How the alligator builds her nest

So, here we are only a week into 2016, and I get to start my first post of the year with some excellent news. An essay I wrote called “Alligator Nature and Nurture” has been published in the winter issue of the literary journal 1966. It’s about the time I went alligator tracking with the wildlife biologist at Palmetto Bluff and alligator natural history, all very fascinating stuff. You can read it in it’s entirety here: Alligator Nature and Nurture. I am very excited about being included in such a great publication. Yay, me!!

two women with stuffed alligator

In an earlier version of the essay, which describes the alligator life cycle, I included a passage from the book The Alligator’s Life History by E.A. McIlhenny. This is a great book, published in 1935, about the author’s experiences living in close proximity with alligators at his home in Louisiana. If the author’s name sounds familiar it’s because his father invented Tabasco sauce. Anyways, it was a long passage that I debated including because it was so long, and ultimately it ended up on the cutting room floor. Rightly so, I think. And it’s perfect because now I can share it with you here. The following passage describes the days McIlhenny spent the days doing little more than watching a mother alligator build her nest.

… She had bitten off and mashed down all vegetation over a space about ten feet by eight feet, and had gathered a lot of the material into a rough pile near the centre of her clearing. When I first saw her at work she was scooping up, from the outside edges of her trash pile, in her mouth, twigs and leaves, and holding them firmly, would back across the center of the pile dropping her burden on top of the mound already of considerable size in width and height. She would then go forward and get another mouthful from the outside edge of her clearing and pull it across and past the centre. This pulling of the brush and trash from the outside past the centre continued until she had made the circle of the pile four and one-half times, which required almost five hours work. In making this part of the clearing four Alder trees, from two and one-half to three inches in diameter, had been broken off. When these were pulled onto the pile, their trunks were found too large for nest building, so she laid her body across the trunks and tore off the limbs by crushing them in her jaws and with violent shakes of her head. After the limbs were stripped off, the trunks were carried by mouth to the side of the clearing and discarded. Occasionally she would go to the edge of the cleared space and turning her head sidewise would grasp in her jaws a mouthful of whatever the standing growth might be, and after crushing the stems so caught by strongly squeezing her jaws together, would start backing towards the nest, dragging with her whatever material her jaws held, thus tearing the weaker stems off or up by the roots, and breaking off by violent shakes of her head such stems as were too strong to be gotten loose otherwise. When this part of the nest-building had been finished, the result was a pile of stems, twigs and leaves, almost round, and about six feet across by about eighteen inches high. By continually crawling over this mound and working its material from the edge to the centre it was well packed and flat on top. The nest-builder then left off work and went back to the pond, and I also called it a day.

The next morning I was at the nest-blind before sunrise, provided with a lunch and a jug of water, prepared to spend the day. The alligator was not at the nest and did not come to work until 7:35, but when it got light enough to see clearly, I found the nest-building had continued during the night, as the cleared space was considerably larger, and a lot of loose twigs, leaves, briers and dry trash had been piled loosely around the base of the nest-mound. Arriving at the mound, the alligator looked it over holding her head as high as possible while slowly crawling around its base. She then crawled on top and at once began nest-building in a most expert and methodical manner. Lying across the nest pile, tail on one side, head on the other, she would reach down catching the loose material, and the projecting material which she had loosely piled at the base of the mound, in her mouth, and holding it firmly down as the weight of her body was pushed forward across it to the edge again. This work continued until two complete circles of the nest had been made, and it was raised at least ten inches higher; this work occupied two hours and twenty minutes of time. She, now being apparently satisfied with the height of her nest, crawled down and went slowly around it, head held high, looking intently at the shape of the sides, but paying most attention to the top. Being satisfied with its appearance, she now went to the top of the mound and placing her hind feet near the centre, lay flat, bracing her front feet into the outside edge of the nest-material, she then began drawing up and pushing back her hind feet slowly one at a time and turning slowly around the rim of the mound. This action pushed the twigs and leaves from the center towards the outside rim of the mound, and after a couple of circles of the mound had been made in this manner, the center was decidedly hollow, and the outside edges seemed raised at least ten to twelve inches above the center. This was plainly shown by the curve of the alligator’s body as she worked out the depression. After two hours and forty-five minutes of this work the nest-builder slid down the side of the nest and without hesitation made her way to the water.

It was now a few minutes after one o’clock, and I supposed she had “knocked off” work for lunch, but I was afraid to leave as something might happen in the nest-building during my absence. From time to time I could hear considerable noise in the rushes in the pond which I thought was made by the alligator, but was entirely unprepared for what I as next to see; which was, what looked like a bushel of wet and muddy rushes suddenly appearing in the water at the beginning of the alligator’s path to the nest. This mass of material advanced steadily up the path, but it was not until it reached the nest-clearing that I could see the alligator was carrying a huge mouthful of rushes and their roots and the mud in which they grew. This mass completely hid her head as she advanced up the nest-road. Coming to the nest-mound she crawled up to the top and deposited the mouthful of wet material in the hollow of the nest. With only a short pause, back to the pond she went, and I could plainly hear her tearing at the growing rushes. In about ten minutes she reappeared with another large mouthful of the same sort of material which she also put in the depression at the top of the nest. The work of bringing wet rushes and mud form the pond to the nest and filling the hollowed-out top continued for three hours and fifteen minutes, and nine trips were made to the pond and back to the nest. By this time the hollow in the top had been filled with this wet material until it was considerably higher than the sides. She then climbed down and walked all around the mound then back to the top, and scooped up her material with her mouth from places that did not suit her fancy, placing it on other parts of the top, all the while moving slowly round and round over and back of the nest’s top (which by now was at least three feet high) until quite a regular hay-stack-like cone was shaped. It was now ten minutes after six. I kept watch until 7:30, and as it was then too dark to see more, called it a day.

I was in my blind before sunrise the next morning, and as soon as it was light enough to see, observed the nest and surroundings were exactly as they were the night before. I saw nothing of her until ten minutes after ten o’clock, when she came to the point where her path to the nest joined the water, but did not come out of the water until 11:40. She came slowly up the path to the nest, went part way round it, then climbed on top, and putting her head and forepart over the southern edge and her tail pointing north, began hollowing out the center with her hind feet, pushing the wet material from the center to the sides by drawing her hind feet alternately forward and pushing them back and down with considerable force, turning her body about the rim of the nest as the hollow progressed. This hollow was not made as wide as the first hollow, but was deeper and as it was in softer material, much more quickly made.

At 12: 25 p.m., she placed her hind legs on each side of the hollow and began at once depositing her eggs. … As the eggs were deposited the alligator turned slowly, the center part of her body following irregularly the inside rim of the nest-hollow, forward and back. … then pushed her body to one side of the top of the nest, taking a large mouthful of wet mashed rushes and trash from the side rim of the nest where it had been pushed from the center while making the hollow to contain her eggs, she dropped the mouthful on top of the eggs, and continued doing this until the cavity in which the eggs lay was filled to the top with the wet mixture of broken rushes and trash. The old alligator then slid down the edge of the nest, went to the pond, and I could hear her pulling and tearing at the growing rushes. In a few minutes back to the nest she came with a large mouthful of broken rushes and material from below the surface of the water and dropped it on top of the nest as she came up one side, then deliberately slid her body across the top of the nest, turned and slid back so that the whole weight of her body pressed the wet material down on the eggs. She then went to the pond again, and after tearing at the rushes a couple minutes came out with another mixed mouthful which she deposited on top of the nest, crawling over it as before. Six trips were made for broken green rushes, mud and the partly decayed material from below the water, all of which was placed on the top of the nest. As the center-fill got higher, she crawled around the slope of the cone-like top instead of crawling over the top. This caused the top to be quite pointed, very much like a small round top hay-stack, and very smooth, as the weight of her body slicked the mud and rushes together like smooth plaster. She then slid down to the ground, crawled around the nest, slowly inspecting it, then went down her road to the pond.

alligator nest 1925

What a cool thing to witness, right? While McIlhenny watched the nest, the alligator mother charged him with several warning attacks. Yay, mom!

I love this passage because it’s so detailed, and, at the time it was written, this was probably the first time a human documented or even saw alligator nesting behavior. That was back in the days when people thought alligators breathed fire and lived to be five hundred years old. When I read McIlhenny’s description, I can see the alligator working on her nest–and that’s the kind of thing most of us will never see outside the pages of a book.

How a paper company shaped Bluffton

On a hot day in the summer of 2007, I drove from my new home in Bluffton, north, across the Broad River, to Beaufort to interview a banker for a freelance newspaper article I was writing. After I asked my questions of him, he asked me where I lived. When I told him I’d recently moved from Hilton Head Island to Bluffton, he said in a drawl I can still remember, “You jumped from the frying pan into the fire.” He was talking about development–the news of the day. Bluffton, in a couple of real estate deals, had recently become one of the fastest growing areas of South Carolina. And I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a better metaphor for life in southern Beaufort County.

Bluffton_SC_Geography

Living in Bluffton before the recession meant change to be seen every drive across town. Development slowed down when the real estate market crashed, but it’s picked back up again. A new elementary school just opened last month, and we’re getting a Walmart. I’ve lived here long enough now to know that this was inevitable, and I’m not going to lie, we have a ton of new restaurants that look amazing. Life is good in Bluffton, it always has been. But before all these people and places, Bluffton’s landscape was much different.

Established in 1825, Bluffton, South Carolina, for it’s first hundred and fifty years or so, was best known as a respite from the summer heat. During the most miserable months of the year, the breeze off the May River hit the banks of town like a cool glass of tea and helped keep the mosquitoes away. Plantation owners from other parts of the state summered here, and only a few hundred permanent residents called the place home.

Then, incorporated Bluffton was a square mile centered on Calhoun Street. There were vacation homes along the river and in what we now know as the Alljoy area. Bluffton had fishing companies and a small center of commerce downtown, and beyond that, it had pine plantations. My earliest memories of vacationing on Hilton Head as a kid involved driving on U.S. 278, passing row after row of uniform pine trees for miles along the stretch from the interstate to the bridge. These trees–a total of 56,000 acres in southern Beaufort County–belonged to Union Camp Corporation, a paper mill in Savannah. Most of the property was logged for timber for the paper operation, a fixture of the Savannah economy. But they also owned a piece of property across the May River from Old Town Bluffton known as Palmetto Bluff, which they used as a private hunting retreat for corporate guests.

While Bluffton sat quietly along the banks of the May, Hilton Head to the west grew into a popular resort destination, and Savannah to the south continued to grow with the port and military presences. At the time, Union Camp owned more land in Beaufort County than any other single landowner, and they knew developing their property in such a desirable area could be more profitable than logging it. In 1994, they sold Del Webb Corp. the land to build Sun City and donated land to the county so they could extend U.S. Highway 278 to Interstate 95 and build the Bluffton branch of University of South Carolina Beaufort. With Hilton Head so close and Sun City growing right next door, Union Camp could cram a lot of houses on the rest of their property.

Beaufort County’s outdated infrastructure and zoning would have crumbled under the level of growth Union Camp had in mind, and the county had their own ideas of how the rural landscape should be developed. South Carolina had recently passed a law requiring all the counties to file comprehensive, long-range plans by 1999. And in September of 1995 Beaufort County started their conversation with county residents about what the future of their home should look like. After public meetings the county unveiled their first draft of their plan in October of 1996, which designated much of southern Beaufort County as rural and limited Union Camp’s potential profits considerably.

The Town of Bluffton, in the meantime, could barely tread water. To the east, Hilton Head Island had become a mecca for retirees and summertime vacationers and development was spilling onto the mainland a few miles northeast of Bluffton’s modest downtown. And to the northwest, more flocked to retirement in Sun City, a development that was big enough for its own zip code. Bluffton was broke. The town’s building had fallen into disrepair—a broken air conditioner (not something they could live without in the sweltering Lowcountry summers) and leaky roof—and the mayor Theodore Washington and town council members started looking for ways to increase their bottom line.

It didn’t take the Town of Bluffton and Union Camp long to realize the two entities were a perfect match. South Carolina law allows towns to annex unincorporated lands into the city limits as long as the landowners agree to the union. With only one landowner to appease, they could bring sections of Union Camp’s property into the town and then develop it however they wanted, exponentially increasing the town’s tax base. Gordon Burke, a town council member, approached Union Camp about allowing the town to annex 700 acres of property north of downtown, known as the Schultz Tract. Of course, Union Camp was interested, on one condition: the town had to annex Palmetto Bluff too. This began a long and mutually beneficial—though often troubled—relationship between Union Camp and the Town of Bluffton.

The Palmetto Bluff and Schultz annexations were executed in November 1998. The Buckwalter Tract, 6,000 acres of Union Camp’s property, was annexed in April 2000. The development boom in southern Beaufort County had begun. In June of 2000, the town annexed the Jones Tract, owned by the Jones family. And since then many other small pieces of property have bene annexed into the town’s incorporated limit. The growth happened quickly, and the town officials scrambled to keep up—they didn’t have the infrastructure to handle such a large influx of people, the staff to enforce codes, or the ordinances in place to protect the river, their most prized natural resource. These are ongoing struggles as the town continues to grow, and perhaps stories for another day. But that’s why, when you look at a map of incorporated Bluffton, you see so many holes of unincorporated land within the town’s borders–along each edge of the border exists a small political struggle, I’d be willing to bet. My house was built on one of Union Camp’s old pine plantations. We’re in the Buckwalter Tract–one of the first new developments, where the paper company started the fire.

Image source: Townofbluffton, Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been this kind of week…

I’m not going to lie; I’ve been saving this since I put together that wild animal meme collection months ago. I saw it and laughed and knew it would, someday, be the perfect blog post. The time is now.

Why today? On the day I had a whole other post planned and halfway written? My friends, it seems like everything I do lately, no matter how simple or well-intentioned, turns out like this…

setting-bear-free-goes-wrong

I know the feeling, Mr. Well-Meaning-Wildlife-Official. So today I’m going to skip writing the smart and eloquent post I have been planning all week–because as soon as I started researching it I knew I was a fool to think it would be simple and this week it just feels like too much–and get caught up on some editing, go for a walk with my little girl, start reading that Dani Shapiro novel I picked up at the library, and think about 9/11 and the overwhelming patriotic feeling I’ve felt so often lately.

P.S. I’d love to hear what you’re up to today.

Ten years in; what I know about freelance writing

I started my freelance writing career on an eMachine computer in the upstairs bedroom of the condo we used to rent off my parents on the south end of Hilton Head Island. I sat at a folding table in a wicker chair with my first baby sleeping in the swing behind me. I built a web site, started an editorial consulting business, and freelanced for any publication that would have me. I have two fat three-ring binders of paper clips that I collected and carefully archived during that time. That was like five internets ago and most of my work wasn’t available online.

freelance writer desk

August 1 marked the ten-year anniversary of that start. Ten years?! Ten years. We’ve moved out of the condo, off the island; that baby is ten, and two more babies have come since. I’m sitting here at my computer, my third since the eMachine (which I don’t even think they make any more), in the space that would otherwise be our dining room and those three-ring binders are sitting on a shelf behind me. I’m still here, plugging away, and taking breaks to read stories with a little person. I feel like I’ve come a long way, but also like I’ve not come very far at all.

Earlier this summer I came across a blog post that was titled something like, “What I know about freelance writing after two years,” and felt suddenly old school. Two years–that’s nothing, I thought before realizing “old school” starts with old. The author of the post was in her twenties, much like myself when I started out. But it occurred to me that, being a thirty-something old head with ten years of experience, I could write a post about freelance writing. And mine could be even wiser.

So what universal truths about freelance writing can I distill from this decade of experience? Well, let’s see…

On Getting Started

Being a freelance writer means you make a living writing for hire. When people ask me about becoming a freelance writer, I always start by telling them that freelance writing comes in many shapes and sizes. It could be copywriting for clients, writing for magazines, blogging for companies. There’s no one way and everyone’s way probably involves a little of everything.

How does one get started as a freelance writer? Find someone who will either pay you for something you’ve written or pay you to write something for them. And then find someone else who will do the same. Then you just keep doing that.

When I started, I had ideas about what kind of work I wanted and how I could get it, but it took me a while to figure out what exactly I liked doing and how to sell that. Some markets and types of writing are more lucrative than others. The beauty is it can change from day to day. If something doesn’t work, you can do something different. You have to self-motivate and be accountable, obviously. You have to show up for work. Diversifying is probably a good idea, so is specializing. Working with clients and publications in long-term relationships–getting a few regular gigs, in other words–will help with cash flow. But really, a freelance writer can shape their career and life in an infinite number of ways.

I recently read somewhere (I am still trying to figure out where) that when someone asks you what you do, and you say, “I’m a freelance writer,” chances are that someone will not take you seriously. It’s like the least-taken-seriously career a person could have. Although I’ve lost the article, I do remember, upon reading it, thinking, “Wow, are people not taking me seriously? Do people think I’m a housewife with a hobby? Am I a housewife with a hobby?” I’ve rolled these questions around in my mind several times, tried to pull up memories of awkward interactions with people about my work, and come to the conclusion that I have no idea if  people take me seriously or not. I can’t control what other people think. Haters gonna hate. The only thing I can do is take myself seriously, and I do. Believe it or not, I am trying to break literary ground here, people. At least that’s what I tell myself.

The Hardest Part

Balancing art with commerce is my greatest challenge. I have lofty ambitions–see the end of the previous paragraph. Unfortunately, the highest forms of the art are difficult to achieve and they don’t necessarily pay very well. Gotta get paid, so facing such a dilemma, one must get paid for their art or do something that pays enough to support that art.

It depends on what your art is, but getting paid for it can take time. Your art has to be good and you have to know how to sell it. You have to know what makes your art compelling and you have to know who might be interested in buying it. And you have to get it out there. I’m still learning how I can make money from my art.

I am much better at doing other writing and consulting work to support my art. I know how to run a writing business, market it, and sell it. I know how to talk to potential clients, size them up, and get them to pay me. Running a small business that isn’t my art–even though it’s still writing–is kind of like having a day job because I don’t get to spend the whole day writing whatever I want. As a freelance writer with artistic aspirations, I have to make time for both. But one day, hopefully I’ll be able to drop the freelance and call myself a writer.

Making money as a writer can also feel a little like selling out. Sometimes people think making money from art makes it somehow less artistic. And, let’s face it, some people just get weird about money. Our ideas about money make balancing art with commerce even more difficult. But I think it’s one of those things every person who aspires to earn an income from their creative work must come to terms with. Again, here it’s important not to give a damn what other people think and just do what feels good and right to you.

Support Helps

Speaking of money… Senior year in college I told my dad I wanted to be a freelance writer. He said, “Whoa, that sounds an awful lot like ‘freeload.'” He was teasing me (and also having a normal fatherly reaction). But, yeah, my parents have bailed me out of many financial shortcomings. And if Matt hadn’t been employed full-time, I never would have had the guts to quit my job. Mostly I feel grateful for such an amazing support system. I have the best parents ever. I seriously do. So regardless of what family skeletons or past conflicts I air in any future writings, I want the record to show that they are, first and foremost, wonderful people. But the point is that it helps to have support.

Despite having the word “free” in it, freelancing is not easy. Writing is not easy. It’s work, and work isn’t easy no matter what you do. Every career path comes with pros and cons. The greatest con of freelancing is that you often don’t know from where your next check will come. (Enter that occasional freeloading feeling.) The pro is, for my family, my freelancing career means–has always meant–I don’t have to put our children in full-time daycare. This is one of the decisions that come with being a parent: Should mom stay at home or go back to work? It’s one of those decisions that everyone has an opinion about, but is ultimately a personal choice and probably has no real effect on the child.

I have to write in the company of my children. They watch too much television. And just a few minutes ago my daughter dismantled an entire pad of Post-its that she found on my desk and carried away right in front of me. After ten years, I know sometimes getting a sentence right means sacrificing Post-its. I can finish a paragraph while it’s keeping her busy. But that’s not easy and sometimes I wonder if I’d be more “successful” going the other route. Daycare is always an investment, and I think it’s one that pays off in the mother’s income and future earning potential. But as long as I can earn income while wanted to and could earn money from home, I get to stay home–and my family supports my doing so. I’m also still clinging to the belief that the most important thing I can do for my career and long-term success is write.

sacrificed post-its

It makes me chuckle, and roll my eyes, remembering myself in college, telling my father I wanted to be a freelance writer. That girl existed, but she’s no longer me. I had no idea about anything back then, but, Dad, at least I’ve stayed consistent. And I wouldn’t have made it ten years if it weren’t for supportive people around me.

Don’t Take it Personally

In general, I think too many people take too many things personally. It’s hard not to, we’re all human after all. But in the freelance writing business, you just can’t. Being a freelance writer requires a thick skin. Sending your ideas and work into the world is hard and scary. Being rejected is not easy. Silence from editors and agents and potential clients is disheartening. I had to get used to it.

I had to learn how to stop loving my ideas and move on to the next one.

I had to learn not to count on a contract or income until I had a check and signature.

I had to learn to lower my expectations and appreciate my journey as it is, without comparing myself to other writers who are more successful than me. That’s tough because there are lots of really amazing writers out there.

And every day, when I sit down to work, I have to remind myself to take pleasure in the fact that I get to sit here with my computer and let the words come out. The more I produce, the better off I’ll be. And I can’t control how my work is received. All I can control is the writing I do and finish and send into the world.

Being a Freelance Writer is Awesome

Have I mentioned that I love writing? It’s my favorite thing to do. I also value flexibility. As a freelance writer, I have deadlines and I have to make money to pay my bills, but freelancing is flexibility. For example, I worked all day Saturday, but I took off Monday to take my kiddo to the beach–not many careers allow for that. I love the flexibility so much that, even when my twosie goes off to kindergarten in a few years, I hope I can stick with it. I hope I can figure out how to overcome even more challenges of a freelance writing career; I hope I’m lucky enough to. I’m not one of those dissatisfied and lonely stay-at-home-moms. I love my life. I love my career. And here’s to making sure I continue to improve so I can live this life for at least another ten years.

So what do you know about freelance writing? Please share.

Reading the summer of 2015

I’m sitting here at my desk with the air conditioning blowing on my shoulders. Condensation clouds the window beside me. And I don’t have to step outside to know it’s already hot enough to take your breath away. Summer is still cooking, at least weather-wise, here in South Carolina. But the boys are already in their second week back to school, which, for me, more so than any other seasonal indicator, means summer is over. The heat will linger for another month or so, but summer–both flexible and demanding with all three kids at home–comes to a fast end around here.

cabin in southern US--Library of Congress--circa 1940

After getting the kids back to school last week, and trying to get a handle on what my days would look like for the next nine months, I felt reflective. I looked through my calendar to see what, if anything, I’d accomplished over the break. (When I’m in the trenches, I have no idea.) I have this thing where I measure my self-worth in goals set and achieved. And I was so pleased to see I am a valuable and productive member of society. This summer I cleaned out my closet. I worked on my editorial consulting business, bringing back my newsletter, updating the web site, stuff like that. And I sent out a few submissions. But I think the finest way to measure the value of time spend might be the books you’ve read. So most importantly, I read this summer–lots of good stuff too, stuff I’d been wanting to read. Stuff that’s still sticking to me.

My summer reading list was like a short course in southern gothic literature, which I love but didn’t plan. Here’s a list of my favorite books I read this summer, in no particular order.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt–This book is like required reading around here. I have had a copy of this book sitting on my shelf for years, and I’m a little ashamed of myself for having lived in the Savannah area for so long without having read it. I’m probably the last person in my town to read it (Bluffton, remember the guy at Jim Williams’s Christmas party who shot the Marine (who had broken into his house) in the head? He was one of ours.) But now I have read it, and I’m so happy I did.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd–This book holds a special place in my summer memories because on the evening of June 17, I stayed up late engulfed in the story of these two women. The next morning I remember coming downstairs, starting my kettle of water for coffee, and logging on to Facebook on my phone. (This is a morning habit I would actually like to break.) That was how I learned about the shooting at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston. Reading this book at that time gave the tragedy a deeply troubling context about race in America. After the shooting, I had to take a break. As hooked as I was on the story, I couldn’t stand to read it. But I recommend that you do because it’s an amazing story and knowing the history of racial tension should, hopefully, better equip us to ease it today.

The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 by William and Fran Marscher–Hurricanes and storm surge weigh heavily on my mind as a resident of the coast. (Erika, I’m watching you.) Sure, I might be surprised with waterfront property in the future, but the gloom-and-doom environmental pessimist inside me worries it won’t be that pretty. When most of us think about societal chaos brought on by natural disaster, we think of Katrina. But apparently we have a history of poor response and slow recovery. The Marschers’ book was written pre-Katrina, but the events in this book bear an eery resemblance. The Marschers give talks about the storm around the Bluffton-Hilton Head area. In fact, I just missed one last week. But if you’re around, you should watch for them.

The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor–Another reason I should be ashamed of myself as a resident of the south: I haven’t read Flannery O’Connor since my college literature class. I know, I know. My only excuse is that I’m a slow reader with a long to-read list. In any case, this is an amazing, dark, and frightening novel–southern gothic at its finest. And if you’re behind on your Flannery O’Connor, this book will only make you want more.

Pulphead; Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan–Before getting ahold of this collection, I read one of Sullivan’s essays in the New York Times a few years ago. It was about smoking weed at Disney World and it was memorably hilarious. Sullivan is a great writer to read. He is hilarious and smart and damn it he has a way with words. Plus he’s written about all the coolest topics, like Axl Rose, Michael Jackson, The Real World, and Southern Death Cult cave drawings. There’s plenty of pot smoke and beautiful sentences, southern regionalism and pop culture in Pulphead. And if you share my love of dark and bizarre wild animal stories, “The Violence of the Lambs,” is a must-read.

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash–A friend from my writers group recommended this author to me, and I’m so glad she did. The characters are down-and-out, rural, and troubled; and their story occurs in a place with a dark and bloody Civil War past that continues to grip and shadow life in the area. The situation and the story created a beautiful portrait of rural southern life. As a rural northerner, I love this sort of book for its familiarity. The World Made Straight was a great novel and I look forward to reading more Ron Rash in seasons to come.

Minnow by James E. McTeer II–I haven’t actually finished this one yet, but I want to mention it because it’s so good and it fits nicely in this post’s southern gothic theme. Plus, Minnow takes place in Beaufort, South Carolina, which is about thirty minutes north of me. Voodoo, shady strangers, haints, and a boy’s quest to save his dying father, this adventure story has it all. No wonder it won the South Carolina First Novel Prize last year.

So that’s my list–my catalogue of a summer well read. What did you read and love this summer? Please share.

P.S. Most of the book links in this post are Amazon affiliate links, so, full disclosure, purchasing through them will help keep me in books. And the image came from the Library of Congress.