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Ovid is just plain fun to read. There are classic Latin texts that feel like doing homework, but Ovid — especially his Metamorphoses — just scoots by and can only be described in modern terms as a “page turner.” 

Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC to AD 17) was probably the most prolific poet of ancient Rome, writing many books, often quite salacious. He wrote about how to seduce a woman, how women should attract men, how to break up with a woman — you get the picture. But his most famous book was “Changes,” or Metamorphoses in its original, which told dozens of mythological stories, mostly old Greek tales. It was a best-seller when it was written, copied out by hand many times over, and remained a best-seller through the Middle Ages and into modern times. Many writers — including Shakespeare — cribbed from Ovid and a good deal of what most people have absorbed of Greek mythology really comes through Ovid as the middle man. If you know about Daphne and Apollo or Pyramus and Thisbe, it is likely the Ovidian version you have seen. 

Ovid wrote in a sleek, fast Latin that told his stories economically. He has been used to teach students Latin for centuries, and has been translated into most of the world’s languages.

I’m one of Ovid’s devoted readers, and have gone through the book many times, in different translations, beginning in the 1960s with the old, standard Rolfe Humphries version (which I can’t say I found easy going). 

Since then, I have re-read the Metamorphoses many times, each time in a new translation. The newest is by Stephanie McCarter. She is not the first woman to take on the work, but she has made it a point to unforgive the gods their brutality. Where other translators give us gods “ravishing” their mortal victims, McCarter forthrightly calls it rape. In the “Me-Too” era, there is no glossing over the violence and brutality, the sexism and misogyny inherent in the myths. 

I applaud this shift of reference, but despite that, I found her verse tough plowing. These things are a matter of taste. Previously I had sailed through the 2004 translation by Charles Martin and found the lines so fast under my eyes, I hardly noticed I was reading a translation. Turning the pages with McCarter, I never forget that under her words there is a Latin pluperfect subjunctive. That it is a reasonably accurate version I don’t question. It is. But I want something else for my pleasure. Ovid’s original was always praised for its fleetness, and so I would wish my English equivalent also to fly by, so that I am immersed in the story rather than in the mechanics of the language relaying it. 

But reading this new version also made me want to look at how others have assayed the project. 

I took on a week-long effort to concentrate on the first four lines of the book and compare how each translator has looked at them, and found rather notable differences, considering how plain the meaning actually is. 

For this, Ovid must take a share of the responsibility. There is some ambiguity in his words, which make the poetry richer, but the translations more problematic. 

Then, there is the question of whether the translation should be prose or verse, and if verse, should it rhyme? Ovid wrote in hexameters, but English is geared to pentameter. Should you try to count six or count five? Six often sounds a bit awkward in English, while pentameter comes as naturally as breathing. Is six closer to Ovid’s original, or is the swiftness of English pentameter more faithful. Each translator has his or her own solution, and any can work. 

The first English translation was by William Caxton, who probably also gave us the first printed version (as opposed to hand-written by scribes), although the only versions extant seem to be the handwritten ones). It was in the Middle English that Chaucer would have read. He titled it The Booke of Ovyde Named Methamorphose

But the first translation that counts and is still readily available was made in 1567 by Arthur Golding. It was Golding that Shakespeare read and cribbed from. He opens his version with the four-line prologue:

It is written in “fourteeners,” the meter and rhyme scheme of the theme song to Gilligan’s Island: “Just sit right back and hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip/ That started from this tropic port, aboard this tiny ship.” It was a popular meter in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nowadays, it can feel a touch jogtrot. (Now try to read Golding’s lines without singing them to the tune). 

The second translation came in 1632, by George Sandys, who decided that English pentameter was more natural to the native speaker and recast the whole in a five-beat line, which shortened each and made for swifter reading, but also left out a bit of the original meaning.

The most famous early translation came out in 1717, done by a team of writers rather than a single translator. These included John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, John Gay, and William Congreve, among others. In was rendered in heroic couplets and was surprisingly fluent. Dryden took on the whole first book and began the introduction:

That became the standard Ovid for many years, and is still read and still quite readable. 

But then came the Victorians, who saw, among other things, Ovid’s usefulness in teaching Latin to its young men. And so you get a spate of them, usually in prose, meant almost as cribs for translation. 

The one I have read several times is the Henry T. Riley, in a two volume pocket series published in 1899. Like many of the versions of its era, its notes try very hard to reconcile Ovid’s paganism with Victorian Christianity, and so, where Ovid talks of “gods,” the Victorian translators often write “God.” This isn’t much of a problem, if you are aware of it as you read. Riley’s proem runs:

Anthony S. Kline, who seems to have translated pretty much everything at one point or another, came out with his Ovid in 1903. It is still widely available. It is in prose and meant to be almost pedestrian, i.e., not high-falutin’ and poeticalized. 

In 1916, the Loeb Library translation came out, with Ovid’s Latin on the left-hand page and Frank Justus Miller’s prose on the right-hand, opposite the original. It doesn’t quite work as an interlinear, but it will help anyone attempting the work in Latin. 

In 1922, writer Brookes More gave us a prose version for Theoi Classical Texts. Like many others, it as much interprets Ovid’s words as translates them. The word “strange” does not appear in the Latin. 

A new spate of translations hit in the 1950s, after the war, when so many new students were headed to university under the G.I. Bill. 

In 1954, A.E. Watts put it in pentameter and squeezed it all down to a fast-running nugget. His purpose seems to be to get the gist as directly as possible. 

A year later, Mary M. Innes uses prose and is pretty much as close to the original as it can get, across languages and cultures. It has been a mainstay of Penguin Classics and is still widely available and read. 

The same year, the widely read Rolfe Humphries version came out in what must have been at the time a very contemporary sounding verse. It is the one I read in high school and didn’t like. Reading it now, I wonder what was I thinking. It is still in print, in a shiny, new annotated version published by Indiana University Press. It moves quite fast. 

Finally, in 1958, Horace Gregory published his verse version, which attempts, also, to feel contemporary, but to my ears feels a tad straight-laced. 

The text sat dormant for a couple of decades, but in the 1980s, Ovid became a growth industry again. 

Oxford World Classics commissioned A.D. Melville for a new translation of the Metamorphoses, published in 1986. It is self-consciously poetic, with words such as “ere,” “countenance,” and “naught” to stumble over where more conversational words would be clearer. 

Charles Boer took another approach in 1989, with what one reviewer said is “like it’s spouted from the lips of some prehistoric shaman, barking out a tale to his animal skin-garbed flock.” In short, punchy lines, not always strictly grammatical, he seems to want to express each point as curtly as a newspaper headline. Articles evaporate and nouns shoot each other. It’s sui generis. To give the flavor of it, I have to quote more than just the proem. 

The proem is short and pithy, but the whole book is an acquired taste

Allen Mandelbaum was a translating machine, and has given us versions of almost everything we might want to read, from Homer to Vergil to Dante. His Ovid, from 1993, in an Everyman Classic, which means it is gorgeously bound and printed in a handsome Bembo typeface. This is a book that looks really good on a bookshelf, but I’m afraid I find the translation rather worksmanlike. He takes six lines to say what Ovid said in four. 

David Slavitt competed in 1994, with an entry in a very loose hexameter and what he says is “translated freely into verse.” He wanders a bit, and seems to add things into the text that sound more like commentaries on the text. In his introduction he writes: “As a translator, I take all kinds of liberties, but I am strict in my observation of length and scale, which I take to be significant artistic decisions that any new poem ought to respect and re-create.” In other words, he’d rather match Ovid’s prosody than his content. Some people swear by him.

The new century, 2000 years after Ovid actually wrote the thing, has exploded with new versions of his magnum opus. 

Philip Ambrose attempts to keep a line-by-line parallel with Ovid’s Latin, with sometimes an awkward phrasing, as when Phoebus, sounding like Yoda, tells Phaethon “But warn against this action I can”

Also in 2001, Michael Simpson brought out his prose version, attempting, he says in his introduction, “the rapid and direct American idiom while avoiding colloquialism on the one hand and academic translationese on the other. His version includes as many pages of notes, as of poem. 

I’m jumping ahead to 2004, skipping over Charles Martin for the moment, and to David Raeburn’s version for Penguin Classics, available in a handsome clothbound edition. It looks great on a bookshelf, but Raeburn’s somewhat wordy take means that most of the lines are longer than the page is wide, leading to insufferable line-breaks. Ugly. Reading it is like taking three steps forward and one back, over and over again. (This is a problem of book design rather than translation). 

In 2012, Ian Johnston put the text into swift pentameter, and what is more, posted the entire book for free on his website. There is also, of course, a handsome physical book to buy. The tales are laid out with marginal headings to keep track of the often confusingly interlaced stories. 

That leaves three translation to consider: My two favorites and the newest one. 

Charles Martin’s 2004 version for W.W. Norton is about as graceful as you can get, with a very free pentameter that moves as swiftly as Ovid is meant to move. I find no speedbumps in its wordage or lineage. It is the version I read over and over. 

But that doesn’t mean it is my true favorite, which is, I think, the best translation of anything that I have ever encountered. The problem is that Ted Hughes only worked on sections of the Metamorphoses, and so his version is incomplete, and second that his truly free approach means that he occasionally slightly rewrites Ovid to make things clearer or more proportioned to English (Ovid’s Latin doesn’t work word-for-word in English). It’s as if it were a completely original poem by Hughes rather than a translation of the Latin. I absolutely love Ted Hughes Tales from Ovid and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Which brings me back to the new McCarter translation, the latest in the long freight-train line of Penguin Books versions. If you read just the proem, she gets the gist of it absolutely perfectly, both metrically (as pentameter) and by giving us Ovid’s meaning as clearly as possible. 

But the rest of the book is less graceful, and about three pages in, I found myself working to read it. Martin’s version is greased and slides frictionless. McCarter is more like bumper-to-bumper traffic on the interstate, with a kind of start-and stop hiccups, and it sometimes suffers from what Simpson dubbed “translationese.” 

Translations seem to fall into one of three camps. One attempts to be as faithful as possible to the original, to simplify it and make it plain; the second seeks to poeticize it and make it sound as much like poetry as possible, and by that, we mean Victorian poetry; a third stream values contemporaneity, to make Ovid sound as if he were writing today, with the risk that in another 10 years it might sound as dated as Beatniks or bell bottoms. 

Any of these approaches can work, as long as the words spring along quickly and effortlessly, and Ovid’s stories keep you turning pages. Tastes vary and any one of these translation may strike you. I’ve laid out the range of them, and they can all be found somewhere in some published form. 

The best version for you is, of course, the one that keeps you reading to the end. 

Next time: A closer look at Ovid’s Latin

I’m tired of hearing that we live in a visual culture. The fact is, we are generally very bad at seeing. I am constantly reminded of this by bad signage, bad book design, bad photographs, and bad TV. To say nothing of the horror that is TikTok. 

It may be true that we like to use images instead of text whenever we can, but we also tend to treat the images as if they were text: That is, we turn them into the equivalent of hieroglyphs or rebuses. Hence the popularity of emojis. 

But seeing a picture of a house and thinking “house,” is really just turning a picture into a word. Yes, no alphabetic letters need be used, but the information conveyed is basically the same. That is not seeing; it is translating. 

I am reminded of this because of a frequent problem I find on some back-channel TV stations when they broadcast a program in the wrong aspect ratio. It is a visual goof that bothers me no end, and yet, so many people, when I point it out, simply don’t notice it. Faces can be squeezed thin or stretched fat and the visual-verbal translation isn’t affected, and therefore, not noticed. 

 

Believe me, I’ve been laughed at for fussing over aspect ratio. But how can people not SEE? The visual information is distorted even if the verbal information is left unbothered. 

Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the width of an image compared with its height. A square is the same in both measurements, and hence, its ratio — its aspect ratio — is one-to-one — 1:1. 

If a rectangle is twice as wide as it is tall, its aspect ratio is 2:1. 

When photographs are made, or films or TV is shot, they are created in a particular aspect ratio. For instance, for decades, the standard aspect ratio for Hollywood films was 1.375:1, which was adopted in 1932 for the entire industry. Before that, silent films were mostly shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which can also be stated as a 4:3 ratio, which corresponded to four sprocket-holes on standard 35mm film. But when sound was added as an extra track alongside the image on the film, the picture had to be made a wee bit smaller to accommodate, and hence, the 1.375:1 ratio. 

That all sounds very technical and who cares? Well, what happens, then, when you display an old film on a new TV, which are now standardize at an aspect ratio of 16:9, a “widescreen” ratio? When done right, you get a “letterboxed” image, with black bars on either side of the picture. When done wrong, the squarer image is stretched out to fill the wider screen and you get a lot of fat people. 

This used to be a big problem in the early days of digital television, when many stations heard complaints about those letterboxed images. The response was to crop the movies down to fit the screen, losing a good bit of visual information in the process (a process dubbed “pan and scan”), or — too often — just stretch it all out to fit. To anyone sensitive to visuals, this was a nightmare. But again, many people — especially at the TV stations mutilating the images — just didn’t seem to think it important. 

The reverse also happens when a real widescreen movie (some films are made in aspect ratios wider than 16:9, such as the 2.4:1 of the most widely used widescreen movies. Then, shown on a standard TV screen, you get everything squished down. 

Many of these widescreen movies were shot with anamorphic lenses, which allowed for a wider image to fit onto a narrower piece of film. In essence, they squeezed the picture thin on purpose, and then when it was projected in a theater, a reverse anamorphic projection lens would spread the image back out to its natural dimensions. Tons of films were made (and are made) this way. 

The problem shows up with DVDs, too. Some are produced in a natural aspect ratio, usually 16:9, but others, mostly older ones, were created anamorphically, and so you may need to use your remote to find the proper aspect ratio (or “screen size”) for the disc. If not, you watch squeezed people. 

I remember when my college film series showed a version of Bad Day at Black Rock but didn’t correct the anamorphic images. We watched the whole movie distorted into a squished frame. It was nauseating, at least to me. The projectionist, when this was pointed out, said he didn’t see what I was talking about. (The same projectionist showed Birth of a Nation with the music track turned off because “it’s a silent film.” There is no accounting for how these people get in charge of things.) 

Most all of us have something like this, which bothers us no end. For some it is bad spelling or incorrect grammar. For others, it is making too much noise when eating soup. Others still cannot bear canned laughter on sitcoms, or the superfluous chyrons streaming across the bottoms of cable newscasts, telling us exactly what the speaker is saying. We can hear them, you know. You don’t need to spell it out. 

Anyway, one of those irritations that just drives me nuts is the inability of so many to actually notice when the picture has gone bad on their TV. The wider the original, the squishier the mistake. I remember seeing an early broadcast of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly scrunched into an old cathode-ray TV screen, like a closed accordion, and I thought, “How can poor Clint Eastwood even breathe?”

The aspect ratio problem, though, is really just a symptom of a wider issue: that too many of us are just bad at seeing, of not paying attention to what our eyes are telling us. It is the translation problem: We don’t see to see, we see to extract only so much information as we feel we need. If we can follow the plot with skinny people, then good enough. 

But seeing isn’t just about keeping track of the story. It is about being alive in the world, of noticing everything around you, of taking in what existence gifts you with. The green of a tree, the roundness of a tire, the texture of denim. To notice is to be alive; failure to notice is deadening. 

Art, and I include even popular art, is there to remind us of, and to interpret, the world we live in and the lives we lead. The best art slaps us awake, the way the slap of the doctor makes the newborn take its first breath. We can see what we had taken for granted, we can reinterpret what had become habitual. Failure to use your eyes is to refuse a gift being offered by existence. 

Click any image to enlarge

I have lived in all four corners of this country: in the Northeast until I was 17; in the South — for the first time — until I was 30; in the Northwest for a bit more than a year; back in the South until I turned 39; moved to the Southwest until I was 64; and back, finally, to the South. I am now 74. And so, I’ve lived in the American South longer than anywhere else, and while that does not give me the right to consider myself a Southerner (you have to be born here for that — maybe even your granddaddy had to have been born there for that), I have come to have a complex and conflicted love for the region. The South has a mythic hold on the psyche that no other region can match. 

Oxford, Mississippi

Perhaps the biggest problem in dealing with the American South is that there is no good way to separate the reality of it from its mythic power. Other regions have their myth, too, for sure. There is a Puritan New England, and there is the Wild West, but both of those have an element of legend to them — they are made up of familiar stories, whether of pilgrims debarking at Plymouth Rock, or Wild Bill Hickok playing aces and eights. These are stories that get repeated and we presume they tell us something about the character of the inhabitants of these regions. But the South is not built of stories, but of myth, which another thing entirely. 

There is something external about stories and legends; myth is born from that place in the psyche that Carl Jung called “the shadow.” Stories are told; myth is felt. It is something profound but unexamined — it is the sense of significance, of meaning, even if we cannot exactly put our finger on any specific meaning — the way a dream can feel significant, even if we don’t know why. 

Windsor Ruins, Mississippi

And there are at least four conflicting myths about the South, which can overlap. There is the “moonlight and magnolias,” which is now and has always been bullhockey; there is the redneck South, riven with poverty, ignorance and superstition; there is the Black South, which has its own subdivisions. And then, of course, there is the “New South,” with its Research Triangles and its civic progress. 

Yanceyville, North Carolina

The first is the bearer of the Lost Cause, a self-deluded sense that the Old South was a place of gentility and honor; the second includes both the rural farm South and the Appalachian hillbilly; the third is counterweight to both of the first two, and yet, is also the power-grid on which the first two run — it is there behind all of it. 

And lastly, if you have ever watched a new butterfly wriggle slowly, struggling out of its chrysalis, seeming to be stuck halfway, then you have a pretty good image for the New South trying to leave behind the problems of the Old. The Old is unwilling to let go. 

Because history is the foundation of Southernness. 

 

Zubulon Vance birthplace, North Carolina

When I first arrived in the South, in 1966, one of the first things I saw on driving into the campus of Guilford College, in Greensboro, N.C., was a giant banner hanging out of the third-story window of my dorm with “Forget? Hell!!” written on it in gigantic hand-scrawled letters written on a bedsheet. It was my introduction to the sense of grievance that has ridden the back of the South since the Civil War. It is a sense of being put upon by others, of having been defeated despite the assumed bravery, honor and courage of the soldiers attempting to protect the South and its heritage. Of course, this is all myth, but myth is a powerful driver. 

In Homer’s Iliad, when two soldiers meet on the fields outside Troy  and are about to beat each other into bone-snapping pulp, they first stop to tell each other their genealogy. 

“And the son of Hippolochus answered, ‘Son of Tydeus, why ask me of my lineage? … If, then, you would learn my descent, it is one that is well known to many. There is a city in the heart of Argos, pasture land of horses, called Ephyra, where Sisyphus lived, who was the craftiest of all mankind. He was the son of Aeolus, and had a son named Glaucus, who was father to Bellerophon, whom heaven endowed with the most surpassing comeliness and beauty’…” And this goes on for another 30 lines, explaining the history of his family from its origin among the gods. No one is merely an individual, but rather the tail-end of a long history, known to both the warrior himself and to his foe. 

Bell Family, Mayodan, North Carolina

This sense of history is rife in the American South, too, and the Civil War takes the place of the heights of Ilion. 

My late wife, Carole Steele, was born in North Carolina and learned about the war first-hand from her great-grandmother, Nancy Hutcherson Steele, who was 10 when it began. She had plowed the fields during the war while her father and brothers were away fighting. When she died at the age of 98, she did so in my wife’s childhood bed in a small house on the banks of the Dan River. Carole was 8 at the time.

Steele family, just after Civil War

The confluence of childhood and history formed the seed of the poetry she wrote. The blood in her veins was the blood in her father’s veins, in her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s. History, blood and identity flowed like a river. 

“My father’s blood is always a river/ rushing to his mind/ igniting diamonds,” she wrote. She called the sense of history being alive in the genes the “long man,” an identity stretching across centuries. 

Carole described the feeling in several of her poems. One describes the feeling of being in the South and reads, in part, “It was for the wasps/ singing in the rotten apples/ under the trees,/ the sweetish smell/ of rabbit guts and/ frozen fur stuck to the bloody/ fingers/ and frost on the stubble,/ the dipper and the well,/ tobacco juice in the privet hedge,/ and liquid night/ the muted rumble/ of old voices/ at the kitchen table/ drifting up the wooden stairs”

I learned from Carole and her family, that there is usually a deep sense of belonging that Southerners feel: The second pillar of Southernness is place, and what is more, place and history are almost the same thing. A genuine love of the patch of ground where they grew up, a love like you feel for a parent. It is a love of where you were born that may not extend beyond the town or county and maybe the state. But for Carole, Rockingham County was where her father and grandfather were buried. Another poem ends: “your Daddy is a fragrance/ gathered in the peach trees/ over there.”

That fact alone meant there was an unseverable umbilical connection to that omphalos, that tiny patch of Piedmont, those trees, those creeks and rivers, those very weeds that crept over the edges of the crumbling pavement on the back roads. It is the feel of the red clay between your fingers, the blackbirds roosting by the hundreds in the oak tree. Home. 

And, in the meantime, the blood of countless slaves and freedmen enlarged the tragedy of the South. There were lynchings and later the violence of the civil-rights movement.

Mobile, Alabama

It isn’t only rancor and slaughter that give the South its sense of history, but the land itself. You can stand in a cornfield in rural Sprott, Ala., 25 miles north of Selma, and see the stand of trees at its border, knowing the trees are no more than 60 years old. And that before those trees began filling in the countryside, there were cotton, sharecroppers and poverty. A dilapidated wooden shack sits in the middle of the woods, and you wonder why anyone ever built there.

Then you recognize they didn’t. The sharecroppers’ home — just like those written about by James Agee in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men of 1941 — was built by a cotton field, but times change and history presses on and the fields are now woods.

Sprott, Alabama

There is history elsewhere in the country, too: Bunker Hill, Mass., Fort Ticonderoga in New York or Tombstone, Ariz. But they are singular places you go to visit — somebody else’s history. The South is so full of history that its land and people seem buried under the sense of it.

The first democratic legislature in the New World was Virginia’s House of Burgesses. The author of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian. And the Revolutionary War came to a close at Yorktown, Va.

Shiloh battlefield, Tennessee

Each state has its Civil War sites, where thousands of its men are buried. There are the street corners where civil-rights workers were hosed and beaten by police. Cotton fields where slaves were whipped. It is interesting that the one place in the country where Black and White share the most is the South.

For most Americans, history is a story told in a schoolbook. It seems removed from the lives we live. For most Southerners, history is something their grandparents did or was done to them.

And I, of course, have come late to this epic, first in 1966 when segregation was officially illegal but still largely in effect. The local barber shop would not cut a Black man’s hair; “We were not trained how to,” the barber explained, weakly and not very convincingly.

Jim Crow was so unconsciously buried in the White brain that a local ministry could, with no irony, proudly boast that it offered help and aid to “the alcoholic, the prostitute, and the Negro.” 

 

After graduating from college, I eventually found work writing for the Black weekly newspaper in Greensboro, N.C., The Carolina Peacemaker, where I found myself writing editorials for the city’s Black population. It felt strange to do so, but I never felt less than completely welcome. When I visited the African Methodist Episcopal church, I was invited in with a warmth I never felt in New Jersey — and, I might add, magnificently fed in the church basement after the service. Clearly the resistance to change in the South was a one-way thing. 

My daughter, Susie, who is also a journalist, worked in daily papers in Jackson, Miss., and Mobile, Ala., also started on a Black weekly — the Jackson Advocate, in Mississippi, where she had the same experience I did of welcome and inclusion. 

I did not find that sense in 1967 when I and a few of my college friends attended a Ku Klux Klan rally in Liberty, N.C. There, the sheriff of Forsyth County gave the keynote harangue with tales of Africans feeding their babies to crocodiles, and how Africans still had the “stub of a tail.” The smell of alcohol was pervasive, and the festivities ended with the circling and burning of a 30-foot cross, built of intersecting phone poles set alight with poured kerosene. Meanwhile, a scratchy recording of The Old Rugged Cross played on a miserable loudspeaker system. 

Later, I covered the followup to the 1979 Klan shootings in Greensboro. Klan members and American Nazi Party members were acquitted for the killings of five protesters. The city police were claimed to have colluded with the Klan, and 25 years later, the city apologized. So, the recent rash of police violence against people of color comes as neither surprise nor shock to me. 

Yet, I love the South and choose to live here. It fills my mythic life also. In the 1970s, it was the Eden from which I was exiled. I was setting roots and rhizomes in the soil of the house I shared with the woman I expected to grow old with. It was the paradise garden: In the front yard was an Yggdrasil of a shaggy, ancient black walnut tree, covered in moss. In the back yard was a pecan tree. There were two fig trees from which we ate fresh figs. There was a vacant lot next door with an old pear tree. A chinaberry grew on the street side. And a proud row of the most brilliant red maple trees along the road, changing reds throughout the year — buds, flowers, leaves, branches, each with their own ruddy glow. 

There were lilacs beside the house, wild Cherokee roses along the driveway, random chickory spreading blue along the foundation. Between our yard and the vacant lot, I counted more than a hundred species of weed — or rather, wildflower — with my Peterson Guide. I grew a vegetable garden with beans, peppers, eggplants, okra and tomatoes. 

There were mockingbirds that I trained to whistle, pileated woodpeckers that would climb the pecan tree. Crows, owls, cardinals, sparrows, redwing blackbirds, the rare ruby-throated hummingbird. Circling overhead were buzzards and hawks. There were butterflies and beetles. Ants highwayed up and down the walnut tree. A luna moth sat on the screen door. 

We lived there for seven years, digging our feet deeper into the soil, until the Archangel Michael came brandishing his sword: My love left me suddenly and I left the house. And I left the South. 

When I returned, some years later and bearing with me a numbed depression, I was taken in by my college friend and his wife, and a second, shadow-Eden was set in Summerfield, N.C., in an old house with only a wood stove for heat, and three great ancient oak trees in the back. I walked through the woods behind the house and into a small ravine — the petit canyon — and soaked my loss in the loam and leaf litter. 

The thing about depression and myth is that they play into each other. It isn’t so much that depression makes you the center of the universe, but that it wipes away everything else, leaving only yourself and your loss. You are forced to experience your life at a mythic level and for me that meant the land, its history and its people. 

New River, Ashe County, North Carolina

I recovered, moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains when I was invited by Carole. The house was on a bluff above the New River, with a dark green patch of pine trees on the hill and an unmowed grassy field on the other side of the house. I could stand at the kitchen sink, doing dishes, and watch the weather shift over the peak of Mt. Jefferson, five miles off to the north. 

Ashe County, North Carolina

Together we moved to Virginia, where Carole taught in Norfolk and I taught in Virginia Beach. Six years there, with much travel around the country. When Carole got a job offer in Arizona, we moved, lived in the desert for 25 years and when we both retired, moved back to North Carolina, to be near our daughter. 

Swannanoa Mountains, Asheville, North Carolina

It’s been 10 years now, and five since Carole died, and I have hunkered down in Asheville, at the foot of the Swannanoa Mountains, and feel as if I am where I belong. The trees and birds, the weeds and the occasional wandering black bear, the snow on top of the hills, the barbecue joints and auto parts stores. 

Age has a way of deflating myth. When I was in my 20s, the world seemed aglow, lit from within by a kind of mythic importance. The South had that glow: its people, its landscape, its history. I have come back to the South after a quarter-century in the desert. It has lost some of its oneiric power, as, indeed, the world has in general. But the South feels comfortable and human and my children and grandchildren all live here and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I burrow in and pull its blankets around my shoulders. 

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