As beautiful and elusive as spilled mercury...

by Chris Paysinger, local historian and SOA member
I have had the opportunity to work as a landscaper in Athens and Limestone County during the summers for the past seventeen years. Though it began as a way to make money during some very lean college years, it has continued into my career as a teacher. As my wife Suzanne leaves for work during my “off” months, I thought better of incurring any enmity from her (or worse yet, the much dreaded “Honey-Do” list). So, during that time I gave up the opportunity to sit around sipping coffee and catching up on the witty banter of the Today Show. Instead, I traded leisurely mornings for hours of grueling back-breaking labor.

Yet during my time of seemingly digging up or sodding over half of Athens, I have had a wonderful learning experience from a design perspective. My taste has developed into something I call “Southern Vernacular”. Southerners have always migrated to locally available resources and traditions to address unique needs and circumstances. By doing so, we have found the value in a good porch or patio. Southerners have always seen the worth in indigenous plants, which are not only beautiful, but just as importantly, can withstand blistering summers and frigid winters. The Southern style has always been able to evolve over time to reflect environmental, cultural, and historical context. As with furniture, Southerners will appreciate a good cherry chest, not because it is perfect, but because it has collected patina and imperfections over time.  
Southerners, in light of necessity, but also due to the development of a unique style and understanding of place, have long valued the beauty in the collected aesthetic of material and items over time. Plants, for Southerners, have long been something to enjoy, but more importantly, something to share. The created commonality from doing so brings people together and creates context and meaning, not only in the changed landscape, but also in the shared sense of community. How many Southerners have visited over something cold to drink in the growing warmth of spring and traced the ancestry of their gardens back generations?
Like so many other traditions however, Southern Vernacular style is quickly being displaced by that of a manufactured aesthetic that is grounded in impermanence. For so many years we in the South valued stacked stones, rescued from so many farmers’ fencerows as borders, replete with lichens and moss that convey age and time. All across the region, people collected brick, locally made, however imperfect, and snaked pathways through yards in an effort to avoid the sticky clay from which they were cast. The new standard is now concrete that gets a good pressure washing every spring. Patios and walkways are made of manufactured materials and “stone” walls are veneered. Landscape design has evolved to plantings that never change, save for a planter that alternates between begonias or pansies, depending on the climate. And as noted landscape architect Chip Callaway has observed, “roses now smell like cabbages.”

Athens is a wonderful Southern town. In defining our future we must stay focused on this fact. In many places we still have venerable old boxwoods that are as tall as the houses they anchor. Large trees and crumbling brick walkways still exist. We have historic districts, a beautiful university, and a town square that have all retained the contextual integrity of history and place. And all of these things are as beautiful, and as elusive, as spilled mercury. There is nothing wrong with a new building or landscape, yet if it is of an inferior quality and design, then something is likely lost forever.

Of all the plants that are inherently Southern, perhaps the Mock Orange is my favorite (many refer to it as an English Dogwood). For the majority of the year it can be a somewhat “scraggily” plant. But for a few weeks each spring, it literally drips with white flowers. Since the end of the Civil War, there has been “the promise of a New South.” It implies that we will never divorce ourselves of our past, though we hope for an improved future. And perhaps this is why the Mock Orange is my favorite. All year, as I look at it out my living room window, though it is wholly imperfect, it offers the promise of something better.   


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