When the Earth Shook

I’m rolling slowly down a wooded country lane. The gravel is crunching beneath my tires. My gooseneck is swaying across the uneven terrain under the weight of the trees I’m hauling. Max is poking his nose out the window, taking in the sights. This is the perfect October fall day. Crisp. Clear. Deep in the bowels of Talbot County, Georgia.

Back in the woods, a quarter mile off the state highway, my destination is the Heath Family Cemetery. Quiet. Secluded. Mostly undisturbed.

Until recently.

All this solitude was violently interrupted one night a few months back. They say it felt like an earthquake. Local folks nearly a mile away rose up out of a dead sleep and turned on the lights to see if the world was still present. A train loaded with gravel from the local quarry derailed, tore apart, and tumbled against the earth with a force that shook the dead. Literally.

When railroad accidents like this occur, The Company is not likely to ask permission to access their train from across the private landholder’s property. They pull out the topo-map. Calculate the closest route. And the calvary moves into action. They operate on the act-now-ask-forgiveness-later plan. Writing a check for damages helps.

It happens in this case that the Heath Family Cemetery was the railroad’s closest access point to a section of the wreckage. Trees were cleared. Massive cranes were set up. Trucks and hard hats everywhere you looked. Portable generators and lights made it look from a distance like Talbot County had built a new football stadium in the middle of the woods.

Jeff Heath showed up at my door several weeks ago asking for help. “We’ve been holding the Heath family reunion at this cemetery for 154 years consecutively. The reunion is coming up at the end of October. Now we’ve got this big eyesore staring at us. Can you help us plant trees?”

He added, “The rock quarry is paying for it. I don’t care what it cost.”

No surprise, I said “Sure.”

The quarry and the cemetery both sit exactly on top of what is known in Georgia as the Fall Line. This is the geological divide between ancient coastal seas and the lower piedmont region. In other words, if you dig a hole here, you might just find a shark’s tooth 200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

Two weeks ago, I met here with Brad from the quarry and Sam from the Heath family to put together a plan. I tend to ask a lot of questions when I meet strangers. Just my way of getting to know who they are and what they do. The rock quarry had my interest.

“We started the quarry here back in the early 80s. We ship everything by rail and 99% of the rock from here goes to Florida for paving roads. The trains run about every 15 minutes around the clock every day of the year.”

“That’s a lot of rock,” I said.


“About 110 tons per car,” Brad said. “And these trains are loooong.”

I’m soaking this in. “No wonder the ground shook when that train came off the rails.”

“So, how big is the hole in the ground and how much longer can you pull rock out of it before the quarry runs out?” Grown men who played with Tonka Trucks as boys like machines that make holes and haul stuff.

Brad is patient with my hick questions.

“Well, we are down about 300 feet now, and that’s over the last 40 years. We figure we’ve got about another 500 feet to go before we’ll have to abandon the mine.”

One day I’m gonna ask Brad to take me to look at that hole. My granddaughter will be older than me by the time they pull the last bucket of rock out of that quarry.

Today, there’s no one here but us tree guys. Four trucks. Equipment. Hand tools. Trees. We even brought our own water tank. I’m told that we’re on the sandy side of the Fall Line. Should be easy digging.

The cemetery sets against the far woodland edge surrounded by a small grassy field. Large red oaks flank one side of the chain link fence around this hallowed ground, offering shade to a picnic pavilion, which I assume is the center piece of the family reunion. Folding tables filled with fried chicken and tater salad. Gallon jugs of sweet tea. Maybe a cooler with a variety of adult beverages for sipping while swapping stories.

I can’t resist taking a slow walk among the headstones.

John Burge Heath appears to be the patriarch of this clan. Born October 1794. But he’s not the oldest. As far as I can tell that honor goes to Julia A.C. Walker who died on October 5, 1852, at the age of 80. Here lies a woman born in 1772 who was a 17-year-old giddy teenager when George Washington took his oath of office as the first President of these here United States.

If that doesn’t butter your grits, nothing will.

I’d say there are perhaps 75 or so graves in this place. Infants. Confederate soldiers. Beloved mothers. Siblings who all died back-to-back-to-back under the age of ten. A son who died at 30 just when he was starting to come into his own life. Many unmarked graves. One grave set apart by a weathered but stout wooden marker. Most of them from the 1800s. The most recent from 2012.

I am in awe of this Heath clan who still comes to this place. They have been coming here every year since Wyoming became a US Territory. Since Ulysses S. Grant became the 18th President. Since Alabama was readmitted to the US. Since before K-Tel Records started running ads on TV.

Think about the commitment to one’s ancestral history required for this reunion to carry on. My family has casually talked about holding a reunion for years now. We’re all for it. We should do that. But none of us are driven enough to put one together. Most of your families are probably the same. The older we get, the more we value that kind of connection, yet the harder it is to make it happen.

The epitaphs on these headstones are remarkable. Some are almost unreadable. Many of them are poetic.

“Her sweet smile, her golden curls, her loving spirit will never be forgotten.” Martha was 3 years old.

For the wife of TJ Amos, Nov. 12, 1905:

“She was too good too gentle and fair
To dwell in this cold world of care
No pains or grief or anxious fear
Can reach our loved one sleeping here”

The words that perhaps tell of the true spirit behind the Heath family reunion are on the obelisk belonging to the old patriarch himself. He died at 78 years of age in 1872.

“He looked for a city which hath foundations
whose builder and maker is God. All is well.”

There’s a statement for you. A perspective on life that not even a train wreck can disturb.

Shaken yet unmoved.

Restless yet unwavering.

One great and final reunion still to come.