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Rural Georgia (better late than never)

January 19, 2010

Obama’s face greets me as I turn into the drive.  He’s a caricature of himself-big ears and fat lips, and he’s the bull’s-eye on the oversized dartboard sitting on the ground-the centerpiece to the split in the driveway. There are extra darts,  in case you’d like to stop your car and test your own skills.

I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Girl!, this is Rural, Gawja!” runs through my head.  I’m in a dinky rental car, upgraded twice–yet still only crank windows and manual seat adjustments.  WTF?  I can’t get the GPS to talk in ‘Miss British,’ nor does Miss British know the address I need to get to-it’s apparently not in the road archive. I pull out the directions I scribbled onto four yellow post-it notes.  Note to self-next time don’t abbreviate in indecipherable chicken scratch and pay better attention when someone tells you that the road does not exist in Mapquest.

From Jacksonville to Georgia, I sit on my wadded up winter jacket. The steering wheel won’t tilt down and the seat won’t come up.  Airport CNN says that today the temperature in Orlando is as cold as it is in Anchorage, Alaska.  Hmmm.  One in five oranges is bust.  Juice will now cost $6 a carton.  And here I was thinking that work might turn into a bit of warm respite for a few days.  No such luck.

It would probably help if I really knew what “Rural Gawja” meant.  My definition: A 70 mile an hour speed limit, and the vision of a white pickup truck filled with rifles and shirtless men, which has been seared on my brain since our family road trip to Orlando (through Georgia) when I was 14.  I’ve been around the world and back, but put me in rural America and I’m about as ignorant as a frozen orange.

I am here for four days.  I am here to shoot an otter—a wild otter, whose presence, attitude, and cooperation is optional.   Apparently he comes to play with the dogs on the property.  That’s what I need a killer shot of.  In order to maximize photographic possibilities, I am staying in a “cabin” on the property.  Sometimes it actually helps NOT to know the situation I’m getting myself into.  Recently while craving pizza in Peru, I was given some pre-pizza search advice:  “Low expectations Karine.  That way it can only be a positive experience.”  Logical-in theory anyway.

I’m wondering if i’ve landed in a dream.  I’m now at the end of the long dirt drive (I had no urge to throw darts), sitting in the car staring at a scene I know from movies….hundred year old oak trees, covered in Spanish moss crouch over a circle drive.  A stately house, adorned in knick-knack love, stands in front of me, and to the left, another smaller home with a huge wrap-around deck, faces the coastal waterway.  If this is Rural Georgia, then I’d like to stay a while.

Every night the pelicans, cormorants, Ibis, and egrets come to roost.

“I ain’t seen’m for the past cuuuuple days,” drawls my contact. “But, that cuud be a good thang!”  I’m not really sure how to describe her-but a few words come to mind: rugged, durable, mop of curly blond hair, solid, workboots, cargo pants, 1980’s navy blue sweatshirt, and, searing turquoise blue eyes.

My contact, who I’ll call Cat, asks me what I want to do:  go get settled in my cabin? Or have a walkabout to show me the sanctuary.  I opt for the tour.  I park the car back by my cabin which comes all inclusive with a full view of the waterway.  Stunningly beautiful.  I head back to the Critter Clinic in awe.

Cat is intense and talkative and we wander past the pelican enclosure, to the Bald Eagle enclosure, to the owl and Red-Tailed hawk enclosure.  It’s a small animal sanctuary-the only facility for injured wildlife in the area.  Wild pelicans follow us down the road hoping for some fish.  I can’t get a word in edgewise, so I just listen.

“Ya know with this cold, it’s not good.  Ya know yuhr coming at the wrong time–this is also the beginin’ of breedin’ season-and I dn’t know if he’s gonna cum round-the cold is throwing erything awff…..”

“There he is.”  My African bush tracking instinct kicks in.  I give myself a high five.

Cat continues as if she hasn’t heard me.

“The otter, THERE HE ISSSS!”  It’s an excited whisper hiss.  I’m ready to raise both fists and break into my own white-man  rendition of a victory dance, “Uh huh, Oh Yeah!, Uh huh…CHIKA BOWM!”

“What?  Naw, them’re pelicans….”

“No, there!”  My whisper comes out a snarfled yell.  I point to the bush he’s hopping through.

“We’ll I’ll be dammned.” Cat finally acknowledges the otter, and my first success.

I’m victory dancing in my head.  “UH HUH! Oh YEAH!”

Oodie, as he’s called, is on his way towards us.  Actually, he’s in a direct beeline for me, and doesn’t stop until he reaches my feet.  He looks up, backs up a couple steps, sniffs the air, and then hops in an arc around me,  onwards towards Cat who lets out a loud long whoop:

“OOOOOOOOOODIIIIIIE!”  and then another, “OOOOOOOODERRRRSS!”

It’s then I realize the camera is on the other side of the property.  Dammit.

“Take the golf cart, and go get the camera,” Cat says as she slowly lopes to the Critter Clinic with otter in tow. I hesitate at the golf cart.

“I just press the gas right?”

I don’t think I could have disturbed her more.   Cat does a slow motion foot-hanging-in-air stop.  She just stands there with her back to me.  She’s taking her time to turn around.  I feel like I did in third grade when I just finished slamming my lunchbox over Michael Franks’ head, while standing in line to get back into class. Yup. Guilty as charged.  There’s disgusted silence.  And then mortification.  She turns and just looks at me with her head cocked to the side.

“Don’t tell me y’all don’t know how to drive a damn golf cart?”

What could I say.

And so began four days.   Not only did I not know how to drive a golf cart, but, I also didn’t know how to build, stoke, or keep a fire going, nor did I eat meat, nor was I a Republican, nor had I ever eaten grits.  As far as Cat was concerned, I was a complete moron; completely, totally, utterly incompetent when it came to any useful skill.

But, where I impressed her, was in what i’d come there to do.

Oodie came four out of four days.  If you’ve ever had the task of shooting a wild otter playing with two completely untrained dogs, you’ll know that it’s damn near impossible. Where there is a head, there are two tails in your face, or, where both dogs are looking a the camera, all you see is an otter tail disappearing under a dog body.  Or, the dogs are playing on the other side of the lawn with each other, and the otter is posing perfectly right in front of the lens.  Oodie was never in the right position (playing perfectly with the dogs all on the same side of the property), or the right light (they were always all perfectly placed in half shade half sun), or the perfect pose (I have more shots of butts than faces), but, he did allow me to be around him.  As did all the animals, which surprised Cat (and dare I say slightly impressed her?).  I rolled in the dirt, I got shit on and bit by the pelicans, and slobbered on by the dogs.  And, I came back for more.  Even Wags, the dog Cat despised and mistrusted, let me pet him, despite her warnings.  And, not only could I get dirty and not complain, but, I could go out to dinner with the owner of the sanctuary, and get invited back.

In the end, I won complete trust.   On day 3, when Cat rolled in and saw smoke coming from my fireplace, she realized I wasn’t a complete waste (a quick learner if nothing else).  It was then we became friends.  Cat took me to lunch at a local haunt, and brought me to the shrimp boats to show me what I could come back to shoot.  She educated me on the locals:  a pair of sneakers on a phone pole above a house meant a place where you could buy drugs…..you stay away from the swamp people…..Pit Bull fighting is a past time in the area….a fish sandwich is a stupid thing to order in a fried shrimp restaurant, and owl talons can be relaxed by snapping them backwards.

On day four-the day I was leaving, Oodie was a no-show.  We waited and called, but, no otter.  After a tiny brown bat landed itself in the Critter Clinic (no joke-it just appeared half frozen on the table for Cat to nurse back to health–“I am charmed!” I heard her whoop from the clinic), and after some fun shots of a Screetch owl,  Cat decided to cook me three pounds of boiled shrimp, and tell me her life story in the kitchen of my cabin.  When 2:00pm rolled around, I began to say my goodbyes and ‘thank-you-for-having-me’s.’   I got sent off with the remaining two pounds of shrimp.

“I don’t know what them all airport rules are, but, yuh’re takin’ this shrimp with ya.  I’m cookin it for ya, and yuh’re takin’t with ya.”

Perfect.  Airport security here I come.

And so I left, driving off back down the dirt road, with two pounds of shrimp wrapped in a garbage bag held together by duct tape and an education in fire building, and a bit of Southern life.  I didn’t want to leave.  I stopped at Obama and took his photo-at least i’d have proof of that, because no one is going to believe that I know how to build my own fire-and keep it alive.

As I merged onto 95 south, my head was spinning and my heart was in my throat.  I’d just had an education in a bit of life. And, I’d done a shoot, but had to leave without the exact shot that I wanted-which has never happened to me before.  I wanted more time.  And I wanted more “education.”  The phone rang.

The voice was unmistakable.  “Miss Karine.  Guess who’s here?  Guess who’s playin altogether riiiight here in front of the clinic,  riiiightt here in the sunlight?”

I laughed.

“I’ll get him the next time Cat.  You tell that otter it’s par for the course of my life…..you tell him I’ll get him next time.  And you tell him I’m bringing him two pounds of boiled shrimp.”

It was a shoot I will not soon forget.  Sometimes we are lucky enough to cross paths with people who change the way we think.  They change our stereotypes, and our first impressions, and they allow us a view into worlds we know nothing about.  For me, thats what this shoot was about and that’s what Cat was about.  My new words for her include: super well educated, open, kind, intelligent, caring, one woman band, and a super amazing person and cook.

Rural Georgia is a place I want to get back to. If nothing more, then to eat some damn good boiled shrimp, and visit with an amazing friend.

Cheers to you Cat.  And Thank You.

I wasn't kidding.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. KateZ permalink
    January 19, 2010 04:05

    Great stuff, Karine, well written. Love the shots and hearing about your adventures!

  2. John Stephens permalink
    January 30, 2010 17:35

    “Cat” and I have been best friends for over twenty years. Most people, on first meeting her, aren’t quite sure what to make of her. She’s headstrong, talkative and lives in a stream of consciousness world. It still gets my head spinning when I’m around her. But once you get past the first impressions, you realize she IS intelligent and cares deeply about her work and the animals.
    I happened to be there just after Oodie first came to the sanctuary. He was injured and very cranky – he was very much a wild animal. He was released after he healed but didn’t want to leave. He became a fixture. Now, I guess he’s famous…but he’s still wild and has a freshly bloodied nose from a scrape with other otters.
    Karine, thank you for your blog about Cat and your experiences in our beautiful state. Rural Georgia, especially coastal areas, can be a cultural shock for those not prepared. But, the beauty is breath-taking and the people fascinating. You should get Cat to introduce some of the more interesting folk…and you should definitely come back to Georgia and see more!

  3. February 1, 2010 01:42

    I,also claim “cat” as a best friend. I am an old gal on 24-7 oxygen,Cat always has time to make sure I get out the house a couple times a month. I love talking with her and listening to her. When Oodie was a baby she brought him to my house,she has a wonderful kind heart and sees only the best in both man and animal sometimes to a fault. There are so many things left for her to teach and show you. Do come back to Rural Georgia soon,you wont be sorry.

    • February 4, 2010 08:39

      Judy-

      Thanks so much for the comment! I agree with you completely. She bent over backwards to make sure I had everything I needed, and went out of her way to show me around. I’d be thrilled to learn more, and hopefully I’ll be able to get back there soon.

      Cheers-

      K

  4. February 1, 2010 16:26

    Thanks for the SouthGeorgia story. I know Cat very well and the Big house on the river the owner, the dogs (Donor stole my knitting last week end) and have loved all the people and animals there for many years. Thanks again Ginnie

    • February 4, 2010 08:37

      Ginnie-

      Glad you enjoyed the story. I hope to get down there again sometime. Maybe we’ll get to meet!

      Cheers-
      K

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