We’ve had a taste of this over the past few days, but now it’s official: For the next two months, Georgia becomes the center of the world. The state’s two U.S. Senate races are going to a January 5 runoff; the outcome almost certainly will determine control of the chamber, and therefore of the legislative branch. If both Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win their races—and if two other not-yet-called contests, in North Carolina and Alaska, go to Republicans, as is expected—Democrats will have 50 Senate seats, with vice president Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking 51st vote. 2020 has been a wild ride, no? Now, in the year’s final turn, that entire vehicle careens down I-75 and crashes into Georgia like a flaming dump truck.
Ossoff and Warnock will look to unseat David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively. Like the rest of the Republican Party, both incumbent senators have yoked themselves to Donald Trump, which will make the coming weeks in Georgia a kind of preview of our residual new reality: Trumpism is here to stay, but Trump is not. (Of course, that latter part will be somewhat dependent on how loudly he decides to make his exit.) What happens to the movement without its autocratic leader occupying the highest office in the land?
Up until November, Georgia’s two Senate campaigns dramatized the GOP’s fealty to the 45th president, particularly the face-off between Loeffler and Republican Congressman Doug Collins in the “jungle primary.” Loeffler—a wildly wealthy former executive at the Intercontinental Exchange, a Fortune 500 company founded by her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher—was appointed to the Senate last year to replace senator Johnny Isakson, who retired with three years of his term left. Governor Brian Kemp chose Loeffler over Collins, Trump’s preferred appointee; she is an Atlantan who lives in a 15,000-square-foot mansion, hosts fundraisers for well-regarded causes, and sits on various boards of directors. “One of the social doyennes of Buckhead,” as the Times’Richard Fausset wrote in an October profile, noting that Loeffler’s selection was “widely interpreted as an effort to make the Georgia Republican Party more palatable to middle-class moderates, especially educated women in the Atlanta suburbs who have been abandoning the party in the Trump era.”
Ah, but 2019’s hopes comes to dust in 2020. Loeffler moved quickly to dispel notions that she might be any sort of moderate, proclaiming herself “a lifelong conservative, pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-wall, and pro-Trump” and spending the intervening year demonstrating just how much she means it—particularly that last part. With Collins vying as her equally conservative opponent, the contest turned into a race of bitter one-upmanship. Collins announced he was going on a “Trump Defender Statewide Tour” in his “family Suburban, trailed by volunteers in a 15-passenger van that runs on liberal tears.” The central scene of Fausset’s Times piece is set in a Dalton brewpub, where Loeffler appeared in August alongside Marjorie Taylor Greene. Just elected to the U.S. House, Greene gained a lot of attention for her association with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and a little attention, too, for her apparent belief that 9/11 was an inside job. Greene has since clarified her position: “Some people claimed a missile hit the Pentagon,” she offered, in a tweet written August 13. “I now know that is not correct.” You live, you learn!
Greene is all the way through the looking glass; Loeffler dove in behind her—they appeared together in September, for instance, at a rally surrounded by militia members carrying assault rifles—and was rewarded with Greene’s endorsement. Loeffler has resembled less a moderate candidate than a right-wing Facebook feed come to life, stoking paranoia over fake news. She described Warnock, himself a pretty moderate political actor, as “the most radically liberal and extreme candidate running for Senate anywhere in the country,” while comparing herself in a series of commercials to Attila the Hun. She locked herself into a public dispute over Black Lives Matter with players on the Atlanta Dream, the WNBA team that Loeffler—now somewhat awkwardly—co-owns. In an open letter, Loeffler averred that BLM “called for the removal of Jesus from churches and the disruption of the nuclear family structure,” which—huh! She has also called it a “dangerous Marxist movement.”
A recurring theme of the Trump phenomenon is the doling out of a kind of ritual humiliation, which his fans seem to crave, and which bludgeons just about everyone the president has contact with. Mitt Romney was an early target; Chris Christie had several turns in the barrel. Various people have gone to prison as a result of their service to Trump; Herman Cain literally died of COVID-19 after making a point of not wearing a mask (his diagnosis came nine days after attending an indoor Trump rally), suffering thereafter the considerable indignity of being outlived by his own Twitter account. Few have demonstrated their loyalty as intensely as Loeffler, which didn’t escape the notice of her opponent Collins. He portrayed Loeffler as a “phony” conservative, “about as comfortable as a vegan at a steakhouse,” as a flack put it to the New Yorker’s Charles Bethea. But boy, Loeffler has really put her back into it. When she said that she didn’t disagree with the president on a single issue, a CNN reporter asked if that extended to the remarks he’d made on that infamous Access Hollywood tape, bragging about sexual assault. “I’m not familiar with that,” Loeffler said. It certainly captured the mood of the moment, or a mood, anyways, in its combination of absolute fealty to the leader with the denial of a reality that anybody can plainly see. Trump might’ve approved, though he’s done little to acknowledge Loeffler’s efforts; for instance, he’s never tweeted about her.
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But what now? Perdue failed to decisively defeat Ossoff, so that race continues. Warnock gained a plurality, though not a majority, in the jungle primary, and now faces Loeffler. Combined with the outcome of the presidential election, those results are a testament to the many activists working to increase voter turnout in Georgia and beyond. They bear out the case Stacey Abrams has been making for years, which is that Georgia is not necessarily a majority-conservative state—it’s just that historic and systematic suppression of voters, particularly Black voters, has helped make it look that way. As Nse Ufot, the organizer who leads Abrams’s New Georgia Project, put it in a recent interview: “The Confederacy and the civil rights movement both have claim to Georgia’s past. Right now, what we are all living through and witnessing is a fight for Georgia’s future.”
Speaking to CNN last month, a GOP strategist said Loeffler’s exuberant embrace of the far right would be “devastating to her in a runoff.” Her schtick has been so extreme that it’s hard to see much possibility of her moderating it to make herself more palatable to a wider Georgia audience even if she wanted to. She may not want to—Trump has demonstrated that there is a reward for a strategy of this kind. Loeffler winning the runoff would be a validation of that strategy, proof that it will still be viable. A win for her is a consolation win for the outgoing president and his larger-than-predicted base.
Of course, so much of that strategy has been wrapped up in the singular figure of the president; many conservatives will now seek to grab his mantle, but who knows how much they’ll succeed. In a sense Loeffler isn’t all that dissimilar from Trump—another wealthy cosmopolitan who has little in common with the people who support him. In an alternate reality, neither of them would be caught dead chatting up conspiracy theorists in a Dalton bar. On some level their constituents must know this, even admire it. But Loeffler lacks Trump’s potent charisma.
Without it, what’s left? If either Loeffler or Perdue retain their seats, keeping the Democrats from reaching a majority, they won’t have to do much of anything: The Republicans’ prize will be the ability to block Biden from any meaningful action, at least legislatively, on the direst problems of our time, particularly the pandemic, racial inequity, and the climate crisis. The remainder of the 2020 election will continue that test of competing futures: whether the ascendant and, as of today, razor-thin Georgia majority can overcome the dystopian longings of the Trumpist crowd, who’ve left themselves no room for moderation.
And what if Warnock and Ossoff do both prevail, against what seem like considerable odds? The more sober elements within the Republican Party—the tax-cut set rather than the pure culture warriors—may use it as evidence in a case for their continued relevance. The Trumpists, or whatever we’ll be calling them next year, will make that a hard argument, given what we know about the broad sympathies of the party at large: The Republican electorate, after all, never abandoned Trump. And the recent journey of Loeffler, for instance, suggests that some of the tax cutters and the culture warriors were never all that far apart to begin with. Which is to say that a Warnock and Ossoff double-whammy will be an early and important indicator of whether Republicans, in the aggregate, become humbled or fractured without their leader. It is against the nature of Trumpism to accept defeat. Will it be against the nature of Republican voters to reject Trumpism?
Without a challenger from the right, Perdue hasn’t been forced to undertake the same kind of theatrics as Loeffler, though he gave it a shot with his performative mangling of Kamala Harris’s name at a Trump rally in the waning days of the election. He’s been a steadfast supporter of the president’s since the beginning—like both Trump and Loeffler, Perdue is a wealthy self-styled political “outsider,” and he has been called Trump’s “man in the Senate.” For as seemingly effortful as Loeffler’s Attila act has been, it’s an open question whether it represents a stretch for her, or if it’s really more of a revelation, in the way that Trump hasn’t transformed the Republican party so much as he’s just stripped off the drywall and revealed what’s holding the house up.
Loeffler’s mansion has a name—Descante—and when she and her husband purchased it in 2009, for $10.5 million, it was the most expensive residential real estate transaction in Atlanta history. Descante was described in Buckhead.com as “a $10 million work of art built to showcase other works of art,” including a number of pieces by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Perdue likewise lives in gated opulence; his home is Sea Island, a luxury development across a causeway from Saint Simons. With six feet or more of sea level rise, that causeway and the land it leads to will be mostly underwater by the end of the century. That, among many other things, could well be the cost of Loeffler’s and Perdue’s return to the Senate.
A stone monument in downtown Savannah marks what was probably Georgia’s first road, the construction of which got underway in 1735. Beginning in Madison Square, the Ogeechee Road ended some 60 miles south at the Altamaha River, in what’s now Darien.
Parts of that Savannah-Darien route eventually became U.S. Highway 17, also known as the Coastal Highway. U.S. 17 hugs the coast as closely as the Georgia coast can be hugged—which is to say, at a little distance, because there is so much marsh and so many islands between the mainland and the ocean. Laid out in the 18th century, paved in the 20th, the road skirts those marshes and weaves its way through pine forests, over rivers big and small, and through villages where people have made their livings off the land and the sea.
But you know how things go: Progress progresses. Interstate 95 was finished in the 1970s. Now, the trip through Georgia is a 70-miles-per-hour blur, a six-lane firehose, a dash-dot-dash sequence of trees and marsh punctuated by the occasional fast-food interchange. Time passes quickly on Interstate 95. That’s how it’s meant to pass. But Highway 17 still moves at its own speed.
Lately, I’ve been having trouble with time. Not the usual complaints—the past catches up, history repeats, a nightmare from which one can’t awake, etc., etc.—but something weirder, something that dissolves distinctions between what once felt like fixed categories: past, present, future.
Life’s exigencies spill into one dimension: facial-recognition algorithms, viral pandemics, a reality-TV president—their demands sitting ungainly on the timeline, clamoring in rapid succession. “The present has become too overwhelming, so the future has become unimaginable,” the novelist Valeria Luiselli wrote recently in her book, Lost Children Archive. “And without future, time feels like only an accumulation.”
A sense of accumulated time prevails, too, along Highway 17—but without the vertigo. Two lanes in most places, Highway 17 is picturesque, but the perspective it affords is unusually deep, with glimpses of a Georgia both recent and remote: midcentury motor lodges, working shrimp boats, abandoned rice plantations. Maybe I’m drawn to this particular highway for its palliative quality, the way it demonstrates how many different stories can sit amicably side by side along the Georgia coast. It feels hopeful rather than dissonant. I meander like a tidal creek: slowly enough to see the cordgrass waving in the marsh, through towns whose economies were once fed by this very highway and are now neglected by it—though you can still find pretty good seafood. In Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock, one of the best true stories ever told about coastal Georgia, U.S. 17 is practically a character. Greene quotes Sonny Seiler, the famous Savannah lawyer: “You can’t learn anything riding down I-95 with the Yankees. You’ve got to go the old way, 17, what we call the old way.”
As I set out onto Highway 17 from Savannah, I make two stops first along Ogeechee Road, which is still its name where the route heads out of town. The first is Laurel Grove, a cemetery cleaved in half by the I-16 off-ramp as it shoots traffic into the center of the city.
This cemetery was already split, though, and along familiar lines. Laurel Grove North opened in 1850 for white Savannahians, with Laurel Grove South added several years later for free and enslaved black people. Notable names rest in each segregated half: Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low in a tree-shaded plot in the north, the civil rights leader W.W. Law in the south. Law, who led the integration of Savannah, also helped preserve Laurel Grove South, spearheading the restoration of the gravesite of Andrew Bryan—who founded First African Baptist Church, one of the country’s first black congregations, in the late 18th century. “There is no source that holds as much black history,” Law told the Savannah Morning News in 1999. Laurel Grove North was established the same year as Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery and filled up quickly during the Victorian era; as such, it boasts one of the most concentrated collections of Victorian cemetery architecture in the Southeast. And both halves of Laurel Grove—rolling, verdant, and parklike, with strange old crypts and chipped stone markers—are lonelier than tourist-packed Bonaventure, of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil fame.
My second stop is Ms. Polly’s Cake Giants, just outside of Laurel Grove South, to get a slice of sour-cream pound cake for the road. From here, Ogeechee Road angles southwest past motels and Mexican groceries and little flea markets—big ones, too. At the edge of Savannah, Keller’s Flea Market draws hundreds of vendors every weekend to its elaborate warren of tin-roofed buildings. Everyone comes here, and they put everything up for sale: old windows and graduation gowns, alligator skulls and shea butter, $1,000 labradoodle puppies. Kobe Bryant memorial T-shirts, white sage smudge sticks, laundry detergent. Confederate bedsheets, door knobs, the collected teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Latinx vendors at a small farmers market sell mangoes, plantains, tortillas, and cranberry beans.
There is also a taqueria or two, but I usually hold out for a taqueria about five minutes down the road, located inside an Indian and Mexican grocery store called Big Bazaar. Or I travel five minutes further, to the banks of the Ogeechee River, for Love’s Seafood & Steaks, which began as a fish camp in 1949. It’s still family-owned—that family being the Loves—and a reliable purveyor of fine dishes like lowcountry boil and fried Georgia shrimp (as well as a gorgeous spot to catch the sunset). Love’s was also the alter ego of the rowdy bar in Forrest Gump where Jenny sings “Blowin’ in the Wind” and tells Forrest—outside, on the Old Kings Ferry Bridge—that he doesn’t know what love is. She also gives him the advice he’ll carry forward: If he ever gets in trouble, just run.
Before being designated U.S. Highway 17, this road formed part of the Dixie Highway, one of the first paved interstate systems in the U.S. The Dixie Highway was hatched in the early 20th century to fuel travel to Florida, an emerging vacation destination, with construction beginning in 1915. The system stretched from Michigan to Miami; so many communities along the way clamored for their piece that two main north-south routes, with various tributaries, were eventually laid. In Georgia, the westernmost took travelers from Atlanta to Tallahassee; a diagonal connector, the Central Dixie Highway, cut over from Macon to Jacksonville; and the easternmost route followed “the old Oglethorpe road,” as a 1916 article in Automobile Journal put it, from Savannah to Darien and beyond.
With the advent of the U.S. Numbered Highway System in 1926, the old road names disappeared, though not entirely. Traces of the label “Dixie Highway” linger here and there along U.S. routes. Earlier this year, Miami-Dade County commissioners voted to rename the last vestiges of Miami’s Dixie Highway, which became Harriet Tubman Highway.
In any event, the roads stayed. Under the name Ocean Highway, in fact, Georgia’s coastal route was the subject of a 1938 guidebook produced by the Federal Writers’ Project. The roadside attractions kept coming—like the Midway Museum, built in 1959. A half hour outside Savannah on U.S. 17, the town of Midway was settled by descendants of Puritans who moved from New England and took up rice cultivation. Rice thrived in this region for the same reason the Midway Museum, designed in the style of an 18th-century colonial cottage, is raised several feet off the ground: the wet earth. The museum collects artifacts from the descendants of planters who lived in the area. When I toured recently, a guide pointed to an ornate organ which was once hidden from the Union Army in a swamp. The house is filled with artifacts like that—the tableware, bedspreads, and Bibles of the planter class, as well as a library of local history. This is not a sentimental portrayal of antebellum days but rather an austere depiction of the daily lives of people who prospered by enslaving others.
South of Midway, a town’s very name reflects these origins: Riceboro, where a festival every November honors “the heritage of rice farming and the Gullah Geechee culture.” (Rice was domesticated in West Africa 3,000 years ago; in recent decades, scholars have argued that its success in the New World depended on the agricultural expertise brought here by enslaved people.) Scores of people gather in a park alongside the highway and listen to music, hold a cook-off, and crown a pageant winner. RiceFest was founded in 2007 by, among others, the late Jim Bacote, who also cofounded the Geechee Kunda Cultural Center, a little further south on 17—a rambling repository of African art and other artifacts celebrating Georgia’s Gullah Geechee people. Since the interstate opened 50 years ago, this area has been quiet: The road grew lonely and business dried up. “This whole town disappeared,” the Midway Museum guide told me.
Heading south on 17, across the county line, one of the first things you’ll see is the Smallest Church in America. It can be skipped if you’re in a hurry. Picture a tiny church. Yep, you’ve got it.
Now, picture a country juke joint like in movies—ramshackle construction, eccentric decor, middle of nowhere. That’s a better way to spend your time: by detouring to the Old School Diner, 10 minutes off Highway 17 down Harris Neck Road. Its exterior is decorated with shells and cast-iron pans and license plates, and its interior walls are plywood, plastered with thousands of pictures of folks who’ve dined here. This is a seafood place and a ribs place, where the item to order is the Wheelchair Platter—a sampler of whatever Chef Jerome, who opened the restaurant in 2005, is cooking. “It Will Astound You,” the menu says. “What’s on it, you ask? Well . . . Ben Affleck says, ‘Why ask? Trust your Chef!’” (Ben Affleck owns an enormous estate on a nearby island.)
In the first half of the 20th century, travelers camped in empty fields when they stopped for the night. In McIntosh County, entrepreneurs got busy with motels, gas stations, restaurants, and produce stands—and organized crime. In Praying for Sheetrock, Greene vividly described the racket that roadside grifters created along 17 into Darien. Unsuspecting tourists would stop for a snack and find themselves lured into a gambling game they’d inevitably lose. “They were the county’s greatest source of wealth,” Greene wrote: “To this day, no one knows how many thousands—how many tens of thousands—of cash Yankee dollars of vacation money and retirement money were lost on that mile-and-a-half stretch of fruit stands under the pine trees.”
Overlooking a distributary channel of the Altamaha River, Darien has the same population today as it did when Greene visited in the 1970s: about 1,800. Darien is maybe my favorite place on the Georgia coast. Its energy and eclecticism always surprise me. There’s a palpable sense of backstory, a weird emptiness, and a few beautiful central blocks for wandering around, with old houses and churches, large and small—I’ve never quite figured out how I feel about Darien, which is the reason I keep going back to it. It’s the kind of place that keeps you looking. Plus, there’s the mesmerizing riverfront, where the masts of shrimp boats resemble a city skyline and marsh stretches for miles. A single intersection comprises most of Darien’s downtown, but right there—at the foot of a river bridge—you’ll find a store called Turnip Greens, selling local produce and sundry groceries; an antique shop; a Mexican restaurant; an honest-to-goodness wine bar; and Skippers’ Fish Camp, one of two excellent seafood places in town. The other is B&J’s Steaks & Seafood, which you’d think was the only place to eat for miles given how packed the parking lot is. B&J’s serves the usual seafood hits and a soulful southern lunch buffet: fried chicken, mac and cheese, neck bones and rice, okra and tomatoes.
Darien is the second-oldest planned city in Georgia; Fort King George, a state historic site at the edge of the marsh, is the oldest remaining English fort on the coast. The town’s fortunes rose and fell: During the longleaf pine boom, Darien was an international shipping port. It’s still a fishing town, as evidenced by the guy who sells shrimp from the back of his truck at the Friendly Express gas station and by the Blessing of the Fleet, an annual spring festival when local shrimpers line their boats up in the harbor. Standing at the crest of the Highway 17 bridge, a priest calls them forth, one by one, and wishes them prosperity.
The land past that bridge feels like wild country indeed, somehow both denuded and overgrown, flat and swampy as far as the eye can see, cut through with old canals. Butler Island was the site of a rice plantation started by Pierce Butler, who signed the U.S. Constitution. Inherited by his grandson, Pierce Mease Butler, it has a legacy that has entered posterity thanks to Frances Anne Kemble, a British actress who married the younger Butler in Philadelphia in 1834. She had no idea, she wrote later, where his fortune came from; she was aghast to learn it was built on the labor of nearly a thousand people in his possession.
Fanny Kemble spent a winter on this island, and the book that resulted, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839, is an unflinching look at slavery from a rare insider’s vantage. Kemble hated it here—hated the degradation she witnessed, hated the white planters’ wives she was expected to befriend, hated her cold, austere accommodations on Butler Island. She captured some of the lonely beauty of the place all the same: “If no human chisel ever yet cut breath,” she wrote, “neither did any human pen ever write light; if it did, mine should spread out before you the unspeakable glories of these Southern heavens, the saffron brightness of morning, the blue intense brilliancy of noon, the golden splendor and the rosy softness of sunset.”
The long, watery canals remain as magically luminous. You can learn agricultural facts about rice at nearby Hofwyl-Broadfield, a former plantation which is now a museum and historical site, but in my opinion, it is just as enlightening to stand somewhere on Butler Island and listen to the wind and watch the water. The old, empty, white house here was built by the incredibly named Col. Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston, a co-owner of the New York Yankees who purchased the Butler land in 1926 and started a dairy and an iceberg-lettuce farm. Now, weeds grow high all around. Locals fish off the bridge nearby, and alligators haunt the huge canals carved centuries ago by enslaved people. It’s startling to walk through this tainted landscape, which nature is busy taking back.
“The splendid road into Brunswick is through the celebrated Marshes of Glynn, made famous in the poem by Sidney Lanier,” trumpeted Automobile Journal in 1916. The marshes are still here today, but there’s a lot more traffic. Past Brunswick, Highway 17 rises into the soaring Sidney Lanier Bridge before heading into the hinterlands and reaching, eventually, a blue bridge at the Florida line. It’s a sweet drive. It’s also a good idea to turn at Woodbine and head east to St. Marys, a jewel of a little town on the water, where the Cumberland Island Ferry docks. It has the same quiet allure as the other stops along this route—the coast behind the coast. Twisting live oak trees line Osborne Street as it leads in a straight line to the river, with Florida visible just across the water. There’s a good bookstore down here, Once Upon A Bookseller, a submarine museum, and one of coastal Georgia’s most convivial little bars: Seagle’s Saloon, on the first floor of the 100-year-old Riverview Hotel.
Brunswick, often overlooked in favor of the tourist-packed islands it serves as conduit to, is also worth lingering in. Downtown is centered around a couple of wide thoroughfares that often feel a bit empty, though folks who live here have plenty of ideas about where to visit—particularly, to eat. Like Indigo Coastal Shanty, a place with the rare feel of a really good neighborhood restaurant: warm vibes, happy diners, and satisfying, well-flavored dishes like an Indian-spiced burger, Bahamian chicken curry, and plenty of seafood. On Newcastle Street, Tipsy McSway’s is an amiable hangout with better-than-the-usual bar food and live music.
Like Savannah, Brunswick is laid out around a series of greenspaces: The Old Town feels like a compressed, more intimate version of Savannah’s historic district. On a recent visit, I walked past blooming azaleas on my way to Lover’s Oak—900 years old, its name taken from Native American lore—before looping back to Hanover Park. It was dusk, early spring. Nobody was around, but somebody had pulled a bunch of Spanish moss to the ground and arranged it into a sort of miniature labyrinth: found art or earth art or whatever you want to call it. A summoning circle, a magic circle, a talisman. A portal to the past or to the future. Or to someplace else altogether?
Where to stay
Thunderbird Inn Savannah
A 1964 motor lodge remade in bright colors, boasting kitschy perks—like MoonPies and RC Cola in each room—and proximity to Savannah’s historic district. Hip, pet-friendly, and definitely one of the most affordable downtown options.
Open Gates Bed & Breakfast Darien
An elegant 1876 inn overlooking gorgeous Vernon Square, with well-
appointed guest rooms and—when it’s in season—shrimp eggs Benedict for breakfast, among other goodies. “To-go” meals available for those eager to head out exploring.
Riverview Hotel St. Marys
Come for the gorgeous river views from the second-story balcony, stay for the homey rooms, sweet service, and convivial little bar on the first floor of this 100-year-old building. Steps from the Cumberland Island ferry.
Brunswick Manor Brunswick
Just down the street from the Lover’s Oak, this fancy but affordable B&B features a koi pond and orchid conservatory (!), plus a large veranda for lounging. Just a short walk from downtown restaurants and shops, for those disinclined to lounge.
Robert Woodruff, the man who turned Coca-Cola from a syrupy Georgia drink into an international icon, kept a little place out in the country: Ichauway, a 30,000-acre estate near Albany where he liked to hunt quail. Albany has recently become a kind of tragic pandemic poster child, but in Woodruff’s day another public health concern prevailed: malaria, a disease of fever and lassitude. Woodruff became concerned about its effects on the workforce and, in the late 1930s, he made some land at Ichauway available to researchers studying the disease. In the next decade that site was taken over by an emerging Atlanta laboratory called the Communicable Disease Center, or CDC, whose mission was also to stop the spread of malaria. Woodruff was frank about his motivations: “I wasn’t thinking of it as a humane program, because it was an economic situation, too,” he said later. “A man that is ill can’t work. He’s no good.”
Or … perhaps a man that is ill can work? Last week, citing the president’s wish to “reopen our nation’s economy” in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Brian Kemp announced his own little study of the relationship between illness and economics: a large-scale experiment to learn whether a highly contagious, poorly understood virus can truly be contained in a population that broadly hasn’t been tested for it and may not necessarily show symptoms of it as it spreads, along with a suite of auxiliary experiments—to learn, for instance, how a citizenry that’s been asked to stay six feet apart can still give one another haircuts and mani-pedis.
Pursuant to Kemp’s plan, restaurants in Georgia began to offer dine-in service today. Vital businesses such as bowling alleys were allowed to reopen this past Friday, which is also when the barbering began. How long our hair has gotten, how lonely our bowling shoes. Safety restrictions will be in place: The Georgia State Board of Cosmetologists issued four pages of guidelines for salons to follow, including using infrared thermometers to check employee and patron temperatures at the door, disinfecting thoroughly and often, and wearing face masks. It raised more questions than it answered: Where are these thermometers available? Where is this disinfectant available? Where is this protective equipment coming from? As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution points out, salon owners have now been “thrown into the competition with hospitals for protective face masks.” You gotta love a healthy market solution in action.
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It’s possible nowadays to forget why Atlanta is an international center of infectious disease research but in short: The CDC was founded here because this is where the disease was. Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses do best where mosquitoes thrive, and they thrive particularly in Georgia’s many marshes and swamps; malaria was widespread across the South until its elimination in the mid-20th century. On Woodruff’s old estate, which is now an ecological research center, the watery sinkholes of the limestone topography acted as little insect nurseries.
Letting scientists work on his land for years, Woodruff was pursuing his economic interests, but his patience had beneficial effects that were not strictly economic—public health being a field in which positive outcomes are ideally not just immediate and individual, but widely shared and long-lasting. It’s good when one person’s symptoms clear up, better when many people are healthy for a good while. In some cases, the robust health of the community directly benefits individual constituents: That’s the idea of herd immunity.
Local expertise in infectious disease is long and deep, in other words, but today the governor appears to be listening to another song entirely. The public health campaign against the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is often described as a “battle” against the disease, but it’s linked inextricably—in the U.S., anyway—with another battle, which has been going on longer: between conservative politicians and those they perceive to be hampering economic activity through needless regulation, whether that’s other elected officials, scientists, or civil servants. Kemp’s plan for “reopening” the state contravenes the wishes of just about every public health official who’s been asked to comment on it, and it was reported that Anthony Fauci, the most high-profile member of the president’s coronavirus task force—feet desperately worn out after months of walking on eggshells—flatly refused to support it. So did Trump, sort of: The president reportedly first gave Kemp the go-ahead, but was then prevailed upon by the task force to change his mind.
“By easing the restrictions, Kemp had appeared to be carrying out Trump’s wishes” was how the AJC put it, poignantly. One imagines Kemp’s alarm as the most powerful force in media (if not in actual governance) turned on him: As last week wore on, Trump—even after having urged citizens of various states under Democratic governance to “liberate” themselves from the onerous restrictions keeping them away from their own local bowling alleys—continued to double down on his condemnations. “I wasn’t happy with Brian Kemp,” he said, several times. (In the New Yorker, an Athens hairdresser offered a plausible theory of the case: She thought Trump urged Kemp to reopen Georgia “to see how people will react,” with plans to hang him out to dry if it went badly.)
Like all the other shitty remakes we’re seeing these days, the 2020 version of “What did the president know and when did he know it?” is less nuanced than the original: Literally nobody knows anything, and they never did. Brian Kemp was, famously, the last man in the country to know that the coronavirus can be spread by persons showing few to no symptoms. Announcing his shelter-in-place directive in early April, he professed ignorance on the matter more than six weeks after the CDC director, Robert Redfield, had commented on CNN on the apparent prevalence of “asymptomatic illness,” and a month after the CDC—again, located in the same city where Kemp keeps an office—had begun warning about presymptomatic spread.
So: The governor has run afoul repeatedly of broad medical opinion, and he’s also, somehow, run afoul of a man who went on TV the other day to promote the potential medical benefits of drinking bleach. Who is Kemp listening to? Who knows. He’s at least explained who we should take our cues from going forward: “The private sector has to convince the public it’s safe to go back into these businesses,” he said. If those businesses don’t act properly, Kemp said, the state will step in.
And a bowling alley owner shall lead them. As far as this particular pandemic goes, though, relying on the private sector to take the lead has not put us in good stead yet. The federal government spent the last few years defunding disease surveillance, while pharmaceutical companies have altogether avoided tackling the public health threats that endanger the most people but promise the fewest profits, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria and zoonotic diseases such as coronaviruses. In early March, explaining to a House committee why a test for the new virus had been so slow in materializing, CDC director Redfield said, “I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have helped develop it for the clinical side. . . . I can tell you, having lived through the last eight weeks, I would have loved the private sector to be fully engaged eight weeks ago.” This moment, with the American government gapingly ill-prepared in the face of a devastating if entirely predictable catastrophe, marked the realization of a decades-long right-wing dream—shrink the government so small you could drown it in a bathtub, let the market sort it out—but, as Alex Pareene wrote in the New Republic, “It didn’t occur to the right that a more terrifying series of words than ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’ would turn out to be ‘I’m from the government, and I guess I anticipated that the private sector would have engaged.” To quote the great Rick Perry: “Oops.”
• • •
A couple years ago, for this magazine, I wrote a story about how communities on the coast were facing the prospect of rising sea levels caused by global warming; according to moderate estimates, the coast could be inundated up to three feet by the end of the century, and more alarming predictions put it at twice that. There’s some promising news out there: Tybee Island, for instance, has proactively sought to understand the scope of the threat and figure out what can be done to mitigate it. But as I worked on the article, I couldn’t help but feel depressed about the scale of the action undertaken locally versus the scale of the action required. Admirably, citizens and local leaders were doing what they could in the face of a problem of almost ungraspable magnitude. But the people who actually have the power to slow the ocean’s rising? They were far away and—in the American government, anyway—they weren’t even trying.
Tybee was back in the news recently when Kemp’s shelter-in-place order, issued April 1, had the curious effect of reopening the island’s beaches, which Tybee mayor Shirley Sessions had previously closed. Like Keisha Lance Bottoms and Van Johnson, mayors of Atlanta and Savannah respectively, Sessions had been quicker than the state to institute restrictive measurements—only to find herself second-guessed, and to learn that the future of her community and its well-being could be buffeted by forces hundreds of miles away. Not for the first time for Tybee Island, of course, and not for the last time either—it’s the story of climate change writ small. Now that the state is on a path to “reopening,” Kemp’s authority continues to supersede that of mayors around the state who would prefer to put their communities on a more responsible footing. Their cities cannot continue sheltering in place. The tool the mayors are left with is, as the AJC’s Jim Galloway put it on GPB’s Political Rewind recently, “government by persuasion.”
Fortunately they’re also left with persuadable constituencies. I could just be speaking for myself, but it’s comforting in these terrifying times to feel as if somebody is in charge who has some resources and expertise at their disposal. I’d love somebody to tell me the best way to protect myself and my neighbors, and “I’m from the government, and you can go bowling again” isn’t particularly warm assurance. Many of the state’s mayors—who weren’t consulted on Kemp’s plan—are urging their constituents to, basically, ignore it: In Savannah, Van Johnson held a video call with some 70 local faith leaders and implored them to keep their worship remote. Apparently all of them agreed. Mayor Bottoms and Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. of Augusta have both urged constituents to keep staying home. (Davis, Bottoms, and Johnson are all black, as are 54 percent of the Georgians known to have died of COVID-19, despite the fact that African American people make up just under a third of the state’s population. That Kemp’s cavalierness is unsurprising doesn’t make it any less of a scandal.) Albany mayor Bo Dorough, whose town became an international example of how quickly and stealthily this lethal virus can spread, said that he was “flabbergasted that the governor would say we can’t take additional precautions to protect our citizens.” Many restaurants that can open now are declining to do so. “No, thank you,” Atlanta chef and restaurateur Hugh Acheson wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post.
What a strange situation: a state executive telling his constituents to go out and enjoy their freedom, and so many constituents saying, in effect, We’d prefer not to. But somebody’s got to play the grown-up. Business owners aren’t paid to manage pandemics, yet in this gaping maw of leadership they’re forced into tortured decisions: risk the health of their own employees by opening up, or staying safe and staying closed? Is your business more important than your employees’ lives? Their workers—the customer-facing employees often working for low wages and no health insurance—are the true subjects of Kemp’s experiment, and it’s grotesque that they’re having to rely on nothing more than good wishes from the governor and the magnanimity of their bosses. (One theory about Kemp’s eagerness to get things going again is he doesn’t want workers relying overmuch on the magnanimity of the state’s rapidly shrinking unemployment coffers.) Businesspeople can be magnanimous; they can, as in Robert Woodruff’s case, see some confluence between the public good or their own bottom line; or they’re free to take the straightest line toward their own profit. In any case, it’s not their job to protect us.
It is ideally the job of political leaders to be guided by the common good, which is not the same thing as “the economy.” The economy is an abstract system that offers a very imperfect kind of shorthand representation of the value of goods and labor. Good news: Abstract systems are not fixed, like rocks and galaxies; they can be reimagined completely. That’s the difference between an economy and a human body, an immune system. An economy can be remade to fit the needs of the human beings whose lives it imperfectly relates to. An immune system can be bolstered by us, it can be manipulated by our doctors, but it cannot be redesigned or reconstructed. It cannot be restarted. It succeeds or it fails; we live or we die. We as a polity can choose to promote the individual health of the constituents of our world—our friends and family, our loved ones, ourselves—or we can promote somebody’s idea of the “economy” in which the wealth flows mainly in one direction: away from the people forced to go back to work this week. But there’s no doing both. Somebody, somewhere, will have to choose.
The highest cocktail bar in Durham is on the sixth-story rooftop of the Durham Hotel, a white-and-gold midcentury building. Like a few other classic structures in downtown Durham, it was once a bank, but it now trades in a different kind of currency: cool. On a Thursday night not long ago, as the skyline was backlit by the setting sun, a little jazz combo serenaded a crowd of revelers sitting in low-slung outdoor furniture, sipping gin and tonics and single-malt whiskeys. Down below in the city center, swelling crowds flowed in and out of tea and coffee shops, an ice cream parlor, an independent bookstore, a couple of superlative bakeries, a bicycle-and-beer shop. A collection of restaurants—Spanish, Japanese, Cuban, Korean—offered anything but grits and cobbler.
Perched in the hilly North Carolina piedmont, Durham is often mentioned as one of a set of triplets known as the Triangle. Raleigh is the largest, Chapel Hill the coziest. But Durham—Durham might be the coolest.
Which is why it should come as no surprise that the city is home to Copa, a Latin restaurant run by a Cuban biochemist, and Mateo, described by Alton Brown as “the best tapas bar in the U.S.” It’s also the home of two tentpole cultural events that sell out in a flash: April’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which draws top filmmakers from around the world, and Moogfest, an avant-garde music, art, and tech gathering held the same month. (Yes, it’s named for that Moog—Robert, the synthesizer inventor and electronic-music pioneer.)
Unlike most cities with sub-300,000 populations, Durham is also home to hip downtown hotels. There’s the aforementioned Durham Hotel, with a mod atrium lobby the New York Times compared to the set of Mad Men. At night, guests leave door hangers out specifying their preferred coffee for the morning; it’s delivered, freshly ground, to be brewed inside their rooms.
Another noteworthy hotel is the 21c, located in a 1930s-era art deco building like something you’d see in a heist movie. Contemporary art is everywhere—in the hotel’s free, on-site museum; on the walls of individual rooms, which boast original pieces; and in the first-floor restaurant and cocktail bar, the Counting House. There, locals sip beguiling cocktails like the mezcal-laced Divination & Dreamwork and ponder works such as It Will Warm You Twice. The four-and-a-half-foot-long mosaic consists of tens of thousands of cigarettes and mini cigars—a tribute to Durham’s tobacco past—arranged in the shape of the trees that English colonists cleared when they arrived in the area. Nodding to both environmental and industrial decline, the piece is bittersweet—but also gestures, according to its artist, Duke Riley, to “the current cycle of reinvention, as the shell of the Durham tobacco industry is repurposed as a cultural and metropolitan center.”
Another Counting House piece, The Prophet and the King II, is by the artist Kehinde Wiley, who painted Barack Obama’s official portrait. It depicts a young man in bright streetwear, one arm raised above his head and another open at his side. Eight feet tall, bold, eye-popping, and colorful, the portrait hangs over the host stand as if to say: Welcome—there are big things here.
This year is the sesquicentennial of the city of Durham, which functioned as a tobacco and finance town almost from the beginning. J.B. Duke became the founding president of the American Tobacco Company here in 1890, and eight years later, a group of black entrepreneurs started North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which remains the oldest and largest black life insurance company in the country.
The tobacco industry, though, is long gone. Its evidence remains in a cluster of warehouses across a set of railroad tracks from the city center. The former factory complex is part of an eclectic district that’s been rebranded as the American Tobacco Campus, complete with restaurants, the local public radio studio, an airy public plaza beside a rushing canal, and the field where the Durham Bulls play—all in the shadows of skeletal overhead chutes that once moved bales of tobacco between buildings.
The city has coined a number of slogans to celebrate its progress. One of the most frequently used is “From Tobacco to Tech,” referring to the many startups that call the city home. (American Underground, the so-called “Startup Hub of the South,” has four Durham locations with nearly 200 startups between them.)
The city has also helped create a public art project called Mural Durham to explore its past and present. One of the most prominent murals was designed under the direction of artist Brenda Miller Holmes on a brick building at 120 Morris Street. It incorporates a number of seemingly disjointed sites and historical figures: the Royal Ice Cream shop at Roxboro and Dowd streets; activists Pauli Murray and Ann Atwater; architect Julian Abele. The common thread among these images is the city’s civil rights past.
In Durham, Rev. Douglas Moore pioneered the sit-in as a tactic before it was widely adopted by the civil rights movement: Seven African American activists were arrested here in 1957 for protesting the segregated Royal Ice Cream shop, where there’s now a historical marker. (Their action preceded the more famous Woolworth sit-in in nearby Greensboro by three years.) Pauli Murray—whose writings influenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg—grew up in Durham, and her home, a national historic landmark, is set to open next year as the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.
Ann Atwater, played by Taraji P. Henson in the recent film The Best of Enemies, lived and worked in Durham. And Julian Abele designed the gorgeous gothic chapel at Durham’s Duke University decades before he, a black man, would have been admitted to the school. With bright colors and broad strokes, the Morris Street mural takes an unflinching look at the city’s history. And if a willingness to do so indicates a readiness to move into the future, there’s reason to believe Durham’s momentum is only just beginning.
In the lastcouple of years, the New York Post has called Durham “the foodie capital of the South.” Southern Living named it the “South’s tastiest town.” And Vogue gushed about its “creative culinary scene.” One of the brightest stars in this scene is Michael Lee, a Seoul-born chef whose M Sushi anchors a burgeoning empire that also includes Korean fried-chicken and tempura restaurants. At M Sushi, Lee offers an ambitious tasting menu that reflects a deep well of culinary knowledge and a playful engagement with local ingredients. Take, for example, the uni toast: a small piece of sourdough from Raleigh’s famed bakery Boulted Bread, topped with milky stracciatella cheese, fresh sea urchin from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, whipped lardo (pork fatback; we’re still in the Carolinas, after all), and chewy tobiko. Salty, funky, and confoundingly rich, it’s like something beamed in from another planet, where all the flavors are turned up a notch or two in intensity.
M Sushi is tucked into a cobblestone alley behind Chapel Hill Street, one of the main downtown thoroughfares. Just across the alley is the Durham Hotel, home to both the aforementioned rooftop cocktail bar and an outstanding restaurant, the Durham, on the first floor. The kitchen is overseen by Andrea Reusing—a James Beard Award winner perhaps better known for her Chapel Hill restaurant, Lantern—which makes this Durham gem feel all the more special. Reusing is also in charge of the rooftop’s raw bar and a small coffee counter that serves some of the South’s best joe: Counter Culture, roasted right here in Durham.
On the same block, cocktail bar Alley Twenty Six offers a great place to drink with locals. Order your beverage at the long wooden bar and take it out into the eponymous alley, narrow and brick, strung across with bare light bulbs. Libations here showcase the deep bench of distilling talent in North Carolina: fragrant Conniption American Dry Gin from Durham Distilling, Appalachian Fernet from Asheville’s Eda Rhyne.
But no visit to Durham is complete without stopping in at the Parlour, which serves handmade, high-butterfat ice cream out of a little storefront on Market Street. Sourcing ingredients from nearby vendors like Carrboro Coffee Roasters and Lyon Farms, it scoops flavors like Vietnamese coffee, blueberry, toasted coconut, and geranium, earning nods from CNN and Marie Claire.
Ice cream cone in hand, it’s easy to walk the city’s perimeter, passing a hip, smart plant and gift shop (the Zen Succulent), a boutique hotel (funky, retro Unscripted, whose second-floor outdoor pool is open to the public), and a bodega called Bulldega—for that quick hit of kombucha to revive the spirits.
With so many progressive, eclectic offerings, Durham might indeed be the grooviest of the triplets. And like all proper cool kids, it doesn’t feel the need to grasp for attention—it simply does its thing while word of its hipness continues to spread.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue ofSouthbound.
It was on a mountain road in the Colombian Andes, one Sunday afternoon a few decades ago, that Janisse Ray decided to write about the forests of her home in South Georgia. More than a couple thousand miles separate the two places: While the Andes is generally regarded as one of the great natural wonders of the world, the same is less often observed of the vicinity of Baxley, Georgia, where Ray is from, and which sits smack in the middle of the vast, flat coastal plain that extends from Macon and Augusta to the salt marshes and barrier islands of the Atlantic coast. In the book that made her a success, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Ray acknowledged as much about the difficulty of loving this landscape: “My homeland is about as ugly as a place gets,” she wrote. “There’s nothing in South Georgia, people will tell you, except straight, lonely roads, one-horse towns, sprawling farms, and tracts of planted pines.”
Ray grew up poor outside Baxley on a junkyard operated by her father, Franklin Delano Ray, a tender-hearted, religious eccentric who forbade his family from celebrating holidays or birthdays and put them on 40-day fasts in the summer. The Cracker of the title refers to the poor whites of Scotch-Irish descent who supplanted the indigenous people in Georgia’s piney woods and lowland swamps, importing to the continent a reputation for wildness that was especially true of the Clan McRae, from whom Janisse Ray is descended and for whom the town of McRae, Georgia, takes its name. (Ray’s own name is pronounced juh-NEES; the discrepancy between the way it looks and the way it’s said owes to a transcription error at the hospital—the intended spelling was “Janneice.”) Her family had been in the same place for nearly two centuries, but Ray, after graduating high school, picked up and took off for college, following a well-worn path of those raised in strict religious households: She became kind of a hippie.
She lived for a while in Florida, off the grid and freely. “I really just wanted to write poetry and travel,” she told me. “I had fallen in with the hippies and world-change people, and I just wanted to homestead out in the country somewhere.” One day, her father drove down to see how Ray was living and there discovered, to his displeasure, a man gardening naked in her yard. She went to South America to teach English, and it was the prospect of returning to this country that was causing her, that day in the mountains, to think hard about what she was going to do once she got back there. “I was just desperately trying to figure out how I wanted my life to go,” she said. “I had had these two great themes, these two narratives. One was a love of writing, and one was a love of nature.”
Since childhood she’d been praised for the way she wrote, but her love of nature grew from more tangled roots. In raising Ray and her three siblings, maybe her father had taken the wrong lesson from his own father, Charlie, who hid out for weeks at a time in the bottomland swamps surrounding the Altamaha River, before eventually abandoning his wife and children altogether. Ray has frankly described the mental illness that seems to run patrilineally through her family’s blood. Her own father spent time at the state hospital in Milledgeville after an episode in which he locked his family in a room and kept them from eating. She came to see her father’s junkyard as the manifestation of his internal chaos, a way to push back against the wildness Charlie had taught him to fear. She lamented that the thread that might’ve connected her to her grandfather, and more closely to the land, had broken in the interceding generation. And Ray came to learn that the way her homeland looked, that ugliness she’d grown up around, represented not a permanent condition but a forced separation: represented, particularly, more than a century of relentless timbering and other human intervention that had rid the coastal plain of the thing that most made it beautiful, which was its ancient forests. She realized it was a landscape she missed, without really ever having known it.
These forests, whose ghosts Ray grew up beneath, were of longleaf pine, which used to cover some 90 million acres of the Southeast. By the end of the 20th century, that acreage had been reduced to just about two million, and much of that replanted; only around 10,000 virgin acres of longleaf remain, most of it in Georgia and Florida. “The forest went from southern Virginia all the way to East Texas,” Ray told me. “You’re talking about a huge ecosystem that was 99 percent gone, and nobody had written about it.”
That was her initial idea—a panegyric about the pines. Longleaf lends itself to storytelling as well as any highly evolved ecosystem, in the way that all of its little parts fit together to prove the ingenuity of the overall machine. The gopher tortoise, for instance, lets hundreds of species shelter in the burrows it digs in the sandy soil, where they’re able to escape the occasional cleansing wildfires that keep the forest healthy. The Southeastern longleaf-grassland forest might be the most biodiverse ecosystem in North America above the tropics. Now the gopher tortoise is near endangered, and the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund—a project of the European Union, the World Bank, and other international bodies—has declared the Southeastern coastal plain a global biodiversity hotspot, a designation connoting two things: richness of species and a high level of vulnerability. Even in the 1990s, when Ray began writing her first book, this seemed like a crisis, if one that had been going on for decades. The reason it hadn’t been treated as such, Ray thought, was where the forest was located.
“Nobody had written about it because it was in the South, a part of the country with a huge stigma of having, almost to its death, supported this impossibly horrific institution of slavery,” she told me. “We had set ourselves up as a region to be—let’s just say less than. The South lost out on national parks, for example. All the grand national parks are out west. That’s hardly forgivable, that of all the glorious—goddamn glorious—places that we’ve had in the South, we didn’t get to protect them.”
The twinned exploitation of the land and the people who labored on it was in the region’s blood. Unlike in the West, where conservationists had secured the preservation of vast, pristine tracts of wilderness, the South had been treated as a piece of soil to be worked ever since the arrival of Europeans. The Crackers were typically too poor to be slaveholders, but they still used the land however they could—a heritage Ray found inescapable while writing Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which wove together stories of her childhood with her pleas for the pines. “The land itself has been the victim of social dilemmas—racial injustice, lack of education, and dire poverty,” she wrote. “More than anything else, what happened to the longleaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.”
Published in 2000, Ecology was swiftly successful and is still celebrated as both a personal memoir—a feminist portrait of a moment in time in the rural South—and a galvanizing piece of Southern nature writing. Introducing Ray at a talk she gave in Savannah earlier this year, the environmental historian Paul Sutter called the book “a stunning example of how natural history and family history are coequal in creating a sense of place.” When he first came across Ecology, Sutter said, “it solidified for me a then-growing sense that the American South deserved more attention from environmental historians.”
The book went into a third printing in its first year; a perhaps even more impressive metric is that, of the 10,000 copies sold that year, fully one-tenth were vended in rural Georgia by the junkyard proprietor Franklin Ray, who—after some initial misgivings—became a proud salesman of his daughter’s influential work. The New York Times sent a reporter down, yielding an article on the cover of the House & Home section declaring that the “Southeast forests find their Rachel Carson.” For Ray, the book launched a literary career that, in 2015, got her inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
“What happened to the longleaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.”
The pines themselves have not been as fortunate, and while Ray and groups like the Longleaf Alliance have led efforts to revive the longleaf ecosystem, the health of Southern forests writ large remains tenuous. After they were initially harvested, many virgin longleaf tracts were replaced by faster-growing planted pine species, the staple crops of a robust timber industry in Georgia. Ray and other environmental activists have long seen some of these planted forests as sterile, almost-industrial spaces, which don’t support near the amount of biodiversity as the virgin woods they stand in place of—lacking not just the beauty that Ray lamented but the ecological benefits as well. The tension between timberers and environmentalists is an old story. But right now, the environmentalists are especially concerned about a use for Southern timber that’s expanded rapidly in the 21st century—its growth fueled, ironically, by concerns over global warming.
In an attempt to cut back on their own fossil fuel emissions, countries in the European Union have become increasingly fond of getting energy from burning wood pellets, the product of wood that’s been harvested, ground up, and compressed. Because Europe has relatively stringent forest protections, the pellets are largely imported from the American Southeast. If the good news is that wood isn’t a fossil fuel, the bad news is that, by certain measures, it’s worse: Burning wood releases more carbon per unit of energy than burning coal or oil. And downed trees, of course, are no longer able to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Because trees grow back and return to capturing carbon on a much faster cycle than coal or oil, proponents of this type of fuel—called biomass energy—argue it should be considered a renewable source. But that regeneration happens on an order of decades. Last year, the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change produced a jarring estimate of how long the world has to forestall the worst effects of climate change: just 12 years, it said, to dramatically restructure the world economy and cut carbon emissions by nearly half, on the way to a later goal of net zero emissions by 2050. In 2017, a group of scientists—including a number of IPCC lead authors—published a letter naming a “critical flaw” in the EU’s goal to double the continent’s renewable energy by 2030. Counting wood biomass as a renewable energy source, they wrote, “amounts to selling the world’s limited time to combat climate change under mistaken claims of improvement.”
The American Southeast is the world’s top exporter of wood biomass, with the bulk produced in Georgia. Initially, biomass producers made pellets out of timber residue or sawmill shavings, but increasing demand has led them to harvest whole trees. (In addition to forest cutting and carbon emissions, conservationists and community groups object to the particulate matter emitted by wood pellet–producing U.S. factories, which tend to be located in low-income, nonwhite communities.) Naturally regenerating forests in the Southeast are expected to decline between 25 and 58 percent by 2060, while the amount of forestland taken up by pine plantations could rise to as much as 34 percent. Georgia, which has been called the “Amazon of the South” for its once highly biodiverse forest ecosystems, has also been called the “Saudi Arabia of pine trees” for the potential of its wood energy.
It was in Georgia in April 2018 that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced the Trump administration would consider wood biofuel a “carbon-neutral” energy source. The impact of this decision is, admittedly, somewhat hypothetical: It presupposes a future in which the U.S. actually gets serious about controlling carbon emissions. Pruitt’s decision makes an eventual honest accounting of those emissions less likely if—as in Europe—energy producers are able to claim wood pellets as renewable, says Danna Smith, the executive director of the Dogwood Alliance, a regional forest-preservation nonprofit based in Asheville, North Carolina: “This could play out in a way that is absolutely taking us backwards, not forwards, on climate change.” Smith also says carbon neutrality isn’t enough: People need to be pulling carbon from the atmosphere, not just putting less into it. That’s where trees come in.
One sunny January morning, I drove out to a tree farm in Wheeler County belonging to Reese Thompson, a sixth-generation Georgian of Scottish descent whose family has been in the tree business for four generations; his ancestors were turpentiners. In the 1980s, Thompson worked for a couple years as a commodities trader in Chicago before returning home to take up the family trade. He and his brother, who owns an adjoining tract, have spent the last few decades restoring portions of their land to longleaf pine. The longleaf ecosystem evolved to rely on occasional wildfire, sparked by lightning, to keep competing species at bay; the day I visited, Thompson’s brother was the lightning, using a drip torch to burn tracts of his land, which accounted for the smoke in the air. And Thompson had burned the day before, which accounted for the scorched earth between rows of three-year-old trees he pointed to as we walked through a field. Longleaf pines are aptly named, with needles that can grow 18 inches and longer. To me, these upstarts, just a few feet high, looked like Muppets, just clusters of wild hair emerging startled from the ground.
“There are basically two avenues that you can take being a tree farmer,” said Thompson, who’s 65. He owns several thousand acres of longleaf mixed with slash and loblolly, and most years, he’s able to harvest and sell some timber. “You can be a commodity-based tree farmer—you just plant trees in rows, and you have a monoculture. For lack of a better term, you’ve got a green desert.” Or “you can be community-based,” he said, working to promote an abundant community of species in your forest. Thompson drove his truck up a slight rise and into a patch of mature forest he called his “slice of heaven.” Some of the trees were a century old or more. Longleaf pine grow tall and thin and sprout few branches beneath their canopy, and they stretch starkly skyward. The understory was so open that, Thompson pointed out, we could see probably a quarter mile through the sporadic trees. There’s something lonely-looking about a healthy longleaf forest, or maybe just solemn. I thought of Janisse Ray’s description of walking into an ancient forest stand: “It is as if a round table springs up in the cathedral of pines, and God graciously pulls out a chair for me, and I no longer have to worry about what happens to souls.”
As we trudged through the winter brush, Thompson pointed out various plants that grow especially well with longleaf, like pitcher plants and toothache grass. “We’re blessed with indigos,” he said. He told me two things about the eastern indigo snake, whose geographical range has contracted along with the longleaf’s and who cohabitates with the gopher tortoise in its welcoming burrow. One thing Thompson said was that the eastern indigo is “extremely docile.” The other thing—which would seem to give the lie to Thing No. 1, but nature is complicated, I guess—is that the eastern indigo eats rattlesnakes. Eats them. It’s immune to rattlesnake venom. “He has tremendous jaw pressure, and he just comes up to a rattlesnake and just bites him and crushes him and then swallows him” was how Thompson put it. His voice got lost on the wind for a minute, but, when I could catch him again, he was talking about how the rattlesnake, too, is an important part of the system here, because it eats rats.
Thompson is the creator of a cartoon character named Burner Bob, a kind of Smokey Bear doppelganger that he licenses for $1 to the Longleaf Alliance, which promotes restoration. But whereas Smokey, a rigid ideologue, discourages fire, Burner Bob realizes that, under controlled conditions, it’s actually necessary for the health of certain forests. Burner Bob is a bobwhite quail, another species that prefers the unique environs of the longleaf forest: “He walks almost everywhere he goes,” Thompson said, and so prefers some ground-level vegetation to munch along the way. When the understory doesn’t burn, taller shrubs and small trees block sunlight from ground-level plant life. Thompson, who was on his way to a meeting of conservationists in Atlanta, urged me to mention Burner Bob in this article and, separately, gave me a basket of very good cookies his wife had made; I didn’t consider this to be in the manner of a quid pro quo, but there you have it: full disclosure.
At the same time that humans of European descent were mass-harvesting the timbers, they were suppressing the fires the forest depended on—fires that had been spread for millennia by lightning but also by Native Americans, who used burning to clear fields for agriculture. Later, the Crackers used the longleaf’s sturdy boards to build houses and its resinous stumps to light fires. It wasn’t until after the Civil War—when timbering became more economically feasible in the Southeast than industries such as rice and sugar, which had relied on slave labor—that the forest came to exist in a state of almost pure exploitation.
Longleaf is especially good wood: Because of its lack of lower branches it creates straight, firm, and knotless timber. Industrialists stampeded toward the South, shipping the wood worldwide; Darien, Georgia, now a tiny tidewater town halfway down the coast, was once a booming international timber port. It was longleaf, for instance, that was driven into the bottom of the East River of New York to anchor the Brooklyn Bridge, writes the environmental historian Albert G. Way: “Much like its more celebrated peers, steel and oil, longleaf pine was a foundational material of the industrial age.”
“This could play out in a way that is absolutely taking us backwards, not forwards, on climate change.”
The speed at which the Southern forests were timbered remains breathtaking: By the turn of the 20th century, over the course of just a few decades, much of the original forest of Georgia’s coastal plain had been timbered, replaced later by pine plantations, where faster-maturing species than longleaf grow in straight rows. Because they sustain little life beneath their canopies, the trees thereby came to more closely resemble a crop like corn, as Thompson puts it. He drove me to the edge of his property, where an open field abuts a wall of trees in straight rows, at the same height, planted by his neighbor. “Those are slash pine,” he said. “As far as a wildlife habitat, which would you rather look at: that, or what we just left down there?” He gestured back toward his slice of heaven. “There’s a real beauty out here, and every day, we’re losing it,” he said. “And once it’s lost, it’s never coming back.”
One of those few precious pieces of untouched forest sits a ways down the road from Thompson’s farm on the south bank of the Altamaha River, north of Baxley, and near a nuclear power plant. Moody Forest was bought at auction by the Nature Conservancy in 2001 following the death of Elizabeth Moody, the nonagenarian final heir to the property; she’d lived in a modest, wooden cabin on it all her life, only toward the very end acceding—at the insistence of her executor—to having indoor plumbing installed. Janisse Ray befriended Miss Elizabeth, as people still refer to her, and helped facilitate Moody Forest’s preservation. Ecology of a Cracker Childhood was originally to be called Where the Cutting Ends, after an event which, for Ray, dramatized the stakes of the land passing out of Moody hands, an occasion hungrily awaited by timberers coveting the virgin pine: A Moody relative took Ray through a bunch of land that had already been clearcut on the way to the edge of Miss Elizabeth’s property, which was still intact, awaiting her death. “Here’s where the cutting ends,” he told her. Christi Lambert, the Nature Conservancy’s director of marine and freshwater conservation in Georgia and a friend of Ray’s, said Ray acted as a kind of conduit between the Moody family, the environmentalists, and the people of Appling County whom she knew from growing up. As part of the effort, she edited a 2007 book of local testimonials about the land called Moody Forest.
“There’s a real beauty out here, and every day, we’re losing it. And once it’s lost, it’s never coming back.”
I met Lambert at the Nature Conservancy’s coastal offices near Darien, deep into the Altama Plantation Wildlife Management Area in a house built by the DuPont family in 1914. Somewhere behind the office, past floodplain swamps where enslaved people used to grow rice, was the Altamaha River, one of the biggest undammed rivers east of the Mississippi. Thanks in large part to the Nature Conservancy’s efforts, the last 42 miles of the lower river form one long corridor of protected land, with nothing on either bank. Lambert and Ray worked together, too, when Ray was a founding board member of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, which came together over concerns about pollution and degradation of the river.
Ray described its founding in Wild Card Quilt, her second book. After getting an MFA from the University of Montana, where she studied under the western nature writer William Kittredge, she’d moved back to Georgia to finish Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. It had been 17 years since she’d left. She returned with a young son from a short-lived marriage, an ambition to keep writing, and some deep misgivings about how she’d be able to make it back home. In Wild Card Quilt, she describes moving into her grandmother’s old farmhouse and finding her feet as an adult in a place that had been so defined, when she was a child, by her father. She found a writers group in Baxley, helped save a public schoolhouse from closing, made connections with Moody, and found a crew of like-minded souls worried about the Altamaha River. She and her son drove to Savannah, an hour and a half away, just to go to the natural foods store and a museum. Ray was home again but far from settled, lonely but committed to staying on, both an observer of and a participant in efforts to save the place she loved.
On New Year’s Day this year, Ray had a few friends over for a big afternoon dinner. She now lives with her husband, Raven Waters, in another farmhouse, north of Baxley near Reidsville, which she moved into 10 years ago. Their daughter, Skye, gave me a tour of the grounds: There were several horses, four dogs, many chickens, a few ducks, pigs, cows, sheep, and rabbits, and guinea hens that clustered underneath the kitchen windows during dinner and made a noise like squeaky wheels. The farmhouse was built in 1850, with the kitchen and dining area in a separate building across a walkway from the main house, reflecting the architecture of an era when kitchens tended to catch fire and take the rest of the building with them.
Ray is 57 now, with dark eyes and long, graying hair; she’s reinhabited the soft drawl she wrote about trying to rid herself of when she went off to college. In the years since Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and Wild Card Quilt, she’s written a series of searching personal and environmental books that includes Drifting Into Darien, which narrates a trip down the Altamaha. Her great theme has been the love of the natural world she came from, but she’s not particularly romantic about it: Loneliness and the difficulty of living a rural life grow beneath her work like an understory, and she sometimes wonders if she’s made the right choices, for herself and for her children and for her parents, who are still alive and who, she said, “look at me and don’t know where I came from.”
When she showed her father the final draft of Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a rift opened between them that nearly turned into a gulf. He was particularly upset at a vivid scene in which Ray describes her father whipping his children, enraged that they hadn’t stopped another child from stomping a tortoise to death. The day after a fierce fight, Ray called back to her parents’ house and insisted she wouldn’t allow an estrangement—an act to which she attributes their lasting if somewhat tenuous relationship. “He was telling me to leave,” she told me, “and I said, ‘You are my father, and I love you, and I’m not going anywhere.’” Ray’s publisher asked her parents to sign liability releases when the book came out: “My dad had me write at the bottom of his affidavit, ‘This is not my truth. This is my daughter’s truth, but I honor her telling it.’” Eventually, he became sufficiently tickled by the notoriety to help sell the book; the visit from the Times reporter, who wanted to see Franklin’s junkyard, helped.
When we talked, Ray said, “the arc of my childhood was one, in some ways, of diminishment. And it paralleled in some ways the arc of the diminishment of the forest.” I asked her what she meant by diminishment. She said, “It’s just that this vision that my dad had of his life”—the constricting religious vision, which her father adhered to and her mother, long-suffering Lee Ada, followed. “I’ve been able to really kind of spin some straw into gold with it. And I wrote about it with a lot of honor. I tried not to cause more woundedness in the world. But the reality of it is, it was a pretty rough childhood for a person to have to overcome.”
The loss of the native landscape of the rural South isn’t, in Ray’s opinion, extricable from the fact that many people leave here as soon as they get the chance. On New Year’s, she had assembled an eclectic constellation of guests: a master gardener, a poet, a mushroom forager, an AmeriCorps Vista worker who’s spending a year in Moody Forest. They talked a lot about how they wished there was more in this area to nourish people, to persuade them to stay—better education, more opportunities. Later in the month, Ray traveled to Savannah to speak at a release party for the book Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast, to which she contributed the final chapter. Her piece was a kind of survey of the literature of the coast, from the early explorer-naturalist William Bartram to the 19th-century British actress–turned–plantation-dwelling abolitionist Fanny Kemble, that tried particularly to tease out whatever “sense of place” the works convey. If that sounds high-minded, know that the talk—and the chapter—ended with a rather rousing exhortation that indicted American expansionism, which Ray still sees at work in the rootlessness of capitalist society, and the call for an ethic of staying put: “It is time we settled down,” she said. “It is time to be domestic, to pay attention to our home places. It is time as a country and as a region to grow up.”
Natural forests act as anchors; they make a place more livable—in Ray’s writing this notion is canonical—but, as the world warms, the stakes are only becoming clearer: Trees, and particularly old trees, also store a tremendous amount of carbon. An emerging movement of activists is insisting that the forests of the South can act as a bulwark against rising oceans, widespread drought and wildfires, and increasing heat waves by taking carbon out of the atmosphere. A 2017 study estimated that “natural climate solutions,” including forests, grasslands, and wetlands, could provide more than a third of the “cost-effective climate mitigation” needed to keep global temperature rise beneath 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. “The only solution we have available that we know that works at a global scale—a highly evolved, complex technology, if you want to call it that—is forests,” said the Dogwood Alliance’s Danna Smith.
When I talked to Smith earlier this year, she was just back from Washington, D.C., where her organization had pressed its case with members of the newly installed 116th Congress. Smith, who’s white, had traveled there with the Rev. Leo Woodberry, a black pastor and longtime leader in the Southern environmental-justice movement who leads a community-development corporation in Florence, South Carolina. Last year, the pair launched the Justice First tour, a round of engagements throughout the South, including Savannah, to highlight the links between environmental degradation and racism and poverty, and to call for 100 percent clean energy and forest protection. Along with politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and activist groups like the Sunrise Movement, they’re agitating for a “just transition” in the American economy, one that eschews carbon energy while promoting racial and economic justice. “If you look at the rural communities of the South, they have among the highest logging rates on the planet,” Smith said. “These communities also have some of the highest poverty rates of anywhere in the nation. The degradation of the land and the degradation of the community go hand in hand.”
Likewise, in this view, the restoration of the land and the restoration of the communities it supports are inextricable—not a new idea, certainly, but one that echoes the hope that Janisse Ray expressed in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and that’s guided her writing career ever since: By living more responsibly on the land, we can live more justly among one another, and that the roots of all this degradation are long and tangled indeed. Thinking about her homeplace in Ecology, Ray wrote, “Sometimes I dream of restoring the junkyard to the ecosystem it was when Hernando de Soto sauntered into Georgia, looking for wealth but unable to recognize it.”
A recent study offered a macabre illustration of the interplay between forests and people and climate. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the world experienced a “Little Ice Age”—a slight dip in global temperatures. The study provided evidence that the cooling could be attributed in part to the European genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas. In a hundred years, the estimated 60 million people living in this hemisphere were reduced to around six million. The fields they’d cultivated for agriculture rapidly converted to forests, which took in carbon from the atmosphere, cooling the climate.
The rest is history: The new people spread into the new world and reclaimed the land, razed forests, dammed rivers, toppled mountains, and built the edifice of a society that wrote the prophecy of its doom on land and water. We’re still living this history, but we might not always. “If we knew the future,” Janisse Ray wrote, in Wild Card Quilt, “hope would become extinct in this world.”
On October 5, 2016, 18 hours prior to Hurricane Matthew’s anticipated arrival in south Georgia, Jeff Adams received an ominous message in his inbox. Adams has a background in extreme climate events; he’s helped Kansans prepare for flash floods and Idahoans for mudslides. As director of community development for St. Marys, Georgia, Adams’s job was to guide the low-lying town as it planned for storm surges and higher seas.
Founded in the late 1700s, the town is laid out on a grid on the north bank of the St. Marys River, which separates Georgia from Florida and empties into the ocean a few miles downstream. The historic district, dotted with live oak trees and hazy with Spanish moss, forms a peninsula. The river meets it at the south, and to the east and west, it’s surrounded by vast expanses of flat, grassy salt marsh, which fill with water twice a day as the tides rise. A century-old hotel looks across St. Marys Street to an active marina, a waterfront park, and the dock for the ferry that brings visitors to Cumberland Island National Seashore.
The PDF that showed up in Adams’s inbox, from the National Hurricane Center, depicted a brightly colored map of the projected storm surge from Matthew—the strongest hurricane to blow through the Caribbean in a generation, which was maintaining a course about 30 miles off the Atlantic coast of Florida and vacillating between a category 3 and a category 4. On the map, most of downtown St. Marys was blanketed in yellow, indicating water levels greater than three feet, with halos of orange for flooding of six feet or more. Patches of red—nine feet of water or higher—ringed the peninsula and formed a straight line running through the center of downtown, a marshy, low-lying area.
Inside his windowless office on Osborne Street, just a few blocks from the water, Adams could immediately visualize the damage: “There’s very little that’s going to be above water if we get hit.”
Matthew wreaked havoc up and down the Georgia coast, but in the end, St. Marys escaped the direst predictions Adams had contemplated. Yet, the town was hardly in the clear. Adams realized that the map, with its bright shock of deep water in the town center, provided a vision of another future, one St. Marys is inexorably approaching. Simply put, it reveals what the town will look like someday—first at high tides, and then, eventually, under regular conditions—as sea levels continue to rise.
Recently, in a conference room next to his office in the St. Marys municipal building, Adams compared maps of rising sea levels to projections of the Hurricane Matthew storm surge. Turning to the rising sea levels map, he said: “We’re not looking at 50 years out. We’re looking at the next storm. It’s almost identical.” Three to six feet is the general range of sea level rise that scientists and city planners anticipate for the Georgia coast by the end of the century, a likelihood that towns like St. Marys are beginning to grapple with. “The historic area,” Adams said, “that’s pretty much gone at six feet.”
On the Georgia coast, which spans 100 miles between Savannah and St. Marys, two things have become apparent during the last decade: Climate change is coming, and it’s already here. Due to natural cycles in the global climate, the planet has been warming for centuries and the seas inching up; what’s more recently apparent is that, as humans release carbon into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, the rate of increase is accelerating. “We’re beginning to realize we were on a real slow linear trend, and over the last two or three decades, all the points are going above that line,” said Dr. Mark Risse, the director of the University of Georgia Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “We’re not on a linear path anymore.”
More flooding is afflicting the region, not just during extreme weather but, increasingly, during king tides—high tides that coincide with a full or new moon. These tides can cover the streets of St. Marys, Brunswick, or low-elevation parts of Savannah in otherwise fine weather conditions (the phenomenon is also called sunny-day flooding) with consequences that range from annoying to dangerous. The only road out to Tybee Island—a flat stretch between the Savannah River and the salt marsh—experienced tidal flooding a record 23 times in 2015. It’s projected that with just one foot of sea rise, it will be underwater 100 times annually.
“We’re not looking at 50 years out. We’re looking at the next storm.”
These glimpses of the future are becoming ever more vivid. Matthew was followed last September, less than a year later, by Hurricane Irma, whose outer winds lashed coastal Georgia with the force of a tropical storm. What’s remarkable about Irma is that it wasn’t an especially bad storm; it was just spectacularly ill-timed. Hitting around midday on a Monday, the storm coincided with a king tide, creating close to a five-foot surge in certain places and swells of up to 15 feet. River Street, Savannah’s popular tourist thoroughfare, ended up under several feet of water. Marshes overflowed onto the streets of Tybee.
If the last decade’s increased tidal flooding initiated a conversation about the changing sea, the hurricane double-header of 2016 and 2017 added a couple of exclamation points. But while the effects of storms will be more severe with climate change, Georgia’s vulnerability to them isn’t new—to the surprise of residents of the coast, where a long period of calm had nurtured a belief that those things don’t happen here. Before Matthew hit in 2016, Georgia hadn’t experienced such a storm since the late 19th century. “In the last 50 years of the 1800s, we had more storms than we did in the next 115 years,” said Dr. Clark Alexander, a coastal geologist and the director of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography.
Two punishing storms in the 1890s, in particular, changed the face of the coast both socially and physically. The evidence can be seen on Ossabaw, an uninhabited barrier island just south of Savannah. It was once home to a small community of formerly enslaved people, Gullah-Geechee farmers and fishermen, who were driven to the mainland by hurricanes in 1896 and 1898. They settled the marshside village of Pin Point. The 1898 hurricane was so powerful that it blew into place a long, high sand ridge that still exists on Ossabaw. The landscape was again reshaped by Hurricane Matthew, whose winds pushed the dunes all the way from Bradley Point, on the island’s north end, to a beach on the south, cutting 40 vertical feet of dune down to 10. Of course, on Ossabaw, it makes little difference which way the sands shift. Hardly anyone lives there. But elsewhere, the situation is more complicated.
On St. Simons Island, Paula Eubanks walked along a wide beach she couldn’t recall from her youth; the sand has built up slowly over time. Eubanks, a St. Simons resident and a retired professor of art education, grew up in nearby Jesup. On Sundays, her family would make the hourlong drive to St. Simons or to Jekyll Island, where they swam or picnicked or caught crabs in the tidal streams. “St. Simons was quaint—little, wooden houses,” she said. “They weren’t air conditioned, and there were a lot of mosquitoes.”
As Eubanks made her way along East Beach, she dodged spring-breakers and surveyed how the land had changed. And how it was about to change. East Beach looks across a small inlet to the private community of Sea Island, the wealthiest zip code in Georgia. From the southernmost end of Sea Island projects a vanishingly narrow sand spit that’s been the subject of contention. After a legal battle with environmentalists, Sea Island recently got the go-ahead to construct a groin: a rock wall perpendicular to the shore that prevents sand from blowing or washing away, thereby preserving the tiny, sea-blasted strip for the construction of eight proposed homes. The empty lots, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are worth between $3.5 million and $5.5 million.
“There’s something about us as humans that makes us think we’re required to look at the water,” Eubanks said. “Water trumps all the other views. Everybody wants to live on the water. And I get it. I’m just like them.” Eubanks lives near the ocean and looks at the water with a photographer’s eye. She’s worked often as a collagist, scalpeling pieces of pictures apart and putting them back together (formerly by hand and more recently with Photoshop). These days, Eubanks is working on a series that imagines—or predicts—what the water will look like when it has invaded various places along the Georgia coast, mostly historic sites on islands like Cumberland and St. Simons.
When she began making the series a couple of years ago, Eubanks did extensive reading on sea-level rise, poring over reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that surveys climate research. She later consulted with a friend on St. Simons, a geologist named Jim Renner, to estimate the year at which water will reach the places it does in her artwork. Taking pictures recently at a historic fort in northeast Florida, Eubanks noted how high the water gets now. “I had to stand there and think: About how many feet is that from the floor of this fort? And how will the water get in?” The collages are quietly fantastical works, in which the past and the probable future crash together into what plausibly could be the present. In one piece, the door of a remaining slave cabin on Ossabaw Island opens out to the beach. “Of course, the beach is not right outside,” Eubanks said. “But I don’t think it’s going to take much for the beach to get there.”
The movement of the seas created the Georgia shore—its barrier islands and its marshes that disappear into the horizon. Oceans fall and rise on a natural cycle roughly every 20,000 years; the coastline used to reach Macon and Augusta. Over geologic time, this has created many beachfronts, the contours of which are visible in an aerial view of the uninhabited islands. You see successive ridges where each beach has been; islands like Ossabaw look like the back of a mossy seashell, a series of sandy ridges representing each time the shore settled into a new configuration.
But humans have thrown a couple of wrenches in the works. Further warming the climate with carbon emissions, we’ve, in essence, sped up the cycle. In the 20th century, the sea rose a little more than 3.2 millimeters a year, adding about one foot of water cumulatively, whereas experts who study the Georgia coast forecast at least three times that—one meter of rise—in the 21st century and possibly more. The uncertainty relates to how quickly the world can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels as well as to scientists’ developing understanding of the Antarctic ice sheet, whose collapse could raise average global sea levels 15 meters by 2500. That event would play out slowly in human years but transpire in an instant of geological time, and it would mean nothing less than a redrawing of the map of the planet. A 2017 flood resiliency report created for the town of St. Marys by Georgia Sea Grant cites broad scientific agreement on approximately 3.3 feet of rise in coastal Georgia, while acknowledging the possibility of twice that—6.6 feet—depending on the intermediate future of the ice caps.
Meanwhile, we’ve placed buildings in—or otherwise gotten in the way of—the ecosystems that might absorb some of the water this warming will bring. Take Lewis Avenue, a pretty street of small homes on the backside of Tybee Island. “Lewis Avenue is the poster child for people in the wrong place,” said Paul Wolff, a former Tybee city councilman. When it was built out in the 1950s, nobody had any inkling of what was to come. The highest point on Tybee is Butler Avenue, the main commercial strip, which runs along an old sand ridge. Lewis Avenue is behind it, at lower elevation and between two marshes. “It’s an isthmus, basically,” Wolff said.
Fran Galloway moved to Lewis Avenue in 2009. Originally from Atlanta, she spent her career in television, working for CMT in Nashville for 13 years. She came to Tybee, semiretired, when it was still possible to believe in the overall placidity of the Georgia coast. She had lived in Savannah in the 1980s while working for WSAV and didn’t remember any particularly bad weather; researching the subject before returning in 2009, she learned the area hadn’t been hit by a hurricane in more than a century. Lewis Avenue is set back from the tourist hubbub that characterizes much of the island. Because so many of its houses are filled with homeowners rather than vacationers, it’s known at Halloween as “Trick or Treat Street” and draws costumers from as far away as Hilton Head. The houses on Lewis are mostly one-story, slab on grade, and built for working people. Galloway’s next-door neighbors have lived in their home for 49 years and “never got a drop” indoors, she said. Until the hurricanes.
Galloway lives across the street from a glimpse of her future: A neighbor’s house is being raised above the floodplain, stacked on wooden pilings that look like giant Jenga blocks. Galloway’s house has been flooded twice—first Matthew, then Irma. The first wasn’t bad, but in the second, the water reached four feet up the walls. Galloway didn’t evacuate during Irma. She went to another neighbor’s home and sat on the second-story porch, where she watched the water come running up both sides of the street—from both marshes. “It was so mesmerizing,” she said. Returning to her house, she found splash marks on the walls where the rising waters met.
Galloway’s house is in an initial batch for which Tybee Island is seeking a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to lift above the floodplain. In her living room, the walls are stripped down to the studs, with insulation packed only into the top half of the frame. Contractors will drive steel beams through the midsection, so everything from four feet on down needs to be bare. Still, Galloway has reinstalled cupboards in the kitchen and plans to put up beadboard on the walls in the rest of the rooms—for her “mental health,” she said. (It’ll be easy to pop off when the time comes.) The house looks so comfortably lived-in now that there’s a sense of industrial chic about it; after a while, you can imagine the bare boards as an affectation rather than a disaster’s aftermath. It could be two years until Galloway’s house is lifted. That’s two hurricane seasons, at least, between now and when she will be safely out of the floodplain. The waiting has created its own vocabulary: “When I’m raised,” she said a couple of times. “I just don’t want to watch the Weather Channel,” Galloway said and laughed. “I’ll pray, and I’ll prepare, and that’s about all I can do. And just wait to be raised. If you’re not raised, you’re just going to have to deal with it all over again.”
In Georgia, Tybee Island has been on the front lines of climate change adaptation planning. In 2016, the city ratified a plan, created with assistance from Georgia Sea Grant, that involves placing tide gates on stormwater outfalls, protecting municipal wellheads from saltwater intrusion, and eventually raising Highway 80. St. Marys followed suit. Its own adaptation planning involves an upgraded municipal sewer system and various projects to help drain off some of the water that inundates the city. “What we’re trying to do is use low-impact or green infrastructure—permeable paving, rain gardens to collect the water—to absorb these inundations,” said Adams, the city planner.
In a coast-long congressional district represented by a Republican who says the science is unclear on fossil fuels and global warming, those advocating for adaptation planning have succeeded by focusing on effects rather than causes. But their success also shows how climate politics tend to get scrambled when the problem literally expresses itself in constituents’ backyards. Former councilman Wolff, whom a friend described as “a silver-haired environmentalist from the old days,” said, “We did our best to depoliticize the whole thing. We said, ‘look, we’re not going to argue about whether climate change is happening or whether we’re accelerating the process. We’re just here to talk about what we see, which is: The road’s underwater more often.’”
Planners agree it’s most productive to think incrementally. Tybee and St. Marys are both peering about a half-century into the future: the most practical time line, and one that stops short of the unimaginable. And later on? “Unless we build a bulkhead around the entire island, which would effectively destroy the beach, we’re just going to have to move inland,” Wolff said. “We will not have an option within 150, 200 years.”
People will have to move landward, and so will entire ecosystems. Higher oceans will push everything up. Saltwater will encroach into freshwater marshes, turning them to salt marshes and nudging the freshwater marshes themselves to higher ground—at least in a vision of the future in which the marshes have time and room to move.
South across the bridge from the small fishing town of Darien, near where the Altamaha River empties into the ocean, the wetlands scientist Christopher Craft has spent the last six years studying what happens when saltwater intrudes on fresh. When he launched SALTex in 2011—it stands for Seawater Addition Long-Term Experiment—Craft created a grid of experimental field plots in a freshwater marsh on the north bank of one of the Altamaha’s distributaries. Almost hidden by the tall marsh grass, a narrow plastic-lumber boardwalk runs alongside 30 2.5-meter plots, separated from one another by siding driven into the mud. Craft’s study site sits in the shadow of Interstate 95, across a dirt road from a series of duck impoundments. If you put on noise-blocking headphones, this would be a deeply peaceful scene; in early spring, the giant cutgrass dominating the ecosystem was a pale yellow-brown, and bony cypress trees on the riverbanks were draped in Spanish moss and just starting to leaf out.
SALTex is part of the University of Georgia Marine Institute’s Long-Term Ecological Research project, funded by the National Science Foundation and housed on nearby Sapelo Island. For four years, three or four times a week, research technician Dontrece Smith would wake at his home on Sapelo, take the ferry to the mainland, and fill a truck with seawater. Then, he would drive to the study site, dilute the saltwater in the truck with freshwater from the river—to mimic brackish conditions—and dump it into the study plots. The idea is to see what effect this would have on soil and plant life in the marsh.
Craft experimented with two treatments, one that he called a press (a year-round brackish assault) and the other a pulse (doses only in September and October). “I use the analogy of, a press is like somebody who smokes two packs a day,” he said. Craft speaks with an amiable North Carolina drawl and did his PhD work in salt-marsh restoration. “A pulse is like somebody who doesn’t smoke except when they go to the bar on Friday night.” The press treatments provide a glimpse of how the marsh will react to saltwater inundation as seas rise; the pulse plots model brief, receding hits, like a hurricane’s storm surge.
“I don’t think climate change is going to be this gradual kind of thing. It’s going to be punctuated.”
About a third of the remaining salt marsh on the U.S. East Coast is in Georgia, whose shoreline—including most of the barrier islands—is largely undeveloped. The islands are separated from the mainland by 368,000 acres of undulating marshes, which act as a nursery for shrimp and crab. Beyond their value to Georgia’s seafood industry, marshes provide a range of environmental benefits, including the ability to store carbon that would otherwise enter the atmosphere. “Wetlands on a per-area basis sequester more carbon than any kind of ecosystem,” Craft said. As seas rise, one question is whether the salt marshes will be able to migrate—whether their sentinel species, spartina alterniflora, will be able to establish itself upland before the ecosystem is drowned. “If you kill the fresh plants, and the brackish plants don’t get there fast enough, you could end up with open water,” Craft said.
In his experiment, he found that plants died in the plots subject to sustained brackish treatment—the press plots. No surprise there. He’s focusing on the less obvious effects, like the nitrogen and phosphorus that dying plants release into the water (which could cause downstream algae blooms) or the loss in soil elevation that occurs as the plants’ roots biodegrade. In Craft’s press plots, the root loss has caused the soil to fall two inches in four years—a condition that, in an uncontrolled site, would further invite the rising sea.
Most barrier islands are held in conservation of some sort, and the salt marshes are protected by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. These physical assets provide a buffer between us and the rising sea. It’s hard to think of a scenario in which climate change will devastate coastal Georgia to the extent it will South Florida, where development extends all the way to the shoreline. Still, this world will shrink. Coastal planners are trying to balance the need to give the marsh room to move with the increasing demands that people are placing on the coast. By 2030, the population of Georgia’s coastal counties is projected to be 50 percent larger than it was in 2000, exacerbating the already considerable pressure on the ecosystem. People who live on waterfront or marshfront property, meanwhile, will be tempted to armor their shorelines against rising tide and increasing erosion. Hitting those walls, the marsh will drown. Charles McMillan, the coastal director of the Georgia Conservancy, said, “From an engineering standpoint, you can raise a road. But there’s a lot more difficult issues when you’re trying to defend an entire landscape.”
Given enough time, the marsh can adjust; it has for millennia, with the inward and outward movement of the shoreline. The extent to which it will be able to make the necessary adjustments in the face of new challenges—the sand-spit development, the coastline armoring, the ocean levels gone off their linear path—is “the million-dollar question,” said Jan Mackinnon, a biologist for the DNR’s Coastal Resources Division in Brunswick. “How exactly will things change? It’s been very impressive, all of the brain power that’s gone in to trying to figure that out. But at the same time, no one really knows.”
Alexander, the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography director, said the marsh’s future “depends on what you think about how far sea level’s going to rise. If you go to two meters by 2100, the marsh is toast.”
Craft’s SALTex sites received their last treatment of saltwater in December, but the experiment will continue for another several years. Now, Craft will focus on how the freshwater marshes recover—which species grow back, for instance, and how quickly. In the pulse plots (the “occasional smokers”), the real-world utility of this knowledge is obvious. Craft is studying how coastal ecosystems respond to changing climate conditions we’re already seeing: periods of drought, or storm surges that are becoming fiercer and more frequent—they push inland, they dump a bunch of saltwater, and then, they’re gone. What happens next? And how will the marsh bounce back if it happens again and again?
“I don’t think climate change is going to be this gradual kind of thing,” Craft said. “It’s going to be punctuated: You have a hurricane like Matthew. And then you get another one like Irma a year later. And maybe you get a third one in the next two years. Then, you’re going to start seeing effects.”
The 2018 hurricane season began June 1. The chances a major storm will hit the U.S. mainland this year, meteorologists figure, are better than average.
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