“They call me the Warden” —
she says, her eyes bright with mischief and blue eye liner — not a piece of hair out of place. With her deep southern accent and heavy, flawless makeup, she is the spitting image of the Dolly Parton headshot that adorns her pepto pink golf cart. She explains that her cart, decorated with giant white stickers that spell out “Hello Dolly,” is still a work in progress. A blue police light and siren have yet to be installed.
Edna Askew is giving me the royal tour of “Askew’s Landing Campsite,” or as the Askew’s adamantly call it — “Mississippi’s Best Kept Secret” (with gossip and all). Thirty-four permanent residents call the site their home. With belongings spread seamlessly between the RVs, it is impossible to tell where one resident ends and the next neighbor begins. Children screech past on bikes like those that my brother and I once rode. 30-year-old men that Edna refers to as “boys” race their remote control cars. Teenage girls sit under an awning in worn tank tops and baseball hats. They all wave eagerly at Mrs. Dolly and glance wearily at the camera in my hand.
Over the sound of the gravel beneath the cart tires, I tell Edna I am also from Tennessee. “I knew I liked you! You’ve got that good Tennessee blood!” she delights. Despite her established presence at the campsite, Edna has only been working there for three years. Her husband made a good investment when he both married and hired Edna three years ago after they met online. She moved from Tennessee to Mississippi, becoming both Askew’s Landing’s full time sheriff and mother. A job she doesn’t take lightly. Working seven days a week, Edna has a true vision for the camp and a drive to spread the word about “Mississippi’s Best Kept Secret”.
We make a strange pair. With my sunburned face, mess of hair, and dirt stained legs, I stand lanky and sheepish beside her. I stare at the streaks of clay that cake my legs. The deep purples and oranges remind me of the Georgia sediment that lines the walls of Providence Canyon.
After the Civil War,
the residents of Stewart County, Georgia watched as the earth slowly opened up to swallow the swath of buildings that once stood on the land. What had once been a stretch of cotton plantations and farm homes, became a colorful cemetery that exposed the region’s rich geological history.
Often compared to the canyons in the American Southwest, Providence Canyon is a 1,109-acre park composed from a network of gorges, some as deep as 150 feet. But unlike most canyons of its size, Providence Canyon was not created by any force of nature, but an ironic lack of human providence.
In 1865, Confederate soldiers returned home to their land with a drive and a need to plant. They replaced forests with tobacco and cotton farms. They tilled the land, exposing the few inches of fragile topsoil to the elements. Topsoil is made of decomposed organic matter that erodes easily if it doesn’t have a root structures to hold it in place. Within 100 years, that exposed topsoil was washed and blown away. Leaving behind the beautiful gullies we see today.
In 1859, the rapid expansion of the canyon threatened to pull Providence United Methodist Church into the depths of the gorge. Members of the church and the surrounding area considered this the magnificent force of God. A true act of providence. Today we considered it a microcosm of the reckless disregard for the environment that many southern farmers adopted.
It is easy to dismiss the creation of Providence Canyon as human ignorance, but history is often not so simple.
In 1859, the same year Providence Methodist Church was forced to move its congregation, Duklet Askew travelled from North Carolina to Mississippi. He was looking for land that would be suitable for cotton farming. He purchased land along Bridgeport Road and began clearing 500 acres for his cotton plantation. Today this land belongs to Edna and her husband. It is the piece land where we pitched our tents, found rest after a long day on the road, and where Ms. Dolly gave me a royal tour. It is also the land that countless people have called home.
There is no doubt that humans have been poor stewards of the Earth throughout history, but today we learned that both humans and the Earth can create something beautiful out of destruction.