Spanish moss isn’t really moss. It’s an airborne fungus which seems to cling almost exclusively to the massive, gnarled limbs of live oak trees, like those I tried capturing in the snapshot which serves as this post’s featured image.
As you can see, no single photograph can capture the immensity of such trees. Nor can one photograph do justice to what it feels like walking beneath and being absolutely dwarfed by such limbs and their fungal drapery. Limbs like these cover most all of Savannah’s grassy squares, streets and walks. Their massiveness is both physical and historical; Savannah’s oldest oaks have stood their ground over four hundred years. As a result, the city comes to feel at once both intimate and vastly beyond reach.
My wife and I learned about the oaks and about Spanish moss from the guides who drove trolley for Old Savannah Tours. Each of the three guides we toured the city with had something to add to our growing understanding of each.
One mentioned a colonial-era military man — a colonel, perhaps — who tried, with some success, to eradicate Spanish moss from the oaks towering over one of the many squares in Savannah’s historic district.
Another guide suggested we’d do better not to touch low-hanging strands of Spanish moss; the fungus was home to tiny red mites called chiggers which liked to bore beneath people’s skin and raise tiny red itchy rashes in their wake.
About the name the fungus had been given: another guide told us early British settlers had named the fungus in honor of their sworn enemy, the Spanish. Spanish men were known to wear bushy, pointed beards at the time. The moss, for all its beauty, was to most an irritant and a bother, much like the Spanish who occupied present day Florida were to colonists.
The bunches were colored a dull, almost fuzzy-textured green. A long central strand branched to short spear-points. Looking closely, it was clear there was very little that was moss-like about Spanish moss.
As we walked from square to square in the near-stifling late-July heat, I kept wanting to reach up and grab at these tufts of dry-green unfurling overhead. I saw in the Spanish moss and live oaks something of the Old South I’d come to know through reading. The cover of the Vintage International edition of Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! features a stately southern mansion enshrouded by the limbs of a live oak choked with Spanish moss. There was also something about the way I imagined the bunches would feel in my hand: springy, the way thin-skinned plants bounce and wave yet hold firm when pressed or held.
“I’m glad you didn’t,” my wife said after the guide’d warned us not to touch the stuff on account of chiggers.
“I am, too,” I said — in part because I didn’t want to deal with chiggers.
What gladdened me more, I think now, was having my illusions broken apart then enlarged and enriched by reality.
Here’s the thing: the places we travel to never fully reveal themselves to us. And part of the allure of places like these — Savannah, especially — is their resistance to ever being fully graspable.
But when it comes down to it, what we can know, what we do get the chance to experience — these things usually end up leaving larger, richer, more durable impressions on us.
Part of the reason we went to Savannah was to experience some of this city’s mysterious depths.
I asked my wife over lunch one afternoon why she’d wanted to come to Savannah in the first place.
The city’s slow-paced, leisurely, care-free way, she said. The palpable sense of its long, storied, and vast history.
Her sister had visited Savannah a few years back and had praised the city’s beauty, its culture, and the great pains its residents and civic organizations had taken to preserve the city’s historic architecture.
My wife and I stood outside the Mercer Williams House, just below the chandeliered parlor where Jim Williams (allegedly) killed his lover. (Note: if you’ve not yet read Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you must.) We tried and tried again to take a reasonably good selfie, all the while feeling the strange residue of the past, the infamous series of events that transpired in the room beyond the red brick walls above us.
While we stood so near to a place wrapped in so many layers of mystery, I couldn’t help but follow with my eyes the electrical conduits and coaxial cable wiring running up the sides of those red brick walls, and the rust pecks poking through the thick black paint on the wrought iron.
It was, after all, still just a house, in need of the same contrivances any other house needs in order to provide comforts to its inhabitants.
We could make out the spiral staircase through the windows, and we were both surprised to learn that Williams, who is now deceased, left the house to his sister, a distinguished professor and published author who still on occasion resides in the mansion.
We might have toured the house. I pressed my wife: if you want to, let’s check in the carriage house (it had been converted to a shop / visitor center of sorts), see whether they’d show us.
After some discussion we decided to walk away. There was Jones Street to see yet, and the mansion General Sherman had lived in while his army rested a month in Savannah. And Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home (a story for another time; suffice it to say we did visit the home, and where shown its modest rooms by a wonderful woman who had known much about the writer’s family and much more about how generous were those who forty years after her death still honor O’Connor’s contribution to American Letters).
A place can live in your memory as a strange mixture of imagination, desire, and experience.
Our trip to Savannah was a lot of things; what it means to me most powerfully at this moment is this: my wife and I might have walked into any house, eaten at any restaurant; what mattered most was that we toured and dined together.
I mentioned some of the other sites we took in during our trip. But more than the sites, what I believe I’ll remember most fondly is the way the city reflected back to me the relationship I shared, and share, with my traveling companion.
My wife looked so beautiful at a rooftop bar overlooking the Savannah River, where she and I sipped drinks while watching a colossal containership slide past; she seemed so kooky and cool while discussing ghosts and Christmas cards (long story) at a table in the crowded dining room of the Moon River Brewing Company (excellent black bean burgers, excellent IPA); and she seemed so rested, relaxed, and self-possessed over a bright, cool, early-morning breakfast on our last morning in the city.
Taking one last stroll through the city after finishing that breakfast, we laughed at how frustrating it was trying to take a decent selfie outside the Mercer Williams House. We looked in windows and talked about the trees and souvenirs and whether we could live in a place like this. A wild dream for two teachers; but maybe, someday…?
No, we both agreed. We decided we would rather find our way back again, rediscover some of Savannah’s beauty, stumble upon some of the city’s other mysteries.
As for the Spanish moss —
On our final afternoon, while touring the Davenport House, I was able to hold fire-cured Spanish moss, which our docent told us would have been used to stuff pillows and mattresses during the late 1870s. It felt in my hand much like a Brillo or Scotch-Brite pad: spongy, firm. Strangely fragrant. I imagined it would have made for an uncomfortable night’s sleep.