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Sacred Ground  
Walking in O'Connor's Footsteps at Andalusia

© 8 August 2008, Brian Collier

If you've read through a collection of O'Connor's short stories, or rewarded yourself with a trip through Wise Blood then you're familiar with the landscape she populates with escaped murderers, itinerant preachers, and rebellious teens. O'Connor was so talented that she could put a reader smack in the middle of a desolate red-clay-and-gravel back road, or a claustrophobic room in a dilapidated farmhouse with an economy of words that Hemingway would envy.

To really grasp O'Connor's talent for capturing reality and pinning it to the pages of her fiction, you have to visit Andalusia, the farm where she spent the last thirteen years of her life and wrote the majority of her work. About three miles north of Milledgeville on Georgia highway 441, Andalusia politely bides the days like an aging southern belle, despite the tide of progress steadily washing away the history around Georgia's former capital. A dirt and gravel drive flanked by barbed wire still serves as the single entryway to Andalusia. Gnarled oaks and Georgia pines shelter the farm from the commercial frontage sprouting along 441, although disembodied voices sometimes call out from the Ford dealership up the highway.

The O'Connor farmhouse at Andalusia:
Photo courtesy of the Andalusia Foundation

The white farmhouse perches atop a rise in the land, still watching the blue-gray line of trees across the pasture and patiently awaiting visitors from the outside world. A row of white rocking chairs invites visitors to sit in the shade of the front porch and listen to the cicadas buzzing in the summer heat. About the only thing O'Connor readers will miss are the animals. Aside from wild whitetail deer and an old hinny, the farm no longer supports livestock. O'Connor's peacocks, the animals most closely connected to her, were given to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, and the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta.

In a small back room of the farmhouse, Craig Amason directs the Andalusia Foundation and spearheads the drive to save O'Connor's Milledgeville heritage and keep Andalusia from succumbing to old age. He has managed to gather enough support to make the farmhouse safe for visitors--opening the past to O'Connor's readers--but time hasn't been kind to the buckling plaster walls or most of the outbuildings; the plantation house where the Hills used to live is now home to a thriving family of squirrels. Amason believes the foundation will need around 1.5 million dollars to properly renovate the house and 8 million to rejuvenate the whole farm, which seem to be very conservative figures. The foundation's plans include nature trails through the farm to give local students a place to retreat from the encroaching sprawl. (Surely there's a literary philanthropist out there who sees the value in preserving this landmark of southern literature.)

The natural isolation that saves Andalusia from becoming another motel or parking lot also limits accessibility for visitors. Milledgeville doesn't have its own commercial airport, and the two hour drive from Atlanta's Hartsfield discourages the casual tourist. However, if you've read this far, I'll bet you're not a casual tourist. You possess that deep passion for O'Connor that won't let a few miles discourage you from setting foot on the sacred ground where a stray scrub bull might still lurk in the sentinel line of trees, where you can squint into the gloom of the hayloft and listen for Hulga whispering with Manley, and you can almost puzzle the answer to sacred mystery from the maze of cracks in the plaster walls of O'Connor's bedroom.

Planning a trip to Georgia is fairly easy, with convenient access to a major airport and ample transportation options, and aside from your journey to Andalusia you can find plenty of attractions in Atlanta to fill several days. As an alternative to the usual tourist route, the Toronto group Classical Pursuits offers a four night April sojourn to Georgia that includes a visit to O'Connor's childhood home in Savannah, a day trip to Andalusia, guided walks through Savannah, accommodations at the Marshall House, readings, and daily discussions with O'Connor scholars. If you've an independent streak, visiting these places on your own is simple, but Classical Pursuits offers a group experience that allows you to share your love for O'Connor with other literary minded travelers.

There is no substitute for setting your own eyes on the same countryside O'Connor used for her stories, but if you simply can't travel to Milledgeville, you can still get a taste of O'Connor country online. Nancy Marshall's photo essay on Southern Spaces leads visitors on an evocative photographic tour of Andalusia in black and white. In addition to preserving O'Connor's home, the Andalusia Foundation hosts a website with information on the entire history of the farm and a information on how you can help keep O'Connor's Andalusia alive.

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