Saturday, February 6, 2010

First Drive to Madison County

Friday, January 15, 2010

Heading north on 29 out of Clarke County towards Danielsville, I watched the landscape clearing to my left and my right. The intervals between buildings grew larger and the buildings smaller. The landscape changed from comparatively urban to rural. And I literally sighed with pleasure. A flea market in a dilapidated metal building with a hand-painted sign that reads GRAND OPENING; tiny houses, their paint chipping, set far from the road; the simple life.

Then I remembered Australian journalist Suzanne Clarke’s A House in Fez and her attitude towards poverty in Morocco. In one scene, she goes to Marrakesh after not having seen it for four years, and she is disappointed that a city square that was once packed with peddlers at makeshift carts and “food stalls that were wheeled out every night, once helter-skelter, had been tidied up. They were now in neat rows […], numbered and lit up, their menus displayed on boards […] Where was the glorious panoply of culinary choice in a charmingly rundown setting that had once existed? I was dismayed to see a modern, fluorescent-lit boutique between the stalls.”

Charmingly rundown? Had she wanted the people of Marrakesh to live “helter-skelter” lives forever so that she could maintain her romantic view of poverty? So that she could be “charmed” by their “rundown” world every time she decided to spend a weekend away from Fez, where she was pouring money into the house she was renovating there? It seemed to meet that felt Marrakesh was a theme park. But it was someone’s reality, whether or not it was hers. She was “dismayed” that in the four years since she’d been gone, the peddlers of Marrakesh had been able to bring something “modern” – if only fluorescent light – into their lives? That they’d been able to “tidy up” and organize themselves into businessmen and women in the hopes of bettering their lives?

It was just like many tourists I'd seen when I was living in Brazil who’d shoot picture after picture of the favelas (slums) and call them “amazing.” Well, I’m glad you like them! Glad you could come down to Brazil and see something so beautiful as human suffering! Brazilians have a word for this. They say that tourists love the pobreleza (pobreza [poverty] + beleza [beauty]). It upset me to see people so charmed by misfortune.

And now I had just sighed at what might be “quaint” indicators of poverty myself. Wasn’t “the simple life” just a phrase coined by people who could choose that life – whether for vacations or permanently? For some people rural life is not simple at all, precisely because it is rural. For many, the rural landscape – void of hospitals, even sidewalks in Madison Co. – can make life pretty complicated.


  1. Ah, the simple life. Interesting comparison. It will be cool to see what stories come out of Madison County.

  2. It would be interesting to compare the acreage of the city center in Madison to the rest of the county. In other words, how much of it is "modern" and not the really rural area you describe. Gainesville in Hall County is about as modern as you can get when talking about county seats. But the fringes of the county are run-down, similar to what you describe. I look forward to more stories!

  3. Many years ago I was driving through South Georgia with my mentor, a college professor who taught early childhood development. I remarked on a picturesque scene beside the road. You've seen similar: weathered gray ramshackle cabin, woman stirring caldron in yard, pack of children playing on bare dirt , setting sun putting a glow on the upswept arms of the pecan trees.

    "Beautiful," I said.

    "Ah yes, colorful poverty," said my friend. "But it will kill her."