King Kudzu has sincere eyes of an undeterminable color, a
muscular neck—as wide as his head, almost—and a bit of a
belly. A little straw hat weathered with holes reveals thinning,
gray hair. His soft mouth seems accustomed to smiling. Around
his hips the sturdy forty-nine-year-old wears a tool belt with cutters, tape, wire, measuring tape, and some treats for his black,
ten-week-old kitten Little Louie, who, he claims, is a reincarnation of Louie I, his previous black cat. In front of his house his
truck stands ponderously. The King has a;xed a pink plastic
flamingo to its antenna and mounted an elephant sculpture to
its roof. A big flute-playing metal frog balances leisurely on the
bumper, and a pair of large antlers crowns the whole installation.
i need kudzu, two large stickers read, because he needs kudzu
to make and sell his artwork. He needs kudzu to survive.
The lasT Time the king was normal was in his mother’s
womb. At birth, a doctor yanked him out by his right arm, dis-
locating it. His future was spelled out. “I would have been per-
fectly normal,” King Kudzu says. “They thought I was born with
a deformity but I was just a fat, healthy baby. I weighed in at
eleven pounds and eleven ounces!”
King Kudzu has lived within a twenty-mile radius of Moun-
tain City, a one-thousand-soul town in Georgia’s northeast cor-
ner, for most of his life. A speck of scattered houses and trailers,
a creek, two deserted gas stations, the woods, an abandoned
summer camp, church after church after church . . . for the past
eight years he has rented a house with a small store next to the
two-lane highway that cuts through the town.
When you leave town driving south toward Atlanta you see a
black wooden sign that reads repentance, painted in white, muscular letters. Then suddenly Route 441 curls and plunges into a narrow valley. The valley’s only sights are a lingerie store in a wooden
shed and, across the street, an old strip club, the Playhouse. In
2013, Mountain City’s median household income was $19,703.
What’s striking about the area is its natural beauty. At night
one hears magical forest sounds and, in July and August, sudden
imposing thunderstorms hit the mountains, with lightning bolts
aimed directly at your heart. The stark cli=s that tower above the
Tallulah Gorge, the swirls in the waters of the Chattooga River,
the rapids’ foam glistening in the sun. There are little sand
beaches along the river where schools of tiny fish swim up and
nibble on your toes.
But kudzu renders large areas unrecognizable, strangling trees
to death by blocking their access to sunlight. It spreads out a green
blanket of fuzzy, trifoliate leaves, covering everything in its path.
Kudzu is indiscriminate. Old cars by the side of the road, pine
trees, wooden barns, telephone poles, and highway signs have all
disappeared under the creeping vine. As it swallows things
whole, many of the new shapes it creates are phallic: erect
penises (pine trees or chimneys?) and multiple, misshapen scro-
tums (briar bushes?).
In 1963, poet James Dickey eternalized the invasive Asian
weed in The New Yorker (not that it was at risk of being forgotten):
. . . Up telephone poles,
Which rear, half out of leavage
As though they would shriek
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts.
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house
The glass is tinged with green, even so,
As the tendrils crawl over the fields.
The night the Kudzu has
Your pasture, you sleep like the dead.
Silence has grown oriental
And you cannot step upon the ground . . .
King Kudzu does not like James Dickey, because, he says, Dickey
does not like kudzu. “He turned kudzu into something awful,” he
tells me when I ask him if he knows the poem. He blames the
author for what happened to Rabun County after Deliverance was
filmed there. He holds Dickey, who wrote the novel and screenplay, responsible for the image the movie projected on him and his
friends. “It’s demeaning,” he says. “People don’t want to be stereotyped. I don’t even own a gun! We’re basic, levelheaded people.”
During my time in Rabun County no one asked me, “Have
you heard of the movie Deliverance Because it was filmed here,
right on our doorstep!” No one even uttered the word deliverance.
After the movie— which was nominated for five Golden Globes
and three Academy Awards — the tourists came. Millions of them.
Many tried to repeat Burt Reynolds’s feat of traveling down the
Chattooga in kayaks and canoes. More than two dozen outsiders
died in what became known as “Deliverance syndrome.” Tourism
became Rabun County’s number one source of revenue. When I
tell King Kudzu about the accidents, he says, “I didn’t know. But
that just shows you that James Dickey isn’t any good.”
King Kudzu does not like the government, but he spends his
days taking what the government can no longer figure out what to
do with. In the 1930s and ’40s, o;cials from the Soil Conservation