American Sabbatical 89: 4/9/98


4/9 .. Etowah to Paradise Gardens.

Like Sherman, we burned through Atlanta, not even stopping for a Coke. We saw enough to be certain that the Yankees won the war. Industrial civilization has eradicated any lingering vestige of an agrarian society, and paved it over. Some days I could wish Johnny Reb had come out on top.

We kept on spinning. Up the rising topography. The land lumps up north of Atlanta, and you realize that once Sherman and the Army of Tennessee made it through the mountain barrier there was a broad easy way to the sea. Going uphill we are quickly exchanging June for May. The hardwood leaves in all their juvenile tints, the oaks and ashes just unfolding, the rest just taking on their defining shapes.

We tried to dodge the highroad, but everything was stop and aggro. Even on the secondaries Georgia drivers are as aggressive as Angelenos, and you best keep a sharp eye in the rearview for incoming muscle-cars. From Marietta to Cartersville the stripmeisters have made their mark.. new malls and housing tracts are cutting into the outlying hills, raw wounds in the red clay. Backhoes and forms crews. Piles of trusses and big spools of utility wires.

To make up for our unforgivable lapse in Atlanta, we stopped at the site of the first outdoor painted Coca-Cola sign in America. In Cartersville, on the side of a local pharmacy, in glorious red and white, there it is. It says Coca-Cola. Put that in your straw and... Inside, the place smelled like it has been a drug store for an hundred years, and you could buy authentic antique replicas of Coke paraphernalia. Isn't America wonderful?

Human Scale
Out through the treelined streets and beyond the bungaloed suburbs we found our way to the Etowah Mounds, another sideroad out of time. Only three big mounds, this time, but so situated as to give you a strong sense of what it might have been like to live here a thousand years ago. Sited by the banks of the Etowah river in open meadowlands, Etowah has a human scale. The flat-topped pyramids are still astonishing public works, but they are in tune with the folded landscape around them.

Looking west from the top you can see the triple cooling towers of another power place, in this nuclear age. The heights of Cahokia reveal the golden arch of the West, and the industrial wastelands of East St. Louis. Ocmulgee overlooks Macon. Now Etowah and the nukes. The syncopation of these ancient rhythms with the contemporary beat is wonderfully anachronistic.

Power Places

(Memo #83)

April 9 Etowah Mounds

Who?Prehistoric Mississippian people of northern Georgia

What? mounds + village

When? A.D. 1000 -1500.

How? advanced agriculture plus hunting-fishing

Topics: prehistory, mound sites, Mississippian culture

Questions: What are the common characteristic of Mississippian peoples? What are the differences between the far flung sites? What happened to the Mississippians and how do they relate to the tribes the English colonists found?

We’ve seen four widely dispersed Mississippian mound sites (in Illinois, Florida, now Georgia). We hope to see more in the western reaches of the culture area. Ocmulgee is on a plateau cut by ravines near a small river, Cahokia in a flat floodplain near the Mississippi, Lake Jackson in the flats by a lake. Etowah is on a grassy plain by a small river. We’re getting a sense of the overall culture plus the hierarchy of towns and leaders. There is an obvious difference in scale, from smaller Lake Jackson and Ocmulgee towns to the larger Etowah to the immense city of Cahokia.

Here come old flat-top

Ceremonial Headress
The Mississippian towns are all in river valleys with sandy loam for crops and mounds and varied resources, where two natural zones meet. The Mississippians were better farmers than their ancestors (with better strains of corn), and their food production supported bigger town populations, a multiclass society with an elite, and specialized craftsmen. There were far ranging trade routes that brought raw materials from all parts of the American heartland. They were organized politically into CHIEFDOMS (loose political units of several villages with a paramount chief). Different chiefdoms inhabit different valleys.

There was an excellent small museum at Etowah which made the life of the people in the palisaded and ditched town very real. The people at Etowah grew corns, beans, squash, pumpkins,sunflower, tobacco; they gathered acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, persimmons, grapes, crustaceans; they hunted bear, deer, wild turkey, fish. There are remnants of stone and bone tools, of ornaments of copper and feathers, of game discs and “pucks” for playing “chunky”, stone bowls and pipes. Trade is shown by conch shells from Florida and flint from the Nashville area. Etowah produced a variety of pottery and some wonderful marble statues (four feet high, 125 pounds) of a sitting male and female. They look quite like sitting Buddhas and I am bemused that we must label with words that divide - they are called "effigies" at Etowah which suggests a ritual context (like any religious statue).


Civil Rights
A rather bizarre touch was a sign by the entrance to the site. “Religious or spiritual activity performed in any manner is NOT permitted at mound. Special First Amendment rights area is provided with permit - see manager”. What had been going on? Were “effigies” involved?

The walk at Etowah goes across the village’s ditch and by a reconstructed section of the palisade that surrounded the village (upright poles set into the ground side by side). Then you approach the two large mounds with the 52 acre village area and town plaza (300 feet square) off to the left. Two smaller mounds were topped by the residences of leaders and there was a burial mound with many many remains. I mentally add the smell of open fires, the sounds of dogs, children, people talking, stone axes on woods, “chunky” being played in the plaza. From the top of the large mound (63 feet high, 2.9 acres at the bottom and .5 acre at the top) there is a view of green hills and pastures and the small river and... a nuclear power plant off to the west!

Ritual Axe

One of the neatest parts of the village is seen from the river bank. The people built a stone weir in a huge V across the river that directed the fish into basketry traps at the mouth of the V. It can still clearly be seen.

DeSoto (with his 600 men, priests and large pig herd!!) probably visited this town. Journals from his trip mention “Itawa”, and they have found iron axes and a sword hilt here.

It is difficult to get a firm grasp on the changes from the Mississippian peoples to the later tribes. Over-exploitation of the environment probably doomed the largest cities like Cahokia. The earliest Spanish explorer in the 1500’s found some Mississippian towns and brought diseases which decimated the North American population. Huge numbers of people died. Ironically the trade network which provided such rich materials spread the diseases through the Mississippian basin The large mound town sites were abandoned. Smaller villages were settled with a looser tribal organization. It is these town dwelling tribes (Creeks, Cherokees, Apalachee, etc.) with agriculture plus hunting that the early Anglo settlers and frontiersman in the southeast contacted. Archaeologists have decided that the descendants of Etowah are the living Creek and Muskogee Indians (who, incidentally, have visited the site and approved of the presentation).

We go on to the Cherokee heartland. The Cherokees came after the Mississippian people and had some centuries of development before the whites came in and, eventually, removed most of them from the area by force on the Trail of Tears.

4/9.. contd.

Red’s navigator piloted us downstream (west) to the Chieftains’ Museum, with a riverside interlude of squirrels and fresh challa. We picnicked on the banks of yet another branch of the Coosa, the Oostanaula. A couple of guys in a bassboat with a big Merc on it were trying to find their way up the churning mudrun, slapping against the standing waves below a bridge, trying to read for snags. The Oostanaula makes the Cathance seem pellucid and calm. I’d never seen red whitewater before.

While Peggy DID the Chieftains museum I visited with some elder Georgians: Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Wiliam Tappan Thompson, and Francis Robinson, nineteenth century regional writers of the tongue-in-cheek variety. Longstreet is credited (by DeVoto, among others), as being one of Twain’s prototypes: a newspaperman turned humorist.. if you didn’t get the joke the first time. He collected his dialect tales of the smalltown Georgia frontier in GEORGIA SCENES in 1835. I’d read those sketches during my library journeys last year, and been struck by the enduring tradition of the shaggy dog story in patois... from before Longstreet (no doubt) down to the rural storytellers of today. Tim Sample and that lot. Now I’m reading a collection of “Georgia” writers. I was smiling broadly when Peggy came out all Chieftained up.

We were on the outskirts of Rome, surrounded by seven hills, and soon discovered why the town is so called. Trying to get on the road to Armuchee and the Chattanooga National Forest we found that all roads lead back to Rome. Every street we tried either circled back or deadended. There are some grand Victorian piles in Rome, and some brokendown backstreet bungalows that could use a lawn ornament or two. Finally we went south of town and took the bypass all the way round to make our escape from the Appian Way.

Finster's Spire

We’ve been checking our guides and lists for visionary sites, but seem to have missed most of them. St. EOM’s Pasaquan was just outside Columbus, but we got lost in presidential peanut country, so we were excited when we realized that the Reverend Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens were just a few miles ahead. Finster’s paintings have become prized collectibles, as naive art has come out of the backyard and into the museums. Beaucoup bucks in primitive painting and collage these days, if you play your naivete right. We saw a charge of his work at the Visionary Museum in Baltimore, but here was the horse’s mouth.

‘Course it ain’t on them state maps, yit. In fact the locals we asked in Summerville weren’t real sure where it was either. We finally got directions from a MomandPop shop.. from Mom, I guess. Take a right between two auto parts houses, across the road from a cement kitsch outlet, at the bedraggled end of town. Two blocks in, among dilapidated trailers and sagging single families, Howard Finster has elaborated a self-made universe.

Herself - with bikes

Paradise by Bryce
You may remember that Finster had a vision of his dead sister descending as an angel, inspiring him to spread the divine word through his art. Here, all too soon, we have the test case of spiritual content producing the highest art. The Rev. H. may be the most prolific painter since Lascaux. He numbers and dates each work and is now up there in the burgers sold numerology. Almost every one has Biblical quotations blocked in, and his signature angels drifting down from on high. His cartoon figures of iconographic personalities... Jesus, Elvis, Himself... are wonderfully crude. And, frankly, I find them horrible. Excruciating to look at. You have to be a believer.

Considering the prices a Finster now fetches, there must be a lot of them out there. In fact, a lot of the cupboards at Paradise Gardens were bare. Places where originals had been removed for gallery shows, no doubt. Although in the overall astonishment, what’s a few 5 finger paintings... er figure.

Careful, Bryce, you’re treading on thin ice. Ever since we published LAWN WARS, our field guide to lawn ornamentation (with 16 tacky postcards in LIVING COLOR), we’ve had this love-hate thing with outsider art. The raw impact of vernacular installation still wows me. Show me an inspired dooryard, and you’ve cheered my day. But documenting and collecting what should be ephemeral enthusiasms, and putting big tickets on them...

Peggy's Paradise

Illuminated Pavement

Well.. Finster’s dooryard IS miraculous. Now encompassing an entire block, caged in cyclone fencing, Paradise Gardens is a fun house of plywood, paint, cement, and found objects. Cement walkways embedded with shards of mirror, bits of plastic, enameled metal. Massive pillars of cemented artifacts, dolls, toys, autoparts. A rickety elevated arcade knocked together out of 2X4s and luan makes a U-turn between the encrusted houses. The arcade features gothic cutout windows, religious cartoon messages painted outside, and a collection of thematic encrustations within. There is the largest pile of old bicycles in North America, just saying, well.. just. The engulfed buildings are all covered with paintings and messages, many featuring the angelic Finster himself, and have applique delights affixed. One central structure rises up to a four story pagoda with a cylindrical spire. It’s like a gigantic aluminum wedding cake glittering up to heaven. The complete experience IS inspiring. Our neighbors may not be prepared, however.

I won’t sneer at Finster’s sacred calling to a personal artform. Except for craftsmanship, how does this differ from Dali, who created his own archisculptured environment in Spain? The details may make you wince, but these visionary worlds overwhelm you with their sheer profusion, their ecstasy in encrustation, their insistent celebration of stuff.

In the Garden

The Rev's Gallery
The other American deity is worshipped here, as well: the fast buck. It costs you $6 a head to wander in the compound, and you are funneled through a houseful of collectables, at miraculous prices. The Rev. doesn’t hog the market, though. He has family members, friends, and neighbors knocking out visionary art in His style, available at reduced prices. Postcards $1. I’m reminded of Phil Barter way Downeast, who has a cottage industry churning out original Barters in a technicolor environ. Wonderful paintings, by the way.

A couple of locals were leaning against the outside of the fence, watching us with what looked to be fearful fascination. Who would pay to come see this stuff? There was also a private B&B in the main gallery house. $65 a night. We were severely tempted. But pushed on for the Forest, goggle-eyed.

It's in the details

Sloppy Floyd’s, to be exact. A Georgia State Park. Once again, the state camping facilities have it all over the Feds and the private sector. We drove a couple miles off the through road to the Park, then another mile into the camping area. Large sites, with running water and AC, close to the HOT showers, and washer-dryer. Everything immaculate and in working order.

Sloppy Floyd's
The contrast to the roadhovels we’ve been staying at made us sigh deeply. Our site was in a lofty grove of loblollys with an understory of scattered dogwoods. The dogwoods are in bloom in the Georgia mountains, and the explosions of white blossoms among the loblolly’s plumb trunks of graybrown plated bark was the finest art of all.

Nature is so prolific. Dogwood petals and the unfertilized fruits of the loblollys rained down on us. The evening sky was cluttered with pendulous pinecones and the canopy of needles. We smiled at the childish energy with which the young loblollys sent up tall candles, bristled with long needles, and reached for the sky. The ground was littered with chunks of limestone among the cast needles and seasonal euphoria. A new moon cusped the sky, and we feasted and fell down.

When the breeze died away we heard the highway roaring off through the hills, and the temperature fell toward freezing. We’d come back to Spring, but not escaped Thunder Road. Way out in the Mojave it was a necklace of lights, here it was the rumble of commerce. So much for wilderness.

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