Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Magic Descending

In 1833, there was a now-legendary, magical display in the heavens...the Leonid Meteor Shower. From New York to California, from Canada to Alabama, all the world seemed caught up in the trail of the comet Temple-Tuttle.

A firsthand account, from the early morning hours of November 13, 1833:

"See! The whole heavens are on fire! All the stars are falling!" These cries brought us all into the open yard, to gaze upon the grandest and most beautiful scene my eyes have ever beheld. It did appear as if every star had left its moorings, and was drifting rapidly in a westerly direction, leaving behind a track of light which remained visible for several seconds.

"Some of those wandering stars seemed as large as the full moon, or nearly so, and in some cases they appeared to dash at a rapid rate across the general course of the main body of meteors, leaving in their track a bluish light, which gathered into a thin cloud not unlike a puff of smoke from a tobacco-pipe. Some of the meteors were so bright that they were visible for some time after day had fairly dawned.

"Imagine large snowflakes drifting over your head, so near you that you can distinguish them, one from the other, and yet so thick in the air as to almost obscure the sky; then imagine each snowflake to be a meteor, leaving behind it a tail like a little comet; these meteors of all sizes, from that of a drop of water to that of a great star, having the size of the full moon in appearance: and you may then have some faint idea of this wonderful scene." Samuel Rogers, circuit preacher, Toils and Struggles of the Olden Times, 1880.

Many years later, in 1934, Carl Carmer would write a fascinating book Stars Fell on Alabama, an authentic collection of folkways, customs, and an honest look at Alabama circa 1934, complete with poverty and racial violence. Illustrations were provided by the incomparable Cyrus Leroy Baldridge. The frontiespiece was a carefully drawn state map, designating The Red Hills, The Foothills, Black Belt, Cajan Country, and Conjure Country, with a Baldridge illustration for each section, in addition to smaller drawings tucked in along the page edges.

A brief excerpt:

"Alabama felt a magic descending, spreading, long ago. Since then it has been a land with a spell in it - not a good spell, always. Moons, red with the dust of barren hills, thin pine trunks barring horizons, festering swamps, restless yellow rivers, are all a part of a feeling - a strange certainty that above and around them hovers excitement - an emanation of malevolence that threatens to destroy men through dark ways of its own.

"...once upon a time stars fell on Alabama, changing the land's destiny. What had been written in eternal symbols was thus erased - and the region has existed ever since, unreal and fated, bound by a horoscope such as controls no other country."

A bit later in Conjure Country:

"I saw them walking down the hill from the direction of the old house...they wore their Sunday-best - black suits and white shirts and collars for the men, black skirts and white shirt-waists for the women - adding to the silhouette effect as I looked up at the long line of them in sharp outline against the red clay of the barren slope and the light blue of the sky behind it. They were singing a spirtual, one I have rarely heard, 'Break Them Chains', and they were swaying slowly in time to its minor cadences."

From Tuscaloosa Nights:

"Beneath the tall elms on Queen City Avenue rode three horsemen robed in white. As they passed the black background of the big tree trunks the moonlight picked them out distinctly...

"Behind the mounted trio stretched a long column of marching white figures, two and two, like an army of coupled ghosts, their shapeless flopping garments tossing up and down in the still night air.

"Look," he said, "can you see their shoes? They tell alot."

"Moving under the edges of the white robes were pants-leg ends and shoes, hundreds of them. A pair that buttoned and had cloth tops, a heavy laced pair splashed with mud, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters - a yellow pair with knobbly toes swung past. At the very end a lone figure in sturdy grained oxfords, his sheet twisted awry, stepped gingerly - a little uncertainly."

"So I have chosen to write of Alabama not as a state which is part of a nation, but as a strange country in which I once lived and from which I have now returned...."

Stars Fell on Alabama, Carl Carmer, Offered for sale by Chewybooks as of October 27,2009.

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