Tag Archives: history

blue grass

Monday morning, we left Pittsburgh early in order to get to Hyden, Kentucky, where Mary had set up a school presentation for BRIM at the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music. Mary had been there with ETHEL before, and has worked with Dean Osborne, who’s the director of this very cool school nestled in a hollow in the Appalachians.

I was fascinated to learn that there’s a rigidity and extreme traditionalism in the bluegrass world that rivals the classical music world. Doing anything different from the established norms is frowned upon, and yet all the greats of bluegrass were of course tremendous innovators who broke all the rules, from Bill Monroe to the Osborne Brothers themselves. So the school is devoted to finding that line of respect and devotion to the excellence of the tradition, while at the same time opening up to new ideas and approaches that will keep the art form alive.

It was a really meaningful experience to perform my music for these fellow travelers, I felt like we arrived from different places to a shared path, and I’m honored to have their company. They had lots of questions about how I put my music together technically, which was a bit of a surprise to me. When I do these kinds of presentations at conservatories, I don’t generally get asked detailed compositional questions. I found the whole experience refreshing and fascinating. I think there may be something really interesting to explore at the nexus of traditional bluegrass and new music…. Hmmmm….

Dean Osborne generously arranged to put us up at Mary Breckinridge’s house, Wendover, which was the site of the Frontier Nursing Service she founded in the late 20s, and which is still operating today. (I had only learned about this program a few weeks earlier, when I met Mary’s cousin Kristin, a cheese-maker, at the Craftsbury Farmer’s Market up in Vermont, who had participated in the program in the late 80s.) Mary Breckinridge was this amazing person. A privileged woman, she lost both her own children at an early age, so she decided to come to deeply impoverished Leslie County and start a nursing service for mothers and children. In the years that she ran this service, both maternal and infant health improved from perhaps the worst in the nation to better than the country as a whole, and all this work was done by a combination of professional nurses on horseback traveling up and around the hollows, and by young women volunteers, who came out to join the adventure. It’s a case of those much-maligned “ladies bountiful”  doing something really meaningful and transformative with their time and talent and energy. Dean estimates that something like a hundred thousand people today owe their existence to Mary Breckinridge and the Frontier Nursing Service.


bridge in the hollow

a day to Pittsburgh

Saturday, we headed out in the rain and cold towards Pittsburgh, stopping at Shanksville at the newly unveiled Flight 93 memorial, which is quite well-done: tasteful and thoughtful in that National Park-ish way. It might be strange to say this, but I found the absence of any information or images of the four hijackers to be a lost opportunity, somehow. I guess I really believe that seeing the bad guys, engaging with their craziness, is a way to guard against craziness in oneself or one’s culture. I mean, isn’t that at least part of why we read and watch movies about Hitler or mass murderers or whatever? I’m not sure how that could or should be done at this memorial, but in my opinion, erasing them completely from the picture is a sanitizing that minimizes the actual authentic heroism of the forty folks who brought down the plane in this lonely field.

We arrived at my friends’ Rick and Kate’s place in time for dinner, and I could help marveling at how different our pace was from that 20 to 40 miles per day I did going down the Mississippi in 2009. No wonder I got so interested in 19th century (and earlier) history, I was traveling at a pre-20th century pace! That’s super-obvious the moment I think of it, but I only realized it fully doing that quick drive on Saturday: nothing to it to drive from New York City to Pittsburgh, it’s only a few hundred miles!

It was great to catch up with Rick and Kate. Rick is a wonderful poet, you can check out his work here and here, and Kate is a passionate birder, and I was really gratified that she liked the movie of In and Out of the Game, that really means a lot to me.

the mystery of how much

“The mystery in how little we know of other people is no greater than the mystery of how much,” wrote Eudora in The Optimist’s Daughter. Perhaps the implication is that the same mystery applies to places as well as people.

My visits to Rodney with Chris and Mary in the last six months are as far distant from Eudora’s visits to Rodney in the 30s and 40s as hers are from the Civil War.

I’ve just gone through and added some excerpts from the Welty story At the Landing to a small set of selected images.

To explore more photos of Rodney and the surrounding river country, please go here.

remembering betrays nature?

Somehow I thought of this poem in connection with the Archives of Exile project and Richard’s comment on my post yesterday. I don’t really know the poetry of Pessoa, and a quick bit of research turns up the fact that he wrote under a series of names — heteronyms, he called them — each of which had his own way of seeing the word and writing poetry. This is how Pessoa describes Caeiro, the writer of the poem below:

He sees things with the eyes only, not with the mind. He does not let any thoughts arise when he looks at a flower… the only thing a stone tells him is that it has nothing at all to tell him… this way of looking at a stone may be described as the totally unpoetic way of looking at it. The stupendous fact about Caeiro is that out of this sentiment, or rather, absence of sentiment, he makes poetry. (quoted in Wikipedia)


Rather the flight of the bird passing and leaving no trace
Than creatures passing, leaving tracks on the ground.
The bird goes by and forgets, which is as it should be.
The creature, no longer there, and so, perfectly useless,
Shows it was there — also perfectly useless.

Remembering betrays Nature,
Because yesterday’s Nature is not nature.
What’s past is nothing and remembering is not seeing.
Fly, bird, fly away; teach me to disappear.

Alberto Caeiro (Fernando Pessoa) Portugal
in Poems of Fernando Pessoa


I guess the point we are circling around is the way in which yesterday’s nature can’t be nature, or shall we say “natural”, but is culture. The wisteria in Rodney is historical, not natural, even though it is quite obviously a flowering vine blooming out of the ground in the spring. Does recognizing the wisteria as a human trace prevent me from fully seeing it, as I think I’m understanding Caeiro’s poem to say? Do Welty’s passionate things really endure in ways we can feel even when we are ignorant of the details? Or does everything simultaneously disappear and endure in some almost mystical way that is what we are feeling when we visit a ghost town or walk through ruins? And how much of this is sentimentality or nostalgia, and what of it is the essential, authentic, and totally real bond that ties humans together across life and death and time and distance?

Wisteria in Exile


On this spring visit to Rodney, the blooming wisteria was a constant presence, the vines tangling in profusion everywhere.

It turns out that wisteria is actually an invasive species in the United States. Originally from China, it is a trace of the domesticating urges of the French settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I picture a slim, elegant, brave woman (she is French, after all!) making the long trip across the ocean to New Orleans and up the river to Rodney, holding her wisteria cuttings tidily on her lap, stroking them now and again. I picture her planting them by the side of her newly-erected house in a lumpy clearing — not backhoe-raw as the clearings new houses stand in nowadays — but still, a scarred open place carved out of the deep woods of Mississippi.

She can not quite imagine that her delicate and beautiful wisteria will survive in this remote place.

She can not imagine that her lovely wisteria will thrive to grow into wild vines that pull down walls and strangle large trees.

She can not imagine that one day the wisteria will be the last remaining trace of human settlement in the town of Rodney.


Welty Country

Eudora Welty documented Rodney in her 1930s photographs for the WPA, in several of her early stories, and in her 1944 photo-essay, Some Notes on River Country. Here are a few excerpts from her writing that apply directly to Rodney, and also to the Archives of Exile project I’m working on with Richard Steadman-Jones.

from Some Notes on River Country:

A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain.

I have never seen, in this small section of old Mississippi River country and its little chain of lost towns between Vicksburg and Natchez, anything so mundane as ghosts, but I have felt many times there a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me.


Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure. Whatever is significant and whatever is tragic in its story live as long as the place does, though they are unseen, and the new life will be built upon these things — regardless of commerce and the way of rivers and roads, and other vagrancies.

from the story At the Landing:

Whenever she thought that Floyd was in the world, that his life lived and had this night and day, it was like discovery once more and again fresh to her, and if it was night and she lay stretched on her bed looking out at the dark, a great radiant energy spread intent upon her whole body and fastened her heart beneath its breath, and she would wonder almost aloud, “Ought I to sleep?” For it was love that might always be coming, and she must watch for it this time and clasp it back while it clasped, and while it held her never let it go.

Then the radiance touched at her heart and her brain, moving within her. Maybe some day she could become bright and shining all at once, as though at the very touch of another with herself. But now she was like a house with all its rooms dark from the beginning, and someone would have to go slowly from room to room, slowly and darkly, leaving each one lighted behind, before going to the next. It was not caution or distrust that was in herself, it was only a sense of journey, of something that might happen. She herself did not know what might lie ahead, she had never seen herself. She looked outward with the sense of rightful space and time within her, which must be traversed before she could be known at all. And what she would reveal in the end was not herself, but the way of the traveler.

Bayou Farewell


Several months ago the composer (and Louisiana native) Frank Ticheli recommended I read Mike Tidwell’s 2003 book Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast. I strongly recommend it to all of you in turn: it is a beautifully written and distressing eyewitness account of what’s happening to the wetlands of Louisiana. Here are a few clippings I copied out, but the whole book is better, lots of wonderful character sketches and a real feel for the region:

Commercial fishermen are more likely to be maimed or killed on the job than any other profession in America. The work is more dangerous than coal mining, being a cop, or parachuting from planes to fight forest fires. (p. 25)


The marsh is disappearing at a rate of 25 square miles per year. “Dere won’t be no more nothin’ left anymore, forever.” (p. 58)


The total number of birds detected by radar crossing the Gulf of Mexico each year has decreased by half within the last twenty years. (p. 62)


For help [getting out of the big ocean and into the estuarine coastal marshes], the infant crustaceans, roughly the length and width of grains of rice, turn to a spherical body 92 million miles away in outer space, a G2 dwarf star otherwise know as our sun. Twice a month this fiery body of hydrogen gas nearly a million miles in diameter joins forces with the earth’s moon, a mere 238,000 miles away, to create a combined gravitational and centrifugal force of enormous power. This force generates ocean tides on earth — so-called spring tides — which are much greater than the tides occurring daily throughout the rest of the month. Every two weeks, when the moon shows itself to the earth either as a barely visible new moon or as a blazing full moon, the phenomenon is at work: the moon and the sun have fallen into a straight line relative to the earth, reinforcing each other’s gravitational tug, pulling the earth’s oceans into two bulging masses of liquid on opposite sides of the globe. These fantastic waves, these great heaping ridges of water, are brought into collision with the earth’s landmasses twice a day as the planet rotates. this, in the simplest terms, is how tides happen, and spring tides are the bimonthly champions. So strong is the combined pull of the sun and moon during this period that even the earth’s atmosphere bends outward and parts of the continents bulge ever so slightly. (p. 144)


Among many of the fishermen whose support is critical, virtually any form of ambitious government action is seen as synonymous with the whole sorry history of state corruption and the Army Corps’s incompetence. (p. 161)


If nothing else, my time in the bayous has made me conscious–acutely so–of just how great the Mississippi’s influence is everywhere you turn, all across lower Louisiana, its presence felt even hundreds of miles from its actual course. It’s a river which, one way or another, is always calling the shots. Always.

Which is why you can never quite get it out of your mind. (p. 184)


“When God created the world,” a bayou priest once told me, grinning, “he accidentally made the Mississippi more powerful than he intended, then found his mistake too powerful to correct.” (p. 216)


If you want to see what will consume the energies of Miami and New York, Shanghai and Bombay, fifty years from now, come to Louisiana today. The future really is here. (p. 326)

Journeys in New Worlds

from Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Women’s Narratives (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography)

“an account of my peregrination” is what Elizabeth House Trist called her travel diary, written for her friend Thomas Jefferson as she journeyed from Philadelphia to Natchez in 1783-84

[Latin peregr?n?r?, peregr?n?t-, from peregr?nus, foreigner; see peregrine.]

[I tried to keep all the spelling the way it is in the original]


29 December 1783

[The old people] have but one Son who is married and has a house full of children. They have given all up to this son and have a room in the House; he maintains them. It gave me pleasure to see so much harmony subsist among them. The son’s wife told me they had lived together fourteen years, and she never saw the old people out of temper. They are very religious presbeterians; prayers before every meal and after; but their conversation chearfull and happy. I believe if there are good people in the world, they are to be found at this place. My heart overflow’d with benevolence, for it could not be envy to see an old couple that had lived Sixty years together endeavoring to please each other and to make every one as happy as themselves. A true picture of rural felicity: God continue to grant you his blessing, my worthy old man and Woman. p. 204

[Pittsburgh] Grants Hill is a delightfull situation. I think I would give the preference for to live on [the hill] as you are more in the World. The river is more confined, but the Objects are not so deminitive below you. p. 213

I dont like this river. The passage is attended with much more danger than I had any Idea of.  p. 226

[15 June 1784] Every one thinks their troubles the greatest, but I have seen so many poor creatures since I left home who’s situation has been so wretched, that I shall begin to consider my self as a favord child of fortune. p. 226

[18 June 1784, at the Chicasaw Bluffs] I some times conceit — I am got to the fag end of the world; or rather that it is the last of Gods creation and the Seventh day came before it was quite finnish’d. At other times, I fancy there has been some great revolution in nature, and this great body of water has forced a passage were it was not intended and tore up all before it. The banks are now about 50 feet high, very ragged, and every here and there great pieces of the earth tumbling in to the water. Often great trees go with it, which fill the river with logs. Some places along shore there will be great rafts of fallen timber. The water is as muddy as a pond that has been frequently visited by hogs. Alltogether its appearance is awfull and Melancholy and some times terrific.

[19 June 1784] This is a Passionate sort of a climate, quickly raised but soon blows over.

[30 June 1784 Great Gulph, 75 miles from the Yasou] A Mullato Woman nam’d Nelly was exceeding kind to us, gave us water mellons, green corn, apples — in short, everything that she had was at our service. Her conversation favord rather more the Masculine than was agreeable. Yet I cou’d not help likeing the creature, she was so hospitable. She gave us the history of her life. She may be entitled to merit from some of her actions. But chastity is not among the number of her virtues.


Pervading the earliest expressions of the autobiographical impulse in America, we find, according to Patricia Caldwell, “the important alliance between migration and conversion,” a consequence of the passage across the ocean that made the first white settlers in New England a unique people. The narratives testify to the continuing validity of this association between spatial movement and psychological transformation to later generations of American life-writers.

William L. Andrews’ Introduction, p. 9

The Control of Nature


here are some selected bits from the chapter on the Atchafalaya in John McPhee’s 1989 book, The Control of Nature:

“It has a tendency to go through just anywheres you can call for.”
Why, then, had the Mississippi not jumped the bank and long since diverted to the Atchafalaya?
“Because they’re watching it close,” said Rabalais. “It’s under close surveillance.”  [p. 9]
“The greatest arrogance was the stealing of the sun,” he said.
“The second-greatest arrogance is running rivers backward.
The third greatest arrogance is trying to hold the Mississippi in place.
The ancient channels of the river go almost to Texas.
Human beings have tried to restrict the river to one course —
that’s where the arrogance began.”
–Oliver Houch, law professor at Tulane. [p. 11]
“The river used to meander all over its floodplain. People would move their tepees, and that was that. You can’t move Vicksburg.”
–Herbert Kassner, PR Director, New Orleans District, ACOE [p. 32]
“If the profession of an engineer were not based upon exact science, I might tremble for the result, in view of the immensity of the interests dependent on my success. But every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home among the crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the fifteen hundred leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast water of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river — its scourging and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits — is controlled by law as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer need only to be insured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the results he aims at.”
–James B Eads, quoted on pp. 38-39
“The Corps of Engineers is convinced that the Mississippi River can be convinced to remain where it is.”
–Fred Chatry (chief of the engineering division for the New Orleans District of the ACoE)
“The Corps of Engineers — they’re scared as hell. They don’t know what’s going to happen. This is planned chaos. The more planning they do, the more chaotic it is. Nobody knows exactly where it’s going to end.”
–Raphael Kazmann, hydrologic engineer, LSU emeritus
Tarzan of the Apes once leaped about among the live oaks in the park [at Morgan City.] The first Tarzan movie was filmed in Morgan City. The Atchafalaya swamp was Tarzan’s jungle. Black extras in constumes pretended they were Africans. [p. 84]