A Wiregrass Witness
By Jerrilyn McGregory.
171 pgs. ; softcover edition, University Press of Mississippi.
If youve 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
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 weeds 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 hometowns namesake and a clump of nutgrass.
McGregorys 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
regions genuinely regretable demise. -- Frank Stephenson