Thursday, June 12, 2008

LUMBER AND SAWDUST

One of the persons I befriended after services at St. Mary’s, Sewanee one morning is The Rev. Gene Moritz, a native of Natchez, MS. He and his wife Janell live in Richmond, VA and come up to Sewanee each summer where they have a second home. They have been Associates of St. Mary’s for 15 years and support the Convent in its spiritual work. Like most Mississippians, Gene can spin a good story, and he delivers them non-stop at the breakfast table following Eucharist. Gene’s family was in the lumber business in Natchez, and he tells a lot of “sawmill yarns,” some of which resonate with me since my Grandfather Paul and Great-Uncle Ed were partners in the Greenlaw Lumber Co., first in Mississippi, then at Ramsey, Louisiana back in the early 1900’s.

Gene told a story about the diminishment of the revered white oaks in America in which his ancestors participated. The cutting down of these large trees (some as large in width as in height) was so profound that a song was written by blacks about the clearing away of these giants. In essence, the song relates the tale of the felling of trees from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, and laments in the lyrics “if the white man cuts all the white oaks from the Atlantic to the Mississippi/, who will care for me?”

In a similar story about the rape of a forest, the proprietor of a bed and breakfast based in the old Greenlaw home at Ramsey tells about the clearing of all the long-leaf pine trees at Ramsey by my Great Uncle Ed. Several years ago, she told me that Great Uncle Ed cleared so many long-leafs, a person could stand on the porch of the Greenlaw home and see the town of Covington five miles away!!
Here’s a poem from my chapbook, MORE CROWS, about the demise of Gr. Uncle Ed’s wife who died while they were clearing the massive stands of long-leaf pines:

SAWDUST
The contradiction of feeling nostalgia
for a place I could not live a week
without angst, claustrophobia;
those tall pinewoods near Covington
where trees fell every day,
future houses rolled onto two ponds,
kept wet until shipping
down the rails to Franklinton
where another sawmill hummed.
I could not have lived there
because of the incessant buzz,
not only of saw but cicada,
like small shrieks,
a symphony of dissonance,
strung out, lonely,
voices among dead trees.
Alice was the lonely woman
thrust into a lumber industry,
promised wealth, vacations, dresses
and hired help by my great uncle;
getting instead, early death.
She must have been 30 in an old photograph,
a handsome woman in boat-shaped hat,
standing with children at her side,
poised on a wooden bridge
overlooking the River Bogue Falaya,
one naked child pointing a plump finger
toward murky water,
another, fully clothed in a checked dress,
long red curls in sausage style,
the three of them in this wilderness life
enchanted with the water,
dreaming, perhaps, of sailing away,
pulsating with the idea of New Place.
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