There's no better celebration of any season than the decorated tree adorned with the rich symbolism of nature—my ritual to inform and inspire you in the journey called life.

Monday, August 15, 2011

southern cool

More than any other part of America, the South stands apart...Thousands of Northerners and foreigners have migrated to it...but Southerners they will not become. For this is still a place where you must have either been born or have 'people' there, to feel it is your native ground. "Natives will tell you this. They are proud to be Americans, but they are also proud to be Virginians, South Carolinians, Tennesseeans, Mississippians and Texans. But they are conscious of another loyalty too, one that transcends the usual ties of national patriotism and state pride. It is a loyalty to a place where habits are strong and memories are long. If those memories could speak, they would tell stories of a region powerfully shaped by its history and determined to pass it on to future generations.

THE AMERICAN SOUTH has more than its share of stereotypes. Some are borne out of reality and some are complete misconceptions. One thing for sure is that the summer here is hot—especially the "dog days" of August and September. The thing that won’t surprise people is that Southerners know how to stay cool. We have things like iced tea, the breeze blowing from a fan or inland from the coast, or a cool and creamy slice of key lime pie. But the cool thing that most people might not know—unless they are Southerners themselves, or know one very well—is that people from the South are some of the most open and forgiving people in the world. The cool comes from an unpretentious and earthy live-and-let-live attitude.

OUT OF THAT attitude comes an openness to looking at things in an unstructured way that leaves our world ripe for innovation and creativity. A style-setting friend approached me about creating a tree for a new blog called Southern Exposures because he cited that a tree in August is unexpected, so I rose to the challenge. I present this tree, but make sure you visit the blog here. A talented writer is in cahoots with him and she has summed up the blog's focus as "a collection of artists, writers, photographers, chefs, and stylists living and working in the American South." Together, this stylist and writer are too modest to stake any personal claim because, as they say, their aim is to focus on the untapped and under-utilized talent in the American South. This tree evokes both the heat and the cool of our region and I was more than thrilled to oblige.

IT'S NO SECRET that a disproportionate number of game-changing writers, musicians, artists, chefs and other creative folk were born-and-raised here. William Faulkner, Truman Capote and Eudora Welty wrote with an unbridled and passionate turn of phrase. Ray Charles, Elvis and the band R.E.M. changed the very history and shape of music. Famous artists such as Jasper Johns, Romare Bearden and even self-taught folk artists such as Howard Finster all hail from the South. Masters of Southern cuisine such as Chef Paul Prudhomme, food writers such as Craig Claiborne and TV personalities such as Paula Deen are all world-renowned for their take on the food that made the South famous—not to be taken lightly, even if the food rarely spares any waist-slimming shortcuts.

I'D BE WILLING TO BET that all of these people (from the writers, to the artists. to the food experts) know that key lime pie is not green, but a pale creamy yellow. And I prefer mine with a pastry crust thank-you-very-much. Subtle distinctions like this are what set Southerners apart. We all know when somebody or something “ain’t from around here.” But the nice thing is that we’re willing and able to share the good stuff from our rich culture. It's definitely a place where you'll find an unfettered generosity of spirit.

POPULAR MOVIES set in the South such as To Kill a Mockingbird (based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee of the same name), The Color Purple (based on Alice Walker's novel of the same name), and currently, The Help (based on Kathryn Stockett's novel) only tell part of the Southern story. Popular TV shows such as The Andy Griffith Show, Designing Women, and True Blood capture how the perception of the South has changed over the years, but there's still more to be said. There has definitely been an opening in the veil covering Southern sensibility. More and more people are seeing how just how rich Southern culture can be—even if related in a hyper-real, over-the-top storyline as it is in True Blood.

Southern Living (where I landed my first job out of college), Garden and Gun and The Oxford American are telling the Southern story on a regular basis in high-style from a consumer perspective and all the way through to a literary viewpoint. So there's no stopping the voice of the South. You might just raise an eyebrow or two in discovering just how rich life here can be.

WHILE THE REST of the world is losing its distinctiveness, it seems that the particular Southern vernacular is sittin’ down for a spell. No longer relegated to the trend du jour, the Southern way of doing things is finally becoming recognized for style as well as substance. Sure, the good ol’ boy attitude has held on white-knuckled, but even it has lost its grip. What’s left is Southern cool and I ain’t talking about lowering the temperature. It’s high time for the creative side of Southern culture to kick it up a notch!

THE NEW Southern Exposures blog might just be the way to do it. And I’m more than happy to be a small part of its beginning with the photos and ideas you see in this post. Make sure to visit their blog to see what they are doing and discover a lot of untapped talent along-the-way.

KEEPING IT COOL| (From top to bottom) This tree branch held in a wooden container painted with sunny stripes employs ribbons and freezable plastic ice cubes as a metaphor for Southern Cool. Of course there's real iced tea (house wine of the South) to complete the picture. The Tri-Vane fan keeps the breeze blowing. The key lime tart (yellow, not green to-be-sure) was lovingly made by my sweet companion Devin Borden. It is topped with real whipped cream and garnished with candied lime slices. Circa 1968 or so, my friend Ellen Shanks Padgett (left) with her mother Margie and sister Barbara are sporting color-coordinated cool on a gleaming sandy-white beach in Destin, Florida.

photography and styling by Darryl Moland,
key lime tart crafted by Devin Borden,
beach photo courtesy Ellen Shanks Padgett 

ADDENDUM 8/31/2011:

MUST-SEE MOVIE | Since I haven't seen this film yet, I am reposting the synopsis from the website. It looks like it might tell a visual story of the American South even better than Malick's Tree of Life: 

AWARDED for its visionary cinematography, General Orders No. 9 breaks from the constraints of the documentary form as it contemplates the signs of loss and change in the American South as potent metaphors of personal and collective destiny.

THE STUNNING culmination of over eleven years’ work from first time writer-director Robert Persons, General Orders No. 9 marries experimental filmmaking with an accessible, naturalist sensibility to tell the epic story of the clash between nature and man’s progress, and reaches a bittersweet reconciliation all its own.

TOLD ENTIRELY with images, poetry, and music, General Orders No. 9 is unlike any film you have ever seen. A story of maps, dreams, and prayers, it’s one last trip down the rabbit hole before it’s paved over.