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Celebrating Our Culture  


Talking with Burkhard Bilger
 
An interview by Robert L. Hall

 

Recently I had the occasion to pick up the book, Noodling for Flatheads, (Scribner) by Burkhard Bilger.  It represented the narration of Bilger, as a man who traveled around the South exploring such time-honored traditions as moonshining and cockfighting, coonhunting and, of course – “noodling.”  Noodling, by the way, is the act of sticking your hand into the water and letting a catfish grab it.  Then you shove your hand down it’s throat and yank it out of the water.  No sport for the faint of heart, you may note!

As I read page after fascinating page, I began to wonder, “How much more craziness can this guy reveal?”  Then I realized, “This is the South.  There is no limit to what he may uncover.”  

I decided then and there to contact him and talk to him about the book and tell me something about himself as well.   

What led you to write a book containing all the eccentricities of a southern subculture, such as coonhunting and frog farming?

I first got interested in odd southern traditions when I was looking to buy a redbone coonhound. At the time, I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where coonhounds are incredibly rare. When I finally tracked down a breeder of Blueticks, he gave me a copy of American Cooner--a fat, glossy magazine full of pictures of hysterical dogs and strange ads for frozen semen. The whole subculture it described was a mystery to me, even though I must have had coonhunters all around me when I was growing up in Oklahoma. That disjunction--between the generic, suburban South that I'd known, and the more traditional South hidden around every corner--inspired the book.

Although I had never heard of it, Noodling for catfish (that is, reaching your hand down the fish's throat after enticing it to grab your hand by wiggling your fingers) evidently used to be wide spread.  When did you hear of it?

A kid from Mississippi was the first one to tell me about it, I think. Later, when I asked around, I found out that my in-laws' plumber in Oklahoma was an expert noodler. He'd often caught fish that weighed more than 60 pounds.

You do not glamorize or condescend when writing about the quirky mentalities of some of your subjects, such as the moonshiners. Is it because they are trapped in their own little worlds, many of them poor?

I guess I just found them fascinating, and funny, and often very kind, and I tried to portray them as honestly as I could. They certainly didn't invite condescension--most of them were smart, capable, and admirably in tune with nature. But they were also people with obsessions, and those obsessions shaped their lives.

                                     

 

 

 


If you spend 340 nights a year coonhunting, or fighting gamecocks, or whatever, you start to see the world differently from other people. You learn to identify persimmon trees by scent in the dark; you pore over esoteric volumes on chicken genetics; you spend months devising clever new strategies for hiding your liquor still from revenue agents. It's not that you're trapped in your own little world. You're just exploring a world that most people don't even realize exists.

The cockfighting segment in Louisiana must have been hard to get into to see. When you finally did, you seemed on guard most of the time. Can you put into perspective how this type of "sport" enjoyed by Washington and Lincoln devolved in the minds of many today?

I'm still not sure why cockfighters agreed to talk to me at all--they've gotten so much terrible publicity in recent years. Most people dismiss blood sports as barbaric, and in a sense they're right: cockfighting is a brutal pastime. If Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Jackson didn't shrink from cockfighting it's probably because brutality was so much a part of their lives. People were struggling with the wilderness, with disease, and with enemies near and far, every day.

It would have seemed a little absurd to single out chickens as deserving of their sympathy.

Nowadays, of course, most of our society's brutality gets played out in the shadows—in foreign wars, and ghettos, and sweatshops--beyond the view of polite society. Before people condemn cockfighting, though, they should take a nice long tour of their local chicken factory.

As you toured a fish and frog-raising farm in Georgia, did you wonder how the genetic experiments that are taking place now will impact us in such farms in the near future? Example: salmon are already being hybridized to make huge fish, although not made legal to release into the wild yet.

Genetic engineering is a Pandora's Box, no question, and it's particularly worrisome in aquatic animals. Once a super salmon makes it into the ocean, or a large river system, it will be impossible to keep its engineered genes from spreading--perhaps with disastrous results. As for the fish and frog farm I visited, the animals there were regular hybrids, so
they didn't pose much of a long-term threat to the environment.

In the chapter, "Send in the Hounds" there is one woman in particular that goes out at night coonhunting with the men. Do you think it is a shame that more women don't participate in outdoors events such as these or not?

It's a shame if women feel excluded, but I'm not sure how many do. There are a fair number of female cockfighters, and the audiences I've seen tend to be well mixed. As for coonhunting, it requires spending hours in a dark forest by yourself, training your dog. That part of the sport tends to turn women off, regardless of any sexism among male
coonhunters.

Making illegal moonshine is an old affair, significant in America's past history, as you point out. Will it ever end, or will it increase?

I doubt it will ever end--there will always be a market for cheap, tax-free liquor--but I can't imagine the market for moonshine increasing much. Store-bought liquor is safer and tastier (for the most part) than moonshine, and off-brand vodka can still get you drunk for less than a dollar.

In "The Rolley Holers" a wonderfully poignant story is told of the dramatic rise and fall of a southern sport in the Cumberland hills of Tennessee which culminated in a world-class event one year. Do you feel that television and its attendant counterparts, i.e. computers, movies, media, have taken much away from southerners as a people?

Sure, mass media has done a lot to homogenize American culture and to strip out some of its more interesting variations.

But I don't think the damage is permanent, necessarily. People can often rediscover and

reinvent their old traditions, just as the Israelis revived Hebrew centuries after the language died.

One sentence you used to describe a Tennessee man was:"It's a story about a gonzo folklorist who helped keep a tradition alivewhen the whole notion of tradition was starting to ring hollow." Mr. Bilger,when I read that, I thought of you. Isn't this a "self-portrait" of you?

Well, folklorists take their profession pretty seriously (too seriously, sometimes) and I'm sure they wouldn't think I qualify for membership. Then, too, I wasn't actively trying to keep these traditions alive; I was just trying to understand and describe them.

What projects are you currently involved in and do you have anything you would like to relate to our Southern Writers of fiction and non-fiction at this site?

I'm starting to put together my next book project and doing some freelance writing on the side. In the meantime, I'm also gathering pieces for the next volume of The Best American Science and Nature Writing, of which I'm series editor.


Biography:

Burkhard Bilger has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, and The New York Times, and his work has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing 2000. A former and editor for The Sciences, where he helped earn two National Magazine Awards and six nominations, he is now a senior editor at Discover and series editor of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Born and raised in Oklahoma, he now lives in
Brooklyn with his wife, Jennifer Nelson, their children, Hans and Ruby, and their coonhound Hattie.



Bibliography:

Noodling for Flatheads, (Scribner, September, 2000)

Global Warming, (Chelsea House Publishers, 1992)


Article is by Robert L. Hall - raised in and currently living outside Memphis, TN., writes crime mysteries and tales of a youth with adventures in horsemanship. His books are Mid-South based. Mr. Hall also is a contributing writer for the on-line journal, When Falls the Coliseum , a self-described “Journal of American Culture (or the lack thereof)” at www.wfthecoliseum.com.

A trained musician with a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Memphis and Master of Music degree from Florida State University, he is staff pianist at Trinity Baptist Church in West Memphis and has taught music courses at three institutions of higher learning.

© 2000 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved