Growing up, we called a 'new ground' a swath of land that had just been cleared. There were certain crops that grew best in a new ground. My grandfather cleared a new ground down by a creek for his tomato, canteloupe, and melon fields. A new ground was rough and naked, the land pocked from tree root balls, and of course in Coosa County which had good soil but too many rocks, there would be years and years of plowing up rocks and removing them from the land before the new fields were tame. Clearing a new ground was hard work. The land looked like there had been a war between man and nature and man had not won but was claiming the victory anyway.
This past Thursday I drove down the west side of the state, on my way to a conference in South Alabama. I went via Tuscaloosa, where I needed to deliver some items to my son who lives there. I sent a text to my friend Philip Shirley. Philip and Virginia are transplanted Alabamians living in Missisippi. Philip sent my text message back with line breaks.
through the cotton flats below Russellville where it rained tarpaper,
to the vanished town of Phil Campbell
where one man said "I saw it come out of the woods
about a hunderd foot away, black smoke like a tire fire,"
to a flattened stretch near Berry,
blown apart houses and contents,
to the part of Tuscaloosa sucked up
twisted and laid bare,
I saw church groups under tarp cities
on grills for a week now,
the smell of raw snapped pines
still in the air. And I had to think:
Why are you here?
Why are any of you still here?
Take pictures and leave.
There is nothing left
except heartache and work for bulldozers.
Further south, near Skyland,
the old damage--three weeks gone--
now an old wound,
the leaves on the downed trees
brown as a scab.
After the conference, I drove up through the heart of Alabama from Greenville an hour and a half below Montgomery then north through Birmingham to Hanceville to Cullman where I headed northwest for the Mississippi/Tennessee line, passing through Moulton on my way to the Shoals, the fall-line of the Tennessee River.
I saw so many new grounds that I lost count. Land where the trees were ripped up and missing, the very grass sucked down to the bare dirt. Other strips where forests were pushed over in one direction, then a half mile up the road, the tiny corn seedlings unharmed and the homes with green lawns and flowers.