of the journey that took us not only to a different place, but immersed us in a different way of living. It was a world where time seemed to move markedly slower, and allowed us the atmosphere to take it in fully, rather than rushing through in the clock-bound drills of “the rat race”.
Decades later and well into adulthood, I made a pilgrimage of my own from the city and relocated to Clay County. It was the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, punctuated with these country motifs from the “Foreword” of my childhood. By this time, having been acclimated to the rhythm of city life, I was rediscovering the lifestyle of the country that had colored my earliest years. Like trying to hum a melody of a forgotten but familiar tune, I found myself once again enamored with the beauty of this “magical” niche of the world, and suddenly in sync with the Beth Moore quote, “Familiarity robs us of many treasures”.
The day I first arrived, I remember hearing what sounded like drumming in the distance, and searched to see who was making the noise. I remember the childlike sense of wonder I felt when I discovered that the “person” beating the drum was simply a woodpecker inside a hollow tree trunk. Moments like this continued in the months that followed, and I am grateful for each unguarded one of them. The joy of feeling young and new is priceless, and I continue to find it as I discover the many treasures that are so abundant in East Alabama. The gentle daybreak fog that descends over treetops like the drapes of a great hall window…..the soft crackle of a breaking twig in the distance that falls to a bed of leaves……the soothing melodies of songbirds that announce the morning like an orchestra tuning up for a symphony. These are the treasures that welcomed me here, and made me feel so pleasantly unfamiliar. And for all the conveniences that city life has to offer, these freedoms of the wild are the one thing that cannot be bottled and sold at the nearest convenience store.
A few years later now, I find myself noticing not just a woodpecker, but that it is an adult Pileated Woodpecker. I’ve learned to recognize it from far away by its unique call and skittish flight. And thanks to a pair of Pileateds that chose to nest in an oak tree of ours, I was once privileged to witness the full cycle of its life, as the babies were born later that same year. This “next layer of the onion peel” has made its home in me as well now, as the subtleties of nature’s detail settle into the bedrock of my senses.
If every day is truly a gift, then East Alabama is like awakening on Christmas morning to behold the spectacle under the tree. In the coming months I will be “opening” more of the presents that are here for us all in Clay, Talladega, Cleburne, Randolph, Chambers, Tallapoosa, and Coosa counties. If you find yourself connecting with the love of nature too, then I encourage you to join the experience and awaken to all the many treasures “Alabama The Beautiful” has to share.
(Views expressed are that of the author Vaughn Samuels, and not of an employer.)