Nothing Ever Happens Here
Poet, author of many books, and a country gentleman, ARCHIBALD RUTLEDGE lives and writes on his eighteenthcentury plantation in the deep woods of South Carolina. His encounters with wild boars, alligators, and diamondbacks, the more obstreperous of his neighbors, add adventure to his days and color to his books, of which we recall Old Plantation Days (1911), Children of Swamp and Wood (1927), Tales of Dogs (1929), An American Hunter (1937), and Home by the River (1941).
by ARCHIBALD RUTLEDGE
THE average American’s imagination is probably inclined to associate the plantation life of the Deep South, even today, with joyous lethargy and almost endless siestas, interrupted only by the vast effort of reaching for another julep. But I have not found this fancied tempo of life to be accurate. In my own experience, plantation life can be very active and exciting; one is called upon to be vigilant, not only for the ordinary expected happenings, but for the number and variety of adventures which are totally without anticipation. The minute I begin to get the illusion that all is serene, something happens.
I live in the wilderness, fifty miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, the quaint inhabitants of which have an original way of looking backward at the future. I live in a very ancient house (1730), and there’s no radio, telephone, or electric light. On the plantation about a hundred Negroes, the descendants of the slaves, live with me. It is not my place; it is our place. And there’s a new kind of slavery: I belong to them.
To show that life here is not a somnolent affair, I shall begin by telling what happened to me at five o’clock one summer morning, when I was up and around the yard. The world was silent save for the calling of quail, of cardinals, of orchard orioles; and a woodthrush giving what seemed to me a very beautiful utterance of eternity. I strolled down toward my 20-acre camellia and azalea garden, hewn out of the wildwoods. Hearing a little sound, I was cautious, as I thought a deer or a wild turkey might be roving about.
Immediately to the north of the garden is the river, beyond which lies almost boundless delta country, primevally wild. On the brink of the dusky bluff above the river, I detected a movement; then two huge and tawny bulks came into view. They were wild boars, and no doubt they had just crossed the river. At the moment they were busily engaged in rooting up the heavy mulch of oak leaves around one of my prize lavender azaleas. Apparently they did not see me, hear me, or wind me.
I backtracked to the house as fast as I could, got, my high-power .22 rifle, and returned to the scene. The big brutes were still engaged in their bulldozing operations. I felt reasonably sure that I could kill one of them, but I wanted both. Such creatures are dangerous; and the damage they can do to a garden is in proportion to their size and to the earnestness of their endeavors.
I shot one, sinking him hard; the other, not locating the sound of the shot, started my way, running like a scared hyena. I shot him also, but neither boar was down. I gave each a second shot, and then a third, and that ended the business. Then, amid great rejoicing from some of the Negroes whom I had summoned, I turned over about 600 pounds of wild boar to them. And it was not yet sunrise on that placid plantation morning.
Just before breakfast I heard a great outcry from my Negro foreman’s children, who were crossing the bank of a lake near the house. One of them, detaching herself from the crowd, came running into the house, and burst into the dining room where I was sitting.
“Git your gun, Cap’n!” six-year-old Maple cried. “A big alligator is eating up all the ducks!”
I had to go into action again. A bull alligator had left the river, had crawled over the bank into the lake, and was spreading panic among my tame ducks. A single shot from the rifle, fortunately placed, ended the life of this brigand, whose whole career had been one of murder. For all his bulk, and his awkwardness on land, an alligator can be incredibly lithe and swift in the water, and deadly in proportion to his speed.
Here were more steaks for my dusky henchmen. The tail of the alligator is massive and almost square, and from it fine steaks that taste somewhat like halibut can be cut. I find il more palatable than bear meal.
All summer my deer hounds are kept in a large yard between the house and the river. They are numerous and noisy: Bugle and Ringwood, Borer, Driver, Dancer, and Red Liquor; and they are forever trying to get over, under, or through the fence. On a hunt, the concert of their chiming is wildwood beauty at its best. But they are kept closely confined during the hot months; for if they get into the woods, they might catch and kill fawns and baby wild turkeys; then, too, they are liable to be struck by rattlesnakes and cottonmouth moccasins. And if a dog is ever fairly struck by one of these lethal brutes, his life is likely to be over.
Hardly had I finished breakfast, on this serene morning when my foreman. Prince, thrust his head in the door.
“All de dog done git out,” he announced, as if I were the plantation dogeateher. I might add that what Prince said is rather typical of a plantation Negro trait: he is very dutiful about reporting trouble, but he rarely takes the initiative in doing anything to correct it. Perhaps he does not relish the responsibility.
It was not, indeed, necessary for Prince to tell me of the hound’s escape, for I could now hear them in the woods. These dogs of mine will not only run a deer when they happen on one, but they are so wise about finding one that if they get out of their yard, they seem to know exactly where to go to rouse an old buck; and I live so deep in the wilderness that they never have to go far. And they just seem able to make a beeline for where a deer lies drowsing. It was so in this case; for by the time I had reached the front porch, the whole pack was in full and almost delirious cry after a deer in the dense plantation woods. I have always been given to understand that if hounds rouse a really wise old stag, he will designedly lead them where he knows other deer are, so that their interest in him may be divided. At any rate, I have often known a pack to start one deer; and before long, each hound would seem to be running a diflerent deer. And I once saw a buck, weary after a long chase, fall in behind a drove of hogs that he discovered running along a path. In the distance I could hear a single hound trailing the deer. The buck followed the hogs for a hundred yards or more; then he turned aside, taking a tremendous leap from the pathway, apparently a maneuver to confuse his pursuer further. I waited until the hound came up. He got hog scent and deer scent all mixed up; and the result was that he followed the hogs in a puzzled and halfhearled way.
When hounds are fresh and start a deer, it is a real task to stop them. Deer as a rule never run far; they skulk and dodge and circle, but they can keep going indefinitely; so, too, can hounds, especially if you want to stop them. It was a full two hours before Prince and I rounded up the pack and had them all safely in their enclosure once more.
WHILE a good many ordinary razorback hogs roam the deep swamps and the solitary pinelands of my country, we seem to have a special type of wild boar. One of these great creatures seems to be a Hampshire or a Duroc-Jersey that has gone wild. It may attain a size and a savage beauty that are almost incredible. I lately measured the height of the mud on a pine tree where a boar had rubbed himself after wallowing. It was four feet two inches from the ground. The largest I ever weighed was 793 pounds. I had had to shoot him seven times with a rifle to kill him. I shot another huge boar twelve times with buckshot. He appeared a little annoyed, but not at all inconvenienced; for I watched him swim the river swiftly and powerfully when I knew he had almost enough lead in him to sink him.
Once, in time of flood, a wild boar appeared out of nowhere in one of the plantation fields. This boar, after an exciting chase in which every dog and man on the plantation joined, was finally caught and [Hit in a pen in the stable yard. He had the curious high-shoulder shape of a hyena. Foam wreathed the bases of his tusks, emitting a musky odor that was perceptible far off; he was truly a formidable and repellent old barbarian.
Late one afternoon I stopped by the pen to take a closer look at him. We had noticed that as dusk approached he would become restless. I had my rifle with me. After looking at the boar, I started toward the gate of the stable yard. Suddenly hearing a crash behind me, I whirled to face the trouble. The boar had broken out of his pen. Dazed by his impact against the obstruction, he hesitated a moment, then plunged for me. I fired and the bullet sped true; but, in falling, the marauder struck me and threw me down. I was unhurt, but I had had all the wild boar I wanted for a while.
One of my Negroes had an alleged dog named Sarsaparilla. The Negroes often found names for their children, their dogs, their horses and mules, on bottles of patent medicine, and would call them Neuralgia, Asthma, Amnesia, Dandruff, and the like. Early one morning I heard the hogs complaining in their lot, and upon investigation I found that, during the night, a wild boar had jumped a low panel in the fence. I trapped him by nailing a heavy plank over the place that he had crossed. This rangy wild visitor was a shaggy brute with gleaming tusks, alarming bristles, and a most sinister and truculent mien. He came over toward me menacingly, champing his great jaws. I went back to the Negro settlement and gathered in all the dogs and men I could. As if our pack were not already sufficienlly motley, we had Sarsaparilla.
We let all the dogs through the gate at once. Then with great valor we watched the fray from the safe side of the fence. One dog was hurled clear over the fence; two others voluntarily jumped it. But most of the pack beleaguered the boar. Then Sarsaparilla, who so far had calmly and aloofly watched proceedings, stepped in. With what appeared to be a regard for finesse, he went to work. Stationed behind the huge hog, he looked thoughtfully for an opening; then suddenly he caught the boar’s upper haunch, sank his teeth, set his legs, and began grimly to shake his head. The bewildered boar could not loosen his hold. The other dogs, taking courage, crowded him. We jumped the fence and soon had the old marauder securely roped. Sarsaparilla then stalked off sedately. He had condescended to help us; but he did not deign to join in any of our puerile excitement.
“What kind of dog is that?” I asked his owner.
“God in He’ben knows, but he got all de sense. I’se gwine change his name to Solomon.”
DESPITE the camellias and azaleas, despite the grieving loveliness of the dreaming oaks, and the murmuring pines, there is much hard work to be done on a plantation; and when it is interrupted, whatever has obstructed it has to be taken care of.
Occasionally here, as everywhere else, something goes wrong that is really nobody’s fault. Such was the strange strike of the great floodgate controlling my largest rice field. The floodgate is a long wooden box, open at both ends, and sunk at low-tide level in a bank. The door at either end, which is suspended on uprights, is automatically opened and closed by the action of the tide. But one day when we opened the outer door to admit the tide, no water came through the floodgate. I called for volunteers to swim into the gateway to find out what the block was. Dark it was in there, and muddy, and slippery beyond belief. I thought that some old log or heap of trash had become lodged in the long box.
Aaron Alston volunteered to investigate. Stark naked, he swam into the darksome mouth of the floodgate.
Suddenly we heard wild subterranean shouts and disclaiming protests. Then the valiant volunteer plunged headfirst into the muddy waters of the canal. There was a frenzied energy about Aaron’s behavior that I had never before noticed in him.
“A halligator,” he told us. “That’s what it is.”
And he told the truth. The great reptile, evidently swimming out of the rice-field canal, had tried to go through the gate and had become wedged fast in it. It was an hour before we dislodged him by using a log as a kind of battering ram. Despite the many bruises that he must have had, the bull alligator escaped into the river.
The Deep South is also the country of what the Seminoles called The Great King. They meant the diamondback rattlesnake, the heaviest venomous serpent of the Western world. The largest snake of this kind that I ever measured was eight feet eleven inches; but his head had been shot away, so that he must have exceeded nine feet in length. However, in Florence, Alabama, there is the hide of a diamondback fourteen feet long.
For a long time I wanted a live diamondback rattlesnake, and I gave out word among the Negroes, hinting of a reward, that if any of them came on one of these chimeras of the wilds, I should be not ified.
Weeks passed, and I had almost forgotten about the matter, when one afternoon, while I was in the back yard, I heard a strange kind of squealing shout coming from tho direction of the woods in front of the house. By the time I got around there, I saw what looked like a cloud of dust swirling across the open field. It was William Boykin. He ran so fast that he threw both shoes off.
When he got to me, he breathlessly rehearsed how he had almost stepped on a big diamondback in the road that runs through the Pasture Woods.
“A woman one,” he panted, with I know not what hint of universal application, “a mean one.”
As soon as I could gather up my snake-catching kit, William and I repaired to the scene. He walked more warily than any other human being I had ever seen. The snake was a big one — not over six feet long but very heavy in the body, and savage by disposition. I caught it with a loop of st rong string on the end of a pole. The only trouble I had was with its powerful reptilian contortions. It was a female, weighing about nine pounds. Its savagery had about il a peculiarly feminine quality. No male is ever so elementally wild as at times a female can be.
I put her in a wired box. A few days later, some Negro women working in the garden dug up a small king snake. Now the king snake, the deadly foe of the rattler, and entirely immune to its venom, grows to a lordly size. But this one was not more than a foot long, and hardly bigger than a lead pencil. I rather idly dropped him into the box with the diamondback. Next morning when I looked into the box, the burly rattler was dead. The little constrictor had killed it in the night.
One plantation morning a load of rough firewood was hauled into our yard. Some, of the logs were big and hollow. A short time after the wood was heaved off the wagon, I heard some chickens setting up a racket near the woodpile. On going there, I found that several of the flock were greatly excited; but one, an old hen, was really in mortal terror. Ordinarily her feathers decorated her normally, but now she had the appearance of a frizzled chicken. Before her and within striking distance, high in his menacing coil, a huge diamondback, which had evidently been brought in from the woods in one of the hollow logs, was “charming” her by ihe sheer fascination of terror. The hen was crouched, and her whole body was quaking.
At this moment an old hound ambled around the corner of the house. When he smelled and saw the snake, he put his head up and howled long and mournfully. Most dogs would have barked, and some fools would have rushed in; but this hound had attained an age of wisdom and discretion, and power to speak sagely and warningly. He recognized and respected the aspect of sudden death.
But the strangest part of the performance was yet to come. A cat had been dozing beside the woodpile, and the general alarm wakened her. With one eye of Egyptian-ancient craftiness lived on the hound, she began one of those amazing feline stretches: she lifted her tail vertically, humped her back loftily, and stood absolutely on tiptoe.
While elevated in a tense muscular pose, she saw the rattlesnake. Immediately she seemed to detect in it a natural enemy, and she faced it. Her posture did not change, but her tail furred out, her hair rose, and she assumed the typical attitude of a cat close-cornered by a dog. Meanwhile she rocked back and forth, swaying as if hypnotized. Now and then she would lift a foot warily, replacing it gingerly. It was as if she were going through the mazes of some mystic Oriental dance.
All these performances both amused me and made me uneasy. I had the feeling that if I were not careful, I might become antic also. In such a case, a rifle is a handy weapon, and with it I ended this unwelcome intruder’s career. A rattler, when he is close to his victim, does appear to have a certain dread fascination, assisted by the victim’s shocked state of mind.
NEWS of important events in the outside world may take years to penetrate the wilderness where I live. It was well after the turn of the century before rumors of Emancipation began to drift into my far hinterlands. Communications are better now; yet it was only recently that I became aware that some of the plantation Negroes had heard of the atomic bomb. Said one drawlingly to another, “Well, I hear they done make that Adam bomb. But, O boy, what will happen if they ever make that Eve bomb?”
To most of my plantation folk, Mrs. Roosevelt is still in the White House; but their alien admiration is mingled with doubt and misgiving. Her Olympian pose, her swift, banal, and facile solutions of even the most ancient human problems, do not readily recommend themselves to the plantation Negro’s essentially honest, wise, tolerant, and very philosophic nature. And by her insistence upon calling the sane recognition of the difference in races (without raising the question of superiority or inferiority) “racial prejudice,” the Negro that I know is not favorably impressed.
“Miss Eleanor,” an old Negro woman lately complained to me, “she expects too much of us.”
Occasionally, to the delight -and somewhat to the consternation—of both white and colored, a caravan of Gypsies will mysteriously appear in our lonely backwoods country, and as esotericslly disappear; and as a rule, after one of their visits, the land is poorer in everything that can be transported and eaten.
One day a Gypsy fortuneteller, gay with her bangles and with a many-colored scarf over her head, repaired to a Negro home to inquire the way to the ferry across the river. At the same time, not averse to doing a little real hard-cash business along with this errand, she tried to get the Negro woman of the house to let her tell her fortune.
The woman politely and painstakingly gave the Gypsy directions about the road to the ferry. Then her eyes took on a rather hard, appraising look, and her voice had some asperity in it as she said to her visitor, “Now about this fortune you-all is gwine tell me: if you-all don’t know enough to know your way to the ferry, how come you can know enough to tell me anything about myself?”
On another occasion an Italian came through the plantation region with a hurdy-gurdy and a little monkey. This latter, with his elfin human antics, fascinated everyone. But one old Negro woman kept eying the monkey thoughtfully. At last, when he was perched on the music box, she went up close to him.
“Now, lemme tell you something,” she said to the monkey with stern yet affectionate warning. “I don’t know where you come from, and I don’t know where you gwine; but I know if you stay ’round here very long, a w’ite man will have a hoe in your han’!”
On a plantation as well as anywhere else, human problems are the most important; and my problems, if they may be called such, are chiefly with the Negroes who live on the place. For example, there is Steve, who has been here longer than I have. He is my woodcutter, and I have never known a better man with an axe.
Late one winter afternoon I walked out into the woods where he had been working all day; and I complimented him on the grand pile of oak and hickory he had cut. However, on visiting the same place early next morning, I found but a few scattered sticks left. Old Steve had been cutting for me by day, and hauling for Steve by night. When I approached him about this business, I ended my somewhat heated oration by saying, “Steve, I just don’t see how you and I can live on the same place any longer.”
He eyed me with surprise and mild curiosity. Then he really set me back on my heels.
“Cap’n,” he asked, “where is you gwine?”