On family vacations, I was always the one who thought a hike in a nearby state or national park added an important dimension to the trip; my husband gamely agreed, while my two oldest children tromped resignedly alongside and my two youngest lagged decidedly behind, whining at evenly spaced intervals. So on this, my second visit to Andalusia, I was surprised yet excited to find that a walking trail had been cut through the grounds since my last visit, and I knew that was one thing I would not leave without experiencing.
The path began at the bottom of the steep slope that would have been in the center of O’Connor’s vision from her vantage point of the front porch. It circled the pond and wound into the woods beyond, a short circle of less than a mile. Walking woods, for me, is not a social event; like Thoreau, I much prefer solitary walks, the quiet of the trees surrounding me, my steps, the scurrying of squirrels, and the mingled calls of birds high above the only sounds. When I walk, I stare, something O’Connor would have approved of, for in her essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” she writes, “[T]here’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it” (MM 77). My eyes rove as I walk, moving different directions than my feet, slipping up the scaled bark of a tree and squinting against the point of light caught in the upper branches. They rake the path in front of me, noticing the tuft of wildflowers at the base of a tree, the flick of a scrawny squirrel tail jutting from behind a rock. In the relative silence around me, what sounds there are resound more loudly. A thick hulled nut thuds from branches above to the leaf mulched path in front of me. I stoop to pick it up, an unfamiliar, slightly conical shape, unlike the hickory and walnut that litter my own woods back home in Indiana. A small metal plaque nearby tells me this is a pignut hickory, and judging from the number of hulls on the path, the woods of Andalusia are thick with them. I vaguely recall a reference to this tree in one of O’Connor’s stories—is it in “A View of the Woods”?—and when I return home I search for it, but cannot find it.
Wandering on that trail, turning that green, smooth ribbed seed in my hand, it occurs to me that O’Connor rarely details her fictional landscapes—hers is a wider view. The ubiquitous tree line in the distance, delineating scope for her characters; the omnipresent sun, rising and setting, God’s eye overlooking his stubborn people; the four oaks in the yard, massive and unyielding, that appear in more than one story, including the last novel she was working on. My own writing, by contrast, focuses on the minute, the often-missed specific thing: dew on a spider’s web, the varied tones rain has as it falls on different surfaces, the fluted underside of a mushroom shouldering up through forest humus.
And then I stop, pausing between slants of sunlight, another revelation. These thick Georgia woods, made accessible to me by paths chiseled through them, would more than likely have never been explored by O’Connor herself, though she lived surrounded by them for thirteen years. The crutches leaning against the dresser in her bedroom offer enough explanation for that. But even as a child, before treatment for lupus deteriorated her bones, on her trips here with cousins to ride horses or to have picnics on the lawn, O’Connor was not, as she put it, “sporty.” On my seventeen acres in Indiana, I jump stream beds, tramp ravines, climb over barbed wire fences, lie on my back on a mat of crisp fallen leaves facing the sky. When I rise, yellow maple stars are embedded in the weave of my sweater.
O’Connor would, I think, have surveyed these woods from her porch, the pond, these trees, cross hatched by the mesh of screen between her and them. Her gaze would have been deep and clear, focused by wise blood, true and unflinching. But her view of the woods would have been different from mine, her frame, her scope providing different angles than the ones I have here, trees, towering, trail turning.
At this spot on the path, the simmering July sun beats down. I lift my head and my face floods with light. In this shared Son our visions converge.
--Colleen Warren is a professor of English at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana. Her book, Annie Dillard and the Word Made Flesh: An Incarnational Theory of Language, is published by Lehigh Press. She blogs at www.warrenpeaceofmymind.wordpress.com
Our guest blogger was among 24 scholars attending "Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor" a Summer Institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at Georgia College in July 2014. For more information about the institute, please visit http://www.gcsu.edu/nehoconnor/index.htm
|A view of the woods from Andalusia's porch.|