Two Georgia Artists—A Photographer and Writer
Mists veil a dock house. Its weathered pilings look like a comb with teeth broken out. On a spit of land sat an old oyster house. Gone. Nothing left. Unassuming workboats sit empty. An abandoned bateau sits in a fringe of marsh.
Dragging a chain across the bottom until it jerks hard.
Tongs and rakes.
Bateaux with rough irregular shells piled up high. Like a heap of gray rocks. Oystermen in three bateaux materialize from fog at dawn. In buffed gold mists, four men—two sitting, two standing—ignore each other, intent on work, steel rods in their hand. Engines tilted up, the boats moored, they work. A steel rod breaks a clump of oysters loose. A pocketknife comes out. An oyster goes down.
A white concrete block seafood shop with “Oysters” painted by hand on its window. Closed now for good.
Steamy smoke fragrant as sea salt. Raw, steamed, fried, smoked, canned, in tins with peel-back lids, grilled. In a shot glass with cocktail sauce, lemon, horseradish, and vodka. In gunnysacks. Mounded over hot tin, steaming. Pushed into smokers. Shells opening just so of their own accord. Shiny knives flashing in Lowcountry light. Gray oyster banks destined to become snow-white stones crushed beneath tires.
These images, emerging from a mist all their own, surfaced when I read Ellen Malphrus’s “On the Wings of the Incoming Tide,” her paean to Pat Conroy and nod to James Dickey’s “Starry Place Between the Antlers, Why I Live in South Carolina,” which I have among my letters. First published in Esquire magazine in 1981, Dickey wrote, in part, of an albino deer swimming beneath moonlight between islands and of the Lowcountry and its food. “The food is wonderful and unique: she-crab soup, red rice, shrimp or oyster pilau, Hoppin’ John, chicken bog. While I am there I am living proof-positive of John Peale Bishop’s dictum that the true test of a civilization is an indigenous cookery.”
I knew he had written about oysters, that noble bivalve mollusk. That delicacy. And I knew he had written it for a fellow Georgian. Images of half shells as white as pearls and a white buck swimming in moonlight belonged together, both marinated in brine as it were.
Some of you know I am a graduate of the University of Georgia. I studied Journalism there. While I was there, a man named Jack Leigh was there also. Leigh is the man who took the photo of “Bird Girl,” the cover of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A cover like no other, it’s mysterious and foreboding, but forget that. Leigh was an acclaimed photographer long before Bird Girl came along.
Leigh and I may have taken courses together at the Grady School of Journalism but we never met. We would share, however, a connection down the road. James Dickey would write the foreword for Leigh’s Oystering, A Way of Life, just as he would write the foreword for South Carolina, The Natural Heritage, a book by Robert Clark, Steve Bennett, and me.
Like Ellen and me, Jack Leigh read Dickey’s “Starry Place Between the Antlers.” That set him to thinking. “Might James Dickey write the foreword for my book on oystering?” Back then we lived in the era of the letter, banished today by email, except for the more refined who walk among us. Leigh wrote Dickey and in two days the poet responded. The two Georgians began a period of collaboration.
Dickey had a keen interest in photography and with great pleasure he looked at Leigh’s work. About Leigh’s oystermen wrote Dickey, “the last of these, surely.” His words were both a prophecy and poetic tribute. “They are not fishermen; they never feel the run of any line. The electric vibration of an unknown body, or the mingling of the seine, but instead lean down—walk and lean down—like parts of walls, over the soft paving of mud, as their families and blood have caused them to do …”
Two Georgians connected by oysters. Both artists, both gone now, just as much of oystering seems determined to leave us as it wallows in the wake of something called progress. For those who cherish oysters and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for our pleasure, it’s time to send up a prayer, a time to recall the plea from Dickey’s last line in “The Last Wolverine.” “Lord, let me die, but not die out.”