By Leslie Stainton
When they cleared the land to plant cotton fields, my ancestors destroyed a habitat on which certain creatures depended—fox squirrels, for instance; the delicate, ground-nesting Bachman’s sparrow, named for a friend of Audubon’s; the red-cockaded woodpecker—and replaced it with one in which human beings were housed in crude wooden cabins with dirt floors and forced to plant and pick and bale and haul, and whipped if they didn’t.
Or that’s the likely scenario. There’s much I don’t know hidden under the soil of this once-wild place along the saltmarshes of coastal Georgia, an hour north of Jacksonville by car. Philadelphia botanist William Bartram visited the area in the 1770s and found a semi-tropical paradise stocked with magnolia groves, vast stands of timber, an “infinite variety of herbaceous plants,” and a multitude of insects and birds and fauna: glass snakes and rattlers, bears, tortoises, alligators, wolves, “tygers,” pole-cats, hares, raccoons. His harrowing encounters with some of these creatures notwithstanding, Bartram viewed the region through the eyes of a man besotted by God. The world, he exulted, is “a glorious apartment of the boundless palace of the sovereign Creator,” and surely this place—this Colonels Island where I stand on a bright May morning—numbered among its more enchanted rooms.
Coleridge, who dreamt of founding a free-love utopia in the colonies, read Bartram’s account of his southern travels a year after its publication in 1791 and warmed to the botanist’s portrait of a luxuriant North American Eden peopled by worldly planters and Indian chiefs and “sooty sons of Afric” who sing as they labor. Images from Bartram’s narrative seep into “Kubla Khan” and other poems, and as I stand inside the pleasure dome of these woods, on land that once belonged to my family, I see why the poet saw his Xanadu as both savage and holy.
Although I’ve driven past here countless times, I’ve never been to Colonels Island before. It’s generally off limits. A deep water seaport owned and managed by the Georgia Ports Authority, the place is scored with rail lines and parking lots. Freighters from Europe and Asia and the Americas turn up daily to load and unload cargo, mostly automobiles and “agri-bulk”— things like soybean meal and wood pulp. Ten miles away, on the pier at St. Simons, I’ve watched a pair of container ships eclipse the horizon as they passed one another in the channel leading inland to Colonels Island.
But today I’m inside the woods, beyond the parking lots, in a shadowy cul-de-sac of Bartram’s world: tall oaks wreathed in Spanish moss and muscadine vines, an iridescent blue skink, ghostly holes tunneled by turtles and snakes. And at the base of all this, staked out by small red and yellow flags, the excavated foundations of a human dwelling, two feet deep, twenty feet square. Within its confines, the tabby substratum of a pair of fireplaces, back-to-back: twin hearths that once shared a common chimney. Slave cabins.
Federal law—the stipulation that land under the purview of the Army Corps of Engineers be surveyed for potential historical interest before any new construction can take place—has forced their momentary exhumation. By the time this acreage becomes a parking lot either this year or next, archaeologists will have salvaged what they can (shards of dishware and clay pipe, corroded forks and knives, a nineteenth-century penny stamped with the telling word “Liberty”) from the six slave and three post-bellum cabins whose foundations they’ve unearthed, and the tabby bricks with which enslaved African Americans built fireplaces to cook their food and warm their families will have sunk back into the ground.
The archaeologist who has brought me here tells me much of her company’s work is like this—excavating the historic underpinnings of soon-to-be parking lots and shopping malls.
Here in this quiet space beneath the oaks, in what was once a longleaf pine forest, with sun slivering in soft daggers of yellow light, I think of the ways humans have altered the natural world. Not just the shipping business across the island, or the tracts of asphalt gleaming with new cars and chain-link fence, but the earth beneath me. These shallow foundations that say so little and so much.
I don’t know how my ancestors lived, or what, exactly, became of the grand house on the far side of Colonels Island where they bore children and dined on fine china with silver flatware, some of which now lies in drawers in my Michigan house. I have only the evidence at my feet: a triangle of blue and white pottery that looks as if I’d just dropped it, a crescent of brown glass. Those telltale hearths. I can almost imagine a woman hunched over the fireplace, fanning embers into heat.
But I stumble over semantics—the disconnect between the term hearth and what it implies (home, nourishment, family) and what this place represents. Home, yes, with family and sustenance of a sort, but also fear: of being flogged, raped, sold, killed. The torment of hard labor in serpent-ridden marshes (Bartram recounts the four-foot moccasins, “as thick as a man’s leg,” which bring “terror to the miserable naked slaves” in this part of America). The bells and whips that structured the days.
When I ask my companion if it bothers her to think of these dwellings lapsing back into the soil, she is briefly silent, then says, “We feel privileged to be the last persons to see these sites.”
The cargo ships that frequent Colonels Island ply some of the same routes that slavers sailed for hundreds of years. One of the last of those reached neighboring Jekyll Island in 1858, its hold crammed with human anguish. From where I stand it’s a short drive over a causeway to the spot where as many as 400 men, women, and children who survived that terrible voyage first glimpsed the American continent that so galvanized Bartram and Coleridge. Fan-leaved palmettos and towering pines, tiny sparrows whose young hatch in the ground, squirrels with fox-red pelage and squirrels that fly. Tender “resurrection” ferns that latch onto the strong arms of live oaks and brighten each time it rains.
A holy and savage place, one whose secrets still indict. My ancestors, of course, did not clear this land—they forced others to do it for them. Like the cabins that stood here nearly two centuries ago, the names of the people who drained my family’s swamps and dug their canals and uprooted their forests are mostly lost. It’s only coincidence—a government regulation, a chance e-mail, a serendipitous trip south—that’s allowed me to see these foundations today. In a few months they’ll vanish again. What would happen if the tabby bricks at my feet were left out in the open, bared to the elements? Would they survive as testament to the children and parents and siblings and cousins and grandparents and friends who lived and labored here? Or would they revert to shell and dust?