sweet: 1.2
Kudzu Got Angry
Jason Tucker

There were times when I felt like kudzu was crawling up my leg—its deceptively tender runners fluttering at my ankle, cautiously tasting like the tongue of a quiet snake. After a good rain, and standing that close, it would only be a matter of seconds before I’d feel the strike and be swallowed into the green belly of broad and angry leaves. But those are the worries of a child. By the time you’re numbered among the grown folks, living in some terrifying place you’ve always heard called “the real world,” you’re supposed to forget a lot of things. Or at least pretend you have.

I just moved back to my native soil in The Black Belt part of Alabama, so named for the strip of dark topsoil that for centuries has run slower than sorghum syrup down from the Appalachians. But there’s just as much red dirt here as there is black, tinged with enough iron to dye clothing. When you break new ground in the red clay, its color will always get brighter over the next couple of days, especially if it rains. This place doesn’t much resemble the rest of the state, just like Alabama doesn't much resemble the rest of America. This is Alabama’s Alabama, where even the dirt can rust.

Here kudzu doesn’t care what kind of dirt it finds. It creeps in five-foot-thick drifts, covering untended houses and abandoned cars like blizzards do in other parts of the world. Like snow, it builds truck-window-high drifts on either side of gravel roads, beaten back only by passing side mirrors. It reaches across the gray slag like twists of tire-flattened snakes. Tall loblolly pines strain their arms and backs against the swarming weight, often bending weary and sometimes dying slowly from the leaf-damp darkness that’s crawled on top of them. Left neglected, kudzu flows from tree to tree. In a month or two, the space between fills with a fifty-foot wave of conquering plant. With the patience of an hour hand, it drowns meager utility poles and rips down innocent power lines. Most of us here can even quote its average speed: one foot a day.

Most people my parent’s age, mid-fifties, don’t know any more about it than I do. It’s just something that’s always been there. Live around it long enough and it fades into the wallpaper. I’m sure there was a time when I had to ask what it was. Probably from the backseat of that Chevy Nova my parents used to have, driving through the woods we had to drive through to get anywhere. “Oh,” Mama or Daddy probably said, suddenly realizing how much their four year old had to catch up on. “That.”

At my persistent questions, I learned that this was another thing it was useless to ask too much about. Only in coming back have I even been able to notice it again. When this place was all I’d known, I grew tired of unanswerable questions. Kudzu was just something that had always been there, as long as anyone left alive could remember. You learned to live with it. You learned not to notice it. Or at least you learned not to take it too seriously.

We laugh at it around here. We say weeklong expeditions have to be organized to find some old coot who got buried alive while shitting in his outhouse. We say you can hear the screams as the hungry vine swallows drowsy cattle. We say it eats small foreign cars while they wait for the light to change, overtakes whole starting lines of foot races when the referees are slow on the starting pistol, grows so fast across dry ground that it sets itself on fire. Its only natural enemy is friction.

These jokes make me think of other things I’ve heard laughed at.

Tornadoes pick on house trailers because they’re less likely to have security systems, because the tornado knows a regular house will put up a fight, because all trailers look alike and the tornado is drunkenly trying to find and kill its trashy mother for messing him up so badly.

We laugh because some guy named Wayne got so pissed off at hitting a deer and mangling the front of his truck that he jumped out in the middle of the road and emptied his .357 into what was already roadkill, screaming “You sumbitch! You sumbitch!” When he got back into the truck, his rider said, “I think you’re beating a dead horse.”

We laugh because being fired is supposed to be a punishment. Since when is getting to go home a punishment? So whenever I fire you, that means you have to work on Saturday.

We laugh when we tell the children you’re too young to have gotten your cancer yet. You’ll understand when you’re older.

We suffer it all like God wants it that way.

Kudzu walks into the 28 Club and refuses to pay cover. Reaches a braided leafy arm over the bar and grabs a Natural Light we all know it has no intention of paying for. Sits on the end stool for the rest of the night, not saying anything to anybody, just pretending to listen to the other regulars bitch and laugh at how, one way or another, they’re always getting fucked over. Kudzu fights with my people, usually over property lines and timber prices. But, like them, the plant knows how nothing begs to be destroyed more than a wide lawn with an expensive manicure.

How to plant kudzu: Drop a seed and run.

Mickey McMillan the farm widow says what a lot of old folks say when you ask about how farming used to be around here. Every couple of decades, a kind of person only named in her stories as “that man” would come down from somewhere and tell everybody what they needed to plant next, selling miracles on the move like snake oil or gospels that are supposed to make it rain. Sometimes he was a low-level government agriculture agent; sometimes he was a fertilizer salesman, which amounted to pretty much the same thing. That man brought Jesus crops and made the baptismal promise that all it took to save a whole region was one good crop and the faith to plant it. Glory to cotton in the highest. Hosanna to soybeans. Catfish I lift your name on high. Leaning on the everlasting kudzu vine.

We laugh at the idea of Vietnamese catfish, no matter how well they’re selling. We laughed when a minor auto parts factory held a grand opening and, by way of christening the place, its CEO announced in his speech that the choice of location was between Alabama and China. “If everybody keeps building in China,” said the German entrepreneur, “There soon won’t be any Americans left who can afford to buy our German cars.” We all laughed with him, even though it sounded like the joke was on us.

When I knew I was moving to Ohio for graduate school, I carefully dried one of kudzu’s three-leaved clusters and put it in a frame. I hung it on the wall where all my Ohio friends could see what I was talking about. “This is Alabama,” I’d say, knowing even then that I was asking kudzu to do too much.

Kudzu switches to cheap bourbon: Heaven Hill. A couple of the hard older folks pat it on the shoulder as they hobble to their stools where they can watch the young folks at the pool tables. They already look workworn under the forty-watt bulbs screwed into the plywood ceiling. One of them still has his Southern Academy football jersey on. Them young’uns are too little to know that their grandfathers, in what was nearly a Southern version of the Dust Bowl, got paid eight dollars an acre to plant this new Japanese vine. Kudzu eyes the old drunks again. The looks say they all know what it feels like when young folks don’t listen, when they’re too busy out planting the next one thing.

Eighty years ago, a lot of land was washing away. Monotheistic farming strategies left much of the remaining topsoil as piss poor as the red clay underneath. Kudzu even put back nutrients that decades of faith in cotton had stripped away. The hope was glorious. But no one expected that kudzu would refuse to give the land back afterwards.

The Southern economy needed saving yet again in the 1930s. Low crop prices meant that the supply was too high. Rather than pay for fields to be left fallow and wash away, Roosevelt paid for kudzu to stop erosion and cut down production of real crops. He even created a lot of new jobs under the Works Project Administration, which sent the otherwise unemployed out Johnny Appleseeding kudzu along barren Southern roadsides, sowing a collective distance the full length of Japan. Kudzu and many of the jobless now had something to do.

Kudzu’s roots run cactus-deep and scoff at drought. Good at stopping erosion, impossible to pull up or poison without killing every other living thing in the area and leaving the soil toxic for at least a decade. The vines die quickly in the winter, but they come back. They always come back. Absent its natural growth regulators, it’s not a crop or an ornamental like it is in Japan, although it is edible, especially the root, but nobody around here ever gets too excited about digging ten feet into packed clay to find some kind of half-ass potato. The resentment grew too deep for that. Kudzu ate my family cemetery. Kudzu stunted the timber industry. Kudzu killed my grandmother.

“But did you forget about all the good I done?” it asks, unprovoked, of the whole bar. It lost its Japanese accent some time ago, and, like the immigrants all of our families once were, has done other evolving since its arrival. American kudzu doesn't put much energy into making seeds. It doesn’t need to. The vines themselves spread that quickly. Should I worry that kudzu might forget how to make seeds altogether? I have long feared short-sighted adaptation.

Still, we might have thought a little harder about our adaptations to it. It’s impossible to cultivate or roll into a bale like hay, even though livestock can eat the leaves, but not nearly fast enough to stop it from spreading. People can eat it too, but I’ve never heard of anyone actually trying it, except the occasional Kudzu Rights Activist writing online blogs no one will read, and offering recipes I’m sure even his relatives have declined to taste.

 Kudzu is only food when it’s green. Once dry, it’s as inedible as a woven basket. Jellies, jams, and honey come from its flowers. The Chinese use its root in the kitchen too, but mostly just to thicken soups and sauces.

Buffy Rinehart makes kudzu tea, but only uses it to stain paper, which she then turns into artsy collages that she admits most local people don’t quite get. The pale tannin stains look like sun-bleached trash on canvass. Weak coffee spilled on a blank newspaper. I don’t think I get it either. One of her pieces is shaped like Perry County, with a hole cut out in the shape of her daddy’s place. Her word for the feeling it gives her: Desolation. The word I think when she says this: Oh. Then I think that what she calls art is a cheap shot. It brings me no closer to understanding this desolation. But then again, that’s a cheap shot of my own.

Kudzu traces a regretful thumbnail through a deep crack running across its workman’s knuckles. Here it doesn’t even have Japanese insects and diseases to fight with anymore. It seems pissed at something it can’t quite explain.

David Allan Coe’s reptile rage drips like pus from the jukebox. “You ever heard his song “Nigger Fucker?” somebody asks to nobody in particular. Nobody answers. Kudzu takes another shot, sits in a line with three farm hands with craggy sun-dried faces and a younger man with the stink of the catfish plant on him—smells like he works pulling viscera, slicing and scooping, hour after hour, at the long trough they call the slime line. Like them, Kudzu stares into the bottom of the glass it rolls between its fingers, hoping to find in the amber residue something it might have done differently.

In 1970, the federal government officially labeled kudzu a bad weed. But still more miracles were developing at about the same time. Ecstasy-eyed magazines like Mother Earth News began running weepy save-the-pest articles disguised as recipes for kudzu. Young Kudzu Leaves with Sesame Dressing. Apple Pie with Kudzu Apple Juice Glaze. Ethanol.

 There were also many unsubstantiated promises made about its medical benefits. Called ge-gen in Chinese medical folklore, it has treated generations for dysentery, allergies, migraines, diarrhea, fevers, cold, digestive problems, high blood pressure and has in all likelihood been applied like a poultice of magic slime to broken bones, infertile women, impotent men, women whose bodies refuse to bear sons, mangy dogs, bald uncles, and unruly children. Experiments have been done on rats and hamsters whose results suggest kudzu helped them with their drinking problems.

My grandmother’s television promised that her alcoholism could be taken away. She would send Ernest Angley a thousand dollars at a time to cure and atone for her drinking. He would send her an audio tape of his greatest sermons and a form letter of God’s blessing. After several years of this, she was miraculously cured by a massive stroke.

At one time, Kudzu looked like social justice. At one time, Kudzu looked like a miracle. Social justice can still look like a miracle, and miracles look like they happen all by themselves. Kudzu will tell you that it doesn’t know how to fix anything. It knows it is only capable of so much. It never compared itself to Jesus.

Kudzu never compared itself to Martin Luther King Jr., or to his wife Coretta, who was born here. On an unlined and poorly paved county road near her birthplace, a sign says “Coretta Scott King Memorial Highway,” but you can only read it in the winter. Every summer, kudzu attacks it, absorbs it. Its runners shoot out from the adjoining field like an arm ending in a fist so tightly clenched that the sign is still recognizable in silhouette. Kudzu can’t read very well, and doesn’t care whose name is written on anything. There’s no discriminating purpose to this seasonal mummification.

Kudzu surrounded the home I lived in as a child. As it went about its daily work of draping the woodline, I watched the shapes it made the way children in other places look for meaningful things in clouds: sometimes the rough skyline of a thriving green city, sometimes bent figures under a green waterfall, sometimes the pained arches of a swaybacked horse. For some reason, Kudzu is easy to dream about. When the wind all at once turned those thousands of leaves over onto their silvery sides, I always heard peaceful notes in it. The kudzu harp. But the older I got, the more that same sound began to seem like the ruthless chewing of locusts.

Now that I’ve moved back to teach English at an 170-year-old, all Baptist women’s college, trying to write about Civil Rights when so many think there are only two clear sides to the discussion, resisting the conviction from all sides that since I’m white I’ve got no choice as to which one I’m on. I listen for other frightening noises, and finding them, I can barely hear kudzu at all.

In 1965, Civil Rights marches happened in Perry County. Forty years and more into the aftermath, with nowhere much to work unless you opened or inherited a business yourself, there is black political power and white economic power and all sorts of vague resentments and preemptive defenses and hand-me-down hatreds, all of which is tied to the false cause of color.

Here, the most powerful politician is the black county commissioner. I wouldn't mind his color, or even mention it, if he didn’t take every public opportunity, including a weekly a.m. radio address, to explain why white people are and always will be evil, and why his black opponents are always somehow “the white man’s candidate.”

Not long ago, I was working for a newspaper and waiting for local election results in the courthouse. “We worked too hard and too long for it,” I overheard a black woman say, describing her fear that the wrong black man might get elected. “We ain’t never going to let Him take it back.” I was just sitting there with a notebook. She looked at me like I was Him, trapped me there in such frustrated anger that I felt obligated to hate us both, regardless of my raceless principles. My idealism returns only when I leave this place. When I’m in it, it forces old identities upon me, holds me responsible for my skin pigment like it’s the color of a uniform. In this way, every color becomes a handicap. In this way we deserve whatever laughter and ridicule we get. You only have to look to the edge of the woods—or to certain memorial road signs—to see how we let things get out of control and stay that way.

I overhear white students after America elects a half-black president. One young woman says, “If twelve of them can’t run a McDonald’s, what makes you think one of them can run a country?”

Three students—some of my best this semester—are upset after our first post election class, and whisper to me in a deserted stairwell. “We won’t tell anybody,” one says. “We promise. What do you think?” They don’t say it all, but they don’t have to. Please, they want to know. Tell us we’re not alone in hating this. Tell us we are not the ignorant ones. Tell us you are with us in what feels like a weak underground. “Remember I said that I don’t care about how you vote, but why,” I say. “I really respect that,” another says. “Off the record,” I say, “I’m happy.” They smile sincerely at the small camaraderie, at the unpopular politics that we all somehow, without discussion, know better than to speak of too openly.

I tell myself that it’s good for an English teacher to stay out of politics except where language is concerned. I tell myself that’s why I called my voting record a secret, but it’s really that I’m afraid. I don’t want anybody to know because I’ve been sucked into that weary argument about race so many times, and I’ve decided I can’t win it. Not here. Here my opposition doesn’t care for the logical approach, and still won’t hear what bad economics has to do with any of this. Maybe it’s time to frame my kudzu and move again. Maybe out west this time. I hear Wyoming’s nice.

Another very sweet student is acutely concerned with the preservation of a woman’s right to choose, no matter what the church says. She has a Facebook page. On it she says to all of her friends, “Don’t worry; he’ll be dead inside of two months. LOL!”

There’s something very old in all of this. The disappointment is familiar to me. It feels like when I was in high school and heard pretty girls say “nigger.” But there’s also something brand new that I can’t quite figure out. It’s something that refuses to be lived with. It’s something that refuses to fade into the wallpaper, though in larger cities like surprisingly cosmopolitan Birmingham, it comes much closer to civilization than out here in the desolation of the Black Belt. It’s 2008, and I ain’t laughing out loud. I feel a new kind of blues coming on.

Kudzu drinks. It doesn’t have much else to do these days. Been on the federal Noxious Weed List for nine years now. It wants to buy me another round. It motions me to lean in close and listen, like it has something important to say. It wants to ball me into its fist. It wants me to wear it like rusted armor. It says, somebody owes us. It says, we could have been used much more effectively. It says, nobody ever gave us a chance. It says, stop listening to them.

It wants me to join its riot. Now the contradiction. It’s still bitter at the outside agitators who’ve shown up periodically since Reconstruction to belittle, to exploit, to profit from, to be fascinated by, to lead, to photograph, to study, to seed with anything not already native to the red clay or the black mud. Yet it prays for somebody to come in and build us a factory, build us an interstate, build us new places to work and live and eat and be educated and entertained. All at once, it needs help and wants to be left alone. This is what happens when animals get wounded. It wants me to be angry too. At whom, I’m not exactly sure. Neither is it.

James Agee and Walker Evans studied this place themselves, producing the well known photographic and literary study Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The book did many things, but we know it best for documenting Alabama’s squalor. Last year, a French photography student showed up in my mother’s liquor store with a worn paperback copy under his arm. He probably figured that, since he couldn’t find a bar in town, this was the next best source of information.         

“Where are these things?” he demanded, wanting to build on Evans’ work in documenting the place. “Where is to see the poverty?”

“I don’t know,” Mama said. “It’s been a long time since that book came out. That was my parents’ generation. You don’t see too much of that anymore.”

I hoped he’d find something. I wonder what he noticed, since neither our poverty nor our squalor look quite like it used to. Did more than one book give him the ideas of what he would find?

Mama laughed when she told me this story of the poor, misinformed foreigner who, despite his passionate search, left only with a bottle of vodka.

I’ve been back for three months now, and I’ve spent a good deal of that time photographing plants and animals around this house my girlfriend and I are renting in a cow pasture. Giant hornets, a hand-sized mother spider carrying her writhing brood on her back, thorny or rash-raising plants, all the living things that are sharp or poisonous. I focus my camera on everything but kudzu. It just doesn’t mean as much as it once did. Instead, Something speaks to me about a wet and ragged crow feather stuck to a barbed wire fence. The feather looks almost regal in its raggedness, having already suffered several storms. One prickly strand of wire looks ancient, scaly brown with corrosion and green with algae; the other is fresh and gleaming, its steel so clean and strong that it seems to laugh at its older generation, like it thinks it's immune to the patient work of rust.

Lately it’s the camellias that fascinate me, surprisingly dense and heavy blossoms popping bright red and white and pink at the end of election November when everything else is dying in deep browns and sickly yellows. I like to think that’s why it’s Alabama’s state flower, but there’s a thorn in this too, even if the flowers are gentle. Days can be warm in November, but freezing temperatures can come quickly. In nearly every camellia bloom I see, there lies a yellow jacket, a venomous pollinator that had been enjoying the rare feast until the moment when the promising warmth fled with the sun behind the treeline, and the insect realized, in whatever way insects realize things, that its wings wouldn’t work in the cold, that it couldn’t leave this flower and might die there except for the off chance that tomorrow or the next day, the warmth would return.

While the kudzu plant itself still creeps with all its spidery rage, three leaves and one tendril coil almost look charmingly demure on teacups, wedding invitations, or the occasional graphic on Ted Turner’s regional things-I-know-you-backwater jackasses-love-to-watch cable network (you know, The Dukes of Hazzard, In the Heat of the Night, shows about flea markets). There are countless online literary magazines, Southern arts and leisure websites, musical groups, restaurants, and damn near anything else that might be spoken of in the Lifestyles section of the newspaper, all named after kudzu.

There are kudzu festivals in damn near every Southern state. They make a little money for the small towns that hold them, but when you imagine what these towns would look like if they left their kudzu untreated for an hour or two, this does seem a little like holding a cancer festival.

But kudzu has its pride, just like all of the people who live with it, and all those who once thought they’d live better because of it. Now it waves its savagely dignified leaves from treelines and fences like flags of its own third-world nation. It’s the same dignity a person can find in the sound of a catfish being skinned, in the smell of its viscera on your hands long after you’ve gone home, in sharing a lazy-voweled accent. It’s the same dignity of chitterlings, fried neckbones, and souse meat. In slide blues played with a sawed-off wine bottle. In a banjo homemade from a used bedpan. In making whatever you can out of what little is around.

Kudzu is ours now, I suppose, even though I don’t know what to do with it. I guess it has been working like a flag, giving its shape and its name and something to fight against and with. I realize that, like race, it isn’t what I know myself by, but a means by which I’m expected to know myself. Maybe that’s what I resist, even though I’ve just spent about 4,000 words using kudzu as a way to know all sorts of things, including myself.

The leaves I pressed and mounted have made the circular trip with me. They can look out the window and see the wild places from which they came. They still look like they want to be studied and admired. Preserved and spread like a toxic insect under glass, they mean something altogether different when you put them in a certain kind of frame. I don’t know why I brought them back with me, or why they're up on the wall in my new living room when the picture out the window is much more realistic, though now nearly dead in November. On the wall, I see kudzu is turning yellow, slowly losing its color, and it’s almost not funny anymore

Jason Tucker is an assistant professor of English at Judson College in Marion, Alabama. He received his MFA in creative nonfiction from Ohio State University, and is currently working on a book-length combination of memoir and journalism about Alabama's Black Belt and its role in the Civil Rights movement.