Friday, October 28, 2016

To our Volunteers:

Before all the festivities of next weekend, there’s gratitude to offer that’s both pre-emptive and overdue. The Bluegrass Festival, and indeed many of our programs at the farm, would hardly be anything at all without the efforts of our volunteers. Their efforts are frequently unglamorous and require a little dirt under the fingernails but are integral to our work in restoring and perpetuating Andalusia. Just this past weekend, a troupe of volunteers readied some of our out-buildings for the impending visitors. From those who will direct the traffic into the farm to those who will be selling CDs and t-shirts, we could accommodate only a fraction of the Festival’s attendees without those who give their time so freely.

I started my time at Andalusia with volunteering at the Bluegrass Festival, actually. 2014’s concert was in need of a host, and our Director, Elizabeth Wylie, was given my name by a mutual friend of ours. To be honest, at the time I didn’t know I could speak off the cuff to a group larger than the average English class, much less a backyard of 500+.  That first hour was a nervy one.  For the record, the nerves left once I told a couple of bad jokes and the stage lights made the crowd disappear. My experience two years ago gets at the benefits of volunteering: we can grow by stepping out of our comfort zones and letting ourselves serve others.

Our volunteers don’t stop with putting on the big events, either; their dedication is such that they seek out ways to serve. This space is chock full of guest bloggers who offer up their reflections on Flannery and Andalusia only for the joy of doing so. The Main House is welcoming and bright on a weekly basis thanks to volunteer efforts that bring in flowers and keep them watered. Thursdalusia’s beverages are iced and the February Four’s snacks are plated by people who attend those events wishing to both learn and serve. May we all go through our lives with such a purpose.

I always say I get the fun jobs on the farm, and the volunteers’ efforts make the fun jobs just that (and not a job at all, really). I envy their generous spirits and am humbled that they give their time so freely to let me “Bon Vivant” out on the farm. Thus, to all the volunteers, I, along with the rest of the staff at Andalusia, offer a hearty thanks.

Daniel Wilkinson volunteers himself at the Old Capital Museum and the Brown-Stetson-Sanford House along with a large cadre of dedicated folks when not attending to duties as Andalusia's Bon Vivant. 
To volunteer at Andalusia, give us a call at 478-454-4029.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Flannery O’Connor Is Capable of Anything: Gilgamesh and the Woods of Andalusia

Having lived in Milledgeville for thirteen years, and having regularly visited Andalusia, I have moments now when I think of Flannery O’Connor as a realistic writer. Part of the pleasure of meeting with groups of tourists visiting the farm is in watching them realize how well the stories they know match the landscape they have come to Andalusia to explore. I’m not just talking about how O’Connor used what we call the Main House and the nearby farm buildings, though O’Connor certainly does seem to have recreated masterfully, in stories such as “Good Country People,” “The Displaced Person,” “Greenleaf,” and “The Enduring Chill,” the details of Andalusia’s structures. I’m also talking about the trees around O’Connor’s farm home, the forests she knew, perhaps through her wanderings around the property during extended visits in her early years - before she moved permanently to Andalusia. 

Experts in what is now called ecocriticism are starting to realize how sophisticated O’Connor was on practical issues of land use and preservation, and I appreciate such scholarship, but I’m also increasingly impressed with O’Connor’s descriptive sentences about the natural world, sentences that - silly me - I used to consider mere matters of narrative pacing. I now realize that O’Connor writes accurately about trees, and especially about how the trees at Andalusia look with the sun’s power filtering through them.

On the other hand, whenever O’Connor has a character take a walk into the woods, into a forest even slightly removed from a farm operation, we are also clearly entering the numinous. Think of how much Sally Virginia Cope is learning as she ventures out into the woods to spy on the three trespassing boys in “A Circle in the Fire,” boys she comes to appreciate as if the delinquents in the woods were sent by God. Think of how much Harry/Bevel Ashfield is taking in as he walks through woods, before he gets to his river baptism, in “The River.” And then there’s “A View of the Woods,” which is all about how the woods are mysterious and magical, valuable in ways old Mark Fortune cannot quite imagine with his economic calculations.

A few semesters ago, one of my students mentioned that she enjoyed reading Gilgamesh for another of her Georgia College classes. She suggested that Gilgamesh was similar to O’Connor’s stories. Sure, that’s nice, thought I, as I moved on to other concerns for the day’s class. Eventually I played catch-up, getting my hands on Stephen Mitchell’s 2004 adaptation/translation, for Free Press, entitled Gilgamesh: A New English Translation. It’s a wonderful read. Just goes to show how much a teacher can learn from a student.

The parallels between Gilgamesh and “A View of the Woods” are rather awe-inspiring:
King Gilgamesh of Uruk (in today’s Iraq) has a double, who is closer to nature than is Gilgamesh. The king learns of his double’s existence when a man complains that the double, named Enkidu, has been, apparently in defense of nature, filling in the “pits” the man has been digging (76). Gilgamesh and Enkidu become very close despite their initial rivalry. Then Gilgamesh decides that they must go together to the Cedar Forest and fight its monstrous guard, named Humbaba. Enkidu is horrified by the prospect but goes along. As Gilgamesh is fighting and killing Humbaba of the forest, Humbaba puts a curse on both Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and, as Humbaba promises, Enkidu dies, plunging Gilgamesh into extended mourning. Gilgamesh then attempts, at length, to defeat death, but the secret of immortality is stolen from him by a “snake” (197), and Gilgamesh is left to contemplate the not-really-satisfying accomplishments of the civilization he rules.

I assume the similarities to O’Connor’s “A View of the Woods” are apparent. I’ve appreciated for some time that O’Connor rewrote Dante and Sophocles and classical myths and stories from the Bible. Now let’s add to the list Gilgamesh, written down approximately a thousand years before The Iliad. Now when I re-read “A View of the Woods,” even as I appreciate that O’Connor was writing realistically about the details of the development of Lake Sinclair, I also see Mark Fortune killing the divine spirit of the woods, partly by selling them to a merchant, the reptilian Tilman, and suffering a curse that kills both his granddaughter, Mary Fortune Pitts (who in a sense is the old man’s double) and then Mark Fortune himself. Like Gilgamesh, Fortune conducts a battle against the woods that ruins his relationship with his double and earns him a severe punishment.

I have only begun to think through the ways in which O’Connor’s story is playing off the ancient Middle Eastern epic. Is Mary Fortune Pitts a version of Enkidu, or a version of Humbaba, or a version of both? Of this much I’m sure: O’Connor is great at realistic description, but she might also, and can, do anything.

Bruce Gentry is Professor of English at Georgia College, Editor of the Flannery O'Connor Review, and a member of Andalusia's Board of Directors. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

Going "Illiterary" on the Farm

Previously in this space, in extolling the virtues of bluegrass music even for those who may be averse to it, I called it the “music of the front porch.” I hope that all of us have had, at some point, the sublime experience of music making with friends and family; my own grandfather and great uncle were the performers for many nights spent on back porches in my childhood. Beyond the acts who take the stage each year at Andalusia’s Bluegrass Festival, my favorite part of the evening is invariably the musicians who bring their own instruments to our porches to “pick and grin” with whoever may be nearby. Last year, an ad hoc band of two guitars and a fiddle cropped up on the Hill House porch and provided welcoming, sweet “entrance music” for so many first-time visitors. (That hour is also a fond memory of the staff at Andalusia due to the warmth and talent of our friend, the late Russ Edwards, the performer pictured on the right below, whose presence at this year’s festival we will sorely miss.)

One of the refreshing things about the festival is its opportunity to bring in so many visitors who aren’t hard-pressed to brush up on “O’Connoriana” before coming. On a “normal” day at the farm, the conversations we have with our visitors turn, at some point, to their experiences with the fiction. We get all the answers: yes, no, and somewhere in between. All of which are correct, of course; we’ll make the visit of the uninitiated a pilgrimage on its own and turn our space into a unique look at rural, agricultural life in the middle of the 20th Century. (And maybe do a little “mission work” on behalf of O’Connor’s prose along the way.) Indeed, many visitors on these normal days remark on how the kitchen in the main house will remind them of a grandparent’s house. For other visitors, the farm its own unique quiet spot away from the traffic of Highway 441 and the “guided tours” of other spots along their itinerary.

There’s a wonderful line and sentiment from the last paragraph of Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” An African-American mother has just seen one daughter, Dee, go back to college via a rather tense exit, and she’s enjoying the quiet with the remaining daughter, Maggie: “[The] two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.” Sitting and enjoying as an end unto itself is an almost unheard of sentiment in 2016, and maybe even in our own line of work we can occasionally forget to make room for times of reflection. I remark of education frequently in this space, and our attempts to create lifelong readers and lovers of learning. Sitting and enjoying puts us in the right mind to broaden our horizons, from picking up a reading copy of the Collected Stories in Uncle Louis’s room in the main house or, for the evening of November 5, coming to a new appreciation of the unique harmonies and melodies of a style of music that modern radios seem not to have room for anymore.

Daniel Wilkinson will serve as host of the Bluegrass Festival on November 5 as part of his duties as Bon Vivant.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Fall on the Farm

The sights of Fall are all around us in Georgia, at long last. Our collegians are in the swing of things, or at least they should be—midterm is drawing close at Georgia College. (On that score, I am pleased to say that several of my own students are electing to write about Flannery for their first literary assignments.) Up the road in Athens, their Saturdays are growing crowded and, as usual, hypertensive; another game like last week’s vs. Tennessee and all of Clarke County may suffer a coronary. The mountains of north Georgia are seeing ever so slight hints of gold on their foliage. Around my hometown of Woodbury, we’ve got arts and crafts fairs filling up our weekends. Needless to say, after a long, hot, dry summer, October has been a long time coming.

Out here at the farm, my preferred office, the porch, has a cool breeze all day, when we can find the time to sit for a second. Pretty weather brings tour groups of all sorts, from busloads of high schoolers to Sunday school classes. (To that end, if you want your group to visit us at the farm, give us a call at 478-454-4029.) I often say that I get the fun gigs here at Andalusia, and tour groups are invariably a hoot, even if the attendees haven’t read much of the fiction; there is, after all, a lot to talk about out here. That recent group of 10th graders looked at me with jaws agape when I told them just what had happened in the hayloft in “Good Country People” and just what the tractor ended up doing in “The Displaced Person.” I like to think that look is what Flannery had in mind when she wrote of having to shock folks in order to get her vision across in “The Fiction Writer and His Country.”

The big event of the Fall will be our 12th Annual Bluegrass Festival. This will be the third Festival I’ve had the privilege to participate in as Master of Ceremonies, and I’d love to see the backyard full of folks once again. Bluegrass music is one of those art forms best enjoyed in person. Recordings are fine as far as they go, but bluegrass is the music of home, of the front porch, and so it’s a perfect fit for Andalusia. It’s stuff best enjoyed among friends and neighbors, and we’ll make some new ones on November 5 as we enjoy the sounds Good Country People (Flannery fans, of course), The Skilletlickers, and the Packway Handle Band.

Thus, the activity of the farm picks up when the temperatures go down, and I can’t say I’m opposed to meeting our guests in a less “perspirous” environment. Manley’s feathers may be put away for the season, but the property itself is just beginning to look its best. I’ll save you a chair out here in the “office”!

--Daniel Wilkinson is the Bon Vivant and a Visitor Services Assistant at Andalusia, caretaker of the 1825 Brown-Stetson-Sanford House for the Old Capital Museum, and an Instructor of English at Georgia College.