Tag Archives: slavery

knowing it when you see it


The ferry at New Roads was closed, so I had to drive down to the bridge at Baton Rouge and then back up to St. Francisville, where I found an RV Park right next to the Audubon History Site and talked Bill the owner into letting me set up my hammock in the back. Bill introduced me to Luke, a delightful man, a biker (of both kinds) who turned out to be the ideal host and companion for exploring St. Francisville. He shares my affection for history and churches of both the natural and man-made kinds, and because he has biked all the roads around here, he really knows where all the good stuff is. He also took me out for really excellent meals: you can taste the Cajun influence already, that’s for sure!

This RV park is a whole different experience than staying in a state park. Most of the people here are contract workers building bridges and roads nearby, so no-one is on vacation. Luke is the exception: he is retired, lives in Baton Rouge, and his trailer here functions as his house in the country. Both nights as I set up in my hammock, I overheard two guys sitting out around a fire talking, and even though I didn’t listen for all the details, the sense of a particularly male anxiety was palpable even in the snippets I did hear: talk of work and money and the effort to win the approval of fathers. These guy-guys definitely do not have it easy, and it helps me to understand where that weird America-first anti-immigration political rage comes from even though it’s misguided and confused about the actual economic roots of these guys’ insecurity. It must be terribly lonely to be a man in this sort of milieu: a wife and children are responsibilities, not companions. Awful for men, awful for women, I really wonder how this model has lasted so long.


Thursday afternoon I went over for a tour of the Oakley Plantation, the house where John James Audubon worked as a tutor for four months, during which he painted the first 32 plates of Birds of America. Not quite Rilke in Duino Castle writing the Sonnets and Elegies in a white heat after ten years of writer’s block, but pretty damn close! Audubon was in his mid-thirties, with a wife and children, and pretty much bankrupt and a failure when he headed out here and took this tutoring job and began his incredible project. Seeing his little bedroom here, walking in the woods he ranged to find birds to model for his paintings, was a really moving experience.

I had not really thought in advance that of course this place he was living was a plantation powered by 250 slaves. The oddly unfriendly woman who gave me the tour pointed out the master bedroom tub, a metal basket shaped sort of like an upright half-papaya with the seeds removed. The only way a person could sit in this tub would be spread-eagled and helpless to move or get out, except with the help of another person: the slave attendant, of course. I keep trying to make sense of the implications of having that level of intimacy and dependence on a person you don’t even regard as fully human, a person you own the way you own a car or an iPod. I begin to feel like an ignorant innocent: this is not a fun sexy little game of BDSM, this stuff is for real, and I begin to understand what obscenity really is.

land of cotton


Jim invited us to breakfast at Jen’s Diner, which I believe is the only operating restaurant (perhaps the only commercial establishment of any kind) in Columbus, a curious state of affairs for a town that only lost out on being the capital of the United States by one vote. It’s interesting to think about how differently the country might have developed if Columbus had turned out to be the capital. While I don’t think it would have prevented the Civil War, it seems possible that Reconstruction might have turned out differently: the worst failures and rampant corruption might have been addressed more successfully if the center of gravity of the government had been authentically in the heart of the country. One can at least hope that might have been true.

We had a leisurely breakfast punctuated by visits from various townspeople — Jen’s serves a similar function to a Vermont country store — and then Jim took us to a few of his favorite haunts, read a vivid and beautiful passage about the river from his unfinished novel, and introduced us to his charming and welcoming horses. It was hard to leave, and I didn’t set out on the bike until well into the afternoon, but it was a beautiful ride on back roads down to Hickman, where Mary retrieved me and we drove down to Reelfoot Lake to camp for the night.

We are definitely in the South now. There are cotton fields everywhere, still unharvested because there has been so much rain, and you see the farm machinery all set up on the sidelines, waiting for the fields to dry out enough to be able to harvest. I don’t think I had ever seen a cotton field before this trip, so northern and urban am I, and I can’t look at a cotton plant without immediately thinking about slavery and sharecropping, and the inhuman exploitation that benefited both southern landowners and northern merchants.

darkness visible


After all the adventures of the past few days, despite the amazing generosity and warmth of everyone I met in Burlington and Fort Madison and the miraculous recovery of all my stuff, I really hit a wall Thursday night. I keep thinking about Gary, the protagonist of the Stephen King story, The Man in the Black Suit, a story I’ve been working on turning into an opera for several years now. (You can find the story in Everything’s Eventual : 14 Dark Tales.) Gary escapes a visit from the devil completely unscathed — he, too, finds that nothing terrible has in fact happened — but nothing is ever the same for him, and at the end of his life he is still waiting for the devil to return and destroy him. The Man in the Black Suit is a cautionary tale about a loss, not of life, limb, or property, but of faith, which is the most unrecoverable loss of all.

I drove down to Quincy Thursday night, past the reach of the newspaper stories and back into anonymity, but I was spooked enough that couldn’t bring myself to camp out alone, so I checked into the cheapest motel I could find and spent the whole next day exploring Quincy, a wonderful town, full of great old houses (Maine Street is like Park Street in Brandon on steroids, one excellent house after another), visiting the crazy Moorish house right on the river that serves as the Visitor Center, and being given a long private tour of the house that belonged to the founder of the town, John Wood. I bought a book, The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House, by a local woman whose kids found a secret room while playing hide and seek one day, had an excellent lunch of spanakopita and Greek salad at one of the two(!) Greek restaurants in Quincy, hung out at the bookstore run by gentle and friendly folks, and then headed down to Hannibal for another cheap motel night.

When I woke up Saturday I realized it made no sense to continue traveling on in this frame of mind, so I drove back up to Quincy to take a look at the Eells house, home of another leading citizen of Quincy who was active in the Underground Railroad, before driving down to St. Louis, where I joined up with an absolutely great guy named Mike Clark, who among many other things, organizes monthly Full Moon Floats where he takes a group of people out on the river for a night paddle and dinner. On the way to meeting up with Mike, I stopped at a gas station in a sketchy part of town, and during the two minutes I was in the bathroom someone tried to clip my bike off the top of the car, no joke! So I put my big NYC chain and lock around the bike and the roof rack, now both my kayak and my bike are pretty seriously locked down to the top of my car, and I’m hoping we’re done with this theft story for good.

Mike and Betsy and I set off in a canoe around 6:30. It was cool and overcast, seemed like a pretty unprepossessing night for a paddle, but I just needed to get out on the river in the company of people who get it. Wow, it was totally totally the right thing to do! We put in south of the confluence with the Missouri, so this Mississippi is a whole new story: no more is it a series of pools created by the network of locks and dams, it is a free-flowing river with more than twice the volume now that the Missouri has joined it. Just crossing over to the island (i.e. not the whole width of the river) was a real undertaking: you have to find an eddy and paddle upstream a good ways before heading across or you’ll end up downstream of the island you’re heading to. We landed on this island and headed to a spot which is under the river during high water but turns into a huge sandy beach with blue holes, pools up to 25 feet deep of river water that connect to the main channel deep underground. You can see some daylight pictures here.

We gathered some wood and lit a fire and finished cooking up some excellent jambalaya and opened some wine, and suddenly the clouds parted and there was the full moon rushing upwards, creating an open space in the clouds and shining through and illuminating the whole scene, including a coyote off by the tree line who imitates the bark of a domestic dog so well that you can only tell he’s a coyote by the telltale upward yip-howl he can’t entirely suppress. And the talk was wonderful: Mike has paddled the whole Mississippi a few times, and the whole Missouri, too — he is a real river rat on a level I can’t even aspire to attain, and to talk river on both the practical and the mystical level with these wonderful folks in this amazing secret place in the middle of St. Louis was healing and inspiring on so many levels. Wow.

I got to my cousins’ house at 2:30 am, totally fried and totally happy. Thank you, Mike and Betsy, with my whole heart!