Diary: Sean Hill, (1) This Land Is My Land
Oconee River, Georgia, photograph by the author
Sometime around 1765, a man named Austin Dabney was born in the British colony known as the Province of North Carolina—a decade or so before that colony and its twelve siblings, which would become our union of states, declared their independence and entered the violent birth throes of this nation—before later moving to what would become Wilkes County, Georgia. During the war, those British colonists (both Tories/Loyalists and Whigs/Patriots) fought to determine their fate in this land: the story of this country. And under the command of Colonel Elijah Clark, Dabney, barely into his teen years, joined them, fighting valiantly for the colonies’ independence, for the recognition of their sovereignty. Austin Dabney fought in one of the war’s important battles—the Battle of Kettle Creek—a major victory for the Patriots. On August 14, 1786, Georgia granted Dabney 250 acres, as was due all Revolutionary War veterans in recognition of their military service. When the state granted Dabney land, the legislature also appropriated seventy pounds to pay for his freedom. There is a document—a petition of manumission—recording that transaction as well.
In the early 1970s, around two centuries after the fight for independence, I was born in Milledgeville, Georgia, where I was also raised. My parents and I first lived in a white clapboard house with blue trim that sat on a raised brick and cinder block foundation, next to my maternal grand-mother’s home on the south side of town. Kinfolk lived all around. That house had been in our family for a long time and would later be passed on to other families just starting out. Before I can remember but after I learned to walk, my parents bought a trailer and placed it next to my paternal grandmother’s house on the north side of town—in a community her generation called New Town. My father was delivered into this world by a midwife on that property, and save for four years in college and the year spent beside my mother’s mother, it’s where he’s lived for nearly three-quarters of a century. A big mulberry tree stood next to our trailer and a fine fig bush and pitifully puny peach tree nestled next to my grandmother’s house. I remember playing in the front yard under the shady pecan tree and in the backyard under the apple tree and scuppernong arbor.
When we’d go to visit my mom’s mom, “out cross the creek” as my dad would say, there was an apple tree behind her house, too, and pecan trees and crepe myrtles, and a pomegranate tree next to the house we’d lived in. This is some of the flora I have early memories of. For fauna, there were turtles and terrapins, frogs and toads, birds—so many birds—and squirrels and an occasional rabbit or opossum or raccoon. And with the “Go outside and play” of whichever adult was watching me at the time, I was free to explore.
At some point, my dad purchased five acres of land out in the country, heading north out of town. We called it The Land. He would take me there to walk it sometimes. There was a dirt road that ran along the north side and a creek that ran along the south side and a powerline easement that ran along the east side. There were a couple of houses at the far end of the dirt road. We would find homemade wooden live traps on the land and check them. Once we found an opossum in one. Some of my formative experiences with nature and my father happened on the untended and overgrown five acres just off the road.
I have a friend who, in this recent political climate, was told by a white American that he was obviously not American because he’s Chinese American, and so he’s Asian. My friend’s grandfather came here by boat around the turn of the last century. What is American identity? This friend of mine is a lifelong angler and avid hunter. He’s taken me out on his boat on Lake Sinclair, in my hometown, whose many coves were created in 1954 by damming the Oconee River. One day, while motoring around the lake, we went by my cousins’ house. Lakefront property is prime real estate in my hometown, and in the early 1980s, these cousins had “moved up on the lake.” They were one of the few Black families (and perhaps the first) to live there. My friend remarked that they had one of the “big water”—more valuable—views; he himself lived on a cove. I hadn’t thought about the value of the view that way before. When I was a kid and would sleep over at their house, I would wake up early, before everyone else, and creep downstairs to the two stories of windows in the living room to watch the sun rise and play golden rays on the expanse of water in front of me. I would sit quietly there for as long as I could before the others woke up and I needed to get about the day.
Read Part Two of this post here!
Sean Hill is the author of two books of poems, Dangerous Goods and Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, named one of the ten books all Georgians should read by the Georgia Center for the Book. He is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Montana. This post is adapted from his essay, “This Land Is My Land,” from the forthcoming volume, A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil To Stars, edited by Erin Sharkey.
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