Message from the Past

Something I was sharply aware of in my time in the low country around Charleston was the spirit of the enslaved peoples who for more than 150 years lived and toiled and died on that island of Kiawah.

I thought of them all week and of how almost all traces of their lives have vanished, plowed under to erect these spacious homes available for sale or rent, to people whose family stories have never included having your work, your body and your offspring being owned by others.

I thought of them all week and then came home to an email from one of my students from the years I taught high school. He somehow found me last winter, though I am the one still living within three miles of the place we both spent our days. He is the one who has traveled far, serving as a Marine, and then becoming a Trappist monk over the years.

As a monk which he has spent days-weeks-months keeping silent but opening his mouth for prayer and song. He wrote me regularly for a three-month period starting last December and when he once again fell silent I knew it was because he had returned to the contemplative life.

But here in my inbox Sunday was this description of a moment he had at Mepkin Abbey also just outside Charleston. He wrote it last December when he was living there and wandered one day into its woods.

This is Bruce..

I will go silent now and let him say what he saw that day…  The spirits of our ancestors do live. Can there be any doubt?

On retreat last Christmas I began a long walk to the American Negro Slave Cemetery that is respectfully maintained on the 3200 acreage of the Abbeys property at Mepkin. On my way through the woods, the path meandered toward a perfectly quiet running stream, a contribution of the nearby Cooper River. Here, a variety of colorful birds, deer and fox made their journey to drink. Varied animal footprints were found in the soft brown mud. I decided to follow the stream off the constructed path with its arrowed signs directing my steps to the cemetery. “I’ll see it another time,” I said to myself. Perhaps taking an unconscious cue from Frost to take the road less traveled?
That would be me.

As I followed the stream, pausing now and then to snap a photo and listen to the quiet and birdsong, I noticed vaguely a clearing about a quarter mile to the south, just beyond the edge of the woods. I was curious to know just why a field was deliberately plowed among the southern pines. What was there?

As I made trek to the opening, I became awestruck and it seemed as if I had landed back in time. The Deep South had taken on a greater reality when I stepped out into a vast cotton field. About the size of a football field or more. Here I discovered long furrowed, neat rows of strong thicket brush with beautiful white angel hair cotton growing in abundance. When you view the entire field, it’s as if snowballs grew on bushes. It looks like a snowfall. Or a cotton candy patch. The fields were wet with morning dew and a recent Carolina thunderstorm. My boots sloshed and squished along the rows as I picked wads of the pure white cotton with great care. I thought of how the slaves worked the rice and cotton plantations of Mepkin.

The result upon return to the Abbey was this verse.

It’s nothing special. What is special are the slaves who lived and died there. The cotton is symbolic of so much to me. Purity. Labor. Strength and love. To think, here I stood where those beautiful people sang Negro spirituals in that brutally hot humid Carolina sun, was a thing quite sobering and somewhat of a gift. This was the real “holy ground” I thought. I could see them. Hear them. The beautiful black women wearing old fashioned flowered dresses with bandannas on, singing and praising God. The men. Voices low and masculine, wearing straw hats. I started to hum a Negro slave song, “Did you see him hanging on the tree? Did you see him hanging on the tree? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? O’ Sometimes…Sometimes.. it makes me tremble..”

I put the cotton to my face, so soft. I put it to my lips and closed my eyes. I sniffed it. I touched my closed eyes with it. I wanted to know. It was so so soft. I took some home in a plastic sandwich bag and cherish it like a relic from the middle ages.

And now that song, which I too sang for 20 years with my church choir, every Maundy Thursday at the candlelight service. Jim Reynolds, son of  Augusta Georgia and graduate of Morehouse College would sing the solo then, Jim, gone to glory now. This is Marion Williams singing it here:

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