By Davy Knittle
A decade ago, my father and I rented a car, flew to Vancouver, British Columbia and drove east across the width of British Columbia and halfway across Alberta, stopping in Lethbridge before we drove back. In the course of the drive we drove through the Canadian Rockies, and when we descended out of them, the horizon line extended across the sudden and uniformly flat land. The sky got bigger.
Driving away from the East Coast, I’m often aware of the comparative containment of the sky of the Northeast. Throughout the ride, I’ve been waiting for the change in landscape as we get further from D.C. I was stunned by the thick green of the Virginia and North Carolina foliage, and now, closing in on the Tennessee border, the sky does, in fact, feel bigger. The land has been variable and gorgeous. Original Freedom Rider Helen Singleton said yesterday that it’s difficult for her to reconcile the painful history of this landscape with its specific beauty. She said that only now are Americans from outside of the South starting to be able to appreciate the South for its landscape outside of the operation of its history, which itself operates as a barrier between the South and the rest of the country.
She said that the history of racial oppression in the South was a waste of the land (as well as, as she implied, a gross misuse of human life and of basic humanness itself). We’ve seen so many vacant urban blocks on the ride, so much endless suburban space, so much ritualized farmland with small, adjacent houses and other buildings. The physical space of the South is deceptive in that way – if there’s a relationship between what we understand about a place from its landscape and what we understand from its history, the lush quality of the foliage throughout the route of the ride makes it harder, for me, to internalize the history of this land, because it looks like the Northeast, which is what I’m used to, or because it’s so basically beautiful.
I feel about the land of the South the way I feel about America as an entity made up of the interaction of its landscape, its history and its current reality – largely confused, impressed by its beauty, and incredulously unable to reconcile its disparate features. The land of the South feels multiplicitous and deceptive in a way that makes intuitive sense. Even so, it feels enormous and unsolvable to try to fit the history of this landscape into the land itself.