Does Life Have A Secret Plan? … Is one’s destiny planned all along? After one too many consequential coincidences do you get the feeling something mysterious is at work? Call it fate. Call it predestination. Attribute it to God. Whatever the force, it reveals your path. Such was the case with my most memorable teacher at the University of Georgia. It was mystifying how the man kept coming back into my life … even after he died. And writing was the connection.
It’s the spring of 1968. A windy morning. Inside a Park Hall classroom James Kilgo, in a blue-and-white seersucker suit, is reading from William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” that classic story in Go Down Moses. Main character and unifying voice, Issac McCaslin, lost deep in woods, experiences a pivotal moment. As Kilgo reads “and the wilderness coalesced,” I glance over my shoulder through a dogwood-shaded window to see Peggy Culbertson walking up the North Campus sidewalk. It was a curious juxtaposition of events. The moment refuses to die: two passions—my high school beauty and English literature teacher—merge amidst a flurry of swirling dogwood petals. But other things made that English 102 course memorable, chiefly the aura of James Patrick Kilgo. My roommate, Garnett Wallace, sits beside me. We call our professor one name. We call him Kilgo.
Kilgo had auburn hair, an auburn beard, and he cut a striking figure in those suits. The coeds adored him. I liked his passion for literature. His eyes held fire. Not one moment in his classroom held tedium.
All those years ago, little could I know that coincidences, parallels, and connections with Kilgo would occur in the decades ahead. Sitting in James Dickey’s living room in 1989, Dickey mentions a book … “I read a book I like a lot. The title had something to do with ivory bills,” he said.
“Deep Enough for Ivorybills,” I said. “James Kilgo wrote it.”
“He’s good,” said Dickey. “He’s good.”
Deep Enough for Ivorybills began as a column for the Athens Banner-Herald that shared Kilgo’s love for hunting and fishing. Compiled and rewritten in book form, the columns revealed his quest for a place in the soul and heart spacious enough for beauty and mystery—a sanctuary deep enough for ivorybills.
Permit me a bit of research here from the New Georgia Encyclopedia: “Trained as a scholar in American literature, Kilgo wrote his doctoral dissertation on novels about World War II and taught courses in American and southern literature. From an early point in his life he tried his hand at woodcarving, sketching, and other creative activities; his friends also knew him as an able storyteller.
Dissatisfied with scholarly writing, Kilgo began to write creative essays in the late 1970s, at first in the form of hunting columns for a local newspaper. Pleased with these early efforts, he began to write longer essays.”
William Faulkner inspired Kilgo. I recall too that he loved the opening lines to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, calling them sublime: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the daytime you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.”
In 1995, just four years before Kilgo retired he taught my daughter, Becky, just as he had taught me many years earlier a few years into his career. Daughter and father—on opposite sides of his continuum—shared a connection and recalled his classes years later. He was unforgettable.
Jim’s paths and mine kept crossing. I served as the managing editor for South Carolina Wildlife magazine. Years after I left, a striking brunette, Caroline Foster, took that position. Her uncle? Jim Kilgo.
This evening as the sun drops, I hold in my hands a large book, the kind that receives the unkind label “coffeetable book.” Unkind because such books are difficult to do and require a special kind of art. Any writer who does one knows critics will skewer him as being non-scholarly and commercial. That didn’t stop Kilgo just as it didn’t stop Dickey with Jericho, The South Beheld. Kilgo’s book is The Blue Wall—Wilderness of the Carolinas and Georgia. Kilgo collaborated with photographer Thomas Wyche to write a book about wild aspects of our beloved Southland. For me, yet another connection.
The only time I saw him after that one course so long ago in Athens was at the South Carolina Festival for Books. It was March 22, 1997. I brought Deep Enough For Ivory Bills, which he inscribed “To Tom with memories of good times at UGA.”
I brought, too, The Blue Wall in which he wrote, “For my friend and former student, Tom Poland—those splendid hills—warm regards, Jim.”
He was looking forward to retiring, he told me, because he could devote more time to his writing. He said that life conspired at every turn to rob him of the time he needed to write. A short while later I bumped into Caroline Foster who told me of his passing. As for life’s conspiracy, it robbed him all right. He retired in 1999 and died three years later. Our trail didn’t end, however. It never does with writers, for their work lives beyond their time. It’s the only way to become immortal.
And now the calendar brings me to the spring of 2012. Kilgo reaches from the grave to touch me again. Robert Clark and I are spending an afternoon with the wildlife sculptor, Grainger McKoy. As Robert composes photos of the esteemed artist, we talk. Upon hearing I graduated from Georgia, McKoy asks, “Did you know Jim Kilgo?”
McKoy hands me a sumptuous booklet, “The Brilliance of Birds.” It features Grainger’s work and in it is an essay by James Kilgo, “The Art of Grainger McKoy.” My old teacher had done much the same as I had. Writing of nature and art’s commingling. Kilgo, Grainger told me, had sat in the same chair I was sitting in when he handed me “The Brilliance of Birds.”
I doubt any of what I’m writing matters to you, the reader, but it does to me. You see, as much as I loved Kilgo’s English 102 course, I only earned a C. My brain had not caught fire. I had yet to learn how to learn. In time I did and I would do most anything to bump into my old professor one more time. I’d like for him to know that I figured things out. I’d like for him to know our meeting was no coincidence. That I, too, would feel the need to put words on paper. And I would ask him just what set him on fire in his youth as a literary outdoorsman. But since that was impossible, I did the only thing left. I went to the swamps and forests of his native land.
October 2012. Robert Clark and I are exploring the swamps fringing the Pee Dee River in Darlington County, Kilgo’s homeland. We follow a band of horsemen and one intrepid woman in my all-wheel-drive Honda. We pass a cemetery born of antiquity, so old its tombstones are made from bricks: so old a governor sleeps there in an unmarked grave.
We slosh through sloughs and silky green waters where swimming snakes weave serpentine paths through duckweed. When we can drive no more, we get out on foot and trudge through tangled undergrowth. We dodge adolescent cypress knees that would trip us. Deeper and deeper we go fighting off vines and shrubs. And then a feathery flash of white flits through the canopy. It’s a large bird … it couldn’t be … could it?
At last we surface on a bluff overlooking the Pee Dee River. A snowy egret stalks the shallows on the river’s Marlboro County side. We are deep enough for ivorybills but none can be found. Amidst cypress knees and cherrybarks, I want to think I literally walk in Kilgo’s steps. Visions of him in Athens and here merge in a strange dreamlike way. I sense what a youth among these woods did to him when he had to assume the role of professor. I sort out a few mysteries in my life too. Things from my past clarify.
Though we met in a classroom in 1968 and only met once more in 1997 our lives were symmetrical. He grew up in rural South Carolina and ended up teaching and writing in Georgia. I grew up in rural Georgia and ended up teaching and writing in South Carolina. We were country boys who loved books and the outdoors. His star burned brighter and mine burns dimmer, yet longer. Much of my career, I have tried to make amends to him for my poor classroom showing. I like to think I would earn a higher grade today were I to repeat his course; that we would have much to discuss and much to share after many years of trudging through swamps and dictionaries.
We lose so damn much in this thing called life. Kilgo’s gone. Peggy Culbertson is gone, and I have no doubt the dogwood by the window of that Park Hall window is gone too. I had fifty-four professors at Georgia. Most of them are dead. I remember a handful, but I can’t forget Kilgo. He towers over all.
As columns go, it’s closing time. Allow me a moment to look back. Sunday, December 8, 2002, friends sang hymns outside Kilgo’s hospital room. He was 61. In 2011, he was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
That man lives on in my recollections. I see him in his seersucker suit holding a book high as he reads to spellbound students. He’s reading from Faulkner, who describes the woods of Mississippi, which not only were deep enough for ivorybills but deep enough to turn two men to writing words that resonate and transform others.
We called that man Kilgo.