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LET US BEGIN WITH THE LAND.
It was in its prehistory implacable, brooding, and unyielding, and most of it remains so to this day.Like many southern writers, I believe that the special quality of the land itself indelibly shapes thehuman beings who dwell upon it.
Mississippi occupies 1/4,198 of the total surface of the earth, just a tiny fraction of the planet,which is itself only a minuscule part of the universe. The state consists of 46,865 square miles, being180 miles across at its widest point and 330 at its longest. It is thirty-first in size among the fiftyAmerican commonwealths and ranks thirty-fourth in population. It became a state in 1817, thetwentieth admitted to the union. Its population is 2.7 million, and the median age of its people is33.4 years, 1.8 below the national average. Thirty-six and one-tenth percent of its citizenry areAfrican American, the largest percentage of any state. Of its eighty-two counties, twenty-two havea black majority. In the census of 1940, the state as a whole was slightly more than 50 percentblack, the only black-majority state remaining at the time, and the decline in black populationsince then is testimony to the out-migration that lasted until the 1970s. To comprehend Mississippi,the outlander and the native alike must recognize that this is still an emphatically white/blacksociety, and that its white people and black people are deeply bound together—and, together, tothe land.
Its purlieu is principally one of forests, whichcover more than half the state, agricultural fields, andsmall towns. Metropolitan areas and factory complexesdefinitely take asecond place. There are onlyseven cities with populations of more than thirtythousand. The state's most populous metropolitanvicinities are Jackson, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Pascagoula.Its most dramatic population increases in the1990s were on the Gulf Coast, in the northwest cornerof the state near Memphis, and in the countiessurrounding Jackson; its most pronounced populationdecline was in the Delta. There are 12 acres forevery person and 55.3 persons per square mile, whichcompares to the national average of 7.2 acres and 75.7persons. Stretches of land exist where you see fewpeople; the expansive horizons and the dearth ofmovement on the roads once prompted visitingwriter William Styron to remark how much itreminded him of the countrysides of Poland andRussia, and visiting Russians likewise comment onhow the powerful, unpeopled landscape remindsthem of home. This perception of empty space is enhancedby six substantial national forests encompassing1,155,518 acres of federal land, the largestholdings of public land in the state, as well as by threeareas in the National Park System, twenty-eight stateparks, and six reservoirs for flood control and recreation.Travelers have ranked the state first in the nationin environmental air quality.
Mississippi has four interstate highways connectingit to the nation at large: 1-55 from the Louisianato the Tennessee line at Memphis; 1-59 from thesouthernmost Piney Woods town of Picayune to theAlabama border east of Meridian; 1-20, which cuts ona direct west-east axis across the center of the statefrom Vicksburg to Meridian and beyond to the Alabamaboundary; and 1-10 in south Mississippi,which runs parallel to the coastline of the Gulf ofMexico. (The magnificently bucolic Natchez Traceruns from Natchez all the way to the extreme northeastof the state, and eventually to Nashville, but thatglorious road is nothing like an interstate.) Once youleave an interstate, you are quickly in a genuinecountryside of small villages, open distances, andsparse populations, and that, as the song says, is what Ilike about the South.
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, known hereas the "Tenn-Tom," with its intricate system of locks,connects the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee River innortheast Mississippi, a 235-mile-long inland waterroute utilizing the existing channel of the TombigbeeRiver. According to the compendious Encyclopedia ofSouthern Culture produced by the Center for theStudy of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi,the Tenn-Tom required the removal of twotimes more cubic yards of earth than the excavationfor the Panama Canal, making it the largest earth excavationproject in world history. It was a volatileundertaking, its antagonists charging that it was DeepSouth political pork barrel and environmentalists thatit was destructive of the ecology, but on its completionin 1984 it linked fifteen states along thousands ofmiles of inland waterways. The Tenn-Tom also drawspleasure boats, water-skiers, and bass, bream, crappie,and catfish fishermen.
Water is everywhere—rivers, oxbows, lakes, bayous,creeks, ponds, swamps, and latter-day man-madecatfish ponds. Need one be reminded that this waswhere life itself began—in the waters of sloughs,rivers, and creeks? Indeed, eons ago even in geologicaltime the Gulf of Mexico covered more thanone-fifth of today's Mississippi. The Petrified Forestoutside of Flora in Madison County, the largest collectionof trees petrified east of the Mississippi, isstark testimony to the tumultuous prehistoric streamsthat swept into this region as early as the Pleistoceneperiod. Our state is laced with deep rivers runningnorth to south, enveloped by mossy swamps and verdantwoodlands.
The Almighty has been benevolent in regard toclimate, providing a lengthy growing season, relativelyagreeable subtropical weather, and adequate(perhaps at times more than adequate) rainfall. Thenormal annual mean temperature is sixty-two degrees;only Florida, Texas, and Louisiana have higheraverages in the United States. The price we Mississippianspay for our moderate winters comes in the oftentorrid summers and oppressive humidity. And, asin its human affairs, the state's meteorological compositioncan be one of palpitant extremes—inundatingrainfalls, floods, hurricanes, gales and high winds,and tornadoes, which always seem to seek out housetrailer settlements. In midwinter it can be thirty degreesone day and seventy the next. The highestrecorded temperature was 115 degrees at HollySprings in 1930, the lowest 19 below zero at Corinthin 1966.
There is a languor to our Novembers, when thefoliage is profound and varied and the landscape issuffused with a poignant patina of golden warmth.During the rare snowfalls you can observe the wildfrolic of young children who have never seen snowand the dogs trying to bite the descending flakes. Destructiveice storms are not out of the ordinary. Anexhilarating, perfumed Mississippi springtime is forevera song in the heart, and those long-ago childhoodnights when we "played out" in its warm andfragrant shadows are among my own finest memories."I saw sixteen shades of green between Mathistonand Jackson today" the homegrown painterWilliam Dunlap once commented after taking adrive one April morning.
"In the beginning it was virgin—" Faulkner observedin "Mississippi," the only nonfiction piece heever wrote on his state, "to the west, along the BigRiver, the alluvial swamps threaded by black almostmotionless bayous and impenetrable with cane andbuckvine and cypress and ash and oak and gum; tothe east, the hardwood ridges and the prairies wherethe Appalachian mountains died and buffalo grazed;to the south, the pine barrens and the moss-hung liveoaks and the greater swamps less of earth than waterand lurking with alligators and water moccasinswhere Louisiana in its time would begin."
Geologists have classified the state's six distinctmajor areas into lowlands, piney woods, hills, plains,and prairies: the Delta in the northwest, the rich alluvialcrescent formed in the old floodplain of the Mississippiand Yazoo rivers; the Piney Woods of southMississippi; the Gulf Coast; the Black Prairie; theLoess Hills-Central Hills; and the hilly, almost mountainousextreme northeast, the Tennessee River Hills.To that I myself would add as a matter of history andculture the "Old Natchez District" from Vicksburgsouth through Port Gibson, Natchez, and Woodvilleto the Louisiana line, physically part of the Loess Hills.David Rae and I have tarried in each of these neighborhoods,discovering in our perambulations thatdifferences not merely in physiography but in customand personality continue to exist in considerable lucidityas we enter a new millennium.
The wonderful WPA Guide to Mississippi, publishedin 1938, is still a fine joy to peruse and follow,and there are elementary things in it that will neveralter, mainly those pertaining to the everlasting landitself, but, at the turn of the century, it is inevitably alittle frayed and dated and quaint and paternalistic.
Were a person to ask, "What is Mississippi?" he undoubtedlywould be told, "It is a farming state wherenearly everyone who may vote votes the Democratic ticket,"or "It is a place where half the population is Negro andthe remainder is Anglo-Saxon," or, more vaguely, "That iswhere everybody grows cotton on land which only a fewof them own." And these answers, in themselves, would becorrect, though their connotations would be wrong. Forwhile the white people of Mississippi are mostly Democrats,Anglo-Saxons, and farmers, they are not one big familyof Democratic and Anglo-Saxon farmers. Rather,Mississippi is a large community of people whose culture ismade different by the very land that affords them a commonbond. The people of the Black Prairie Belt, for instance,are as different culturally from the people of thePiney Woods as are the Deltans from the people of theTennessee River Hills. Yet for the most part they all farmfor a living, vote the Democratic ticket, and trace their ancestryback to the British Isles.
This is a land of ghosts: the vanished Indians. In1540, when the rapacious Hernando de Soto traversedthe almost impenetrable jungle of what wouldlater be north Mississippi, the region was alreadypopulated by ancestors of the Chickasaw; add to thatthe Choctaw and Natchez and the smaller tribes, Yazoo,Choula, Algonquin, Tunica, Biloxi, Sacchuma,Alimamu, and Pascagoula. They worshiped the sunand the sacred fires and, like a few contemporaryMississippians, believed in spirits. Then the Spaniards,greedy incubuses as they were, passed along the diseasesof their animals to the natives, who had no immunityand died in ghastly epidemics. The Natchezwere driven off by the French, and the Chickasawsand Choctaws were forcibly removed in the 1830s tothe Oklahoma Territory and beyond. Miraculously,some six thousand Choctaws still remain in the state,on a reservation in Neshoba County, which nowquarters a prodigious gambling casino replete withhotel, thirty-six-hole golf course, spa, six restaurants,and eight bars.
Otherwise, that faraway time lingers in the Indiannames of the towns, mainly the small ones, and riversand counties: Yazoo ("river of the dead"), Biloxi ("firstpeople"), Tallahatchie ("rock river"), Tishomingo("warrior chief"), Yalobusha ("tadpoles abounding"),Panola ("cotton"), Tunica ("little people"), Satartia("pumpkin patch"), Noxubee ("stinking water"),Coahoma ("red panther"), Amite ("friendly river"),Iuka ("place of bathing"), Tchula ("fox"), Hiwannee("caterpillar"), Conehatta ("white polecat"), Natchez("to break off from"), Byhalia ("white oak tree"),Nanih Waiya ("slanting hill"), Hushpuckena ("littlesunflower"), Ofahoma ("red dog"), Tupelo ("makea noise"), Neshoba ("wolf"), Okolona ("people gatheredtogether"), Itta Bena ("home in the woods"),Winona ("first-born daughter"), Issaquena ("deerbranch"), Senatobia ("rest to the weary"), Shuqualak("hog wallow"), Tougaloo ("where the three creeksmeet"), Wantubbee ("off-hand killer"), Osyka ("theeagle"), Bogue Chitto ("big river"), Yockanookany("catfish land"), Coila ("little panther"), Pontotoc("weed prairie")—and on and on in the mysterious,lost euphonious litany.
As children we came to the spooky old Indianmounds in search of arrowheads and earthen fragmentsof pottery. In the Delta flatness the mounds arethe only rises, resembling miniature grassy hills. Asubstantial group of them, at the Winterville site onHighway I north of Greenville, includes a fifty-five-foottemple mound. Emerald Mound, not far fromNatchez and the second-largest Indian mound in theUnited States, dating from between A.D. 1250 and1600 and covering eight acres, is like an elongatedpentagon, with an oval-based temple at one end. Notfar from Noxapater in east central Mississippi, NanihWaiya, the sacred mound of the Choctaws, was theirnucleus of life before the white settlers arrived. TheIndians called it "Great Mother" and considered itthe birthplace of their entire race; before the comingof the white man it was a large, fortified city fromwhich the Choctaw nation was governed by its wisemen. In Yazoo County, near Holly Bluff, where theYazoo and Sunflower rivers run their course from theupper Delta and come close together, are the remnantsof a highly advanced Indian settlement occupiedcontinuously from at least 700 B.C. to A.D. 1600.Many mounds are here, including a huge central one,a forested promontory rising out of the cotton fields,where on stormy winter nights locals claim to hearephemeral shouts and wails.
There were shifting sovereignties in ownershipbrought on by the often arcane Old World treaties.Faulkner describes how for a brief and evanescenttime the native people here
had the privilege of watching an ebb-flux of alien nationalitiesas rapid as the magicians spill and vanishment of inconstantcards: the Frenchmen for a second, then theSpaniard for perhaps two, then the Frenchmen for anothertwo and then the Spaniard again and then the Frenchmenagain for that last half-breath before the Anglo-Saxon, whowould come to stay, to endure: the tall man roaring withProtestant scriptures and boiled whiskey. Bible and jug inone hand and like as not an Indian tomahawk in the other,brawling, turbulent, usurious, and polygamous.... He endured,even after he too was obsolete, the younger sons ofVirginia and Carolina planters coming to replace him inwagons laden with slaves and indigo seedlings over thevery roads he had hacked out with little else but the tomahawk.Then someone gave a Natchez doctor a Mexicancotton seed ... and changed the whole face of Mississippi.
"With us when you speak of `the river,'" WilliamAlexander Percy wrote in Lanterns on the Levee,"though there are many, you mean always the sameone, the great river, the shifting unappeasable god ofthe country, feared and loved, the Mississippi."
There is considerable ambiguity about where in1541 de Soto actually "discovered" it. Several riverlandings from Rosedale to not far south of Memphishave at one time or another claimed the honor. In1938, no less than an official presidential commissiongravely concluded that the Father of Waters was firstsighted by the Spaniard at Sunflower Landing nearRosedale, but this has been garrulously disputed.I once had an irascible friend, the son of a Deltaplanter, who after several brawny drinks at a RedTops high school dance in Belzoni declared that deSoto first saw the river from a certain spot on his father'sland around Friars Point; he was sure of this becausehe had recently found a rusty belt buckle undera cistern with the initials "H. de S." on it. I was notconvinced. Never mind. The river itself is still there,as momentous to us now as it surely was to de Sotothen.
Faulkner wrote unmitigatingly of the river, especiallyabout the great flood of 1927, and before him,of course, so did Mark Twain: "And all this stretch ofriver is a mirror, and you have the shadowy reflectionsof the leafage and the curving shores and thereceding capes pictured in it. Well, that is all beautiful;soft and rich and beautiful; and when the sun getswell up, and distributes a pink flush here and a powderof gold yonder and a purple haze where it willyield the best effect, you grant that you have seensomething that is worth remembering."
It was my river, too, in so many ways. Twenty-eightmiles to the west of my hometown of YazooCity, it was a living presence to my contemporariesand me: the settlements along its mighty traverse, itsbluffs and promontories and oxbows gleaming in thesun, its tales and lore, its fealties and treacheries. Twainonce noted that the Mississippi receives and carrieswater to the gulf from fifty-four subordinate riversthat were navigable by steamboat. Not the least ofthese was the river that ran through my own town,the Yazoo, a notable winding stream that takes in theTallahatchie, the Sunflower, the Yalobusha, and Godknows how many less ambitious rivers and creeks inits southward course through the Delta before itempties itself into the greater river a few miles northof Vicksburg. One of the palpable images of my boyhoodwas the Yazoo appearing and reappearing beforeus everywhere in its unremitting twists and turnsthrough the swamplands and thickets, its grassy bankslined with willows, the cattails dancing in a whisperybreeze, the duckwood thick and emerald green in themelancholy brakes of cypress, the cotton blossoms inthe far-reaching fields dazzling white and soon toturn blue, then lavender.
My own three favorite views of the Mississippi arefrom the grounds of the modern-day Ramada Inn inNatchez, near a manse called The Briars where JeffersonDavis married Varina Howell; from a sectioncalled Jewish Hill in the old Natchez cemetery; andfrom a rough-hewn observation tower in a minusculestate park south of Rosedale. All three afford aninestimable perspective of the Mississippi, its sweepand majesty and power, making me proud that mystate is named after it.
Not long ago we buried a beloved friend namedCharlie Jacobs, who died at thirty-seven. He was anindomitable musician who, like another whiteMississippi boy named Elvis, immersed himself inthe authentic black rhythms and, as with GeorgeWashington Carver and the peanut, found more inthe saxophone than was in the saxophone before hestarted. The funeral was held in an ancient familyburial ground not far from the river in BolivarCounty in the Delta—Charlie's great-great-grandfatherwas a transplanted Yankee who was governorof the state during the Civil War. All around usmourners, black men on tractors were plowing theearth for the cotton planting, and everywhere wasthe deep, rich aroma of the fresh inestimable land.From the map I had in hand, I noted that only aquarter mile or so away is a distinct and self-containedstretch of earth on the Mississippi side that isactually Arkansas, having been shifted there by somecolossal change of course in the river years before. AsCharlie's band played "I Walk Through the GardenAlone" I could feel in that moment of death-in-life thepresence of the river, and what it means to all of us.
There is more commercial activity on the rivernow than there ever was in the halcyon days ofTwain's paddle wheelers. What one sees today alongthe river's course from Natchez to Memphis are thetugboats, each being a trifling apparatus that possessesenough sinew to drag an interminable parade of massiveparaphernalia. The U.S. Corps of Engineers andits hundreds of Mississippi employees have prettymuch tamed most of the river, erecting concrete embankmentshere and there and contriving all mannerof diversions and stratagems. But do not take toomuch for granted. Old houses and bluff-top streets inNatchez still disappear into the rushing torrents below.The Old Man is a capricious master, never to betrusted when he really gets angry.
Tucked away here and there all over the state of Mississippiare unaccountable edifices that demand seriousattention. Just north of Vicksburg on old CatfishRow is Margaret's Grocery, which Reverend Dennis,Margaret's elderly husband, built for her out of mortar,brick, and block as a shrine to the Lord, America,and his wife. Reverend Dennis will give you his ownprivate sermon there. One of the signs reads "All IsWelcome, Jews and Gentiles, Here at Margaret's Gro.and Mkt. and Bible Club" Some places have beenhere for many years, such as Mammy's Cupboard onHighway 61 south of Natchez, with its twenty-eight-foot-tallblack woman on top of a rise, the small cupboardbeneath her crinoline skirt offering Mississippiplate lunches and blueberry lemonades. The PalestineGarden in Lucedale is a re-creation of the Holy Landon twenty bucolic acres (a scale of one yard per mile),where you can admire the miniature Bethlehem,Jerusalem, Jericho, and numerous other biblical locales.D'Iberville on the coast quarters a two-storystructure that contains more than twelve thousandbeer cans and ten thousand beer bottles from eighty-fivecountries, Monaco to Togo to Mongolia. Almostanywhere in Mississippi bizarre distractions may leapout at you all of a sudden, such as the row of establishmentsoutside Alligator with the separate signs oneach store—Bruno's Quik Shop, Bruno's PackageStore, and Bruno's Laundromat, leading one to believethat Mr. Bruno must be a good man to know ifyou live in Alligator. In the dying hamlet of Benoitthere is the down-at-the-heels columned antebellumhouse, an anomaly among the collapsing unpaintedshacks—a former planter's home, it turns out to be—wherethe movie Baby Doll, made from TennesseeWilliams's only screenplay, was filmed. At Mrs. Hull'shome in Kosciusko, the front lawn is filled withprobably a hundred shoes on stakes that resemblewild tomato plants, along with typewriters,computers, and other brick-a-brac. This is known as a shoegarden. Mrs. Hull is called the shoe-lady in Kosciusko.
Excerpted from My Mississippi by WILLIE MORRIS. Copyright © 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|THE LAND AND A SENSE OF PLACE||1|
|THE WAY WE ARE||33|
|OF PARADOX AND PROMISE||59|
|THE CREATIVE SPIRIT||81|
|LOOK AWAY Photographic Narrative by David Rae Morris follows|