Ave Maria Grotto

Prologue: Exit 308

We’d taken the Cullman exit off of the 65 many times, always for a singular purpose: to consume an artisanal work prepared by members of a religious sect. Pickles. More specifically, the spicy garlic Amish pickles sold at Smith Farms (also sold at the creepy Pioneer Village on the way to Troy).

This time, to celebrate our nation’s independence, we decided to consume a different kind of religious craftsmanship: the Ave Maria Grotto. If you’ve never heard of the Grotto, you’ve probably never browsed many state tourism brochures. Sure, it’s not a site that our PR experts market as heavily as, say, the Rosa Parks museum. And it’s not a privately owned advertising juggernaut like De Soto Caverns. But still, it’s something unique to our state that has always struck us as not to be missed. We have a bit of an Alabama “bucket list,” you see – things we’ve agreed that we’d see or do together before one or both of us left the state.

If our skin was a different color, not too long ago we’d have been made to leave Cullman before the sun went down. In any case, we left long before dusk. On arrival, it was clear that despite the optimistic two-day itinerary suggested by the folks at the Grotto, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in downtown Cullman. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Perhaps because it was a holiday weekend? To get some pre-Grotto energy, we ate at a place called “All Steak.” Sure, they didn’t serve only steak. And probably they didn’t serve all of the steak (though we didn’t see anyone try to push them in this direction). But other things distinguish the spot. Mostly, the sheer volume of extra food we did not order that came with our meal. It started with cornbread and rolls. We take a bread course for granted, like chips and salsa at a “Mexican” restaurant. But it’s still, technically, food that you do not order.

What happened next was entirely outside of our range of shared experience. Our waiter, who had to be reminded by a peer that he was legally prohibited from serving us beer on Sundays in Cullman, deposited plates in front of each of us that contained a substance so foreign to us that our facial expressions must have conveyed a particularly unusual horrified bemusement – the kind you might expect to emote when confronted by, say, a lizard dressed as Bette Midler or a Groupon for a deeply discounted jalapeno-flavored lubricant.

“What is this?” We asked.
Congealed salad,” he replied. Perhaps seeing that this answer was unsatisfactory, or at least incomplete, he explained that this was given to every guest, free of charge. We nodded an uncertain assent.

Your first kiss; the death of a parent; being lost in a foreign country. These are things that are nearly impossible to describe. We could plausibly add our congealed salad to this list of rarities. It was sort of pinkish-orange. It was vaguely square. Of its own volition, it appeared to liquify over a relatively short amount of time. It may have contained some kind of ground nuts and fruit. When poked, it retained coherence. We politely took a few bites. It was citrus by way of carpet freshener.

At the end of the meal, we were delivered slices of pie and two of the restaurant’s “famous orange rolls.” A total of seven different extra and unordered food items. We marveled at the economy that allowed the All-Steak to lavish so many complimentary calories on its guests. We enjoyed our veggie plates and left an extra large tip.

Brother Zoetti

IMG_2547Sometimes it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the Catholic Church had a monopoly on Christianity. Sure, they had some hard times with multiple feuding popes and what not, but they were basically the only game in town until they overreached and Martin Luther showed up to make with the schism already. Schism after schism has left us with a rich array of Protestantisms, from the basically-Catholic C of E/Episcopalian variants to the God’s mouth-to-my-ear DIY experiments of the Pentacostals and, yes, the Baptists. Of course, all manner of rituals and beliefs separate these, but one is mediation. Who, if anyone, gets to mediate your relationship with the sacred? With the profane? With society? Are you a free agent, constrained, or somewhere in between?

Modernity doesn’t concern itself particularly with these questions, although they define every part of our experience from the mundane (“Do you want fries with that?”) to the profound (“Can I make the world better?”). In the American South, the question of mediation is especially poignant. When people talk about the particularly prickly attitudes of Southerners, what’s really under the glass is this people’s relative lack of mediation, the way their resistance stems from the sense that their hands are, if not directly on the levers of power, at least proximate enough to compel movement as they wish. Alienation happens when this power feels stripped away (see also: Trump), even if it never really existed in the first place.

Luther’s aftershocks still reverberate in the Deep South. Here, people still resist the idea of mediation. Why should any person, let alone any institution, stand between themselves and their God, much less their community? And others exploit that, as they can, for power and money (as far as those are separable), and other pleasures even more perverse. They want to watch Southerners in their designated holding area, pacing their oddly shaped cages, engaging in practices that others find alien and frightening – in short, a particular version of Orientalism. Some come to watch and wonder, to buy the goods on offer, to tell their friends back home that they survived a kind of Freedom Ride. Others want to see the oddities. They make Butch Anthony possible; they take friends from NYU and Columbia to see the Cross Garden and its promises of hellfire. In this way, enduring brunch stories are secured and passed forward for generations (or at least another round of mimosas).

The monastic experience is particularly far from most of us, North or South. We think of monks and nuns as hangovers from the distant past, their decision for a cloistered life as something ancient and constrained. Or else we valorize it, this idea of people who are so much better than us that they choose beer, or preserves, or prayer, or anything at all, really, except for the pleasures of the flesh that consume us. We forget that once monasteries existed essentially to serve two purposes. First, to get rid of inconvenient non-heir male children; and second, to create prayer buffer zones so that the rest of us might be able to have a resort or two before we went to hell. During the Crusades, wealthy families could have a kind of draft deferment by donating to cloisters in lieu of marching to Jerusalem, or Constantinople, or even the south of France.

And the nunneries? Arguably, a convent was your best bet if born a woman for much of the last 2,000 years. At least you’d probably not be raped; at least they’d probably teach you to read; at least you’d not die in childbirth. Convents have died off in recent memory. Literally. Fewer women want to marry Jesus, as they’ve just got the option to be not married at all (much less the option not to bear children). Meanwhile, nuns have become somewhat notorious for being politically active.

Here in Cullman (or, more precisely, Hanceville), the nuns are also known for political activism – just in their own way. While cloisters in California and Great Britain have chained themselves to fences arguing against nuclear weapons and climate change, Alabama’s nuns have taken a slightly different focus. They became globally notorious for the especially venomous opinions of one Mother Angelica, whose sisters assembled the Church’s most obvious and suspect tenets into a global media tapestry that resisted picking and re-weaving past her recent death. We did not visit the convent.

Instead we entered through the gift shop at St. Bernard Abbey. This is a Benedictine Order monastery, and if you’re confused about what that means, consider that the previous pope was keen enough on their core ideas to take their patron saint for his pope-name. Tickets for the grotto were $7 each. We were advised by the cashier to “enjoy our walk.”

Some background is in order here. Once upon a time, the French settled what became Louisiana. They built North America’s first cathedral in Mobile. They even had to import wives. Some immigrants came. They were Catholic. They had spiritual needs. In the 1890s, the Benedictines sent some folks to make a new monastery in what would become Cullman. The larger mission to convert the heathens and give succor, etc., was well under way.

And then something strange happened. In the early part of the new century, a brother joined the monastery from Europe by way of a few places elsewhere in the so-called “New World.” Brother Joseph Zoetti had been moved around, an immigrant with little English, to eventually take control of the electrical facilities at the Cullman monastery. What did he think of this strange place where the summers suffocated and incomprehensible insects took root in your small parts at odd hours? Did the other monks make fun of him for not speaking the language well? Was he already a touch afflicted with the need to see beyond liturgy, to the more demanding and tactile components of lived religion? Had he grappled with the limits of doctrine? Had he seen these limits as opportunities to be glazed and sparkled? Was he simply enamored of concrete and its ability to be shaped into anything God might command?

There is a movie about this in the gift shop. It cost $20. Because this was beyond our price point, we may never know. There are some clips from the film online. In one of them, beloved Alabama historian Wayne Flynt talks eloquently about how God does not see time; about how Joseph’s efforts transcended time and space in ways that followed a divine, rather than human, sense of the possible. We’d not seen this clip before we took the tour, but we’d seen a few others and had come to expect a set of eloquently crafted miniatures – faith embodied in the reflection of the human world, set meditatively among the trees and stones. We readied ourselves for the transcendent and stepped into the Alabama summer.

The Grotto


It is important to be honest about what you will see on the path. Do not expect, as we did, shockingly ornate craftsmanship. Or do, but don’t expect that it will conform to your particular ideas of “ornate” or “craftsmanship.” Do not expect to be transported to Rome, to Jerusalem, to Spain. Do expect to marvel. Do not be disappointed when this marveling takes you in unexpected directions. Remember, as you struggle, that to be human is to desire. Recall, if you can, the Buddha’s great insight that desire is suffering. We struggle against want, but in the end it pulls all but a few of us down, again and again, until we stay on the wheel forever or else push past it and therefore past the constraints of mortality. The ancient Zen stories make no sense. They are not meant to, at least not in the way that we conventionally understand meaning. But we are built to seek meaning, which makes encountering something like the Grotto especially hard.

An admission: We desired the Grotto in a particular way. Which is to say that we understood its meaning in a particular way. What is meaning if not the creation and reflection of desire? We entered with the subject position of art consumer; of tourists accustomed to navigating the irreducible distance between viewer and viewed. We wanted it, even if we didn’t admit as much to ourselves, to take our breath away. We wanted to be transported. We wanted to feel like Alabama was better than they say, better than we sometimes think in our low moments. We wanted the claims to be true, that there was this magnificent jewel in Northern Alabama, that believing required seeing.

The path leads you through a “self guided tour.” The path goes one way, although of course it is always possible to backtrack. Nobody does. There is a moral here if you look hard enough. It is lost on the bored children pretending to appreciate frayed and weather-worn models from another age. There is a brochure, which mostly repeats the content of the small plaques that accompany the exhibits. Mostly the plaques supercede the brochure. Mostly you wish to possess neither the plaque nor the brochure. Information can destroy beauty in an especially faithless manner foretold by a hundred erased Catholic mystic martyrs. The Grotto provides no exception to this rule.

But first. But first you begin at Bethlehem, a cage built around a conventional manger scene. You peer through the bars. You notice that the letters above have been decorated with colored glass. This is a taste of what is to come.

IMG_2516After the much-attended birth of Jesus, the exhibits begin in earnest. They are placed up and down a winding path, some set aside on their own, others clustered together. They are not arranged chronologically in terms of human time or time of construction (fitting, as these things have little to do with divine time). It turns out that the exhibits have been moved – that this is not their original location, that they may not have always been surrounded by manicured gardens and staffed by people who remove fallen pinecones and stray leaves.

The miniatures come in two kinds. The first kind aspires to representation, to verisimilitude. You may never see St. Peter’s or the Coliseum, but you can see them here – a kind of artifice that feels ancient enough to pre-date not just photography but the printing press. When you consider that the other people on the path may never themselves see these wonders in person, but may think they have via the magic of the Internet, you may feel a unique brand of sadness. You consider the plaster, the concrete, the fragile construction of the cheap-looking models, and they make you sad. Not because of any intrinsic inadequacies, but because of the failures of representation itself, the tragedy of desire and its failed collision with the human experience. You admire the water features. You pause to see if a frog is real or a statue.

To understand the Grotto, you’ve got to interrogate your idea of what it means to be “real.” Representation is the most baseline manifestation of the idea of the real, and there’s no question but that all of the miniatures represent something. Some have “real life” correspondents. Others seem to draw purely from Brother Zoetti’s head. There is the fictional Crucifixion Tower. There are the Hanging Gardens. Then there are the Biblical images – the Ark, for example, an especially poignant and lovable display in light of Kentucky’s new multi-million dollar boondoggle.

Yes, yes, but what are they like? How can we be 2600 words into this blog post and not know yet what the sculptures are like? Reader, you should know that they are not nearly as magnificent as you may have been led to believe. Full stop. There is no point in pulling punches on this matter. As you wander on the path, you get the feeling that Brother Joseph was the kind of person who scavenged broken shards of plates out of the trash; who hoarded bags of marbles; who begged pieces of tile from construction sites. How you react to this will define, in a very fundamental way, who you are.

Consider that the sculptures themselves are not exactly high art. Which is to say, more precisely, that they are mostly composed of concrete globs with various bits attached. Depending on the artist’s stated goal, some of these attachments represent the familiar (e.g., The Leaning Tower of Pisa). Others are more abstract (e.g. The Temple of the Fairies). While all tend to include some element of sparkle, there is a sense among the more imaginative works that the artist felt free to merge a set of sea shells, a few globs of cement and a set of marbles together for effect. Overall, many of the works contain less artistic innovation than grade school enthusiasm.

It hurts your heart to say it this way, but really, there is a sense where the rows of shells, with concrete, with embedded marbles feel more manic than inspired, and more sad than depressive, and in any case less impressive than you’d thought, so it’s best to move along. They are displayed individually, or else in groups (even though the grouping is suspect along lines of time and place, as Flynt points out). Sometimes they are crammed up on a hill, with manicured gardens between. Other times, you’re left to consider their meaning alone. There are no individual pieces that induce a “wow” reaction. This is important to know, if you decide to go. The propaganda materials for the site make it seem like you will be absolutely blown away. You will. Just not in the way you thought you’d be.

Art and religion have much in common. In the first place, they are relational. For beauty to exist, there must be something beautiful. Belief cannot be described without something in which faith is instilled. Our paths, all “self-guided,” diverge as we age. Some of us calcify and describe this as commitment. Some of us haven’t thought that much about it. Some of us reach wildly about as death feels more near, as beauty feels far away and faith ever further. Still others are called, evidently, to glue things to other things in an attempt to reconcile the dark distances between love, highest purpose and creed.

There is a way to tell the history of the church that is a story of struggle against the strange and unknowable. The core texts are declared and collected, the others shunned or called things like “apocryphae.” Persistent oddities are brought in and made dicta – God is three but also one; bread is body; wine is blood but also not wine at all but something considerably less heady. Pieces of saints – robes, bones, hands – are preserved for worship and wonder across the world. Our own stories aren’t so different. We push away what doesn’t fit into our theories of the world, or else we seek to contain and categorize the inconvenient and wild, the odd and disturbing. We organize ourselves against death, we imbue the objects around us with meanings that are often inscrutable to others. Whether we believe or not, we still feel doctrine’s push and pull. Slowly, it will bring pieces of us out to sea no matter how we twist and turn.

If you leave the Grotto trying to understand why Brother Zoetti made these objects, you are doing it wrong. If you leave without curiosity, or feeling like you’ve wasted $7, you are also doing it wrong. There is no right approach along the path; there are only shells, and glass shards, and broken plates, and marbles, and elaborate hillsides where the probable nestles next to the improbable.

Epilogue: The Gift Shop

Afterward, your body sweltering from the heat, your mind spinning from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of mysticism and the concrete (also the actual concrete), you have the opportunity to purchase many God-themed items. These include an improbably large variety of Catholic tchotchkes: crucifixes, anglo-Jesus portraits, spreadable monastic preserves, golf balls, childrens’ books, rosaries, license plate covers declaring that GOD is your CO-PILOT, and – oddly – sports cards. Which are “pay as you wish” to benefit mission trips. If this does not strike you as incongruous, having stared too long at “HANSEL AND GRETEL VISIT THE CASTLE OF THE FAIRIES,” you have no soul.


Notes from the Waste Stream #7: Giant Metal Hippo

This is the story of how I came to carry a 8.2 pound metal hippopotamus on board five flights from South Africa to Alabama. It is a story that begins, in a roundabout way, in North Africa, but I’ll get to that part last.


I learned to haggle in the winding passages of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. I had been told all my life that it was extremely rude to haggle. But the Turkish travel guide I read on the airplane was quite clear on this point: it would be rude not to haggle. So I did what I normally do in uncomfortable situations and entirely overthought it. I memorized haggling tips and picked at the partially comprehensible Turkish-language keyboard of the lonely shared hotel computer into the prime hours of jet lag.

Few places on earth can prepare you for Istanbul’s old city. The layers of history pile on each other in ways much more haphazard, strange and lovely than any textbook can explain. The Hagia Sophia, where the Ottomans (sometimes more pragmatist than the usual narrative allows) decided to keep the church and just cover the blasphemous frescoes. Rebranding, they might call it now. Where actual Vikings carved something like “Erik was here” into the floor while passing through. The wasp-waisted towers of the Blue Mosque, where enterprising vendors will try to sell you special socks to wear inside, even though any socks will do. Unless they have holes. Check for holes. If you go into the basement of the souvenir shop next door, you might discover an actual Roman cistern where rich-smelling water drips slowly down rows of dozens columns each wider than your embrace. If you are rich, you can stay at the Four Seasons, located in a renovated Turkish prison. If you are not rich, you can at least go drink at their bar and read the English language newspapers (how I’ll miss the International Herald Tribune) before retreating to your more modest lodgings.

Istanbul is the first place I ever really heard the call to prayer. You don’t so much hear it as become suffused by it, the symphony of muezzins calling the faithful over loudspeakers both tinny and rich bouncing off old and new buildings, into corridors and breakfast nooks. I was there once during Ramadan, when every kind of food cart lines the streets just waiting for fast to break and lines to form – a joyful end to the day, when twinkly lights are strung between trees and poles.

Then there’s the Grand Bazaar. It’s almost Orientalist by definition to write about this place: The exotic array of goods! The seen-it-all merchants! The foreign scents and foods! I prefer on the whole to think of it as a mall long predating Victor Gruen’s great and terrible idea without the baggage of urbanisms old and new. It is, fundamentally, just a place to shop. More to the point, it is a place for foreigners to shop. It is a place where the shopping is both exactly and totally beside the point. Visitors are not just shopping for goods – they are shopping for a very particular experience of shopping for goods. The Grand Bazaar may still occupy its original warren of tunnels and side streets, but it’s clearly a performance of a specific version of itself conceived by and for others.

In this respect, it is sadly like Doha’s Souq Waqif, which is “fake” in the sense used by the late Umberto Eco. Doha is accelerating at a pace where the hyperreal is only an event horizon. In a place like this, there’s no point in seeking authenticity. But they’d like to sell it to you anyway. The Souq Waqif, as various promotional materials are happy to tell you, is in fact a centuries-old site for trading. They are less likely to mention that the site was abandoned, then burned down, and then reconstructed to look authentic so that this former village might claim a soul, or at least a history, as its armies of indentured laborers busily erect all manner of temples to commerce and excess. As Eco writes, “The industry of the Absolute Fake gives a semblance of truth to the myth of immortality through the play of imitations and copies.” Check.

Souk Waquif

Souk Waqif

You can buy good saffron here, the Iranian kind not allowed in the United States, for reasonable rates. If you do your research, you can even bring this home through customs. Also there are a surprisingly large number of vintage radios in gorgeous bakelite cases, so miraculously preserved from the elements that it seems possible to tune into broadcasts from World War I. And of course the Souq feels real, whatever that means. It feels as real as the chocolate fountain at the Intercontinental Hotel’s sumptuous dessert buffet. Trying to pin down its realness is entirely beside the point and, besides, may distract you from small children sticking their hands into the cascading sticky goo.

At the Grand Bazaar, I dickered over, walked away from and ultimately purchased a bracelet ostensibly made of silver and amber. If you like old things, as I do (records, radios, paper newspapers), then you’ll appreciate my interest in amber. In retrospect, it is clear that the seller did too – and despite my best efforts, I surely overpaid. Still, it was fun to negotiate, and I like the bracelet (though its silver content was, at best, wildly overstated). On another visit I made the mistake of displaying too much interest in a piece of fabric I thought I’d wear as a skirt. It’s now an overpriced table runner for those biennial occasions when I might need to dress my Ikea tables up to impress someone else.

I mention my time in Turkey because by the time I met the hippo I fancied myself a bit of a haggler. I’d even negotiated over white gold in Dubai with an impatient man who swatted away my tourist Arabic until a Lebanese friend who wasn’t about to give me any false compliments congratulated me on my score. Then I met my match.


By the time I got to South Africa, I was well into my 30s. I considered myself very experienced in international travel. I was also supervising a group of high school students – something that for a time took me all over the world to enviable destinations where I would normally stay in the hotel at night failing to navigate the hotel’s useless Internet connection while hoping that the students didn’t roam the streets of Santiago, or Athens, or wherever, and get me sued.

Capetown is magnificent, but the trip had some hiccups. First, although the hotel we stayed at was called the Ritz, I am sure that it was not one of “those Ritzes” in the same way that the “Diplomat Inn” down the street from our house in one of Montgomery’s sketchiest neighborhoods is probably not where the actual diplomats stay. Second, it had never been explained that we would be given the opportunity to climb around on Table Mountain. This would have been fine, except that I ended up getting the privilege in a skirt. With the added weight of my personal computer, which I could not leave in the room because of a wave of thefts reported at the conference hotel. I would very much like to return to Capetown. I would not stay at this particular Ritz again.

Going up Table Mountain

Going up Table Mountain

When you take students to these unending debate competitions (ten days, if you can believe it, with two debates a day – you drink all the bad coffee just to stay conscious), there are precious few moments to enjoy the company of other adults and actually see the city. I treasure the afternoon I got to explore the Parthenon by myself, taking pictures of anarchist graffiti in the streets below and getting to know the many feral cats of Athens. In Capetown, an old friend and I seized the chance to escape for a few hours to a local market. The people at home need souvenirs, and I always want to buy one thing for myself to remember each adventure.

The market was set up in a square, densely layered rows of stalls selling all manner of crafts – tiny paintings, florid textiles, preposterous wooden utensils, every possible thing that could be made from metal bottlecaps. We turned a corner and I saw the hippo in a collection of animals and objects made of scrap metal. I’ll admit that I fell just a little in love. My first misstep.

Of course there is a backstory. Like many morbid children, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. Some of my most formative early memories include seeing artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb at the National Gallery in the 1970s and then discovering a beautiful copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in my grandfather’s library. When we were children, our parents entertained us with the story of William, the Met’s famous hippo. I was primed to like the hippo.

IMG_2210 copy

I loved his rusty and pointed exterior, his wide eyes, his comic nose, his heft, his rounded belly. I joked to my friend that he was so heavy I could probably use him as a deadly weapon. I picked him up. I was, in short, a mark. But I would never buy such a thing. I had a ton of luggage and an excruciating trip home. Still, just curious, I asked the sculptor for the price. Strike two.

To this day, I can’t remember the price he quoted me. And it gets fiddly in other countries, because no matter how good you are at doing exchange rate math in your head, in these moments the stuff begins to seem a bit like monopoly money (I still have an ATM receipt somewhere from the time I withdrew 10,000,000 in Turkish lira). I do remember that, to be polite, I offered him exactly half of the price. Which I thought would end the deal, because he would go higher and give me a chance to walk away. It did not. The students made fun of me.


I wrapped this unwieldy thing in a sweatshirt and ran it through every metal detector and bomb swabbing apparatus from Capetown to Atlanta, via Johannesburg, Frankfurt and Heathrow. At every stop it was pulled aside for inspection, muttered over in cadences which I did not always understand but seemed to sum up to: “Can you believe this giant metal hippo?” He now sits by my fireplace. I named him Rand, after his birth currency and to remind me that money in other countries is actually real.


I think I know why my parents forbade me from haggling. It has to do with a giant and ornate birdcage made of metal and wood that was a fixture in my many childhood homes. This is a birdcage that my mother populated with a stern-looking stuffed black vulture. She would often produce it at parties or use it as a prop to burst in and scare groups of children during sleepovers. Anyone who knew my mother will remark, unprovoked, on her unusual sense of humor. She once let a gaggle of pre-teens watch Psycho after midnight, allegedly unsupervised, bursting in at the crucial moment with a knife. I lost a lot of friends that evening.

She was a military wife. This included any number of activities: complicated dinner parties, herding children back and forth between continents to visit family, worrying about a deployed spouse, negotiating the commissary system. It also meant that sometimes she would go with other military wives on vacations organized to both enrich their lives and stop them from going quite mad. When we lived in England, she went to the Soviet Union and came back singing the praises of the Winter Palace while complaining about how difficult it was to acquire Coca-Cola there. I still have a stash of kopecks from this visit.

When we lived in Spain, she went with other wives to Morocco – a short hop across the Strait of Gibraltar. I know this because one night when I was old enough to split a bottle of wine with her I finally asked about the birdcage. Evidently she, too, had been raised not to haggle. One key difference: she had not done her homework on the matter. One key similarity: the homework did not, in the end, make much of a difference. Evidently she admired the birdcage in the market, picked it up, showed it to friends. Until her death she claimed that she did not make an offer. She did, as she pointed out, cling to every penny in those days (and long after).

The first part of the transaction is lost to time. The second is a matter of record. She and her friends turned and walked away. The proprietor, enraged at what he perceived as a broken deal, chased them through the market with the birdcage as they fled. She was in her early thirties at the time, with two young children at home, inconceivably far from the small town of her birth with no grasp of the local language or custom. I imagine her fear at that moment, the sharp thrill of being scared and lost in another country, the worry of coming home with something so extravagant. In the end, she paid the man. As I did, without the chase.

The birdcage is lost now, a bit of debris stripped of pedigree and set loose into the broader waste stream that absorbs death and the stories it splinters. The bird is also gone – a story for another day, attached to another and similarly painful loss. I can’t say I’ve learned my lesson.


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Notes From the Waste Stream #6: Masterpieces of Eloquence Vol. 1-25

When people walk into our house for the first time, they almost always ask the same question: “Have you read all of these books?” Sometimes, if I’m feeling brave, I might say “most of them.” Which is not really true. We’ve been married for more than six years now, and even though we own a house and a car together, have merged bank accounts and basically all other parts of our lives, we have never merged our book collections. This is probably the only part of our marriage where there are profound and possibly irreconcilable differences.

The shelving of books is a difficult matter. I prefer my fiction alphabetized by author. He prefers it arranged by subject sometimes, other times genre or era – an impenetrable system that annoys me to no end when looking for something on his shelves. Both of our nonfiction collections defy the alphabet but don’t nearly approach something as orderly as a Dewey classification system. So I’ve got my books in one room and he’s got his own room. Because we’ve got as many books between us as a small town public library, there’s the inevitable overflow into other rooms, including a designated “reshelving area.”

Books are beautiful. Not only individual texts, the way all bindings glide differently across your fingers or fit into your hands. A wall full of books is a cacophony of colors, sizes and fonts. To my eye, it is more magical than even the most expensive or thought-provoking art. Taken separately, even the most boring books can be endlessly provocative if seen in the right light. Collectively, their possibilities can blur your consciousness if you let them.

The waste stream isn’t particularly kind to books. Some get called antiques and marked up, often for no comprehensible reason. Others are tattered from being passed on and on through avid hands until they can be had for a nickel in bins marked by author or genre. Some are simply sold by weight, or by the yard for decorative projects destined to adorn the shelves of non-readers.

Others are picked up and curated by folks who run an increasingly rare species: the used bookstore. Blame Amazon or Ebay for this decline; blame our depressingly collective low literacy, or television, or whatever favorite scapegoat you have for what seems to be a widespread lack of interest in old things (strike one) that are written on paper (strike two) and take time to consume (strike three).

I go to used bookstores like some people go to museums. There are destination bookshops, like the remarkable King Books in Detroit – a warehouse the size of a city block filled with more stories than a thousand Scheherazades. Milwaukee’s airport houses Renaissance Books (whose downtown location is closed, as far as we know), shelving new alongside rare and used books of an incredible variety. Then there are bookshop districts. My favorite may be the cluster in the French Quarter – some specialize in regional ephemera, others in fiction, others in piles that seem to defy gravity. Each offers treasures commensurate with time spent. It’s an old bargain, but I’ll take it every time, usually ending up with more books than I can reasonably carry or check on to an airplane. This complicates the book storage situation.

A few times a year, I’ll go through the stacks and do a strategic cull. I’m trying to stay within the available capacity, so as new books come in (which they do by the bagful sometimes), I try to find new homes for books I’m done with. Usually, I’ll keep a book if a) I’ll read it again; b) I’d lend it to someone; c) I probably will read it someday; or d) I’d use it as a reference.

But there are always some books that you can’t get rid of, even if they don’t fit into your utilitarian calculus. It’s hard to imagine getting rid of my dead mother’s high school yearbooks. I wonder if I will ever stop missing her enough to dismiss her classmates’ exhortations and hard-to-decipher notes regarding her character and conduct in classes and activities that I struggle to imagine. The same applies to my father’s decades-overdue library books about the Soviet Union. And my calculus textbooks. And the collected works of John Steinbeck. And the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence, occupying almost an entire shelf in our hallway built-in.

Over the Transom

This set came from a magical bookstore in tiny Fairhope, Alabama. It was called Over the Transom. You had to walk through a record store to reach it. The record store is still there, run by Dr. Music. Though I’ve never known whether Dr. Music is a real doctor, one of his specialties is surgical: he grafts speakers into old suitcases. You know the store is open if there’s music playing on the sidewalk from one of these contraptions. There’s now a comic shop behind Dr. Music, where the owner’s stock is solidly eclectic but almost weirdly censored: no issues with sex or witchery in the titles. Evidently because it’s a tourist shop, the proprietor’s trying to keep his shelves G-rated. Nevertheless, he’s got a wicked good collection of old issues of Doctor Strange.

America’s got a collection of places like Fairhope (and at least one wonderful novel about an imaginary community somewhat like it) – tiny, experimental, aspirational utopian communities founded on principles that promised to solve, once and for all, the root causes of the problems of the old society. Like America, we all eventually become our parents.

In childhood, we learn the lay of the land. As we do, two paths become clear. We can find a way to thrive in the existing stream of goods, services, values and priorities. Sometimes this works. Or we can try to cut our own path away from or against the prevailing currents, upending and contesting commonly held beliefs as we go. This works less often.

Fairhope began with a dream that puts most people to sleep: tax reform. More specifically, the colony’s founders migrated all the way from Des Moines to relatively remote South Alabama because they were inspired by the ideas of Henry George, an American journalist and sort-of economist.

As best I can determine from touring the Fairhope municipal museum and consuming the things the Internet has to say about Henry George, I can explain Georgism this way: land has intrinsic value to a community, but people should own the value of the way that they improve land (buildings, businesses, etc.). This translates, in practice, to a “Single Tax” colony like Fairhope, where the land is understood to be a common good and is taxed accordingly. Sound socialist? It might surprise you to know that the land value tax is a concept endorsed by free-market types dating back to Adam Smith. George’s main idea was that because economic activity and investment created the value of land, it made the most economic sense (read: efficiency) to tax land value itself, rather than the factors creating that value. As a bonus (and in theory), land value taxes are progressive; they cannot be passed on to tenants, workers, or people who otherwise use the land. In theory, this means that a single tax structure should promote growth by removing disincentives to improving land. The owners pay the tax while the innovators reap the rewards.

Sounds good? Enough to move from Iowa to Mobile? In 1894, 28 people were convinced enough to relocate. Even today, the Fairhope Single-Tax Corporation is still a thing, covering more than 4,000 acres in and around the current city of Fairhope. Which is, let me say, a very charming place to spend a day.

Fairhope is the kind of place you feel compelled to write home about (or Facebook about, or whatever passes for this kind of notification these days). Downtown is mostly composed of a shopping district outlined by about six by six streets, densely layered with boutiques, galleries and restaurants. You can happily kill a day wandering from store to store while considering all of the things that you might like to buy and/or eat. A few key factors will affect your decision-making:

  • Are you a person who likes glittery or exceedingly patterned things? If so, Fairhope’s retail offerings are definitely for you. You will find items from the affordable to the aspirational in every clothing store, often on curbside sale racks. Also there is plenty of oversized novelty jewelry, which will look great matched with your new white capri pants, turquoise blouse and sparkly sandals.
  • Are you walking a dog or other companion animal? Good news! Most stores will allow your dog indoors, and almost all have water bowls outside. Many restaurants will allow you to dine on the patio, where sometimes you can listen to singer-songwriter music about meaningful places, sad relationships and big ideas.
  • If you have a beach house sadly lacking in beach house-related decor, the shops of Fairhope have you covered. You can find many signs, tchotchkes, and other signifiers designed to tell people that you live at the beach. This is in case they didn’t know by, for example, looking out of the window toward the actual beach.

There are bookstores, but none of them are as good as Over The Transom was. Page and Palette is good, but in an obvious way. They’ve got most of the books you already knew you wanted to read. They key to Over The Transom was that they had the books that you didn’t know you wanted to read – Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.” Proprietor Martin Lanaux had a quiet but always present approach to his shop. You’d come in, be left alone for a while, and then he’d manifest suddenly, guiding you to the book you didn’t know you wanted but now could not leave without. This is a special gift, the matching of reader to book. While there, I watched him join the curious to a mystery series; the gardener to an environmental history; a tactile child to science primers.

Me, I was a harder catch. I resisted recommendations. I’d read it already, or I wasn’t interested, or I was skeptical of the genre. We played a cat and mouse game for more than two hours that day. I went through boxes of books to be priced later, allegedly from Rick Bragg’s moldering basement. I considered some overpriced psychology books. I set aside a handful of fiction. Finally, he caught me mulling over a set called Masterpieces of Eloquence. I’d studied philosophy and rhetoric, so I was interested in what was contained. I think he smelled a sale, even though they were marked at $500 for the set – much, much, much more than I was interested in paying.

IMG_1765He asked: “Why are you looking at these?” I explained that I taught debate, that I’d studied rhetoric. I added, for some reason, that in the next two weeks I would take the US national high school debate team to South Africa to debate for the world championship.

He asked: “Would you use these?” I said that I wasn’t teaching classes right now, but that I was sure that if I taught a class on rhetoric again, I’d use them.

He asked: “Can I sell them to you for $50?” I paused.

This would be an entire shelf of scarce shelf space. Never mind the richness of subject. Volume one has orations from Homer to Demosthenes. Volume 23 contains oration from Eliot to Bourinot. This ranged from vague undergraduate philosophy knowledge in volume one, to just about no idea by volume 25. I imagined myself reading all of these – at best a hazy future. And the space they’d take up! But then I thought of all of the work that Mayo Hazeltine, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Mason and others that I’d never heard of had put into this collection. That gave me pause. I turned to Martin.

He sized me up. “You’ll use them, right?” Yes, I said, or at least I nodded. I wanted the books but I had no idea how they might come home or where they might go.

He offered to sell me the books if I promised to use them. I agreed, and loaded them into my car. Weeks later, I sent him a postcard from Capetown but never heard from him again. The next time I went to Fairhope, Martin’s store was occupied by thin volumes featuring capes and costumes.

Masterpieces of Eloquence

These days, the 25 volumes of Masterpieces of Eloquence occupy most of a hallway shelf in our Montgomery home. I do not open them often. I wish I was more child-like about their presence, that I thought of them more in the way that my younger self encountered the encyclopedias, great book collections, and other sets sold by volume that occupied my grandparents’ shelves. But I’m older now, and more resistant to wonder. Age imputes the worst kind of immunity. I find myself prone to pick up books that already interest me. That leaves the volumes of MoE, sadly, out of the regular rotation. For this post, I picked volume 23 off of the shelf and dusted it off a bit. I opened it to a random page and found a quote that seemed, eerily, to speak to Martin – or at least my work:

As one goes in life, especially in modern life, a few conclusions are hammered into us by the hard logic of facts. Among those conclusions I think I may, without much fear of contradiction, enumerate such practical, common-sense, and common-place precepts as that superficiality is dangerous, as well as contemptible, in that it is apt to invite defeat; or again, that what is worth doing at all is worth doing well; or third, that when one is given work to do, it is well to prepare one’s self for that specific work, and not to occupy one’s time in acquiring information, no matter how innocent or elegant, or genuinely useful, which has no probable bearing on that work; or, finally- and this I regard as the greatest of all practical precepts – that every man should in life master some one thing, be it great or be it small, so that that thereon he may be the highest living authority: that one thing he should know thoroughly.”

Gendered pronouns are kept as in the original, as I’m pretty sure Charles Francis Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams) meant to be talking about cis men upon the occasion of his address to Harvard in 1883, titled “The Study of Greek as a College Fetich.” The text notes that this speech “attracted wide attention, the speaker contending that the knowledge of Greek should not be required for attention to Harvard.”

Evidently, this speech caused Harvard to make Greek optional. Which is entirely in the keeping of Over the Transom’s lost ethos. The books you take home may or may not be “canonical,” whatever that means. You choose them, but that doesn’t mean that you occupy the entirely heroic free-choice subject position. The good bookseller knows that their role goes beyond mere curation. It’s about putting books in the homes where they go – where people might open them up and give them a shot on their own terms. In a bookstore where there were at any given time at least three copies of Dale Carnegie’s masterwork, Martin knew better how to influence people. He also seemed to embody Adams’ message, that superficiality invites defeat.

And this is how I ended up with a shelf’s worth of the Masterpieces of Eloquence. A master book seller sized me up as I stared askance at Joyce Carol Oates and saw that I was wanting. He watched as I touched the collected works with wonder, imagining at the treasures within. He knew that it might take some time, but that one day I would open them and maybe even share them with the outside world, and he took a gamble on finding them a new home.

We’re living in a world of surplus stuff – does this need any explanation or elaboration? It has not been too long since any issue of Tom Swift or Nancy Drew was valued beyond price and read under the covers. Just last week I ran the cashbox at a yard sale where these same books were sold by the yard. But just as you fix your mind on civilization’s inevitable catastrophe, it’s worth bearing in mind Mark Twain’s comments from Volume 23:

You make up your mind that the earthquake is due; you stand from under and take hold of something to steady yourself, and, the first thing you know, you get struck by lightning.

Book love begins as a child, when words and their vast accumulation seems like a repository of absolute magic. You work your whole life to master their incantations, to identify and mimic the artists you admire so that your powers might grow stronger. But then, at some point, you begin to doubt yourself. The ocean is so vast and your boat is so small. You brace for disaster, cowering behind hastily constructed barriers of safe and reliable words. Then, inevitably, there is lightning. Which we used to call eloquence.

You Stink

Longtime Lost in Montgomery readers will know how closely we’ve followed Lebanese domestic politics over the years, so it’ll come as no surprise that we’ve been fascinated by the unfolding protests over trash in Beirut. That’s right. It seems that the failing government there has neglected to pick up solid waste for a month, leaving piles of smelly waste all over the city in summer. Locals have mounted a protest campaign cleverly titled “You Stink!”

Montgomery has a lot in common with Beirut, but there’s a key difference here. The Lebanese get to see where their trash goes. We don’t.

A little history for those new to the saga (a longer version of the tale is in our Recycling FAQ):

Montgomery used to have curbside recycling. But very few people participated and it was very expensive. Mayor Strange cut the program. There was talk of a magic fairy technology that would solve our waste problem. A very expensive feasibility study showed that this plasma fantasy was not feasible. Then we were told that Montgomery was going to be “first in the nation” with a new kind of mixed-waste disposal plant that would take recyclables out of our trash and sell them. This plant would be operated by totally-not-a-James-Bond-supervillain “Infinitus Energy.” Once the (very expensive) factory was operational, we were told to leave our diapers, dead animals and pet waste on the curb (instead of in our trash cans) lest they jam up the cutting-edge plant. Nobody in their right minds did this. Time passed.

Some people from Zero Waste Houston contacted us. They wanted to know more about Montgomery’s waste disposal system. This was because they were fighting against the building of a similar system in their town. We learned a new vocabulary word: Dirty MRF. It sounds like a sex thing, but it’s actually short for “dirty materials recovery facility,” which also (if you say it in the right tone of voice) also sounds like a sex thing.

We read all about these Dirty MRFs and were shocked by how much we simply never knew about Montgomery’s sparkling new plant. We love recycling as an idea, but we were disappointed in Grandma Advertiser. A little bit of investigation would have revealed that major recycling industry groups actually oppose facilities like ours because they need usable diverted waste to make money, and dirty MRFs don’t create usable diverted waste.

It turns out that our professed “first in the nation” designation wasn’t even close to true. Facilities very similar to ours had been failing to meet recycling targets and losing money for years. One in Chicago failed to meet even a 10% recycling target. Another in California claims 50% diversion, but half of that is what they spread on top of the landfill to cover up what’s underneath. One in Illinois went bankrupt. One in Ohio doesn’t even meet a 20% target. You can read all about these plants and more in this report.

And yet, to be clear, we (the City of Montgomery) were sold a plant that promised 60% diversion. As fans of The Simpsons, we are compelled to imagine that the exchange went a little something like this (this clip will help you sing it in key):

Setting: Montgomery City Hall. A well-dressed representative of Infinitus Energy is speaking to city leaders.

Infinitus Energy: “You know, a town with money is a little like a mule with a spinning wheel. Nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it. Name’s Energy. Infinitus Energy. And we come before you today with an idea. Probably the greatest idea … never mind. It’s more of a Wetumpka idea.”

Mayor Strange: “Now wait just a minute! We’re twice as smart as the people of Wetumpka. Just tell us your idea and we’ll bankroll it.”

Infinitus Energy (pulling a sheet off of a scale model of a tiny recycling plant made from a shoebox): “We give you … The Montgomery IREP Plant! We’ve sold dirty MRFs to Rockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum it put them on the map!”

Infinitus Energy (breaking into song): “Well, sir, there’s nothing on Earth
Like a genuine, bona fide
Electrified, trash-eatin’ dirty MRF”

Mayor Strange: “I hear those things lose lots of money.”
Infinitus Energy: “It turns your waste to milk and honey.”
Mayor Strange: “Is there a chance the trash could spill?”
Infinitus Energy: “Not on your life, my mayoral shill!”

Citizens: “What about us brain-dead slobs?”
Infinitus Energy: “You’ll be given cushy jobs.”
Local Clergy: “Were you sent here by the Devil?”
Infinitus Energy: “No, good sir, we’re on the level.”

Mayor Strange: “The ring came off my pudding can.”
Infinitus Energy: “We’ll make it diamonds, my good man.”
Mayor Strange: “I swear it’s Montgomery’s only choice. Throw up your hands and raise your voice!”

Lone Citizen: “But the west side’s still all cracked and broken”
Mayor Strange: “Too late now – the mob has spoken.”

All together: “Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF, Dirty MRF!”

Evidently the folks in Houston and elsewhere fighting these plants had been trying and failing to get a copy of Infinitus’ contract with the city. So we went down to the city and got our own copy. Which we uploaded – you can read it here (Warning: it is very long and super boring). Based on this, the Houston folks produced a fact sheet about the Montgomery facility to use in their fight. That’s a PDF, and you can read it here. Here’s something shocking about the contract. Buried deep within is the possibility of, essentially, an incinerator. Even though we were told there would be no incinerator.

Then we were tipped off to a brewing controversy in Moncks Corner, South Carolina. Seems that our little plant is being used to sell other monorails dirty MRFs. And some people there have been doing their homework. Reading their website, we’ve learned a number of shocking facts about our own facility – facts that we haven’t seen in any Alabama media outlet. The chart below is from the folks in Moncks Corner – you can see it as well as the original documents on their website (click to make the image larger):

Those numbers are astonishing. That’s a $12 million “miss” on their overall financials and a $6.5 million shortfall just this year. They seem to have actually recycled a pathetically small amount of material – less than 10% diversion, far short of the 85% they are claiming elsewhere. And the company hasn’t even made their first of 25 bond payments yet. Will they go bankrupt and stick the city with a giant pile of trash and hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned money?

Why is nobody talking about this?

We hear rumors. We hear that the facility won’t let outside reviewers in. We hear that folks at ADEM won’t go on the record with their criticisms of the facility. We’ve certainly never been in there to look around. All we know is that people used to come and take the recycling from our curbs, and now we just throw everything away in one trash can and trust that our invisible trash overlords are turning garbage into money.

And all the while, a pack of slick hucksters go around the country showcasing the plant they suckered us into buying.

The Junebugs

I am standing at the large kitchen window overlooking our yard. It is almost 10 at night. While we look forward to The Daily Show and some evening rest, a substantial Alabama thunderstorm brews. The light from the repurposed gaslamp hanging from the ceiling gradually mutes until it reaches the wide outside sill where three junebugs struggle on their backs.

Junebugs are not the smartest insects. They fire their pale brown bodies like buckshot into evening wear from here to the nation’s capitol, careening off with a feint to race back into the night. If you’re out in a nice dress with a cool cocktail in hand, a junebug is a horror to be squeaked at. Here in the safety of my kitchen, outside of buzzing range, they are irreducibly sad. Their legs wave from pale undersides with feeble purpose. Is it a signal or the mute instinct of immanence?

I drink the remains of a cocktail. Thunder threatens, but nobody takes June seriously around here. The three junebugs fluster. I don’t claim to be a Buddhist, but at this moment, I think that I am just terrible. Why do I let these creatures suffer? Why do I pay someone to spray this window sill, and others like it, so that these tiny and miraculous bugs will shiver slowly into their deaths?

Maybe you are not someone who thinks on these matters too much. Perhaps you exterminate ants or spiders with abandon. As someone who bears an irrational fear of cockroaches, I can relate.

But they mean no harm. They strive only to feed, mate, and fly blindly about. Who of us doesn’t know a more evolved person who fits that description? An hour later, I return to the kitchen to refill my water before bed. A lone survivor twitches once, twice. It is trying to generate momentum for a reversal before the poison kicks in. I know this creature will be dead before I see it again. If it were in the house, I’d freak out for someone to evacuate it. Here on the sill, outside my reach, I find myself wishing someone would save it. Its robust junebug body has much to offer. Surely it could find a mate to carry on its genes.

On the second day I wake up remembering that bugs brought me to Alabama the first time. My New Mexico high school had qualified for the National Science Olympiad at Auburn. I was, improbably, the entomology specialist. Someone who is content to leave dead cockroaches under glass jars for days rather than pick them up herself (and this before reading Infinite Jest) seems like an unlikely fit. Two factors worked in my favor.

First: the insects were dead. There was no wiggling or flapping, which was important not just because I am skittish, but because insects are really incredible to look at when there is no risk that they will blindly land in your hair or crawl on your arm. You notice their colors, their interlocking parts, their alien eyes. Second: the task was merely organizational. You couldn’t bring a guidebook, but you could make one. I did not plan to memorize elaborate taxonomies, but I was happy to design an illustrated decision tree for bug identification in a spiral-bound notebook. I picked up and examined a lot of bugs. The last time I was this interested in insects, I’d run a short-lived childhood “roly poly” farm after discovering the armadillo-style creatures were attracted to geranium leaves. This turned out to be toxic, perhaps poisoning me forever for a love of insects. In any case, we didn’t win the Science Olympiad.

Through the next day the last junebug (Phyllophaga) lies there. It bakes in the sun. I think about how slight it seems. How should I read its final pose? Is it supplication or resistance? Where are its colleagues? Why hasn’t an enterprising bird – maybe one of our yard’s flock of cardinals – picked it up by now? Dusk arrives. Dinner is cooked and eaten. I do the dishes in the quiet of the laundry’s hum. And then it moves. The segmented legs pedaling up and down in the front, side to side weakly in the back. How can it be alive after all this time? What ancient instinct woke it at dusk to struggle once again?

I decide that I want it to live. More precisely, I decide that I can’t watch it die. I walk outside into the sweltering heat. I convey it to a shady part under our climbing roses. I watch, hoping it will right itself. I nudge a bit with the corner of the folder that once contained “AT&T BILL.” I notice that its head is actually a splendid, rich red sienna, a contrast to its duller body. I notice the delicacy of its legs, the way each surprisingly hairy part precisely moves in time with its partners. Its eyes are shielded, while its antennae slowly feel out the new landscape.

By the time we return from a baking hot dog walk, it’s gone. Did it walk off? Did one of the cardinals snap it up? Do I care because I am secretly obsessed with my own mortality?

Three days later there are three more junebugs on the sill, struggling against the coming storm.

Kymulga Cave (DeSoto Caverns)

We knew that there would be a friendly conquistador mascot.

His paralyzed rictus leered at us from billboards scattered across the state. His grin beneath his conquistador comb morion said “genocide” to us but nonetheless offered family fun to potential tourists around Alabama.

P1060421We were pretty sure we’d be troubled by some parts of the two-day Native Heritage Festival. The billboard at the gas station by our house promised a special event at DeSoto Caverns — a Native American Festival of some sort. We were familiar with the blurred lines between “offensive” and “fascinating” that accompany so many ostensibly educational opportunities here.

We also knew that Alabama had some beautiful caves. Some are featured on the “Caves of Alabama” episode of the indispensable show “Discovering Alabama” (which can be seen in iTunes here). Some are, like DeSoto Caverns, privately owned, like the sadly-recently-closed Sequoyah Caverns.

So, yeah, we had some expectations.

Then, upon arrival at the cave outside of Childersberg, we encountered the following words: “laser light show is Biblically themed.” Six simple words printed on a laminated card next to the gift shop cash register. Six words that changed the game.


First: laser show. You drive an hour and a half to see a cave mentioned on billboards all over the state. Marvels of nature are a particular category of thing, linking us to the scores of humans that across the eons have gawked at some waterfall or geyser or hole in the ground. But there’s going to be a laser show? Will the enormous men on mobility scooters (themselves marvels of nature) clad in bald eagle print shirts survive a laser show? Will the multiple American flags affixed to said mobility scooters?

Second: Bible-themed? Why? What did this have to do with one of Alabama’s most famous caves? Our stomachs slid as we forked over almost $25 apiece to see the cave. We also received ten “credits” to be used for visiting the park’s other attractions, which were mostly assembled out of some country fair’s leftover bin — as if the majesty of God’s Cave™ were alone insufficient to justify dragging the kids away from their video games.

We decided to pass on the “pedal-powered go-karts” and mini golf. We immediately got in line for the 2:30 cave tour. This was less a line than a hundred sweaty people bumping into each other due to their inability to simultaneously text and guzzle giant cups of sugar water. Seen from above, it might have been a fractal. Seen from human-level, it was a showcase of all the worst tee-shirts imaginable. Amid the usual “Bama gear,” there was a Deadpool-themed basketball jersey and a tank top that contained an image of every single AC/DC album.

Among us there wandered a few upbeat high school students wearing official green DeSoto Caverns “staff” shirts. They used a pen to mark off physical tickets brandished by random passers-by. This seemed ineffectual. Say what you will about the modern American theme park, but most are fairly efficient at dealing with the whole “buy the ticket, take the ride” part of the experience. DeSoto Caverns was free-forming it, perhaps awash in unusually large crowds. It was the day of the Native American Festival, after all, whose drumming we heard as we waited in line for the cave tour.

As the previous tour filed out, the caving rules were explained loudly by our bored teen guides. No smoking, no eating, no touching the rocks (because the “olls” (rhymes with “tolls”) in our hands would “stop the moss from growing.”)

We’ve seen some caves before. Last year we made reservations at Carlsbad Caverns. The National Parks Service online registration system offered several choices of tours organized by length and strenuousness. We booked a tour for a specific time, ensuring that no tour would be over-crowded. We could pay online with a secure service. Despite the many claims we hear in Alabama about the comparatively crisp efficiency of private industry relative to its idiot government cousin, the privately-owned Desoto Caverns website offers none of these things. You just buy a ticket at the gift shop, along with a slab or three of award-winning fudge, maneuver your stroller into battle mode and ignore everyone else around you. You can go on any tour you want, as long as it’s the same one as everyone else. Depending on the day and time, some may be intimate while others are massive stampedes.

While waiting to enter DeSoto Caverns, you might kill time by staring at the mural leading into the cave entrance. It depicts friendly Conquistadors (the titular DeSoto) and an accommodating Native American pointing into the cave. The corrugated tunnel leading into the cave may remind you of the mailed-in parts of locally run haunted houses. It leads onto a ramp that is not as slippery as advertised. The descent is pretty brief. The cave is implausibly tall and almost vaulted in the matter of European cathedrals. At this moment, however, your job is not to wonder. It is to find a seat in the 16+ rows of cold metal bleachers. The movie is about to start.

A giant television tells us that nobody really knows how Earth’s caves were created. It says that one popular theory is that they were caused by a giant flood. Our ears prick up. Perhaps not only the laser show is bible themed? The video on the cave’s history features a syrupy accented actor playing Hernando De Soto. If the movie is correct, the famed Spanish explorer sounded a lot like the guy from the Dos Equis commercials.

The film talks vaguely about the people living here before De Soto rolled in with his megalomaniac bloodlust. The history of DeSoto Caverns is really told mostly from a kind of corporate promotion perspective, including a friendly introduction to the current CEO and a look at the prior owners’ strategy to exploit the cave’s resources in various way. The film does not say how old the cave is. We find this odd, until we remember that we’re still waiting on the Bible Themed Laser Show.

Then they turn the lights off. We had been hoping for a few minutes of primal pitch darkness. The idea of not being able to see, of the uniquely immersive experience of cave dark, appealed to us. Complete darkness is biological and irreducible. Unfortunately, appreciation of inky silence is evidently too unnerving for the modern teen tour guide’s psyche. Within seconds of extinguishing the light, the jokes broadcast over the PA system began: “Wave your hand in front of your face. Touch your nose. Now, touch your neighbor’s nose without picking it.” This was evidently needed for the crowd to relieve the tension generated by the agonizing sensation of temporary absence of visual stimulation.

Relieved of the need (or capacity) for introspection, we awaited the next spectacle. First we were treated to the opening lines of the Old Testament. The lights emitted from behind the inflatable screen that had just shown us the information-free film, from a formation that seemed to be slightly modified to resemble popular illustrations of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead of ghosts, streams of colored water were sprayed at suitably momentous intervals while lasers did their thing against the back of the wall through lazy bursts of smoke. Then, ooh, ahh, the blue laser MUST be God traveling over the firmament, and everyone gets the point that we are totally talking about the Wonder of Creation here.

But then it goes on. And on. Genesis as sledgehammer. All of the days of creation, each enumerated and detailed. A voice intones that each day had a morning and a night. Some people applaud when it’s revealed at the end that God rested on the last day.

Seeing this low-rent razzle dazzle in explicitly Biblical framing helped us to understand more about why the flag scooter people parked outside the gift shop’s bathrooms (“Chiefs” and “Maidens”) had been ranting so vociferously about the need for greater militancy in the ongoing struggle of the War on Christianity.

We are brow-beaten. The lasers die off and we stand up, confused, lurching into sub-groups loosely defined by the numbers of un-numbered bench rows. Still reeling, we meet our guide, Caitlin.

“This is our wishing well. Also known as the Confederate Well.” We look at each other to see if she just said that last part. If we’ve already gone full monotheistic cave history, we might as well hitch our carts to some kind of polemic about the War of Northern Aggression.

People dutifully pitch change through the roped-off steel grate into the beautifully clear illuminated water below. We are led into a spectacular part of the cave full of low overhangs that weave toward a surprisingly vibrant waterfall and the roped-off back part of the cave.



Caitlin tells us that there once maybe was a bootlegging tunnel that led all the way to Talladega (12 miles away), and that there are lower caves that “only the professionals” go into. We will never be introduced to the vocabulary word “spelunkers” or any other actual parts of cave exploration on our visit. Seriously, you can (and will) do the entire cave tour without knowing that there are people in this world that engage in recreational cave exploration, much less study them in a variety of academic contexts. Interestingly, the site’s online educational materials designed to lure students there on field trips are quite detailed on the scientific foundations of the cave’s formations and nowhere mention young earth creationism.

Our next stop on the tour contains some bootlegging equipment. Evidently, Caitlin tells us, “they” think that the cave functioned as a distillery and night club during prohibition (first the “Cavern Tavern”, and after a series of horrific underground barroom brawls, “The Bloody Bucket.”) Caitlin’s shoulder shrugging, “nobody knows” ethos seems at odds with her claim that actual people have showed up at DeSoto Caverns and told stories about how it used to be an illegal club. For Caitlin, the myths about the cave are just about as accurate (and vague) as the established facts.

We proceed a few paces to the left. Here we see a rock with “WRIGHT 1715” scratched into it. It looks as if there are human remains sitting here. Caitlin tells us a story about an 18th century trader who wandered into the cave seeking shelter only to be killed by the locals on account of it being a sacred burial site. She notes that these are “fake bones” next to the rock.

Indian burial ground. The game changes again. Stephen raises his hand to seek clarification. “I’m sorry, did you say that this is an Indian burial ground?” Caitlin seems nervous. She is worried about going off script. We will have to sit through an overly-detailed explanation of Confederate gunpowder manufacture in the caves before we can hear more about what seems to have been the oldest and most important use of the cave. All of a sudden the whole rest of the tour takes on a horrible and obscene cast. We’ve been marched down a ramp, subjected to terrible promotional materials and an EXTENDED READING OF PART OF THE CONQUERING RELIGIOUS TEXTS WHILE LASERS SPARKLED, and only now do we learn that all of this has happened in a sacred burial site? And today is the Native American Festival?

Are we walking on graves? The tour’s explanation of the discovery of the human remains makes virtually no sense – they’ve just finished telling us a story about some guy who sought shelter in the cave for a night in 1715, carved his name in the wall, and was killed for invading and desecrating a holy site – and now the story is that “until recently” nobody knew this was a graveyard? It’s clear that they used to display bones. “Then they decided they didn’t want that,” says Catitlin. Never mind that we don’t now know who “they” are — presumably the relatives of the people who lived here for a thousand years before “we” arrived and deported them to Oklahoma. It’s notable that the matter of grave desecration (and robbing?) was framed as something that is to be “liked” or “not liked.”

So here’s the upshot: In 1965, archeologists from the University of Alabama entered what was then known as Kymulga Cave and discovered a 2,000-year-old Native American burial site that held the remains of (at least) five people. At some point afterwards, these bones were on display for tourists to gawk at. At some point after that, representatives from a tribe came and buried the bones somewhere in the cave, presumably behind the rope barrier blocking us from going up some steps to the area where the remains were found. No further information about this is provided.

We were standing in a sacred cavern which had been used for burials. This cavern is now both a privately-owned money-making scheme and a crass effort at spreading religious dogma. We were now staring at the cave tour’s second plastic skeleton.

Before you get too cynical about the private holding of a natural wonder (to say nothing of the genocide part), it’s also worth noting that the cave’s first white owner was a pretty impressive woman. Long after the natives had been expelled (leaving behind a few of their ancestors), and long after the Confederate gunpowder had been cooked up, Ida Mathis and her husband bought the cave. And she was a pretty impressive lady!

It’s for the best that their plans to mine the cave for onyx went bust. It’s probably not for the best that her relatives (still owners of the cave) changed the name of the place from Kymulga to DeSoto in 1976. And the current incarnation of the place as the host to the Native American Festival? Well, you’re 2200 words into this piece, so let’s talk about that.

We weren’t sure what to expect from the festival, since the DeSoto Caverns website offers more typos than substantive information. All we could gather in advance was that this was the 50th year of the festival, and that there would be five tribes present. Alabama has only one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Creeks (Andrew Jackson having gotten rid of just about everybody else some time ago). We were interested to see what other groups/nations would be represented. But the park offered no leaflets, educational materials or other documentation. There was just a sign with the day’s schedule – several performances repeating from 9-5 on the big stage. On the way in, we’d seen tents that seemed to be set aside for tribal members to sell wares that included bows, arrows and dreamcatchers.

This last made us cringe. We’ve always associated dreamcatchers with a particular vein of products and representations that both appropriate Native cultures for commercial consumption while flattening them out to homogenize the many peoples who used to live across the Americas. The dreamcatcher is in fact a meaningful part of Ojibwe culture (they’re up around Lake Superior and also extend into Canada), most often seen these days hanging from the rear view mirrors of folks who may also wear airbrushed “wolf howling at the full moon” shirts and overly-dangly earrings with feathers and fake turquoise. In the first instance, if you’re dreaming while in your car, you’re probably doing it wrong. In the second, what is up with people who don all kinds of “Native” apparel and affectations? Sure, there’s the racist name of the Washington pro football team, and the racist name and chants of the Atlanta baseball team. There’s the horrible racist-sexism in Peter Pan. Those are the easy prey. There’s also “Native” as fashion statement – Urban Outfitters selling “Navajo” print underwear, people wearing replicas of ceremonial headdresses to music festivals (or here at DeSoto Caverns, where hundreds were for sale in the gift shop). Nothing says dominant group privilege like being able to adorn yourselves with the bits and pieces of groups your people systematically subordinated.

We emerged from the cave desperate for refreshment. Next to the stage where the Native American dance program was happening, we found a cart selling popsicles from Birmingham’s excellent Steel City Pops. We sat at a picnic table in the tiered outdoor amphitheater. While a child bounced behind us and massive people waddled by with precarious tubs of fried food, dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians took the stage. We can’t judge whether they were good or not, because we’ve never seen any Choctaw dances before. We did like the dancers’ seeming enthusiasm. Some of the dances seemed like they might even be fun to do, and we could see how they performed unique social functions. But sitting there watching the tribe’s dance performance unit go through its paces on a stage just a few yards from the entirely desecrated burial ground of a related tribe just felt wrong somehow.

A few years ago, we had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s fantastic National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. The day we visited, a musical expert was leading a seminar in the main hall. He played a repeating four-note drum beat familiar to most people living in the US. He said that comprehensive study proved that this was actually not a beat or chant that existed in Continental Native cultures. It was entirely invented. It was also the first sound we heard at DeSoto Caverns.

Unless you are some awful brain-dead idiot and/or withered chainsmoking super-patriot, something is wrong with you if you don’t feel at least a little conflicted watching a nearly-exterminated people perform their ancestral dances for your edutainment. It’s troubling that our representations of indigenous Americans are always stuck in the past. Imagine if whenever we saw Mark Zuckerberg it was in the clothes of his ancestors, performing their sacred rituals. It’s also troubling that we are on the “prevailing” side of said genocide, able to choose what will be suitably entertaining and therefore worthy of applause while summoning colonized people for occasional entertainment.

The willing and conscious performance of dancing can also be seen as a willing and conscious performance of roles in a script, a script authored and engineered by centuries of violence. As consumers of their cultural offerings, we had our own prescribed roles in the script too.

The line between education and entertainment is always fuzzy, but downright wooly here, with so much depending on how you define exploitation and where you draw the line. “Entertainment” contains multitudes, some horribly offensive to the sturdiest sensibility. Other examples of “entertaining” cultural learning involves sharing delicious food or having horizons broadened. And the edgiest examples of the genre may well change the way you think about everything.

Of the Mississippi Choctaw’s dances, we liked the Snake Dance the best. It seemed like it might be the most fun to do, a shoulder-bumping series of tight spirals performed in a single-file line. But we’d reached our limits: too much heat, sacrilege, and uncomfortable suspicion. We were pretty alienated from our fellow tourists, and we had a lot to chew on.

P1060422We decided to cruise through the rest of the DeSoto Caverns theme park before returning home through Historic Childersberg. After discovering that the gift shop contained no books or pamphlets about the history of the cave, we decided to check out the “attractions.” The Butterfly House was only a disappointment for those who had hoped to see actual butterflies. We did see an exhausted woman almost abandon a three-year old, but family unity prevailed, at least while we were watching. We struggled to take in the Gyroscope, the Climbing Wall, the Pan for Gold, the miniature pony rides. The disc golf course was bleak and abandoned. Children screamed, splashed, ran, earnestly sifted wet sand, posed for pictures. Every step felt static, the world scrolling past us as it must.

We mused about the geologic wonders beneath our feet and headed home. As we get in the car to leave, we reflected on Alabama’s vast natural beauty, whether state parks or private land. What we layer on that natural beauty is often disturbing. We’re pretty sure that everyone at the park loves Alabama. So do we. But it’s how you love Alabama that really matters.

Presenting an Alabama driver’s license or other testimony pretty much elsewhere in the world will often earn you a cry of “Alabama!” You will likely hear this in the same pitch and register as “Honduras!” or “Ebola!” You’re slotted into the role of the exotic other, the pivot point where the progressive and triumphalist history identifies the real possibility of escape velocity. Here at DeSoto Caverns, Alabama residents are freed from this burden. They are surrounded by others at all sides and comforted by their friendly domesticity (not to mention squirt guns). Meanwhile, the “exotic other” lies literally under their feet, while their descendants perform an annual showcase of ancient rituals.

If this layered meaning seems confusing to you, consider that our state can’t even agree on whether CSA flags should be allowed in a Union Springs cemetery, much less whether the bones should be moved to be closer to a water gun fight maze. Some mazes can’t be resolved with water guns. Some caverns are deeper than Kymulga.