As the end of the world draws near, an Alabama man takes shelter in a nest of crosses.
By Timothy K. Beal
These days most Americans think of gardens as a private backyard spaces of retreat or leisure, patches of plants, thoughtfully placed stones, wrought iron, trellises, and other complementary décor. Yet traditionally gardens in the West had far more symbolic import. They were conceived as microcosms of creation, constructs of the theological imagination, spaces of moral reflection and spiritual inspiration—“gardens of revelation,” to borrow John Beardsley’s apt phrase from his book of the same title. Such spaces provided those who created and inhabited them with what he calls a “language of spiritual or philosophical rumination.”
A visual cacophony of scrap wood and old appliances spread out on either side of County Road 86 near Prattville, Alabama, Cross Garden (a.k.a. Rice’s Crossgarden and House of Crosses) is anything but a garden in the contemporary American sense. Huge crosses made of skinned logs tower above the road from a bluff. Below these, nearer the road, are many more crosses, tilting this way and that along with plywood boards and metal boxes bearing words of divine judgment, death and hellfire: READ THE BIBLE, HPOCRITES, YOU WILL DIE, HELL HELL HELL HOT HOT, RICH MAN IN HELL REPENT.
Across the road from this display is a dirt pullout in which a small chapel-like shack sits. Above its door a sign reads, CHURCH OF GOD JESUS AND THE HOLY GHOST, and all over its walls are more reminders that hell is indeed hot and that you will indeed die. On the door, written in foot-high letters, is the question, WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH JESUS?
Next to the church, a few broken-down top-loading laundry machines stand in a line, each with a wooden cross rising from its open lid. Such an unexpected combination of religious symbol and household appliance simultaneously demands and defies interpretation. Washed in the blood, maybe?
In front of the rambler-style home, just past the air-conditioner housings lined up along the driveway, is another concentration of crosses, signs, and ramshackle buildings surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Here the signage is slightly less hellmoh and more salvation-oriented: JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON, JESUS SAVES, JESUS WILL HELP YOU.
Not your typical garden scene, in any case. Indeed, I doubt that the creator and proprietor of Cross Garden, William C. Rice, has ever set foot in a nursery or Home Depot. Yet this is a garden, albeit a heterodox one, in the more traditional sense described by Beardsley. It is a garden of revelation, a material expression of Mr. Rice’s own very unique religious imagination.
Although the individual pieces of Cross Garden struck me as laughably makeshift and shoddy, the overall effect of this eleven-acre collage was overwhelming. I had seen pictures of the place in newspaper articles and on offbeat travel Web sites, so I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong. You don’t behold Cross Garden like an object in a picture frame. You don’t take it in. It takes you in.
Crosses and other objects are scattered in every direction as far as the eye can see. They fill every horizon, giving the eye no escape from this world. There are no outside points of reference. There is no objective viewpoint, no way to gain perspective distance. Like Dorothy in the enchanted forest, one feels subjected to its world of crosses, which seem to be alive, gazing down from bluffs and up from ditches.
The place is literally saturated with intimidating written messages, mostly of them urgent warnings of impending hellfire, most often put in forms of personal address (YOU WILL DIE. WHAT WILL YOU DO?). Writing is all over the place. There are almost no blank spaces, and therefore there is little room for one’s own thoughts or words. It fills one’s consciousness.
Although in many ways radically unnatural, Cross Garden is also integrated into its natural environment. On the one hand, the text-ridden crosses and scraps and junk impose themselves on the land and all that grows there naturally. Just about anything that can hold a nail is covered with signage. Running up the trunk of a small tree near the house, for example, are sixteen signs, each with the word CROSS hastily painted on it in white, as though the tree has been relabeled, as though nature has been overwritten. On the other hand, many of the objects in Cross Garden appear to be assimilating to their natural environment. The crosses tilt this way and that like trees. Weathered from years of exposure, their colors blend with the grays of dead wood and the red-browns of the soil. It is both contrastive and complementary, simultaneously a part of the natural landscape and a contradiction of it.
Yet I don’t think we can go so far as to call these structural and spatial elements “strategies,” which would imply some degree of intentionality. The power of this space to envelop visitors is difficult to attribute to the conscious aims of its creator, Bill Rice. For it appears to have come together, or rather accrued, over a long period of time, almost by accident. I’m reminded of the brainstorming exercises I do on chalkboards with my college students, free-associating a web of words and phrases that spreads out in all directions. Cross Garden looks like a quarter-century-long brainstorming exercise. Except instead of words on a chalkboard we see words on crosses and boards and washing machines and air conditioner housings, spread out across 11 acres of yellow grass and brown-red Alabama soil.
Bill’s wife, Marzell, saw me wandering among the crosses and rusty appliances in her front yard and came out to greet me. She welcomed me into the house and asked me to sign the guest book. Although I saw no other visitors during my day at Cross Garden, the guestbook had hundreds of pages of rows of names and addresses accompanied by comments like “Hell is hot!” and “Wow!”
Marzell found me a chair in the small, dimly lit family room and went to the bedroom to get Bill. I dare say there were as many crosses in that room as there were outside. The walls were covered with them. They hung from the low ceiling. They lay on end tables and hearths and countertops. On many, crucified Jesuses were nailed in full pre-Resurrection abjection, crowned with thorns, faces contorted in agony, bodies bent in pain.
On top wall opposite me was an old high-school yearbook picture of one of the Rice boys, his smiling face peeking through a thicket of crosses that appeared to be growing over him like creeping kudzu. Judging from the width of the boy’s lapel and the size of his bowtie, I’d date the picture circa Class of 1976.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting with Bill. When I called the day before my visit to remind him that I was coming, an older man answered.
“Is this Mr. Rice?”
“No, no, this is Mr. Browning,” he replied in a thick southern Alabama drawl. “Mr. Rice isn’t home. He’s gone to the store with his wife. Try back later if you want.”
I called back an hour later and got the same man. But this time he admitted that he was in fact Mr. Rice, not Mr. Browning. “I lied earlier,” he confessed, his voice cracking. “When you called back then I just couldn’t talk. Sometimes I get so depressed, so tired from my diabetes [pronounced dah-bee-teez]. Do you forgive me, brother? I’d get on my knees right now, talking to you on the phone, if I could.”
I assured him that I wasn’t offended, that I understood how it can be sometimes. He thanked me profusely and declared that we were now good friends.
Eventually Bill shuffled into the room and gently sat down in the motorized recliner ne.t to me. He was tall but bent and weakened by age, back trouble, and complications related to his diabetes. He had a Colonel Sanders beard and warm blue eyes. Marzell watched over him closely, serving as both nurse and religious attendant.
“Don’t forget your cross and ribbons. He never talks to guests without wearing his ribbons and cross,” she explained as she adorned him with his priestly vestments: four nylon ribbon necklaces on which little crosses had been drawn in black marker, a foot-long crucifix covered head to toe with tiny red drops, and a wide-brimmed black felt hat likewise decorated with crosses and ribbons.
Now properly vested, Bill leaned back and took a minute or two to catch his breath while Marzell gave me a packet of evangelical tracts and local newspaper articles about Cross Garden. “Bet you never seen this many crosses in your life!” Marzell began with a warm and sympathetic smile.
“So you’re a teacher?” Bill interrupted. “You teach art? We get lots of art teachers and art students coming out here. People call this art. But I don’t.” I was aware that Cross Garden had received attention from art students and critics interested in outsider art. But I was interested in him and his place more in terms of outsider religion. I explained that I was a religion professor and that I’d like to know the story behind Cross Garden. His blue eyes warmed with new energy and interest as he gave his personal testimony, which is essentially the story of his lifework, Cross Garden.
Born in Woodstock, Alabama, in 1930, Bill didn’t “get saved and filled with the Holy Ghost” until 1960, while working as a house painter in Fort Rucker. As he tells the story, it was two in the morning and he was sitting in the kitchen of their trailer, chewing tobacco and suffering mightily from stomach ulcers. “I really was living it up for the devil wasn’t I?” The next thing he knew, Jesus came into his heart, at which point “I came out of that chair, I spit tobacco all over the refrigerator, it went all over the floor, and he healed my ulcerated stomach.” That was his “spiritual birthday,” as he called it, and from that day forward he devoted his life to Christian evangelism, preaching to anyone who’d listen from a little red Datsun pickup that he had painted bumper to bumper with crosses and Bible verses. The Datsun still sits in the back yard, a foretaste of things to come.
Cross Garden didn’t begin with his own spiritual birthday, however, but in 1977, with the spiritual birthdays of his parents, both of whom converted on their deathbeds. Shortly after his mother and father died (and were born again), Bill felt called by God to put up his first cross.
“God startt me out small,” he said as he pointed to the space above the back door near the kitchen, where three business-card-size tracts were tacked to the wall in the shape of a cross. On one card was a Bible verse, John 3:16 along with the statement, “This black cloth is in remembrance of God’s son.” On the other two are the names and dates of his parents, each laid out like a tombstone, followed by a prayer thanking God for saving them. So each of these three cards that come together to form the first cross of Cross Garden is both an acknowledgment of death—a little tombstone-like memorial—and a proclamation of victory over death.
Soon after putting the first cross on the wall, Bill felt the call again. This time God told him to plant three wooden crosses, Calvary style, in his front yard. “It was the hardest thing I ever done,” Bill said. “It hurt in my chest to do it.” He dreaded what neighbors and passersby would think. But as the calls to plant more and more crosses came, his anxieties about what neighbors might think faded.
Where does Bill get his ideas for Cross Garden? He told me that God almost always gives him directions in night visions. While sleeping, he’ll see a whole new installation in minute detail, as though already completed: air conditioner housings, for example, painted with specific messages about how there’s no ice water in hell, running up his driveway. As soon as the dream vision ends, he awakes with a start, wakes up Marzell, and tells her exactly what he’s seen. “I just can’t wait till morning. I can’t wait to get it done.”
These days, however, turning dreams into realities is increasingly difficult. Bill and Marzell are now in their seventies, and Bill’s diabetes has become severely debilitating. So they depend heavily on help from their adult children, especially Jerry who lives in a trailer in their backyard. “The kids, they all back him up,” Marzell explained. “They back him all the way. They’re all making crosses too, just like he tells them to.”
“That’s the part I was getting up to,” Bill interrupted. “That’s another gift God give me. God showed me that all my immediate family, they get to get saved. Just like Noah’s family, who got to get saved with Noah in the Ark. So I don’t have to worry about that.”
With this revelation, I began to see Cross Garden as something of a modern-day Ark, with Bill as its Noah. Like Noah, who was called to build the Ark in preparation for divine judgment on the world’s unrighteous masses, Bill feels that God is calling him to build Cross Garden as a warning of immanent divine judgment on a world gone bad. But inside, he and his family are safe and secure, prfrected from the storm.
“Do you see yourself as a modern-day Noah?”
“Well, Noah is the best one to compare with this here. God give me signs, like he give Noah. Like about four weeks ago he give me one. God said, ‘the world coming to a end.’ So now, now, he’s got that out there. He’s got that coming to me.” Recall the large message written in capital letters across several crosses on the bluff outside: GOD SAID THE WORLD COMING TOO A END.
Despite his faint voice, shortness of breath, and Alabama drawl, I found Bill’s manner of speaking most compelling. It’s a kind of informal preaching that meanders from one biblical image to another. His mind seemed to me to be immersed in a biblical pool of imagination, his words flowing from his mouth in a homiletical stream of consciousness as he stared dreamily into space. Billy Graham meets James Joyce.
“All them spirits. I talk to all them spirits all the time. You know, if you’re talking to one of them spirits you’re talking to all of them. It’s all just one big family up there. They don’t have no cars up there, nobody getting drunk and killing people, they don’t have no mercantile, don’t know none of that up there. That’s a happy place.” While saying this, Bill stared into my eyes, smiling dreamily.
“Don’t forget about Noah, Bill,” Marzell interrupted from a nearby sofa, recalling him to my question. “Tell him all about Noah now.”
“Well, God give me a talent,” he began. You know the Bible story of the talents?” I nodded. He was referring to the parable in the Gospel of Matthew about the three servants who were given talents by their master to invest while he was away on a long journey. One was given five, another two, and another one, each according to his ability. When the servants reported back about what they did with their talents, the master condemned the servant who buried his one talent for safekeeping and greatly praised the other two for doubling theirs through risky investments. It’s a parable that calls for risk-taking faith, double or nothing. Bill sees himself as having been given relatively little and taking a great and risky leap of faith with it.
“God give me one talent—painting,” Bill said. Not five or three, but just one, according to his modest ability. Then he turned and fixed his gaze sharply on me. “Just like he give Noah a talent. Noah used his to build that Ark. And I’m building this here.”
“Now this here place,” he continued, “it’s not finished. Maybe it never will be. You see it’s not up to me when to stop. And that’s like Noah too. Because God told him to build that Ark. And Ged decided when it was done. Who shut up the Ark when it was time? Not Noah. God did it. God shut the door on that Ark when he had it the way he wanted it.” Bill was referring to the point in the biblical narrative, just before the floodgates of heaven are opened, when God shut the Ark’s one little opening. For Bill, then, it was up to God to say when Cross Garden was finished. Bill conceived of himself and his family as implementers of divine creativity. In Bill’s mind, this is God’s work in progress.
At that point, perhaps remembering the dove that returned to Noah with the olive branch when the flooding had begun to subside, Bill made an abrupt shift that took me by surprise. “Like a bird’s nest,” he said. “The bird gets a twig, and then a twig . . . a twig . . . and another. Little by little, twig by twig. They don’t do it all in a single day. They don’t make that nest like that.” And then, eyes wide, smiling, finger pointing at me, he says, “And you know what? He never give me that one before. He just give me that one right here! That illustration from nature, about a bird building a nest.” It took me a second to realize what he meant: God had just revealed to him, for the first time, this illustration of Cross Garden as a work-in-progress akin to a bird’s nest. “That’s the way it happens,” he continued, commenting on the divine revelation I had apparently just witnessed. “He talks to me, like we talking now. He gives me all kinds . . . different things. And I just got that one! Bird’s nest. I never thought about it that way before. How ’bout that? That’s a good one. It works, don’t it?”
Bill Rice isn’t the only one who has felt called to plant crosses by the side of the road. In 1984, the late self-proclaimed Reverend Bernard Coffindaffer was given a vision to use the revenues from his coal-washing business in West Virginia to plant trios of wooden crosses—one gold flanked by two blue—along highways and interstates throughout the United States and beyond. By 1993, when he died, he and his crews had planted 1,864 clusters of crosses.
Whereas Reverend Coffindaffer went for high numbers, others apparently believe size matters most. There are numerous giant roadside crosses in the United States, including the 190-foot cross in Groom, Texas, and the 198-foot illuminated “Cross at the Crossroads,” framed with steel and finished with vinyl siding, at the intersection of Interstates 57 and 70 in Effingham, Illinois.
Such cruciform erections, many and huge, along the rural highways and interstates of America tend to strike me primarily as expressions of Christian imperialism. This is God’s land, they seem to declare. This is a Christian natiocr Such crosses stake property, mark territory, and express dominance.
Not so Cross Garden. This project has less to do with staking claims and marking territory than it does with nesting. Granted, Cross Garden means to get the attention of passersby, to wake them up and get them saved before it’s too late. Hell, after all, is hot hot hot. But it’s also a deeply personal work. Bill is building a nest of crosses. He is nestled in crosses. It’s his sanctuary, in both senses of the word: a sacred place and a shelter. Crosses, scrap board signs, and dumped appliances are the twigs, leaves, and bread-ties of this nest. Cross Garden is a nest of crosses, sheltering vulnerable lives within it, keeping them warm and dry as the hard rain falls.
Timothy K. Beal is Florence Harkness Professor of Religion and director of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. His books include “Religion and Its Monsters” and “The Book of Hiding,” and his essays have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Washington Post.
Excerpted from Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith, by Timothy K. Beal (Beacon Press; 2005). Reprinted with the publisher's permission.
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