The weary traveler headed South through Georgia on Interstate 95 will have noticed, somewhere around the border between South Carolina and Georgia, that a change of topography has occurred. The land is flatter, the soil sandier. The flora is minimal, almost entirely long leaf pine, palmetto fronds, and a tough species of grass that grows in nearly every yard. If it’s a summer day, the traveler will feel the sun beating down, radiating an acetylene heat. He’ll hear the bobwhites and mockingbirds that fill the roadside corn patches singing their telegraphic imitations of each other. He’ll notice the prevalence of mud-chinked tobacco barns, mostly fallen in or abandoned these days. The traveler will realize that he’s entered a distinctive sub-region of the South, one called the Wiregrass, a place known for its rough edges and its durable people.
The Wiregrass stretches across Georgia from Savannah to Macon; from Macon to Valdosta. From Valdosta it creeps into parts of southeastern Alabama, and into a slab of northern Florida, from Live Oak to west of Tallahassee. The dull green grass that gives this region its name has an obdurate texture and serrated edges sharp enough to open a can of beer. Wiregrass thrives in the sandy soil of this place, its dry summers that don’t slow the grass’s profligate reproduction, that taunts its companions in the biota for wilting when the sun beats down without mercy for months on end, causing wiregrass little or no distress. Inexplicably, wiregrass seems never to gain much in height, growing only in thickness, becoming tougher and tougher as the summer progresses.
To a twelve-year-old boy growing up in South Georgia in the 1950’s, wiregrass lawns were perpetually under his bare feet, prickling them, hardening his soles against the wounds that lay in wait for the unwary, the shards of glass and tin that hid invisible in the shadows. Eventually, the constant callusing were an inoculation against everyday injury, and the barefoot boy became more daring about where he set down his feet. The real danger to him was posed by a constant companion of wiregrass, the sand spur, a bit of fibrous vegetation that was spiked with sharp points and scattered in the grass so plentifully it was impossible to avoid. The howls of those wounded by sand spurs could be heard on summer afternoons like a choir of the aggrieved. The barefoot boy called on to mow a wiregrass lawn with a push mower would dread the task, recalling the grass’s resistance to the mower’s blades, necessitating a constant regimen of sharpening. He’d remember, though, the benison of cool wiregrass, the relief it gave his feet when he dashed across a sizzling stretch of asphalt that threatened to roast anything that touched it.
In modern times, The Wiregrass has gone through a period when it was ambivalent about its heritage. When Interstate 75, which bisected the Wiregrass, was constructed in the early 1960’s, some locals were dismayed when historically derived names were used on exit signs. One called Snake Nation Road, named after a nineteenth-century Indian settlement, was particularly controversial. In an area that was fighting for respectability as increasing numbers of northerners on the way to Florida came through, the name seemed to evoke a time many felt was better forgotten. It sounded primitive, even malevolent, and was changed. Over time, though, as attitudes toward the nineteenth century evolved, the name was restored. Now it seemed colorful and authentic. A similar sense of pride about the Wiregrass’s distinctiveness had grown apace, and the name was attached to businesses and shopping malls, sometimes in a way that served commerce more than it did history.
Nowadays that weary traveler on Interstate 95 could make an exit at Brunswick and hook up at Waycross with the Wiregrass Parkway, a four-lane state road through oak trees and cypresses, that takes a traveler clear to Valdosta and beyond. Along the way, that traveler would see the region at its unspoiled best, free from the distractions of roadside commerce, see the rocketry of irrigation sending arcs of water out to the cotton fields that have replaced tobacco as the crop of choice. If he was fortunate, he’d meet some of the Wiregrass’s citizens, folks known for possessing the friendliness the South is celebrated for. The traveler might not know it, but if he met with distress along the way, he would be treated like a prince, possibly invited to sup at their tables. And if those people might not have an abundance of polish, it was perhaps because they were from the Wiregrass, a place where rough edges are understood as more genuine, a surface that had smooth places, too, like the hands you remember that lifted you as a child, putting you to bed for the night.