There’s no building here, just a small homemade shelter with a frame of welded pipe and a roof made of two-by-fours and a blue vinyl tarp to provide some shade when he’s mixing or resting. But the hillside behind the shelter, at the intersection of Wright Street and Third Avenue South, is one of the city’s most distinctive landmarks: the Southern Heritage Nature Park. The park, like the shed, is a hundred percent homemade by O’Rear, and nearly all the rock was on the property to begin with. He’s a welder — and long-time welding instructor —by trade, and had never worked with stone until some 13 years ago when he looked at the empty corner lot he had bought and envisioned it as a combination monument to his Christian faith and a quiet outdoor spot for passers-by to pray and meditate. In the process, the corner lot has gradually evolved into a work of folk art, a local history museum, and a scrapbook of significant events in O’Rear’s own life.
Often, people commit to such large, demanding projects following a religious conversion, but O’Rear’s conversion happened 70 years ago last month at the small church his mother helped found, in the area that’s now the Jasper Airport.
“I was just 13, but I realized it was time for me to make my commitment,” he recalls now, during a break from his stone-laying. “At church that night I sat on the front bench so I wouldn’t have far to walk when the preacher gave the invitation. And when he laid his hand on my head, it felt like 220 volts going through me. At that minute, everything was made new.
“After church when I was walking home...I still remember the spot by the old railroad track...a voice came to me, from out of nowhere, and said, ‘You’re never going to die.’ At the time, I thought it just meant that I had eternal life, and when my years on earth were over I’d go to be with the Lord. But lately, I’m wondering if it meant I’d be alive when the Rapture comes. It’s looking like that could be the case.”
He reckons that the Nature Park is essentially finished, except for the small area in one corner that he’s working on today. Doing everything manually might be good for the spirit, but he admits that the loan of a front-end loader would sure simplify things. And he says the existing stone walkways could use a good going-over with a pressure washer, but his washer died a while back.
Viewed from Third Avenue, the central feature of the park is a stone wall tilting backwards at a 45-degree angle, flanked with concrete steps on either side, and inset with two huge crosses, one white and one gray. The gray one, like some other features of the stonework, is a fragment of history. The sawed stone was originally a window sill from one of the city’s earliest hotels, built in the late 1800s, which O’Rear helped demolish. The tall, elongated metal cross just behind the rock wall began its life as a light post at an old service station. And the small reddish-colored stone at the exact center of the wall, which appears heart-shaped from the front, is a corn-grinding stone once used by a Cherokee family; O’Rear received it as a gift from one of his sons.
“I brought the grinding stone here in a trailer that had no springs on it, and during the hard jolts and bouncing, the stone cracked in two,” he says. “and I really felt bad about it. But I decided to use it anyway, to represent the broken heart of Jesus.” The lower end of the stone points toward a white marble plaque inscribed “Jesus Died For You.”
In the grass directly behind the central wall is a pair of handmade stone benches, sitting at right angles. One of the benches is average-sized, the other a good bit larger. “I figured that since people sometimes come here to talk to God,” he explains to a visitor, “the people could sit on the small bench and God could use the big one.” A silence follows. “That was kind of a joke,” O’Rear adds.
A shallow creek encircles the front side of the property, reflecting the early morning sun, but it’s not as idyllic as it seems. Apparently the stream intersects with a sewer line for part of its course, and the surrounding soil has a higher than average concentration of various bacteria. O’Rear discovered just how “various” a few years ago when he lost his balance and fell head-first into a rose bush near the creek. A large thorn embedded itself in the bridge of his nose, dangerously near his left eye, and the resulting infection fended off several attempts at treatment before doctors found the right combination of antibiotics.
Over the years, he says, he’s become known locally as “the little old man down on the creek,” and there’s never a shortage of strangers who stop by to ask questions, offer advice, or just wish him well. “The advice I hear most often is that this hot weather is going to kill me,” he says, “but I’m still here. It’s a labor of love, for what Jesus did for me and my family.”
The second most asked question, he says, is where the stones came from. “I smile a little and tell them ‘from God,’ and I add that the mortar, cement, sand and labor were furnished by Social Security and the Holy Spirit.”
But talk with O’Rear at any length, and you discover that “the little old man down on the creek” is not only intellectually complex but a walking contradiction. One of his ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, and he’s a veteran of the Korean War, but was adamantly opposed to America’s intervention in Vietnam, Iraq, and — if time brings it — Syria. And though a political pollster might ask a few basic questions and mark him in the demographic column of “Religious Right,” that pencil mark would be quickly erased if the topic of either church-and-state or The Ten Commandments came up.
“I’m an old, old, old Southern Missionary Baptist,” he explains, “but religion has gotten into the churches and changed everything around. Religion and Christianity have nothing to do with each other. It’s like light and dark. I was excommunicated from the ‘modern’ Baptists because they claimed you can be saved today and lost tomorrow, and claimed some other things that I couldn’t go along with. And I never will.” At one point he was called to preach, he says, but the church he attended wouldn’t ordain him.
And the recent preponderance of Ten Commandments yard signs gets on his nerves. “Those commandments were to a different people, the Jews, at a different time in history. Jesus only brought two commandments: love and grace.”
While passers-by who stop to chat at the park site sometimes turn the subject to religion or politics, he says most people bring up more general concerns. One visitor he especially remembers was a tall, white-haired gentleman with a mustache:
“I was pretty sure he was Irish. But I’m hard of hearing and have to do a lot of lip-reading, and his mustache covered up his lips so I had a hard time understanding him. But when I got closer and he spoke louder I could tell from his dialect he was from Southern Ireland, like my family is. And he said to me, ‘This is a good place to bring your burdens, isn’t it?’ “Then I saw there were tears in his eyes, and he didn’t want me to see him crying. As he turned to walk away I told him, ‘It’s as good a place as I know, and we all have them. You’re welcome to come here as often as you want.’ I started back to my work and when I looked around he was gone. He hadn’t come in a car, and I believe he was here in spirit only. But that’s just my belief. You’re welcome to agree or disagree.”
Another morning, in winter, a man with a sleeping bag strapped to his shoulder stopped at the site, sat down on the sidewalk, raised his arms in the air and started singing. The man looked to be Native American and the language wasn’t English, O’Rear says. The song went on for about eight minutes before the man finished singing and got up. The two saluted one another, and the man walked off.
Today, before O’Rear returns to his work, a visitor tells him that “folk art” is an especially popular subject these days, and wonders if he considers himself a folk artist.
He thinks on this a minute. “I don’t have any problem with being called that. But if I had a choice, I’d rather have been a folk musician.” He has fond memories from his youth of the Louisiana Hayride music series, he says, and has tried over the years to organize a Jasper equivalent, but without any luck.
If there’s any art in the park that he’s created, it’s secondary, he adds: “I just hope I’ve made a place that people feel welcome to come to. Ideally, that’s what churches are, but many of them nowadays don’t welcome you unless you believe the same things they do. ”So I just think of this place as a church without walls or a roof.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org