'The Trees Are in Agony'

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Georgia Slaveholder James Caldecott Jones relays, in gripping detail, a late summer storm that visits one of his plantations.

Rev. C.C. Jones to Mr. Charles C. Jones  JR.

Maybank, Monday, September 9th, 1854

My dear son,

I wrote you from Arcadia on the 6th and came to Maybank the same evening. Returned Thursday the 7th. About eleven o'clock the northeast wind commenced blowing lightly on Tuesday began to come in with scuds of rain and thunder and heavy puffs of wind--a sure evidence of an approaching gale. Rice could not be taken in. Towards evening looked heavy towards northeast. Squally: heavy dashes of rain. Had the horses put to carriage and left after sundown; arrived at Maybank a little before ten. Every appearance of a gale. Moon just past the full. Made windows and doors all tight. Wind increased to a gale during the night. When we rose in the morning we were in the midst of it. Not a spear of marsh to be seen. A clear rolling sea all around us and reaching away to Bryan, Sunbury, and Palmyra , the whitecaps keeping it in a foam and the driving spray and mist shutting the distant shores from the sight.

It brightened up a  little after breakfast, and Joe and I put on our thick coats and sallied out to view the scene. We had to go above the upper spring in the drain before we could cross going to the Negro houses. The spring was some three feet under water, and the tide rose up some distance in Andrew's garden--the highest tide I ever saw. The bluffs washed and caving rapidly. The poor marsh hens in numbers sitting on the drifted sedge alongshore. At Betsy's Bluff facing the north the waves were dashing high, and the sheets of spray and foam combing over the top of the bluff!

On our return we picked up a wood ibis at the foot of a tree, just dashed down by the wind and dead, but still warm. So large and unwieldy a bird if blown from the perch can do but little in the gale. There--there is one! See him in the mist! He beats to windward, but is driven rapidly away. Now the wind catches him. His head is turned down, and he falls with the rapidity of a stone right into the trees upon the margin, killed no doubt by the fall.


We started a kingfisher. He flew out over the water into the wind. He beats the air for dear life; just holds his own, close down to the waves. Ah, that puff! He drives back, but head to the storm. He dares not turn or tack. He must give over--a desperate struggle. He dips. Up again. Dips. He is growing faint! He slowly gives back with a slight inclination to the lee of I the bluff. He is sheltered. Ah, how he bounds up! The danger is passed. There he goes into the wood! Happy fellow!

We came back well drenched. By the time we had changed our clothes, the trees in the yard and lot began to fall and to lose their branches. The rain drove into the house under the shingles, through the plastering. All hands securing the windows, tying them hard and fast. Servants with tubs swabbing up the water as it pours into the entry and rooms.

The wind veers northwest. It blows a hurricane! There goes another tree! The top of the grand old hickory is off! I was upstairs fastening the window-A loud jar and explosion below! "What's that?" I rushed down, and a perfect upstir. Both shutters of the two large windows opening into the front piazza, although fastened back, suddenly and at the same moment blown with a loud report, shivering many panes of glass in each. Your Aunt Abby for a moment much frightened. Servants picking up the glass in both rooms Rain driving through the broken panes. Waiters, sheets, etc., crammed and water shut out. All the pride-of-India trees in the front yard down but two. Two of the poplars snapped off. Three locust trees torn up. There goes the old cedar on the lawn! Poor old fellow, riven from top to bottom, split j two. How the wind roars! The trees are in an agony. Their limbs are tori and twisted off. The earth is strewed with leaves and twigs and boughs.

"Well, Andrew! What's it?"

"Came over, sir, to see how you all fared."

"Where are the people?"

"Every soul came over with me. Would not stay behind. All in Patienc; i house. Master, is this a storm or a harrycane?"

"Harrycane, Andrew, sure."

"The carriage-house door has blown off, and some of the weatherboarding

Dispatched Gilbert, who made all tight again.

The wind veers again to southwest. Blows as fiercely as ever. Night comes on. Some little appearance of lulling. At 10 P.M. storm going down. Saturday morning, September 9th: storm over. A fresh gale still from southwest. Fences flat uniersally. All hands righting. Trees down the avenue rent and torn and everywhere.

Again, I'm struck by the beauty of the writing. What I see here is how art emerges out of necessity. Jones can not send his son photos, or videos of the storm. So he resorts to the immediacy of the present tense voice, and very effectively captures the chaos of the moment. 

It's tough but I'm moving to that place where you start to understand the dream, the lost Camelot, that these Southerners believed they were holding to. I think you have to be able to see that to truly understand. I've been reading a lot on ladies fashion during the antebellum period. A lot of the stuff they did was restrictive, uncomfortable, unhealthy and sometimes downright lethal. But when you see it all put together, there's--for me, at least--an undeniable beauty to the thing.

Kenyatta was saying the other night that she is, by no means, a lady. But she enjoys being one on special occasions. In these elite households, it was often as if all of life--especially the lives of white women--were a museum. One did not get to pick and choose when one wanted to be a lady, it was a constant. And it was terrible--and beautiful. In so many ways, you were a well-kept rape victim. You had incredible privilege, but virtually no freedom.

So much of the Old South is built on those sorts of contradictions.The reverend is skilled and an imaginative writer. It's 150 years later, and I am the descendant of slaves. And yet I got the the romance of Maybank. That's great writing. I also get that the Reverend's skills and imagination were built up during leisure time acquired through the theft of labor. And more importantly, I get how much that labor was taken as a given. As someone said last week, the integration of slavery in this scene is seamless. 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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