For years, I have carried around the ghosts and bones of skeletal ideas, those unfinished writing projects that I have never quite gotten back around to. (I love dangling participles, don’t you?) For example, I had an idea for a musical about the great battle between the painter James MacNeill Whistler and the eminent English critic John Ruskin. In my mind, it was a wonderful “play of ideas” about art and who should determine the boundaries of quality and tastes that inform the public understanding of what is original and excellent. And as I think about it now, I might revisit it for some more work, perhaps a different outline, perhaps some character studies and some song ideas. But I have come to know myself, and most likely Mr. Whistler and his songs will remain as notes on a yellow pad, just another of the embryonic scraps of ideas that have filled boxes and drawers with old manuscripts and notebooks that I run across when I’m looking for something else.
There is the half-finished novella about the quantum spirit embodied in the severed arm of Stonewall Jackson, buried at Ellwood Plantation, near the Chancellorsville battlefield where the General was terribly wounded by “friendly fire.” It, too, stares at me from a desk drawer, as if asking me if I am really committed to a work of fiction that can only be described as “somewhat eccentric and almost certainly not publishable.”
There is more: treatments for a television series about a hard-boiled Atlanta detective named Gunnarson. That one at least got as far as a couple of serious meetings with some network executives. Everything they say about the ritualistic Kabuki nature of those discussions is true.
There are dozens of short stories and poems, and several un-mailed letters to editors. Some are finished to the point where they seem to beg for thoughtful rewriting, and others are embarrassing to consider in their misbegotten angst.
And then there is the kudzu movie. It is a first draft of a film about a man named Charlie Bean, who returns to his home in the Deep South after many years of wandering abroad. In his youth, he preached the gospel of Kudzu, the “miracle vine” that was to save the South, but as he finds on his return, it has instead become a menace that is swallowing whole towns. It is a happy “feel-good” movie, with no requirement for any sort of serious thinking. It is underscored with Southern rock and roots music, and everything the camera sees is covered with kudzu, which seems to grow in fast motion.
The script lacked the expected plot turns and twists that are basic to Hollywood storytelling. But I found out a lot about the kudzu vine while I was researching the thing, and I came to a great respect for the accursed vine.
Kudzu was introduced into the United States for the purpose of erosion control and cheap, sustainable forage for livestock. It had been used in the Orient for many centuries for many purposes, including cooking, medicine and the making of hemp, paper, baskets, teas and jellies. In its native land, it had “natural enemies.” But in Dixie, it loved the weather, it adored the soil and it was just crazy about the climate, honeychile! It grew so fast it started being called the “mile-a-minute vine.” The railroad men said it would grow across the tracks between trains.
Poet James Dickey wrote, “In Georgia, the legend says / That you must close your windows / At night to keep it out of the house.”
I hadn’t thought much about that old screenplay lately. I don’t even know if I have a copy of it. But in the late 1990’s, I saw a small but healthy kudzu patch at the top of the Massanutten Mountain on U.S. 211. The patch has spread a bit over the years, but in the last two, its growth has been exponential. It is coming down that mountain like a runaway truck, heading for Luray, heading for the Skyline Drive, heading for . . . Rappahannock!
But fear not, fellow citizens. We shall not run from this relentless and inevitable foe, we shall embrace it. It will be featured in our restaurants, our furniture makers will create kudzu masterpieces, and our artists will make sculptures of it and paint lush kudzu landscapes. Some retired genius will convert the vines to automobile fuel and some enterprising entrepreneur will take those ideas and make Scrabble the “Kudzu Kapital of America” and the county will immediately pass a kudzu tax. Meanwhile, out in the woods, old hippies will be rolling the stuff up and puffin’ legally.
Hm . . . Maybe it’s time to go rummaging around for that screenplay again.