Lower Savannah River, Georgia USA
TYPE OF WOUNDED PLACE
TYPE OF STORY
Story & Experience
Standing on the banks of the lower Savannah/Westobou River right below the Houlihan Bridge at the public boat ramp, looking southeast I stand with Ernie by my side pondering the enormous industrial cranes of the Port of Savannah that stand towering above the tree line on land now owned by the State of Georgia. Immediately to the south of where we stand, behind a thick wall of cypress, oak, pine, and shrubs is one of at least three paper mills along the lower river. It is high tide.
Earlier this month the largest container ship to ever call on a U.S. port docked at those industrial cranes to the southeast of us as its international cargo was off-loaded to distribution warehouses owned by Amazon, Target, Walmart, and numerous other retail corporations. Tourists, locals, and TV cameras excitedly flocked to Savannah’s River Street to witness the enormous cargo vessel as it passed by. Meanwhile, less than a mile from the river in the home I grew up in and still live, my heart ached at the ecological devastation that had made this port call possible—the deepening and devastation of the Savannah/Westobou River, our region’s cultural and ecological heart. Planned for over 20 years, the river deepening has meant the installation of pumps and oxygen systems along the banks in order to keep salt water from intruding into the already depleted Floridian Aquifer and to keep oxygen levels high enough for life to persist.
And, oh what life the river contains and supports! As an estuarine system in which salt and brackish waters mix twice a day as far as 30 miles up the river, the diversity and abundance of aquatic and terrestrial life here must have been purely astounding in my great-great grandfather’s time. Growing up in Savannah I would hear stories of weekly Wednesday afternoon fishing and hunting expeditions on the river. After lunch, the stories go, entire families would take off from work and school and head out to the river. Today there are still dolphins, manatees, sturgeon, alligators, and bald eagles. But my dad, who would have been 94 years old this year, would tell me about the thousands of ducks of different species and paddlefish and sawfish that lived in and on the river when he was a young man. Such devastation, such loss can happen so fast. How do we put a stop to such devastation once it has begun?
Back at the boat ramp, what Ernie and I cannot see looking towards the Port are the concrete pads below the industrial cranes where stacks and stacks of colorful containers are piled. These concrete pads extend for miles downriver towards the City of Savannah. They were built atop river-front land where dense marshes, cypress and tupelo swamps, and forests of live oaks and palmettos and pine trees once stood. These river lands were sacred to the Mississipian culture peoples—the Yuchea, Guale, Westoe, and later the Yemassee and Lower Creek—where for thousands of years before Europeans arrived they had built mounds and cities and prayed and hunted and loved and gave birth and buried their dead. The State of Georgia built its enormous industrial Port facility directly on top of these sacred river grounds. In the 1930’s and 1940’s ceremonial locations and burial mounds were excavated bit by bit under the watchful eye of Western-trained archaeologists who employed women descended from the African people enslaved on and around the rice and cotton plantations that had covered the estuarine river valley from the early 18th Century until after the U.S. Civil War in the late 19th Century. What a horror story—the ancestors of the kidnapped and enslaved digging up the ancestors of the killed, conquered, and displaced. Devastation upon devastation. How do we end these horrors?
The Houlihan Bridge boat ramp is the only publicly accessible point on the Georgia side of the lower river where we can be directly in contact with the river for creating beauty and joy for this wondrous, life-filled, and tragically wounded place. At 10 am the parking lot of the boat ramp is busy, already jammed with trucks and empty boat trailers with more arriving each minute. From this point south and east the mighty river flows past Port Wentworth, Garden City, Savannah, and the main islands of Hutchinson, Fig, Elba, Whitemarsh, Wilmington, Cockspur, and Tybee. To the north and west, the river flows up past the Savannah Wildlife Refuge, the semi-protected lands of Mulberry Grove and Oak Grove, the 18th century settlements of my mother’s family at Ebenezer, and eventually, after travelling 130 miles upriver, reaching the place where my father’s family originally settled near Augusta. You see, I am connected by blood to this river too. My family stole these lands from the Westoe, Yuchi, and Yemassee, and renamed it for ourselves. My family treated human beings kidnapped from the African continent as chattel, disposable property to generate wealth and power from this river’s lands and its waters. This river and the blood that connects me to it reminds me of who I am, and why I am here today. To end the horrors and to stop ecological and cultural genocide. I have asked Ernie to join me today as someone not connected to this place by blood or memory. I need his support to stand beside me to find the strength to face the future and end the devastation and the horrors. We will begin today with our simple act of remembrance, of beauty, of love, and of joy.
Poetry by Langston Hughes (Earth Song and Lament for Dark Peoples) and Anne Spencer (Requiem) was read. We gathered tide-stranded grasses, sticks, roots, and tree limbs, Spanish moss, oyster shells, cypress twigs, and a blue plastic bottle ring to construct our river bird of radical joy and spread it all on the grass along the river bank. Bit by bit our river bird became a great stork-like creature, with thick legs of tree limbs walking upriver, wings of moss and grass gracefully lifted behind, and a large head of roots, cypress twigs, blue-ringed eye, and oyster shell beak facing north. I will hold this river bird of radical joy in my heart and dreams as a prayer for how we might reconcile with one another and Mother Gaia in revolutionary acts of love, reconciliation, justice, and freedom.