Monday, July 10, 2006

Robert E. Bell and Mary Lois Timbes

July 10

Robert E. Bell, my collaborator on Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree became a close friend even though we never met. We began a correspondence discussing the town we both remembered and we spoke on the telephone once.

He had written a novel called The Butterfly Tree, which was set in Fairhope, and it was published by Lippincott in 1959. Like just about everybody in Fairhope, I read it with relish at that time. For some reason my mother chose to "lend" my copy to a friend of hers and I never saw it again, but years later I was able to find a first edition in a Montgomery bookstore.

This excerpt begins the book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree.

"This was it, then, the end for roads in Moss Bayou, not-quite-forgotten place, not-quite-remembered road. He turned onto an avenue of magnolias and old heavy houses brooding a thousand mysteries, not-telling houses almost hidden...a breeze unsettled the tree-caught afternoon, shifting the day to new meanings. Then by a simple intuition, Peter knew he had arrived."

The "Moss Bayou" of young Bob Bell's novel was a fictionalized Fairhope. He perceived it as a lazy, lovely Alabama town with special magic bestowed by Mobile Bay glistening at its side. It was that, yet it was more. Fairhope in the 1950's was offbeat, artistic, writerly, unusually varied for a village of about three thousand in the Deep South.

The "more" became the mystery for Bell, whose novel spun a tale of people who sought a magical answer to life's meaning, symbolized by a butterfly tree. The "more" is the spirit of Fairhope, which lies just beneath the town's casual charm. Fairhope barely conceals its paradoxical Northern orientation within genteel Southern surroundings.

This spirit was my reality as I grew from a ten-year-old child into a young woman, nurtured by this enlightened little enclave. Fairhope fostered a different way of looking at things, whether one was a Single Taxer, an educator, a writer, a scientist, an artist, or simply an ordinary person looking for an extraordinary life.

Fairhope's history provided a backdrop for a complex cast of characters. Founded by 19-Century idealists who were committed to the institutionalization of social economist Henry George's principles of Single Tax, the town Fairhope was planned as a project to change the world and contribute to the betterment of mankind in the century to come. George's book Progress and Poverty inspired Progressives in the late 1800's including Iowa newspaperman named Ernest B. Gaston. He led a group that felt that George's philosophy deserved a demonstration -- a Utopia. The club formally incorporated at the Fairhope Industrial Association before they moved here from Des Moines in 1894. The association's name, based on a remark that such an experiment has "a fair hope of success" became the name they chose for the new settlement.

All that is from the Introduction chapter of Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. First published in 2001, the book had as a side mission the restoration of at least some of the idealism that had made Fairhope unique. In the ensuing five years, unfortunately, both the idealism and the uniqueness of Fairhope have eroded to the point that the town is almost unrecognizable. Growth of unimaginable proportions is predicted, precisely because Fairhope has chosen to cast aside its heritage and supplant it with a phony, Disney-inspired charm that could happen anywhere. New people have flocked in to bring to Fairhope the very things they left behind them, and the residents, overwhelmed with serious infrastructure issues, think they can control the growth by anticipating it.

My second book and my daily posts here attempt to recapture some of the deeper reasons for the change and reflect on some of the more substantial causes and possible cures for the agony of sudden growth. I just felt like reminding you about my collaboration with the special man, Bob Bell, who died before Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree was finished.

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