Okechobee

I am quite late to give an account of my experiences in the South. It has been almost a year now. By going back to the States last month and visiting the deserts of the West, I can finally lay my finger on what makes the southern territory so interesting. Vast deserted lands generate a different kind of relationship with their inhabitants than an area full of swamps does. A desert is a priori a danger zone because it misses all the elements to establish a sedentary culture. There is no water, no shelter and hardly any opportunity to hunt. The South is the western desert’s counterpart. The soil is saturated with water, offers all kinds of wildlife and a rich flora. This favourable climatological condition is ideal to found a flourishing agriculture-based economy. After its discovery, the British, the French and the Spanish sailed to the New World with the exploitation of its possibilities in mind. I am certain it was the description of the ‘untouched’ American nature and the promise of endless natural resources that convinced the mother country to collect the necessary financial support. The first decades on the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas did not live up to this great promise. The colonists were not only surprised by the size of the native population, but also by  the second and unexpected enemy they found in the very same nature that had looked so appealing at first. Truth is, wetlands and swamps are dangerous to people and as frightening as deserts.

Mankind is under the impression, and always has been, that nature shapes itself to his wishes That nature can always be controlled and designed as a landscape we can live in. A nice setting for our global scenario and in the meantime it should be as productive as a profitable factory. The funny thing is, as discouraged as the first colonists were by nature, they did not retreat. They just gathered more people to fight against the natural disasters they encountered, like floods and hurricanes, life threatening animals, uncontrollable vegetation and diseases caused by the water. Slavery brought some ‘salvation’ and little by little a compromising culture could grow.

The Southern culture was set up around nature in a way that made the water an obstacle and at the same time it became Dixie’s most important asset. It is this ambivalent relationship between nature and culture that caught my particular attention. Where people in the West gained enough strength to make nature surrender or else chose to avoid what they could not tame; the Southerners continued to struggle. Due to increasing numbers of settlers and slaves, they were able to grow for example cotton and rice, build their houses on wooden structures and organise a trading system on the river network. Though all within the natural limits.

In Western history, every culture marked at some point the border of civilisation. In time, these frontiers could expand, usually in favour of cities or industrial activities. We like to know where the wilderness begins and where we have to be careful, in other words, where we are no longer in control. When I visited the South I used the same standards to explore the region as I did in every Western country. And I laboured under the same misassumption as the colonial pioneers. I was misled by idyllic creeks, romantic Spanish moss hanging down from the oak trees and grasses waving peacefully in the wind. I remember one exact moment , at the beginning of my journey, when I was photographing the garden of an old plantation in South Carolina. I had rarely seen a garden design this precise: the lakes were shaped like the wings of a butterfly, every plant was neatly cut and the paths were professionally hardened. When the plantation was still operational, they grew rice in the shallow river next to the estate. I was walking next to that river and took a few steps on the grass in the direction of the waterfront so I could take a better picture. Suddenly, I found myself in the company of an alligator, who was taking a nap on the exact same spot where I was standing. Of course I had hoped to spot an alligator on a swamp tour, as long as I was safe and sound in a boat with an experienced ranger watching my back. During a walk in the garden, I should be able to enjoy nature without my survival instinct having to kick in. Later, when I shared my concerns with some of the local tourists, they did not seem to share my distress.

Human behaviour is closely related to the environment and the natural conditions a human being has to live in. I compared my cultural references to the American ones and assumed they were equal. In my opinion this is an easily made mistake. Most Americans are of European descent and therefore we are still alike in many ways. For instance, we look the same and share a similar religion, but their natural surroundings differ from ours and as a consequence our cultures diverged.

Once again, the West is different. National parks are organised and people get ‘guided tours’ instead of a real confrontation with the wild. The line between civilisation and the wilderness is clearly visible and people are made aware of the possible dangers, just as caution is advised when travelling to Asia or the African continent. Daily life in the South depends on its close relationship to the land and is, because of its obligation to the environment, unable to define the culture-nature border. Their definition is based on a constant interaction that could end either well or badly. My idea about this compromising relationship began to take shape when I approached the Mississippi River. The mighty Mississippi is without a doubt the pride of the southern states. Who controlled the river in times past, ruled over entire Dixie. Though the Mississippi could be called a poisoned gift, it allowed salesmen from the North to reach New Orleans by boat so they could sell their goods. They had to walk back though, because the current was too strong for the wooden ships. Even in New Orleans, the biggest city of the South (the city as natural opponent of the wild), where the river flows into the Gulf of Mexico, the location proved to be detrimental. Hurricane Katrina is the most recent and most disastrous example. The Mississippi serves the State of Louisiana a great deal, economically and militarily, but there is a price to pay. A while back, I read a book about a lake in Florida with the name Okechobee. Everybody loved Okechobee for its calm water, its fishing facilities and a cool swim, but when a storm headed its way the lake became a monster. The monster got angry and no dykes or friendship could keep the monster from attacking. The village in the story was completely flooded and destroyed.

The point made in the story can be applied to numerous incidents in the South. Hurricanes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are, according to Rod Giblett, ‘not really natural disasters. It is a natural event. Disaster is a human category.’ (Rod Giblett, ‘Landscapes of Culture and Nature’, 2009, p 158) That is why we need to look for a reason, to stay and develop a civilisation in the South, on a cultural level. The moment people consider themselves part of a culture, when they acknowledge a common set of values and standards as their own, they get attached. And it is easier to live with a shared ‘enemy’ than to leave your life as you know it behind. 

TEXT