Tag Archives: town

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.

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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)

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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

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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.

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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.

One, Two, Three, Brim

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Mary Rowell and I have been talking about putting together a band for a while now, and we spent a few days together at Montalvo in late March developing more rep for that project. Along with new work that’s still in progress, we made new versions of It Happens Like This, which you can listen to here, and Landscaping for Privacy, which I will post soon as well.

On Good Friday, when H. C. Porter and I were wandering around the almost-ghost-town of Rodney, we came upon a man named Jerry, who was fishing in the swamp on the edge of town. The water in Rodney is even higher than it was around Thanksgiving, when Mary and I visited there the first time. The river has moved about three miles west of where it was during the Civil War, orphaning the town in the woods. You can’t actually get to the river without a boat, because the intervening land is flooded most of the year.

Jerry is one of very few residents of Rodney — there are perhaps three families actually living here — and he lives off the land. While we watched, he was catching brim at the rate of about one a minute: hooking a worm, throwing in his line, pausing a moment, pulling the next fish in, taking it off the hook, and beginning the cycle again. Some guys we met later in the day told us that they had asked Jerry how many fish he caught and the answer was “Brim.” Jerry is a man of very few words, and it is possible he was answering a different question — what kind? rather than how many? — but of course the bucket was indeed full. Jerry was on his way to Lorman, walking the ten miles of back roads as he does several times a week to sell his fish at the market in town.

Mary and I have agreed that the name of our new band is Brim.


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Bayou Farewell

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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)

when the saints

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Mac and I decided it was somehow necessary to go all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, but rather than following the official channel of the Mississippi River, the road for which reportedly peters out in a sort of industrial place, we chose to drive down to Grand Isle. Famous as the location of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, it is also known as one of the great fishing spots in the world, and has a great beachfront state park, which we had nearly to ourselves.

It truly feels like the edge of the world. All the structures are built on stilts, on shifting sands that will never be stable. You drive for a couple of hours south through land that becomes more and more intermingled with water, until you are on a little spit of land surrounded by water on all sides. The map of this whole area looks like beautiful lacework. It’s the opposite of the Greek islands, which feel massive and immovable, where the warm and clear waters of the Mediterranean feel like your friend and the earth is dry and stony and unforgiving. Here the water is poised to wash away the tentative stretches of sand and swamp at any moment, and you feel oddly protective of every spit of land that can support life, fragile and wet and temporary as it all is.

Mac and I took a walk on the parts of the path that didn’t require waders, and I found a bird skeleton and took the beautiful curve of the main wing bone as a memento of the final official day of this trip.

On the way home from dinner I hit a pothole badly enough to blow out a front tire, so the next day I cleaned and reorganized the entire car while waiting for AAA to come and change it. Spreading everything out to dry in the December summer sun and warmth, tidying the papers and maps and books that had been floating around the car for months felt really great: the first step of Phase 2, somehow!

We got back to New Orleans in the late afternoon, set up camp at St. Bernard State Park just east of town (the area that was purposely flooded by dynamiting the levee in the 1927 flood), and drove into the city and sampled some live music in the bars along Frenchman Street and then headed over to the Candlelight Lounge, home of the Treme Brass Band. A really great night of music and dancing, totally local in the best sense, listening to the music alone couldn’t possibly give you the full sense of the whole scene, the whole feel, which is urban, cosmopolitan in all the ways that make cities so great. Everyone is radically individual, the small-town pressure to conform is non-existent, instead, it is as if every person is carving out a unique space for their own fierce selfhood, so that the coming-together, the community that is woven together by these hundred souls in a little club on a dark street in the old neighborhood, the birthplace of jazz, is made of a hundred different histories and styles and stories and reasons for being there, united in that precise unrepeatable moment in time and space, dancing together to the music that connects us, the music that will never end.

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mac is back!

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I started this river trip with Mac Walton more than four months ago: he and I drove from Vermont to Minnesota together, met up with Richard Steadman-Jones, and paddled down the river for several weeks before Mac headed back to Maine from the Quad Cities in September. So I am totally delighted that he’s flown back out to join on for the last few days of the journey: it really feels like the completion of a beautiful circle. Mac has let his beard and hair grow this whole time, and I haven’t had a haircut either, not something we discussed in advance, but I really love this shared physical marker of the trip’s time’s passage. And Richard has lately begun posting some material relating to our Archives of Exile project, which is another excellent circle radiating from this river project.

I had promised myself to go to a megachurch before finishing the journey, but as I mentioned, I just couldn’t bring myself to deal with Jimmy Swaggart. My St. Francisville friend Luke mentioned that there’s a next-generation megachurch in Baton Rouge called The Healing Place, so Mac and I headed there for one of the three Sunday morning services. The parking lot was full of SUVs and luxury cars, the church was packed with probably fifteen hundred people, about forty percent of the service was devoted to asking for money, there was a nine-piece band, three soloists, a full chorus, flashy spiritual infomericals, but as far as I could tell, the entire Healing Place experience was virtually content-free. It’s not that I heard things that offended or disturbed me. I really didn’t feel anything at all, didn’t even feel like I’d been to church, and I left feeling just as ignorant of the allure of this megachurch phenomenon as I had been before. It’s clear that I’m completely missing something, some key that would clarify the appeal of all this to thousands of people. If you get it, please explain it to me!
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We drove up to Livonia, and I biked about thirty miles down to Plaquemine Sunday afternoon along a back bayou. It was a beautiful ride, and I saw my first living armadillo in the wild (there has been lots of armadillo roadkill before now), and then I saw another… and then another. But no alligators, sorry to say. It may be the wrong time of year for alligator sightings.

On Monday we drove back up to Plaquemine and got a tour of the defunct lock from a very kind man named Stan, and visited the really beautiful Catholic church in town, and then wandered down the river road, past the tiny Madonna Chapel, and various plantations, and stopped for lunch and a bizarrely stilted tour of Oak Alley. The trees really are gorgeous, but this whole plantation thing is just not for me. In a hundred years are people going to be taking tours of that Merrill Lynch guy’s bathroom fixtures? I really really hope not.

Mulling all this over while driving past roofless houses, trailers, bungalows, and sheds, we headed back to camp at Bayou Segnette, just outside New Orleans, changed clothes, and went in to town. Yay! We did the absolutely essential tourist thing of wandering around the French Quarter and having a cafe au lait and beignets at Cafe du Monde, and then we found a great little takeout place and went out and sat in the park looking at the river eating our insanely wonderful po’ boys.

We went back to camp, and at about midnight the wind started. And kept going. And then the rain came. And kept going. And then the lightning and thunder. And the combination of all three was enough that I got a bit wet even in my en-tarped cocoon-like hammock, but not badly enough to bail and head for the car. And when I did emerge in the morning, I was really glad I hadn’t tried to get out in the night. A pond about six inches deep had materialized under my hammock. Check it out!

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knowing it when you see it

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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.

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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.

something’s coming

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Mary Rowell flew in to Jackson Wednesday afternoon, and we stocked up on groceries and headed down the Natchez Trace Parkway Thursday morning in glorious weather, set up at Rocky Springs State Park and explored the remaining bits of the town — two safes too heavy to move, a wonderful old church (still in use), and a couple of foundations are all that remain of a once-thriving village that was destroyed by a combination of the Civil War, yellow fever, and poor agricultural practices. We cooked an entire Thanksgiving meal outdoors using two pots, two plates, about six pieces of silverware, and liberal amounts of aluminum foil, since most of the food got cooked in the campfire. It was totally great: one of the most fun Thanksgivings I’ve ever had!

The next day I biked down to Port Gibson while Mary drove back north to explore Vicksburg, and we met up and picnicked on leftovers in downtown Port Gibson and then wandered around checking out the town Grant called “too beautiful to burn.” Then we headed out to Grand Gulf, where there is another military park and a beautiful campground up on a bluff, and we climbed an observation tower to watch the sun set over the river. I am really enjoying biking the Trace: it’s a beautiful road, but I am so very sorry I am not paddling the river. I ache with an almost guilty longing for the dangerous lover I desire but cannot have. (hmmm, does that maybe sound a bit familiar?!)
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Saturday, Mary and I drove instead of biking, so that Mary could have a chance to see more of Mississippi before leaving. We traveled crazy back roads with overhanging trees and Spanish moss to visit the ruins of a castle in the wilderness, and the first African-American college, and the incredible town of Rodney, which is a different species of ghost town than Rocky Springs in that there are still houses standing there, but perhaps not for long. We also stopped off at Emerald Mounds, and the Church on the Hill — the whole area is full of amazing sites, a person could happily wander for weeks.

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We arrived in Natchez in time for a late lunch at a cafe looking out at the river, and then we drove down 61 to Baton Rouge, where Mary had to fly out at the crack of dawn Sunday. I had considered going to Jimmy Swaggart’s church Sunday morning, but I was already a bit cranky from getting up at 4:30 to get Mary to the airport, so I was not up for listening to gay-bashing right-wing Christianity on the first day of Advent. Instead, I drove back up to Natchez and got settled at the State Park and got out my bike and drove down the last fifteen miles of the Parkway and to the Indian Mounds outside of town.

Biking back up the Natchez Trace Parkway in the dusk was one of those perfect moments that happen sometimes: just the right balance of comfortable exertion and natural beauty and excellent light and simple joy. Even though I can feel myself beginning to wind down from the journey — there’s not that much farther to go before New Orleans, and I can feel my heart yearning more and more to give myself over to settling down for a while to write music — I really love being out here. Something serious has shifted inside me: I have emptied myself further than I ever have before. I have never taken this big a risk with my own creativity, and I am sort of amazed that I am not really afraid. I have no idea what is going to emerge from me musically, and I am really excited to find out what it’s gonna turn out to be. I feel like I’m winding down one journey and beginning another, which is going to be at least as much of an adventure as the one I’ve been traveling all these last months.