A Wiregrass Witness

Wiregrass Country.
By Jerrilyn McGregory.
171 pgs. ; softcover edition, University Press of Mississippi.

If you’ve ever picked cotton, ate homemade mayhaw jelly, drowned a wiggler in a bed of red bellies, stuck a tooth in warm peanut brittle, been to a dinner-on-the-ground or a hog-killin’, sang sacred harp, choked on smoke from burning pecan leaves, gone snipe hunting--or known anybody who has--then you just might be from Wiregrass Country.

For a small, largely unsung region, this ill-defined patch of piney woods, peanut fields, kudzu and K-marts stretching across parts of Georgia, Alabama and North Florida, Wiregrass Country holds its own when it comes to homegrown, washed-in-the-blood culture, of which the American South is famous the world over. Now at long last comes a scholarly tribute to another hapless victim of the New South, to a geographic apparition largely vanished beneath the greedy wheels of enterprise. Wiregrass Country, by FSU English professor Jerrilyn McGregory, claims to be the first comprehensive study of the folklife of a section of the South like unto none other. Can we get a witness?

Named for an all-but-gone, wiry weed (Aristida stricta) that a century ago was commonplace from the Chesapeake Bay to Texas, the Wiregrass region of today (as can best be discerned by nicknames, slogans, and the names of scattered places and businesses--even one newspaper) has collapsed mightily along with the weed’s range. Where once upon a time an estimated 93 million wiregrass-and-longleaf pine acres grew in solemn harmony, today scarcely a million acres remain.

Three hundred years before biologists grasped the concept of fire ecology--today a staple in wildlife management texts--the sturdy sons and daughters of the South practiced it like a cosmic religion. Entirely dependent on the baptism of fire to germinate, wiregrass lost its purchase on life when, in the 1940s, “ignorant” Southerners got preached the no-forest-fire-at-any-cost gospel by federal foresters and their furry one-note evangelist, Smokey the Bear. At least one result was that by 1950, a future editor of a university research magazine could be born and raised on a family farm in the self-proclaimed “Heart of the Wiregrass” (Dothan, Alabama) stumble into adulthood and be entirely incapable of telling the difference between his hometown’s namesake and a clump of nutgrass.

McGregory’s unpretentious, front-porch treatment is to be savored by anyone even remotely suspicious of a bloodline that ever sashayed into quintessential Southernness. The short work is both a celebration of the selfless, work-hard/play-hard, multi-ethnic communities that once pulsed through Wiregrass Country and a quiet lamentation on the region’s genuinely regretable demise. -- Frank Stephenson