Wednesday, June 1, 2016

“THE PLACE WHERE THE RABBITS DANCE”

Wolf Creek
As a writer, one of my hobbies is seeking out and visiting famous authors’ homes. Last month I visited the national site of Eudora Welty’s home in Jackson, Mississippi and was so impressed during the visit, I scheduled another trip on the Southern Literary Trail last week. Since we live in Sewanee, Tennessee during the summer months, we’re only a few hours away from north Georgia, and I was delighted to discover that Choestoe, (Indian name for “where the rabbits dance”, pronounced cho-ee-sto-ee) is another mythic place in the North Georgia Mountains that was the home place of the poet Byron Herbert Reece (1917-1958). Reece, a farmer and creator of mountain ballads, won many literary honors, Guggenheim awards, and was eventually chosen poet laureate of Georgia.

A modest, “aw shucks” kind of man, Reece wrote ballads, verse, and sonnets based on nature and a reverence for the world and the Bible, putting an entire mountain landscape into books of poetry and novels. He claimed that he “grew books and potatoes,” and struggled between subsistence and writing until he took his own life at age 40.

Reese lived in the shadow of three mountains – Blood, Slaughter, and Brasstown Bald Mountains — on Wolf Creek near Blairsville, Georgia. His grandfather, John Reece, was one of the first settlers of that area and befriended native Americans whom Reece later spoke of as “good neighbors” and whom he felt the government had unjustly treated. Byron Reece’s parents suffered from tuberculosis, and the poet became their major caretaker, working the farm all day and composing verse and novels in the evenings and nights. Although he attended Young Harris College, he never achieved a degree, but he taught sporadically at Blairsville High School, Young Harris College, the Universities of Georgia, Emory, UCLA, and others.

We watched a video about the poet in a small welcome center, the
Winter Solstice, a poem by Reece
relocated Reece family home, which had been moved less than 100 yards from its original site. After seeing the award-winning video, a self-guided tour took us past a cluster of “poetry islands” – stone slabs with some of Reece’s poetry engraved on them and Mulberry Hall, a small shed where Reece often read or wrote poetry. The austere building contains a single iron cot and hundreds of books, a small table, an unloaded rifle, and a few photographs. Components of the 9.3 beautifully-groomed acres include buildings and exhibits that show a typical Appalachian farm: a smokehouse, springhouse, barns, corn crib, a vegetable garden and other sheds. The farm is touted as an educational experience and a popular site for school groups.

Reece was an autodidact and often spurned Academia. He, like Robert Frost and W.H. Auden, preferred rhyming verse, sonnets, Biblical and Elizabethan literary forms. His ballads have been set to music, a recording of which I purchased in the gift shop, along with a biography entitled Mountain Singer by Raymond Cook and which I managed to read while sojourning in nearby Blairsville. According to Cook, Reece (or “Hub” as he was called) grew up hearing daily Bible readings and was unusually aware of the cadences of the King James version, especially passages from Psalms and the Books of the Prophets. He was also impressed by mountain folk ballads sung around the family fireplace. These early experiences helped him develop an ear for the lyrical themes he later composed. E.P. Dutton Publishing Company published most of his books, and “little” magazines like American Weave regularly accepted single poems that he wrote.

Mulberry Hall, where Reece read and wrote 

Reece developed the family disease of tuberculosis and was depressed by his illness and his inability to make a living from the farm and his writing. In 1958 he shot himself while listening to Mozart in a room at Young Harris College where he had been teaching. He left behind a legacy of poetry that immortalized the Appalachian ethos and contained echoes of Irish, Scots, and Welsh ballads. Perhaps one of his remembered poems is one entitled “Lest the Lonesome Bird,” which ends with the verse: “Mother, hush and tend the fire/And lay the bed with a clean cover;/I sleep tonight with a new desire, /With a dread and faithful lover.”

Byron’s sister wrote about this talented mountain man: “Some of the things he (Byron) disliked were ostentation, monotony, and clutter.” Amen.


The Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center is located on U.S. 129 two miles north of Vogel State Park, Georgia, and the U.S. Forest Service has designated 150 acres of forest land around the home place as a “seen area.”


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