That Time I Slept in a Slave Cabin

I can’t say that I arrived that evening without some notion of what might unfold. For about a year I followed historian Joe McGill’s work with the Slave Dwelling Project, watching as he slept in extant slave dwellings, reading stories of the inhabitants whose forced labor, for centuries, fueled the American economy. When he announced that Demopolis, Alabama was on the 2017 schedule, I knew I needed to be there.

What’s behind the “big house” is not clearly, if ever, communicated in brochures or professionally guided tours of life in antebellum America. One might think those shabby, cabinoften, wooden structures were storage sheds, certainly not places where people lived in cramped conditions regardless of relation, or gender or age, at the behest of enslavers. After toiling countless hours within a system designed to exhaust every ounce of strength, intellect and spirit from them, they retired to those shelters. Today, those spaces barely receive the slightest consideration though they stand only a few yards, in many cases, from the much-lauded manor. Maybe, as W.E.B Dubois proposes in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, “it is so much easier to assume that we know it all. Or perhaps, having already reached conclusions in our own minds, we are loath to have them disturbed by facts.”

We gathered at the Marengo County History and Archives Museum for a reception and lecture on the history of the project, then, as night fell, drove 25 miles down winding country roads dotted by catfish farms and cattle, to Magnolia Grove Plantation in neighboring Greensboro, AL.

Sleeping bags and backpacks in hand, my friend Johnnie and I followed shadowy figures beside the Greek revival mansion, across a wet lawn towards the cabin. Eleven souls, gathering on an unseasonably cold spring evening, for one of the most unusual experiences imaginable. As I scoped out a sliver of space to settle down, intense anticipation gave way to uneasiness. Besides the fact that I suddenly realized I’d be sleeping next to strangers, folks I didn’t know from Adam’s house cat, I also wondered what right we, I, had to be there. Amid some of the most robust discussions around the human condition, I listened for the answer. IMG_6320

Besides two ancient looking chairs, there were three windows, a fireplace and wooden door we managed to prop shut with someone’s boot. When the conversation finally drifted to a few whispers, I snuggled into my sleeping bag and thought about the ancestors who’d gazed out those windows, warmed themselves by the fire. What did they look like, sound like, talk about, in that room? What secrets did they keep? From which African tribes were they stolen?

With the first glimmer of sunlight, I maneuvered between sleeping bodies sprawled across the floor and made my way to the big house. A Northern Cardinal’s familiar whistle cheerily announced the day.

While I still cannot say with absolute certainty what moved me to drive two hours from Montgomery, that bastion of competing historical narratives, to the little cabin at Magnolia Grove – maybe that’s too much to expect from a single encounter – what I do know is that the stories of people of African descent, stories fraught with peril, and unyielding resolve will no longer languish in the margins. We re-member our voices and they are strong.

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As extraordinary as the cabin stay was, it rests in the middle of two remarkable encounters.

First, the reception May 24th coordinated by Mrs. Mary Jones-Fitts, President and Director of the Marengo County History and Archives Museum. In fact, she is central to this story. It is she who secured the Smithsonian exhibit, Changing America: The Emancipation, 1863, The March on Washington, 1963bringing it to Demopolis then enlisting

 

Joe McGill as keynote speaker. She also arranged the sleepover. Although it took four years to bring all the pieces together, she persisted and the end result was this incredible experience. Mrs. Jones-Fitz is a historian and genealogist whose love for the Black Belt region and its people was infused our conversations. She traveled with us the next day to Faunsdale, AL and  to the Safe House Black History Museum where I met Mrs. Burroughs.

After exploring the Safe House, I walked back to the car completely amazed. We had just learned that townspeople heroically staved off terrorists bent on kidnapping and murdering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, our 88-year-old guide, was there that night in 1968. The human rights activist, who bares scars from the savage Bloody Sunday assault, helped assemble a protective shield of armed black men who  surrounded the house in the Depot neighborhood to defend him.

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Mrs. Theresa Burroughs, Human Rights Activist

When asked why she did it, not just that night, but why she endured beatings, protests and arrests throughout the movement, she said, “I just couldn’t live like that anymore. Things wasn’t gonna change, so I decided to do something and if I died trying, well, that was alright too.”

Mrs. Burroughs insisted that our group sing as we crossed Freedom Lane, the glass enclosed hallway connecting the two structures housing museum artifacts. No doubt it was a scene played out many times before with others who’d come to hear how a critical moment in history unfolded there.

I hugged both women – Mrs. Jones-Fitts that morning at the cabin and Mrs. Burroughs in the afternoon. I appreciate them, and Joe for diligently doing the work they’d been called to. I’m also sincerely grateful for the ancestors, and the elders whose indomitable spirits cleared a path for us all.

 

Journey to Peace

“Fo’ day in the mornin,” as the elders used to say, there was wind and waves and water.

I eased down the condo’s weathered walk-way onto a blanket of sugar-white sand. Off-season vacationers sauntered by, offering contented grins, each of us shedding barriers that might’ve separated us had our paths crossed at any other place or any other time. With each step into the rising sun, their comings and goings were less noticeable as I paused at the water’s edge, soaking in the amazing panorama unfolding at every turn. img_4446

Words fail. I just cannot summon the sentences to adequately describe what happened on the beach that day. Creation’s impact on the senses can be so powerful we’d be foolish to fight against it. So why bother? I neither resisted emotions bubbling up inside nor clung to them as they finally broke free into bouts of laughter, tears and, poetry. Yep, there I was walking along the shore reciting poetry into the wind, a remarkable feat considering I once struggled through a fog of depression and anxiety to recall even a single thought. And it was the most liberating experience.

When Lucille Clifton’s, “blessing the boats,” rose up in me, I wept.

When William Wordsworth’s, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” came flooding through, I wept.

I wept in gratitude to the Creator, the one who knows me and made me and welcomes me. Wept ’cause something inside of me gave way, and I – let – go.

 

Joy in the Morning

“Hey, I’m headed down to Orange Beach for a video shoot with clients and I’ve got a condo. You’re welcome to come.”

Joy hardly finished the sentence before I answered, yes. Afterwards, when I hung up, I didn’t have the slightest idea how I would afford it. What in the name of all things awesome made me believe for a second that even a free trip was possible?

As the weeks slipped by, I went about the work I’d committed to – transforming my life through new thoughts, new words, and actions.

Whenever dis-empowering thoughts floated up – Why would you agree to that, you know this isn’t a good time? You’re always reaching for more than you deserve. Stop being so selfish;  I let them pass. Overtime, the tone shifted and I was less inclined to follow every fleeting word, choosing instead to just watch. So, when February 21st rolled ’round and the funds came through minutes before I hit the road, even then I wasn’t moved. I stayed right there at the center of the experience without judgement. It simply was, what it was.

Epiphany

That’s what met me on the beach, the realization that life is not happening to me, it’s happening through me, if I will just trust God and let go. Isn’t that what every nature hike over the last year was building towards, this awakening? And while those outings focused on improved health and healing in the great outdoors, another message was gradually manifesting.

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Sea birds floated overhead, some dived for fish through the thunderous blue waves, and a few stood by, watching me as I watched them. All the while, spontaneous joy kept bubbling up from someplace deep inside. Finally, unable to move another step, I fell to my knees to scribble a response in the sand.

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By the time I met Joy for dinner that night at the Flora-Bama Yacht Club, she was wrapping up a shoot. As I watched her do her thing, I struck up a conversation with the person seated next to me. What unfolded through that encounter confirmed yet again that life, once we stop resisting seemingly bad experiences or clinging to momentous ones, has far more to offer than we can ever imagine. Everything is available to us.

That realization surfaced again the next morning as I hiked through Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, while resting on the beach at the Mobile Street access, then chatting with new friends well into the evening by the Ole River in Perdido Key.

And the reward for relinquishing the illusion of control? Another step on the journey to peace.

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“When you are no longer willing to identify with the part of you that is separating itself into a million pieces, you are ready for real growth.”  – Michael Singer

On the Trail Again… Finally

So, that was weird – two months without a single birding hike. That changed today though. Joannie Garner met me at Lagoon Park in Montgomery, AL for an early morning outing and it was fantastic! Just the rejuvenative boost we needed to kick off the month of February – a month known for love and historical reflection.img_3985

There were lots of common sightings, you know, stuff like Northern Cardinals, American Robins, Carolina Chickadees and Wrens, Red-Winged Black birds,  and one that, although also a regular in these parts,

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(Stock photo)

still makes one’s heart go pitter-patter. I’m talkin’ about you Cedar Wax Wing, you rakish darlin’ you.

And what would a trip to Northeast Montgomery be without a hoard of Blue Jays fussin’ in the treetops? Annoying, yes, but  what’s cool about them is their tight-knit social structure. Where you see one, there’s bound to be plenty others workin’ together (albeit noisily) for the good of the family.

There’s a small creek flanking the trail. Sometimes you’ll find herons stalking tiny fish and other water-lovin’ creatures. While today was all about birds, beavers actually stole the show. At least their handiwork did. Nibbled that poor little tree down to a nub. There were plenty of tracks leading towards the creek but alas, no beavers. img_3974

Even though we only hiked for an hour, it felt so good gettin’ back to one of my fave pastimes. Sharing it with a friend made the outing all the more special.

 

Did You See That?

 A few months ago , I said opportunities to connect with nature were closer than we might think, suggesting that all one needed was  to look outside the window. Well, Aquilla Stanback was chatting with a co-worker near Mountain Brook, AL when she got an

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Red-shouldered hawk image courtesy of Aquilla Stanback

eye-full of an Eastern Red-shouldered hawk. She posted it to Facebook with the caption, “my morning view.” There was something deeply resonant about that. When I asked her about it she said, “Initially, I thought, wow! I knew it was not an ordinary bird… It was very peaceful.”

 

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Red-shouldered hawk image courtesy of Joannie Garner

Aquilla’s hawk is just one of several raptor sightings lately. Joannie Garner, Life and Health Coach from Montgomery, AL crossed paths with what also appears to be a Red-shouldered hawk. She said it turned and followed her during her morning cardio workout, eventually landing in a tree along the way.

 

Jump over two states to South Carolina and see another hawk that Joseph McGill, history consultant at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and founder of “The Slave Dwelling Project,” spied outside his office window. I’m fond of Mr. McGill’s important and unique work with the SDP and regularly follow his blog and Facebook page. So, after seeing a post with this gorgeous specimen I just had to reach out. Within minutes he replied that he “was drawn to this bird because it was so close to the office building and it made a flying move as if was about to swoop onto some prey. Instead, it landed in a tree close to the office”

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Red-shouldered hawk image courtesy of Joseph McGill

 

He captured it with his Galaxy Note 6 “from about 20 feet away,” and managed to get as close as 10 feet before it finally flew off.

Kim Jordan of Kim L Photography in Montgomery, AL offered an awesome shot she got from her cousin of a snowy egret struttin’ across a back porch in South Carolina. Check out  that stylish white crown. Makes me smile just lookin’ at it.

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Egret courtesy of Kim Jordan

 

Other folks, although unable to get pictures, also shared their  encounters. Like LaDonna LeMaster, whose backyard just south of Montgomery apparently is a bird haven. A few days ago she wrote that she saw blue jays, cardinals and, “no lie – a huge bald eagle.”

I’m in love with her backyard! Someday, I’d like to enjoy a warm cocoa while bird watching from her porch. I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, that area off Troy Highway seems to be teaming with eagles as her husband Bill can attest. So fascinated by one he spied while driving passed a fish hatchery, he followed it.

Then, there’s this sweet post by Tricia Strout.

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We’re All Connected

I haven’t hiked in a few weeks and, strangely enough, I haven’t seen any birds either. Personal challenges have proved distracting to the point that, though I’m covering the same territory where I’ve enjoyed countless birds before, I have not seen a single one. Chances are, they’ve been there. I just hadn’t noticed. Then, this happens. People responded to the request for bird pictures, sharing images and chats from their little corners of the world. Neighbors, friends, strangers inviting me, and now you into their lives, connecting us to places we may never see, never knowing how impactful it’s been.

Truth is, I’ve miss the wind at my back, the sun on my face and the thrilling sensation that comes from being attuned to the wild, which is why I’m planning another birding hike. Figure I’ll go next week. By then, we’ll have wrapped up Christmas, Kwanzaa will be underway with New Year’s Day on the horizon. Seems the perfect time for reflection.If you wanna go, just holla.

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Many thanks to everyone who shared their bird stories. You’re the best! Keep ’em coming.

But those who trust in the lord will receive new strength, they will fly as high as eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not grow weak.” – Isaiah 40:31

 

 

 

 

What’s Out There? Seven Tips Beginner Hikers Should Know

In June, a black bear strolled through an Opelika, AL neighborhood, a rabid raccoon attacked a child in Pike Road last month and, according to the social network app Nextdoor, two coyotes were spotted a week or so ago in Montgomery – one wandering through Wyndridge and the other on Wynlakes golf course. Clearly you don’t have to be in the middle of a forest to encounter wild life.

Human activities attract certain animals looking to score a quick, high-calorie meal. They eat our trash, get accustomed to being near us and quickly escalate from novelty to nuisance. Most times they wander off pretty quickly , if not, authorities step in. But what’s the best way to stay safe when you’re hiking in their territory?

If you relish the restorative powers of a wilderness retreat, animal sightings won’t keep you away from the woods. Quite honestly, I’ve never seen anything more threatening than a fox squirrel and that was about three years ago down in Gulf State Park.

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Image: Alexandra Lundahal

With these recent neighborhood sightings however, now seems like a good time to fine-tune my woodlands strategy. Here are seven tips to keep in mind.

 

Research the Park

Don’t just roll up on a forest like you’re special forces. Study the area first. Most parks provide free trail maps on site as well as online so take time to look over it. Maps cans also be a deciding factor in trail selection as some can be extremely challenging, a fact that may not be apparent till you’re right up on it. Also, research the types of animals that live there. Remember, wildlife isn’t like zoo-life which means creatures don’t just hang out in tidy little habitats or enclosures. They can be anywhere. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever stumble onto anything dangerous it’s still good to know what’s out there.

Tell Somebody

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Image: by Gabriel (Gabi) Bukataru via stocksy.com

Don’t be a knucklehead, tell somebody where you’re going and when to expect your return. Whether you’re hiking alone or with others,  always tell someone your location so they’ll know where to send help if anything happens.

 

Pack Sustenance

Water, pocket-sized snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and energy bars are a good idea. And by energy bars I do not mean “candy”. A Snickers bar may be satisfying but it can also cause your energy level to spike and crash, and who needs that on the trail? That doesn’t mean you should buy a lotta pricey stuff for a simple day hike either. Peanut butter is an inexpensive fuel producer and most of us already have it in the pantry. Bottom line – bring enough water and sensible, energy replenishing snacks to keep you movin’, plus a bit extra in the event things go sideways.

Be the Pharmacy

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Image: Uros Zunic via Shutterstock

If you take prescription medicine, bring it.  Don’t play around with this one. Pack the next few prescribed doses just in case.

 

Check the Weather

Thanksgiving day temperatures in Montgomery, AL hit the mid 70’s. There’s no telling what it’ll be next week – 40’s, 80’s? Check the forecast and plan accordingly.

Choose Basic Gear

A communication device such as a cell phone or two-way radio, a light-weight backpack, rain poncho, weather appropriate clothing, closed-toe shoes that have been broken in, flashlight, lighter (or matches), compass, and pepper spray are a good start.

Know Your Limits

I haven’t hiked the Appalachian Trail (at least not yet) so the difficulty level in my outings is moderate at best. Besides, I know my limits. What about you? I suggest choosing trails that fit your fitness level. Translation? If you’ve done more couch surfing than exercising lately, keep it simple. Like wise folks used to say, “Don’t write a check your butt can’t cash.”

It’s good to break away from work-a-day living to escape once in a while to the serenity of the great outdoors. A day hike in the wilderness could do wonders for your peace of mind, but don’t let the prospect of solitude distract you. Traipsing  through the forest is more enjoyable when you’ve got a plan.  If you’re gonna go out, use these tips to go prepared.

NOTE:

If you take a hike, especially to any of the parks and trails I’ve mentioned in previous posts, tell me about it. I’d also love to see pictures and may even post ’em on the Sassy Puffin. Speaking of pictures, I’m featuring bird photos in my next blog that folks have shared with me recently. There’s still time to send in your bird sightings too. Email them to puffin1125@gmail.com.

Sources:

  • Bear video – by Wesley Sinor/wsinor@al.com

We’re Out Here

Autumn breezes sweeping through Oak Mountain State Park were a welcome escape from lingering late summer heat. My friend JC Sankey and I spent time up there a few weeks ago romping through the forest, taking in the splendor of this most colorful season.

img_1823I was still unloading gear from the back of the SUV when she pointed out a pair of brown-headed nuthatches foraging mid-way up a short leaf pine tree. Although nuthatches are common for that area it was an exciting first-time sighting for us. A hopeful sign of what may be ahead.

With supplies securely strapped to our backs and water bottles in hand we moved away from the asphalt towards the trail. Our feathered escorts flitted ahead from branch to branch until finally disappearing into a copse of ginkgo and pine trees. Crossing the Lake Trail bridge, we slipped past slender saplings nestled alongside giants whose dazzling foliage cast an otherworldly glow in the autumn light.

“We’re out here,” I thought contentedly. “With only breeze and bird song and the crunch of leaf litter under foot.”

A little further into the hike we realized, to our dismay, that we were not completely alone. A few mountain bikers whizzed by, leaving a trail of powdery dust in their wake. That was probably the most unsettling part – seeing how absolutely dry the soil was. It’s been what, two months or so since the last torrential downpour? Parts of the path not fullsizerendercompletely covered by leaves shown zig-zag cracks in the ground. A tell-tale sign of Alabama’s severe drought situation. By the time I reached a clearing to take in the lake view, I wasn’t surprised to see how far back it had receded from its original meander line. I wondered what impact the lack of rain not only had on the soil and vegetation, but the entire ecosystem that depended on each intricately connected component for survival – humans included.

img_1860A gigantic fallen tree offered a great resting place for a break. We scrambled up its trunk to a level spot then enjoyed energy bars and a couple bottles of water. Earlier, JC and I talked about other places we’d like to go birding outside of Alabama – the north east Atlantic coast for puffins, South America and the Caribbean for more exotic species. Resting on the trunk now, with wind rustling through the leaves, conversation eased into a comfortable silence.

In our work-a-day lives most of us are bombarded by noise – traffic, tv, phones, co-workers, that lousy background music in grocery stores. Relaxing in a secluded spot in the middle of the woods away from the hassle is truly an awe-inspiring moment. Neither of us was in a hurry to move on.

image-1Eventually we did, and the path, once gently sloping downward, shifted upward in some spots. The increased effort caused a dull ache in my knee. Although JC could’ve gone another 20 miles, I knew I needed to rein it in. The prospect of sleeping with an ice pack wedged up against my leg tamped down the impulse to power through. So, after a brief water break, we turned ‘round, carefully retracing our steps ‘til we arrived back at the Lake Trail bridge a short time later.

The Oak Mountain outing only added two new bird sightings to our life lists – brown nuthatches at the beginning, and a wood thrush half-way in – but, that’s okay. The few hours spent traipsing through that section of the park represents only a tiny fraction of its 9,940 acres, which means there’s a whole lot more to explore. So we’ll go again, and maybe next time, we’ll see you out there on the trail.

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Image: Brown-headed nuthatch – Vicki DeLoach, Creative Commons license

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Where should I hike next? Give me your suggestions on short-distance trips to scenic spots around the River Region and other parts of Central and Southern Alabama.  🙂 Leave your comments below. Thanks for following my blog!

Something New, Right Where You Live

How did you observe Indigenous People’s Day last week? The second Monday in October usually means time-off from work and school to rest and regroup. Maybe you slept late, caught up on house work or yard work, then had folks over for a cookout. Or, did you drive down to Mobile for the Port City Battle of the Bands then extended the trip ’cause Monday was IP Day? That’s all good. Anything to restore the soul. As for me, I spent the day in the company of some wonderful folks on a birding tour in Northeast Montgomery.

I’ve lived in this city for quite a while and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve visited Lagoon Park. Unless you play golf (which I did briefly years ago) or tennis, there wasn’t much else goin’ on out there. Once or twice back when I homeschooled my daughter, we met other homeschoolers at Pete Peterson Lodge for science co-ops. That was about it. Since the hiking trails opened this year however, it’s gotten a second glance – first with my family in September, and now with this. img_1952

At risk of sounding like a broken record, let me say this was one of the best trips. Their enthusiasm about birding (one member said she’d never done anything like it before), rethinking local outdoor spaces and just resting in nature’s restorative powers was central to the day’s success. Add to that the eagerness of FullSizeRender.jpgthree precious little girls whose willingness to re-frame their perceptions about wildlife and ecosystems then you can understand those sentiments. Watching as they scribbled notes in their journals or presented bird sketches for me to inspect was everything!

MYSTERY BIRD

If you’ve read any of the previous blogs you know that nearly every birding trip reveals something new. This time, thanks to Tasha Scott’s keen eye, we all turned our attention to an animated bunch of birds a few yards off the trail. Turns out they were Yellow Warblers, migrators who winter in Central America and Northern South America. Their normally brilliant yellow plumage was a bit muted for autumn but notable enough to keep us engrossed for several minutes.

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Image: PhotosbyJoe, August, 2011

The yellow warbler sighting underscores a memory exercise  introduced at the beginning of most tours. Before hitting the trail, members are asked to recall a bird that, for whatever reason, stands out in their mind. On this hike a few said hummingbirds, one recalled a pelican while the “bird that pecks wood” was most memorable to our youngest participant. What’s beautiful about this activity is that practically everyone knows where they saw it and maybe even when – no matter how long ago. That’s part of what I like about birding ’cause whether we realize it or not, avian encounters are embedded in the background of our daily lives. Without trying, we absorb fragments from the natural world, and as often as not, attach pleasant feelings to those observations. They’re just below the surface and sometimes, all it takes is a few minutes away from the daily grind to reveal it.

We took a few selfies at the mid-way mark then made our way back along the dusty trail with the children running ahead laughing and giggling. A comfortable silence settled over the rest of us. At that moment, I imagined contentment coding itself on the software of their hearts. If asked in say, 10 or 15 years, what bird do you recall, I’m optimistic the yellow warbler evokes fond memories of a restful autumn morning in the company of new friends.IMG_1964.JPG

Acknowledgements

Kim Vaughn of Melodic Vibes, Tasha Scott, Freedom Coach and Business Mentor, Kim Jordan of Kim Elle Portraits, along with their three little queens, made this birding tour one of the best! Joanie Garner, Life & Health Coach, you were missed.

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To book your small group birding tour, email me at puffin1125@gmail.com for rates, time and locations.