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The International Writers Magazine
: Hacktreks in the USA: Charleston

Beauty in Reality
Melissa Katz

Huge, weeping oak trees lined the dirt road leading to Boone Hall Plantation, a lovely Charleston landmark. Summer’s blazing heat enveloped me in the sweet-smelling gardens leading up to the wooden door that seemed to stand strong, blocking any foreigners from gaining entry. Aside from the tour guides dressed in costumes, the mansion felt authentic, and the surrounding gardens seemed like they had established themselves centuries before. Walking along the brick pathways, I could not help but feel a strong sense of history pervading my spirit.

Looking up at the grand entrance to the plantation house, with its Southern style columns, I began to daydream about what it would have been like to live there during the Civil War days. Built in 1800, the house and farm, set on a backdrop of cotton fields, seemed reminiscent of an earlier era. To enter the stately building, you must first traverse the lush gardens. Upon entering the gardens, the scent of roses, camellias, and azaleas tingled my nose. Large water droplets sparkled on each petal of every flower. One could truly get lost in such a wonderland, as I did that day. I gazed at the grounds and the house in front of me, amazed that this plantation could be part of the same country as my home state, New Jersey.

Charleston exhibited a different lifestyle to me. As a child, I remember hypnotically taking in the miniseries North and South on television. The story of the two young friends fighting against each other in the Civil War interested me immediately. But most of all, I remember gazing at the scenes set in the south, wondering if I would ever come to know a locale as bewitching as that. Standing alone in the garden, I remembered thinking those thoughts. A smile invaded my face. I had finally found a spot as captivating as my childhood fantasy. I overheard a women dressed in a Scarlet O’Hara costume matter-of-factly state that this was the house used in the making of North and South. I really had found it.

With this revelation, all aspects of Boone Hall appeared new and exciting. I admiringly gaped at the house and imagined it the way I had seen it on television- women in their hoop skirts strolling in the garden, and handsome men in their navy blue wool and gold buttoned uniforms discussing the effects of the war on the huge wrap-around porch. I imagined horse-drawn carriages traveling on that same oak-lined road that I had driven upon, in our groups’ rickety bus, this morning. Even the tour guides in their cheesy, artificial, used costumes seemed like real Confederates. Boone Hall Plantation suddenly became the setting of a romantic story. I hastily turned to my right to take in more sights that would fit into my fantasy and my face dropped.

Dusty, sagging slave quarters, still in tact, quickly destroyed the romantic aura given off by the enormous house and its grand style. Small cabins, lined up neatly in a row, represented a new kind of Boone Hall Plantation to me. Its gardens and cotton fields no longer glowed in a positive light. They now represented fields of tears, sweat, and blood. As I walked along the dirt path to get a closer look, I spied a woman demonstrating a basket-weaving technique brought over from Africa. During their rare moments of free time, the slaves who lived in these cabins practiced basket weaving as a hobby. This demonstration made life at Boone Hall seem even more real. And the more real it became, the more disgusting it seemed. As I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the hymn, Hush, Hush Somebody’s Callin’ My Name, sung by the slaves in the fields, as they labored over the cotton plants and fruitful gardens to make the plantation successful.

While strolling along the path leading from the slave quarters, I saw the main house and the gardens again. They had changed. Not physically- the same bright plots of roses still gleamed in the sunlight- but rather my attitude toward them had changed. I decided to finish off my day where it had started- in the garden. As I began my second walk through the maze-like paths, the visual beauty and the sweet scent struck me differently. Just as before, the garden was beautiful, but its beauty held a different meaning to me now.

My views of Boone Hall Plantation had changed three times in one day. Its beauty struck me from the moment I drove through the Avenue of Oaks. But it did not seem extremely exceptional until I entered the garden for the first time. My perspective changed again when I learned that Boone Hall was indeed the place that I had so much wanted to be a part of as a child. Yet the Boone Hall I had dreamed of existed only in storybooks. Finally, my first glimpse of the slave quarters brought my mind back to earth. Boone Hall’s haunting past leapt into plain sight. But as I walked through the gardens a second time, I realized that its past allows for its uniqueness.
In fact, beauty, romance, and this haunting past are all a part of what makes this attraction so popular. Boone Hall Plantation taught me something that day. I realized that something or someone’s past may not always contain a history to boast about, but that past does not have to affect its future. Today, as I remember watching North and South and wondering if I would ever find a place as beautiful as that, I know that I have. But this place does not exist on television or even in my mind. It is a real place with real flowers that need watering, a real porch to stand on with floorboards that creak, real fields that need plowing to grow delicious food, and a real past that makes it what it has become today- a part of our complex history and a symbol of American beauty.

© Melissa Katz March 2004
melissa.katz@villanova.edu


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