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Emotional Road Trip Back South

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“Robert seemed thrilled by the prospect of this buddy trip. On the folded-down back seat of my VW Fox, Robert had set up a little travel planning office complete with a bar. As he put a few cubes of ice in a glass, he said, ‘We are not paying for ice. I read that we can raid motels for ice.’ His maps and AAA TripTiks™ spilled from his Christian Louboutin™ porte-document case. Robert had never done anything tacky in his life. (‘Well, nothing I can recall at this moment,’ he’d say, with a long, slow, sideways glance and a finger on his lips.) Tacky just wasn’t his style. So this roadside attraction-studded road trip would be a first for him.”Jenks Farmer

Plant People

By Jenks Farmer

Garden Disruptors book cover
Garden Disruptors: The Rebel Misfits Who Turned Southern Horticulture on Its Head, by Jenks Farmer.

Jenks Farmer

COLUMBIA South Carolina—(Hubris)—June & July 2024—In Seattle, people hibernate in winter, but it’s the opposite in the South. Winter can be beautiful and active. Summer makes you stop, sit in the shade, go to a movie, or read. Or write. Covid Lockdown Summer turned the world upside down. Plant orders rolled in. But hypocritical politicians “streamlining” the US Post Office hurt our small business and made our work twice as hard. Writing time evaporated. The only thing sitting on the porch and relaxing around here was my book.

As I worked, I tried to put the book’s arc and themes together. Driving a tractor ‘round and ‘round a field has always been good story-writing time for me. Chatting while gardening is great too. I could test transitions and run ideas by Tom and our small crew in an informal setting—a hot, uncomfortable setting where honesty flows freely.

Even though I couldn’t focus on a computer, the book gelled. I came to see it as a rags-to-riches story like “Cinderella.” But not about castles or monetary rewards. More like “The Bad News Bears” or James and the Giant Peach, where the riches came as recognition and cheer-worthy rewards.

It would be about oddball gardeners with plant obsessions. People who looked at society and thought, “The rest of the world is crazy. I’d rather be with plants.”

What follows here is an excerpt from Garden Disruptors: The Rebel Misfits Who Turned Southern Horticulture on Its Head.

A VW Fox in its element. (Photo: Car Info.)
A VW Fox in its element. (Photo: Car Info.)

My friend Robert was an erudite, cultivated, classically sarcastic gentleman. He was a collector of textiles and haute couture. He was the recently retired director of the Decorative Arts Museum and had escaped to Seattle from New Orleans decades earlier. He had made a fabulous life. He was the kind of guy in possession of champagne sets, a silver spoon warmer, and an acerbic wit.

Anytime I visited, thoughtful Robert served snacks in a sweetgrass basket, knowing its craftwork reminded me of home. Robert was an up-to-date, self-aware version of Daddy’s brother, my somewhat pretentious gay uncle, and his antique dealing lover. Robert melded the pretenses of the old queens I’d known with a self-awareness expertly conveyed with a wink of the eye at the absurdity of all of his fancy trappings.

Like so many of those older queens, whom I now realize had been lifelong mentors, he had AIDS. It was a death sentence, but Robert stayed healthy for a long time. He took care of himself and sold his cat. Back then, we knew so little about the disease that we thought you couldn’t have a cat if you had AIDS for fear of contracting toxoplasmosis.

Seattle’s AIDS activists. (Photo: AIDS Memorial Pathway.)
Seattle’s AIDS activists. (Photo: AIDS Memorial Pathway.)

Robert launched into planning the ultimate American road trip. It was obvious that he was ready to leave. What was not obvious was why he would leave such an open and understanding place. Here, in Seattle, I’d been a part of support groups, the Chicken Soup Brigade, and I’d felt the love people here would lavish on the dying. Public leaders in the South still didn’t even whisper the word AIDS, and judgmental Southern families laid blame and shame.

But Robert seemed thrilled by the prospect of this buddy trip. On the folded-down back seat of my VW Fox, Robert had set up a little travel planning office complete with a bar. As he put a few cubes of ice in a glass, he said, “We are not paying for ice. I read that we can raid motels for ice.” His maps and AAA TripTiks™ spilled from his Christian Louboutin™ porte-document case. Robert had never done anything tacky in his life. (“Well, nothing I can recall at this moment.” he’d say, with a long, slow, sideways glance and a finger on his lips.) Tacky just wasn’t his style. So this roadside attraction-studded road trip would be a first for him.

Dick & Jane’s Garden Art Installation, 1st & Pearl Street in Ellensburg, Washington.
Dick & Jane’s Garden Art Installation, 1st & Pearl Street in Ellensburg, Washington.

On our first stop, just over the Cascades, we wandered around Dick & Jane’s Spot among towering walls of bedazzled bicycle wheels spinning in the arid winds. Days later, we ate roasted corn at The Corn Palace and then turned south to catch the motor courts on Route 66. It would be a zig-zaggy route but this was Robert’s Grand Tour of the roadside attractions of America. Both his first taste of slumming and his slum finale.

On the Fourth of July a long day of driving left us tired, but we couldn’t pass Yellowstone without a glimpse. We illegally parked on a remote northern overlook, and Robert made us martinis in a silver shaker. Sunset painted itself in purples and golds. “It’s a Remington painting,” Robert said as he pointed to the food basket. “Pass the pimento cheese.” We said goodbye to our West with a toast as it started to snow. This snow in July, a wonder for Southerners like us, subdued any sadness.

A day later, we pulled over and stood waist-deep on a plain of waving grain. Looking out into the powerful infinity and the majesty of this country, we cried like babies. “For the purple mountains’ majesty,” we told ourselves, for the bounty, and the spacious sky. We ignored our own loss.

Louisiana live oak. (Photo: Lafourche Live Oak Tour (https://liveoaktour.com/2017/01/17/webre-oaks/).)
Louisiana live oak. (Photo: Lafourche Live Oak Tour).

I dropped Robert off with an art collector friend in New Orleans. As I drove away under the bent live oaks of Louisiana, I pulled over onto a narrow highway shoulder with a ditch of black-tipped Bahia grass and a few tall carnivorous pitcher plants poking through. I wanted to get out and look but I was afraid of snakes and alligators.

Robert’s map was on the floor. It was ticked with all the sites and places that had made up this trip. No more exciting stops now. I was on the red line headed home alone. And I’d just left my friend Robert to die. I cried into my steering wheel, this time not ignoring the truth. I cried for the loss to come, for being alone, for making bad decisions, for the knowledge that I’d chosen the hard road. If I’d ever had a hope chest, it would now be in a dumpster behind a motel on Route 66.

Nothing new in the rear view mirror now as I continued on. Just two-lane roads and too-familiar, one-light towns with three First Baptist churches and, on the edge of town, a Little Pigs Barbecue Hut surrounded by four-wheel-drive pickups. Further out, a gravel lot and a concrete block building, maybe with the words “Soundtrack Supper Club” painted on one side. The name and isolation told me that each one of those buildings was a bar for Black people.

American homophobes are evergreen. (Photo: Fatherly)
American homophobes are evergreen. (Photo: Fatherly.)

In a Mississippi gas station two old men stood at the counter talking about the headlines in a gossip rag newspaper. The White man with suspenders holding up his Wranglers leaned toward the old Black cashier. They greeted me as I walked in, then went back to their conversation about the fuss over Magic Johnson’s AIDS revelation. One of the men said, “Musta’ been some horseplay in the locker room. Fellas do that, you know.”

“Umhum. But he should’a known better,” the other responded.

“Ya’ play, ya’ pay.”

“Sho ‘nough.” They seemed to agree that AIDS was Magic Johnson’s fault, that he deserved its death sentence, and he should just suffer.

I put my Coke on the floor and walked out. What had I done leaving Seattle? I had found what I was longing for and left it. They were right. Not these old coots, but my older gay friends back in Seattle. I would never change anyone or anything here. I should turn around, make another fun road trip with Robert, and admit I was going backwards by coming back to the South. This was the time to drive back to Seattle.

At that moment, the hurt came back. It hadn’t come only from strangers like that old Black man at the counter. He could have been one of my parents’ friends. It hadn’t come only from the White guy. He could have been my father. What hurt was being familiar with these kinds of people and knowing they would have just as easily shamed
and blamed me. These were strangers.

Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign.
Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign.

But the same kind of hurt came from my mother, sisters, cousins, friends, mentors, and teachers in South Carolina. Most would never put it into words. Most loved me and would welcome me back. But I felt that their love came with strings:

“We love you. But.”

“Toughen up, boy. Play baseball.”

”Find a nice girl. Get married.”

“Bite your tongue.”

On the monkey bars in fifth grade, Ann-Cecilia Carrol said what she meant. She told me, “I like ye but I think ye’r a faggot.”

Two words in her sentence confused me. First, the word ye. Anne-Cecilia lived in a Southern oddity, a village of gypsies called Irish Travelers, hidden in the Deep South. They all spoke an Irish Gaelic, redneck, pidgin brogue. Faggot was also new to me. Someone explained the word. It hurt and I came back strong trying to hurt her, “But people call you names, too: gypsies, trashy cons. And you’re gonna be married off to a grown man when you’re in sixth grade!. Why would you want to call me names? To hurt me like I know you’ve been hurt, Anne-Cecilia?”

While it was true that some of these people seemed happy that I was coming back, the rub, the hurt, for me was that they wanted only parts of me, like my gardening skills. They didn’t want me, all of me.

“The Greenville News" covers Shannon Faulkner’s withdrawal from The Citadel.
“The Greenville News” covers Shannon Faulkner’s withdrawal from The Citadel.

My Seattle friends tried to warn me about this. Most knew the South only through headlines, or through my years of complaints and horror stories. Despite my past experience growing up in the South, I couldn’t accept their arguments and defended my decision when they said: “It’s going to be the same, Jenks. You cannot change it. “

“You’ll get beat up.”

“You’ll have to live in the closet.”

“Look what they’re doing to Shannon Faulkner. Why should she have to fight to get admitted to The Citadel? It’s a public college, for God’s sake! A public college that fights in court to keep women out.”

“Do you really think you can change things?”

“That’s a long, long way to try to keep a relationship going.”

Armistead Maupin (l) & friends, 1982, San Francisco. (Photo: The Guardian)
Armistead Maupin (l) & friends, 1982, San Francisco. (Photo: The Guardian.)

I’d had role models for leaving and living as a Southern expat in the Northwest. But there were no role models for going back. André Leon Talley, Truman Capote, were both famous escapees. Armistead Maupin didn’t live in his birthplace of North Carolina but in California. His lauded debut, the Tales in the City mini-series, was banned from South Carolina ETV, and an Alabama station called it a “slick piece of homosexual propaganda.”

Why couldn’t I simply accept that there is a reason that Southerners like me don’t go back home?

John Fairey, one of my mentors and the renowned founder of Peckerwood Garden, told me, “I have never been and will never go home to South Carolina. No. Not even to visit a garden that you make.”

All those men who never came home had a much deeper hurt than I did. And the older men who actually never left the South, like my uncles, stayed and nursed the pain. Both groups had done things to make my life easier. They’d done things at home and from afar that helped change the South and give me, even if I wasn’t thrilled about it, the possibility of going home again.

Charlestonian “Uncles” of the recent past. (Photo: Aubrey Hancock Collection, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, SC.)
Charlestonian “Uncles” of the recent past. (Photo: Aubrey Hancock Collection, College of Charleston Libraries, Charleston, SC.)

I knew I needed them now. So I put them in a little support group in my head. Not only the real uncles but Talley, Quentin Crisp, and Paul Lynde. They became The Uncles, a chorus, a rock band, an all-star group of advisors offering protection and advice—hard-won wisdom based on what they had done when they were alive.

The Uncles had mastered catty commentary because it amused them. In their phrases and the tones in which they spoke them, The Uncles had the power to express more than the meaning of the words. Perhaps just as empowering, they expected others to get it. If you didn’t get it, you didn’t count.

It was time for me to call on The Uncles to help me through the gauntlet of self- satisfied old White men, sanctimonious Sunday school teachers, vapid good ol’ boys, and huntin’-for-a-husband Southern party girls. They all scared me, and I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that I was headed back to a place I was not supposed to be. I hoped that feeling was wrong.

To order Jenks Farmer’s books, click on the book covers below:

Jenks Farmer book Garden Disruptors

Jenks Farmer book Deep Rooted Wisdom

Jenks Farmer book Crinum

Jenks Farmer is a renaissance plantsman. He fell for plant sciences at Clemson University, for botanical garden design at the University of Washington, and for the natural world during an early education from a family of artists, musicians, and farmers. For 20 years, Farmer led teams to plant and establish the vision for two of South Carolina's major botanical gardens; Riverbanks Botanical Garden and Moore Farms. These gardens as well as his designs for homes, museums, and businesses have received awards and delighted hundreds of thousands visitors with the joyful, easy exuberance of hand-crafted gardens. An engaging storyteller and teacher, Farmer has established multiple internship programs and is talented at motivating people of all ages and from all walks of life to get outside and get their hands dirty. Farmer has lectured for groups as varied as the North Carolina State Agricultural faculty, the Smithsonian, Wave Hill, scores of Master Gardeners, and, of course, his grandmother’s Allendale Ladies Afternoon Reading Club. His writing has been published in "Organic Gardening" and "Horticulture," and his photos in the "Royal Horticulture Society Magnolia Quarterly." He is the author of Funky Little Flower Farm, Gardening with Crinum Lilies, and Deep Rooted Wisdom; Lessons Learned from Generations of Gardeners. Farmer lives with his husband and family on an 18th-century South Carolina farm, now the site of a pioneering mail order nursery specializing in organically grown plants of the genus Crinum. (Banner Photo: Paisia Photography; Contributor Photo: Lonnie Webster/Augmented by René Lannen.)

One Comment

  • Will

    Wonderful, Jenks. Remembering those amazing, ingenious, courageous people who prepared a way for us (and not just us gay men) to live, is essential, a duty. And probably an act of preservation as much at this moment as it was in the time of Reagan and Anita Bryant.
    Thank you for this, dear Jenks.

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